A simple spiritual path for following Jesus

Bishop Harris in discussion with UBE members at St. Paul’s, Oakland, last week

This week I had the honor and pleasure of spending time with the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, the retired Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Massachusetts. She was not only the first woman consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, she was not only the first woman consecrated as a bishop in the Anglican Communion, she was the first woman consecrated as a bishop in all of the liturgical churches on earth. By that, I mean the liturgical churches of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches. I really can’t think of anyone who could have pulled that off quite as well as she has – you do not want to mess with her. At 86 she is still a going strong.

At the Diocesan Convention yesterday, Bishop Barbara told of stepping into an elevator in her full ecclesiastical garb – a miter on her head, a cope on her shoulders, and her bishop’s staff in hand.

A man and his child entered the elevator just as the doors were about to close, took one look at Barbara, and said: “There’s got to be a good story here.” Without hesitating, Barbara said something like “There is. I’m Little Bo Peep in drag.”

Earlier she recounted a story from her historic consecration as bishop. At the time of consecration, when all 63 bishops present crowded around her for the laying on of hands, at that climactic moment when she was kneeling on the floor and enveloped by these bishops, as she remembers it, she looked down at the ground and realized she was surrounded by a sea of unpolished shoes. What a profoundly humble thing to notice on that historic day. She sets a clear example of how to live our life with love and without fear.

Today’s scripture story from the Gospel attributed to Matthew presents a teaching which is also told in all three of the other Gospels. When a teaching is repeated in all four gospels, some scholars suggest, then we may interpret that to mean that there is a good likelihood this teaching actually came from Jesus: that Jesus actually said these words. Or at least the words Jesus said in Aramaic which were translated into Greek and then into Latin and then, after being copied by hand for many centuries, have been edited and translated into English in a “Revised Standard Version” of the Christian Bible.

Equally important, finding the same lesson in all four Gospels suggests it is a teaching which early Christians saw as central to following Jesus. This conclusion is supported by the number of early church fathers who wrote on this text and this lesson.

Interestingly, the lesson Jesus teaches here was not unfamiliar to the scribes or the lawyers or to the Disciples or others familiar with Jewish scripture. The first part of this teaching reflects Deuteronomy Chapter 6 verse 5 which reads “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all soul, and with all your might.” In the context of this verse of Jewish scripture, the author is making clear that the People of Israel must be loyal to their God.

The second part of today’s Gospel teaching summarizes part of Leviticus Chapter 19 verse 18: “you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And then, just to drive the point home, Jesus tells them “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Everything in Jewish law – and by extension everything in Christian theology – flows from this simple two-part commandment that we love and serve God and we love our neighbor as ourselves.

Here’s something else that’s interesting: when this series of interactions begin, the religious establishment is trying to trick and snare Jesus in a theological trap. Instead, Jesus turns the tables on them, almost using theological judo to turn the tables and trap his accusers.

Why? At this point in the Gospel of Matthew, as in other gospels, Jesus is nearing the end of his ministry. He is, in one Gospel book, clearly in Jerusalem in the days just before Good Friday. At this point in the story of Jesus, those who wrote the Gospels pause to hammer home the one central lesson Jesus teaches us:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

So what does this mean to us today here at Turk and Lyon?

Marcus Borg suggests that historically those who follow Jesus have focused on believing the correct theology, that Christians have centered their religious belief on believing the “right” things. As a result, he continues, we “have made being Christian very complex, as if it’s about getting our doctrines right. But being Christian is actually very simple, even breathtakingly simple.[1]” And today’s Gospel lesson brings home his point.

For in this one short, simple two-part commandment we learn all we need to believe. Learning that lesson in our head is easy, transforming ourselves to live this lesson is hard, and it is the challenge we face every day.

“First of all, being Christian is about loving God and loving what God loves,” Borg says. What does God love? The world God created. And perhaps more important the people God created – people like you and me.

Second, he says, “Christianity is a way or a path of transformation.” He adds: “Christianity is about this path or way of transformation. And transformation involves practice.” Spirituality without practice is an empty gesture toward the creator who made us and loves us and wants us to become the person God wants us to be. Spirituality without transformation is a futile, a waste of time.

Third, “Being Christian is about being part of a community of transformation,” Borg says. “It’s about living within the Christian tradition and Christian community as a means to the end of transformation.”

Being a Christian, then, isn’t about believing a complex set of theological principles or a detailed purity code. Believing the “right” things won’t change us, won’t transform us into real Christians. As Borg warns us: “You can believe all the right things and still be quite untransformed. You can believe all the right things and still be mean. Rather, Christianity is about entering into this process of transformation.”

Sound scary? It is. Even when you think it shouldn’t be. Hear this story from the life of Bishop Barbara Harris.

As the date for her consecration as bishop drew near the volume and intensity of harassment she faced increased. She had to change her home telephone several times to avoid late night harassment. She received so many death threats the police suggested she wear a bulletproof vest under her vestments at the consecration. She refused. A policewoman sat behind Bishop Barbara at that service to safeguard her life.

But Bishop Barbara wasn’t anxiously watching the policewoman for a sign of trouble. Instead, she focused on an older African American woman in the front row. “I knew if she started tapping her foot, something was going to happen,” the bishop recounts. The woman was Bishop Barbara’s mother.

Fr. Tom with Bishop Barbara at St. Paul’s, Oakland

As it happens, during the ceremony two white men who were priests in the Episcopal Church objected to the consecration of a woman bishop. When they had their say, Bishop Barbara’s mother stood up, walked to her daughter, looked her straight in the eye and said:

“Have no fear. Everything is going to be alright. This is your Mama speaking.” And then she returned to her seat.

Just as Bishop Barbara did during her consecration as a bishop, each of us face times of transformation when we feel threatened or afraid. In those times we should remember the words of Bishop Barbara’s mother: “Have no fear. Everything is going to be alright.” Our mother or father may not be there to say this – but God is. For God loves each of us more than we can ever imagine. And God wants us to be transformed into the kind of people who make the Kingdom of God come a little bit closer to this world in this time and in this place. For what Jesus call us to do is simple: love and served God and our neighbor. The hard part is transforming ourselves to live out this simple belief in our complex and confusing times. This community of faith is here to walk with you on this path of spiritual growth and transformation. Walk with us as we follow Jesus through 21st century San Francisco.



Let us pray.

Redeeming Sustainer, visit your people and pour out your strength and courage upon us, that we may hurry to make you welcome not only in our concern for others, but by serving them generously and faithfully in your name. May the church say: Amen


[1] http://day1.org/2544-whats_christianity_all_about


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