SERMON PREACHED AT NASHOTAH HOUSE on Founder’s Day, 2018

Ever since i first came here over forty years ago, I have been envious of you who are able to claim this place as home; to belong here, and to have been nurtured in this thin place, saturated as it is by the prayers and aspirations of those who have prayed here, adored here and consecrated their lives here. To be of Nashotah is a great privilege and a great responsibility. I  don’t belittle those who have taught here, but learning about the Faith is slightly less vital than learning to pray as the Church. This place is about formation.

 

Now to my sermon. In 1840, a few years before I was born, the High Church Bishop, Jackson Kemper, visited the equally High Church General Theological Seminary and asked for a few young men to volunteer to go to the back end of beyond to open an institution dedicated to evangelism and the development of mission priests, who, after the example of St. Vincent de Sales, would convert Native Americans and settlers, those seeking a new life, or escaping the law, their families or failed businesses: typical Episcopalians. Kemper asked for a few. Seven responded. The bishop said something like, Sorry, too many. He selected the son of the famous and extraordinary Bishop of New York, John Henry Hobart Jr., William Adams and James Lloyd Breck. The generous Bishop offered the three $100 a year and a plot of land beside a lake. Breck, at least, had the backing of a wealthy uncle. Bishops like endowed ordinands. The three men were probably unmoved by the Tracts for the Times, at least not yet. Except in rare circles, the writings of what could be called the Hadleigh Fathers, named after the vicarage in which Newman, Pusey and friends began to gather ten years before, had as yet gained little traction when the three young me set off for what we now call Wisconsin.  After a couple of years, Breck was the only one of the three left. Adams left to join de Koven’s new college at Racine. He would become a fervent foe of Tractarianism. I have not been able to trace what happened to Hobart after he returned East.

 

From that unpromising beginning you are descended. Very shortly the first graduates went out to create or man new parishes and missions across the Midwest and further afield.  Note that the House began in the midst of an acrimonious and debilitating feud between old fashioned High Church adherents, heirs of the great Caroline Divines, and the newfangled Anglo-Catholics. In retrospect the controversy may be said to weaken both. Divisions do that.

 

Nashotah, to this day, advances Anglican Catholic faith and order, in a mercifully unfussy way. Lamentably, almost from the beginning, Nashotah priests and their followers abandoned an important adjunct to Catholic pastoral ministry. Indeed almost the entire Episcopal Church abandoned the context of Catholic ministry: the parochial system. The parochial system defines the area in which a priest and those who worship regularly practice holistic ministry. It defines the population among whom Jesus is to be made manifest.

 

In place of this system, the Episcopal Church, by default rather than intention, took on the structure advocated by the Puritans in the reign of Elizabeth 1. The Puritans despised the parochial system. They believed that the local church was to be a gathered community of the elect. It’s red door, if it had one, was open to those who became convinced that they belonged among the elect.  In modern times they would have developed a website aiming at those who may like their form of religion, or erect a church sign informing the world that the elect meet on Sunday -what they do then is conveniently obscured by jargon. The name of  a clerical personage is also emblazoned, as if anyone other than the elect cares that Hezekiah Plum is minister. The purpose of a gathered church is inward looking. The elect create the worship style and other programs suited to the sort of people who form the gathered church and perhaps is attractive to those who may desire to be numbered among them and who will fit in. You see, the elect are noted for their love, but it is an inward looking, exclusive and self-serving love.

 

For a century or more the system worked, Few noticed the irony, particularly among Catholic Anglicans, the irony of churches proclaiming a priestly vocation, while practicing a puritan structure. But today few know or care what the elect do in their Victorian gothic piles. The elect dwindle, however many twirls of the thurible they practice. Of course there are more fundamental causes of decline, as you all well know, but this introverted system enabled the rise of detached activism and neo-gnosticism which has become the norm. It is no accident that the evangelical schism of the 1870s was succeeded by the social gospel movement.  But for Catholics, what is lost is not merely evangelical purpose, a defined mission field, but also a fundamentally Catholic vision of the local church. Here’s a definition. A parish is where the priesthood of the church, ordained and lay, offer the surrounding community to God primarily in the offering of the Mass. The parish is a defined area in which the priestly people of God represent Christ to the defined surrounding community. For that is what priests do. They don’t look inward and place themselves at the heart of their priesthood. They represent. And so those who join with the priest in the church building and who are trained for ministry, offer worship and then go among the people who live within the sound of the church bells, and do what Jesus did, as they feed, teach, heal, console and convert, and suffer, and die.. The purpose of the parish is to create places from which ministry fans out into the world, not an undefined amorphous world, but a parochial world. That is exactly what Breck and the first trained Nashotah priests did. I dream of a new generation of called people whose ambition is to practice Catholic evangelism as parish priests, sacrificial parish priests to and for the geographical area surrounding the building. By the way, the Canons of the Episcopal Church define how a territorial parish is to be created. For if you are to be, as today’s  Gospel suggests, God’s horticulturist, you will do better if you define the area where you wish the plants to grow, and train your fellow gardeners to nurture the plants, and even wee mustard seeds in the area you have staked out for yourself.

 

You are here, in this House, this home, not to satisfy your predilection for this kind of religion, nor to go from here to pamper those who prefer the warmth and coziness of their kind of religion. You are here to lose yourself in the service of Christ. Taking up the Cross involves pain and a world of hurt. When priests refuse to go into their parishes, because they know they will  experience, rejection, scorn, pain, persecution it’s no wonder that their active parishioners avoid the cost of discipleship. We talk of enabling the laity to fulfill their distinct vocation, and then we attempt to clericalize them instead of preparing them to take the Cross into the workplace, the coffee house, even the bars and taverns down the street from the church building. We’ve failed to enable the laity to evangelize their children and thereby have lost at least two generations.

 

If you are going to respond to the call for a few good priests, you will discover that, in a manner we can’t explain, the offering and receiving that is at the heart of the Mass, the Offices you recite in union with the whole church for the people who live in your parish, our Lady and the saints whose fellowship becomes vital and the holy archangels and angels who guard and protect you and above all, Jesus, whose ministry you assume, are indeed means of grace. Jesus will enable you and your flock to endure rejection, scorn, derision and the death you experience in what the world calls failure. It will be Jesus who is there in those extraordinary resurrection moments as bodies are healed, lives transformed and death conquered. “I prefer a Church that is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.’ (from Evangelii Gaudium – The Joy of the Gospel)

 

Siren calls to center your vocation on churchy things, and even those excellent things like genuine spirituality and social activism, for their own sake, have been too long heeded by Episcopalians. Concentrating on drawing in and caring for an elect group has created the failing church. “Go”, Jesus said, “and be my life-givers to the ends of the earth. Go and plant seeds, even overlooked seeds as small as mustard seeds.

You are here to learn to divest yourself of your own way. And then, like Breck and his companions, to reach out into the territory God will give you and to spend yourself for Jesus. 

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