Two Types of Turning: Sermon at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Paris, 14 July 2019
Key Passage: Matthew 5:44
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: freedom, hope, conversion, revolution, lectionary
Today I proclaim the end of a tyranny—the tyranny of the Lectionary. You must understand, as I do this, that even though I was raised in the Episcopal Church, baptized, confirmed, and ordained in the Episcopal Church, the first church I ever worked for in ordained ministry was a church that lived outside the lectionary.
I am sure that probably had something to do with the fact that the senior minister in that place was a Baptist, an American Baptist to be specific, and he placed a very high value indeed on the idea of Biblical literacy.
I always thought that the great gift of the lectionary was knowing that the faithful people in churches everywhere were thinking about and reflecting on the very same lessons every Sunday morning. But my first boss in ministry thought the lectionary was a crutch, one that took away from the preacher any responsibility to shape a message to meet the unique needs of a congregation from week to week. And it also meant that you could get away without knowing the Bible very well at all, if you had the decisions all made for you already about what readings would be heard.
When I left that place and went off to be a rector for the first time, I suddenly had to learn that if you wanted to veer away from the lectionary on Sunday morning, if you wanted your people to hear something else that you thought was better suited to their situation and their needs, you had to ask permission. Permission of the bishop! Can you imagine?
And so I did. I’ll bet I had a reputation in the bishop’s office for my bizarre requests for dispensation from the lectionary.
But now what do I do? Do I ask myself for permission? No, I’m the bishop now. So I have to ask a higher authority. I asked the Dean. And she said yes.
So the lessons today are not the readings appointed for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost. They are the readings appointed for July 4th—for Independence Day in the U.S. Believe it or not, the committee that sets up the lectionary put together a set of proper readings for July 4th. I am sure they thought they were being helpful.
I am thinking a lot about words these days, not least because I am hard at work trying to learn a great many new ones in three different languages. The word I have been reflecting on lately is revolution—a word that appears in both French and English within about the same century; first in French, by about the late thirteenth century, and in English by the late fourteenth century.
In both cases the word first conveyed the idea of the passage of planetary bodies—the revolutions around the sun that made for the orbit of a planet, or the revolutions around the earth that makes up the orbit of the moon.
If you think about it, it’s interesting that this word that first conveyed something about the natural order came in both languages to convey something about the disruption of one order and its replacement with another.
Even so: Still revolutions. Both languages carry this idea. Our nations still carry this identity, nations born from a revolutionary upheaval, a break with the past determined to reshape the structures of power around the fundamental concept of equality, of the dignity of all people, of the right of all people to have a voice in how they are governed.
Those are not unimportant ideas for us to reflect on today. They are not just historical themes; they are deeply Christian ideas. When Mr. Putin says in his interview with the Financial Times that the liberal idea is obsolete, that it no longer expresses the hopes of the majority of people, he might as well be saying the same thing about the core moral teachings of the Christian faith.
Our revolutions were not Christian revolutions, but make no mistake that the ideas that animated them and pushed them forward have their source and their power in a set of moral claims first set loose in the world by the Christian gospel.
So what happened to our revolutions? Why all this disaffection and disappointment? Why all this alienation?
We can leave the scholars to reach a conclusion about that, or the economists not to reach one. What matters for us, what matters for Christians, is the human aspiration that makes change possible, and that also tends to let it remain incomplete.
Yes, revolution is a means of change. Yes, revolution is a means of turning, turning from the old to the new, turning from the problem to the possible.
But for us, for those of us who approach the problems around us with a Christian perspective, revolution is not the only way of accomplishing change. It isn’t the only way of making a turn.
It’s the way we love best, perhaps, because our history teaches us that it’s glorious. It’s the way we’re most attracted to, because we love taking stands on things, we love being prophetic, we love to be in the avant garde.
But that other way of turning is what’s missing. It’s our inability to teach it, to live it, to make it real in our lives and in the life of the society around us that is somewhere near the heart of this feeling that things are falling apart.
Because what is missing isn’t a great enough revolution. What is missing is the other way of turning. What is missing is conversion.
I don’t mean by this the kind of conversion that prompted the missionary movements of two hundred years ago. I don’t mean by this the kind of prophets of doom in the New Yorker cartoons carrying around signs that say, “Repent!”
I don’t mean the sort of conversion that zealots demand of other people.
I mean the kind of conversion that disciples are meant to seek in themselves.
As much as I like to make fun of the writers of the lectionary, I think their choices for our consideration on a day celebrating revolution could hardly be wiser. Because right in the midst of our celebrating the glory of revolutions comes this careful, gentle, disturbing reminder of the necessity of conversion—of the conversion of our hearts that God intends to work in us, if we really give ourselves to this faith.
Love your enemies. Bless those who persecute you. Love the people who don’t love you—the people, let’s face it, who are hard, or awkward, or dangerous to love.
Doing that doesn’t require a revolution. We’ve had the revolution. And still we feel disconnected, still we feel disappointed, still we feel disenchanted. Because our revolutionary ideas have not been sustained, have not been supported, by the conversion of hearts that the vision of those revolutions turns out to depend on.
You probably know, or you think you know, the three vows that are taken by most monks and nuns in religious life. But if I quizzed you, you’d very likely get it wrong. Because the Benedictines, the oldest of all orders, requires its members to take three vows: Obedience, Stability, and Conversion of Manners.
Let’s leave aside for another sermon on a different day our struggles as modern Christians with the concept of obedience. You probably thought I was going to say, poverty, chastity, and obedience; but as any Benedictine will tell you, poverty and chastity are understood to be just two parts of a larger, life-long soul-building project, this idea called “conversion of manners.”
What monks mean when they say that phrase is the idea that this faith of ours is meant to change us. It’s not meant to reward us, or comfort us, or somehow give a veneer of theological approval for the people we already are.
Our faith is meant to constantly, gently, firmly push us away from our comfort, from our complacency. God’s love is never finished transforming us into disciples. When Jesus holds up before us this idea of becoming perfect, he doesn’t mean we will ever be perfect. He means our work of converting our own hearts, our desire to be less our own and more fully his, is the work of our whole lives.
It is right that we give thanks today for the possibilities opened by revolutions that set loose on the world the ideals we treasure.
But while we do so, let us also remember to ask for the wisdom, the patience, the willingness, the courage to be changed ourselves—to know, to teach, and to share the kind of conversion of hearts that make real the dreams our revolutions give us fleeting glimpses of.
For the possibility of true equality means nothing unless we can bring ourselves to treat each other with equal respect; the hope of genuine human dignity means nothing unless we give even to those who hate us the basic respect that they rightly seek for themselves. And the dream of true fraternité, of a deep awareness of our interdependence each on all the others, will never be achieved unless we bring our hearts to treasure each other as brothers and sisters in God. Amen.