79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church: July 9 sermon by Bishop Prince Singh, Episcopal Diocese of Rochester
The following is the text of the sermon that Bishop Prince Singh, Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, delivered at the General Convention Eucharist on July 9, 2018.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Well, good evening saints! Good evening sinners! I’m glad we are all here. And hello, fellow immigrants! Let me begin by saying that I am humbled by this opportunity to preach at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. My wife Roja and I came to this country about 25 years ago as strangers from India, from a communion partner, the Church of South India and you, the Episcopal Church, have received us with abundant grace! People like me belong in this church. I think we can help Curry up the Jesus Movement. Sorry, that was tacky. But seriously, I stand here in solidarity with my many siblings from Asia and other parts of the world who do not get represented in leadership often. I bring greeting from the saints of the Diocese of Rochester, where we are growing in spiritual, missional and even numerical ways. I take comfort that I am among practitioners of love, and while we are flawed and still have work to do, I believe we are not starting from scratch. Is that your belief?
Well, any reconciliation has to begin with repentance. The story of Noah is illustrative. I think we had a flash flood just to remind us. And by the way, just a random clarification, Joan of Arc was not Noah’s wife. But listen, listen to God in the Noah story! “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” Noah’s generation received a wakeup call from God. And God, who placed the sign of a de-weaponized bow in the sky, gave Godself a wakeup call for zero tolerance and repented. That was differentiated leadership. If God can repent, people in power can repent and say sorry, not necessarily because they were wrong, but because they did not show mercy or went too far.
I can see at least three areas of intentional repentance and discernment in reconciliation that we are encountering at least in the last two Conventions. Repentance and reconciliation in matters of race, matters of creation care and matters about sharing the Gospel. Reconciliation is an amicable truce, bringing competing or opposing things together. Jesus models this for us. Listen to the Scottish Divine, James Stewart, describe Jesus:
He was the meekest and lowliest of all the sons of women
Yet he spoke of coming on the clouds of heaven with the glory of God
He was so austere that evil spirits and demons cried out with terror at his sight
Yet he was so genial and winsome and approachable that the children loved to play with him and the little ones nestled in his arms
No one was half so kind or compassionate toward sinners
Yet no one ever spoke such red-hot scorching words about sin
A bruised reed he would not break
Yet on one occasion he demanded the Pharisees how they ever expected to escape the damnation of hell
He was a dreamer of dreams and a seer of visions
Yet for sheer stark realism he has all our self-styled realists soundly beaten
He was a servant of all, washing his disciples’ feet,
Yet masterfully he strode into the temple
And the hucksters and moneychangers fell over one another in the mad rush to get away from the fire they saw blazing in his eyes.
He saved others, but at last himself he did not save.
There is nothing in history like the union of contrasts that confront us in the Gospels.
The mystery of Jesus is the mystery of divine personality.
Via Media personified. Safety and gun violence, particularity and universality, identity and unity, decline and growth. New Prayer Book, newer Prayer Book, and then, this is real, there are competing priorities, and pains, and passions. Rhetorically, Do I have to be wrong for you to be right? We may need to focus on a few practices that are more than about being right or wrong. Believe me, I think Misogyny is wrong. Hate is wrong. Selfishness is wrong. Indifference is wrong. Homophobia is wrong. I also know that Christ asks us to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). So, let’s look at a few Christ-like reconciliation practices to help us.
Luke reminds us, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ Timeless words of compassion from the cross. Love practiced from the crucible of suffering. “I walked a mile with pleasure, she chattered all the way, but left me none the wiser for all she had to say. I walked a mile with sorrow and nur a word said she, but oh, the things I learned from her, when sorrow walked with me.” (Robert Browning Hamilton). On the other side, just to balance it off, Dr. Paul Kalanithi, in his book From Breath to Air, where he says, “Suffering can make us callous to the obvious pain of others.” The reality is that the Gospel’s impact in most parts of the world is because Jesus is embraced as God’s greatest expression of compassion by those whose lives don’t seem to matter otherwise. Dalit Christians, for instance in India, who were and are treated as outcastes, see the Gospel as liberation. In Acts chapter 6, Luke tells us that the church started paying attention to invisible widows through a compassionate embodiment plan: The Diaconate! And by the way, have you noticed that it is the ACTS and not just the INTENTIONS of the apostles? In our cultures of normalized crassness, incivility, polarization, cruelty, greed and narcissism, we, as a church are called to practice compassion as agents of transformation. The church grew the early church grew, in compassion and then they grew in numbers. So, let’s practice compassion. Practice what? (Compassion)
One of the thieves on the cross was into certainty, provoking Jesus, but the other thief was curious. "Do you not fear God?” he said. “This man has done nothing wrong.” He was on the cross and curious, and so was Jesus! The Church’s season of curiosity is otherwise known as Pentecost. It is also the great democratization of Christian discipleship and leadership. A contextual call to open wide the gates of God’s love to all, insisting that all means all! Since we’re in Texas, maybe all means ya’ll!
