Dear People of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
It was over a period of several months that a group of faithful folks met with me to develop a common vision for our diocese. That work, forged in prayer and a desire to be faithful to the mission and ministry to which our Lord calls us, brought forth the accompanying document. It has been adopted by Diocesan Council as our common vision statement, and I now share it with you that it might be seriously considered in our various faith communities.
My hope is that every vestry or mission council will take time at an upcoming meeting to engage the vision and have a serious conversation about what it may mean for you as a faith community and for all of us as a diocese. Perhaps such a discussion will enable clarity to come as to your purpose and who you want to be as the people of God in service of the Gospel. Please share it in your parish newsletters and find an attractive way to display it where you gather as a community on Sundays. One parish already has had it enlarged to poster-size and inexpensively framed so that it can easily be viewed by all.
If there are conversations or insights that the vision statement prompts, please submit them to Holly Votaw so that the stories can be shared with others of the diocese. Mutual encouragement builds up the body as we celebrate the Spirit’s work in our midst.
Continued blessings to all in these Great 50 Days of Easter.
In the Name of the Risen One, Jesus,
Find more about the Vision statement on our website.
I ask your prayer for the clergy and people of St. Andrew’s, Mount Pleasant. As you are aware, early Sunday morning the ministry center suffered severe damage from a devastating fire. Gratefully, there were no reports of anyone being injured and we give thanks to the first responders who dealt with the blaze and its aftermath.
One can understand the emotional impact of such an event for the people of St. Andrew’s. In the days to come, may they know God’s abiding help and his deep sustaining strength to meet the future with hope. Our God is a God of grace who, even in the midst of tragedy, promises to make all things new.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter: April 22, 2018
The words of I John jump out for me: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us” – now listen to the rest of the sentence – “and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” We hear the reverberations in the Gospel as well as the good Shepherd, or even better translated, the “noble” or “ideal” Shepherd, lays down his life for the sheep, indicating the pattern of life for all who would follow him.
Each time I stand in the Chapel of the Central America University in San Salvador, on the very spot where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated, I cannot help but think of this Gospel passage of the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. I am drawn deeply into a love willingly given. Even though it was an assassin’s bullet that killed the Archbishop, his life was an offering. He knew that the manner in which he lived his life in Christ would be costly.
He saw his brothers and sisters in need and did not close his heart against them. He loved not merely in word and speech, but in truth and action. It is that love, of the Noble Shepherd Christ as manifested in Oscar Romero, which continues to inspire people throughout the world. It is the same love that is called forth in God’s people and which we celebrate in these Great 50 days of Easter.
So what are the implications for this community here at the Church of the Messiah? Why do you exist? For what purpose are you here as a faith community?
Have you ever while driving around noticed various church signs, you know, the ones with messages on them? I’ve done a lot of driving around dioceses and come across many. One read: “Repent, now is the day of salvation.” Another: “Christ is your fire insurance,” I assume alluding to the threat of burning in hell. I don’t like those kind much. Down the road, from a different denomination: “Mother’s Day is coming. Virtues are learned at mother’s knee, vices at some other joint.” Clever perhaps, but less than stirring. I wonder, what does the world that knows little about Christianity, except for such signs, think about us?
One block down, another church sign: “Big garage sale next Saturday. Cheap prices, great deals!” And then, just down the road in the same town, another sign: “We’ve got room for you at our table. Hospitality practiced here. Everybody welcome.” Nice, the best of all of them. The trouble is it was a sign in front of a restaurant, not a church.
The Jesus we discover today is the one who knows his own and who know him. It is a statement of profound relational intimacy. This ideal Shepherd is the one who kept telling stories of the unlimited nature of God’s love and reach. He taught us that love trumps everything, even death. Nothing and no one is beyond his embrace. Jesus was kind of annoying that way as he was constantly rescuing people nobody thought could be saved or was worth being saved. He was relentless, even dangerous in his kingdom vision, where he was always expanding the borders, forever gathering together those the culture tried to separate, forget, dismiss or deem unworthy.
Does it ever strike you that much of our public discourse these days seems bent on limiting borders and trying to decide who we can keep out? We’ve even had laws proposed in our country where it would be an illegal act to give water or any kind of aid to an undocumented person – someone who, by the way, Jesus knows by name. I am very concerned, and I hope you are too, by rhetoric that seems to be increasing in volume that is anti-black, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-gay – language that diminishes us and makes us smaller. According to the “Southern Poverty Law Center,” general intolerance and even domestic hate groups have been significantly on the rise in this our beloved country.
