Opening address to the 80th General Convention of the Episcopal Church by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry

368

The following is a transcript of a sermon recorded by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry for the opening worship service of the 80th General Convention of The Episcopal Church, meeting in Baltimore through July 11. These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity.

Let me begin first by welcoming everyone who is with us this day, virtually and physically here in Baltimore. It is a joy and a real privilege to be here for the 80th General Convention of The Episcopal Church here in the city of Baltimore. I was blessed and privileged to serve for 12 years at St. James Church here, and I remember those years with great fondness. I love this city, and I am so grateful to Bishop Eugene Sutton, the clergy, the people, the staff, and the Diocese of Maryland, who have welcomed us so graciously. It’s good to be here.

And now in the name of the loving, liberating, and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

From the prophet Isaiah, chapter 51: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness. You who seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, from to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah who bore you.” Look to the rock. The prophet spoke these words in a time of diaspora, disorientation, and dislocation. He spoke them to people whose world, for all practical purposes, had fallen apart.

Around the year 586 B.C., the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon began a prodigious march of conquest throughout much of the Ancient Near East. They conquered most of the countries. They approached Palestine. They razed the countryside, destroyed rural villages, and then eventually breached the walls of the holy city itself, Jerusalem. The armies entered the city, destroyed much of the city, entered the temple that King Solomon himself had built, desecrated the temple, and virtually destroyed a civilization. They carted many of the citizens of Jerusalem off to the land of Babylon, a long, long way from home, where they made virtual slaves of them. These were the days sometimes spoken of as the Babylonian captivity or the Babylonian exile.

These were days, as James Weldon Johnson wrote in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “when hope unborn had died.” These were days when later the book of Daniel would poetically picture the experience of exile as like being in a lion’s den, like being in a fiery furnace. These were days when a poet composed a poem of the experience, which is now the 137th Psalm: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered thee, O Zion. How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” These were days of diaspora, disorientation, dislocation—strange and difficult days.

We may not be living in Babylon, but surely, we are living in strange and difficult days. The truth is we are here at the 80th General Convention of The Episcopal Church; and yet when the 79th convention ended in Austin, Texas, in 2018, none of us even remotely imagined the circumstances that would occasion us having to meet a year later—instead of in 2021, in 2022. We never imagined a General Convention where the opening sermon for our celebration of the Holy Eucharist would be delivered one day and shown by video the next. We never imagined that the House of Deputies would be in one room for Holy Eucharist and the House of Bishops in another. We never imagined where we are now today. It may not be Babylon, but these are strange and difficult days.

And to be sure, we are configured as we are for the right reasons, for public health and safety, but who could have imagined? Who could have imagined a global pandemic that would compel us for a period of time no longer to be able to worship in our churches, our mosques, our synagogues, our houses of worship, and be compelled to worship online? Who could have imagined or anticipated that a racial reckoning would be catalyzed by the death of a George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, an Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others? Who could have imagined the revelation of the pain of Indigenous boarding schools, of Native children buried a long, long way from home here in America? Who could imagine?

Who could imagine that the FBI would identify the rise of hate groups and domestic terrorism as one of the greatest threats to this country? Who could imagine? Who could imagine the continued decline of organized religion and institutional churches and synagogues and mosques? Who could have imagined that the people of Ukraine would have to defend their homeland for freedom? Who could have imagined January the sixth in an attempt to overthrow the government of the United States of America? Who could have imagined the continued murder of the children of God and gun violence at a grocery store in Buffalo, an elementary school in Uvalde, the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, and our own Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama? No, this is not the Babylonian captivity, but these are strange, difficult, and complex times.

And maybe, maybe in the incredible providence of almighty God, the word of a prophet from the seventh century before the birth of Christ might speak to us in the 21st century A.D. Look to the rock. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah who bore you.” Look to the rock.

If you look at the New Testament, Matthew chapters 5 through 7, you’ll find there what is often called the Sermon on the Mount. And in that sermon, as in other places in the Gospels, Jesus builds on the teachings and the wisdom of Isaiah. Isaiah, in fact, is probably the most quoted prophet in the New Testament and most quoted by Jesus himself. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says things like, “Blessed are the poor and the poor in spirit. Blessed are the merciful, the compassionate. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst that God’s righteous justice might prevail. Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Love, love even your enemies.”

He says things like that throughout the Sermon on the Mount, a kind of catechesis of discipleship, if you will. But at the end of the sermon in the seventh chapter, Jesus concludes it, pointing back to the wisdom of Isaiah. He says those who refuse to listen to these words, to God’s way of love and life, are like someone who built a house on sand. When the storms of strange and hard times come, as they surely will, that house built on sand will not stand. But those who listen to me, who listen to God’s way of love and life, they are like those who build their house on a rock. When the storms of strange and difficult times will come, as they always do, and though that house may be shaken, it will not fall. It will stand.

Look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug, look to Abraham, look to Sarah, look to Jesus, look to the rock. In a way that I don’t think I was aware of as a child, I learned this. There were two hymns that I learned as a child that are still with me. “Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ the head and cornerstone. Chosen of the Lord and precious, binding all the church in one. Holy Zion’s help forever and her confidence alone.” Christ, the sure foundation.

