The Third Sunday of Advent: December 16, 2018
The season of Advent is a time when we prepare for the arrival of company. Bonnie and I are looking forward with eager anticipation for the arrival of all of our children and grandkids. Many fix up their front yards and homes with lights, garland and other decorations. We attend church, share gifts to attend to what some call “the true spirit of the season.” Some of us actually clean the house awaiting company, but others are more inclined to hide things, pulling that extra bedroom door shut hoping they will not be seen. Knowing human beings as I do and for that matter my own humanity, I suspect that in preparing for Christ to come we lean a bit toward the latter. There are circumstances of our life we try to hide, hoping they won’t be found out.
Then, just as we are coming down the stretch to Christmas with the sense of celebration intensifying all around us, John the Baptist appears right in the middle of our preparations and tells us what perhaps is the last thing we want to hear: “Repent!” He walks in the front door and finds everything we so carefully tried to hide. He feels like a type of scrooge and throws water on the parade. The ax is wielded to cut down all that is not bearing the fruit of God’s Kingdom. The chaff and the wheat will be separated. The appearance of this prophet/truth teller is inconvenient to say the least.
Look at today’s Gospel for reference. After hearing his dire warnings the crowd, tax collectors and soldiers ask what they should do in response. The crowd is told: If you have two coats (or four or five), share them with those who have none. The same direction is given concerning food and in one fell swoop of the ax John the Baptist’s unsettling words reject accumulation and the acquiring of private property as markers of success.
The tax collectors get a word too. Collect no more than the amount prescribed and with that swipe of the ax says personal esteem and respect no longer are measured by the amount of one’s acquisitions or control and power over others. Then the soldiers are exhorted not to extort by threat or false accusation, but to be satisfied with their wages. The ax is chopping away any notion that power or domination or threat of violence can bring real peace and has no place in God’s vision for the world.
Whew! It takes one’s breath away. The Baptist’s words are meant to be a wakeup call, an alarm sounding, then and now. What is also amazing is that St. Luke dares to say, at the end of today’s Gospel reading, “So with many other exhortations he dares to proclaim the Good News to the people.” Is that some kind of joke? Where’s the good news in that? It sounds like surgery to me.
So why is it that year after year, in this Advent time leading up to Christmas and the celebration of our Savior’s birth, we invite John the Baptist back into our midst, to cry out the call to repent, to change, to be different, to challenge our pretensions and achievements? Maybe it’s like a good news bad news joke. It may feel like surgery, the bad news. But often it leads to healing and wholeness and a deeper more faithful discipleship, good news.
On some level we all know this. I think that is why at Christmas most of us are willing to do a little extra and focus more on others than ourselves. Yet we must also be aware that discipleship in Christ is more than turning over a new leaf, making a resolution, or giving a little more to the Salvation Army pot, as good as that is. The needs of humanity are too great, the suffering and pain of our world too extensive, the world’s enticements anesthetizing our own deep longings for love, acceptance, freedom and yes, even God, just too seductive. John the Baptist is calling us into a conversion of our life patterns in joyful response to the One born in Bethlehem. It is to make a difference in the way we live life, setting us free from all that would detain us from doing the radical work of the Gospel.
Of course the other thing that biblical axes do is offend, especially when Gospel truth challenges our preconceptions and misperceptions. And the notion that we can do nothing to earn God’s favor shakes us to our core. Surely all those good deeds and kind thoughts must count for something! We want to earn God’s favor and love even as we know we could never do enough. The real “spirit of the season” is that being reconciled to God by the Babe of Bethlehem is pure gift, but we often become a part of a frenzied attempt to “make the grade” and in our flurry of busyness the sense of gift along with a full and grateful heart can get lost. As Lily Tomlin has said, “The trouble with the rat race is, even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
The heart of Advent and the imploring words of John the Baptist are for us to take stock and examine our life motives. Although the falling of the ax may feel at first like bad news, it is to be sure, good news. For in the coming of Christ we are assured of God’s love for us, knowing that our efforts are not about earning that love, but a way to respond with joyful hearts to prepare a way for Christ to be born in all, including ourselves. Even as we await his arrival, we discover he is already here among us, in you, and in me. So “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Throw open your arms and let the company come.
