A sermon about Bishop John Hines – founder of Seminary of the Southwest – given by the Rev. Kathleen Sams Russell, assistant professor of contextual theology, on John Hines Day (October 1, 2009) in Christ Chapel
This past summer, I made the journey-along with several thousand other people–to that particular expression of our tradition–General Convention which was held in Anaheim, California, the home of Disneyland and down the road from Hollywood.
As I wasn’t a deputy I had the freedom to wander the exhibit hall, hang out around the free wi-fi station and generally schmooze with people I knew and with people I didn’t know. It was fascinating-and proved to me once again that there might just be some truth to a theory called “six degrees of separation.”
You may be familiar with the term from a movie by that name. The idea is that any two individuals can be connected through at most five acquaintances, thus the phrase “six degrees of separation.” In other words, I know x, and x knows y, and y knows z, and so on, thus there is a line that runs from me to z.
The idea that the distance between two perfect strangers is shorter than you might imagine intrigues people. Curious mathematicians have worked on algorithms that would support its validity and social scientists have developed networking experiments to see if it really works.
But the idea’s most happy result so far has been a trivia game called —“The Kevin Bacon Movie Game” also known as “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Now Kevin Bacon is an actor whose career has been prolific. He’s been steadily employed in one movie after another since the 1980s. At one point, noting how busy his career had been, he guessed that he had pretty much worked with all of the name actors in Hollywood. Thus the game: Name any actor that comes to mind and you can connect that actor to Kevin Bacon within the famous six degrees of separation by following a trail through the movies they’ve been in.
There’s even a web page that helps you do this. So I tried it, and for some reason-don’t ask me why–the name of Lillian Gish came to mind. (Now for the youngsters among us she was the Julia Roberts of the 1920s, but but she continued to act as she aged and I was amazed to discover that there were only two degrees of separation between her and Kevin Bacon-TWO!–a bit player in one her later movies went on to co-star with the ubiquitous Mr. Bacon. Amazing.
Of course this should come as no surprise to Episcopalians who play this game all the time. When two Episcopalians meet, say in the exhibit hall at General Convention, it usually takes about five minutes before they start to plot out the degrees of separation and soon they find some common point of connection-a person, event, diocese, bishop or place.
At one point I stopped at a booth just to pick up some handouts and then made the acquaintance of an Episcopal priest who it turned out had been best friends with a Catholic priest who had brightened my life when I was in fourth grade. Amazing.
What that encounter made me realize is that even though the idea is called six degrees of separation it is really about the chain of connection, the ways in which we are linked to one other.
So of course this being the day when we gather to remember and celebrate the life and ministry of John Hines, the question comes to mind-What is our connection to John Hines, the founder of this seminary? What is it that links us to him?
For some the connection is obvious. Some people are here today because they knew him well as a father, friend and colleague. Many more, I would guess, know him indirectly. I myself never knew him personally but are blessed to include those who did among our friends and colleagues. Even more are connected to him because we have benefited from the institutions that grew out of his vision-like St. Stephen’s School and we are connected because we are worshipping here in this chapel of the Seminary upon which he rested his hopes for preparing a generation of ministers who would serve the Church in a changing world.
See, I’ve already veered from the kind of simple straight lines that run from one person to another to a whole complex set of people and relationships-Bishop Hines, students, faculty and supporters of this school over several decades…and then the circle gets even bigger-the Episcopal Church at large, and then even more-the people in the world around us. What John Hines liked to call “the entire universe.”
“Six degrees of separation” begins to look like a pretty thin way to account for the ways our lives are intertwined-and the ways in which our lives are touched –not just by the people we know but by people who may appear to us just a names on a list -the 22nd Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, for example, or as subjects of biographies that we plan to read when we have the time.
Even the question grows larger-it’s not just how we are linked to one another but how do we trace those patterns of connection in a way that brings us closer to God and closer to fulfilling God’s intention for us as the Christian community.
So what glimpse of the kingdom of God does the life of John Hines give us?
John Hines was a man with a fine mind, a big heart and an outgoing personality. He was a priest whose spirituality ran deep and energy ran high. He was a bishop with a vision and a mission and he had the courage and resilience-and the grace–to stay true to it.
When I stop and think about the world in which John Hines lived and carried out his ministry, some of what he did is truly breathtaking.
