Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Back in C'ville, reconnecting, and Robert Bellah's great sermon

I am just returned to Charlottesville after a good trip to California and seeing my family and friends. I know many of you have asked about my mother; she spent most of January in the hospital, and we got her home this past weekend with 24/7 caregivers. She is frail but doing much, much better. Thank you for your prayers and good wishes.

A week ago Sunday, I was privileged to take part in the institution of Philip Brochard the new rector at All Souls Parish in Berkeley where I had served for a year as the interim rector (and fell  in love with the place). Among the members is Robert Bellah, a now-retired University of California professor and easily the pre-eminent scholar of religion in public life in America in our age. Robert coined the phrase "civic religion" many years ago to describe how Christianity permeates, not always for the good, our government and public life. In my year at All Souls it was my treat to get to know Robert and talk politics over coffee at the Musical Offering Cafe on Bancroft Avenue. 

Phil, the new rector at All Souls, asked Robert to preach at his institution. Professor Bellah gave one of the most powerful sermons I have ever heard. I am repeating here below, and though it is long, it is worth your time. He is really preaching to the whole of the Church and our nation:

Sermon for
The Renewal of Ministry with the Welcoming of a New Rector:

January 25, 2009

By Robert N. Bellah 

Isaiah 40:3-11
Psalm 78:1-7
1 Cor. 12:4-14
Mark 10:35-45

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I am honored that Father Phil asked me to speak this afternoon and I am honored to speak to a gathering that includes our Bishop, clergy from our own and neighboring parishes, and the congregation of our own All Souls Parish.

New beginnings!

We are here to renew our ministries and to welcome Father Philip Brochard as our new rector.

We are doing this in the same week that our nation has welcomed a new President and a new administration and, maybe, a new turn in our history.

It is an exciting moment to welcome Father Phil. We need to think of renewing our parish in the context of renewing our nation and even renewing the whole world. Our parish would seem to be doing pretty well compared to the present state of the nation and the world, but maybe we have participated even unconsciously and unwillingly, in some of the things that have led us astray. Can we use this moment of renewal to think not only about how the world needs to change but how we, all of us, need to change? We Christians live under the command to lose our old selves and find new ones in Jesus Christ. We are born again in baptism, but the call to change doesn’t stop there: it is a lifelong challenge. Perhaps we can use this moment of enormous transition to think about that challenge that is always before us as we seek to live as Christians in a difficult and errant world.

Let me try to set that challenge in the context of our present historic moment. Michael Lind, the distinguished commentator on American history and politics, has argued that there have been four republics in America, corresponding to the presidencies of Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and, now Obama, when a period of radical individualism has been reversed and a new emphasis on the common good has followed. For some decades we have heard a great deal about the ownership society, individual competitiveness, even the idea of being your own brand, as though we were not members of a society but only members of an economy. But, as Lind proposes, the pendulum swings and, as several times before in our history, we are hearing a new emphasis on the fact that we are all in this together, that we will not make it all alone, that we are our brother’s keeper, we are our sister’s keeper.

As these last words indicate, the church has never forgotten that we are members one of another, that we are one body, partakers of one bread and one cup, though this side of the Church’s teaching has not been carrying the day in the larger society. I know that in our parish and in much of the Christian Church the theme of the common good, of concern for the inclusion of all, especially the weakest and most vulnerable, has been a constant one, expressed in word and deed.

But in spite of the shift in our political culture, the depth of which we will have to wait and see, the power of American individualism, what I call the default mode of American culture, will not disappear. Even in a parish and a church such as ours, that deep cultural individualism makes it hard for some of our central teachings to be understood, the meaning of the church, for example. Criticizing the church, or as we say disparagingly, organized religion, is almost a reflex reaction, even among Episcopalians. In this very parish I heard a couple of years ago a sermon given by a visiting preacher attacking the Episcopal Church, the Book of Common Prayer, even the sacraments, for getting in the way of the relation of the individual to God. He advocated a direct “plugging into God” (his term) as when one is on a mountain in the Sierras. A strange view for an Episcopalian, though not for an American. I fear that what would happen if one “plugged into” God with no mediation is that one would get electrocuted. The church, properly understood, is precisely the kind of structure of mediation that makes a divine/human relation possible at all.

We have a suspicion of institutions and those with powerful positions within them, and well we might considering how badly they often function, the failures of leadership in politics, the economy, popular culture, and, of course the church. But in a complex modern society the idea that we could do without institutions makes no sense. We constantly need to criticize and improve them, but we cannot abolish them. People who say they are spiritual but not religious, by which they mean they do not go to church, may be fine for awhile, but, among other things, what can they give to their children?

Let me remind you of the Nicene Creed which we recite almost every Sunday (it was the legendary Bishop Pike of our diocese some years ago who said he didn’t believe the Creed when he read it but he did believe it when he sang it), which has four clauses that declare belief: we believe in one God; we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ; we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life; and we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. It was a Jesuit student of mine who reminded me of that fourth clause when I once made a disparaging remark about the church, an example, incidentally, of how a student can teach a teacher.