Advent II: December 9, 2018
“He, John the Baptist, went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” There may be no more loaded sentence in all of Scripture, theologically loaded that is. Repentance, forgiveness of sins, such themes have vast connections and import on how we understand our and the world’s salvation history in Jesus. They are words of enormous complexity pointing to ways of thinking that are no longer in the common vocabulary.
Try putting the word “sin” into your smartphone. In my voice recognition software the word is not recognized. It keeps trying to write the word “send.” What the reading from Luke is inviting us to see, however, is that the Advent saint par excellence, John the Baptist, is calling us to something that is essential for our own soul’s health.
I saw an article in a newspaper, the headline of which said, “Human sin creates problems.” Really? Is that news, some kind of new awareness that has come along? Gosh, human sin creates problems. Well I’ll be! Of course human sin creates problems. As we just recalled the bitterness of war in our annual remembrance of Pearl Harbor, or even as we observe the present ongoing threats to the human family around the globe, it doesn’t take a lot to understand the consequences of some of our behavior on this planet. What are the root causes of war? Human sin (all sides by the way). What are the root causes of racism? Human sin. What is the root cause of lying? Human sin. The abuse of power; the drive for more and more with never enough; poverty; not tending to our life of prayer and going deep in our call to discipleship; any unwillingness to reach across the divides we’ve created to embrace our neighbor? All of it comes from human sin.
You get the picture. The Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer defines sin as, “Seeking our own will instead of the will of God.” The result is that it ends up, again from the Catechism, “distorting our relationship with God, with other people and with all creation.” Sin is rebellion against God. It is the abuse of God’s good gifts to us offered by God in extravagant love. That’s what John the Baptist is addressing. His ancient proclamation is a challenge to how God’s people continually miss the mark of God’s great vision of justice and hope for all people and the responsibility of God’s people to participate with God in the building of the New Creation. When we push God to the periphery of life faith becomes trivialized into merely whether or not one smokes or drinks or dances, and gets reduced to a sub-Christian level of a pagan moralism of being good or bad, with God nothing more than a kind of heavenly Santa. The result is that God becomes irrelevant to how we do business in our families, work, or even politics and our engagement with the world.
The vision set forth today is to “Prepare the Way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Every valley is to be filled, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked straight, the rough ways made smooth. We are given a vision of God’s grand excavation of the human condition. Nothing is left the same as God is about creating a highway with the removal of every conceivable obstacle for the saving arrival of God among us and in us. We see it perfectly in the One whose birth we celebrate in a couple of weeks.
The scene is set for us by Luke in the specific geo-political circumstance of his day, that is, the 15th year of Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate was governor, Herod was ruler of Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias was ruler of Abilene, and during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. The point Luke is making is that all discipleship happens in the religious and political context of one’s time in history and it is those principalities and powers we are to be confronting. Those of us who long for a world of fairness, compassion, kindness and justice, are drawn to see that John the Baptist’s prophetic voice exposes the nonsense that keeps us from making the Reign of God real on this earth. The promise is that God’s grace, working in us, can break through impasses of all kinds.
We prayed in the Collect this morning that, “we would heed the warnings of the prophets,” bold voices speaking truth to power such as John the Baptist. And yes, he too was dismissed, even silenced, by the powers of his day. Yet we know from the biblical witness that he was angered by the waste of it, the sad senselessness, the stubborn unseeing willfulness of a people who mouthed God with their lips, going through all the actions and rituals, but neglecting the radical discipline and obedience of God. So it is, in his context and now in ours, that a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed and for us to find a way to walk in a whole new direction, incarnating the truth of God in our day.
The Baptist is pointing of course to Jesus, the One coming. We repent so as not to cut off ourselves or anyone else from the One who loves us most completely and the baptismal promise that we belong to God forever. That includes right now. Prepare. Be ready. Make the way smooth for God and each other. Turn in a new direction. Be loved and love with wild abandon. Yes, human sin creates problems. But we follow the One born in Bethlehem who has conquered it all for everyone in the hope that “all flesh,” not just certain ones we think are worthy, “shall see the salvation of God.”
The gift is that we are set free for God and one another. Perhaps you can take great comfort in St. Paul’s prayer of joy for the people in Philippi: “…that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
Advent I: December 2, 2018
Over the last couple of weeks we have once again been assaulted by disturbing images from around the world and within our own country. The fires in California, genocide in Myanmar, refugees fleeing the violence of their home countries in Central America, acts of anti-Semitism on the increase in the United States even as we remember our Jewish sisters and brothers on this eve of Hanukkah. I’m not sure Black Friday or Cyber Monday is enough of an anesthesia to relieve the anxiety with which we live on the planet. Can we sing the “Kyrie eleison” enough?
Confronted with constant reminders of death and destruction, Advent takes us to the edge in search of that place that longs for a new possibility. We call it hope. In Jeremiah, the people’s lives have been turned topsy-turvy. It is 325 B.C. The temple has been destroyed and rebuilt, but the former glory has not returned. Jeremiah is speaking to a people who have known only hard times and are struggling to make it. A vision of the future is held before them, a time when the Lord will fulfill the promise made to Israel and the house of Judah. A righteous branch will spring up for David; Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. The hope of a new vision changes the manner of living in the present.
Look at Paul writing to the church in Thessalonika. He encourages them to continue to grow in faith and love for one another because this is the way to holiness. They too were in confusing times. The world was a mess. Roman oppression was ever-present, yet Paul encourages them to grow now as “you wait for the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” The first century church, gathered to celebrate the Eucharist as we are doing now, did so expecting the Lord to come at any moment and to bring to consummation all of time in the fullness of God’s righteousness and peace. Seeing the promise of God’s future is to infuse our present with hope.
Even in Luke, natural disasters, stress among the nations, people living in great fear and the powers of heaven shaken are the daily reality. This sounds startlingly contemporary does it not? Yet they have hope. Why? The Kingdom of God is near as they expected Jesus’ return. We do pray, nearly every day, “Thy Kingdom come,” I trust with a similar expectation. We get a sense of it in the desire of people living at the margins, like a Syrian refugee family, fleeing violence and waiting, waiting with bated breath for that one rescuing word of welcome; or a falsely accused prisoner on death row waiting for the DNA tests that prove his innocence. Release. Freedom. That is the quality of Advent.
The annals of former slaves tell us this is how they survived the cotton fields and harsh slave owners, that is, by staying centered in the promise of restoration in Christ. Elie Weisel tells of being able to live through the concentration camp of World War II by remaining centered in one’s hope in God. One can understand giving up. People live out their rage on the world in manifestations of violence, often because of some deep historical injustice that has led to a loss of hope. When hope is missing or been taken away, violence is the only choice many believe they have. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it does help to understand it.
Our call is the transformation of the now so that it more clearly reflects God’s vision made perfect at the end of all time. We make, if you will, the future present. The Kingdom of God is already a reality among us and in us. Our baptism signifies this to us in God’s sacramental promise. Our motivation, and the mission we seek to pass on is the love of God and God’s vision in Jesus to make all things new, on earth as it is in heaven. We persevere as a community through our longing for God even in the midst of duress.
