Sermons and Speeches
Bishop Lee preached this sermon on Ascension Day, May 10, 2018, at Church of the Ascension, Chicago.
A couple of years ago I had the great privilege of traveling to Ghana. I was there with a delegation of other clergy and lay leaders from the Episcopal Church to hold a consultation with our sisters and brothers in the Anglican Church of Ghana and from other African nations, part of a series of conversations to explore our differences and our common faith in Christ in light of the developments in this country and in Africa around the inclusion of LGBT people. This particular consultation was held in the coastal city of Elmina, at a hotel near one of the most remarkable and disturbing places I think I have ever visited.
From the late 15th century, the southern coast of Ghana became dotted with fortified castles. These were built by Europeans as they established their first footholds in that part of Africa. At first, these forts were built in order to sustain the vast gold trade there, but by the 17th century, what was being traded had changed. These castles along the coast were the staging ground for the devastating and hugely lucrative Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the dungeons of these places, thousands and thousands of captured men and women were held until they could be shipped off to the various colonies of the new world. The slave castle at Cape Coast was one of the largest of these horrors, and today it is certainly one of the most well preserved. It was the center of the English slave trade. In the unspeakable confines of airless, foul dungeons, up to 500 women and over 1000 men at a time were held for months until they exited through the infamous “door of no return” to board ships and be hauled like dry goods across the ocean.
An image I still have trouble not seeing there in the castle is that of a blindingly whitewashed structure, built directly over the doorway to the men’s dungeon. It is built high enough to look over the rest of the castle and out at the ocean vista. It has windows to allow for refreshing breezes off the water. It was the site of the Anglican chapel for the British who occupied the place. It was there that hymns were sung, prayers offered, Holy Communion celebrated — there directly over the place below it of savage misery for enslaved human beings. As he stood squinting up at the place our tour guide said, “Yes, the view is very beautiful from up there — they must have thought they were ascending into heaven.”
Most of us I suspect — if we think about it much at all — most of us are accustomed to thinking about the Ascension in just the way it is portrayed in the Bible. Jesus “goes up,” caught up in some kind of special effects cloud. The Keystone Cops disciples are left squinting up at the cloud, open mouthed and wondering what it all might mean. Maybe we might picture it that way. Or we might find all that just a little embarrassing. Episcopalians, we like to think, take the Bible seriously, not literally. And yet, neither literalizing it into a cartoon nor sophisticatedly explaining it away as some kind of psychological experience those first disciples had and wanted us to have too, the event we call the Ascension will not go away. It is a mystery proclaimed consistently by the Christian faith down through the millennia. And it still has the power to gather us together. Right here. Tonight.
The Ascension of Jesus gathers us. It is one instance in the totality of his birth, life, death, resurrection and return to the Father. And, it is part too of the sending of the Holy Spirit. “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit, with power,” he says to his first friends. He sends them. He still does. He sends us. “You will be my witnesses.” Witnesses to what? For what? What else, dear friends, than the mighty good news Jesus came proclaiming, the good news he came embodying in the first place — sight for the blind, food for the hungry, hope for the hopeless, freedom for captives. Just as Jesus led Peter, James and John back down from the mountaintop after the Transfiguration (“Come on,” he said. “We can’t stay up here. We’re going back down to the rough and tumble and danger of Jerusalem.”). Just as then, so at the Ascension, the angels remind those first disciples of Jesus that following him is not a matter of staring up at the clouds. It’s going back down to the earth, back to the needs, straight to the heartaches and troubles and terrors of this world. To be the good news they and we preach.
This is the heart of the Baptismal promises we recommit ourselves to tonight. In the celebration of confirmation and in the formal reaffirmation of vows, we are challenged to remember who we are … and whose we are. These promises we use to describe our practice of the Christian faith are just that — practices. They commit us to very doable, very tangible ways of living in this world, of “going down” with the Lord we follow into the hurts and heartaches, the challenges and needs of a hurting world, the whole wounded condition of humanity which our God has chosen to enter and redeem.
And we have not been left high and dry, staring up into empty space all by ourselves. The mystery of the Ascension leads us in only a few days to the mystery of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has been poured into our lives and leads us down into the heart of the world. If you want to go up, you have to go down. We cannot approach glory without remembering that we are all dust. At Cape Coast Castle the beauty of that chapel in the sky was mocked by the degradation below it. You cannot have the glory of the Ascension without descending to the deepest depths of human pain. Christ himself has led the way exactly there. The doors of those dungeons imprisoned not just the enslaved persons down in them. They kept those above from knowing the Reign and reality of God too.
In his sermon at the conclusion of the great Anglo-Catholic Congress in 1923 in London, Bishop Frank Weston of Zanzibar put it this way: “If you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum …. (So) go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.
May God bless this parish, this local instance of the church catholic, in its mission of worshiping the living God and of changing the lives of those in want, of ministering to those who suffer, of feeding the hungry and making the love of the Dying, Rising and Glorified Christ real. May God set us all free to go down and so to rise in glory.
It's Not About Us at All
Bishop Lee gave this sermon on Tuesday of Holy Week, March 27, 2018, to clergy and lay leaders renewing their baptismal vows at St. James Cathedral:
It was a Holy Week many years ago. I was a second year seminarian, full of piety, longing to serve God as a priest of the church, and deeply suspicious that I did not have what it took to be anything like the saintly cleric I imagined God wanted me to be. Like I said, I was pious. Kind of ridiculously pious, actually, and my seminary, Nashotah House, was a playground for a pious young man like me. So it was Holy Week, and naturally I went to see the wise elder priest who came regularly to the seminary to hear confessions before Easter. I had done my homework. I consulted at least two venerable guides I found in the library about making a thorough examination of my conscience, not letting myself off of any hooks, peering into the dark corners of my psyche and constructing a scrupulous list of my many and grievous sins. This was going to be a humdinger of a confession.
