Bishop Benfield’s Sermon from Diocesan Convention 2013

CLICK THE PLAY BUTTON TO LISTEN to Bishop Benfield’s sermon delivered on Feb. 22, 2013, the opening evening of the 141st Diocesan Convention, at Trinity Cathedral.

[audio: Convention Sermon 2013.mp3]
Click here to download
an mp3 version. (You can also read the sermon below.)
MILTON CRUM was the professor of homiletics at Virginia Theological Seminary in the 1980s. That is a rather formal way of saying that he is the guy who taught me how to preach.

At least as I remember him, Milton was infamous in his own way for being the human equivalent of a car’s gas gauge. You are going to have to picture in your own mind what I am about to tell you because in those days there were no YouTube videos to capture on the sly what was taking place.

During our homiletics class, Milton would sit in about the third pew in the seminary chapel. One of us would be in the pulpit preaching. Milton would put his arms on the pew in front of him and sat there at attention, looking up at us. As long as he kept at attention, we knew we had an “A.” As his head slowly went forward toward the pew in front, the expected grade was turning into a “B” or, further forward, a “C.” Should he put his head on the pew in front of him as if he were praying or in great pain, you might as well have given up and sat down. Your sermon was simply more than he could bear.

What kept Milton’s attention, and what he drilled into his students as an expectation for any sermon, is something that in Greek is called “metanoia.” In English, we often call it repentance, a “turning around,” certainly a suitable subject for Lent. We need to repent.

Mix repentance and Lent, and we get a list of the usual human shortcomings. Too much drinking, too much eating, too much pride, too much unfaithfulness, too many off-color jokes, not enough exercise, too many hurtful comments to our family and friends, too many clothes, too many possessions in general, too much waste of God’s creation, too many … well, fill in the blank with your own vice. Or in my own case, as I must admit, my own vices.

Being called to repentance is a good thing. We beseech God this season to grant us true repentance. But metanoia goes further and deeper than repentance. At an even more fundamental level, the level about which Milton Crum was trying to teach us, metanoia translates “to think differently after,” or more loosely, “to have a new thought that is different from a former thought.” That is a definition that goes further than repentance. I can tell you one thing about Milton Crum: for him, metanoia was not simply a Lenten repentance activity. The call for metanoia should take place every time a preacher enters the pulpit. Metanoia is fundamental to Christianity because the basis for the good news is to think differently after giving up a former thought. Try that concept on for size during Lent or Easter or on any Saturday afternoon when we our scowling at the ill-dressed person in front of us in the checkout line.

Metanoia, and Milton Crum’s insistence on its prominence, is why I preach resurrection, sermon after sermon, week after week, year after year, regardless of whether or not we are in the season of Lent or Easter or Christmas. Christians are called to metanoia, to see differently than we once did, to see the risen Christ where formerly we did not. We see life where we once saw death, and we see love where we once saw hatred. We see a new church in old buildings and institutions. We see Jesus walking down the street where we once saw a stranger with whom we had nothing in common. We see someone holy where we once saw someone who was not quite good enough. Because of metanoia, we will see Jesus. It is because of what we have experienced in the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Our story that Christians have handed down from generation to generation is that that which is holiest is in love with the world to the point of death and beyond. And if that is our story, then it is time that we start thinking differently and acting differently.

We might say that it is a story that is as old as the four gospels, those recollections of the life and death of Jesus approximately 2000 years ago. But it goes back so much further; it is fundamental, after all. Look at this evening’s lesson from the book of Numbers. Moses and the people of God are in the wilderness. In the tent of God’s presence, religious leaders start prophesying. That is fine and good; we expect our religious leaders to do something godly, or at least look as if we are doing some godly. But what gets the people in a tizzy in the story is that two guys who are not part of the inner circle, who are not even inside the religious building of the day, that is, not inside the tent where God supposedly communicates with God’s chosen … well, those two guys start prophesying as well. And the immediate reaction is for the religious people to want it stopped. Haven’t we heard a similar story time and time again in every generation?

