photo credit: Nina Nicholson
President Jennings made these remarks at the opening session of the 79th General Convention on July 4:
Good afternoon, and welcome to the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church! I am so glad to have the chance to welcome you to Austin that I agreed to occupy what is widely acknowledged to be the least-coveted speaking slot in all of Christendom: the person who comes after Michael Curry.
On that note, I need to confess something. When the Presiding Bishop texted me to tell me he’d been invited to preach at the Royal Wedding, I thought he was pulling my leg—which he has been known to do. The conversation went something like this:
Him: “I just wanted to let you know that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have invited me to preach at their wedding.”
Me: “Very funny. Have you lost your mind?”
Him: “That’s pretty much what my wife said.”
Me: “Someone has clearly hacked into your phone and sent me this text. I think you need to call the Department of Homeland Security or Jeff Sessions or the acting director of the CIA.”
Him, again: (This is the best part.) “The news is confidential until it’s announced by Kensington Palace. Please keep this a secret, though I don’t know why anyone would want to know.”
As it turns out, we were all very excited to know. Michael, on behalf of the entire Episcopal Church, I want to express my gratitude not only for your sermon that took the world by storm, but also for the grace and good humor with which you have withstood the resulting media frenzy and for your unwavering determination to use your well-deserved time in the spotlight to proclaim the good news of God’s love, mercy and justice. You set an example for us all, and I am so grateful for your leadership and your friendship.
Today is July 4, Independence Day here in the United States. Especially on this day, I am grateful for our Presiding Bishop’s faithful words about both the crisis of moral and political leadership currently gripping the United States and the crisis of migrants seeking asylum on the border right here in Texas.
Independence Day is a day on which some Episcopalians in the United States have been accustomed to celebrating our comfortable relationship with the power of the state. But the lectionary for today is not quite so self-satisfied. And since our opening Eucharist isn’t until tomorrow, let’s spend a little time with these readings now.
In today’s passage from Deuteronomy, we read, “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
On this day when some of us are perhaps most inclined to feel at home in the United States, the Bible tells us not to get so comfortable. We were once strangers. It’s possible that we could be strangers again one day. And we are commanded to love the stranger, even when doing so interrupts our comfortable relationship with temporal powers and principalities.
So, here on the first day of what I hope and believe will be a productive convention, this reading makes me uncomfortable. Because I want us to settle down to do the essential, Spirit-led work of governing the church. I want the air conditioning to work right, I want the lunch lines to be short, I want there to be good coffee and excellent wifi, and I want the virtual binder to work like a charm. I want us to be able to get comfortable and get our work done.
But even if all those things happen—please, God, let all those things happen—we can’t lose sight of the parents and children on the border who have been torn apart by our government. We can’t lose sight of the fact that, due to a harsh state immigration law, those of us, like me, who have white privilege and the privilege conferred by United States citizenship can move around this place with less fear than some of our fellow Episcopalians.
And when we debate immigration resolutions in legislative committees and on the floor of the houses, we need to be uncomfortable enough to remember that these are issues of life and death for many Episcopalians both in the United States and in the other countries that make up our church. We won’t all be of one mind on the legislation that will come before us. But lack of unanimity does not change the fact that we are all commanded to love the stranger, for we were all strangers in the land of Egypt.
So, how are we to go about settling down to do the work the church has sent us here to do while maintaining our identity as strangers? The reading from Hebrews appointed for today shows us the way.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.
I can completely relate to that. If you’ve tried to find our IT office here in the convention center, you probably can too. (By the way, IT is in Room 15 here in the Convention Center on the fourth floor and Darvin Darling and his team are doing an amazing job on our behalf.) Back to Hebrews.
By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
I’m going to skip a couple of verses that make highly questionable comments about certain people being too old to do any good. But after that, the reading continues:
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:8-16)
My friends, while some of us may be quite comfortable in our day-to-day lives, this reading is about us. We Episcopalians in the 21st century—all of us—are strangers and foreigners seeking a homeland. We have left behind the institutional church that we knew so well and that made at least some of us comfortable and too many of us uncomfortable and unwelcome. We have given up believing in our pride of place in the ruling establishment of the United States and the assurance that our endowments will always provide more than we need. And many of us are coming to terms with the fact that we may see only from a distance the full realization of God’s promise for the future of the Episcopal Church.
It is tempting to think of, or even to long for, the land that we have left. But God assures us that our true identity is as strangers and foreigners seeking a better country. God calls us not to get too comfortable in this land, not to value our citizenship over our commitment to love the stranger, not to treasure our traditions or our buildings, or even our identity as deputies and bishops, above our identity as heirs of God’s promise and inhabitants of God’s city.
So how, then, should we proceed with the business of the church? Our rules of order and governing documents and parliamentary procedure do not define our identity. But they are the tools through which we can hear the voices of all the baptized in our common life, and they establish for us the ways in which we can be led by the Spirit to speak as one against racism, violence, poverty, and all of the injustice mounting up around us in unbearable ways. And those tools give us ways to open up our tables and our altars and our corridors of power, and to come to terms with the many times when we have failed or refused to see God in one another.
But how we use these governance tools is up to us. Whether we are ten-time deputies or thirty-two-year bishops like my dear friend Arthur Williams of Ohio, or whether this is the first time we’ve ever seen the inside of a convention hall, we can choose how we inhabit the legislative process.
In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus has some advice:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
I will tell you right now that I am terrible at being perfect. And I will also tell you that although it might seem overwrought right now to think of anyone in this convention center as an enemy for whom you need to pray, you might have a different take after ten days of not enough sleep, not enough exercise, and a whole lot of meetings.
Friends, we’re embarking on hard and holy work. In the next ten days, we’re going to talk about some of the issues that cut closest to our hearts—marriage, the Prayer Book, gun violence, racism, sexual exploitation and harassment and much more. As we debate, let us listen. As we deliberate, let us pray. And as we vote, let us do so with charity for those with whom we disagree. Let us do our work as strangers and sojourners, bound for the kingdom of God.
House of Deputies Vice President Byron Rushing is faithful in his annual reminder to the church that the phrase –“the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us”–in the Independence Day collect are not accurate. Byron suggests that instead we use the collect titled “For the Nation” on page 258. Let us pray:
Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country [ies] a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.