So I climbed the creaky stairs up to the chapel where dear old "Father X" was waiting for me. I knelt down beside where he was sitting, right there under the stained glass window of the crucifixion of our Lord, (Father X seemed to be obviously in prayer, interceding for my wayward soul, I was sure). Out came the list and off I went. “I confess to Almighty God, to his Church, and to you, that I have sinned by my own fault in thought, word, and deed, etc., etc.” I poured out my anxious midterm seminarian’s heart to this priest with heinous (probably mortal) sin after sin, right through to the Prayer Book’s conclusion in the Rite of Reconciliation: “I humbly beg forgiveness of God and ask you for counsel, direction, and absolution.”
Well, there he sat. Just as he had done through my whole laundry list, nodding occasionally and looking inscrutable. Now that I had finished, he just sat there and I thought, “Oh my God - he’s gonna agree with my self-assessment of total, unworthy, reprehensible sinfulness.” But after what seemed like a long time of thinking about it, this is what he said: “You know, Jeffrey, you might not want to flatter yourself quite so much. You really aren’t the worst sinner who’s ever lived.”
I am constantly amazed at the incredible ability of the ego to turn almost anything into its own, self-referential project. To cast myself as the star of my own show, the center of my own universe, the object of my own worship - all that is relatively easy to spot. But I can also just as deftly obsess about my own abject failures, my extraordinary unworthiness, my total depravity. It’s easy to be appalled by the grandiosity of politicians and celebrities and the ways my own behaviors on the small stage mirror them. But it might be even easier to ignore the ways my busy ego keeps me glued to the image of what I imagine to be my complete wretchedness. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has the senior demon advising his nephew, Wormwood, that one of the most effective ways to turn a “client” off the path to God is either to convince him that there really isn’t anything called sin, or to become completely obsessed about it. They’re equally effective techniques, he says.
Well, the antidote to all of this, I believe, is to turn our hearts, our minds, our wills gently but firmly away from the contemplation of ourselves for good or ill and toward the direction of the servant ministry to which we are all called. To cultivate the mind of Christ as the Bible puts it. That’s where real personal freedom is to be found, as the reading from Second Corinthians tells us. It’s not about us at all - like the story my wife Lisa tells about a solo recital she sang several years ago - she wasn’t very happy with her performance and afterward in a reception line a woman congratulated her on the beautiful performance. Lisa said, “Really? Didn’t you notice my flubs in the Schubert?” The woman stopped in her tracks, stared at Lisa and said, “How dare you ruin my experience of your beautiful music by saying that!” No, it’s not about us at all; it’s about the song Christ wants to sing in us. It’s about Jesus who wants nothing more and nothing less for each one of us than to be transformed into our truest selves, the only real glory there is, remade, each one of us, revealed as the beloved son, the much loved daughter we really are. And that letter to the church in Corinth tells us how this happens - and it’s not just by working harder on ourselves - Christianity is not a religious self-improvement program (you know, 10 steps to a better you!) - losing sight of that is why so much of religion, so much of church life turns into a playground for over-active egos. We love to play the game those first disciples of Jesus seemed to love too, lording it over each other, controlling outcomes at the vestry meeting, arguing over obscure theological details, fist fights in the sacristy. No, the Christian life has very little to do with ecclesiastical self-absorption; we become what God has created us to be by engaging in self-offering, in ministry, the work we have been given to do, lay and ordained, working together, each according to our gifts and our particular calls. Sharing in fact in God’s own work, God’s own project of loving the world back to its truest self. The reconciliation of all things to a right relationship with themselves and so with God.
By water and the Holy Spirit, in baptism you and I have been made members of Christ, living limbs and members of his dying and rising Body. And becoming what we have been made to be is a lifelong process. Martin Luther said the Old Adam has indeed been drowned in the water of the font - the trouble is the corpse keeps floating to the surface. It’s certainly true in my life - that ego keeps popping up and diverting my best intentions. That’s why we’re here. It’s why we need each other. It’s why we renew these vows again and again. It’s why we need the regular, sturdy nourishment of Jesus’ body and blood at this table. It’s what this oil we bless is for. Signing and sealing new sisters and brothers in Christ with the sign of the one to whom they belong, the sign of the one whose own they are and the sign of their true identity as daughters and sons of the living God. We anoint the newly baptized to be, in fact, brand new icons of Christ. They are sacraments of Christ himself. We are too.
So today, through the days of this week, as we enter the Passover of the Lord on Thursday night and contemplate the mystery of the cross and straight up to those waters of new birth Saturday night, let us commit ourselves to making real in this world what God has already made true in us. Let’s dare to consent to the work of the Holy Spirit in us, dare to commingle our lives with the Divine life itself, dare to believe that between our souls and God there is no between. Let us dare to trust that God longs to make a home in our hearts.
Bishop Lee gave this keynote address at the 180th convention of the Diocese of Chicago on November 17, 2017:
[A deacon reads the story of the Feeding of the 5000 from Mark 6: 30-44]
Whenever I think about the topic of leadership I can't help but remember a presentation I heard many years ago by Parker Palmer—an imaginative retelling of the story of the feeding of the 5000. I think about it often, especially in terms of the kind of ministry I am convinced we need a whole lot more of in the church just now. In Parker Palmer's treatment of it, the story—particularly in Mark's version 'cause of all its juicy little details—the story is fundamentally about Jesus' capacity to reframe reality for his more or less clueless disciples and the way he teaches them to exercise the same kind of leadership. It's a way of hearing the story that has become precious to me...especially the longer I go on in this bishop business.
The disciples and Jesus have been slogging it out in the fields of ministry. Busy healing people and feeding folks and preaching good news to search committees and recalcitrant senior wardens. They gather around Jesus and he says to them, "Come on, let's get away for a while...what you guys need is a vacation." So off they go and of course, they break all the vacation rules and bring their iPads and smartphones with them—the work follows them right there to the comfy retreat center. Mark says they stepped off the boat and, lo and behold, there was a crowd of people just waiting for them. Jesus does what Jesus always does—he starts up the beach and right into teaching the forum and taking care of the people. You can just see his buddies rolling their eyes...And trudging on into the fray with him.
