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.”
The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost: September 29, 2019
Let’s have a little fun first, for things get heavy fast in today’s scriptures. Allow me a contemporary rewrite of the prophet Amos’ words to the leadership and upper classes of Zion:
“And for those who are at ease in the United States, and for those who feel secure in Okatie, Bluffton, and Beaufort;
Alas for those who lie on beds of high thread count sheets, and lounge on their finely upholstered couches, and eat aged beef flown in from Nebraska, and oysters and fresh fish from the sea;
Who sing idle songs streamed from Spotify, Pandora and iTunes, and like Taylor Swift auto-tune on instruments of music;
Who drink fine bourbons from leaded cut glass, and anoint themselves with the finest bath salts from Bed, Bath and Beyond, but are not grieved over the ruin of the least and lost of the world fleeing Central American violence, being destroyed by climate change, and losing jobs in Appalachia;
Therefore, the irresponsible rich will be the first to be deported, and the partying of those inattentive to the poor shall pass a way.”
See, I told you it would get pointed very quickly, reminding us that in the USA, if you own a home, you are more wealthy than 92 percent of the world’s people. Most of us are “the rich.”
Amos’ prophetic words would have been uncomfortably challenging to the people of Israel in his day. His place in scripture contains a clear emphasis on social justice, as he understood Israel’s religion, at its best, to be one that embraced the interconnection between our relationship to neighbor and our relationship to God. Amos was speaking truth to power, calling out those with abundant resources for treating the disadvantaged as they wished, and forgot the teaching that comes in covenant with God.
Even more, he spoke against those engaged in the suppression of truth-telling, those giving a deaf ear to the prophets, even trying to silence those who would risk speaking God’s bold truth. His dire warning, and he could be severe, was to those secure in their riches, not able to see beyond themselves, having forgotten the call of God on them for attention to the most vulnerable, and closing with the warning that those who deserve deportation are the idle rich, not the least of these.
With that, we can gaze upon the Gospel story in Luke that portrays similar truths. The great question posed by that account is, will the five brothers and the readers like us follow the example of the rich man, or heed Jesus’ teaching and that in the Hebrew Scriptures like Amos about the care of the needy, and thereby be children of Abraham?
This is serious stuff, yes? Let’s pose the question another way. How are we going to occupy this life and use the resources and gifts God has given us? Are we going to be fierce seekers of truth, or are we going to be contentedly complacent and thereby complicit in the harm being done to God’s people in our own cities, state, country and world? We can’t do everything and it can seem overwhelming, but we can do something. It is Amos’ and Jesus’ challenge to us.
Here’s one bold example. Have you heard of 16-year old Greta Thunberg? She appeared before the Swedish parliament more than a year ago and now has spoken before the United Nations and assemblies and symposiums around the world to voice her concerns about the threat of climate change. I don’t know what you think about that whole issue, and that it is not my point. My point is that she attempted to get off her couch and speak the truth as she sees it out of concern for the health of the entire world.
I believe in this case she is a kind of Amos, speaking truth to power and those who could be described as the most fortunate. She is calling them, us, to neighbor love, for we know that the changing climate disproportionately affects the poor and disadvantaged. It already is. Shockingly, in some quarters she has been ridiculed and told to go home and be “a good little girl” as she holds up the science before us. In some cases world leaders and political commentators, you can look up who, have attempted to shame her on newscasts and social media by attacking her appearance, her autism, her youth—all in an attempt to discount her truth. I’m not talking about politics here. This is Gospel work. In Timothy’s words, “…storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
I hope you can see here that today’s scriptures are not anti-rich. I Timothy tells us, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Not money itself—it’s how we use it. Likewise, Amos never says it is wrong to be rich. It is how we use it, or in that case, how we don’t use it for the good of our neighbor. Jesus teaches the same. The rich man is not faulted for his wealth, he is judged for his lack of compassion, for trivializing the plight of the suffering poor and the failure to offer the mercy extended to him while living.
It is impossible to store up contentment. We are called, however, to place our hope in God and nothing else, the place we find real and sustaining life. The Gospel again reminds us of the great reversal, the shocking paradox that the last and the least enter the Kingdom first. We know and proclaim that it is God who is enough for us all. This is the promise of Jesus. All is gift. We brought nothing into this world, and we will take nothing out of it. How will we live while on this earth?
Dear Good People of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
As you likely are aware, mediation conversations will begin in Charleston on Thursday, September 26, in hopes of implementing the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court from August 2017.
