The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston
I want to begin, before I share what’s on my mind and heart today, first with a word of thanks to my very good friend, the dean of this Cathedral, Nathan, and to all the members of this ministry, for inviting me to come and deliver this message to you on this wonderful first Sunday of Advent. I’m very grateful for this opportunity, and I consider it a high honor. And so I thank you very sincerely, not only on behalf of myself, but also on behalf of the school of which I’m honored to be the president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge.
Some of the other folks from our school are here, and we’re all very delighted to be with you. They are aware, and perhaps many of you may not be, that my particular way of preaching is somewhat different. I come from a Native American background. I’m a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. And in my heritage, when we stand to speak of holy things, when we are to speak in a sacred way, we seek to speak directly from the heart. And therefore, I don’t speak from notes. I rely entirely on the grace of God through the Holy Spirit. This means that I pray before I speak, and ask God to anoint me with that Spirit. And so please for just a moment if you will indulge me by joining me in your hearts as I offer this simple prayer.
Lord God Almighty, I stand in this great Cathedral, small before you. I have no right to open my mouth to utter a word of the Gospel, for it is precious and pure. Therefore, I ask if you will on this day, the first Sunday of Advent, touch me with your Holy Spirit, remove from me any sense of my own pride or vanity. Let the Spirit anoint me on this day, that whatever I may say now will not only be pleasing to you but will be a message of hope, of strength, and of truth to your people. Through Jesus Christ, my Savior, I pray this. Amen.
Well, brothers and sisters, here we are at the threshold of Advent, another season of expectation in the life of the Church, for the coming of Jesus Christ. We have heard lessons this morning read to us from Zechariah, the great prophet of ancient Israel, from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians and from Luke’s Gospel as well. And if you call those lessons to your mind, I ask you, What are we to make of them on this day? What have they actually said to us? If you listen to Zechariah’s prophetic image, where the hills will be rent asunder, great mountains will fall, the coming of God will be a coming full of power, fearful, fearful power. What do you make of that?
If you listen to what St. Paul wrote to the church of the Thessalonians, in his letter to them, he says, “I pray that you will be found blameless, blameless, when Jesus comes back.” That’s enough to get your heart pumping.
And then if you hear in Luke when Jesus speaks, he talks about it as though the sun and stars and the moon will fall, and on this day great tribulation, great conflict, will occur. What do you make of all of this?
I do not know what faith traditions many of you may come from. Knowing the nature of this community and the welcoming nature of this Cathedral, you may be from many different traditions. But to those of us who are here gathered for this Sunday in Advent who are Anglican or Episcopalian, I would be tempted to say that we do not make much of these lessons at all. For if you hear the dowager accent of the Anglican Church speaking when it comes to these kinds of apocalyptic images from the Bible, we would say, “In the Episcopal Church, we don’t do the apocalypse. We’d rather leave that to others, you know, far more evangelical than we are. We are a polite community. We read the Bible differently.”
O brothers and sisters, it is funny, isn’t it if you’re a member of the tradition of which I’m proud to be a part. You don’t expect the preacher on the first Sunday of Advent to stand up and deliver a sermon full of fire and brimstone, do you? You don’t expect a bishop of the Anglican Communion to stand up and say, “Did you hear what Zechariah said? Did you hear what Paul said? ‘You better get right with God’?” You don’t expect that. No, we don’t do the apocalypse very well in the Anglican Communion. We would rather leave that to other communions of the Christian faith, we think.
But on this day, brothers and sisters all, whatever your faith tradition may be, hear my word clearly. We cannot avoid these images of the conflict and the struggle that are presented to us in the Holy Scriptures about what will happen when God’s presence is felt in our lives for real. Not theoretical. Not imaginary. Not a point of debate within a seminary such as I serve. But the real, living presence of God in our world. When that occurs, things happen. Listen. Things change. Listen. Things enter into struggle. Listen. Things are turned upside down. Listen. Listen. Things are difficult and contentious.
The issue, Christians all, is not whether or not we choose to confront and face this word of God through the Holy Scripture, but whether how we choose to do it.
