For the past three weeks, we have been hearing what amounts to Jesus’ commencement speech to his disciples, as they were “graduating” from being his followers and becoming the leaders of the Church he was leaving behind.
He told them to go out and heal the sick, cast out demons, and work other wonders. He warned them that their message would be rejected, and he told them that it was going to be hard to do God’s work in the world. He even said they would have to take up their cross if they truly wanted to follow him.
And today he says that it will be worth it, because their reward will be great in heaven.
All this got me to thinking about how disciples down through the ages have carried their crosses. And that leads me to tell you the Story of Three Bishops of our Church.
The first was named Leonidas Polk. Born in 1806, he was a planter in Tennessee, a cousin of James K. Polk, our 11th president, and he was the Bishop of Louisiana when the Civil War broke out.
As a plantation owner, he owned slaves and strongly believed in preserving the institution of slavery. He even quoted that famous passage in Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, “Slaves, obey your masters” [Colossians 3:22] although in a very different context from what Saint Paul meant.
He resigned his ecclesiastical position to become a major general in the Confederate army. His official portrait depicts him in a bishop’s vestments, with his army uniform hanging at the ready.
He was a proud man, used to giving orders and being in control. That created friction between him and higher-ranking generals and even President Jefferson Davis. He was also apparently not a very good general. He lost most of his battles and was killed in action at the Battle of Atlanta by General Sherman’s Army.
Polk seems to have been convinced that his faith in Jesus, his ordination vows, and his commitment to slavery and the Confederacy were all compatible with each other.
He wrote very little, so we don’t know whether he struggled to reconcile Jesus’ teachings with his strong convictions about slavery and racial separation, but it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t wonder at times if he were doing what pleased God.
He was killed on June 16, 1864, a little more than 156 years ago.
Let’s move into the early 20th century.
William Alexander Guerry was born in South Carolina in 1861, so he was just a baby during the Civil War. He grew up during the Reconstruction period and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1889, and he became the eighth Bishop of South Carolina in 1907.
Between those two years, 1889 and 1907, a lot of things were happening in the South (and parts of the rest of the country). The so-called Jim Crow laws, which were designed to enforce racial segregation, came into effect. And many statues and monuments to events and people of the Confederacy were put up in that era.
Bishop Guerry said he believed that no one on earth has yet been given the whole truth but, by God’s grace, we all possess a part of it. With this fundamental belief, he formed his vision of what a Christian community should be. In 1909, he said, “We must have a church broad enough to embrace within its communion every living human soul.”
Bishop Guerry’s hope in the broadness of the Church led him in 1914to propose the election of a black Suffragan bishop for South Carolina to be responsible for the ministry to black Episcopalians, and to insure that all people, regardless of race, were part of the community of Christ in the diocese. Not surprisingly, his proposal failed.
And on June 4, 1928, the bishop was shot in his office by a priest who had attacked the bishop’s position on advancing racial equality in South Carolina, and especially his proposal to install a black bishop in the diocese. The priest left a note saying that Bishop Guerry, if given his way, would root out the principle of white supremacy in the south. So, overtaken by hatred, and perhaps other mental problems, he shot the bishop and then took his own life.
Guerry died five days later, on June 9th, 92 years ago, but today, June 28th, is the day he is remembered in our Church’s calendar of Holy Women and Holy Men.
Polk and Guerry—two bishops with very different ideas about how to carry the cross that Jesus has given to us, his followers.
The third bishop is one of our own time. I remember him, as I’m sure many of you do.
Harry Lee Doll was born on July 31, 1903, in West Virginia. He became a priest there in 1933, so he learned of Bishop Guerry’s murder. After serving in several states, he became rector of Old St Paul’s Church in Baltimore. During the Great Depression, Father Doll set up soup kitchens and provided shelters for inner-city men and families, black and white, and he raised money for these efforts from the wealthy white members of one of the original congregations in the Diocese of Maryland.
He was made Bishop of Maryland in 1960, right at the beginning of a decade of conflict in Baltimore and across much of our state. Bishop Doll was committed to the many of the same concepts as Bishop Guerry, namely the belief that God loves all people equally, and that those who have suffered—of all races—deserve the help of the Church.
Mostly memorably, Bishop Doll spoke at a meeting of the Baltimore City Council, along with Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan and Baltimore’s Chief Rabbi. They were there to speak in favor of desegregating housing, parks, and public facilities in Baltimore—and Maryland.
All three speakers were booed and shouted at during their speeches by an audience that overflowed the Council chamber. That day, even the rabbi carried the cross of Jesus! But the principles of liberty, justice, and equality that the three religious leaders supported began to take effect.
Unlike the other two bishops, Harry Lee Doll died peacefully. He retired in 1971 and was followed by Bishop Leighton. He lived another 13 years, serving The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Maryland in a number of positions. He died in 1984, 36 years ago.
Three bishops, from three generations.
The first believed in an evil institution so strongly that he was willing to take up arms and fight for it.
The second, hoping to make a small change, was murdered for even thinking it possible.
And the third began to right the wrongs that had been done for 400 years.
All accepting that their message would be rejected, as indeed it was, on both sides of the issue. All willing to be hated, and even to die for what they believed. And, sadly, the issue that ties them all together is still with us today.
I don’t have a solution to the problems we are facing.
I don’t preach politics, so I have nothing to say about who is right and who is wrong in today’s conflict. But I do preach Jesus Christ, and him crucified. [I Corinthians 2:2] I do preach liberty and justice for all, as we say in our Pledge of Allegiance. I do preach the words of the prophet Micah: “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” [Micah 6:8]
And I pray that we, who can do so many amazing things in this world today, will find a way to live together in peace and harmony and equality as children of a loving God and brothers and sisters of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who said, “Take up your cross, and follow me.”