And the other one I learned in grandma’s Baptist church: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ, the solid rock, I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.” I learned that as a child, one in The Episcopal Church and one in grandma’s Baptist church. The same wisdom, the same truth.

But growing up, I learned that truth in another way. The year was 1963. I was in the fourth grade, going into the fifth grade. There was a modest desegregation effort in the public schools of Buffalo, New York, where I grew up. Those of us who attended what was School 37 in what was called the Fruit Belt in East Buffalo, where most Black folk lived, a number of us were transferred from School 37 across Main Street to School 76, which at that time was an Italian neighborhood. School 76 is now the Herman Badillo School. The neighborhood has changed. But at that time, crossing Main Street from East Buffalo to West Buffalo was going from a Black community to a white community. Several of us attended St. Philip’s Episcopal Church there in Buffalo, in the neighborhood of the Fruit Belt. And so we were being transferred to this new school across Main Street, in another world.

The Sunday before we were to return to school in the fall, our Sunday school teacher, in addition to whatever the rest of the lesson was—and I don’t remember it now—reminded us that just a month before there had been a march on Washington. This was 1963. She reminded us what that march meant. She reminded us that that march was a part of a movement for liberty, equality, and justice, not just for our people, but for all people, for all the children of God. She reminded us that we are part of that movement, and that in our way, going to this new school, we represent what that movement stood and stands for—the dream of a new America, the dream of a new world, the dream of a world where there’s plenty good room for all of God’s children.

She went on to say, and I do remember this: “Remember what you’ve learned here, remember what we’ve taught you. Remember what the Bible says—do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Remember, you shall love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself. Remember, you must do your schoolwork. You must be excellent in your work. Your excellence is part of the movement for equality, freedom, injustice. Remember”—and this is how she closed—”Remember where you came from. When you go to a new and strange place, remember where you came from.” It will orient you. She didn’t say that, but that’s what I hear her saying now. It will orient you when the world disorients you. It will strengthen you when the world weakens you. It will help you stand up when the gravity of reality will try to pull you down. Remember where you came from. Look to the rock, look to the Abrahams, look to the Sarahs, look to Jesus.

A while back, a number of church leaders and members of our staff came together to develop an evangelistic campaign reaching into the secular, non-Christian culture of America. It was an attempt to take the way of love that we’ve been living with and working at and share this with the wider culture beyond the red doors of the church, to share something of the reality of this Jesus and his way of love, to share something of the reality of the possibilities that his way of love opens for all of God’s children. And so we decided to develop a social media campaign, an evangelistic social media campaign that, if you will, re-presents Jesus of Nazareth into the wider culture, through Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and any social media at our disposal.

A number of very generous donors and dioceses provided funding for this, as well as The Episcopal church budget, and we were able to partner with marketing professionals for a fresh strategic approach and content. You’ll see this later this summer and in the fall, and you’ll be able to participate in this, adapting it to your local context as a diocese, a congregation, a ministry, a community of faith, and be able to share. I know that it will be a fascinating thing, but not likely to get Episcopalians knocking on doors on Saturday mornings as a rule. But this much I do know—I know you’re on Facebook because I’ve seen you, and I’ve seen all your cats. There are more cats in The Episcopal church; Lord, have mercy. Anyway, I’ve seen you on Facebook, so I know you’re on social media, and this social media campaign is designed so that all you have to do is share it. And when you start sharing it, your friends are going to share it, and your friends are going to share it with the people they know. The more it shares—this is geometry, this is geometrical—it’s going to start to get shared and shared and shared. That’s what a social media campaign’s about. And that’s what we’re going to be doing. So look for it coming late summer, early fall.

But as we were getting ready to do this, someone stopped us and asked, “Have we asked people in the society, who do you say Jesus is?” Maybe have we asked ourselves that? Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that may be one of the most important questions even for the Christian. Who is Jesus Christ for you today?

But have we asked? And we realized, no, we’ve never actually asked the wider culture, religious, non-religious, what think ye of Jesus? So we contracted with the Ipsos group, a global marketing group that does this kind of research. We partnered with them, and they conducted a poll of the American population. It was a comprehensive poll, which actually gave us a snapshot into the American population across all races, ethnic groups, all religious groups, all political groups, across geographical territories. I mean, everybody is in this survey.

And here were the results. Eighty-four percent of the American population says that Jesus is an important spiritual figure worth listening to. Eighty-four percent across all groups. Democrats, Republicans, independents, liberals, conservatives, religious, non-religious, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, no religion. Everybody. Black, white, everybody. Eighty-four percent. Jesus is in.

Then we asked them, “What about Christians? What about the church?” Well, they answered. Among non-Christians in particular, those who are not Christian, 50% associated Christians with the word hypocrisy; 49% with the word judgmental; 46% with self-righteousness; and 32% with arrogance. And then, nearly half of non-Christians in America—hear this—nearly half of non-Christians in America believe that racism is prevalent among Christians in the church.