Since few of the leaders or members of the Church are saints, it is not a perfect institution and it is legitimate to criticize it and try to reform it. But insofar as the Church was instituted by Jesus Christ and indeed is the Body of Christ, it participates, however inadequately, in the divine life. Without it we would not be here and we would have nothing to hand on to our children. In the teeth of a culture that despises all institutions even as it depends on them for its very life, we need to learn again and again to treasure the church and the heritage it provides for us, not passively, but actively as we deepen our sense of our own membership in it and our own responsibility in and through it.

This brings me to the core of my remarks this afternoon. There are many metaphors for the church and all of them have something to say to us. We are tempted to make the metaphor of the family primary: some American Christians virtually equate their religion with family values. But, though we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and family language is often appropriate, we cannot forget that Jesus himself called us to leave our families, even to hate them, if they stand in the way of our higher commitment as his followers. So the family metaphor can never be the only one. Another metaphor for the church, one I want to focus on today, is less popular but, I would argue, equally important. That is the metaphor of the church as school.

We know that Jesus was called rabbi, which means teacher, and that all the great figures in religious history have been extraordinary teachers: Moses, Jesus, of course, but also Paul, in Biblical history; Muhammad, Confucius and the Buddha in other great religions. And the great religious teachers did not only teach through what they said, though their words are precious and we need to try to understand them ever more deeply, but above all through who they were. To us Jesus is the Son of God, the Word made flesh, and it is his life, of which his words are a part, that teaches us.

The church is that community that began when Jesus chose the twelve disciples and began to preach, that is to teach, all who would listen. When we speak of believing in one holy, catholic (we use a small c for the sense of catholic as universal), and apostolic church, we mean by apostolic that we are a community in continuous relation to the original apostles, that our priests are in the apostolic succession (even though Rome decided that we weren’t), and that, through them, all of us are baptized into that unbroken, continuous community. What I want to say today is that that community is an educational community, concerned with the formation of all its members, young and old, clergy and laity, and that in the midst of the present crisis we particularly need to learn more about what our calling as Christians means. In Obama’s Inaugural address he quoted from the great passage in 1 Corinthians 13 that concludes with the affirmation of the three focal Christian virtues: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love, but what Obama chose to cite was another part of that passage, when Paul called us to set aside childish things. It is time, in other words, for us, all of us, whatever our age, to grow up. And we need to work on understanding what a grown up Christian is.

It is important to remember that we are all teachers and we are all students. For me, that has involved being a professor all my adult life. But parents teach; in any job when we mentor a newcomer we teach; and when we act well in any situation we teach all who observe us. And we are always students as well. My students have taught me a great deal over forty years of teaching. One thing I learned over the course of a life spent as a university professor is that we teach not just with the knowledge we have accumulated through reading and research, but with our whole selves. Our students learn as much from who we are as from what we say.

Though I want to emphasize that we are all teachers and all learners all our lives, in the church where what we learn is often so different from what our culture tells us, leadership in such teaching and learning is essential. We need bishops and priests in part because they are connected with the larger church in a way most of us are not. They help to pull us beyond our own private lives, even the life of our own parish, into the larger life of the church and the world. It is in this role of leadership that I want to join with all of those present in welcoming Father Phil to our parish. I have heard him preach and I sense his leadership already.

Jane Austen, herself the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, gives us a sense both of the real meaning of the clergy and the leadership it provides. Even now things are not so different from how they were in her day. This from Mansfield Park, where Edmund Bertram is in conversation with a young lady, Miss Crawford, with whom he is enamored:

At length, after a short pause, Miss Crawford began with, “So you are to be a clergyman, Mr. Bertram. This is rather a surprise to me.”

“Why should it surprise you? You must suppose me designed for some profession, and might perceive that I am neither a lawyer, nor a soldier, nor a sailor.”

“But why are you to be a clergyman? I thought that was always the lot of the youngest, where there were many to choose before him.”

“Do you think the church itself never chosen then?”

“Never is a black word. But yes, in the never of conversation which means not very often, I do think it. For what is to be done in the church? Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines, distinction may be gained, but not in the church. A clergyman is nothing.”

Edmund replies: “I cannot call that situation nothing, which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally,—which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.”

Miss Crawford, one of the fashionable set, is astounded at this reply: “You assign greater consequence to the clergyman than one has been used to hear given, or than I can quite comprehend. One does not see much of this influence and importance in society.”

Edmund tries to explain: “With regard to their influencing public manners, Miss Crawford must not misunderstand me, or suppose I mean to call them the arbiters of good breeding, the regulators of refinement and courtesy, the masters of the ceremonies of life. The manners I speak of, might rather be called conduct, perhaps, the result of good principles; the effect, in short, of those doctrines which it is their duty to teach and recommend; and it will, I believe, be every where found that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.”