Now brothers and sisters, I believe that there are many in the Christian faith, indeed in all of the religions in the world, which when confronted with the reality of God in their lives and the struggles that that reality brings to us, choose to react to this presence by retreating into smaller and smaller and smaller bunkers of fundamentalism and orthodoxy. Excuse me, if in saying this in any way I might in some sense offend any person from any other tradition, I will not speak of other churches or other faith communities, I will speak only of my own. Let me be fair and say within the Anglican communion there is this growing tide, as I have said I believe in many if not all of the communities of faith under the Christian cross, of a desire to retreat into conformity, to protect ourselves from the presence of God in our lives, to be found right with God, to read the Bible in the correct way, to make only these interpretations of what Jesus meant, to practice only this ritual, or this tradition as the pathway to heaven, to follow only this leadership in its guidance of what our moral, ethical, social or political values ought to be. Many, there are among you, listen, in this Cathedral today, who can bear witness whatever your tradition may be to the truth of what I am saying.
The tide of this kind of a fundamentalism, this kind of a fearful response to the conflict that we see in the world around us, this fear of the social issues that seem to rent and tear at the very fabric of what we consider to be the Christian faith, is rising around us each and every day. And many there are in all of our communions who have turned the house of God into a bomb shelter, where they will hunker down and wait for Jesus, knowing that they are safe because they are followers of the new Pharisees who preach a word of fear and conformity.
Is this an uncomfortable thing? Is this an uncomfortable truth? Yes, it is. It strikes at our heart, just as these lessons should strike at our heart. For they talk about the very conflict in which almost all of our Christian denominations are currently engaged. They talk about the headlines that we see from our church leadership, fighting and struggling with one another. And how members of the body of Christ defame one another and claim in their own self-righteousness, to have a monopoly on the truth of the Gospel of Jesus.
This is the world, brothers and sisters in which we enter this Advent season.
Now, what would I say as the bishop of this church, if what I have described is anywhere even close to an accurate portrayal of the rise of this form of orthodoxy and fundamentalism as I have said, not only in Christianity, but in all the world religions?
I would say this. If you are truly looking for the coming of Christ, if you are truly wanting to step over the threshold of a holy Advent, to perceive the presence of Jesus of Nazareth in your life and in the world around you, do not look up to the sky, waiting to be vindicated by the return of a Jesus who will be like the George Patton of the Bible, there with the American flag in one hand the Bible in the other to say, “Yeah, you were right, and everybody else was wrong.”
If you want to find Christ, walk out of this great Cathedral, go into the streets of Washington, D.C., go into the poorest neighborhoods in this city, go to a corner where young men are selling crack cocaine, look into the eyes, the wounded eyes of the men and women addicted to that terrible drug–and find Christ.
Go into this city, or any city in this country, and look for those women who struggle every day to provide for their families, but because they are of a different skin color, they have trouble enough work to simply put food on their table, and look into the eyes of their children–and find Christ.
Look into the eyes of the homeless, look into the eyes of men and women who wake up each day knowing that they are HIV positive.
Go into communities of refugees, homeless people, still longing for some sense of hope or of justice in their lives–and find Christ.
Go into your own home, and look into the eyes of your loved ones, of your children, your grandchildren, of those that you love most dearly, and count the cost of any time that you have not shared your own love with them, and about how precious that would be–and find Christ looking back at you, with hands extended.
We will not find Christ as the new Pharisees picking through the Scriptures with tweezers in order to justify ourselves. We will find Christ by following him into the world and by standing for what is right and decent and loving and pure and honorable and just in the lives of every man and woman of every walk of life, of every condition, of every faith, opening ourselves up, taking the risk, the gamble of the Gospel–to love others. Hear me well.
I’m the dean and president of a seminary that has often been considered one of more progressive of our schools in the Anglican Communion. And I’m proud of that. But I will tell you this, on behalf of us all at Episcopal Divinity School, it may surprise you to know that at this school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, we are biblical literalists. For when we read the Gospel, with all our dedication to its meaning of discipleship in our lives, what we hear so clearly is the message of our Savior saying in the simplest way possible, “I’ll take care of the judging.” You take care of the loving.”
And so we follow Christ into the world, with our arms open wide to any person who would come and share in the grace and the love of God.
Our business at this Advent, brothers and sisters, is not being politically correct. Our business is doing the justice of the Gospel and the love of the Gospel in the world around us. It is to step out of the bomb shelters of the new Pharisees and to embrace other men and women with the faith, the confidence, the courage, and the deep, deep love of our common Savior, Jesus of Nazareth.
In his name I preach these words. Amen.