Now, before you think I’m Debbie Downer, there’s actually good news here. It’s embedded in those of us who believe that every problem is a possibility in disguise. Remember, 84% of the people surveyed across the board find Jesus attractive, something about him compelling. Eighty-four percent. The problem is there’s a gap between Jesus and his followers. Are you with me? And it’s that gap that’s the problem. It’s that gap that undermines our efforts to commend this Jesus and his way of love to a wider culture, to those who don’t have a religious background. It’s that gap, that gap between this Jesus, who is attractive, and his followers, some of whom often are not. But there’s hope because Jesus told us how to close the gap.

In John’s Gospel, John chapter 13, it’s the Last Supper. Judas is about to leave to betray him. Jesus will wash the feet of his disciples. And in chapter 13, he tells them and tells us how to close the gap. “I give you a new commandment.” I want you to hear that word commandment. “I give you a new commandment.” Not a new idea, not a new option, not a new possibility. I give you something of the caliber of what Moses did coming down Mount Sinai with two tablets in his hand. I’m giving you the same thing, the same way, the same gravity. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” The same way God loves you, love each other, with that same love. “For by this,” and he adds this, “by this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

Walking the way of unselfish, sacrificial love as Jesus taught us, closes the gap. Following the way of this Jesus, until his footprints and our footprints become indistinguishable, begins to close the gap. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

There’s an old spiritual created and sung by African slaves who truly lived a Babylonian exile, a long, long way from home. That spiritual says very simply, “You can have all this world, just give me Jesus.” Give me Jesus. Now I know that spiritual can be misunderstood to be an example of escapism, but I want to suggest that there’s a deeper wisdom there. A wisdom that grasped what Isaiah was getting at, how you live through hard times. A wisdom that Jesus was getting at, how you live for such a time as this.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it this way: “The task of the Christian is to allow Christ to become the center of their lives.” That’s what the slave was talking about. You can have all this world; you give me Jesus, and I’ll make it.

But doing that is not easy. I know that. But fortunately for us, there are ancient, time-tested ways, spiritual practices, that are intended and designed, if you will, to be pathways for the Spirit who can help us. Stay with me. I’m coming to the conclusion. Just stay with me. These pathways are spiritual practices, and they’ve been used. Moses on Mount Sinai before the burning bush, hearing that voice: “Moses, Moses, I have heard the cry of my people who are in Egypt. I had seen their affliction because of their taskmasters, and I have come down to deliver them. Now I will send you to Pharaoh to tell old Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go.’” All of that happened while Moses was in a state of contemplation, meditation—a spiritual practice that opened the pathway for him to hear the voice of God.

These spiritual practices of prayer, of reflection, of action, they’re pathways for the Spirit, if you will, for the amazing grace of God to do God’s work in us. There’s a song that says it this way: “There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place, and I know it is the Spirit of the Lord. Sweet Holy Spirit, sweet heavenly dove.” Listen to this: “Stay right here with us, filling us with your love.” When there’s a pathway for the Spirit, filling us with God’s love, that love is Christ at the center of our lives, and that love can overflow through us. Like the old hymn says, “Breathe on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what thou dost love and do what thou wouldst do.”

You’ll find many spiritual practices that you can use, free of charge on the Way of Love section of The Episcopal Church website. Go there and use them; they’re there for you, different efforts, group efforts, individual resources. A new one is coming out at the end of July, a nine-session curriculum called “Centered” for small, gathered communities online on Zoom or in person to actually practice this de-centering self and enthroning Christ at the center of our lives.

But the truth is, we’ve been doing this for a while. We’ve actually been practicing this spiritual practice for a while. When I first became presiding bishop, we made a video in New York City on 42nd Street. And in that video, I talked about us being the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement with Christ at the center. And in that video, I said, there’s a moment in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist when we de-center self and when Christ is centered among us and in us.

And you know when that moment is—it’s at the reading of the Holy Gospel. For all the reading of other passages of Scripture, we are seated; but when it is time for the reading of the Holy Gospel, as we are able, we stand up. And very often there is a procession from the altar or from up in the sanctuary into the nave. Sometimes it’s a grand procession with a cross or a verger, or sometimes even incense and acolytes with torches and a Gospel book, an adorned Gospel book, down to the center of the nave; and the whole room—notice what happens—the whole room turns, reorients itself to where the Gospel is being read. It is as though we all turn around, bishops take off their hats. Now, the whole room turns around, stands up, Christ at the center. “Blessed are the poor and the poor in spirit. Blessed are the merciful. Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Love, love even your enemies. A new command I give you, that you love one another.”

There’s ancient wisdom here. Because when Christ is the center, when we say yes to the way of unselfish, sacrificial love, then we do the work of racial reconciliation and justice. Then we’re able to do the work of truth-telling and reckoning and healing. And then we can help our church and help our land be a land where there’s plenty good room for all of God’s children. So remember. Remember where you came from. Remember your baptism. Remember this Jesus. Remember and be re-membered as God’s new creation, God’s beloved, God’s precious child. And remember, as the late Bishop Barbara Harris told us over and over again, the God behind you is greater than any problem ahead of you.

“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.”

God love you. God bless you. And may God hold us all in those almighty hands of love. Amen.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry opening sermon to General Convention 80