In the face of Miss Crawford’s skepticism, Jane Austen, through Edmund, gives the clergy a role higher than any other, even if they are not wealthy, powerful or paragons of fashion. What she clearly means is that it is through the life they lead and the example they set, as well as through the doctrines they preach, that they teach their constituents, that they mold the very fabric of society. I don’t want to put Father Phil on the spot, but there is no higher calling than his, one that applies especially to the priest but also to all of us insofar as we are ministers in a church that believes in the priesthood of all believers.

All of our readings today underline the points I am trying to make, but the Gospel passage from Mark 10 shows Jesus leading by serving, showing us by his example what we are called to do: “whoever wishes to be first among you must be the servant of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for all.” That is no easy demand for our leaders, but it is a demand for all of us as Christians who are called to lead in whatever walk of life we find ourselves.

Of course all of us have our private prayers and devotions, but we need to be reminded through the life of the community what we inevitably forget, and we need to deepen even what we remember. The priest helps us remember and deepen our own faith through worship and its central acts of Word and Sacrament. It is easy to dismiss the once a week hour as “mere ritual.” Yet worship at its best gives us the focus and center of our lives; it radiates out into all the rest of the week and into our thoughts and actions as well.

In the Christian tradition God is revealed to us everywhere, but in particular, and normatively, in worship: in the Sacrament, especially the Eucharist, and in the Word, which means the Bible, but especially the words of Jesus. Catholics have held onto a doctrine about the Eucharist that Protestants have often rejected but many are now reappropriating, that is the doctrine of the real presence, that in the Eucharist right here on this altar this bread and this wine are the body and blood of Christ not in some kind of physico-chemical transformation but in the sense of Christ’s own words at the last supper: this is my body; this is my blood. The Eucharist is not only a remembrance of an event that happened two thousand years ago, but an event happening right now. Christ is giving his body and blood for us right now. And we are called to be Eucharist for others, that is, to give our body and blood for others as he gave his for us.

Nowhere is the meaning of the Eucharist clearer than in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians, 10.16-17, which the King James Version translates as “The cup of blessing, which we bless, is it not the communion [Greek koinonia] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” Other versions use different English words to translate Koinonia. But it is the same word whether translated as communion, participation, or sharing and all these translations are getting at a part of the meaning. In our parish, when sending out the lay Eucharistic ministers to take the Eucharist to those who are too old or sick to come to church, the congregation responds, “Though we are many, we are one body because we all share one bread and one cup.”

In our worship today we have focused on the words of Jesus in answering the question of James and John about who will sit at the side of Jesus in glory, and, with the help of Paul’s words in I Corinthians 12 we will participate in the Eucharist, and, I hope we will remember those words and those actions as we go about our daily life in the days to come.

Let me return briefly, in conclusion to Obama’s Inaugural Address, which I have now read several times. I was somewhat disappointed in it when he delivered it; it seemed to lack the soaring rhetoric of some of his earlier speeches. But I admire it more with each rereading. It calls us to think about our whole history, its high ideals and its all too frequent practical failures, and it calls on us to hand down those high ideals and the hope that we can do better to succeeding generations. Those are words for all Americans to ponder.

And I have to remind you of something that the secularists have somehow missed: that the Episcopal Church is the de facto established church in the United States. Where was the prayer service on Inaugural morning attended by President Bush and President-elect Obama, neither of whom are Episcopalians? St. Johns Episcopal Church, said to be the “traditional church” for such events. And where was the interdenominational prayer service held on the morning of Obama’s first day in office? The National Cathedral, that is the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul,which stands on the highest point in the District of Columbia and is the only building in the district higher than the Capitol. Somehow the press can write “national cathedral” without ever asking how come we have a national cathedral. And St, John the Divine is the Cathedral of New York, just as Grace Cathedral is the Cathedral of San Francisco. I have lived here forty years and know how often Grace Cathedral has been the focus of response to great events in our nation and city.

In the spirit of our Gospel words this morning, the special place that our church has in our national life calls us above all to service, not to pride. And it also requires us to remember as firmly as we can that, though we want to be good citizens, the nation is not our church. Our Church is the universal Church, the holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and one of its primary obligations is to hold the nations, which are as but dust in the hands of God, to judgment and not to idolize them.

At this moment of national and international crisis we are called to a new dedication of our own lives to our obligations as Christians. Service is a duty, but a joyful duty. We gain our lives by losing them; we are never more ourselves than when we are helping others. I expect Father Phil in his special relation to the sacrament and the word to call us constantly to measure every act in our daily life against the standards set by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and I expect all of us here present to respond to that call and indeed to return that call to our priest. We are not alone, isolated atoms fighting each other for survival, though much in our culture constantly teaches us that that is the truth of the human condition. If we know that we are really members of one body, that we need and are needed by each other, then our whole way of being in the world will change and perhaps we can in the church, which seems to many so marginal, serve as models for others, for the troubled nation and world in which we live. In any case that is our task in renewing our ministries with the leadership of our new rector, whom we welcome so heartily today.

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