Jesus, in his teaching about the Kingdom of God, over and over again holds up a possibility that is dramatically different than this. Christ the Shepherd teaches of a God who is like a careless farmer throwing seed with abandon leading to miraculous growing and reckless harvesting with no sorting out of the good from the bad. He is a Shepherd who not only desires that there be one flock that knows of the love of the Shepherd, he is willing to leave all of them just to find the one that is lost. It raises the question for us always to be considering – what kind of community are we building here as the Church of the Messiah and what kind of vision are we giving to this community, our neighborhood?
Today, with our confirmands, Audrey and Sadie, we again have the opportunity to reconnect to our baptismal reality in Christ, to “respect the dignity of every human being,” to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” and to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” According to Jesus we have a God who is a bit reckless and extravagant with his love. It makes us a bit nervous. It got Jesus killed. What if someone gets loved or included whom we think doesn’t deserve it? But this is the kind of God we have. I wonder. If we were more clear about this kind of dangerous Jesus, living on the edges, might we be a bit more attractive institution because we actually acted out of our espoused values as a people of the Christ, the noble/ideal Shepherd? That’s what folks in the 19-29 age range seem to be telling us!
Back to I John: The way we are assured of God’s love is that the Shepherd “has laid down his life for us.” The way the world knows of our love is when “we… lay down our lives for one another.” We are all called to serve “out there,” and they will know we are a people of our word when we exhibit in “truth and action” the costly, wild, reckless, self-abandoned love manifested in the noble Shepherd, Jesus. He gave of his substance. So we are called to do the same.
The Third Sunday of Easter: April 15, 2018
“You are witnesses of these things,” St. Luke tells us. And again in the Acts of the Apostles, in response to God having raised Jesus from the dead, “To this we are witnesses.” These words call us back to our roots as Christians. They call us once again to hear that our sole purpose for being as a church is to be a witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
As witnesses, we are to live as the transformed people we are created to be. Then, out of our own transformation, we are to go out from these walls to live for the transformation of the world. We are the ones to embody Jesus’ vision for the Reign of God on this earth, to be ambassadors of healing and wholeness for all humanity. I want to tell you of a witness who lives the life of the Risen Christ.
Her name is Allouise Story. She would not allow fear or even the status quo define her or her world. Allouise is elderly, widowed, and the only occupant of a magnificent dazzling house in the midst of an urban ghetto. Her home has polished oak moldings, furniture covered with plastic – neat and tidy.
Outside, across the alley, is Doc’s Liquor Store. Patrons are slouched against tree trunks where they regularly urinate. This infuriated Allouise. In her house were two pianos and an organ that she played every day. When the weather was nice she would have the windows open so that the music would escape to fill the neighborhood with an alternative sound. Outside she would see the children of the streets dirty, disheveled, unkempt – another fury for her.
“There’s the future,” she would say. “And there’s their daddies leaning against these trees. What can we do about it?” She, if anyone, had the right to panic and weep. She had watched the rotting of the neighborhood. But she maintained that house as a sheer act of will to show that not everything or everyone must succumb to decay or leave the city in order to survive. Her very presence was a symbol of life despite the odds. Ordinarily one might see an elderly woman alone in the city and think of her as powerless, but not Allouise. She was full of power.
She is said to pray the Lord’s Prayer so clearly and firmly that when she says, “Amen,” it makes people jump. She fights for good education and good teachers for the city. She maintains the struggle with the signs of defeat all around, but never descends into self-pity. She sings the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” so powerfully that a person once said, “No one should be able to sing it like that.”
When Allouise is asked why do you stay, why do you fight, wouldn’t it be easier to move, her response, echoing I John today, is “I am a child of God,” for that is what she is. “I do all of this because I am a witness to the Risen Jesus.”
Allouise has had her mind opened to understand the Scriptures. She knows something of the peace of Christ transforming her heart, giving her the gift of hope to work on the transformation of her community. She is at home living her faith in amazing ways to bring God’s promise of new life to bear in her life circumstances. She, in her way, is proclaiming Jesus’ Name to the nation of her neighborhood.
You and I, because Jesus is Risen, are called to do the same, to go into our “Galilees” wherever and whatever they may be: an apartment; a college dorm; a neighbor’s home; a hospital; the grocery store; then, live a life amazed at the possibility that even in the midst of death in all its forms, God’s new life is always breaking in. Philips Brooks, an Episcopal priest of the 19th century and the writer of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” said, “The great Easter truth is not that we are to live newly after death, but that we are to be new here and now by the power of the resurrection.” The disciples were made new. Allouise was made new. You and I are made new, signed and sealed forever in the love God has given us. It is what we celebrate today in the people of God coming forward to receive the laying-on-of-hands. You see, the proof of the resurrection of Jesus is in the Allouises of the world. Your own life is to join with her in that proof as a witness to new life.
The Easter event is one of human beings becoming empowered to find a way out of failure, fear, violence and the inclination too often to betray what we love the most. It is the story of all of us as we discover the need that every single one of us has, to be healed, forgiven and restored to fullness of life, the abundant life of which Jesus speaks. The world is longing for such a vision beyond being a mere shadow of existence, just taking up space on the planet and using its resources without regard for how it affects anyone else.
Sure, we can let the fear-mongers of the world continue to manipulate us and dictate the way of death to us. We can stay in a state of semi-panic and buy into a world that seems to value violence as the first response to trouble, rather than the way of love; a world that values the assertion of power that controls, over servanthood that sets people free. We can go home from here and live in our self-contained worlds trying to ward off anxiety and fear with all the ways we anesthetize ourselves and, in so doing, betray the very reason this community of faith was founded.
Or…or, we can go out these doors as witnesses of the wonder of God’s life and love seeking to take deep root in you. Be a witness for the power of life in the midst of death. God’s promise is that in Jesus light has come and darkness cannot overcome it. It is the reason for which St. Mark’s is here at all.
The Second Sunday of Easter: April 8, 2018
Jesus the Christ is risen from the dead. This is THE Easter proclamation, especially in these Great Fifty Days of Easter in which we now find ourselves. Of course, this is our central proclamation every Sunday and the reason we declare Sunday our Sabbath as distinct from the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday.
I wonder if you are aware that the very first responsibility of a bishop as indicated in the ordination liturgy is to be “one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection?” Today in Acts we read, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4: 33). So our entire life is to be a witness to this truth – “Christ is Risen!” We have the great joy of renewing our commitment to this truth through Jamie, receiving the laying on of hands today.
How might Thomas inform our witness as he is presented to us in today’s Gospel? He refused to believe the testimony of anyone else, even that of his closest friends. Then came the night when Jesus appeared to him in that upper room and Thomas was challenged by Jesus’ invitation to touch the wounds still visible in his resurrected body. Thomas yielded with one of the greatest statements of faith in the entire New Testament: “My Lord and my God!”
What of all these references to a body? It was C.S. Lewis who said such references “make us uneasy, they raise awkward questions.” To be sure, the Scriptures seem to take great pains to tell us of one after death who speaks, eats fish on the beach, bears wounds from a horrible execution – albeit a different kind of body which appears in a room with locked doors. Clearly, the Gospel writer, John, seeks to portray the Jesus in the upper room is the same Jesus who was crucified, that is, with a body.
However it all occurred – no explanation is given. Although I always think here of new studies in quantum physics, the behavior of atoms and parallel universes, we’ll set that aside for now. Thomas, and therefore we, are confronted with the body of Jesus, resurrected. Out of this encounter Thomas makes a great leap of faith. I am not an expert in equestrian competition, but my daughter at one time did a lot of riding and jumping. One of the things that impressed me most was how she would guide a horse to leap over a hurdle. I marveled at her apparent calmness, not true of her father by the way. I did some reading about this and teachers say that even the greatest jumpers face a common obstacle – their own perception. Some of the most respected equestrian study guides devote entire sections to the rider’s perception. Unless the rider can approach the obstacle with a certain anticipatory confidence, she or he will never be adept at jumping. One author gave this advice: “Take your heart and throw it over the fence. Then jump after it.”
Although we plaster the moniker “doubting Thomas” on this man, it is not really accurate. The man in the Gospel is not a pessimistic character prone to doubt. He’s just looking for proof – an empiricist of sorts. After all, in his experience dead people don’t come back to life. Not the old body and especially not some new resurrected body. Thomas then is a bridge, a bridge for all future believers who find it difficult to throw their hearts over the fence of the threshold of death into resurrection territory. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.”
The account gives us mistaken turnings, confused demands and puzzled longings – such is life for all of us. The struggle of faith is not a smooth, level road to perfection. Misunderstanding and a bumpy ride are par for the course. Thomas represents us in our humanity. Rather than judge Thomas, which the Gospel does not do, the Gospel hopes we will identify with him!
And look how Jesus responds. The first thing he does for his companions locked in that room, holed up in death and doom: death by fear; death by guilt; death by alienation; is offer them empowerment and invitation – unconditional, open arms, welcoming us to new life and new possibilities.
Rather than savoring alienation, Jesus responds with complete acceptance. Note that he comes into the room with the traditional Jewish formal greeting, “Shalom Aleichem.” “Peace be with you.” The first thing they experience from Jesus is that he remains in relationship with them. He still cares for them. It is the miracle and power of relationship that is maintained by Jesus. He is the one who continues to have faith in the disciples, in us, even when we are not able to do so ourselves.
