Sermon for Clergy Gathering in Diocese of Southwest Florida

Feast Day of Willibrord
November 7, 2008

I get lots of mail – most of it unsolicited. People send me books, people send me complaints about various things, and people send me advice. Once in a while somebody even writes to say, “thank you.” I try to treat the day’s package of mail in the ways Jesus suggests to the 70, and say “peace” to the missive and its sender before I figure out what kind of response is needed. There’s opportunity at almost every turn to bless what comes, whatever the sender’s state of mind. The only real exception has to do with the folks who just want to make a statement – the kind of letter that includes dozens of single-spaced pages, sent to 50 or 100 of their closest friends, and even then, pronouncing blessing is usually all that’s needed. At times, the best response may be no response – just letting the peace flow over it, and not worrying about whether it rests there or not.

The kind of pastoral work you and I do on our daily rounds is like the mail – we may never be entirely certain who’s going to turn up at the office door, or who we’re going to find in the hospital bed, even when we expected to see an Altar Guild member or a former Junior Warden. You and I are supposed to be ready to meet the image of Christ, but also ready to respond if it turns out to be the grandmother-replacement in Little Red Riding Hood, the veritable wolf in sheep’s clothing.

We’re celebrating Willibrord’s feast today, who spent a fair bit of his time dealing with both sheep and wolves. He was an English monk who went as a missionary to Frisia. He started a monastery in Echternach, in what’s now Luxembourg – a Benedictine monastery. It is perhaps the Benedictine charism to settle in and receive whatever and whoever comes, to welcome each visitor as image of Christ, and yet be savvy and bold enough to turn the wolf out when it begins to raven. Willibrord had his run-ins with Frisian kings who weren’t too anxious to have him around, and when life got a bit too hot, he simply dusted off his feet and took off for Denmark or Germany and did his evangelical work there for a while.

Willibrord was also the first Archbishop of Utrecht, in what’s now the Netherlands. I happen to know the current Archbishop of Utrecht, Joris Vercammen. He’s number 83 in that post, and he’s the Primate of the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands. The story of the Old Catholics is a fascinating one, and one that Episcopalians probably ought to know more about, given that we’re in full communion with them. Old Catholics were Roman Catholics until the Bishop of Rome decided he needed to exercise diocesan authority beyond the city of Rome. In Utrecht things came to a head in 1723. In the other Netherlands dioceses it happened a couple of decades later, and in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Poland, it was the result of the first Vatican Council’s declaration in 1870 that the pope could be infallible and also held supreme jurisdiction. I hope you’re hearing the parallels with the situation in England between Henry VIII and the pope in the early 1500s, and maybe even here in TEC in the 21st century. When a bishop attempts to exercise jurisdiction beyond his own see, it tends to rile up the locals. It begins to look like a wolf wearing a sheepskin coat.

The Old Catholics said to Rome, “please stay home, we’re going to elect our own bishops, thank you very much,” and they got Dominique Maria Varlet, the unfortunately titled Bishop of Babylon, to do the consecrating. Rome responded by excommunicating them. The Old Catholics remembered that they already had a shepherd, the one who is shepherd of us all, and that the catholic tradition has always held that a local bishop is likely to know more about the sheep and wolves in a particular place than an archbishop from across the mountains. As time has gone on, the Old Catholics have worked at ecumenical relationships with Rome, to find ways of being in relationship that do not require one party to give over all authority to the other. They continue to look for a relationship that is more like entering a community to eat and drink what is locally available, healing those who are sick, and saying, “there is indeed good news in this place.”

The gathering of Old Catholics is called the Union of Utrecht, and it’s the equivalent of our Anglican Communion. Old Catholic liturgy and theology would be recognizable to most Anglicans, and indeed, since the 1930s we have recognized the catholicity and independence of our different communions, and we agree that the sacraments of one communion are open to members of the other, but that we don’t have to accept all the details of doctrine or liturgical practice of the other. In our relationships, we have been able to affirm that we will say peace to each other and expect to find blessing, and that in doing so, the Kingdom of God has indeed come near.

It’s a model of ecumenical relationship that might be instructive for the Anglican Communion just now, especially since we’ve been able to say that we don’t have to agree on every detail in order to recognize each other as catholic and be in relationship with each other. But in order to get there it will require us to be able to bless each other with peace, the peace that we know is already within us.

Whether it was Willibrord’s initial influence or the Benedictine character of his ministry, Utrecht has been blessed both with a desire to be catholic and a sense of the blessing of its own contextual gifts. The laborers who go out into the harvest must be ready to receive and bless anyone who turns up, but also reasonably confident of the blessing they already have. You can’t share peace unless you’ve already experienced it. That humble certainty is at the root of all effective evangelism.

Let’s talk about evangelism in the public square, particularly in the sense of offering peace wherever we go. However you may have voted on Tuesday, we have entered a new era. We have as a nation determined that we are going to live in a way that says that peace and blessing are available to all races. Whether you agree with his political vision or not, Barack Obama is an outward and visible sign to Americans and to the world that we intend to rise above a politics based on race or religion. The world has heard that as an announcement of peace. Some of my mail on Wednesday was about just that, from places like England and Venezuela. Yesterday there was a full-page ad in the New York Times from the Sheikh of Ras al Khaimah, in the UAE, that said the same thing. It may not last, but this election has been heard as “peace be to this (oikos) house.”

If you recall, the world said the same to us after September 11th. The world offered us peace and healing in the aftermath of death and destruction. Seven years later this election is being heard as returning that blessing. Our task is to avoid squandering the opportunity, and neither to reject or idolize the messenger. You may have received the results of this election as a nuisance letter or as a letter of thanks. The task is the same, to bless the encounter and opportunity. Receive this news as an opening for evangelism, for healing the sick and wounded and war-worn, whether sheep or wolf, and then the kingdom of God will, indeed, have come near.