Bishop Lee gave this sermon on Tuesday of Holy Week, March 27, 2018, to clergy and lay leaders renewing their baptismal vows at St. James Cathedral:
It was a Holy Week many years ago. I was a second year seminarian, full of piety, longing to serve God as a priest of the church, and deeply suspicious that I did not have what it took to be anything like the saintly cleric I imagined God wanted me to be. Like I said, I was pious. Kind of ridiculously pious, actually, and my seminary, Nashotah House, was a playground for a pious young man like me. So it was Holy Week, and naturally I went to see the wise elder priest who came regularly to the seminary to hear confessions before Easter. I had done my homework. I consulted at least two venerable guides I found in the library about making a thorough examination of my conscience, not letting myself off of any hooks, peering into the dark corners of my psyche and constructing a scrupulous list of my many and grievous sins. This was going to be a humdinger of a confession.
So I climbed the creaky stairs up to the chapel where dear old “Father X” was waiting for me. I knelt down beside where he was sitting, right there under the stained glass window of the crucifixion of our Lord, (Father X seemed to be obviously in prayer, interceding for my wayward soul, I was sure). Out came the list and off I went. “I confess to Almighty God, to his Church, and to you, that I have sinned by my own fault in thought, word, and deed, etc., etc.” I poured out my anxious midterm seminarian’s heart to this priest with heinous (probably mortal) sin after sin, right through to the Prayer Book’s conclusion in the Rite of Reconciliation: “I humbly beg forgiveness of God and ask you for counsel, direction, and absolution.”
Well, there he sat. Just as he had done through my whole laundry list, nodding occasionally and looking inscrutable. Now that I had finished, he just sat there and I thought, “Oh my God – he’s gonna agree with my self-assessment of total, unworthy, reprehensible sinfulness.” But after what seemed like a long time of thinking about it, this is what he said: “You know, Jeffrey, you might not want to flatter yourself quite so much. You really aren’t the worst sinner who’s ever lived.”
I am constantly amazed at the incredible ability of the ego to turn almost anything into its own, self-referential project. To cast myself as the star of my own show, the center of my own universe, the object of my own worship – all that is relatively easy to spot. But I can also just as deftly obsess about my own abject failures, my extraordinary unworthiness, my total depravity. It’s easy to be appalled by the grandiosity of politicians and celebrities and the ways my own behaviors on the small stage mirror them. But it might be even easier to ignore the ways my busy ego keeps me glued to the image of what I imagine to be my complete wretchedness. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has the senior demon advising his nephew, Wormwood, that one of the most effective ways to turn a “client” off the path to God is either to convince him that there really isn’t anything called sin, or to become completely obsessed about it. They’re equally effective techniques, he says.
Well, the antidote to all of this, I believe, is to turn our hearts, our minds, our wills gently but firmly away from the contemplation of ourselves for good or ill and toward the direction of the servant ministry to which we are all called. To cultivate the mind of Christ as the Bible puts it. That’s where real personal freedom is to be found, as the reading from Second Corinthians tells us. It’s not about us at all – like the story my wife Lisa tells about a solo recital she sang several years ago – she wasn’t very happy with her performance and afterward in a reception line a woman congratulated her on the beautiful performance. Lisa said, “Really? Didn’t you notice my flubs in the Schubert?” The woman stopped in her tracks, stared at Lisa and said, “How dare you ruin my experience of your beautiful music by saying that!” No, it’s not about us at all; it’s about the song Christ wants to sing in us. It’s about Jesus who wants nothing more and nothing less for each one of us than to be transformed into our truest selves, the only real glory there is, remade, each one of us, revealed as the beloved son, the much loved daughter we really are. And that letter to the church in Corinth tells us how this happens – and it’s not just by working harder on ourselves – Christianity is not a religious self-improvement program (you know, 10 steps to a better you!) – losing sight of that is why so much of religion, so much of church life turns into a playground for over-active egos. We love to play the game those first disciples of Jesus seemed to love too, lording it over each other, controlling outcomes at the vestry meeting, arguing over obscure theological details, fist fights in the sacristy. No, the Christian life has very little to do with ecclesiastical self-absorption; we become what God has created us to be by engaging in self-offering, in ministry, the work we have been given to do, lay and ordained, working together, each according to our gifts and our particular calls. Sharing in fact in God’s own work, God’s own project of loving the world back to its truest self. The reconciliation of all things to a right relationship with themselves and so with God.
By water and the Holy Spirit, in baptism you and I have been made members of Christ, living limbs and members of his dying and rising Body. And becoming what we have been made to be is a lifelong process. Martin Luther said the Old Adam has indeed been drowned in the water of the font – the trouble is the corpse keeps floating to the surface. It’s certainly true in my life – that ego keeps popping up and diverting my best intentions. That’s why we’re here. It’s why we need each other. It’s why we renew these vows again and again. It’s why we need the regular, sturdy nourishment of Jesus’ body and blood at this table. It’s what this oil we bless is for. Signing and sealing new sisters and brothers in Christ with the sign of the one to whom they belong, the sign of the one whose own they are and the sign of their true identity as daughters and sons of the living God. We anoint the newly baptized to be, in fact, brand new icons of Christ. They are sacraments of Christ himself. We are too.
So today, through the days of this week, as we enter the Passover of the Lord on Thursday night and contemplate the mystery of the cross and straight up to those waters of new birth Saturday night, let us commit ourselves to making real in this world what God has already made true in us. Let’s dare to consent to the work of the Holy Spirit in us, dare to commingle our lives with the Divine life itself, dare to believe that between our souls and God there is no between. Let us dare to trust that God longs to make a home in our hearts.