By Zachary Guiliano
The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry preached his first sermon as presiding bishop-elect at the 78th General Convention’s last Eucharist. His vibrant and energetic preaching brought a fresh note to the proceedings and marked a significant departure from the cool, reserved delivery of Katharine Jefferts Schori, as Curry himself noted: “Her passion’s a little different from mine! I told the bishop, I’m gonna get a little bit of cool from her.”
The gospel reading for the service was Matthew 28:16-20, the Great Commission. Its assignment for the day represented a moment of serendipity: Bishop Curry did not know the format and readings for the day very far in advance. But he said, “When I saw the text, all I could say is: ‘There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place.’”
He began by reminding the congregation of the enduring presence of Christ: “Remember, I am with you — in the first century and in the 21st — I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
His main focus in the sermon was on going out in gospel mission and transforming the world, following Christ’s teaching. Christ taught us, he said, “to be reconciled and right with God and to be reconciled and right with each other,” an echo of words from the prayer book’s catechism.
Throughout the sermon, Bishop Curry returned to many of his favorite themes, especially about God rescuing us “from the nightmare that life can often be into the dream that God has intended from before the Earth and the world was ever made.”
When he illustrated “God’s dream” he evoked the prophetic vision in Isaiah 40, speaking of a return from exile and a homecoming: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain” (Isa. 40:4).
Bishops Curry’s rhetoric soared as he drew in snippets of hymns, scriptural texts, references to movies, stories, and jokes. He cried out; he whispered; he evoked shouts of “Amen” and applause. It was undoubtedly a rare experience for many Episcopalians: they were hanging on his words in the 12th minute, and they were still doing so when the sermon ended 12 minutes after that.
Whatever else he might become, the sermon showed that Curry’s time as presiding bishop will be marked by a serious approach to his role as the Episcopal Church’s “Inspirer-in-Chief.”
He returned to many phrases again and again, driving them home with new nuance. One of the most striking was his repeated quotation of a verse from “the Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which drew together the varied strands of his preaching:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.
As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
The historic character of Curry’s appointment as the first African-American presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church was mentioned in the service, but the reading of a congratulatory letter sent from President Barack Obama made it all the more clear.
Curry ended his sermon on the theme of unity and racial reconciliation, speaking of how the Church unites people of different races and temperaments, “traditionalists” and “progressives,” “Republicans and Democrats.”
If you are baptized, he said, “You’re in the Jesus movement. You’re God’s.”
And he concluded, “As he died to make all holy, let us live to make all free. God’s truth is marching on. Now go!”