He grew up in the Piedmont of South Carolina, in a small textile and farming town, where the lines between races and classes were tightly drawn and almost impossible to cross. His family was not rich but he had all of the advantages that would have made it so easy for him to settle into a kind of acceptability and ambition that would have kept him silent in the face of the racism that was woven into every layer of society.
But he did not remain silent-from the very beginning of his ministry as a priest, John Hines took on the role of watchman for Christ, challenging not just prevailing attitudes toward race but the very particular ways in which that sense of how things should-must-be –damaged the lives of all it touched.
John Hines is often described as the modern day equivalent of the Old Testament prophet. There is no doubt but that today’s passage from Amos shaped the way Hines understood what God expected of the Church. But we do him an injustice if we think that his prophetic voice was all about the words. It was all about the action too, the action that he was able to take because he had the gifts of courage and vision and also because he had another gift that is essential to leadership-clarity about his vocation and his identity. For him there could be no separation between words and deeds.
This is who I am and so this is what I must do.
But that didn’t make it easy. John Hines was not naïve—he knew that whenever the fabric of creation is pulled apart by sin, by self-interest or by self-righteousness, any attempt at reweaving it would be difficult, and it was.
He knew what it meant to be on the losing side of an issue-
In 1948, as the new bishop coadjutor of Texas, he proposed opening vestries and diocesan council to the participation of women-it failed.
In 1949, again as bishop in Texas, he proposed that if black and white delegates to diocesan council could not be served together at a common meal, which they could not, then the council would forego the meal-that proposal not only failed but the delegates voted to commend the hosting parish for observing the segregation laws.
Throughout the 1950s he had to fight battle after battle to integrate diocesan camps and institutions, even his beloved St. Stephen’s was not formally desegregated until 1963.
And In 1971, as presiding bishop, and amid great criticism he challenged General Motors to stop making a profit off apartheid in South Africa, this ten years before the divestment movement gained ground.
John Hines’ accomplishments came at a cost. His leadership as a bishop and as presiding bishop was marked by criticism, resistance and conflict but also on his part, by patiently waiting upon the Lord. But I’m not even sure the word “accomplishment” was in his vocabulary. He knew that the work of creation remains unfinished, and that racism and other forms of oppression would continue.
I think he would call the things he did simply living in witness to the Gospel.
And that helps us see the real source of our connection with John Hines because at the heart of that connection is our connection with the heart of Christ. When all is said and done, what connects us to Hines is simply what we share with him-baptism into the life, death and resurrection of Christ. And sharing that– we have a shared vocation-to proclaim not ourselves, earthen vessels that we are, but Jesus Christ.
We can’t be John Hines; we shouldn’t even try. And our ministry will not look like his because our world is not the same as his-but we do know that racism remains, that people still live under many forms of oppression-and that Jesus Christ still calls us to turn our face to a broken and hurting world– as He did looking out from Calvary.
John Hines lived his life as priest, bishop, leader and servant in response to the call that Jesus makes to his disciples in today’s Gospel-How will you follow me? Will you pick up the cross? Will you take the risk and give your lives over to the most radical thing of all-grace.
What John Hines deeply believed is that the personal answer to those questions cannot be separated from the answer that we give as the Body of Christ, the Christian community in all its particular expressions. How do we proclaim hope; how do we persevere in trust; how do we speak truth -not just to power-but to ourselves!-and how will we embody God’s love in our life as an institution.
How we answer those questions matters for this Seminary, for this Church and for this world. These are not trivial pursuits, in the same category as knowing who acted in what movie. They are deep and sacred journeys. Because what we do matters-not so that we can proclaim our own righteousness or try to assure our own salvation but in service to others and for the glory of God.
It matters that John Hines saw
that the church needed to include women.
It matters that St. Stephen’s
and all the places where children gather need to be a blessing for all.
It matters that he envisioned a seminary
that would take the concerns of the world seriously.
It matters that he saw a connection
between his life and the life of perfect strangers in South Africa.
May we, standing in the circle of the earth-bound round by God’s embrace-
Proclaim God’s glory and God’s grace, through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
(Final prayer inspired by Hymn 540, Awake Thou Spirit of the Watchmen, Hymnal 1982; sung before the Gospel and a favorite hymn of Bishop Hines.)