May 31, 2008

On Memorial Day Dick and I went across the East River and ate lunch under the Brooklyn Bridge. There was great celebration all weekend for the 125th anniversary of that pioneering bridge. When it was built in 1883, it was the largest suspension bridge in the world, and its towers were the tallest structures in the western hemisphere. As we sat there, we got to marvel at the structure of that engineering feat – slender wires holding up that massive deck and abundant traffic. What makes it work is tension – the harnessed, lively power that most of us love to hate, and some of us even take drugs to avoid. The tension involved is distributed through the supporting towers and the anchors on shore. In order to stand all the parts of the bridge are necessary. If the cables that carry the tension were to break the whole thing would fall. If a tower collapsed the tension of the cables would be lost and the whole thing would collapse. Even the deck is significant, and though it bears little load in a suspension bridge, it has to be stable in the wind. Some of you have probably seen the movie of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsing in 1940 after the deck started dancing in the wind.

The work we’re here today to do is bridge work, in the presence of the wind of holy spirit. Our task is to bless a bridge builder, and consider how one particular human being is going to be a model of the ability of bridges to bear tension. Not only are a number of us going to lay hands on his head – and we hope, not press down too hard – but we are going to invoke the lively presence of the Holy Spirit on Prince. We’re going to pray for an addition to his share of that lively tension.

This particular kind of bridge work is about recognizing and blessing a bridge-builder, literally a pontifex. Prince is meant to be a holy bridge-builder, and in his own being, both a bridge and bearer of tension. That tension is the result of being open to the Holy Spirit, and the motivating and energizing power of that spirit. It’s not just the kind of tension that holds things up – this lively spirit brings things together – broken things, separated and divided people and conditions of life.

An effective pontifex becomes not only a tension-bearer in him or herself, but an example and inspiration to others so that they, too, might become bridges, healers, and reconcilers. Prince has already shown himself to be abundantly capable of that work. He began with the dalit community in India, he has continued that work in his water-crossing journey to the United States, and he has been called here to do more bridging. This kind of holy bridge-building is modeled on the cross – that bridge between heaven and earth, human and divine, death and life. Indeed, the ultimate suspension bridge has already been built in Jesus. We share in that work by virtue of our baptism, and we call other engineers and apostles to keep us building new bridges.

Building cross-shaped bridges entails suffering and sacrifice – it is the pain of living in holy tension. That tension is born of the spirit who shares the dream of God with us – that great prophetic vision of a healed, reconciled, re-bridged world, compared with what our eyes see around us now: people who have no access to justice, the poor and hungry, sick and imprisoned. We build bridges as we do justice, make peace and level paths, become light to the nations, liberate prisoners, heal the blind, and feed the hungry. The tension of holy spirit is only resolved at the final healing of all things, when heaven comes to earth, and earth becomes heaven. Then bridges will no longer be necessary.

Suspension bridges model that kind of work. They depend on remarkably tall and slender towers that labor skyward in order to transfer all their load down again to the earth. That’s not unlike the overturnings and reversals of the gospel – like lifting up the lowly and scattering the proud. I haven’t seen any suspension bridges around Rochester – most of your bridges are based on beams and arches. But you have long experience of holy bridges.

You even have a monument to it, in Pepsy Kettavong’s sculpture, “Let’s Have Tea.” Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass built a bridge born of the tension between competing visions. The two of them, with others, had labored long and hard together for universal suffrage. But when the U.S. government began to address that issue after the Civil War, it began by defining citizens as male – and the 14th Amendment was the first time that word was ever used in the Constitution. Susan B. Anthony and those who shared her desire that women might vote were told to wait – it would be too difficult for the country as a whole to accept both categories as full human beings – women and blacks – at the same time. In 1869 their fears were confirmed, when the 15th Amendment gave the vote to all citizens, regardless of race or color or previous condition of slavery, but only males. The letter of hers we heard is about trying to vote anyway. The bridge of suffrage only permitted some to travel between shores labeled “less than fully human” and “free and equal.” The towers of that first bridge did not reach high enough to build a wide and broad roadway, capable of bearing all human travelers. Yet Susan and Frederick eventually made their peace – and that feast is remembered in the tea drinking of the statue.

Frederick Douglas’ story also tells the need of a bridge – in that remarkable image of an empty seat next to him. The bridge cannot be completed only from one side – it has to be a partnership, with each beginning on one bank to build toward a meeting. Once built, the builders may depart, leaving the span for others to explore – a fitting image of servant ministry. This diocese has called Prince to be bishop, but it has not called him to be a prince-bishop, a ruler and monarch. This ministry of bridge-building is one of servanthood, of willingness to bear the tension of non-anxious presence, because that tension is resolved and rests on the cross. Bennett Sims, in his book, Servanthood, called that tension the “velvet and steel” of servant leadership, a “mystical blend of gentleness and strength... a paradox that gains by giving.”[i]

There’s a very curious insight into that paradox in the gospel passage we heard today. Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples, and reminding them that they are to be witnesses to the work of the cross. The version we heard closes like this, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised.” Literally translated, it says, “I am apostling you with the promise or proclamation of my father.” I am making you an apostle (sending you). And the word that’s translated promise, epangelion, basically means, “the news on you,” or we might say, “the dirt on you.” It has the connotation in Greek of being a public denunciation of someone who’s been dishonored. It could be a reference to the charge posted over Jesus as he hung on the cross. It can also be a reference to the surprising news that we bridge-builders do our construction work in the public awareness that we have been set free from the prison of sin and shame. That’s the promise of the cross, and it is the promise of a bridge that carries two-way traffic – good news to the poor, despite what the hungry and sick and imprisoned experience every day.

This bridge-building ministry which we bless in Prince today is labor we all share. We are meant to build bridges into places where good news needs hearing – like Public School #9, where children are supported in learning to read, or like the empty seat next to Frederick Douglas. Once that bridge is built, the builders can retreat, and take their skills on to another opportunity for crossing. That is true servant ministry. Prince is among you to be a bridge, to build bridges, and to teach and encourage other bridge builders. May you build well together, blessed with the tension of holy spirit.

[i] Cited by Lane Denson, in Out of Nowhere, “Tests” 29 May 2008.