Bishop Lee's 2013 Convention Sermon

November 24, 2013

The Love of Change and the Change of Love

When we say things like "people don't change" it drives scientist crazy because change is literally the only constant in all of science. Energy. Matter. It's always changing, morphing, merging, growing, dying. It's the way people try not to change that's unnatural. The way we cling to what things were instead of letting things be what they are. The way we cling to old memories instead of forming new ones. The way we insist on believing despite every scientific indication that anything in this lifetime is permanent. Change is constant. How we experience change that's up to us. It can feel like death or it can feel like a second chance at life. If we open our fingers, loosen our grips, go with it, it can feel like pure adrenaline. Like at any moment we can have another chance at life. Like at any moment, we can be born all over again.

--Meredith Grey, "Grey's Anatomy" (Episode 1 Season 7)

I'm grateful to Courtney Reid for that quote from the surprising theologically astute TV show, "Grey's Anatomy." The image is a computer generated model of constancy and change called a fractal.

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. How we will face change, that's entirely up to us. John Henry Newman said, "To live is to change; to be perfect is to have changed often." This reflects one of the central themes of the Gospels, which is Christ’s call to each one of us to change. It is not always welcome; it’s not always comfortable; it’s not always easy, but like it or not, if we refuse to change we will die. That goes for us as individuals, and for us as Christian communities. To live is to change. To be perfect is to have changed often.

Our cathedral, as you might know, is just a couple of blocks away from Holy Name Cathedral. It is not unusual on a given Sunday to find people who are perhaps visiting Chicago to have asked a cab driver to be taken to the cathedral and who find themselves at St. James ... thinking, for a while anyway that they have arrived for mass at Holy Name. It's not unusual for them to look quite happy enjoying the beauty of the cathedral and responding to the spectacular music as the liturgy begins, but when it becomes obvious that the Dean is the priest presiding, you can sometimes see a whole host of emotions pass over their faces, once it fully dawns on them that that presiding priest is a she. Sometimes they beat a hasty departure for the other cathedral, sometimes they stay and offer their thumbs up to the Episcopalians for something they can only hope for in their own tradition. Well, last year at the principal service for Good Friday, it was not the Dean presiding but yours truly. The cathedral was packed for the mid-day liturgy and at the door a couple of visitors greeted the Dean on their way out by saying that they were visitors from somewhere else in Illinois, how much they had enjoyed the beautiful service, and then they said (without a trace of irony), "And my goodness, we didn't know that the cardinal was so young or so tall."

I told that story to someone with whom I serve on the board of Rush Hospital, and he said, "That's just brilliant! You could become the Episcopal Cardinal!" Well, Christ may be calling me to change, but I do not believe that change is to become something other than what I am. I don't want to be the cardinal. I want to be, I need to be, Christ calls me to be ... well, me. That's the strange, stunning mystery of what it is to die and rise in Christ. The saints and mystics of the Christian tradition have told us that God's ultimate purpose for each one of us is to reunite us with himself. That's how a great deal of the church, especially in the East, has understood the word salvation, not as a matter of escaping some eternal punishment for our sinful selves, but of being drawn into God's own life. Divinization it is called, or the big, fat Greek word, theosis. And the most mysterious thing of all the saints tell us is this: our union with God does not obliterate our distinctiveness, it fulfills it. In union with God we become all that God has always meant for us to be. And for us to become our truest selves, it does mean change. Everything in us that distorts our truest identity must be scoured away, until all that's left is love. That's why Jesus' most precious commandment to his friends is simply and heart-wrenchingly this: Love one another. Love each other just as I have loved you. Just as I have laid down my life for you. Just as I have given everything for love of you.

It turns out, all you really need is love. If God is love, as the bible tells us, then love is all that will endure every change. In fact, I would say that Love (capital L) is the source and the fulfillment of change itself. God is both the creator of all we know, and all that will ever be, that New Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth, the undoing of death and the ending of time we call eternity.

And so, dear friends, there is nothing to be afraid of, no change, no challenge, no calamity or disaster. Nothing to fear, not ultimately. As we proclaim at the Great Vigil of Easter as we bless the paschal candle, Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, to Christ belong all times and all ages, to all eternity. And while all of that seems so far from our ordinary reality, indeed seems so much like a place we cannot go, still Jesus has shown us the way. It is love. And we get a taste of it even now. You know those times in life when you are so utterly present to someone or some activity you love deeply? The ordinary sense of time and self simply disappear. Where did the time go? We ask. When we are captivated in the presence of someone we love, or practicing some activity that is so completely engaging that we lose all sense of self-consciousness, when the ego is not driving the car. At those moments I believe we are experiencing something of that eternal "now" Jesus promises us, what we sometimes call heaven.

I have been reading a remarkable book by an author named Christian Wiman. He's a poet and describes himself as a kind of Christian and he is living with a terminal cancer diagnosis. The title of the book isMy Bright Abyss. It's a fierce meditation on the reality of change, and the ultimate reality of death, an unflinching look into the mystery that the poetry of the Book of Revelation attempts to describe too. Wiman reminds us that there is no change that can happen to humanity in which Christ will not be present. He writes this: "If every bible is lost, if every church crumbles to dust, if the last believer in the last prayer opens her eyes and lets it all finally go, Christ will appear on this earth as calmly and casually as he appeared to the disciples walking to Emmaus after his death, who did not recognize this man to whom they had pledged their very lives; this man whom they had seen beaten, crucified, abandoned by God; this man who after walking the dusty road with them, after sharing an ordinary meal and discussing the scriptures, had to vanish once more in order to make them see."

My friends, Jesus loves us. We are held by the love of the One who gave up divinity, who gave up everything for us, an unfathomable love that will not let us go. Christ goes before us and has already redeemed every chance and change, every hurt and heartache, every terror and even death itself. Let us live unafraid of change. Let us pray to be changed, changed to become who we really are -- changed day by day, more and more into the image and likeness of the One who died for us and was raised and who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.