Transcribed from the audio
“And what does the Lord require of us, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?” In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this day at Washington National Cathedral we join with churches throughout Christendom in celebrating Christian Unity Week. And this morning we particularly have reasons to celebrate as we find expression of a move of ecumenism in the Episcopal Church and United Methodist Church within the Interim Eucharistic Sharing Agreement which permits my friend and colleague Gina Campbell, a United Methodist minister, to preside at the Eucharist at Washington National Cathedral. Many of you have asked me excellent questions about Christian Unity Week and what the Interim Eucharistic Sharing Agreement means. So I’d like to spend just a few minutes unpacking that and also looking ahead to what that means for us on the ground and in practice.
The modern ecumenical movement is actually over 100 years old. The Christian Unity Week first began in 1908. Its most common understanding and expression for most people, I think, is through the work of the World Council of Churches which has over 350 denominations in its body, if you can imagine that. The Eucharistic Interim Sharing Agreement that we celebrate and lift up today was actually forged almost 10 years ago. The Council of United Methodist Bishops approved it in 2005; it was ratified by the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 2006. So here we are, almost 10 years later, putting it into practice.
Some might say that the church is a little slow to change. As a beloved former member of the Cathedral Chapter put it a couple of years ago on another subject, “The last person I knew who was eager for change was a baby with a wet diaper!” Some things take time.
But what it means is a movement from the Christian churches to be one, as you heard in the gospel lesson just now. The Episcopal Church enjoys full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and this Interim Eucharistic Sharing Agreement is the movement toward full communion between the Episcopal Church and United Methodist Church. As a practical matter, the ecumenical movement is really for us, as Christians, to recognize our unity in the Son of God, Jesus Christ, to whom we come together to celebrate, to recognize that the altar behind me is the Lord’s Table: not the Episcopal Church’s table, not United Methodist Church’s table, but the Lord’s Table.
My first real understanding and involvement in ecumenism came from my own seminary formation as a student at Wesley Theological Seminary. It’s a Methodist based and founded seminary, but there are some 40 different denominations represented in the student body. And as one of my fellow Episcopal students said, “Where else could you sit in a classroom and discuss baptism and the basic tenets of belief between infant baptism, baptism as an adult as a mature expression of faith; whether baptism is necessary for salvation; and whether we even believe in individual salvation itself?” I’m not going to answer that in the homily today. That’s a few courses’ worth, at least, and over 100 years of conversation! But my experience was that I was so deeply enriched by talking about these deep expressions of faith, theology, and belief with my fellow Christians in some 40 different denominations.
If you will permit me, that really came home for me in a very personal and powerful way just about a month ago, exactly a month ago. Some of you know that shortly before Christmas my 90–year–old father was hospitalized with pneumonia and it was believed that there were other issues that were life–threatening. So with the love and support and prayers of my colleagues, I got on the next plane to Texas to be with him and with my brother. They were tense days in the hospital, but thankfully, my father was released at 10 pm on December 23rd to go to a rehab and skilled nursing facility. He was transported by ambulance in a wheelchair with oxygen, at 10 at night.
So I will confess to you that Christmas Eve morning I was with heavy heart, put it that way. I suspect some of you have had that experience in your own lives of a loved one who is in a precarious place and particularly during the holidays. But as is my practice, I went out for a very early morning walk with this heavy heart and feeling down on Christmas Eve of all times of the year. In my walk, suddenly it occurred to me, “Well, you’re a priest, there’s no reason why you can’t have a Christmas Eucharist. You don’t have to be at the Washington National Cathedral to do that,” although I know it was fabulous because I saw it online. So I went to the rehab facility that morning, bearing in mind that I was brand–new in their lives, as was my father. I said if you don’t have a service planned today, you know, I’d be happy to offer one. And they were so thrilled and so grateful because, of course, there was no Eucharist planned that day. Ministers were all in their church doing that. Then the activities director asked me, “What do you need?” And I said, “Just some bread.”
Just some bread. Isn’t that what we gather around the table to celebrate, to bless, to break, and to give away: the Bread of Life that we find in Christ? It’s been extravagantly and generously given to us so that we, too, may give it away. Frederick Buechner once said, “To sacrifice something is to make it holy by giving it away for love.” So, at 4 pm in the activities room, I had the utter and sheer privilege of offering the Bread of Life to some 30 people who were gathered, all in wheelchairs, with the exception of about 4 or 5 staff members. My brother played the piano. We joyfully sang “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night.” And I distributed the bread, the Bread of Life from the Lord’s Table. It was a Christmas Eucharist that I will never forget. But, do you know what was most remarkable about it? No one bothered to ask me what my denomination was. It didn’t really seem to matter.
“What does the Lord require of us, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?”