Now, here's the thing. I think the disciples are kinda ticked off about this. I love these passive aggressive guys. They have been hard at it with Jesus, and I think all they wanted in the world just now was some time alone with him—they wanted his attention; they wanted to be fed. And what does Jesus do? Off he goes into the crowds. I think this because of what happens next in the story. It starts to get dark and the disciples come to Jesus and announce the fact (duh!) and tell him, "You know, this is a deserted spot. It's getting late and this crowd must be hungry." Now the text gives no indication that anyone in the crowd actually announced that they were hungry, but the disciples (unable, I believe, to declare their own needs right up front) they decide the crowds must be hungry. "Send them away to go and get something to eat," they say. Jesus' little circle of disciples can't admit their own neediness and so they project it out onto all those "others." Hmm. Where have I seen that before? Where has that been me before?
Well, Jesus listens to them and then does what Jesus always does. He refuses to accept the projections, refuses to issue an executive order from the corner office or pull off some kind of quick fix. He tells them, "So, they're hungry, are they? You've identified the problem...It's your problem. You give them something to eat." He gives the issue of what they've identified as the lack of something right back to them. And the disciples do what I always do: they whine. "But Jesus, look at this crowd. There isn't enough money in the budget to make a dent. We don't have enough, is what their response boils down to. Doesn't matter. The excuses just don't seem to phase Jesus. He tells them, "That's OK. Go and see what you do have."
The disciples roll their eyes again and off the go. They do what I always do: they don't try very hard. You mean to tell me that wading into a crowd like that, all they could come up with was a measly five baguettes and a couple of smoked whitefish? (I'm from Michigan originally). They bring it to Jesus and do what I always do. They fulfill their own prophecy. "See Jesus. We told you there wasn't enough."
And here's where it gets really interesting. It's enough, he says. Here Jesus gets very high church—and engages in a little community organizing. He tells the disciples to get the people to sit down in smaller groups, where, I imagine, they could see and interact with each other instead of just looking at him. Then he takes this paltry bit of food and in a big liturgical gesture (there was incense...I know there was incense), he lifts it toward heaven and begins to sing the berekah, the blessing of God for the gift of food. He offers an elaborate prayer over it as though he really means to feed this convention with a sack lunch. I believe the crowd and his disciples must have been spell bound.
And Parker Palmer says here's where the real miracle happens, where it always happens. In first century Palestine, people did not travel a day’s journey without bringing along provisions. Looking across those circles at one another—the nursing mother, the elderly man who had come hoping to catch a glimpse of this wonder-working rabbi, the eager young adults hungry for better lives—hearts were changed by Jesus' stunning conviction that God was quite able to feed the crowd with whatever was available. Hearts and hands were somehow opened by Jesus demonstrating his trust in the limitless abundance of God, and they began to share. And not only was there enough, but like Cana, like healing after healing, like the widow's coin, like Jesus' treatment of those assumed to be outside acceptability, like the Resurrection itself and on to Pentecost, there is always ridiculously more than enough. Enough beyond imagining.
It still works this way. It always works this way, God’s love, God’s abundance. It works this way in and through us. And for some reason, God invites us to be the agents of God’s abundance. From Abraham and Sarah, through the prophets, patriarchs and matriarchs, even through sinful rulers and unlikely deliverers like David and Rahab, right through Mary’s “yes” to the angel, and on and on through saints and sinners through the ages. Right up to you and me. God asks us to cooperate, God calls us all to lead. It requires leadership, the kind of leadership we see Jesus exercising, his refusal to accept the prevailing definitions of scarcity coming at him from every side. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Jesus refused to play by the logic of scarcity - even to the last, even on the cross, he would not curse, even when God was no where to be found or felt, he blessed. He forgave. The transformation of hearts and lives, the opening of hands and minds, the sustaining of communities of people who are learning to trust in God’s never-failing goodness, God’s infinite love and mercy—it all requires leaders who have decided to put their trust in the power of God’s abundant love.
I’ve seen this leadership. I saw it in my mother as she refused to give in to despair when my brother was lying in a coma and then profoundly disabled for the last several years of his life—she cared for him for hours every day and I watched nurses and doctors and the families of other patients changed because of her example. I’ve seen it in lay leaders who made the decision to let their beloved church close after heroic efforts to reimagine its mission and ministry didn’t turn out as they hoped and who still provided for the community around them as the doors were closed for the last time. I have seen it in other churches in this diocese where clergy and laity have made bold moves to let go of cherished buildings and ways of doing things to find new life and energy and purpose in ministries they could never have imagined before. I have seen it in churches in the Peoria deanery whose commitment to being congregations that are wide-open to everyone is astonishing and steadfast. This kind of leadership is on full display among chaplains in hospitals and nursing homes. It is the extraordinary power at the heart of the teaching and learning that’s transforming young lives at Holy Family School. We saw it on our pilgrimage to the Holy Land last May in an extraordinary venture between Jewish and Palestinian parents whose children have died in the violence there and who refuse to live in hatred and mistrust but are reaching across the divides to work for peace. I’ve seen it fierce conversations and public witness about racial injustice and the scourge of gun violence in this country. I’ve seen it in small acts of kindness on city busses.
The way of Jesus is not limited to church. Not by a long shot. But churches ought to be places where the Jesus way of leading is on obvious and reliable display. And by the way, I am not talking only about the clergy here. I believe we have to have effective priests and deacons and bishops, but to be the church requires being the whole church. That’s all of us. Every one of us baptized into Christ has a share in his ministry of reconciliation and service. There are no clergy in the New Testament, you know. There is only the laity, the laos, the whole and holy people of God. In one of the best ordination sermons I think I ever heard, the preacher had the soon to be ordained priest stand up and he said to her, “Mary, we’re not ordaining you to be a shepherd - there is only one shepherd - we’re ordaining you to be a lead sheep.”
