November 12, 2008

Sermon for the Feast of Charles Simeon

Seminary offers the opportunity, on occasion, to study things to the most absurd detail. In a Church History course during my senior year, I wrote a paper entitled, "On Point Ten of the Remonstrance Against the Consecration of the Rev. Dr. Henry Ustick Onderdonk as Assistant Bishop, Diocese of Pennsylvania." Talk about a ridiculous topic, and yet, it proved to be one of the most enjoyable papers I had the opportunity to research. What it taught me, which has served me well thus far, is that deep-rooted and often ugly controversies are in no way new to our beloved Church. The General Covnention of 2003, the 1979 Prayer Book, the ordination of women, the Church's role in the Civil Rights Movement, and on back through history our Church has not been without its contentious argument, which, I believe, have left us stronger and more equipped to serve a world that itself is full of conflict.
The source of contention that lead to my insanely specific seminary paper was the heated debate between the high-church party and the evangelical party. It is a controversy that found itself playing out in both The Episcopal Church USA and the Mother Church, The Church of England, in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. A key player in the development of the evangelical party was the Rev. Charles Simeon, a priest in the Church of England who served his parish, Holy Trinity in Cambridge for 55 years. Simeon had what came to be known as a typical evangelical conversion - one that involved a deep personal encounter with God - but uncharacteristically it came not in response to the proclamation of the Word in a sermon, but in a sacramental experience at the Table. It was the law in England that all university students were required to attend church regularly and to receive Holy Communion at least once a year. This often lead to people taking Communion in what has been called an "irreverent manner." I'm not sure what specific actions that refers to, but I can't imagine they made God happy their response to the gift of his Son nor about that particular law.
Charles Simeon, however, took it very seriously. He later wrote, "On 29 January 1779 I came to college. On 2 February I understood that at division of term I must attend the Lord's Supper. The Provost absolutely required it. Conscience told me that, if I must go, I must repent and turn to God." He utilized a pamphlet by Bishop Thomas Wilson called Instructions for the Lord's Supper to facilitate that conversion and was transformed by the understanding that "only the sacrifice of Christ, perceived by faith, could enable one to [worthily partake in the Lord's Supper]." His experience at the Table was one of peace and exhilaration which motivated his 55 years of zealous and enthusiastic service to God and Christ's Church. The Historian Lecky wrote of the influence of Charles Simeon and his group of friends by saying, "They gradually changed the whole spirit of the English Church. They infused into it a new fire and passion of devotion, kindled a spirit of fervent philanthropy, raised the standard of clerical duty, and completely altered the whole tone and tendency of the preaching of its ministers."
In the midst of great divide and controversy in the Church, and even as one who represented one side in that debate, Charles Simeon carried an attitude of cooperation based in his understanding that only with Christ were all things possible. He acted as a beacon of unity in a Church that was tearing itself apart.
The lessons for his feast day mark that spirit of unity. As a low-church, evangelical Simeon held a deep passion for preaching. Evangelicals were known as Morning Prayer people with sermons that could last an hour or more. They took seriously the question of Paul to the Romans, "How are they to hear without someone to proclaim [Christ]?" And yet, Simeon's conversion was rooted in the Eucharist, the center of church life for the high-church party. And so, as Jesus commands Peter twice to feed and once to tend to his sheep, Simeon understood his calling as a priest in the same way - one who is called to feed the Lord's sheep from his table.
As followers of Jesus in the tradition of Charles Simeon, I believe we too are called to engage the world both by word and by action. We are each called to share the Good News of God in Jesus Christ by sharing what that good news has meant in our lives and by reaching out to feed and tend to the lambs of Jesus. What was once an argument around the liturgy is now a debate around the central message of the Gospel, but I believe both sharing the salvation that comes from Jesus Christ alone and taking part in his constant rebuilding of God's creation are both central - and Charles Simeon is one of my heroes of that both/and understanding of the faith. "How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?" "Do you love me?... Feed my sheep." Amen.

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