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.”
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.