What is the way to Jesus kind of leadership? What do we see in Jesus and in the way he gathers and equips people for the work of making the reign of God in this world just that much more real? Here’s what I see:
- It’s all about relationships. Maybe the most striking thing to me about Jesus is his openness to others just as they are. No one ever had to feel they were not somehow good enough to approach him, no one had to pretend they were something they were not, no one ever had to grovel. He accepted people, often with shocking disregard for the social and religious conventions of the time. He is open and he is vulnerable, even learning from those who were judged to be outsiders, like the Samaritan woman at the well, or the Syrian woman who comes begging for her daughter to be healed. In modern terms I guess, leaders who want to lead like Jesus have to have a high emotional IQ - they have to know how to make and tend and sustain productive relationships with other people. For Christian leaders there is nothing more important than this. Communication is not an intellectual enterprise; it’s an emotional one. It’s all about relationships.
- Leaders must not be afraid to ask people to follow. I have been told that a former bishop of the Diocese of Arizona used to interview clergy who wanted to come and serve in parishes of that diocese with one initial question, before any others. He’d ask them this: “Tell me about a time when you asked someone to follow you and they did.” Good question. Jesus called people to follow him in becoming more than they thought they could be. He believed that they could do greater things than he himself could, that’s what he told them. He had confidence in them … beyond reason, it seems sometimes. How much confidence do we have that if we ask people to follow us, to join us in the work God calls us to, that results will follow? Sometimes it seems to me we have simply lost our nerve. If leaders do not expect results, they are not very likely to happen. And again, it’s all about relationships - we earn the right to ask people to follow us by demonstrating that we are trustworthy.
- Results are ultimately God’s business. We’ve got to be confident that the work we’re asking people to accomplish really is Godly work, that it really does align with God’s project of restoring this world to a right relationship with itself and with God. We need to cultivate courage and trust in the face of apparent failure. In old liturgies, the one time the bishop does not carry the pastoral staff, the crosier, is when the bishop presides at a funeral. The idea is that the person who has died is now no longer under the bishop’s care, but in the care of the one true Good Shepherd. At the end of the day all our efforts are entrusted to the one true shepherd whose own we all are. Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian. Neither is failure or heartache or disappointment. Even at Golgotha, Jesus entrusted himself to the one who seemed to have abandoned him, the one he called Abba, the one we dare to call God.
I know I don’t need to remind you but we are in a time of the decline of institutions of all kinds, the church included. The Episcopal Church continues to post significant declines in membership and attendance. But in this diocese, and in every other diocese of the church I know of, there are congregations and other institutions bucking that trend--there are churches that are thriving. I believe a big part of the reason they are is the presence of the leadership qualities Jesus shows us. These are congregations that put the emphasis squarely on honest, life-giving relationships. They practice appropriate confidence about their mission and so aren’t afraid to ask people to join in and follow by exercising their own leadership. They trust results to God’s goodness and are not paralyzed by apparent failures, not even by loss or death.
I want us to be that kind of people. Like this song. The words were found written on a cellar wall in Cologne by a Jew hiding from the Gestapo in WWII. I invite you to learn it--let’s make it our own--Let us be people who put our trust alone in God, who believe in God (like the sun, like love) even when it’s dark. Even when we don’t feel like it. Even when all we can hear is silence. It is the way of Jesus. Let it be ours too.
Sermon Preached at the Ordination and Consecration of Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows as Bishop of Indianapolis
In the fall of 1990 my family and I moved to Fishers, Indiana—is Holy Family in the house? We invited a dozen or so people to join us in our living room and we started a church together. We outgrew the living room pretty quickly and started moving around in that fast-growing suburb. There weren’t a lot of appropriate meeting places to choose from—a community room in a bank branch, the gymnasium of the middle school and then a partially built out commercial space in a new strip mall. Over the years I have delighted in watching from a distance Holy Family Church grow and thrive into the parish community it is today.
About a year into its young life I had a conversation with a woman who was serving as one of the wardens of the baby church, a conversation I have not forgotten. She and her family were some of the first pioneers to join in planting Holy Family. She and I were meeting once, as we did often, to strategize about growing the church, plan an event, follow up with folks who had expressed interest in becoming part of the community - the work of building up that new church was exciting and rewarding and exhausting. Right in the middle of our strategy session I remember my warden putting down her manilla file folder, filled with papers, she looked at me and she said, “You know something? I get it. This evangelism thing is about 80% Emily Post. It’s mostly about hospitality, just practice the way you’d want to invite and welcome guests into your home.”
I think she was right. Hospitality is a precious word to me. When Jennifer was in the first stages of discernment with the People of God in this diocese, I said to her, “Be prepared. Hoosier hospitality is a real thing.” Often with potato chips on top—Hoosier hospitality is a real thing—that it is. And while the practical details of good hospitality may be a matter of plain old common sense, when hospitality is exercised in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, it takes on a profound significance. I believe it becomes a kind of sacrament itself.
Now with apologies to those of you who are not Episcopalians, I ask your indulgence for a minute. There are surely enough Episcopalians in this room to help me with the definition of a sacrament. Let’s go: A SACRAMENT IS AN OUTWARD AND VISIBLE SIGN OF AN INWARD AND SPIRITUAL GRACE. We may not be able to quote chapters and verses of bible passages, but by golly we know our catechism.
Sacraments are effective signs. They effect, they cause to be by signifying and in fact participating in the realities to which they point. Washing in water in the name of the Trinity makes us living limbs and members of the dying and rising Body of Christ. The bread and wine of the Eucharist remake us into that body again and again and again. As one theologian I know puts it: sacraments do not make true, sacraments make real. We do not baptize little babies (or anyone else for that matter) so that God will love them. God already loves them. We wash them to bring them into a community that begins to make God’s infinite love real in their lives—touchable, tastable, experienceable. God’s incomprehensible love and acceptance of us in Christ. The Divine Hospitality.
