Go Be a Pontifex: Bishop Katharine’s Convention Sermon
Our calendar of saints remembers Leo the Great today, even though I don’t think there’s a single Episcopal church named for him. He lived from about 400 to 461, at a time when the Roman Empire was falling apart. He was well-educated and was ordained a deacon to serve as a financial administrator and ensure that food stores were appropriately distributed to the hungry. Leo was an accomplished preacher, theologian, teacher, and strong leader, with evident political gifts. Pope Sixtus III dispatched him to negotiate disputes among church leaders, and Leo was away on such a mission when Sixtus died. Leo was elected to succeed him in 440 CE.
During his 20 year tenure, Leo centralized the authority of the church in the bishop of Rome (the pope). He used Roman law to assert universal jurisdiction over the church, he critiqued and corrected practices that varied from Roman custom, and asserted his authority over other bishops as chief disciplinarian. That centralization is not why Episcopalians call him “the Great.”
Leo, I was a remarkable theologian. In 451 he wrote to the bishops gathered in the Council of Chalcedon with a defense of the understanding of Jesus Christ as both human and divine. It helped to clarify orthodox doctrine, and at the same time prompted a major schism.
Leo also had an ongoing pastoral role in the city of Rome, responding to famine, poverty, and migrants. The Roman Empire was on its last legs during Leo’s tenure, and refugees poured in from other parts of the world. When Attila and the Huns approached the city, Leo walked out to meet them and negotiated their retreat in exchange for annual tribute. Three years later, Genseric and his host of Vandals arrived outside the city. This time Leo was less successful, but managed to protect most of the residents and buildings – the Vandals sacked a good deal of the city’s treasure and abducted the last of the imperial family. Afterward, Leo used the resources at his disposal to heal and repair the city.
Our tradition calls Leo the Great for his pastoral heart, his theological skill, and his ability to build bridges, negotiate, and reconcile. At the same time, we don’t celebrate his centralizing and authoritarian tendencies – for Anglicanism is a reforming response to those practices.
Isaiah had a vision that IS about a central focus, of God’s home, high and lifted up, with all peoples streaming toward it. It’s a vision of the world’s people living and working together, turning implements of war and destruction into tools of peace and abundance. God’s people travel a road of transformation toward that dream of a healed world. We see it all over this diocese, as the faithful respond lovingly and fearlessly to the suffering and want around us. We’re seeing it in the neighborhood right now, as all sorts of people reach out to migrants with food, shelter, and hope for the journey. Leo’s reconciling witness evoked enough embers of compassion among the Huns and Vandals to largely spare the city’s residents.
That kind of bridge-building work is part of our baptismal vocation. Reconciliation is key to the ministry we all share, and the Hebrews reading points to the centrality of Jesus’ reconciling work. It’s about bringing together whatever is divided, separated, broken, or injured. That’s our job as Christians, as children of God, as faithful and loving human beings. Our elder siblings in the faith call it tikkun olam, repair of the world.
Jesus’ ministry is as a bridge-builder, uniting heaven and earth, human and divine, healing brokenness into holiness. The Latin word for a bridge-builder is pontifex, and it’s been used for the Jewish high priests, for Jesus, and for bishops. It’s a foundational part of the ministry we share, and it takes many forms – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, repairing broken relationships, caring for the damaged creation, offering hope, and spreading good news. The bishop you elect should be an icon of bridge-building. So should each and every one of us.
Consider how Jesus sends those 70. They go together – each pair a human bridge, an image, and sign of what they’re charged to do and be. ‘Travel light,’ he tells them, ‘and find what you need on the road. Offer peace, and if it is returned, the bridge is well-begun. Stay there, eat with them, and watch the bridge grow stronger – heal the sick, and remind people that this is God at work.’
Where have you seen a bridge built? Where have you been a bridge, or helped to build one? Many bridges begin with response to brokenness – feeding, healing, tending, comforting, helping someone in need. Some would call that a lifeline, like a rope thrown to a drowning person. It prevents immediate death, but what happens when a more substantive bridge is built? I think that’s what Jesus is
talking about when he says ‘stay and eat with the people who welcome you, get to know them and heal whatever you can.’ Enduring bridges aren’t anonymous; they get named, and the roadways over them can carry much heavier freight than a swinging rope. Our willingness to be vulnerable, to tell our stories and hear those of others, provides some of the paving for those bridges. Stay a while and listen – and the bridge will begin to bear the good news of hope and possibility.
Leo clearly had the gift of building bridges with potentially violent enemies, and the people of Rome were saved thereby. His more unidirectional connections with other parts of the church may have played a role in Christianity’s survival in the dark ages, yet the centralization of authority in human systems also has a dark side. Unquestioned and autocratic authority leads to tyranny, exploitation, division, and it is an ingredient in the abuse of vulnerable persons. Judas might be an icon of that – as one who was so certain of his own correctness that he would betray another.
Jesus sends the 70 in pairs knowing that negotiating the relationship between them will be key to reconciling in the larger world. Think about the body of Christ, with many parts, each with different gifts and functions. When it’s working together, miracles of healing abound!
The MAP canon is meant to be that kind of bridgework – as a community responding to vulnerability – and so is the task force on clergy misconduct. This community, working together, can heal and reconcile in ways that surpass human understanding.
The companion relationship between San Diego and Western Mexico is such a bridge. It’s in its early stages, and this gathering is an opportunity to stay awhile, to eat together, and to heal misconceptions and prejudices, and engage shared concerns about the border we share. In God’s creation, borders and mixing zones are uniquely creative, where new species and capacities emerge. A border is like a mustard bush, a shelter between ground and sky. What might be growing in this shared field of possibility?
The world around us is yearning for bridges of respect and dignity, especially in the face of current violence, and hatred. What prompted the shooting in Thousand Oaks yesterday? If Leo could build a bridge with Attila and the Vandal Genseric, we can build bridges with voters from a different political party or religious tradition. We can work for better mental health resources. God’s created order depends (literally – ‘hangs on’) on those bridges for healing and greater life.
This community of bridge-builders knows something about fearless love, and we’ve learned something at this Convention about being and bearing good news. Who will you travel with as you seek to meet Jesus in the world? Whose house will you visit and offer peace? Maybe even the driver in the next lane, trying to merge…
Go build a bridge, be a pontifex, and make a way for love in this world