The bond is restored through this great gift of love that continues to show up in seemingly impossible situations. He sees them in their confused, fearful state and offers peace and when they see the scars, they know. Jesus honored and restored them. Alienation is ended. He offered what they did not deserve in this moment – love and acceptance. Without it they stay behind locked doors, never make the leap, and miss the possibility that “our joy may be complete” (I John 1:4).
Christian community is rooted in that love offered in the upper room that night. It is that which empowers us to go forth and be servants of Jesus. We are now set free from all of our locked rooms, whatever they might be, to be God’s person in God’s world. Go ahead, throw your heart over the fence. He’s already there, waiting to receive you, with a word of, “Peace be with you.”
Easter Day: April 1, 2018
Today we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. Horribly executed as a common criminal in the grotesque Roman manner of crucifixion on a cross, he has been hurled by God back into the DNA of the creation, into the DNA of each of us, by God’s act of abundant delight and complete self-abandoned love. Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection, experienced the beauty and promise of that life in her very being. As it was true for her, we discover with millions of others since that it can be true for us as well.
We have been and are being hurled, launched if you will, into a world that today longs for the possibility of a new creation. We call this the hope of Resurrection life. You see, “the great Easter truth is not that we are to live newly after death, but that we (you and I) are to be new here and now by the power of the Resurrection” (Phillips Brooks, 1893).
This search of a grieving world to be reconciled with one another is found in all people and all times throughout history. Do we not see this in the hearts of the parents and friends in Parkland, Florida after the slaughter of their children? Do they not yearn for a new heaven and a new earth? I see this longing in the eyes of returning military from Afghanistan caught in the horror of post-traumatic stress. It is evident in the wailing mother whose child was shot on a street in North Charleston; in the grieving parent who, although working, finds it difficult to provide enough food for his child and pay the rent at the same time. I wonder if you identify a place in your own heart that longs for wholeness, for reconciliation, for love, for a new possibility?
Throughout the Scriptures, the desire for a new heaven and new earth is found. From the ancient Hebrew prophets, on through St. Paul writing to the budding Corinthian Church, culminating in the Revelation to John. The hope to which it all leads is cosmic, where all of creation participates in a new reality. It points to a matrix where every relationship, even time and space itself, is reconfigured and transformed. As Stephen Hawking helped us understand, a change in space produces a change in time. In Jesus’ resurrection our linear time frame collapses and we are drawn in resurrection hope to something that is unending and eternal.
Yet the Biblical vision I am talking about here is not merely a hope for a distant, other-worldly future in heaven. As disciples of Jesus we are to seek to make it real now, on this earth and in our time – in our homes, in our neighborhoods and our relationships, in our nation, and yes, even between nations. This act of God’s great love will permeate everything, for the reconciliation of the world is the very joy of God as well as the transformed character of life in this new creation.
Is this all too ethereal, too “science-fictiony” for you? Let me paint you a picture from a real event in history.
It occurred in South Africa at the height of racial hatred as it played out in the policy of apartheid. Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was presiding and preaching at a service of Holy Eucharist, much like today, when a group of the notorious South African Security Police burst into the church. Tutu stopped preaching and just stared at the intruders as they lined the walls of the church. Just a few weeks before they had arrested him and other church leaders and held them in jail to try and intimidate them and create a culture of fear. Looking at them directly, the Archbishop acknowledged their earthly power, but reminded them that he served an infinite power greater than their political authority. Then, in a moment that seems to embody all of which Isaiah is speaking and that God accomplishes in Jesus’ resurrection, Tutu says, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side.” He is reported to have said it with an enticing smile and genuine warmth, love if you will, from a deep place inside of him – grounded in Jesus’ victory. It took everyone’s breath away.
The congregation’s response was electric. The crowd was transformed, by love, in that very moment. From a cowering fear of the heavily armed security police, people rose to their feet and started to – do what? DANCE! They danced out of the church and met the rest of the awaiting police and security forces who, not knowing what else to do, backed up, were parted, to provide a space for the people of resurrection hope to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa. Some remarked years later that apartheid was defeated not when Mandela was released from prison or even when he became president, but when the people of God danced that day in a sea of love.
The great theologian Aidan Kavanagh said that, “The Jesus of our faith died, rose, and became a people.” It happened on that day in South Africa. Perhaps it can happen in the young people of our country as they look to change our cultural conversation. It is what we are celebrating in Lowell’s baptism and in Brigitte being received today, as we promise one another that we, together as a community, will learn how to dance the love of God for the whole creation.
The love that transformed Jesus is the love that transforms you. It is that same love that transformed Mary Magdalene, the love that transformed Desmond Tutu and the security forces that day in the church, the love planted in every molecule of the universe, to be realized and lived now, in this life, as we allow ourselves to be awakened to it. This is the life of resurrection. What we discover most of all, is that death can never again be the end of the story. Love is. For Jesus is Risen.
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.