HOMILY FROM SERVICE ON SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2024 – LAST SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
What we are doing…is generational work. That should go without saying…but I forget this…frequently…I mean, I know intellectually…that being part of G-d’s mission of “restoring all people to unity with G-d and each other” (BCP p. 855) is not something that any one of us will ever “achieve.” I can rattle off Reinhold Niebuhr quotes: “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” [Irony of American History]. I understand that we are planting what others will reap…just as we are reaping what our ancestors have planted… I know that the moral arc of the universe is long and we are only blips along that arc. I get all of that…and yet…
I still get frustrated and impatient when things just aren’t moving fast enough, and I start making jokes through gritted teeth about “moving at the speed of church.” So today, I’m trying to remember that what we are doing is generational work.
Since 1948, the Episcopal Church* and other Christian denominations have— several times— officially denounced antisemitism, and any negative representations of Jews and Judaism…and began developing formal relations with various Jewish communities…and yet…several generations later…our lectionary is still primarily arranged so that whatever Old Testament reading we hear on Sunday is somehow directly related to whatever is happening in the New Testament reading…in just the past several weeks we’ve had the call narratives of Samuel, and Jonah—paired up with the call narratives of Simon, and Andrew, James and John. Today Elijah is taken up to heaven just so he can make a cameo up on the mountain with Jesus. The rich and varied Jewish context and content and wisdom of the Elijah and Elisha narratives are reduced to a prop in the Transfiguration story.
Moses also makes a double appearance today. He’s on the mountain with Jesus and Elijah but he first shows up…veiled…in Paul’s letter. This section of the letter to the Corinthians is an extended metaphor of the veil that Moses wore when he came down from the mountain after talking with the Holy One. And what would you say, if I asked: Who are the “unbelievers” Paul is talking about today, who have their hearts and minds veiled? See? It’s far too easy—and grossly inaccurate—to say, “well, it’s ‘the Jews’.” Because that’s reading through 2000 years of anti-Jewish Christian rhetoric. In Corinth in the year 50 CE there were some Jews but no Christians as we know them today. There were Jews who didn’t really agree with Paul, and Jews who really didn’t agree with Paul (and some who did), and Gentiles who tried to follow Jewish practices, and others who were pagan but saw something in Jesus, and they are all fodder for Paul’s rhetorical flourishes of praise and castigation.
Since the end of WWII progress has been made, but our lectionary, our hymns, our prayers, our art, still carry many far-too-simplistic—and wrong, and hurtful—images of our religious siblings. Does it matter? In a world where antisemitism still has a grip, I would argue it absolutely does matter…and it is generational work…so expect some additional changes in the Holy Week liturgies this year.
80 years ago, the first woman was “irregularly” ordained in the Anglican Communion. 50 years ago, the Episcopal Church “irregularly ordained” eleven women to the priesthood. These were irregular because they were not sanctioned by the wider church. You can read about Li Tim-Oi in the new Saints Alive, and be sure to get tickets to see the documentary about The Philadelphia Eleven in 2 weeks.
Again, some progress has been made…today about 60% of all Episcopal clergy identify as male, and about 40% identify as female (with a small percentage identifying as non-binary), but a significant pay gap remains…in part because of a reluctance to call female identifying people to rector positions. Just as an example: of the 13 parishes in our deanery, only 2 have female rectors or priests in charge…the rest are cis-white men. I can also say, from the candid reports of my female colleagues, that female and male clergy are treated very differently, and have very different expectations placed upon them. This is generational work.
In 2009, the Episcopal Church officially repudiated and renounced the Doctrine of Discovery, the 15th century set of papal decrees that rationalized and sanctified European conquest of native lands. The Vatican only did so last year. And yet, an awful lot of people still don’t even know what the Doctrine of Discovery was, or that as recently as 2005 was used as a legal precedent in a Supreme Court case.** Only last year did we begin using a Land Acknowledgement, and taking steps to learn more about the Native images and white missionary workers in our windows. We have yet to make meaningful contact with representatives of local tribes or to begin working more than symbolically toward reconciled relations. This is generational work.
Tonight we’re celebrating the Consecration of the late Barbra C. Harris, the first woman ordained a bishop in the Anglican Communion, and up to that point one of only 29 Black people to ever be consecrated bishop.*** She received death-threats, and was offered a bullet-proof vest by the Boston Police prior to her consecration. She declined saying, “if some idiot is going to shoot me, what better place to go than at an altar.” That was in 1989. But in just the past few days, trolls have posted negative things on our Facebook page for this event.
Our diocesan Racial Justice Commission in their Reparations Toolkit, a resource offered to help congregations think through a variety responses to racial reconciliation says, that both prior to and following the Civil War and unlike most other American denominations, “the Episcopal Church not only did not question slavery it also acquiesced to establishment of legalized segregation after the Civil War, and continued to treat African American Episcopalians as second-class Christians.” This is generational work.
The full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the Episcopal Church began officially in the mid-1970s. We changed the canons to allow two people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression to be sacramentally married in the church, and a service of renaming for people to transition to a name other than their baptismal name has been created…However, in the broader culture, just since January of 2022 there have been 413 anti-trans bills put forward in 45 states, and 49 bills have been signed into law. This is generational work.
Everything we do here is generational work. Everything. From the way we enact our liturgy, to the way we become the body of Christ in the world…from Winter Walks to capital campaigns…Everything…The moral arc of the universe may be long, but it doesn’t bend towards justice all by itself…we have to help bend it…Yes, we are only blips along that long arc, but by consistently showing up and asking…what is needed right here…right now…and am I the person to meet this need…and then acting…being the blessing we are called to be…every time we do that, we are cooperating with G-d… the G-d of Moses and Elijah, and Jesus…and Barbra C. Harris, and our Native American bishop Carol Gallagher, and every cis, trans, intersex, bisexual, asexual, Gay, Lesbian, straight person you know…every time we cooperate with G-d, we are incrementally bending that arc towards the justice that G-d dreams for all of creation. Amen.
*1948 World Council of Churches of which The Episcopal Church is a part denounced Antisemitism; 1964 the General Convention of The Episcopal Church denounced Antisemitism; 1988 TEC issues Guidelines for Christian-Jewish Relations for The Episcopal Church, updated in 2021
**City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, 544 U.S. 197 (2005). The majority opinion was written by Ruth Bader Ginsberg who cited the Doctrine of Discovery in a footnote.