This is really the heart of Jesus’ prayer we’ve heard in the gospel today. It’s sometimes called the High Priestly Prayer. Jesus prays for his friends at table, at the end of the Last Supper. He prays that they, that we will be nourished with eternal life, real life so that we might become such food for the world, for those who do not yet know God’s love and mercy, for those who cannot imagine such a thing could be true for them. Jesus prays all this so that we might be one, one living bread, one body, just as Jesus and the Father are one, and this for the sake of the world. And today what could be more urgent than an effective sign of unity in this divided, suicidal world? What could we possibly need more than a church which can deal with its own divisions, its cherished theological arguments, its racism, its classism, its homophobia, its mistrustfulness—a church that can tell the truth about all of those things and practice laying them all aside and begin to make real what is already true in the heart of God. We need a church that can be a fierce and tender sacrament of God’s profligate love. That’s the gospel, isn’t it?
The Christian life, I believe is one long process of wanting to live like ‘this,’ [opens hands] not like ‘this’ [closed hands]. God, this is the way the world does it—to live like this knowing full well that someone might come along and nail us to the cross too, but living out of the conviction that this is the only way to real life. Any life worth having. The one Jesus gives us. God will not be satisfied until everyone, everyone, every man, woman and child who lives or dies has an honored place at the table of God’s delight and knows it. There is a place in God’s heart with your name on it and mine that no one else can fill.
Your new bishop is well equipped to be a sacramental sign herself of all this for the church. She knows a thing or two about setting the table for a feast. We can certainly check that one off on the list in 1 Timothy: above reproach, gentle, well-ordered family, temperate, sensible, an apt teacher, respectful child, hospitable. Bingo. You have discovered, haven't you, that Jennifer is a foodie? Of the first order, let me add. She knows her artisanal, wood-oven-baked, 30-year-old-sour-dough-cultured bread from her grass-fed, cows-milk, natural-rennet, washed-rind cheese. I happen to know this from experience. Over more than a couple of lunch times in Chicago we liked to head over to our nearby Italian food mega store, Eataly - I gotta tell you, you haven't lived until you’ve been in the cheese department with Jennifer. She just gets all gaga.
Yep, Jennifer is a mature practitioner of wonderful hospitality. And not just when it comes to beautifully prepared food. She sets a welcome table wherever she goes. In meetings with committees and vestries, when she engages issues of justice and reconciliation, in one on ones with clergy and lay leaders, in front of the press, with major donors and folks on the margins. I’ve watched it again and again, this woman of God is an agent of God’s own hospitality—in her presence you get an experience of lavish welcome, generously hospitable space to be who you are and more than you might imagine that you are. It’s the old line—God loves us just the way we are and loves us way too much to leave us that way.
She exudes hospitality—she can’t help herself, sort of the way she can’t help letting her thoughts play all across her face. Seriously, do not let your new bishop play poker. It’s just not going to work.
Indianapolis, you have called a strong, loving and wise pastor to be your bishop. She will love you, challenge you, tell you the truth as she sees it and invite you to tell it as you do. She will pray with you at the drop of a hat and care for you in ways that will not diminish your own agency. She will empower you. She will lead. Count on it.
And she will lead with grace—will she ever lead with grace—in this diocese, this particular local church. With courageous grace. I am keenly aware of the significance of Jennifer’s election to be the bishop of this diocese—the first woman to succeed another as diocesan bishop, the first black woman to be elected diocesan bishop. As a friend exclaimed to Jennifer, this election happened inIndiana. This election happened here at the crossroads of the country. It happened here where the polluted soil of racism in this country allowed the Klan’s hideous fruit to flourish. It happened here where the perception has been all too often that this is a place of reactive conservatism—as a sociologist I heard once in a lecture at IU said, “Indiana was the place during the westward ho where you stopped and got the canning in if you weren’t ready to take this thing too far.” Well friends, that appears to have changed in the Diocese of Indianapolis! The election of this woman to be a bishop in the Episcopal Church happened here. In the heartland.
And thank God. Oh thank God. This is a sign of hope for the whole church. It is a wise, wise choice. Jennifer is not perfect, despite all her stunning gifts, she is as human, as flawed—well, maybe not quite as flawed, but I’m sure they’re in there somewhere—as sinful as any of us. She is one of us. Please don’t ever forget that the bishop—together with all those ordained to serve the church—the bishop is first and always a member of the laity, in its original sense, the whole and holy people of God. Ordination doesn't take that away. The job of the bishop begins with the conviction that she is first and foremost a member of the assembly of those who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Her task is to call us home, again and again to remind us who we are. She leads from the center, from the font and the holy table where all our differences, all our distinctive marks of identity are made one, not obliterated, not obscured, but fulfilled, brought together into the one Body, the one Bread, given for the life of this world. She will lead us from the center and then she will lead us out into the desperate need of this hungry, hungry world.
Jennifer, with all my heart I entrust you and the people you serve to the God whose table is eternal life.
Bishop Lee gave this sermon on November 19 at Diocesan Convention 2016:
At my house, we’ve got the coolest front door. As some of you may know, Lisa and I and our son Jonathan moved this summer into a house in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. As part of the move we had the front door outfitted with this high tech locking mechanism. We did it partly because Lisa teaches voice students in a studio on the second floor and the students needed a way to get in between lessons. And partly because I run most days early in the morning and I was interested in having a way to let myself in and out of the house without carrying a bunch of jangling keys. Actually, what we installed isn’t really all that high tech, lots of people have it - I’m just easily impressed with stuff like this. You just punch in a code on the outside of the door and a little battery operated motor locks and unlocks it. The super-cool thing I guess is that you can even do it remotely from your iPhone - not sure why you’d want to do that exactly, but it’s cool.
I’ve been thinking lately a lot about doors. Doors opening and doors closing. Doors slamming and doors flung wide. Doors you have to stoop to get through, even crawl, and doors wide enough, tall enough to let in the world. Doors have been on my mind through the days of the campaign and in these opening days of the transition to new presidential and congressional leadership. There are so many questions about entrances and exits, access and exclusion, who gets in and who will be kept out or sent there. Those are questions we will need to confront and answer in this country. Christians, people of all faiths will need to take their part in the debates, the political process, the protests, the dialogues that will contribute to answering those questions. Episcopalians, we need to be right there adding our voices. And our baptismal promises must guide what we have to say. As our Presiding Bishop put it so eloquently this last week. Let me quote him:
“… we maintain our longstanding commitment to support and welcome refugees and immigrants, and to stand with those who live in our midst without documentation. We reaffirm that like all people LGBT persons are entitled to full civil rights and protection under the law. We reaffirm and renew the principles of inclusion and the protection of the civil rights of all persons with disabilities. We commit to the honor and dignity of women and speak out against sexual or gender-based violence. We express solidarity with and honor the Indigenous Peoples of the world. We affirm the right to freedom of religious expression and vibrant presence of different religious communities, especially our Muslim sisters and brothers. We acknowledge our responsibility in stewardship of creation and all that God has given into our hands. We do so because God is the Creator. We are all God’s children, created equally in God’s image. And if we are God’s children we are all brothers and sisters.”
This describes for me so much of what it means to follow Jesus. For the Risen Jesus, locked doors mean very little. You may know that one of my favorite images from the tradition of Christian art is the icon of the Risen Lord standing astride the gates of hell. He is hauling up out of their tombs Adam and Eve, to reintroduce them to one another, to reconcile everything that has been disfigured, dis-eased, disintegrated by sin and death. If you look closely at Jesus’ feet on those open doors you will see not only that the doors are flung wide, they have been blown off their hinges.
The gospel we’ve heard today makes the same point with the story of Jesus’ encounter with his first friends - there they are, holed up in that little house by a force stronger than any lock and key. They’re held there by fear, maybe by their own guilt that they had failed him, betrayed him, fled for their lives in the face of evil. The locked doors though do about as much good at keeping Jesus out as do their locked up hearts. “Peace,” he says to them. Peace. Look at my wounded hands and feet, this is the cost, this is what love looks like. He is not really interested in their shortcomings, in their own sinful participation in what brought him to the cross - he forgives them. Without a single recrimination or consequence, he forgives them. He loves them. It’s the only code that will ever unlock the doors that matter ultimately. Jesus loves them, he breaths new life into them, he bathes them in the Holy Spirit. He sets them free. He unlocks their doors. And he sends them out into this fearful world to do the same thing.
He sends us to do the same thing.
Sitting on my desk is a small framed piece of calligraphy. It was a gift from the Presiding Bishop at my ordination to serve this diocese as its bishop. It’s a quotation from a great Roman Catholic bishop who served the church in Brazil during a tumultuous time of military rule in that country from 1964 to 1981. Helder Camara was a stalwart defender of the poor and the powerless in the face of rampant injustice. He called on young people in particular to break the cycles of violence that reinforce each other from both the right and the left. The quotation on my desk says this: "The bishop belongs to all.... Let no one be alarmed if I am seen with compromised and dangerous people on the left or the right. Let no one bind me to a group. My door, my heart, must be open to everyone -- absolutely everyone.” I believe that’s true. Not just for the bishop, God help us, but for all of us who bear the name, Christian.
Now, that doesn’t mean we are not called to take positions for what we prayerfully believe to be right. It doesn’t mean we do not critique the misuse of power or that we do not advocate for or defend those who have no help. But our motivation, our reason for doing those things must be aligned with Christ. They must be rooted in love. Even crucified love, fierce love. With God’s help. In response to my letter to the diocese after the presidential election, a man emailed me and said, “Please stop telling us to admire Donald Trump.” I was a little startled that that’s what he thought I was telling him to do. I wrote back and said “I wasn’t asking you to admire the president-elect; I was asking you to pray for him.” I have to confess to you that I am not very good at manufacturing feelings I don’t feel. But I am committed to practicing the faith we share whether I feel like it or not. Our hearts must be open to everyone. Even in our disagreements. Even and especially when it costs us.
So dear friends, let us continue to unlock doors. Let’s reach right through them, like the Lord we follow. Just as we reach across continents and oceans to our sisters and brothers in Southeast Mexico and South Sudan. Across the the boundaries of race and class and culture that do not need to threaten us, but enrich us. Even as we repent of the ways privilege for many of us keep others of us from realizing the fullness of our human dignity. Let us hear the Word of God, treasure it, believe it, practice it. All our days. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us … to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty and release. The doors to God’s love are wide open - no one, no one can shut them. Alleluia.
Bishop's Address 2016
Bishop Lee gave this address on November 18 at the 179th Annual Convention of the Diocese of Chicago:
I want to share with you some reflections on the state of the diocese and some hopes I have for our future together. My intention, my commitment is to keep us focused on our share in God’s mission of restoring creation, restoring us — to a right relationship with one another and with God, a mission never more crucial than now. I want to offer a word of encouragement and a call to profound trust in God’s goodness, God’s love of us, God’s longing for us in this church, in this diocese. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says again and again, “God is not finished with the Episcopal Church.” I believe that with all my heart. I believe it, and we must take a good, long, honest and thoughtful look at the realities of our institutional life and what they may have to teach us about our mission and ministry.
I considered trotting out on the screens various statistics, based on the kinds of things we are able to count in the annual parochial reports congregations submit. But those numbers are easily available from the website of the Episcopal Church and they’re well worth studying. I will say this by way of summarizing them though: as a whole, the Episcopal Church, together with other churches in North America, continues to show institutional decline. The average age of a member of the Episcopal Church today is 57 (which is looking younger and younger, by the way). Nationally, since 2005, the church has reported roughly a 20% decline in baptized membership and a 26% decline in average Sunday attendance. I am happy to say that in this diocese we have been holding fairly steady over the last several years in contrast to these continuing rates of decline elsewhere — especially here in the Midwest. As I said to this convention a couple of years ago, flat may well be the new up.
So these are the statistical facts on the ground. It is good to note that we are not alone — the numbers are pretty much the same or worse across the religious spectrum in this country. I think we have to be careful about explaining them away by citing that reality and while I do believe what the priest Charles LaFond said to us at our annual clergy conference a few weeks ago … that the church is not dying, it’s molting — shedding members and casual attenders … while I think there is a great deal of truth to that, I want to focus rather on the congregations across the Episcopal Church, across this diocese that are bucking the decline trends. I believe what you focus on grows, and I don’t think we’re paying enough attention to what it is that’s making a difference in congregations that are thriving — by many measures not just numbers.
