by Maryann D. Younger, Master of Divinity Student
The Chapel of the Good Shepherd was packed with dignitaries, faculty, the Board of Trustees, current seminarians, alumni and friends. The 2019 Paddock lectures were concluding not only by conferring Honorary Doctorates to former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams and our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. Anticipation was building to witness a sermon by Curry, whose preaching has made him beloved to a worldwide audience.
We’ve come to expect that our Presiding Bishop will fill the space with energetic movement, oscillating volume and intensity, dancing and turning to include everyone in the congregation, and bellowing the lyrics to multiple spirituals – and he certainly exceeded those expectations. What struck me the most, however, was how he was able to hold the darkness of the world and the light of Christ in tension.
Starting with an opening message to the gathered, he referenced Abraham and Sarah’s surprise by their late call to parenthood. He connected this to our own potential fear of church decline as he teased: “You haven’t aged out, Episcopal Church, God’s still got work for you to do!”
Recounting his experiences in Charlottesville during white supremacist marches, he enabled us to feel the long-standing weight of hatred and bile that surrounded those dark days, emphasizing that there are many other communities like it in our country today. As he prayed for strength on how he would preach under this enormous weight that day, he realized that he was focusing on the darkness instead of the light, and drew strength by shifting his focus to the light of Jesus.
At a recent diocesan convention, while greeting people in a ‘selfie line’ (an extrovert’s dream!) Curry recalled becoming acutely aware of a large bearded white man standing off to the side, arms crossed, watching him sternly. When the gentleman finally reached him, Curry was humbled by the man’s story of his father’s involvement in the Ku Klux Klan and being taught that people of color, like Curry, were inferior in every way. However, a tiny church in Arkansas invited him in and taught him the way of truth and light through Christ. Somewhat relieved for his personal safety, he thanked the man for being brave enough to share his testimony.
Curry then spoke of Jesus walking on water, which he admits quite frankly, he expects of Jesus, even if he doesn’t expect that of himself, or the church, or any one of us. But what about the Apostle Peter? The Lord called to Peter to get out of the boat and he did, walking those watery and wobbly steps toward Jesus. It was only when Peter realized the darkness of his fear that he sank. And Jesus pulled him back into the boat. Just like he does repeatedly with us.
And finally, recalling the advice of Martin Luther King Jr., our Presiding Bishop extolled us that “Before we march, before we preach, before we go out to lead this church to witness in this world, we need to meditate on the life of Jesus. A life that teaches us that love is all that matters, and no matter the darkness, there is always light.”