House of Bishops
September 21, 2021
A Narthex Moment
Now, in the name of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Nathanael said, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the Messiah.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’” (John 1:49-51).
A few months ago, probably in June, I suspect, when the planning committee met to begin to think about our fall gathering in St. Louis, Brian Prior, who is the chair and convenor of that group, turned to me and said, “So, what are you thinking about?” And in years past, we’ve thought further down the road. But in pandemic time, we barely can think a month ahead of time. And, I think I just had an extrovert moment, which periodically happens, and I blurted out, “I don’t know, we just need to be together. All I know, is this just feels like a Narthex Moment.”
Now I’ve got to tell you, at the time that was not a thought-through philosophical, theological, deeply interwoven, agonized reflection. It was an extrovert moment. A something deep within that I had not given much thought to, very honest. But the Spirit has the Spirit’s ways. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized there is something there.
Mary Gray-Reeves, the vice-president of the House, sent an email with some reflections on narthex. And in one of them, she remembered an old priest who spoke of the narthex as the healing place.
And I kept thinking about that and asked myself, “Where in the world did narthex moment come from?” I’ve never written that, never said it. I don’t even think I’ve thought about it. And then I remembered 1962. I think I was about 9 years old. I was in Sean Rowe’s diocese, St. Philip’s church in Buffalo, where I grew up, and I was in the kids’ confirmation class, and I got kicked out of confirmation for horsing around, visiting with the neighbors. Eventually with parental assistance, I repented and was restored to the community.
But I actually did learn something in confirmation, aside from what we were supposed to learn — the Lord’s prayer, 10 commandments, Apostle’s Creed. What I remember was that a teacher, Mrs. Francine Black, had a diagram of a church, and she told us that the church is a naval vessel upside down. And as a 9-year-old, I said, “Now you’re talking my language.” And she said, “It’s an upside-down ship and the top of the ship is the sanctuary where there’s the high altar.” This was before the liturgical reforms. The high altar, and that was the sanctuary. Then there was the chancel, where the choir sang. Then there was the nave, and she told us that had something to do with Navy. And again, I was paying attention. I wasn’t normally even paying attention. The nave. And then she said, “In order to get outside or inside, you’ve got to go through this area called the narthex.” And she said, “That’s just the in-between room.”
Well, thinking about that a little more and what Mary Gray-Reeves wrote, it occurred to me that she was right. It is the in-between room, but more than just the in-between room. Narthex is that space that actually is the link between the world and the church. It is that space that actually is the link between the sacred and the profane. It is the space, that in-between space, where existence is actually lived and looked at differently. It may well be that thin place where time and eternity intersect, where divine and human actually meet, where there is a co-mingling between God and God’s creation and God’s people. Narthex. More than just a physical name, but it may mark the place. A threshold. A crossing. A confusing place. A liminal space. In 2016 before the pandemic, Richard Rohr wrote this about narthex. Actually, he was talking about liminal space.
He said, “We too often remain trapped in what we call normalcy — ‘the way things are.’ Life then revolves around problem-solving, fixing, explaining, and taking sides with winners and losers . . . To get out of this unending cycle, we have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality. All transformation takes place here. We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of ‘business as usual’ and remain patiently on the ‘threshold.’ The limen, in Latin, the betwixt and between, the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone our old world is left behind. There alone we meet the new existence of which we are not yet sure. It’s a good place, for there alone genuine newness begins. It is the realm where God can get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way. This is the sacred space where the old world falls apart and a bigger new world is revealed. It is the doctor’s waiting room. And our call is to wait on the divine physician.” (partial paraphrase)
Narthex. So, now we are here. Not in St. Louis, but online. Narthex. We’re kind of back in our physical church buildings, but kind of not. Narthex. We wonder how many will return. “This much, I assure you, the remnant will.” So said the prophet Isaiah in the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. The remnant will always return. Narthex. The miracle of vaccinations has arrived, even with some boosters, and yet some refuse and the pandemic goes on, and Delta variant. Narthex.
Diocesan conventions, are they going to be in person this fall? You probably thought so last spring. Narthex. General Convention and Lambeth? I don’t have any answers yet. This is narthex. The nation and the world. Narthex. We are living in a narthex moment, between the world we knew and whatever is being born, but help is on the way. That’s why I asked the chaplains to change the readings. I said give something from Jacob in Genesis, and Miguelina, thank you, and thank you, chaplains. I said, “Give us Jacob in Genesis, and give us Jesus in John.” Because Jacob walked into the narthex. He had duped his daddy at the behest of his mama in that wonderful biblical model of family values. He had duped his daddy, ripped off his brother. His brother was going to kill him, and Jacob was on the run.
Oh, he was in narthex. And the brother gets to a place where he goes to sleep, takes a stone for a pillow. Y’all remember this story, Genesis 28, and he goes to sleep. And in his sleep, he has a dream, remember? Of the ladder ascending from earth to heaven, connecting earth and heaven, and angels ascending and descending on the ladder. The old slaves used to say, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” And then he wakes up. Lawrence Kushner, a rabbi, wrote a book 20 years ago called “God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know.” And the rabbi says that in the Hebrew, Jacob actually stutters: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I-I-I didn’t know it!” This is nothing but the gate of heaven. Narthex. He was between normal, where you dupe your daddy and steal from your brother in collusion with your mama, and a new possibility. Narthex. And Jesus, I didn’t see it till this weekend. John’s Gospel, check this out. John’s Gospel, remember, it begins with the prologue, right? “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God. The word was God” — same as in dominion with God. “All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life.” And life was the light of all folk, and that Word became flesh. Remember? “And dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.”