We spend a lot of time in the bishop’s office reflecting on all this. And one of our observations is that there is no magic formula, no particular program or style of worship or even location that can account for a congregation’s thriving, in impact or numbers (although attendance and giving and membership figures are often a sign of harder-to-measure vitality). We’ve got strong congregations in cities and suburbs and small towns. Thriving congregations awash in incense and worshiping quite simply, on the cutting edge of social issues and hardly mentioning them directly, big and small, worshiping in multiple languages and in only one. In short, there’s very little that these strong communities have obviously in common. I asked Jim Steen a couple of years ago to ponder all this — What is it? I asked — what is it that they’re doing we can learn from and promote in the whole church? He came back after a couple of days and said, “Yes they do have something in common, three somethings actually. Three qualities or commitments or practices.” I think Jim was right. Here they are.
First, he said, they are congregations which are quite clear if not crystal clear about their main focus. There is a passion around which they gather and which tends to order everything else they do — it might be outreach to the local neighborhood, or over the top hospitality, or pastoral care — it might be any number of things, but it’s there and you know it pretty quickly when you show up.
Second, these congregations have a commitment to hosting and sustaining conversations about things that matter. They do not waste a lot of time and energy on the colors of the napkins. They’re places that have fun and may do many things, but the most notable thing about the activities, committees, groups, sermons, is that they focus on important, impactful things — nurturing relationship with Jesus, healing racism, gun safety, how to make the faith real on Tuesday morning at work.
And third — and this may be the most important thing - they have heart. Clergy and lay leaders are all in. You can just feel it. At a deeply personal level, leaders in thriving congregations really believe it all. And they believe it together. There’s a quality of expectation in their communities that God might really be up to something among them and you don’t want to miss it. A sense that anything might happen, and probably will.
I commend these three things to you — to think about and pray about. What do they suggest about life in your own congregation? Where do you see them at work and how can you help to make them more and more obviously at the heart of things in your community?
Congregational vitality is job one for me and for my staff. We are pushing ourselves more and more deeply into that commitment. Supporting the mission and ministry of our congregations is the only excuse for something like a bishop and her or his office. It’s why we put so much emphasis on good search and clergy deployment practices, it’s the heart of the hard work of our Congregations Commission and Bishop & Trustees. It’s the reason for programs like Thrive and now the College for Congregational Development. It is the driver behind even the cutbacks we have made in the bishop’s staff — we have made the hard decisions necessary to live within our means without compromising the things that can only be done from the bishop’s office. While plate and pledge giving continues to rise in this diocese, I know the cost of health care and building maintenance does too. I know from studying our own culture and climate with the help of Human Synergistics that our leaders are committed to our work together, people want to support the diocese, but I need strong congregations and I will not lecture or beg congregations to compromise their own vitality in order to pledge more than they can to the annual diocesan appeal. I trust you to be generous, I invite you to be — it’s how we support mission congregations, outreach ministries, essential staffing functions, leading everything from search processes to insurance support services.
This is a great diocese. One with a legacy, an important ministry of leadership throughout the Episcopal Church. I give you the large number of bishops who have been formed by their ministries as priests in this diocese. We have provided three new bishops for the church just in the time I have served here, the latest of course - which I announce with joy and no little amount of wistfulness, is our director of networking, our sister Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows (Please join me in cheering her on).
It’s a great diocese, not a perfect one. We have many, many challenges, but as I say repeatedly to folks around the church who ask me about it, those challenges by and large are not ones we have made up. The scourge of violence in our towns and cities. The challenge of continuing to knit together our congregations across the geographical and cultural differences in this state. The ongoing work of dismantling institutional racism in our church. The reality of sexism and classism embedded in our life together - at the most practical level, things like the question of why women clergy are consistently compensated at lower levels than their male counterparts. There are many other examples.
All this against the backdrop of the great uncertainties of our new political landscape in this country and across the globe. In the face of it all, I believe the Christian faith, our baptismal commitment to respect the dignity of every human being, the proclamation of the mighty good news that Jesus Christ has overcome death — it has never been more important. I give thanks to serve our God with you. I rejoice to have been called to be your bishop. I look forward to our future together with hope and trust in God’s never failing goodness.
Diocesan Convention Sermon 2015
Last week I was in New York for a meeting of the board of Episcopal Relief & Development. As part of the celebration of the organization’s 75th birthday we also hosted there a symposium with partners from around the world, partners with ERD in extraordinary work going on in many places. Health services in Africa and Central America, climate-smart agricultural projects in Ghana, efforts to stem the terror of sexual and gender based violence in Kenya and Burundi. These are projects of and by the people who live in these communities, Anglican Christians, our sisters and brothers with whom we partner to accomplish miraculous results, life giving change for the good. The keynote speaker for thesymposium was Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank Group (I never dreamed I’d be traveling in company like this!) Among other things, Dr. Kim is something of a theologian, much influenced by liberation theology. I was not expecting to hear from the lips of the president of the World Bank the phrase "a preferential option for the poor."
He reminded us that while the news around the world is full of tragedy, crisis and challenge, it is also a time of remarkable progress and possibility. Indeed, for the first time in human history we stand before the real possibility of eliminating extreme poverty in most of the world. The UN Sustainable Development Goals commit the world to just this goal by the year 2030. And it is not a pipe dream. A challenge, but not a pipe dream.
Here are some facts that hardly ever get reported:
• Since the 1990s the number of extremely poor people in the world (those earning less than $1 a day) has plummeted - declining by 200 million over the last three years alone.
• In 1990, more than 12 million children died before the age of 5; this toll has since dropped by more than half.
• In the 1980s, only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school; today, 80 percent do.
Even birthrates are affected by economic and social development and they tend in the direction of sustainability. In 1985 Hatitian women averaged six children; today the number is 3. In Bangladesh and Indonesia the average is just over 2. When the poor know that their children will survive, when they educate their daughters, when they access family planning, they have fewer children.
