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Sermon by the Most Reverend Frank T Griswold

Posted on: August 9, 1998 3:15 PM
Related Categories: Bp Griswold, Lambeth Conference 1998, ser

Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church in the United States

The Cathedral Church of Christ Canterbury

Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16
Luke 12.32-40

"By faith Abraham...set out, not knowing where he was going."

Setting out, leaving home, letting go of the safe, the familiar, the predictable, relinquishing fondly held opinions and presuppositions, is part of the excruciating process of being faithful to God's call. "In order to possess what we do not possess we must go by way of dispossession," observes St. John of the Cross and T. S. Eliot after him. And therefore, the journey of faith is, among other things, to follow along the path of dispossession where we find that instead of certitude we are confronted by wonderings and doubt. And about the only thing we can do at such moments is to journey on, put one foot in front of the other, and simply to show up to what confronts us as life's next demand or newest urgency.

And what is it that gives us the capacity to endure, to be patient and not to lose heart utterly along the way? It is, to draw again from today's first reading, "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

Last evening the bishops of the Anglican Communion concluded their three week conference here in Canterbury. They come together every ten years at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, to meet one another and take counsel together for the good of the communion in the service of the gospel. In many ways, this gathering has been an experience of dispossession as different cultures, different nationalities, different ways of interpreting the gospel in widely divergent contexts are brought together in the person of bishops and their wives and husbands.

In order to receive the experience and truth of one another, room has to be made in one's own experience and truth: something has to be given up and set aside as we meet - possibly an attitude, an opinion, a stereotype, the assumed rightness of our own way of reading Scripture - in order that an enlargement of truth can occur, as painful as it may be.

Dying and rising is the fundamental law of the Christian life. And therefore, the Lambeth Conference, called together in the Name of Christ and under the aegis of the Holy Spirit, becomes a place of many personal and corporate dyings and risings, losings and findings, which are all part of God's exacting process of gathering all things together into Christ, and making all things new. It is this "assurance," this "conviction of things not seen" that supplys the necessary courage to journey on into the land of dispossession, not knowing where, ultimately, you will be led.

As the still quite new Primate of the Episcopal Church in the United States, I encouraged our bishops to come to this conference not so much to speak as to listen: to listen to many voices including voices of anger directed against us by other parts of the world -- voices which challenge our affluence and self-regard -- and in that anger to hear an invitation to humility and to renewed partnership, as well as a deeper sharing in the sufferings of Christ as they are experienced daily by our brothers and sisters in so many parts of the world.

All this is about following the way of dispossession and allowing God, in the full freedom of the Holy Spirit -- who, like the wind which blows wherever it wills, to lead us on beyond our assumptions and presumptions to that place, that state, that condition of truth and clarity which, to draw again from our first reading, is that "city" whose architect and builder is not we ourselves but God.

Speaking of architects and buildings, I am put in mind of this great cathedral church, which has been in constant sight by day and by night during our conference. Looking down from the hillside above the town it appears as a serene and unified structure. But once you draw close, once you enter the church, you find that the unity is made-up of an incredible diversity of architectural styles representing a multiplicity of historical moments. Norman gives way to early gothic and naïve architectural experiments are artfully worked into later more confident and assured developments of pillars and arches. One portion is added to another, and the ever-expanding whole is bonded and knit together through a dynamic of stress and counterstress, by one stone pressing against another and thereby producing an overall state of equilibrium and concord.

That which is true of this building is also true of that spiritual temple not made with hands of which God in Christ, through ceaseless working of the Spirit, is the architect and builder, namely the Church. Through baptism we become, each one of us, "living stones," incorporated by God's grace and desire, into a spiritual house of which God alone knows the ultimate design.

How we all fit together, how our singularities are made sense of, how our divergent views and different understandings of God's intent are reconciled passes all understanding. All that we can do is to travel on with the "assurance" and "conviction of things not seen": the conviction that all contradictions and paradoxes and seemingly irreconcilable truths, both consistent and inconsistent with Scripture, are brought together in the larger and all embracing truth of Christ, which, by Christ's own words, has yet to be fully drawn forth and known.

Meanwhile, in our desire for certitude, for answers which deliver us from the pain and uncertainty of living the questions, we declare that we have arrived at our destination - the answer - only to find that what we considered resolved and settled continues to present itself and refuses to go away until the Spirit of Truth, who draws all things from the mind and heart of the risen Christ, leads us "into all the truth," and we find that all the contradictions and divergent perspectives are reconciled in Christ who is the truth.

Patience, mutual affection, the willingness to bear one another's burdens and to make room for one another's truths, are all part of our being built up into the spiritual house of God's design: are all integral to our growing up into Christ and coming to full maturity in the Spirit.

Saxon and norman. Gothic early and late, decorated and undecorated, stress and counter-stress are all caught up into one soaring structure at unity with itself: so it will be with the Church and with our Anglican Communion if we are faithful and allow ourselves to be built up in love.

The gospel for today asks the questions: where is your treasure? where is your heart? Are you ready to have your plans and preoccupations over-ruled by the ever and suddenly-arriving Christ who draws us out of ourselves, and our defensive certitudes, into his project of reconciling and making all things whole and new. To set out with Abraham is to open ourselves not once but again and again to the boundless imagination of the divine architect who weaves all that we are and have yet to become into his ongoing work of creation.

Each one of us has his or her part to play, and together we support and challenge one another as God's design, revealed in Christ, becomes, through the driving motion the Spirit, the desire and joy of our hearts. My brothers and sisters, may we be faithful to this process, this journey of grace and truth. Amen.

One more word: our God, who can call and embrace and make use of all paradox and contradiction is also capable of subtle irony, for your preacher today whose middle name is Tracy, is a descendent of William de Tracy, one of the four knights who in this very church, in the year 1170, killed the then Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket. How glad I am today to have been given a more pacific task to perform, and a very different sword to wield.