But Moses knows a thing about metanoia, even 1300 years before our Christian forbears start using that word. Moses has seen oppression and slavery and people made to stand on the edge of respectability while they toiled at making bricks and erecting buildings, and seeing that injustice has changed him. Moses now has a way of thinking differently. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” he says. Thirteen hundred years before the events of Good Friday and Easter Day, Moses in his own way understands what it means to look at people not inside the tent, people outside the city walls, to use the language of Jesus’s day, people too insignificant to be noticed, to use the language of our own day, and see something holy in them, to see, in essence, the resurrected Christ.

We believe in and proclaim resurrection. Therefore, we will see Jesus. We will see differently afterwards than we did before. We will open the doors or our church buildings so that we see Jesus walking down the street or driving by on the highway.

The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. We do that when we see differently than we did before. We do it when we see as holy the people who are standing outside our churches, and can then hardly wait to participate in the church’s mission and bring them inside because they have something holy to offer us just as much as we have something holy to offer them.

Did you notice what I just now implied? We will be changed when Jesus walks in our doors. Our mission is not to change Jesus into our image; our mission is to restore the body. Maybe that is why our efforts to evangelize have been so pathetic. We have wanted everyone else to be changed when they come into our churches so that they will be just like us. Those days of smugness are over; it is the 21st century, after all. You see, telling people to change and be just like we have always been is not good news to the young people who have nothing to do with organized religion because they have seen us as so self-absorbed. It is not good news to divorced people and gay people and the religiously skeptical who have nothing to do with the church because for ages it told them that they are going to hell. It is not good news for African-Americans and Latinos who have nothing to do with the church because the church really has not liked people who did not look like the leaders of our communities. We may make people into Episcopalians, and I hope we do, but by their very presence in our churches they will do the greater thing that we need: they will make us into more authentic Christians when we see them as members of the body of Christ.

We have a missionary field in this state. As this evening’s gospel proclaims, the fields are ripe for harvesting. People are no longer connected with church, but they still hunger for community and meaning. They hope for a world in which buying things is not the dominant religion. They desperately want an earth that is cared for and respected. They want a world where the poor have as much of a voice as the wealthy. What they want is holy. Moses was standing in that tent, and he realized that something holy was going on outside it. We are sitting in our churches, and it is time that we realize something holy is going on outside our doors. Jesus in the form of cries for equality. Jesus in the form of tattooed young people. Jesus in the form of environmentally-aware farmers. Jesus in the form of non-English speaking waiters and maids and construction workers. Jesus in the form of an entire generation of people who grew up with no structure or traditions at home and are hungry for them. That is what the face of Jesus looks like. And how are we going to welcome that Jesus into our midst? Yes, it is time that we think differently than we did before and treat them as the most important people in the world, the most valued guests at our table. If we recognize Jesus in them, we will find ourselves resurrected. And that is what resurrection is at least in part about: to see differently, to see the risen Christ where we once saw death.

The call of the preacher, and the call of any Christian who recites the baptismal covenant and admits that we as the church have a mission, is to call ourselves to repentance, to metanoia. Bad preachers and pitiful Christians are always telling the inside crowd how bad the outside crowd is. In biblical days it led to stoning; today it leads to bad legislation and wars fought for pride and people made to feel worthless so that someone else can feel so worthy in comparison.

But we are called to something holier: we are called to change how we think and act. When we are changed, when we think differently than we once thought, we will find ourselves set free from hatred and pride and greed, and not afraid to open the doors and prepare a feast for Jesus when he walks in, and prepare a feast for him when he cleans the hotel room we just left, and prepare a feast for him when he stands in the unemployment line, and prepare a feast for him when his heart is broken by death or lost love or illness or bigotry. That is exactly what our churches need to be doing every Sunday and Monday and Tuesday and…well, you get the picture. When we as the Episcopal Church in Arkansas are changed into thinking and acting differently, then the people in this state are going to be like Milton Crum hearing a good sermon: at attention, eyes open, focused on our proclamation of the good news, smiling that finally there is a church that gets what resurrection is all about in daily life, that finally there is a church that wants them for who they are. We can be that church if we but decide that we will see things differently than we have in the past.