“Christian: The Path of Prophecy”

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

This is the fifth and final sermon in a series entitled, “Christians.” In each sermon, I have discussed a Christian I have known personally. This sermon is independent of the others; the idea is that reflecting on the lives of other Christians helps us to live our own lives of faith.

Of the five Episcopalian Christians I have described, Bishop Paul Moore is the best known. Bishop Moore was very tall, with handsome, chiseled features. He came from a wealthy and socially prominent New York family. Anyone who knew him as a child might have predicted that he would one day be famous.

But few people would have foretold the controversial stands Bishop Moore would take against the Establishment into which he was born. In the spirit of the Old Testament Prophets, he denounced the racial, gender, and sexual discrimination that was accepted in society back then.

As a priest and later a bishop in a church that was then wealthy and powerful, Bishop Moore preached an uncomfortable message: it was the duty of Episcopalians to be advocates for God’s Kingdom.

Moore began his ministry doing innovative urban work in a parish in Jersey City. He was an advocate for the poor who seemed to have no hope for a better life. He often gave local people hospitality in his home, which was already bursting with his family of eight children.

He was later appointed Dean of the Cathedral in Indianapolis, where he pushed Eli Lilly and other substantial Episcopalians to support church programs for those in need. After he was elected Suffragan Bishop of Washington, he marched for civil rights, and he protested the Vietnam War.

In the Episcopal Church, the activism of the 1960’s carried over into the ‘70s. After being elected Bishop of New York in 1970, Bishop Moore ordained a woman who was revealed to be a lesbian. In those days when many Anglicans were opposed to the ordination of any women at all, this act was greeted with outrage.

Bishop Moore appointed a radical dean to head the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. On one occasion, the Dean allowed the display of a crucifix that had been sculpted by a contemporary artist; the work was called, “Christa,” because the figure on the cross portrayed Jesus as a woman.

Now, looking back on these conflicts from today’s perspective, most of the positions that Bishop Moore and other church leaders took at that time don’t seem all that controversial.

While some scholars still debate the merits of the Vietnam War, no one challenges the need to be wary of military interventions in foreign lands. And no sane American Christian would advocate racial segregation or discrimination against women.

I should also note that even Bishop Moore’s opponents found him a particularly warm and engaging human being. After he died, one of his harshest critics, the neoconservative Richard Neuhaus, remarked that Moore “was about the nicest guy you were ever likely to meet.”

But the battles generated by the prophetic vocation have a cost. Many, many Episcopalians saw Bishop Moore’s actions as interference in the separation of church and state—an inappropriate mixing of politics and religion.

I don’t think it is too harsh to say that some of Bishop Moore’s own clergy in this diocese hated him. They thought he was driving people out of the church and undermining their own work.

I must say, myself, that while I had a long and happy association with Bishop Moore after he ordained me to the diaconate in 1972—including some tennis matches from time to time–I could see the point of some of the criticisms.

But Jesus told his disciples that he would suffer because he was a “prophet.” Christ knew that people don’t want to hear the truth of the Gospel; people in authority don’t want to share their wealth and power. Prophecy comes at a cost.

There is a strange twist to the story of Bishop Moore that may reflect the burdens of his own discipleship. Several years after his death, his eldest daughter, Honor Moore published a memoir of her father. In her memoir, she revealed that throughout much of his life, the Bishop had conducted secret affairs with men.

For those who knew of Bishop Moore’s many children and his reputation as a devoted father and grandfather, this report of extra-marital affairs came as a shock. And these secret relationships must have been painful, because they had to be furtive and hidden. Bishop Moore couldn’t really be in public the person he wanted to be.

As far as I know, Honor Moore’s allegations have never been denied. For me, they illustrate the personal hazards of “prophetic” ministry. If you’re famous, you can get carried away with your fame; you think you can do anything. And if you’re persecuted, you look for ways to ease your pain.

This is true wherever activist Christians find themselves on the political spectrum; right-wing activists aren’t immune from giving in to the pressures of their positions.

In the past year, for example, three conservative pastors from one city–Orlando, Florida–have admitted to extramarital affairs; one of them later killed himself.

Of course, the “pressure” one feels as a church leader, standing up for what you believe doesn’t excuse sinful behavior.

But still, prophets don’t have things easy. None of us is wholly insensitive to criticism. Hatred can penetrate to the soul of the most thick-skinned person.

And Moore’s critics were correct in pointing out the penalties that the Church pays for its activism. Political disputes do cause people to leave or withhold their contributions. All three of Moore’s successors as Bishop of New York have had to spend a great deal of their time and energy trying to rebuild parishes that declined under Bishop Moore’s tenure.

I myself don’t feel the special calling some clergy discern to be “prophetic”. Nor do we have a political “party line” in this parish that we expound from our pulpit. We pride ourselves on welcoming people of all political persuasions.

Nevertheless, I know that the prophetic stance has to play a role in my Christian life. Every Christian and every church must in its own way proclaim God’s message of justice and righteousness.

But let’s allow Bishop Moore to have the last word, which are also the last words of his autobiography:

“Whenever my faith falters, whenever it grows dim, something takes place to bring me back with a rush and to make me know that whatever happens to me, whatever I feel, whatever I believe or do not believe, the mystery of being I call God IS.”

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

Leave a Reply