Pentecost describes the early Church’s curiosity that recognized the Spirit in Gentiles—Acts chapter 10. Inviting other worlds assumes a willingness to change our own world views. When we invite a person, who embodies American sign language for instance, let’s give them a hand, that will change how the Beloved community lives, listens, moves and has its being. Similarly, with other languages, when we pause long enough to listen and notice. For instance, in my mother tongue Tamil, which is an old South Indian language, the expression for good-bye is “Po-yitu va-rain” which means, “I will go and I will come.” Which is very different from “I’m outta here!” Right? There’s a worldview in every language. And, what a gift, what a treat for us that we belong in a Beloved Community with so much diversity. Diversity is not a problem to be managed. It is one of our greatest Beloved Community assets of spiritual stewardship. Where two of three are gathered together the presence of Christ is guaranteed. The two or three in a church that embraces the Spirit of Pentecost assumes diversity. Pentecost is a call to blend the rigors of diversity with the joys of unity. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our practice of curiosity. Curiosity is the best expression of respect, which is also the best form of love. So, let’s practice curiosity. Practice what? (Curiosity)
And finally, the same Jesus who practiced welcoming, by saying, ”Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden,” said to the curious thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” In some circles, there is much consternation about who will make it to heaven and who will not. Jesus gives us a way to practice heaven on earth through the gift of hospitality now. Hospitality I believe, is a threshold that the early church crossed when it reconciled the purity-pollution duality in food; recognizing God’s presence in all things. This is an ancient dichotomy where all things have their gradation in the purity-pollution grid. The roots of racism, casteism, sexism, heterosexuality, all have gained covert justification from this purity-pollution grid. In one fell swoop this ancient assumption is totally destroyed in a vision, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Acts chapter 10. Thousands of years of epistemology implode, and the church went feral, went wild, practicing unconditional love. Hospitality is where things really come together. Roja and I love to have people over in our home, And, every time we invite some guests over, we are busy cleaning our house. And, once in awhile we look at each other and go, ”Aren’t we really lucky to have guests who will come to our house, otherwise we would never clean our house!” Well our souls need cleaning. And, hospitality is a way to experience slivers of heaven right here. Could our altars be more diverse and welcoming? And more importantly, could our dining rooms and kitchens become more diverse and welcoming? Let’s practice hospitality. Practice what? (Hospitality)
“What else must we know about practicing compassion, curiosity and hospitality?” I think it helps to treat the Jesus way of love as home base. I cannot believe I used a baseball analogy because I think they play cricket in heaven. Don’t you agree, some of you? I think it helps to realize that change is hard, and that we will make mistakes. It helps to think that these practices are a dynamic discernment marathon. I think it helps to know that these practices may be countercultural, and you may be misunderstood for being weak. For all this we need spiritual replenishment and that’s where church matters. Let me finish with a story.
When I was newly ordained in the Church of South India, I had a cure in the villages pretty much in what was called the Timbuktu of the Diocese of Madras, and I had about 14 congregations. So, I would travel around on my little Vespa. One of the churches did not have a building. So, one sunny, really sultry afternoon we met for a Eucharist under a Tamerind tree. A Tamerind tree is a very shady, large tree. And we met for Eucharist, I was very newly minted, just made a priest, right, so I had very little clue of what I was doing most of the time. So, I went around and distributed the bread, and then I picked up the chalice and I noticed that there was an ant swimming in the grape juice. So I went to the first person and I said, “Blood of Christ. Cup of salvation. Watch out!” And then the second person, “Blood of Christ. Cup of salvation. Watch out!” It took me about two or three persons before I realized what I was saying! And then it occurred to me, yes, blood of Christ, cup of salvation, watch out! Because this is more than comfort food. It is a call for discipleship and leadership in a very troubled time, when Christians like you and I have to wake up, and be present as agents of love in a world that is hungry for genuine love.
My friends, and now compassion, curiosity and hospitality abide, these three. And the force behind each of these is love!
You are it!