The Word. Howard Thurman said the eternal Word of God was translated into the language of a human life. Word became flesh. Narthex. And dwelt among us.
And Jesus calls Philip and Andrew and Peter and one Nathanael. He says to Nathanael, you call me Son of God, Messiah, and now do you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? He said, no, no, no. Blessed are those who believe, because the day is coming when you will see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of God — in me, worlds are coming together; in me, human life is being reconciled with the source of life; in me, I am showing you the way to be right and reconciled with the God who loves and created you. I am showing you the way to be right and reconciled with each other as children of this one God, as brothers, sisters, siblings. In me, I’m showing you how to be reconciled with this whole creation. In me, I will show you how to lay down your swords and shields down by the riverside.
I am the eternal Word of God, wisdom from on high, now in my teaching, my person, my life, all mixed up in a child born of a woman named Mary. Narthex. And I will show you a way of love. I can show you the way. Those slaves used to say we are climbing Jacob’s ladder, and the next verse says every round goes higher, higher and the next one says sinner, do you love my Jesus?
The canons know about this because we went on retreat a couple weeks ago and I tortured them and showed them an excerpt from the movie “The Robe.” Some of ya’ll will remember “The Robe” — you have to think back in time — from the 1950s. It comes from that era of Cecil B. DeMille and “The Ten Commandments,” that vintage. You know, some of the acting is a little bit 1950s hokey, but the movie was actually the first film that was done in cinemascope, the real color film. It came out in 1952 or ‘53. It was based on a book called “The Robe,” historical fiction, biblical fiction that was written by a Lutheran pastor who was seminary trained — I didn’t know that till I looked him up — he was theologically and seminary trained. He was creating a fictional work to make a point about what Christianity is really about.
I hadn’t looked at “The Robe” since I was a little kid — Grandma used to always watch it. Some of ya’ll remember “The Ten Commandments,” “The Robe,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” All that stuff would come on sometime between Palm Sunday and Easter. I remember my grandma would sit down and hold her Bible and watch those movies. We as kids would sit down, too, and watch those movies. I remember watching “The Robe,” and I hadn’t thought about it since then.
But during the pandemic you look for stuff to do. And so I went on Amazon Prime and lo, there it was — “The Robe.” And so I watched it. And when I watched it, I said, this movie is not hokey. When I watched it, I saw a faint but a very real intimation of what Christianity looked like before it tried to get out of the narthex and cozy up to the empire and become the religion of the empire of Rome. In the closing scene, a tribune played by Richard Burton — whose voice I do covet, to be honest; you think I preach long now, I’d be talking all day long just listening to my lovely voice — Richard Burton plays this Roman tribune who oversees the soldiers who execute Jesus. But lo and behold, he eventually, at the encouragement of a person who was his slave and others, finds himself a Christian. Now he’s on trial before the emperor of Rome, before the empire that he once served. It’s glorious, it’s incredible. The scene is set in the great hall that kind of looks like a basilica — help me, somebody — and if you look at it there’s not an altar, but there’s a throne at the front — an area we might have referred to as a sanctuary in the old days. It has insignias of Rome, and the senators and nobles of Rome are all gathered in the chamber, and they create a common aisle, and the procession enters for the trial of this tribune.
And I’ve got to tell you this is a procession that would make an Anglo-Catholic envious. This was some serious procession. They come in with insignias and banners and grand trumpets and music. I’ve got to tell you they had some nice vestments as well. They come in the procession, and at the end of the procession is the Caesar in whom they conflated Nero and Caligula, the worst of Roman emperors. This guy is a real character. He is wearing a beautiful red coat, and he comes in and he swings around and looks at himself, and he goes up like he’s going up the steps to the high altar. He turns around and then they bring in the accused to the sound of the drumbeat — no trumpets, just the sound of the drum. And he comes in chained.
Caesar asks, so it is true, tribune Gallio? That they say you are a Christian. It’s true. Is it true, asked the Caesar, that this Jesus you say is a king? It’s true; his kingdom is not of this world, but it’s true. So do you renounce your tribune’s oath to your emperor and the empire? You really call him a king and you still serve the empire? The tribune answers, if the empire desires peace and brotherhood among men, then my king would be on the side of Rome and her emperor. If the empire and her emperor wish to pursue the course of aggression and slavery that have brought misery, agony and despair throughout the world, there is nothing more to hope for except chains and hunger. Then my king will march forward to right those wrongs and his kingdom will come and it shall have no end. And then of course he’s executed.
The church, before collusion with the empire, the church that looks something like Jesus. The church that dared to live into narthex, to let go of the way things were, to behold the way things could be. Brothers, sisters, siblings, dream of that church again like Jacob. Behold the church that looks like the one upon whom angels ascend and descend.
May we dream of that new and re-formed church, not formed in the way of the world but formed in the way of Jesus and his love. Genuinely, truly, authentically a branch of the Jesus Movement today — a community of individuals and small gatherings and congregations of all stripes and types, a human tapestry, God’s wondrous variety, the kingdom, the reign of God, the beloved community. No longer centered on empire or establishment, no longer fixated on the preservation of institutions, no longer propping up white supremacy or in collusion with anything that hurts or harms any child of God or God’s creation. By God’s grace, a church that looks and acts and lives like Jesus. Welcome to narthex, and welcome to behold a new heaven, a new earth, a new you, a new me, a new we.
“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Soldiers of the cross.”