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Exilic Ministry: A Sermon for Seminarians

By George Sumner 

This is the first of two sermons preached on successive days at General Theological Seminary, beginning on March 4, 2019.

I Peter 1:1-2

Twenty years ago, I visited the GTS campus as a candidate in a theology search. The fact that I am here today as a guest tells you all you need to know about how I fared! I was required to present an imagined syllabus for an introductory systematics course. I proposed an extended reflection on the claim “Jesus rose from the dead,” to see how the shock wave from that sentence hits every theological topic (I was cribbing from the late Robert Jenson, maybe America’s greatest theologian).

I dredge this up from my memory as a way of asking: what one word should organize a course of thought and prayer about the place and the time we find ourselves in as a Church? What should we circle from every angle, interrogate and be interrogated by? Doubtless you would have your vote, so let me give you mine. They are in fact two words, one for our relation to the world around us, a second for the faith we share between us. The first is the word “exile,” and its equivalent is found in the first chapter of 1 Peter, the text for this reflection. The second is “sacrifice,” the centerpiece of our reading from 1 Peter 2, the text for tomorrow evening.  Amidst and beneath the things we as a Church argue about, lurk these, the deeper terms on which hang the tale of our time.

We are a Church in exile. A range of theologians and leaders would second that motion. It is Tom Wright’s worldview template, Brueggemann’s captivity of imagination, Stanley Hauerwas’ counter-ethic to the nation state, post-liberals’ scriptural grammar amidst alien claims. The consensus obtains: we dwell by the waters of Babylon. But what gives rise to the “exilic” concept – the feeling of exile?  The day of cultural privilege, of being chaplain to culture, is gone. Once on the front page of the New York Times, our General Convention no longer finds a place at all. Our society makes a sharp division between public and private, with religion squarely in the latter.

The speeding of time and the irrelevance of place are effects of that exile which we associate with modernity, resulting in a kind of exile from our own bodies which my friend Ephraim Radner eloquently calls “the great transition” (A Time to Keep, Baylor University Press, 2016). Our novels are full of anomie and angst, our movies full of technology-driven apocalypse. The philosophers of our time trace our longing for community, coherence, continuity. Meanwhile the movement of peoples in our time, refugee, displaced, immigrant, takes place, even as the world’s nations come to huddle together in our great cities, as they once did in Alexandria and Rome. This sense of the exilic, at all these levels, is shared by all: progressive, traditionalist, religious, and non-religious.

In his letter, Peter calls his fellow Christians “sojourners,” but he could have used the word for stranger or alien, paroika. It was used frequently, so much so that it gives us our word “parish,” the place or household of the aliens. We associate parish with place, not displacement, with home, not wandering. Some try to rediscover the idea of the parish precisely by its relation to place, its location. Here, though, we learn that its roots are the opposite: displaced people, encamped wanderers. This echoes the Israelites encamped and wandering their way toward the Promised Land. So we, God’s people in exile, live this calling out in parishes, locations, aggregations of aliens, like lean-to sheds on the way up a mountain. Our cultural time longs to rediscover the “place” side of the equation, while our faith would re-narrate the kind of displacement we experience.

The real struggle in the next generation will be to understand ourselves, as the people of God and not just conglomerations of individuals, in the light of our exilic condition. It will be the underlying test for Anglicans in the Global North. How do we come to understand ourselves as a people with a different narrative, as a people against culture’s grain, beyond the immediate political answers we might give? Your ministries will include working out what you make of exile, figuratively and sometimes literally at the edges of population centers, often in concrete as well as intellectual ways. But the church’s message is not just about our predicament. It is the gospel: what God in Christ has done about our predicament, and how he would have us live in response.

This brings me to another visit to this campus, twenty years before the other, when as a visiting seminarian I studied liturgics with Thomas Talley. He had a love for anthropology, and an eye for the liminal, which is where Christian conversion takes you. By ritual, the settled world you know is broken open, the closed door thrown open, and human communities are reordered around a new axis, a new center of the universe, a new primordial home. That is what he taught us, all in a Texas twang.

All this brings us, finally, to the passage before us this evening, the opening verses of Peter’s first letter to the Christians in Asia Minor (which is, as an aside, also the letter Anglicans worldwide will be focusing on in the coming year in preparation for the Lambeth Conference of 2020). Peter addresses the exiles, but as a people who are found. They owe their existence not primarily to cultural or historical factors, but to the pre-existing and sovereign will of God. Their present pressures and struggles are in fact life from the Father, in conformity to the Son, in the sanctifying power of the Spirit. This work of God is assured, secure in heaven, never to perish. What God has done for him and them cannot be undone, even by the fiery ordeals ahead of them.

At the very center of this witness and this assurance is the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ. He is the ark in their midst while they move as displaced sojourners. Peter first praises the atoning blood of Jesus, his death, which has broken loose the old order and enabled them now to live lives ordered by Christ’s resurrection life, which has the power to turn scatteredness into peoplehood and exile into home.

How might we summarize Peter’s opening words, and so answer the question of how to endure and even flourish in the exilic ecclesial life to which are called? It cannot be by practical advice or skills training, for none of us know what the actual shape of that life will be like a generation, or even a decade, from now. Instead, we are given a theology of carrying on. First we know who we are, a people called forth by God (a living, praising, naming ecclesiology). Second we must focus our attention not on our plight, nor even our opportunities, but on the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Lamb who was slain and now lives (a christological doxology at the center of ministry practice). Third, we have certainty, a living hope, the “end result of our faith.”  This is what the reformers, including Cranmer, called “assurance” (an unbreakable soteriology and eschatology). These are your viatica, those few but indispensable provisions for the journey, to which we shall return tomorrow. May the Lord fill each of your spiritual satchels with these as you prepare to set out on your different, but shared, exilic, ways. Amen.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas




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