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?
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.