Bishop Barbara Harris- Breaking Open Tradition

Homily, Bishop Barbara Harris- Breaking Open Tradition
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 2023
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It’s Black History Month! And we have in our faith tradition an incredible history of amazing black and African American Christians, and so for the next few weeks I’d like to highlight a few of them to help us interpret our gospel texts for the day. 

This week we recognize in our liturgical calendar the consecration of Bishop Barbara Harris (February 11), the first female bishop in all the worldwide Anglican Communion. She was an amazing woman, a participant in the civil rights movement, a successful business woman, an active member of the Church, an advocate for the poor and marginalized. She was, as our gospel passage today mandates us to be, a light of the world. But as you can imagine given that the ordination of women has had quite a history of controversy, there were many who were not so happy about Barbara Harris becoming a bishop. 

Between her election in September of 1988 and her consecration in February of 1989 she had received so much criticism, so much hate mail, even death threats that she was encouraged to wear a bullet proof vest to her consecration service (which she did not do). But she handled it all with grace and love.

Similarly to a wedding, in the liturgy of a bishop’s consecration, there is a moment when the presider asks if there are any who have reason to object to this consecration, and at Bishop Harris’ service a number of folks came to the microphone to share their reasons why she could not be a bishop. They cited canonical reasons, theological reasons, personal reasons, but in the end it all really came down to one thing. They believed that it would be a breaking of tradition. 

You know, a similar accusation was made about Jesus. In our gospel passage for today, Jesus says, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.” Now if Jesus is saying this, we can assume he is saying it because that is exactly what he was being accused of. There were people that believed he was trying to abolish the law and the prophets. There were people who believed that he was trying to break their tradition. 

His observance of the sabbath is an example of this. There are a number of stories throughout the gospels where he receives criticism from the scribes and Pharisees about the way he is observing (or not observing) the sabbath. 

But Jesus points out, he is not abolishing the law and the prophets, he is fulfilling them. In other words, he is not breaking tradition; he is breaking open tradition. He is breaking open tradition to see what it is made of. To see what is inside. To reveal it’s purpose, it’s meaning, it’s mission. Jesus doesn’t want to throw out tradition; he wants to bring a greater depth to it.

Tradition is one of those things that holds a lot of power in our lives. But often even when we follow our traditions diligently, and with reverence, we don’t always have a full understanding of their purpose. We engage them on a surface level. We cherish them without any connection to their beating heart. And that beating heart is love. 

The purpose of our faith tradition is love. As Jesus says in another place, “All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments: love God and love neighbor.” If we follow every outer aspect of our doctrine and tradition without fault but it doesn’t foster in us love, we have completely missed the point of our tradition. And so Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” It’s not enough to follow tradition on the outside, we have to be shaped by it’s purpose on the inside. We have to be shaped by the love to which our tradition points. Jesus hasn’t come to break tradition, but to break open tradition. 

It’s my belief that breaking open our traditions in this way, is an important part of deepening our faith. The traditions we follow will shape us, but if we do not know the heart of our traditions—what’s inside of them—we will not know what we are being shaped by. Are we, in our traditions, being shaped by love, or something else? Are we, in our traditions, being shaped by love, or by pride, or fear, or control, or anger, or acceptance? Even the most sacred of our traditions, if we are not careful, can become vessels for the most profane of motivations. And so we must break them open to find out what it is they carry. 

The consecration of Bishop Harris is an example of that. The Church had to go through an intense period of reflection about our traditions of ordination and the role of women in the Church. We had to break open our traditions to see if they reflected love or something else. Perhaps sexism, or the desire for control, of the fear of change. Or racism, as Bishop Harris was not only the first woman but only the 18th African American out of hundreds of Episcopal bishops consecrated in the United States. Perhaps Bishop Harris’ consecration, then, was not a breaking of tradition, but a living more fully into our tradition. Of embodying the true heart of our faith tradition, which is love.

Now I know for many of us women’s ordination is not what we’re wrestling with. Some of us are. And many of our siblings around the world and in other traditions are, but maybe most of us here have already broken open that tradition to reveal it’s true heart. But what other traditions are there in your life that Jesus is inviting you to break open? What traditions do you hold dear, but perhaps haven’t engaged on a deeper level to know how it is that it is really shaping you? What traditions do you follow that look sacred from the outside, but on the inside are driven by something profane?

Perhaps it is a false humility that is more about putting yourself down than being shaped by love. Perhaps it is a style of church music that is more about what you like than what helps others to be shaped by love. Perhaps it is the counseling of a fellow Christian with advice that is more about you being in control than mutually being shaped by love. What is it for you? 

The heart of our traditions will tell us by what we are being shaped. And it has to be love. It has to be love. Let it be love. Amen.