Now the world remains a dangerous place - it hardly needs to be said after the last couple of weeks. Terrorism, domestic and global, threatens to undo us. Inequality abounds in this country. Climate change is creating increasingly volatile conditions and we know that will only increase global displacement and various kinds of instability. I heard from Dr. Kim that by mid-century, as much as 40% of the arable land in sub-Saharan Africa will become unarable. But the fact is, despite massive challenges, we have made remarkable, even miraculous progress in the direction of human flourishing and we can continue to do so. God has not abandoned the creation.
Diocesan Convention Sermon 2014
Bishop Lee: Picture a scene with me:
Two friends are working side by side helping to get things ready for a thanksgiving meal at a local soup kitchen. One of them is a long time member of his local parish…the other, well, not so much.
Jihan Murray-Smith: What’s an Episcopalian?
Bishop: How did you know I’m an Episcopalian?
Jihan Murray-Smith: Your apron. It says, “Hug me, I’m an Episcopalian.”
Bishop: Oh. Yes, I go to St. Paul’s Church, just down the street. We’ve been on the same corner for 150 years and just completed a million-dollar renovation of our organ.
Jihan Murray-Smith: I think I know the building you’re talking about. It has red doors. I thought it might be closed, but if you’re there Sunday mornings, I guess that’s why I never saw the doors open. So tell me again: what’s an Episcopalian?
Bishop Lee: Well, we’re a liturgical church, maintaining catholic traditions, but we’re not the Roman Catholic Church. We’re part of the Anglican Communion, a whole family of churches that stem from the Church of England. The Episcopal Church is the branch rooted here in America, founded just as the Revolutionary War finished.
Jihan Murray-Smith:(silence) No offense, but I’m not sure what a lot of what you said means. Liturgical? catholic but not Catholic? Anglican?
Bishop Lee: Maybe you heard about us on the news several years ago? The gay bishop?
Jihan Murray-Smith: Right! You’re the ones who split over homosexuality.
Bishop Lee: We didn’t actually split. Some folks did leave, but Episcopalians describe ourselves as following the Via Media, and that means we can hold many theological perspectives in tension, but still gather at the same Eucharistic table.
Jihan Murray-Smith: (silence)
Bishop Lee: Did I lose you again?
Jihan Murray-Smith: It’s okay. How about we get started? I think the guests are coming in now.
That little dialogue (adapted) opens volume one of the church’s newest teaching series. The series is called “The Episcopal Way.” It’s the beginning of the first book in the series and it’s written by our friends Eric Law and Stephanie Spellers. I wonder if it was at all recognizable to you? I wonder if it might even have made you wince a little. I’m pretty sure Eric and Stephanie meant it to. It certainly worked on me.
So much of our time and energy, so much of our attention, our blood, sweat and tears seems to me to be focused on, well, us. The most read news source for the Episcopal Church is a remarkable, comprehensive website called the Episcopal Cafe. News items and commentary are contributed from across the church. The Cafe was created by and until just recently curated by someone who works on our communications team in this diocese (and who is in fact back there in the room today) Jim Naughton. It’s full of news and opinion pieces on many topics of concern in both the church and the wider world. It is interesting though to me to see just what news items are most read and gather the most comments. You might wonder that with me in a world like ours. Can you guess which stories might be at the top of the heap? Ebola? The sins of racial inequality? The environment? Gun violence? Nope. The most recent prize for the highest readership (by a landslide) is the high drama and internal conflict at our oldest Episcopal seminary - the General Seminary in New York. I won’t even go into the quality of the commentary on that topic in both the Cafe and on Facebook, except to quote one memorable Facebook posting that likened the firing of faculty at General to (and I quote) “Jesus being crucified all over again.” Jim Naughton likes to joke that on slow news days they could just put up a headline that says, “Let’s argue about church music” and sign off for the day.
Diocesan Convention Sermon 2013
Change. Our scriptures today hold before us a dazzling image of God at work to create new heavens and a new earth, that God is making all things -- us included -- unimaginably new. Our friend on Grey's Anatomy deftly sums it up the way physicists and other scientists do -- the one and only constant in all of physical reality is change and all that is up to us is how we will experience change, what we would call theologically the gift of human free will. To change or not change is a moot point: look in the mirror, listen to the news, walk down the street.
Agents of Advent
Bishop Lee's preached at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Evanston on December 16, 2012, two days after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Read his sermon.
Diocesan Convention Sermon 2012
Read Bishop Lee's 2012 convention sermon, titled "Fierce Shepherd."
The Great Awakening
Bishop Lee preached on Friday, January 6, 2012 at The Great Awakening, an Epiphany event hosted by Seabury Western Theological Seminary with support from the Diocese of Chicago.
Diocesan Convention Sermon
Living Under Water, Orthodox and Practical: November 19, 2011
Common Prayer and the Common Good
Bishop Lee spoke to the Men's Prayer Breakfast at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn about "Common Prayer and the Common Good."
Diocesan Convention Address 2013
Read Bishop Lee's address to the 176th Annual Convention of the Diocese of Chicago, November 22-23, 2013 in Lombard, Ill.
Remarks to the House of Bishops: Loss and Possibility
On September 24, 2013, Bishop Lee spoke to the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops on loss and possibility.
Bishop Lee's Reunification Convention Sermon
Diocesan Convention 2012
The Conversation is the Relationship: Bishop's Address, November 17, 2012
Diocesan Convention 2011
This Little Light: Diocesan Convention Annual Address, November 18, 2011 (.pdf)
At the Table of God's Delight
Bishop Lee gave a presentation on October 12 at a consultation in Durban, South Africa sponsored by the Univeristy of KwaZulu-Natal and the Chicago Consultation:
"The decisions we have made as a church, in moving toward the full inclusion of all people in our sacramental life, flow not from political correctness, nor from increasingly elastic social norms, nor from an “anything goes” attitude toward sin, but precisely from a profound engagement with the central matters of the Christian faith, beginning with contemplation of the Trinity itself."