I know many of you are already doing so, but I invite everyone in our Diocese, individually and when gathered together in worship, to lift up in prayer all parties at the mediation table. While your prayers will be your own, I will pray that all who are present at mediation will be open to the Spirit’s presence, respectful of the dignity of each and every being, and that we will begin earnest preparation for a future that brings us all together in the spirit of reconciliation and unity under God.
Going into this meeting has for me a feel very much like Advent, a time of waiting, a time preparing for what is not yet seen. So it is that Scripture often used in Advent comes to mind: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40:3). By grace this is what we will seek to do.
Blessings and peace to you in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Gladstone B. Adams III
Bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina
The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost: September 15, 2019
Paul’s first letter to Timothy informs us that, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” I’m not inclined to harp on the sinner part too much. Most of us know that in some way we are broken if we have any self-awareness at all. I’d rather love people into the Gospel, however, rather than try and judge them into it. Yet, so that we have a common understanding here, I understand “sinner” to mean that we have a broken relationship with God and with each other that needs healing. We keep missing the mark of God’s vision for us and the whole earth. It is the vision of justice, peace and mercy for every single human being.
That’s why we get such stern words from the prophet Jeremiah, because we human beings always have and keep messing things up. “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” Well! That’s a message that will suck the wind out of a good party.
In response, God, rather than give up and abandon us, chooses in Jesus to “leap down from heaven” as is said in the ancient antiphon to the Song of Mary. Or, to quote from that wonderful Christmas hymn: “Love came down at Christmas.” Today’s Gospel/Good News gives us in a couple of parables what that passionate love of God looks like and it seems to me a perfect thing to remember in the midst of a celebration of a new relationship in ministry with Fred.
St. Luke portrays God’s love that looks like a shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after one that has become lost. God’s love also looks like a woman who sweeps the house, every single nook and cranny, to find the one lost coin. These are pictures of God’s pursuit of us. They sound great don’t they, even heartwarming? But please note—in neither case is this normal expected behavior, yet it is God’s behavior Jesus is telling us. As is often the case, Jesus turns expectations around in order to surprise us into a new vision that transforms us into Kingdom people. Here’s what I mean.
The shepherd goes off to find the one that strayed. Anyone listening to that parable would declare this to be an incompetent shepherd. No shepherd who knows what he’s doing would go off for just one. When he got back he wouldn’t have the 99! And of course in every day practice it is our tendency to write off the one lost and be thankful still to have the 99. We cut our losses. We might call it collateral damage. The religious righteous who are challenging Jesus would leave to their own devices, by expelling or shunning, those who wander off, those who don’t conform, those who won’t be like us.
That’s what the Pharisees did as their teaching was that it was better to stay with the 99. Jesus throws in the big reversal of a story as if it is normative behavior and shocks the stuffing out of them. You can be sure that it was not lost on the tax collectors and sinners, however, the ones on the edge who always experienced rejection.
Then of course there is the woman sweeping her house for the lost coin, again as if it is the norm. And it would be, for the poor. But the Pharisees? They wouldn’t waste their time. Jesus is telling of a God who gives of self, one who leaps down from heaven, dies for the one who looks most expendable or worthless to the rest. This is also not lost on the so-called tax collectors and sinners within earshot.
Jesus again overturns expectations, always challenging the norm with a new Kingdom possibility. What is being said here, in the words of a seven-year-old who had heard this Gospel and gave a succinct and clear interpretation: “God gets more happy from one person who messes up than a bunch who stay good.” Is that offensive to our sense of fairness, that mystery that one criminal, one drug dealer, one petty thief, one person on death row, who is drawn back to the flock prompts more joy than then those of us who never fall off the cliff or run into brambles?
That can be hard to embrace especially when polite society seeks to make invisible those who do not measure up to our standards.
So where does that leave us? What the Pharisees wouldn’t see, couldn’t see, is that they too were lost. They saw no common ground with the sinners and tax collectors. They and we are called to drop our well-constructed facades and be honest about our own inability to measure up, our “foolishness” as Jeremiah calls it, our lost-ness, and see that we are in the same boat in our brokenness as every other human being. I’ll never, ever forget Mother Teresa’s words to me almost 30 years ago: “Unless we recognize the Hitler that is in all of us we are in grave spiritual danger.” Not doing so makes it very difficult to be open to Jesus’ call, to being found, which ushers in pure joy and hope.
God seeks to rejoice with us. It was C.S. Lewis who said that the clearest indicator of a Christian is joy. Joy not being mere happiness, but a deep centered grounding in the hope of God. There can be no better reminder as you embark on this time of new ministry between priest and people. Christianity is not a religion of rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts. It is a religion of celebration, of a party, of Eucharist, as we discover a God who rejoices in us and among us. We were lost. Now we are found. Fred and people of Edisto—Celebrate!
The Fourth Sunday After Pentecost: July 7, 2019
It has been said that “all Christian ethics is a therefore ethics.” Because Jesus lived, died, and rose again, therefore we live a certain way as an act of thanksgiving for such a gift. I would add that all Christian action, all Christian service, all Christian worship, springs and leaps from the “therefore.” St. Paul reminds us that we are to “Never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul, through his baptism, and we through our own baptism, have died to wanting life on our terms only.
On the cross we see the icon of God’s continual self-offering: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” That pattern is found in the whole creation by the way in which God has woven it together. We are called to participate with God in this manner of being as we walk the planet. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at the harvest time if we do not give up” (Galatians6:9). You of St. Francis certainly have not given up. Therefore, because God has offered himself to us in one another and the entire creation through stars and planets, music, a beautiful soufflé, a garden in the back yard, bread and wine, a painted bunting flitting about, a person next to you this very morning; we keep the feast. St. Francis Church—your call is to keep the feast and repeat God’s pattern of self-offering over and over and over again. We practice being the “new creation” in here, in holy drama, so that we can live it out there, in harvest land.
So it is that Luke grants us the vision that Jesus is Lord of the harvest. He is seeking to reap that harvest in us and through us everywhere and at all times. We are invited to participate with him, even through celebrating with Claire being received today, aware that such a harvest does not always come in ways we expect.
A couple of years ago Bonnie and I were in Alaska for a House of Bishops meeting. Not having a car, we used Uber one day to go out to do some errands. The driver, a young woman in her 20’s, struck up a conversation. Along the way she asked why we were there. We shared that we were present at the invitation of the Bishop and Episcopal Church of Alaska, and that the day before we as bishops and spouses were out in the communities engaging with people in conversation about their mission, worshiping together and participating in the blessing of the land among native peoples. Upon hearing this she got very quiet. Then with tears welling up in her eyes, she explained that when she was driving the day before she had been suddenly overcome by a deep sense of peace and found her heart full of delight, even exaltation, that she was alive and in that land. In telling our story she became aware that this had occurred when we were engaged in the blessing prayers.
After a most animated ongoing conversation, we went so far as to invite her to the community of bishops Eucharist to be held back at our hotel in a couple of hours. She dropped us off, we never expecting her to show up, but lo and behold as we later walked down the hall for worship, there she was! She sat with us, participated, heard the Presiding Bishop preach, went around energetically sharing “the peace” with everyone, and went on her way rejoicing, back to driving for Uber that evening.
Perhaps you will recall a wonderful question from Psalm 78: “Can God set a table (an altar), in the wilderness?” It refers there to the Israeli wilderness, but it could be a waiting-for-a-court-to-act wilderness, a personal wilderness, or any context in which we might encounter a wilderness marked by uncertainty and unknowing. The promise of today is in the Lord of the harvest telling us in mercy and hope that not only can God do so, God does do so and calls us to do the same!
It is the same hope we discover in the I Kings reading today when Elisha confers the grace of God’s healing power on a leprous Gentile enemy, Naaman, who has, interestingly, crossed the border. Not only that, if the culturally powerless little girl had not spoken up, thereby exercising her God-given power, the healing would never have occurred. The whole story is one of how ignorance and misconception that limits how we expect God to act, becomes through mercy and healing genuine new awareness. Even Naaman’s misconceptions about how a prophet operates and what proper healing was to look like got challenged as God’s intervention came from an unexpected place. What does that teach us?
There is no place God is not, whether it be in an Uber ride, in a little girl before a great warrior, or a so-called enemy. We receive again today great words of commissioning: “…ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Note that it is “his harvest,” not ours. Sure, it can seem hostile or even threatening like lambs in the midst of wolves, yet we also know Isaiah’s vision that the lamb and the wolf will lie down together. Our cause is the pursuit of peace and reconciliation.
We gather today before Luke’s Kingdom vision of the harvest in anticipation of the full reign of God where all are fed, perfect equity and justice are realized, no one has to flee violence and hatred, and all have access to God’s bounty in a community of love founded in mercy. You and I are to be setting up God’s altar anywhere and everywhere as a harvest people, sometimes setting the table yourself and sometimes having it set for you. It is why God has brought together this particular constellation of people at St. Francis. You and I are to be God’s “therefore.” Because God is beauty, abundance, generosity and grace, therefore we keep the feast here, so that we can be the feast out there.
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.