Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Bishop's Annual Visitation

Fellow Wayward soul Leonardo once commented that one reason he enjoys this blog is "the quality of your [my] life." He is right - I do lead a blessed and privileged life. Not only did I take in a Dartmouth Glee Club performance of the Pirates of the Penzance last night (three years after performing in Gleek myself), this morning I saw Bishop Gene Robinson for the sixth time in the past year (not counting his Inauguration prayer). Today was his routine annual visitation to St. Thomas Hanover; the previous five visits included the re-dedication of our campus ministry chapel in April, a September campus visit with the Presiding Bishop, a special stewardship sermon and a two-part personal interview in November, and our curate's ordination last month. Anyone who says the man's international fame has led him to neglect his diocesan duties is clearly not from around here.

With this post, I would like to offer a personal reflection, pass along remarks the bishop made today about his Inauguration prayer, and summarize his sermon.

Following today's service, the Bishop greeted everyone at coffee hour and shared a few remarks about his inauguration experiences, several of which you can read at his blog. There are, however, two things that bear repeating here. The first, which holds personal meaning for me, was that throughout the day of the concert, many celebrities kept coming to him with religious questions. Bono even asked him to lead U2 in prayer before their set. It was rare, the bishop said, that these performers had someone who would view them as a human beings rather than as their persona. This holds personal meaning for me because +Gene himself is helping me to change the way I view people. When I came to New Hampshire, I saw him as a curiosity rather than as my second diocesan bishop; he was a controversial international figure I looked forward to meeting and studying, much like the politicians who came through for our presidential primary. Thankfully, my view has changed. Spending time with +Gene in our parish hall, his office, and even an empty student cafe has allowed me to get to know him as a person. He is no longer a celebrity but is instead +Gene, a wise leader and an incredibly warm person. He is a teacher I am so thankful to have in my life, but just that: a personal teacher the likes of which most of us have. Yes, he is indeed one of the most important figures in the history of Christianity, but for me, he's just +Gene. And that's a good thing, because in the end, just as I am just Nathan and my friends are just Ellie and just Daniel, so is Bruce Springsteen just Bruce and George W. Bush just George. We are all children of God who were once babies, once toddlers, and once angst-filled teenagers. As +Gene said in my interview with him, “It is [difficult] to keep your balance when your enemies are trying to make you into the devil and your supporters are trying to make you into an angel, and you know that you’re neither." When this life fades away, we will all meld together in the same Heaven to praise the same God. It is important to remember this as we walk through the present world in order to treat everyone with justice and mercy, showing neither preference nor scorn. It is especially important that I remember this if I do indeed become a priest and chaplain. I am very grateful to +Gene for helping give me this knowledge.

The second remark to pass along is about the actual concert prayer. He offered it to "the God of our many understandings" rather than to Christ. To prepare for this prayer, he read all the inaugural prayers from the past 40 or so years, and was appalled at how "aggressively" Christian many of them were. He told us this was because even other religions aside, in just our little parish hall there were surely present as many different understandings of God as there were people. Though he has received quite a bit of hate mail over the fact that his prayer did not mention Christ, he has also received many tearful thanks from Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christians who for the first time truly felt part of such a benediction. Talk about true evangelism!

I'll close this post with a summary of +Gene's sermon, the fourth and I'm afraid weakest I have heard him give. When I say "weakest," though, I don't mean it as an insult – an off-sermon for +Gene is no worse than an average sermon for most priests, perhaps even a good one. My only real problem with the sermon was that it was more of a feel-good homily than it was a challenge. While there was a charge to go out and spread the Good News, and while I did feel spiritually nourished, he didn't exactly light a fire under my butt and launch me out of the pew like he usually does.

The sermon was on today's Gospel reading, Mark 1: 29-39. He began by joking that Mark is the Cliff's Notes of the Gospels - John dives into theology, Matthew into a Jewish perspective, and Luke into a Gentile perspective, but Mark just gives us the bare-bones story. In today's passage, Jesus does two things: he heals and he prays. In regards to healing, +Gene lamented that as soon as Christ healed Simon's mother, she went straight back to the kitchen. In reference to the healing itself, he asked us, why help just a few when thousands are sick? Do you really think you can make a difference? The answer lies in the story of the boy who throws the starfish back, which if you haven't heard before you can find online here. As for prayer, the next time you set aside twenty minutes but hear the phone ring or feel a three-year-old's tug just ten minutes in, remember that even Christ couldn't pray interrupted: "And Simon and his companions hunted for him." After making those two points, the bishop arrived at the crux of his sermon. For us Episcopalians, "evangelism" is a four-letter word. Our method of evangelizing can be compared to the fisherman who goes out to the middle of the lake and then waits for the biggest fish to jump into his boat. This is not the way we should be. +Gene said that the reason he grants interview requests, goes on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and talks to decidedly non-Christian audience is to reach those who would never think of entering a parish, be it because they have never heard of God’s love or because they were mistreated by the church earlier in life. We are all searching for Christ, he said, even if we do not realize He is the answer to what we are missing. When he does these interviews or gives these sermons, he reaches a very large non-Christian answer, and even ventured the guess that he talks to more unchurched people than any other bishop in the church. “That’s why I do these shows, and that’s why I’m going to keep doing them!” He challenged us to similarly reach out with invitations, healing, and love.

So, dear reader and fellow Wayward soul, keep throwing those starfish back, and be sure to tell others why you do!


James said...

That's it; I'm no longer reading this blog. :)

I like the "Cliff's note" comment.

Nathan Empsall said...

But James, you can live vicariously through me!

Yes, the Cliff's notes crack was probably his biggest laughline. If it makes you feel any better, aside from a hoped visit to his office in the spring for a personal chat, I doubt I will see him again, at least as a resident in his diocese. (There's always General Convention!)

Brian R said...

Thanks for this insight into the 'ordinary' work of +Gene. Since meeting him here in Sydney in 2007, I am trying to resist putting him into the 'angel' category. You are lucky to have him as your bishop. I have ++Jensen and his cronies :-(.

Leonardo Ricardo said...

Nathan, it´s the enthusiasm for life...richly revived during each and every encounter of every type...once a friend said to me, I was in my late 20´s...¨you don´t want to miss anything do you? You don´t let one second of the day die a unoccupied death...¨ or something like that...I´ve always admired people that LIVE and do it extravagantly (in the sense of passion about life itself)...I still do but sometimes, just sometimes, I´m stopped dead in my tracks and then I ask God, and nature, to ¨take this for me please.¨

It works. Amazing. I´ve been aware for many years that God wants me to be the authentic person that God created me to´s not exactly a free pass for a self-obsessed free-for-all, but, it´s very FUN!

Enjoy yourself Nathan, I read/feel your vitality!

Jordan said...

So, no poem in this one?