Sermons and Speeches

Bishops Come and Bishops Go

Bishop Lee preached this sermon on November 23, 2019 at the 182nd Annual Convention of the Diocese of Chicago. It was his final annual convention Eucharist as bishop; he will retire in August 2020.

Some of you may have heard me tell what is quite possibly my favorite story from all the twelve years I have served as the bishop of this diocese. It happened on one of my very first formal visitations to a parish, in this case it was a morning of celebrating the Eucharist, confirmations and meeting with the vestry at St. Charles, in St. Charles. When I arrived early that Sunday morning the rector—at that time Bill Nesbit—greeted me and I had some time to renew acquaintances with several long serving lay leaders who I had worked with years before as a priest when I came to do some consulting work with the vestry—a few years after the consulting work I did with St. Charles, I was actually a candidate for Rector there (but that’s another story). On that visit It was great to see how the parish had changed during the years since I had known it – still the same building of course that I remembered but with some very different kinds of programs and energy. As with early visits to other parishes that I had either visited or known something about when I was in seminary or serving as rector up in the Diocese of Milwaukee, It was simply bizarre to find myself coming back to this place now wearing a mitre and being called “bishop.”

After the liturgy that morning, one of the vestry members I had know way back when asked if I had time to meet the oldest living member of the Parish – I think he said she was one of its founders. A lovely woman named Liz Carpenter who had just turned or was about to turn 100 years old. They thought I would enjoy meeting her, a kind of human repository of the history of the place. And of course, I did want to meet her. So, still decked out in episcopal regalia, thumping along with my crosier, they led me down the aisle toward a small lady in a wheelchair. She seemed very frail, but sat there beaming at me. I was formally introduced to Liz as “our new bishop.” She took my hand in hers and as she gazed up at me she said, “I am so pleased to meet you … let’s see, how many bishops have I gone through?”

I love that story for so many reasons. I’ve never forgotten it and in some real way I hope it has helped shape me and the way I have tried to exercise oversight as bishop of this diocese. When you regularly dress up the way I do, and when people defer to your voice and opinion the way I’ve experienced it, when people kiss your ring and even curtsy when you pass by in procession, It is very helpful, it is enormously healthy, it is essential to be reminded that you’re really not all that special. It’s actually a gross misunderstanding of things like vestments to view them as making the wearer somehow more personally glamorous—vestments really have more to do with making the wearer anonymous to a certain degree, not Jeffrey or Elizabeth, but the servant of this assembly. Bishops come and bishops go, and Liz Carpenter (God rest her) had seen a bunch of ‘em. The office of bishop—or priest, or deacon for that matter—is not primarily about the human being who happens to occupy that office. Oh to be sure, it matters how gifts for ministry are arrayed in the person whom the church identifies and calls and designates by prayer and the laying on of hands to serve in a particular leadership capacity. As Thomas Aquinas would put it, grace builds on nature. We appropriately take a lot of time and care in the discernment and formation and deployment of our ordained servant leaders (ask any member of my staff, and they’ll tell you that I believe that matching the right gifts and skills of clergy with the right position in the church is probably the most important task the bishop’s office can tend to). So we take time and care figuring out who we need to lead us and how to prepare and support them. But at the end of the day, the individual human personality who stands at the Lord’s table or leads us into diaconal ministry in the world — the particularities, foibles, charms or lack thereof—none of that is the point. Bishops come and bishops go. We all do.

So what is the point? What’s the purpose for all the time, effort, money, blood, sweat and tears we expend on bishop searches and ordinations and rectories and pensions and all the rest? Just this: the only excuse for something like a bishop or a priest or a deacon, the whole point of it all is our hope, our conviction, our trust that Christ makes himself known in his Body, the church. In the baptized. In you and me. The first task of anyone who is ordained is to remember and get it into her or his bones that he or she is first and foremost a member of the dying and rising Body of Christ Jesus, made one with him and with all the other members of his body by virtue of Holy Baptism. We ordain people to be bishops, priests and deacons not so the rest of us don’t have to take part in those ministries too. Gifts for the ministries of oversight and reconciliation and service – those things are lavished on the whole body of the baptized. We ordain individual members of the Body to be animating signs, walking, talking sacramental signs of the realities that are given in one measure or another to all of us. And all for building up the Body of Christ, for effectively making real what is already true. All for making the endless love and mercy and justice of God real in this world. No one’s Christian life is really all about them – it is about Christ. We are signed and sealed as his own, always and for ever by the power of the Holy Spirit pointing to Christ who is the perfect image and likeness of God.

Holy order. The Body of Christ functions best like all bodies when its many members are working together, in concert, so the music of life can be made. So God can be praised and glorified in God’s people. We don’t know a whole lot for certain about St. Clement of Rome – today is his feast day. There is scholarly debate as usual – he may have served as bishop of the church in Rome immediately after the death of St. Peter, or maybe a few years later than that. He did write a letter, an epistle to the church in Corinth, that for years was read in many places right along side the letters of Paul and others which finally made it into the official Christian scriptures. Clement’s letter did not make it into the Bible (alas, bishops come and bishops go). But what Clement helped the early church to grapple with and understand more deeply was its need for something like ordained servants to lead and steward the church. He helped our mothers and fathers in the faith understand the value of leadership that is ordered and ongoing and linked in disciplined ways that live through time and space.

One of the most startling words I heard from some of the young adult Experience Designers we learned about yesterday was their desire for “authorization.” I never expected to hear that word from spiritual entrepreneurs who are out on the streets or in dining rooms or commercial spaces trying to make meaning in this world. When we asked them what they thought they might need or want from us long-established communities of faith, they used the word “authorization.” When we dug down a little deeper, what they really were asking for (although didn’t have the words for it) was that they wanted holy order; they wanted to be blessed by an orderly living link with God – however they might describe God. And that’s finally what we all want. It’s what we are made for.

It is an incalculable gift for me to have been called to serve together with all of you as the bishop of this diocese, in this place for this time to exercise holy order with you. I was acutely aware of it as we celebrated the funeral of the ninth bishop of Chicago, Bishop James Montgomery just a couple of weeks ago. Standing at his casket, together with Bishop Persell and Bishop Griswold (numbers 10 and 11), I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the legacy of my predecessors and the clergy and people of this diocese who packed the cathedral with us. I love this diocese. I am grateful beyond words for the grace and joy and tears and laughter and failures and successes we have born together. I look forward to the next few months with huge anticipation and curiosity and excitement about who it is this diocese will call to stand in this line of leadership for the welfare of this church. And I invite you all to approach that decision with open hands and open hearts, trusting the words of Jesus himself that the measure we give — to one another and to our candidates — will be the measure that returns to us, overflowing, rich, dense with the flavor of God’s saving grace. Who knows what we will be called to accomplish together with our new bishop? One thing I know… it will be good.