Here’s my Pentecost homily. You can also listen to it here.
Blue Books and Dry Bones
In honor of Pentecost, I would like to begin this homily by speaking in tongues:
“This summer the DMFS will gather for its triennial General Convention to revise and amend its canons of governance through bicameral legislation, and elect an ecclesiastical authority through the discernment of its House of Bishops.”
Is there a sister or a brother present with the gift of translation?
In plain English, that means that the Episcopal Church – our actual corporate title is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church – DMFS for short, and you are all members – meets for its general convention soon. It happens every three years. When they meet in late June in Salt Lake City, bishops and deputies – lay and ordained – will gather as the Episcopal Church in Council to worship and govern. They will talk about, among other things, the structure of the Episcopal Church, asking the question, “Does a 20th century model of corporate structure fit the needs of the 21st century church?” They will talk about the theology of marriage – both in general, and in relation to the question of same-sex marriage. (You can bet that this one will be in the news, whether or not it is the most important thing happening.) And as many of you know they will elect a new presiding bishop to a 9-year term. There are four candidates, one of whom is our own Bishop Michael Curry.
I must admit that I’m never quite sure how to feel about the big General Convention. It certainly seems exciting, and I’d love to go to it someday, preferably if it’s held somewhere fun like Austin or San Diego or Key West. They’re doing some very important and public things that are vital to the question of how the church is to be in the world. But I also get a bit wary, and a touch cynical, when folks travel to a faraway place, roll up their sleeves, and for a period of 10 days legislate into the wee hours of the morning.
I never quite know what my own responsibility is – how much of the minute details of the resolutions do I need to be proficient on? Certainly I learn the highlights in part so that I can share them with you. I’ll offer two sessions during and after convention to give you all the news that’s fit to gossip about. And just our luck, the day before Bishop Anneflies off to Salt Lake City she will be here at St. Andrew’s on June 21st, so at the class she leads we can get a bishop’s perspective on what might unfold in the coming days.
Wanting to be a conscientious priest and rector, I downloaded the convention packet of reports and proposed resolutions. Traditionally called the “Blue Book” because it was always blue until last convention, when I read that the Blue book was actually purple, it is now exclusively available in electronic form. But it’s still called the Blue Book for the sake of clarity, and of course hallowed tradition. This turns out to be a good thing for Mother Earth because the convention packet itself weighs in at a cool 676 pages. I despair at this a little: when am I going to read 676 pages of convention reports?
May I humbly point out that this document is longer than the New Testament? This leads me back to the question I often ask myself in the dwindling hours of diocesan convention: Do we create extensive convention reports and legislative processes in part to convince ourselves that we are still alive, that our church is vital and thriving? The longer the report, the thicker the “blue book,” the more quickened we must be with the spirit of God?
Could this possibly be what the Apostles envisioned on the day of Pentecost: hundreds of pages of resolutions and reports, once every three times a year, and this just one of many expressions of the Christian faith?
Well, there’s a lot that has happened in 2000 years that the apostles didn’t likely imagine, and conventions are a pretty benign example. Indeed, let us not be too anesthetized by budget reports and press releases – these are really just the church holding itself accountable in an age that understands corporate language above all else. The Holy Spirit moves where it will, even, sometimes, at General Convention, and I trust that one, there will be a deep spirit of prayer and discernment at this gathering, and two, that the reports in the media will make no mention of that spirit. Really, it will be a gathering of many faithful people of deep conviction and commitment to this church. It will be the church in all its messiness, trying to live with fidelity in an unsettled world. Remember too that its role will not be to “be” the Episcopal Church but to enable and empower us to be the church.
We are about a month away from General Convention, and you’ll hear more from me about it, but I wanted to mention it today, the day when we celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit to the friends and followers of Jesus, because when the church gathers in council it will worship and speak and argue and listen and pray in the same spirit of the gathered disciples. Our church will celebrate the resurrection of Christ in the spirit of Pentecost.
When we come together each week we, too, sing and pray in the spirit of Pentecost. When we did so last week to discuss our worship life together, when we gather as vestries, committees, classes, study groups, we do so in remembrance of those who first experienced the holy fire of the Spirit of God.
Those who come together in Salt Lake City will be of several languages, many perspectives, many different life experiences, but one Spirit. When we worship, any day but especially today, we speak multiple languages, we have many different perspectives, we come together with countless different life experiences and tell stories of different encounters with God. But we gather in one spirit: the Holy Spirit, the gift of God for a faithful people.
We are bonded together, though, by more than just a shared spirit. I believe we also have a shared heartache, one that is experienced by faithful people throughout our word, and most certainly by those who will speak for the church in Salt Lake City. This is the heartache that comes from living, as Ezekiel reminds us, in the valley of dry bones. In a world filled with unspeakable suffering.
“Our World is Dying.” So says Dr. Matthew Sleeth, a former Emergency Room physician who now writes and speaks of the Sabbath as the great ignored commandment whose absence is crushing ours spirits. Our world is no longer a humane place to be; he adds that “there are no longer elms on elm street;” we have cut down the tree of life and hidden its roots under concrete.
Walter Brueggemann reminds us that our relationships of neighborliness and fidelity have been diminished and cheapened by our worship of consumerism and individualism. We’ve set ourselves up as Kings, but we really all work for Pharaoh now.
Whole regions of our country are suffering for lack of water, arguably – and I find these arguments to be compelling enough to preach about – because of our short-sighted misuse of the gifts of creation.
This is what the valley of dry bones look like. We often speak of change, because sometimes things do change and that’s the right word for it. But sometimes we speak of “change” we are dressing up the reality that something has died or is dying.
This is where our corporate language will fail us every time. Words that I myself often use or am tempted to use: innovation, nimble, restructure. When in fact we need to speak a word or two about sadness and hope, words that are as honest as they are faithful.
There is a word of comfort and rebirth that only the church can speak, but it often seems that we have lost our voice, our vocal chords parched by the same dusty wind that has blown clean the bones of the valley.
I think we need to find that voice again. I hear in Ezekiel’s new wind blowing through the valley, giving life and breath to the bones, muscles, skin as they reanimate, I hear the same spirit of Pentecost that blew through the room of the gathered disciples.
I pray, and I trust, that this spirit will be there at our General Convention. I pray, and I trust, that this spirit will move in ways that will surprise me and teach me something about God’s dream for us that I hadn’t imagined before.
But I don’t feel that I need to wait a month, either, because that same spirt is here, if we are willing to listen for it, and follow it. That same spirit of faith and passion, kindled in our hearts and perhaps even throwing off a little propane halo is here, if we hunger for it. That same spirit of bursting forth to speak the good news in many languages is certainly here.
But perhaps most importantly, the spirit that blew through the valley of the dry bones, bringing hope and renewal and new life, the kind that only God can bring, that spirit is here too. I think we all know what it’s like to live in that valley. I think too that we gather around the fire of a faith that changes us and reanimates us and sustains us and fills us with life and the love of God. We have been dry bones, and yet here we are, singing, and praying and embracing one another. May this be the witness of our lives, and may this be the story and the testimony of our church.
The Rev. Bernard J. Owens
Pentecost 2015, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, NC