Bishop Benfield’s Sermon from Diocesan Convention 2014

Ordination of Sandra Curtis and Diocesan Convention

14 February 2014 | Christ Church, Little Rock

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The newly ordained Rev. Sandra Curtis and the Rt. Rev. Larry Benfield, surrounded by clergy from around the diocese, at Christ Church, Little Rock.

The newly ordained Rev. Sandra Curtis and the Rt. Rev. Larry Benfield, surrounded by clergy from around the diocese, at Christ Church, Little Rock.

Go to Cincinnati, Ohio, cross over the state line into Kentucky, and travel 25 miles west. You will end up in Petersburg, the home of the Creation Museum. It is a 70,000 sq. ft. museum and accompanying grounds, dedicated to expounding the young earth theory, the theory that all this mess we have gotten ourselves into as humans began only 6000 years ago. Before you snicker too much, remember that it was an Anglican archbishop in the 17th century who promoted the young earth theory by determining that the earth was created on the evening preceding Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. I do not know if his portrait is in the museum or not.

If you go to the museum and decide that finding out how the fossil record got into the rocks all around us is not your idea of a fun day, then on the grounds you can go zip lining and tour the petting zoo, where you can pet various animals, including a zorse and a zonkey. I am not making this up. The Creation Museum is best known, at least this year, as the setting for the evolution versus creation debate between Bill Nye, the science guy, and Ken Ham, a leading biblical creationist.

When I heard that the event was scheduled to take place, I knew that no good could come of it. Hey, I grew up near Dayton, Tennessee, home of the Scopes Trial about teaching evolution, and as a child I knew a minister who had attended that event. Neither the minister nor the state of Tennessee gained anything from that circus.

The reason that the creation debate between Mr. Nye and Mr. Ham was doomed to failure is that you have two people who are trying to answer the wrong questions, while trying to speak one another’s language without any expertise. In fact, they apparently cannot speak their own language, let alone each other’s. The science guy has some problems speaking plainly about science, and the creationist has similar problems in speaking the language of theology. Their ineptness when in a debate makes me long for the days of the Middle Ages, when theology was called the queen of sciences. Imagine that: theology and science used in the same sentence as complements of one another. We don’t hear that sort of talk much these days.

Frankly, I am tired of seeing two old warriors, science and theology, duke it out. When it happens, confusion is the winner. The unfortunate history of the last three hundred years has shown us that that when we put theology and science in the same room, apologists for Christianity have generally thought that they had to speak scientifically, find factual answers the way that scientists do. Meanwhile, scientists have shown no inclination to talk the poetical language of theology. It has been a one-sided conversation, reduced to such things as: How do you factually explain ancient Bible stories? How do you factually explain a miracle? How do you factually explain resurrection? You go down that sort of literal explanatory path and you might as well be in a creation museum, where rigid religious thought bears no resemblance to the reality of everyday life.

I say all of this because this evening we are ordaining a priest, a priest who is going to be in charge of teaching new members of the clergy in this diocese. I know from my own experience that people want priests to explain things clearly and, too often, factually, and we members of the clergy are all too willing to take the bait. Even people not associated with the church want the church to explain why, for example, children die and despots kill innocent bystanders, and what actions God is taking in this broken world that is filled with inequality and disease and warfare and, yes, even spells of catastrophic weather. There is a hunger out there that we are not adequately addressing because, I think, we have been trying to speak someone else’s language.

Well, here is some advice, not only to new priests and teachers, but also for all of us Christians as we find ourselves called to minister in the name of Christ, who by our very baptism are now called to think theologically. Our primary call is not to get into debates using a language that we do not know. Our primary call is not to explain why we are hurting in ways that sound as if we were in a hospital talking about nerve damage. Rather, our theology calls us to speak through our actions, to have compassion, to bind up the wounded, to ameliorate the hurt, to go into the dark places where others find themselves and there stand beside them so that they will know that they are not alone in a cold and uncaring universe that can be either 6000 or 6 billion years old. When the weight of the world is on someone’s shoulders, we help bear it. If you are looking for a calling as a Christian, or more narrowly as an ordained person, consider that one call before all others. That is how we Christians talk about God, how we proclaim the good news.

Look at that lesson that we heard read this evening from the book of Numbers. God tells Moses that God is going to place God’s spirit on seventy others so that they can help bear the burden of the people. Moses won’t have to do it alone, and the people of God will not suffer alone. In our own day, we do not set people apart as priests because they are unique and holy and untouchable. We set people apart as priests so that they can stand as ordinary human beings on the edge of the holy and help others journey through the vicissitudes of life. The call of priesthood—indeed, the call of Christianity—is radically relational. It is to ensure that no one has to go it alone and to assure everyone that he or she is welcomed as a member of the body of Christ. And then, I might add, the call of Christianity is to teach others by word and example so that they can share that story as well.

David Brooks of the New York Times wrote an article earlier this year about the art of presence when catastrophe or tragedy strikes someone you know. He advises us not to say that it is all for the best (as if God is manipulating the world; that is the creationist’s language). He advises us not to try to make sense out of what has happened (as if theology has a pat answer for everything; that is a Christian trying to talk the creationist’s language). Instead, he says that we Christians should worry about taking theology beyond its limits. Theology is a grounding in ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each individual event. Or, as Frederick Buechner once wrote, theology is the telling of stories, the experience of flesh and blood, the talk of sin and grace that become compelling and real because those things are part of our human experience. No dry history museum for us Christians.

That is what theology is there for: to take broken human experiences and turn that very brokenness into something holy, and in so doing to let the prisoner free. If it does not do that, then it is not worthy of name of Christian theology, and it is not worth having a debate over.

In coming here this evening we ordain someone. The community that is the Episcopal Church in Arkansas that has been around for 175 years states that this church still has a future. We will send people out. We set apart someone who will serve as a reminder that no one ought to suffer alone, that the burden should not be too great for any of God’s creatures. That is our language. Good priests help share the burden of the people among whom they work, and they serve as reminders to all of us of how it is that all members of the body of Christ ought not be afraid to stand on the edge of the holy, and yes, stand on the edge of the unholy, and help every person we encounter travel through life lovingly and peacefully. Being a priesthood of believers affects how we spend our money and how we vote and how we speak up for the least among us. It forms our theology.

Sandra Curtis, your vow will ultimately be to support us in our journey, and our vow will be to support you in yours. Use that wonderful mind with which you have been gifted theologically. Remind us that our call is not to idly debate while the world suffers, but our call is to love one another as God loves us and thereby change suffering into joy, despair into hope, a fallen creation into the kingdom of God. That is the language of Christian theology, and none of us will ever find a better language for our tongues to speak. Amen.