Posted by: Titus Presler | July 8, 2009

PB preaches strong mission sermon to open General Convention

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached a strongly missional sermon at the opening eucharist of General Convention Tuesday morning.  Her major scriptural focus was the Old Testament lesson from Ezekiel 36: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

A new heart, Jefferts Schori said, meant a new way of understanding, a new way of living.  After reference to a disheartened state in the church, she said a new heart would mean a new creation and foster a reconciled mission for the church.  A remarkable instance of new life in a church, she said, is the Episcopal Church in the Philippines (ECP), upon which she launched into an accurate and discerning history of that church from its origins in United States military presence in the Philippines in the 1890s, the establishment of a missionary district there in 1901 and the ministry of Charles Henry Brent as missionary bishop, and the transition to being a missionary diocese in 1937, to the formation of three dioceses with indigenous bishops in 1971, the church’s establishment as an autonomous province in 1990, and its success in achieving financial viability at the 2007 wind-down of the financial side of the covenant with the Episcopal Church.

The ECP, the Presiding Bishop said, “began in the missionary heart of this church,” and she traced that heart back to the heart of Jesus himself.  She related these cardiac reflections to the image of the church as the Body of Christ and noted that, just as an elbow cannot run but is crucial to the balance that makes running possible, so the Episcopal Church today is not the “primary gospeler” in the Philippines today but continues in relationship with the ECP, which now has that role.

Jefferts Shori highlighted how Brent’s focus on the unevangelized rural people of the mountains and lowlands, rather than on the already churched folks of the cities, laid the foundation for the strength of the ECP’s life today.  “That is still our mission work today,” she declared, and stressed the importance of taking the gospel out into the world rather than focusing on those already in the church.

“We are in cardiac crisis,” the PB declared, and went on to say, “The heart of this body [the Episcopal Church] is mission, domestic and foreign.”  Abundant life, she said, consists in being poured out into the life of the world.  In a dramatic flourish concluding the sermon, she asked: “Can you hear the heartbeat? – Mission . . . mission . . . mission!”

The sermon was a remarkably successful homiletic event.  Equally remarkable – and encouraging for mission activists – were particular features of the Presiding Bishop’s missiological reflection:

– Strong assertion of mission as the primary focus of the church.

– Clarity that mission consists in reaching out beyond the confines of the church, or, as I often put it, crossing borders to encounter, work with and form community with the other who is different.

– Clarity, correlatively, that mission is not everything that the church does, or the collection of all possible works that we happen to feel enthusiastic about.

– Grounding in the history of the outreach of the church internationally, in this case to the Philippines.

– Celebration of the work of a particular cross-cultural missionary, Charles Henry Brent, indeed a remarkable missionary, bishop and ecumenist.

The choice of the Philippines was prompted doubtless by the planning for what happened after the Peace: the presentation to the Episcopal Church by the Prime Bishop of the ECP of a gift in celebration of the relationship between the two churches and the assistance offered by the Episcopal Church over the years.  Significantly, the gift was monetary, a gentle reversal of the historic pattern by which TEC makes monetary grants and celebrates what it receives by way of spiritual insight or the particular vitality of a church in the Two-Thirds World.

Altogether it was a signal event and an excellent start to convention!

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