The Rev. Peter Faass
Well, it certainly has been a great couple of months to be an Episcopalian! Whew, it’s been quite a ride! Who ever imagined that interest in the Episcopal Church, especially in the midst of the downward decline of institutional religion, would be happening in the spring of 2018? On Saturday, May 19 (the day of Meghan and Harry’s wedding), “Episcopalian” was the most searched word on GOOGLE. That translates into millions of searches, and that’s amazing! Based on these past few weeks, I’m sensing we may be seeing the beginning of a new Great Awakening in the 21st Century.
We can mark the beginning of this Great Awakening with the elegant and dignified funeral of former first lady Barbara Bush on April 21st. Her funeral was held at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, which is the largest parish in our denomination (over 7,000 members!). Christ Church hovers around 350. Anthony and I checked St. Martin’s website. They have 14 clergy and over 120 staff. At Christ Church, we have one clergy and four staff. St. Martin’s is a big parish!
In addition to the beautiful liturgy, viewers of Bush’s televised funeral were touched by the sight of many Republican and Democrat leaders, past and present, who gathered to honor her. Political differences were placed aside as they treated each other with respect, dignity and even affection. A love for our nation and a desire to honor a woman who served it well bound us together.
Recently, we haven’t been accustomed to that kind of dignity and respect from the political class, much less the understanding that the bonds of being American trumps being partisan. This tableau of political comity offered us hope despite the muck and mire we experience these days, reminding us of the great values of faith and nation that go beyond partisan politics and personal gain. Those values certainly were the plumb line of how Barbara Bush led her life. All this occurred in an Episcopal Church. What better a setting for an opportunity to display what “justice and peace [for] all people, and respect[ing] the dignity of every human being” (BCP p. 305) looks like.
On May 19, the royal wedding fulfilled our American fantasies about royal life, and our secret desires to become a prince or princess. Our Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, preached an earth-shattering sermon about God’s love as the balm to heal our broken world.
He stated, “We must discover love - the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.”
Delivered in Curry’s powerful African-American, Baptist oratorical style, his sermon was a shot heard round the world to 2 billion viewers. Those who had believed that religion was moribund (if not dead) witnessed the revival happening in this Episcopal Church under Bishop Curry – and what he calls the Jesus Movement. Even professed atheists were having doubts about denying a God that was clearly palpable in this charismatic and holy man.
Curry is our LeBron James. I’ll let the delicious irony of that word play stand on its own in the midst of the NBA Finals between the Cavs and the Warriors.
In the midst of the depressing din and chaos we currently live in, when the news always seems to leave a dark pall hanging over our heads, these two services offered a brief Sabbath rest to weary and demoralized people everywhere.
When I say Sabbath rest, I mean more than a break from the demands of life. Sabbath is more than sleeping late and getting “some R and R.” Sabbath is a period of time which is life-oriented and life-giving. The Sabbath is meant to promote life and give hope, extolling God as a liberator from the world’s evil ways. Ultimately, Sabbath is about God’s love.
Life-giving Sabbath restores hope in the midst of hopelessness. What could be more loving than that? We poignantly experienced this in Bishop Curry’s sermon about love, which was so life-giving that it compelled millions to inquire, “Who is this Episcopal guy and what’s his Church about?”
Sabbath as life-giving is the point of what happens in the today’s Gospel of Mark, where two incidents occur on the Sabbath.
In the first incident, the religious authorities condemn Jesus for allowing the disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath to alleviate their hunger. The authorities believed this violated the prohibition to work on the Sabbath. Sabbath as interpreted by the institutional religion had often become life-denying; a dark pall that hung over people’s lives like a claustrophobic shroud. It had become morally atrophied.
Jesus (clearly a better scholar of scripture than the authorities) recalls how the iconic David and his companions ate the bread of the presence when they were famished, even though that holy bread was reserved for the priests. By alleviating David’s hunger, the holy bread became life-giving and sustained the life of Israel’s great future king. Sabbath was literally life-giving, allowing David and his followers to have hope.
In the second Sabbath story, Jesus encounters a man with a withered hand. Despite the prohibition to “work” on the Sabbath, Jesus heals him (Jesus does not mock him, he heals him). The religious authorities are aghast that he has worked on the Sabbath.
Jesus contends that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favor of pursuing greater values and meeting greater needs, especially when those needs promote a person’s well-being and restores their lives. Both these stories are life-giving moments, leading us to hope when things seemed hopeless. Jesus conveys that Sabbath is about life, hope and love.
Jesus (and recently Bishop Curry and the Episcopal Church) remind us that God’s life-giving Sabbath love will keep us from deteriorating into a moral vacuum.
As a commentary I read stated, “If you keep the Sabbath, you don’t get to overlook those whose lives are being threatened on a daily basis. If you keep the Sabbath, you don’t get to pass over how the lives of others are being stripped of their worth and dignity. If you keep the Sabbath, you don’t have qualifiers or quantifiers for who deserves abundant life.”
This is what it means to be a part of the Jesus Movement. Proclaim your love of God, your neighbor, and one another as Jesus loved us. They are the message of the new great awakening which has begun in our beloved Church. It is life-giving and it will redeem us from the moral atrophy that threatens us. As Bishop Curry preached, “Love is the way.” It certainly is an exciting time to be an Episcopalian.
 Karoline M. Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota.