Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 22, 2019
Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Today’s Gospel is no ordinary birth announcement. It will be a boy, yes, but even more it is a theologically packed proclamation of who Jesus is and for what God has sent him.
Matthew proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s anointed agent who once for all, in the fullness of time, will set right the world’s wrongs. He is the sign of God’s intended realignment of the entire creation. Jesus is Son of David, a pedigree essential for the Messiah as one strand of Jewish expectation. Jesus’ conception is a gift of the Holy Spirit, albeit an inconvenient one, in that Mary and Joseph are not yet married. Finally, his name, Jesus, is divinely ordained through the announcement of an angel as he is Emmanuel, God with us, sent to rescue all people from their own brokenness, and that of the world.
Let’s look for a moment at that name, Jesus. The Hebrew and Aramaic forms of “Jesus” and “he will save” are similar. The point being made in that biblical pun is this: “You shall call his name Savior because he will save.” Yet the word “Jesus,” in Hebrew, “Joshua,” even more literally means, “Yahweh, help!”
Isn’t that often our most basic prayer—a plea for God to help? We hear that plea in “O Come O Come Emmanuel”; all of our Collects; the Eucharistic Prayer; the Prayers of the People. Jesus, in his very person, is a living and breathing prayer as he intercedes for you and me.
As we all struggle to make sense of life during our time on the planet, we often feel out of control, teetering at the edge of being overwhelmed when we observe that at times it seems the world is intent on destroying itself. Hopefully you know joy in life as well, but our bottom line prayer is, “Yahweh, God, help.” We want to make sense of things and know that God is in it with us. Even looking into the heavens for stars to follow as civilizations have done for millennia, we want a sign that tells us God is visibly present and working in and through our lives and the circumstances surrounding us.
God’s response to our plea of “God, help!” is Jesus. The One born of Joseph and Mary is God’s distinctive answer, an outward and visible sign of all who God is. I saw this beautifully played out in a first communion class I was leading some years ago. A little girl’s parents told me that the night before the class, their daughter was walking around the house with her hands out, as if ready to receive communion. That little girl’s hope, her longing, her desire, was that she was getting Jesus!
The next day it was fulfilled when the very sacrament of God, Jesus the Messiah, the One who saves, was placed in her hand. Even as Jesus is God’s answer to our call for help, Jesus is also God’s plea to us in return. Here’s what I mean.
As a Christian community, one of the things we promise when a person is baptized or confirmed is that she or he will be raised and formed in a community of hope. We say we will do everything we know to do to assure that promise comes to fruition. Just as Joseph was filled with the Holy Spirit, so are we in forming one another as people of faith, a people who trust in Jesus in the power of the same Spirit. And here’s the kicker. Just as Joseph was able to make the shift from the merely sensible, reasonable and pragmatic in order to say “yes” to God, our times are requiring flexible and adaptive approaches to faithfulness and life, an “Irrational Season,” if you will. As stated beautifully by Madeleine L’Engle in her poem of that name:
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
I would add that it was the same for Joseph. To be clear, I am in favor of good reason, but only as long as it does not keep us stuck in the status quo, cut off from God’s sometimes disturbing invitation, and not able to live radically into the Gospel adventure.
Your ongoing work and mission is to respond to God’s plea in the little girl and in our hurting and broken world. Joseph could have turned back, remaining secure in the law as understood in Scripture, with Mary likely being stoned to death in shame. Instead, Joseph said yes and followed God’s call to the edge, risking his own reputation and family for the hope of the world.
So it is that we seek to be “a mansion prepared for himself,” whether it be Jesus in a manger, a little girl seeking communion, the stranger at our door, or the child within each of us, longing for God, asking for help. Trust the promise that God, Emmanuel, is with us. It will burst forth when we recognize ourselves called and used by God as part of the answer, just as Joseph was, when we are willing to follow strange and unexpected movements of God in Christ wherever they may take us.
Joseph was an answer to God’s prayer. You can be also.
Dear Faithful People of the Diocese of South Carolina,
“The Word became flesh and lived among us, …full of grace and truth.”
My heart is full. As these last days among you wind down and my time as your Bishop draws to a close, I am filled with nothing but gratefulness. I said yes to coming among you at the invitation of the Standing Committee three and one-half years ago, because I sensed this was a call from the Holy Spirit. I had to say yes in order to be faithful. There is nothing that has occurred along the way that has to me indicated otherwise.
In just a few days we celebrate once again that to which John’s Gospel points us: the Christ of all creation becoming flesh in Jesus. The One manifest in the animal food dish in a cave in Bethlehem incarnates the fullness of God in mercy, love and never-ending hope, no matter what the circumstances around us may bring. What I want you to know and never to forget is that you, the people of the Diocese of South Carolina, have been the face of God for me. You have, over and over again, been the evidence of the Word dwelling among us, for that dwelling occurs in each of us as the Christ of the Universe is made manifest in all and through all.
Bonnie and I will be forever thankful for this sojourn together in your midst. Know how deeply touched we were, even overwhelmed, by the generosity of your gift to us as we part. Thank you too for all of the well-wishes, cards and gifts that have come our way this Advent. Please know, however, that more than anything, it is the gift of you that we celebrate most of all.
I pray for you a most blessed and holy Christmastide. Celebrate well. Rejoice deeply. Adore God’s beauty. Love one another. Trust fully that the Word was made flesh and does indeed live among you. I’ve seen it!
In the love of Jesus, the gift of the Manger,
Third Sunday of Advent: December 15, 2019
We are continually by disturbing images from around the world and within our own country: a politically deeply divided nation; horrific expressions of anti-Semitism most recently in Jersey City; embedded institutional racism; escalating and rampant gun violence; multiple wars and the even the more real threat of domestic terrorism. It seems at times that the world has gone crazy. This shopping season leading up to Christmas is not enough of an anesthesia to relieve the fear and anxiety with which many are living.
Confronted with the constant reminders of the brokenness of the world, Advent arrives as a gift, seeking to take us in search of a place that longs for a new possibility. We call it hope. assaulted
Isaiah the prophet was writing to a people who were in danger of losing their moral and national identity. It was a world in political turmoil as they were threatened by the rising power of Assyria. Right in the midst of their own struggles, however, Isaiah holds before them images of a hopeful future with a complete reversal of their circumstances. “The wilderness and dry land shall be glad, the desert shall blossom…and rejoice with joy and singing. To those “who are of a fearful heart,” they are offered the words, “Be strong. Do not fear. Here is your God.” Even today’s reading from the Psalms, the hymnal of the Hebrew people, resounds with a word of hope: “Happy are they whose hope is in the Lord their God.”
Then we get Matthew’s great vision through John the Baptist that God reverses everything, coming in the midst of the conflict with the religious and political rulers of his day. Jesus calls him a prophet, that is, a truth teller, even and perhaps especially when it is inconvenient to do so. He points to the dream of God as offered by Jesus and we get the glimpse today that it means, at least in part, “…the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” In other words, anyone despised and discounted and marginalized, even those counted as dead to the world, are offered a place with God.
The Advent scriptures are infused with hope in the face of the world’s evil, even as we long for what has not yet been fully realized. We get a sense of this longing for hope in the midst of an anguished present when we listen to people from the margins, the ones to whom John the Baptist and the other prophets are always pointing us. I read a moving account told by a Syrian mother who had come to the United States with her family, fleeing the violence of her country and the murder of her 7 year old son. It was heart wrenching. She, her husband and three girls were waiting with bated breath for that one rescuing word of welcome to a new home of hopefulness in the United States. The promise of release and freedom, daring to stare down hopelessness: this is the quality of Advent.
The annals of former slaves tell us this is how they survived the cotton fields and the brutality of slave owners, that is, by staying centered in the promise of restoration and God’s new future. Slave ships came to capture. God comes to set people free.
So what do we do now, in this in-between time of Jesus having come to us in Bethlehem and the yet to be fulfillment of God Kingdom, God’s full reign, on earth? After all, we pray, nearly very day, “Thy Kingdom come,” do we not? The Letter of James encourages us to be patient, just like a farmer waits for a crop. But note this is not a patience of passivity. Celebrating 50 years as a parish is a wonderful thing to mark and celebrate to be sure. Such anniversaries are also times to refocus and be clear about why we are here. We know we have work to do.
Our Advent call is the transformation of the now. We persevere as a community of faith, “strengthening our hearts” as James would tell us in the Epistle, and “As an example of suffering and patience…take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” With the prophets we dare to speak the truth even when costly to do so, then seek to do something about it. It is part of what those coming forward today are promising to be and do. As Henri Nouwen once said, “You are a Christian only so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come.” Such a hope is not born in mere optimism that things will eventually get better. It is born in God, or even, God born in us. The Kingdom of God is already here within us, right here at St. Stephen’s!
In this way we are always an Advent people—unsatisfied with the way things are when they are less than God’s hope for the world. I trust it is why you care so much for the community around you in your outreach efforts to which you are so deeply committed. We are to be God’s change agents who work to tear down every wall that would separate and divide God’s people as we usher in ever more fully a community of God’s all-embracing love.
Our hope is in the One whose birth we celebrate in ten days. We belong to a God shown forth in the child of Bethlehem who promises that the end is already secure. We seek to change the world now as an act of thanksgiving for the promised One to come. Our hope, past, present and future, is held in Christ Jesus as we hear one more time those audacious words from Isaiah: “Be strong, do not fear, here is your God.” It may be the most radical thing you can do. It starts right here in North Myrtle Beach.
The Second Sunday of Advent: December 8, 2019
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” And so Isaiah begins today.
A stump – what used to be a tree, given up for dead. What was once a proud, living thing, with deep roots and vast spreading branches – A metaphor for Israel in its glory years under King David – powerful, influential, clearly in God’s favor, was no more. Now only a stump, a remnant of what was. Israel had been a tree of promise. Now, a stump.
Some 730 years later it hadn’t changed a whole lot when John the Baptist comes along. His words of judgment declare the axe is lying at the fruit of the tree and if there was no promise of fruit – it would be cut down, made into a stump.
Now here we are, some 2,000 years beyond that, and we find many of us struggling to live under the burden of a dead tree, a stump, that once held such promise:
Perhaps it is a broken relationship, the death of a loved one, a bad diagnosis, a lost job, depression. Once what held so much promise has been ripped away. It can feel as if an axe has been swung and only a stump is left. Of course this sense goes beyond us as individuals. An endless war in Afghanistan, the proliferation of increasingly powerful storms and the subsequent devastation; senseless killings of children in our schools embedded in the violence of our culture; our cynicism toward a dysfunctional Congress, seemingly unable to work together for the good of the country.
So with all of this, my experience is that what most of us are looking for, especially when we dare to come through the doors of a place of worship, is hope. Hope in the midst of the brokenness as we look for the green shoot of life to appear out of the stump, whether it be in our personal life or in the world about us.
I think that is why we love baptisms, babies being born, marriages ordinations, and confirmations such as we are celebrating today. These are all signs of hope! All of you receiving the laying on of hands today are to be signs of hope for one another and the world. You, me, the Church, even when we struggle, are called to be a sacrament of hope, an outward and visible sign of new life coming to bear through the hearts and life of the people of Holy Communion. So we yearn for something beyond the superficial, seeking to be engaged in things that really matter in order that it makes a difference in us and in the world.
But of course there is a problem. Life disappoints us. We disappoint each other. Expectations are not realized. We elect people to office and they disappoint. One war ends and another begins. Those baptized, confirmed and married fall short of the promises and vows they make. Even the Church, itself to be a sign of hope, can disappoint as it fails in God’s mission to be the Body of Christ on the earth.
You see, hope is more than desiring the best or mere wishful thinking. It is even more than seeking a spiritual relationship with God by well-intentioned people such as you. But how? How do we see hope in the midst of this life when so much can seem like a lifeless stump when we are feeling overwhelmed by all that tears us apart?
Look for a moment at the Diocese of Haiti. Numerically it is the largest Diocese of the Episcopal Church. I have had the privilege of traveling there several times to show solidarity in the midst of their suffering. To see the poverty of that country, the devastation after hurricanes and earthquakes, if anyone has a reason not to hope it is they. What one finds when engaging the people however, is hope. Every celebration of the Eucharist I have attended there, every Bible study and prayer group, is filled with life, expectation and a zeal for hope. I have experienced similar sensibilities whether it be in the people fleeing violence in El Salvador or in the squalor of Calcutta, India—hope, even joy, rooted in something beyond their immediate circumstances.
Or look at the example of Nelson Mandela. 27 years behind bars. Beat down. Tortured. But what is the enduring gift of his life? Hope! Isaiah places his hope in the one coming as the spirit of the Lord rests on him. – wisdom and understanding, righteousness and faithfulness. The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the child over the pit of the poisonous snake. The point of these images is that in God every relationship is remade, renewed, changed!! For John the Baptist, the axe is the symbol of the possibility of new life after the dead, unpromising, lifeless wood is taken away.
All of this leads to the unmistakable truth of this Second Sunday of Advent. Our hope is not in a program, or good intentions, trying harder, being more spiritual or in anything else. It is to be found in the One who is coming and whom we adore this day. Isaiah looked for God to raise up a new leader for God’s people. John the Baptist announced that he had arrived. We know him as Jesus the Christ, born in Bethlehem. We dare to proclaim in every Advent that our hope is in Jesus, for the promise of God’s vision of justice for all people was born fully in him. All is reconciled through him. The stump of life, personal and that of the world, only has meaning as it rests in the hope of the One who is the Prince of Peace as he is the shoot emerging out of that stump.
Perhaps the prayer of Advent is the scariest of all for us to pray: “God, put your axe to my life and take away all that is not of you, so that I may know that my hope rests only in you.” Our response? Go. Pray it, live it, act it, on earth as it is in heaven.
The Last Sunday After Pentecost: November 24, 2019
Today we have two theological threads woven through this liturgy. You are probably aware that this Last Sunday after Pentecost, immediately preceding the First Sunday of Advent, always has a theme, an emphasis, on Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords. We find this in the Collect as well as in the Scriptures for the day, each year bringing its own distinct biblical emphasis
The other is the anticipation of the feast of Thanksgiving coming this week, the highest volume travel day of any in the United States. We hear this theme picked up primarily in today’s hymns, yet also in the Scriptures if you look hard enough. I don’t believe, however, that these themes are mutually exclusive. Let me tell you what I mean.
A question for you: What kind of King, what kind of Lord is Jesus of Nazareth as discovered in today’s lessons? We do not today discover him enthroned in splendor, robed in glorious apparel and crown, with courts tending to his every need as in some visions of royalty. We don’t find another royal figure next to him—only two criminals. No, we discover him reigning from the wood of the Cross, the terrorist instrument of intimidation and death of the Roman government. The sign above him extolling “King of the Jews,” is meant to mock, deride and discredit. What does this teach us about what kind of King and Lord we have?
In Luke we have revealed to us a monarch anointed to be one of infinite mercy. Not only does he ask God to forgive his torturers “for they do not know what they are doing,” he also declares mercy on the thief who acknowledged his own brokenness, going so far as to say he will be with him that day in Paradise. This is no ordinary King. This is one not exercising his rightful power and authority, even when taunted to do so. This is a Sovereign who is emptying himself for the sake of the other.
Jesus, as described in Colossians, is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” They hold together because what emanates from him is mercy. What is declared from the throne of the Cross is forgiveness, costly love, and an embrace that knows no bounds. Hear Jeremiah’s words from the God of whom Jesus is the perfect image: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold…and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”
Wow. What a promise. What a hope. No fear, no dismay, none missing. What do we do with such a vision? Colossians gives us a hint: “…may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while (here it comes) joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” Gazing upon Jesus reigning from the throne of the Cross, our response is to give thanks.
Some years ago now I was in downtown Amman, Jordan. I had bought bread at a bakery and I noticed the bag had words on it: tak; tack; grazis; gracias; merci. One word, in Greek, stood out more than the others—eucharisto, used to say thank you on the streets of ancient Greece. The great prayer of the Church, offered here again in just a few minutes, is called what—The Great Thanksgiving, Eucharist.
As Christians we have “Thanksgiving,” Eucharist, every Sunday, some every day. Our offering of gratefulness is not a mere feeling or thought or sentiment. For us it is to offer our thanks to someone, God, shown to us perfectly on the Cross as King of kings and Lord of lords. When we say grace or offer a blessing over the meal this coming Thursday, and I trust you will, we are acknowledging the source from which it all comes and being acutely aware that everything is gift, that it all comes from our Creator God. Thanksgiving, for us who follow Jesus, is centered in our response to a concrete historical moment at the place of The Skull where the Lord of creation was executed.
Most of us cannot carry an intensity of awareness of a grateful heart every moment of every day, but we do set aside times to pay attention whether a sacramental celebration on this altar or a national day. Victor Frankel, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, relates his concentration camp experience and speaks of what he calls “the intensification of inner life” that came over prisoners—sunsets out a window, lines of poems and the most ordinary actions of the past, like riding a bus, answering the phone, turning on the lights, then becoming filled with a sense of beauty, longing, and thanksgiving.”
When has this happened for you? It often happens to me when I am fly-fishing out in the beauty of creation, sitting in quiet prayer, sometimes right in the middle of a Eucharist, a funeral, sitting around a table with loved ones, at the bedside of a dying friend. As Christians we gather this week to say “thanks be to God” for all that is, seen and unseen, our lives, the bounty we share, but most of all and uniquely for us for the gift of Jesus who lived, died and rose again, celebrated today as King of kings and Lord of lords.
As you gather around the feast of this Thursday, may it be a day when you find yourself called to live in the world in thanksgiving for the gift of God in Christ, and never forget who God says you are, who your neighbor is, and who calls you.
This address is a celebration and an invitation. It is a celebration of all of you, the clergy and people and all the other faithful back in our parishes who have endured, kept the faith of Christ crucified and risen, and worked so hard, all the while secure in the hope to which God calls us. I will be forever grateful to God for being given the time to serve with you and among you as your bishop these three and a half years. The Episcopal Church thanks you. All who care about the Good News of a life-giving, liberating and loving God—thanks you.
In the midst of celebrating, I also issue an invitation. It comes from Hymn #390 that we know so well. It begins, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.” And that is indeed our first response to God’s grace—to worship. The invitation I hold out today comes toward the end of the third verse. “Ponder anew, what the Almighty can do, who with his love doth befriend thee.”
Yes, I am inviting you to “Ponder anew!” Ponder anew what God can do in us and through us as we continue to do the work God has given us to do, to reformulate, to reconfigure, to reimagine what a diocese can be in service of Christ and the Kingdom he is always calling forth. It might even be an awe-inducing possibility we are being given by God to hold things deeply in new ways, while remaining rooted in our history. Listen again to our local saint, William Alexander Guerry: “It has been the glory of Christianity that from the beginning it has shown itself capable of change and development.” This has been happening all throughout the Church’s history, but we are called by the Spirit to continue that conversation in our time, in this place, even allowing our most deeply held assumptions, norms and habits of thinking to be transformed as we become the new creation God is always calling us to be.
So I turn now, and you might think this odd, to the parable of the fig tree in Luke’s Gospel, 13:6-9. As recounted by Luke, it varies in slightly different ways in placement and content as compared to Matthew and Mark. Allow me to refresh your memory of what it says:
“Jesus told this parable: A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For
three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down. Why should it be wasting the soil!’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Now, in order to even invite myself to ponder this parable anew with you, I must look at my experience of a fig tree. As a boy in Baltimore, I have fond memories of such a tree in the backyard of my childhood home. My father and I planted the tree together, as we would other trees over the years. I found the shape of the leaves intriguing, especially as the tree grew over a period of my young years from the ages of four to eight. Pretending to be my favorite Baltimore Oriole, Brooks Robinson, we were careful when playing catch or rundown in the smallish backyard not to damage those precious stems and leaves. I remember the coming spring of the first full year of the tree’s presence in our yard and the expectation of fruit. I also remember the disappointment when no fruit appeared. Hope did not dim, however, and we waited, this boy not so patiently, to see what might be different the next year.
So the next early summer arrived and as the days lengthened, there it was! Hope identified and taking shape. From the infancy of a hard pale green knob, the fruit would mature to take on a violet glow as the flesh of the fig expanded into expectant ripeness. If walking near the tree, an aroma like that of honey would draw me into its spell. I wonder if any of you have ever eaten a sun-warmed fig, seemingly ready to jump from the stem into one’s mouth?
I would look for the fattest ones, the ones just beginning to show a split in the outer skin, signaling that when pierced by one’s first bite, the explosion of sweetness that occurred when breaking through would not only delight the palate, but the soul as well. Julian of Norwich saw the fullness of the Kingdom of God in a hazelnut. I saw it in a fig. And it was VERY GOOD.
So it is with such an experience in mind that I view the man as he comes upon the fig tree in this parable. Surely it is my projection, but since he too in his life must have tasted the wonder of a succulent fig, he must have been disappointed to find no fruit on the tree, just as I was that first year. Whatever the reason for its barrenness, I invite us to ponder anew this parable to help us look at our present time in the life of the Diocese.
What I see in this story from Jesus is an invitation to hope. That is just what you decided to do after the 2012 rending of the Diocese. The reason for the barrenness of the tree, the reasons for the split may have some important things to tell us, but the wonderful truth is the tree is still there and so are we! Talk about no immediate fruit being apparent, I am told that on the first days after the schism things were pretty basic. You were looking for a phone and a phone number. Reflecting on the stories I have heard from so many of you, I see the Spirit was calling forth people to pay attention and move away from ways of being that did not give life. In the words of Robert Farrar Capon, this parable shows us that “grace remains sovereign over judgment.”
What we find is that this is a parable of compassion where the barrenness holds a promise. And where was the promise found? Of course in the beauty and power of God, but to flesh it out more thoroughly and quite literally, the promise was found in the tree that was still there—all of you! The presence of Christ in you: those who gathered on boat docks to worship, in funeral homes, in motels and banks and strip malls and churches of other denominations; those of you who endured the pain in your parishes of losing members and doing the hard work of rebuilding; a vibrant parish church coming forward to take on the mantle of being the Cathedral, stepping up to lead in generosity and vision without which we would be all the poorer as the people of God. Of course we are celebrating all of this and more; every unnamed person who continued to carry on as faithful witnesses of Christ under the banner of The Episcopal Church. I remember fondly my first Provincial meeting with some of you when our group representing The Episcopal Church in South Carolina as we were known, stood up in one voice to say, “We’re still here!” And that we are.
The parable helps us to leave open the possibility of next year, even as we continue to wait for decisions largely out of our immediate control. It lights a fire of hope for all that can yet be. Look how far we’ve come. As long as there is a tree, even a barren one, there is hope. Too often we look at barrenness as a malady rather than the invitation and promise that it is. Pondering anew and rethinking and reimagining what can be is the digging and good old manure of the parable. And let me tell you, when one can look at a manure pile like the one that used to be outside of Bonnie’s and my old horse barn and see hope, that is saying something.
Our call now is to continue to anticipate a new future in Christ that is always unfolding. We’re not trying to rebuild what was. I wonder. What if we shifted our models of leadership, lay and ordained, from merely being the ones who run the place and keep order, to center on being leaders of transformational communities? What if we tend to moving from board culture to mission and ministry culture? Jesus knew the taste of the fig and it is the fullness of God among us. This is not looking through rose-colored glasses—this is the promise of the Gospel.
Perhaps one of the gifts of the split, that initial sense of barrenness, has been a crucible where we have learned once again of our complete dependence on God. Think of the Hebrew people in the wilderness. It was in the wilderness where it was revealed to God what was in the depths of their heart. They were being taught, and maybe us too, that self-sufficiency is not the way to life, but it is to be found in a complete dependence upon God’s mercies. It was there that Israel’s identity was forged. I hope that this is true for us as well.
Can we ponder anew the possibility that the barrenness we have experienced in legal decisions and waiting, and waiting, and waiting, on property decisions are a part of the fabric of our life. We are being asked to bear it for all those who are not yet a part of us and if we are so graced, our hearts will be broken open to new possibilities of hope and grace and love. We never know fully where the great risk of radical love will takes us, but to hear again from Julian of Norwich, “Love was his meaning.” We dare to “ponder anew” with the help of the Almighty, “who with his love doth befriend thee.”
If we are able to ponder anew these past seven years, and our time together for three and a half of that, and see it as a time God has brought forth a gift and a call, we respond differently than if we see it only as tragedy and threat. There are no magic answers to be sure. Answers will come forth from our faith communities as they already have, in our living and in our developing relationships.
Our operating metaphor as Christians is death and resurrection. It requires that something dies, becomes barren, so that new life can come forth. In an interview not long ago Bob Dylan said this, “There is the old and the new and you have to connect to them both. The old goes out and the new comes in, but there is no sharp borderline. The old is still ending while the new enters the scene…before you know it, everything is new, and what happened to the old? It’s like a magician’s trick, but you have to keep connecting to it.” Standing at the brink of Advent and Christmas, we must never forget that Jesus’ birth was about radically transforming the earth with the kingdom of God: the Good News of liberation for all.
Ponder anew! One of my hopes in my time among you has been that you would know you are loved, first by God, and yes by me. I have desired that we would remain steadfast in Christ and know his presence among us, always calling forth new possibilities that we couldn’t even see for ourselves. I have desired to be a person of prayer and always calling us to, “Lift up our hearts,” possessing a a deep sense of our hearts and God’s heart joined and beating as one—to see as Jesus sees, love as Jesus loves, to desire what Jesus desires.
I remain hopeful for all that is yet to be in your life as The Diocese of South Carolina. We’ve been eating some great figs already, yet I see the promise of fruit yet to be realized. I want to encourage you to keep a sense of wonder all around you. Diane Ackerman said that, “Wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table. Even a tiny fleck of it,” she says, “stops time.”
I want to leave you with wonder in the God who befriends you and wonder, even awe, in what you have been able to accomplish. My heart is full as Bonnie and I take leave of you. It’s hardly enough to say what a privilege it has been to be your bishop. “I love you,” says it best.
To the staff of our diocese: Callie, Lauren, Andrea, Holly and now Molly, Bill: It’s been a joy and honor. Ponder anew.
To our legal team: Tom, Katie, Jason, and others unseen. I have learned much. You have guided us well. Ponder anew.
To the clergy of our diocese: none better and I am so grateful for the ordained life we share. Ponder anew.
As you continue to secure successive episcopal leadership: ponder anew.
For our youth, in thanksgiving for your ministry among us and openness to all you have to teach us about being the people of God: ponder anew.
In the hard work of racial healing and reconciliation, education reform and addressing the scourge of gun violence: continue the great work being done and ponder anew.
As congregations rejoin us and Christ’s reconciling presence takes shape in unexpected ways: Ponder anew.
And to every person who stepped up in leadership on the diocesan level and with whom I have had the privilege of serving beside these past years: keep the faith, yet ponder anew.
The abundance of the fig tree, full of ripe figs as a feast for our eyes, is before us. Enjoy it. Savor it. For you are the beloved people of God and there is an infinite orchard of figs yet to be harvested. We are beckoned by God. Celebrate. And the invitation? “Ponder anew, what the Almighty can do, who with his love doth befriend thee.”
The Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost: November 10, 2019
The situation of today’s Gospel is an ongoing testing by some of the religious authorities as to Jesus’ theology and his orthodoxy. Where have we heard that before? In this case we are speaking of the Sadducees whose authority was from Scripture to be sure, but limited to the Pentateuch, that is, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, Genesis through Deuteronomy.
They think they’ve got him! With a tricky question, the Sadducees think they’ve caught Jesus in a conundrum out of which he cannot argue and will thereby uphold their theological position that there is no resurrection from the dead. It raises the question, does it not, of whether life can arise from death?
So by using the example of the levirate marriage practices of the day, where a man would be obligated to marry his brother’s widow, the Sadducees seek to uphold the position that the next life is nothing more than a continuation of this one and needs human propagation so that it doesn’t die out. Jesus’ response calls this perspective into question.
To be sure, resurrection is an absurd notion. It is not mere resuscitation or reanimation. One of my New Testament professors at Virginia Seminary, Doctor Reginald Fuller, was known to say that, “Resurrection signals the active work of a divine sovereign to be bring about a complete psychosomatic transformation of the human body.” We’re not even talking about immortality of the soul here. Resurrection as understood in the Christian context is an entire new creation, a whole new thing, “resurrection of the body,” as we hear from the Creeds.
Jesus shows his authority by interpreting the Mosaic law, even using an example from the Pentateuch to challenge the notions of the Sadducees. He is showing forth his faith and confidence in the life-giving power of God whom he is proclaiming. He reached into the tradition and gave a bold new perspective, a whole new way of understanding what God is about. It leads to the awareness that the afterlife is different from life on earth, because the world we know is not all there is.
Isn’t that good news! The reality you I can see is not the only reality there is. I remember a moment when I was a boy that brought this home to me in an unexpected way. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s when the threat of nuclear annihilation of the planet was ever-present. I recall having air raid drills when we would crawl under our desks or go into the hallway to place our hands behind our necks in a crouched position, as if that really would have protected us. One day I was watching something on TV about nuclear threats and the commentator said that in the vent of an attack, all would be wiped out except some populations of insects, especially cockroaches. This very much unsettled this 8 year-old boy, and I went to my dad who was working in the garden and told him what I had heard. I’ve never forgotten his response. “I understand why this might upset you, but never forget that God came to us as a person, not an insect. God gives life, not death.” Whoa!
Jesus is teaching not only the Sadducees, but us today that we are always a part of something, held in God’s love, that is much bigger than anything we can observe. In times like ours this can give us hope, for what we see is not all there is. The Nicene Creed calls us to believe in God, the creator of all that is, “seen and unseen.” Outside the Pentateuch, in the later teaching of Job we hear today, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.” That’s resurrection of the body! Those words also happen to be the opening anthem of the funeral liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer.
A couple of weeks ago Bonnie and I trekked with some dear friends across parts of the Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg and France. As we entered many beautiful churches along the way, some as old as the 12th and 13th centuries, I was reminded once again that you and I are here because of a great repository of faith from over the centuries. Through challenges of schisms, abuses of power, and yes even questionable theological teaching, the Church of God is still here, you at All Saints, Hampton being the local example.
As the three folks come forward for the Laying on of Hands, you join that great history of all who have gone before and all who will yet be a part of the Body of Christ. You participate in God’s great vision as we participate in the power of the Spirit to know and be known, to remember and be remembered, to lavish love and to receive love, to dine on Jesus in the fellowship of those who live in him. It is why we sing the hymns and pray the prayers.
The promise of resurrection is our gateway to hope and it is at the heart of the reason the Church exists. Jesus told the Sadducees and he says to us, “Now he is God, not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” As you go to sleep this night, perhaps you can rest from your labors secure in the knowledge that what we see is not all there is. Death is swallowed up in the victory of God’s love as found in Jesus. This is God’s Good News and it sets us free.
All Saints Sunday
November 3, 2019
A little over a week ago I had the fun of being in Paris, France, winding up a long-planned although delayed 40th wedding anniversary celebration. Bonnie and I took one afternoon to make the journey by the funicular railway up to Montmartre, the hill on the northern side of the city where the glorious Basilica of the Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) sits overlooking most of Paris.
Surrounded by the mystique of the beauty of that grand edifice and knowing that artists such as Renoir, Monet, Picasso, van Gogh and Matisse lived and worked in the area, only added to the awe-filled experience of entering such a magnificent structure. Walking down one side aisle and noticing a striking multi-colored beam of light radiating through the stained glass, the colorful array landed on a pillar and was reflected off of a piece of glass on a stand next to it. Taking a closer look, I was pleasantly surprised to see these words, first in French and translated to say: “I am a Christian. What have I done with the grace of my baptism?” Oh my gosh, here was this historic place, one more time, calling the people of God, All the Saints, into deeper faithfulness in response to the gift of one’s baptism.
That is what we are doing here today on All Saints Sunday and as we celebrate a new ministry among a priest and people for the mission realities of 21st century Hilton Head Island, the Diocese of South Carolina, and yes, for the country and world. This particular configuration of people gathered here today has never before existed on the face of the planet. God is giving you now another opportunity to live into the grace of your calling as the baptized. You, as we heard today in Ephesians and will renew in the Baptismal Covenant in a few minutes, have been “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” Daniel proclaims, in the face of great turmoil and threat, that “the holy ones,” that includes you by the way, “shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever.” That is the promise of your baptism, hearing again in Ephesians, “the hope to which (God) has called you.”
Today we catch a glimpse of that hope in what we call in Luke the Sermon on the Plain, a version of the Sermon on the Mount of the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel. It is a different context and probably a different audience as it comes through Luke’s eyes. It is directed primarily to those with some means and with many possessions. Listen in to the challenging words of this Gospel as they shape the ministry to which we are called. I wonder if you might consider how each of these could be embraced, incarnated if you will, in the ministry of All Saints Church through the grace of your baptism into Christ.
First, we find that the Kingdom of God belongs to “the poor,” those who have little enough to offer in God’s service and who have no temptation to boast of what they have or what they are—yet who give themselves in trust to God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now.” Those not participating in prosperity might have a keen interest for God’s justice to take root in all the world, in the created order itself. Luke is seeking the vindication of all who suffer and calling us to make the changes necessary in the world order so that God’s agenda can be established for every human being.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” pointing to the great reversal that Jesus continually calls forth. We hear it in parable after parable, perhaps taught on his mother Mary’s knee as she sings in what we know as the Magnificat, “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
“Blessed are you when people hate you...and when they revile you.” All because of our first loyalty to God, we are clear about the responsibilities of being baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, having a sense of the cost of this ministry to which we are called. We die with him in order to be raised with him. I would go so far as to say if there is no cost to who we are in Christ, than we are likely missing something of Jesus’ call on our life.
In the end, such mission perspectives are rooted in grace, that is, because of the mercy and love given to us, we seek with all of our being to offer the same to every person of God. It is to participate as part of our answer to the prayer Jesus taught us, that God’s Kingdom might come and be known “on earth, as it is in heaven.” This is the work of this parish of All Saints. It is why God has called Denise to be among you as your Rector as you, together, offer your gifts to God in thanksgiving for all God has given you in his great embrace.
All Saints, this day of celebration, the name of this parish, and each of you as God’s baptized saints, are called into the depths of God’s love. Your first virtue is to be nothing more or nothing less than simple yet profound faithfulness. All Saints Sunday celebrates the innumerable company of people who have responded to God’s call by quiet and honest service, not for recognition, but out of faith. Today we recommit ourselves to the great company of saints, in gratitude for all that has gone before and in all that is yet to be. You do so now, in this unique configuration of God’s people called All Saints Church.
You are God’s blessed ones. What will you do with the grace of your baptism?
Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost: October 13, 2019
In our encounter with Jesus today, we once again find him journeying in and through places he was not supposed to be, and meeting with people he was not supposed to know. Galilee was certainly familiar territory, but Samaria, gosh, the people there didn’t worship in the correct way and worst of all, they were foreigners. Then we introduce lepers, ten of those poor souls in the Gospel reading and the infliction of Naaman, the mighty warrior in 2 Kings. Lepers, of all people, were social outcasts and seen often as less than human.
During my own life I have discovered that I have been most changed by two things: Being in places this middle class white boy would not ordinarily find himself, and meeting with people with whom I was not to be associated. I am thinking about when I spent some time working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, going to minister with her and others in a leper colony a few miles north of the city.
Not unlike the culture found in 2 Kings and in Jesus’ day, lepers in Calcutta are shunned, marked as unclean. They are the untouchables. If one goes to Leviticus 13 and 14, you will find verse upon verse about how to deal with leprous people as well as their clothing. I hopped on a packed Calcutta train headed out of the city to the north, in itself quite an experience. Disembarking and then walking up the railroad tracks to where I was told the leper colony was, I came upon women and children kneeling between the tracks making patties out of cow dung which after drying all day in the sun would be burned as fuel for cooking purposes. Then, after walking another couple hundred yards as I got closer to the leper’s housing, I heard a strange repeating clacking sound that got louder and louder as I drew near.
Coming upon the entrance to the first building, I saw two rows of residents operating looms. What I was hearing was the shuttle on the loom going back and forth. Many of the people had partial arms and legs, many missing parts of their noses and/or lips, the results of ravages of leprosy. It was later that I found out that this work producing cloth, some of it the familiar blue and white worn by the nuns of Mother Teresa’s Order, gave the people dignity. Before then there was a constant issue of fighting between families over territory and commodities. The meaningful work brought mutual respect and dignity. A sense of self-worth followed, clearly important, even essential, to people who had been told they had no worth.
Then I went down another hall and heard some men singing. They too had bodies that had been deeply scarred by leprosy. I asked one of the nuns what was being sung and I was told the rough translation was, “Jesus, we who have no hands, you are our hands. Jesus, we who have no feet, you are our feet. Jesus, we who have no eyes, you are our eyes. Jesus, you are our everything.” I was stunned. Yes, they had found their worth and dignity when given meaningful work by the Christians who ministered among them, but even more, they found that there is a God who loves them. Contrary to what many had told them, it is God who defines their worth.
This is what is happening in today’s Gospel and it comes up over and over again throughout the Scriptures. This is the great reversal of Jesus’ ministry, giving honor and love to the least, the last, the untouchable, the outcast. Because it was his ministry it is our ministry as well, as we are the Body of Christ on this earth. We mark and sacramentalize this truth in those receiving the laying on of hands today.
Look how it plays out in 2 Kings. Naaman, a great warrior, has contracted a leprous skin disease. Who is the one who opens the possibility of cleansing, healing, and hope to this Gentile enemy? A little girl, from, here again, the margins, calling forth the prophet in Samaria of all places! Nothing good could come out of Samaria the religious teachers of the day would have thought. Without her as an instrument there would have been no healing. This was an intervention from below, from the minimized, the little ones, the less valued, and it moves to God’s great healing. Even Naaman’s misconception on how God works shifts to apprehension when he recognizes the God of Israel as his deliverer.
Then in the Gospel we find again what it means to follow Jesus, which is St. Luke’s point. From where does the gratitude for healing come? The one leper. Where is he from? You guessed it. Samaria! Are you catching a theme here? Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem, scriptural code meaning he was going to where he would die. By traveling between Samaria and Galilee, even engaging a person from that territory, he was crossing the high and solid religious and cultural boundaries of separation that had been set up. He was about taking them down. It was only the Samaritan who sees and understands and returns to Jesus. Luke draws his hero from outside the chosen. Its about the continual need for our conversion, always turning back to Jesus as we find that what was promised in 2 Kings is fulfilled in him.
We have a Lord who two millennia ago was busy blowing the doors off the constricting, life-draining, dignity denying religious approaches that kept God’s people captive. It got him killed. Sometimes in the life of the Church it appears that we spend a lot of time trying to put the doors back on. Why? What are we afraid of? That someone might get saved who we think doesn’t deserve it?
Dear friends—none of us deserves it. But isn’t that the great Good News of Christ? As the Collect for today says so beautifully, it is God’s grace that precedes and follows us. We are surrounded by and immersed in grace! 2 Timothy tells us that when “we are faithless, he remains faithful!” More good news!
The wholeness of Naaman was found in the loving God who we discover in Jesus. The leper who returned to Jesus in gratefulness, his wholeness was found in Jesus. Through our baptism we died with him so that we might live, even now, with him. Where do we find our wholeness, our hope? It is found in Jesus. Now let’s celebrate.
Seventeeth Sunday After Pentecost: October 6, 2019
Click here for a video recording of the Bishop's sermon at St. Catherine's.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” What a heartfelt prayer offered by Jesus’ inner circle of friends as they faced opposition, challenging circumstances and an unknown future. And here we are! They desire an ever-deepening trust in the goodness and grace of God as shown forth in Jesus, a grace that restores and renews in the face of trying times.
“Increase our faith” might be our prayer here at St. Catherine’s as well as you continue to face trying circumstances and as yet an unknown future. You’ve continued to hang in and be faithful people representing the Episcopal Church and our diocese in this part of God’s vineyard. But you and others are tired. The way is not always easy. I wonder if you heard Habakkuk’s words as they might apply to your reality? I thought they were quite striking.
To give some context, Habakkuk the prophet is writing in a time of the decline of the threat of Assyria and the eventual fall of Jerusalem. Israel is dealing with the breakdown of justice and order (some things just don’t change). Habakkuk’s message is to bring assurance of the power of God in human history, even when it appears God is silent, affirming God’s purpose is being worked out in history despite evidence to the contrary in any given moment. Lord, “Increase our faith!”
Listen to Habakkuk’s words again with me and think of our diocesan context as well as yours here at St. Catherine’s:
“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen...Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble...So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails…Then the Lord answered me and said: …for there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”
Fascinating yes!? It seems to describe so well parts of our present context. Although Habakkuk is speaking of nations and the survival of Israel and we are talking about parishes and a diocese, we do so for the same reason, which is, in order to be a voice of God’s justice, beauty and hope, the liberating Good News that sets God’s people free—every single one.
It was the mission of Jesus and therefore it is our mission to be a people who embody ever more fully and radiate ever more clearly that pure and unbounded love, who is God. Yet we often don’t get it just as the apostles often did not get it. We’re no different than they. We often struggle with what it means to be faithful. We pray for an increase, a deepening of faith and trust in the One who is the ground of our being in order to, among other things, resist the destructive and oppositional forces swirling all around them and us. Jesus uses the image of a mulberry tree that I’m told has an incredibly extensive root system and therefore would be nearly impossible to uproot much less replant in deep water. The point being: genuine faith can bring about quite unexpected things. What we cannot do is presume upon God’s graciousness as if we deserve it. It is all gift. Then out of the pure joy that comes from a grateful heart, we put our faith into action.
When you at St. Catherine’s committed yourself to being a faithful remnant of Episcopalians, you did not know fully what lay before you. You and all of us hoped it would be for the relatively short term. It has not turned out that way. It has been costly in all kinds of ways. But isn’t that the way of the Cross? Of course faithfulness is costly. This journey, your journey, is about more than property. It is about the integrity of the Gospel itself as we have received it.
Study after study of American religion is telling us that the time for casual Christianity is over. A recent report of The Pew Research Center says: “casual Christianity, the kind that is not lived deeply as a pattern of life, is losing legitimacy among young people because many Christians only speak the truth and fail to DO the truth.” “Increase our faith” can be our cry along with Jesus’ apostles.
Perhaps we need to metaphorically be uprooting some mulberry trees as bold ambassadors of Jesus. As a community of faith, we are called by God because we have a mission to celebrate and a love to share. Every Eucharistic celebration reminds us that our life is not primarily about the maintenance of an institution, nor about the management of an organization. It is about the challenging transformation of God’s people into the mystery of divine love in order to change the world. It is to be a part of the “Jesus movement” as our Presiding Bishop calls it.
Hear again St. Paul’s admonition in II Timothy today, to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self discipline.” Paul’s letter reminds that early Christian community of the faith handed down to them from Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice. You too are here because of folks who have handed down the faith to you.
As tired as we may be, the faith communities in Habakkuk, II Timothy and Luke, are being called to persevere. It is the way of the Cross. It is not easy. Yet we stay rooted in the hope of resurrection to come for again from II Timothy, we “know the one in whom I (we) have put our trust…Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” Lord, “Increase our faith.”
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.