Henri Nouwen once said, “You are a Christian only so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society in which you live – so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come.” Christian hope always views the reality of the present world, its beauty as well as its destructive forces, from the perspective of God’s desire for the creation. It is not born in mere optimism. It is born in God, or even, God born in us. The end judges the present and is why a Christian is never satisfied until the new heaven and new earth has been realized among us. In this sense we are always an Advent people – unsatisfied with the way things are when they are less than God’s hope for the world. That is, by the way, why the building of walls, religious or racial profiling and any other way we live out our fears by limiting and restricting God’s transformative love is not an option for a Jesus person.
Having said all of that, we know that our hope rests not solely in our human ability to change ourselves or our world. If we could, good people would have done so by now. Jesus is calling forth a whole new creation – changing the world order and overthrowing the empires of domination. Jesus comes not to make us good, but to make us holy. Completely new. The call of today is to wake up and be on alert – acting as if it all depends on us, but knowing that in the end it all depends on God. Our hope is not in our ability to change the world – our hope is in the One whose birth we celebrate in a little over three weeks.
You and I, in our baptism, discover that we belong to a God shown forth in Christ who promises that the end is already secure. We seek to change the world now as an act of thanksgiving for the promised life to come. The promise changes the present. Our hope – past, present and future – is held in Christ Jesus. As Luke would tell us, “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
“Faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” – I Corinthians 13:13
I have always been moved by the words found in the third collect for mission in the Daily Office of The Book of Common Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name.” It speaks of God’s great healing, reconciling embrace of the creation, held in love, and that we might be ambassadors of that love once offered. If we have no other mission, that is it, for as we discover in Eucharistic Prayer A as we address God, “In your infinite love you made us for yourself.”
We are reconciled to God and one another in love as perfectly shown forth to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is our root, our “radix” if you will. A central theme throughout the scriptural story is God’s continual offering of the possibility of re-creation; the new; raising up what is old, lost or even dead, to new life and new possibility. And God has a Church, us, to be bearers of that amazing Good News.
As your bishop, one of my hopes has been and continues to be that the Kingdom realities to which Jesus is always pointing become ever more clearly reflected in the structure of our Diocese, in our relationships, in the ways we are accountable to one another, always beginning with me. I want it reflected in all we do in diocesan committees and commissions, strategic planning, the ongoing assessment of leadership needs as we anticipate our future, staff, vestries, programs, working with the disassociated diocese—all we are and all we do. I Corinthians 13 is about the basics of Christian community, St. Paul’s call to the Church in Corinth, so let’s return to that reading.
More often than not we hear this 13th chapter read at weddings. In this way the chapter stands on its own. If, however, we read it in context, we realize that St. Paul is still speaking of spiritual gifts from the previous chapter. The great gift of love as presented here is not ordinary or general. The love spoken of here is specifically the love shown forth in Christ. This Christ-love is the very basis of faith and hope. It is the reason we can have faith and hope. So allow me to read parts of the chapter with this in mind, substituting the phrase, “the love shown forth in Christ” wherever the single word “love” appears.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have ‘the love shown forth in Christ,’ I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but I do not have ‘the love shown forth in Christ,’ I gain nothing.
‘The love shown forth in Christ’ is patient, ‘the love shown forth in Christ’ is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…’The love shown forth in Christ’ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. ‘The love shown forth in Christ’ never ends….And now faith, hope and ‘the love shown forth in Christ’ abide, these three; and the greatest of these is ‘the love shown forth in Christ.’ “
It is only by loving, St. Paul is telling us, that the Christian community authentically exists. And rather than define love, Paul personifies it with the use of, count them, no less than fifteen verbs, all involving another person. He seems to be indicating that the Church he was envisioning must give supreme importance to the virtues of faith, hope and love, the love shown forth in Christ. Furthermore, it is always exhibited in our relationships with another. St. John (15:12) puts it this way: “Love one another as I have loved you.” How has he loved us? On the cross. God’s grace is without limit, but it is not cheap.
Wonderfully, gratefully, God appears to be willing to teach me this over and over again. One year as I was working with the Mission of Miracles health and justice ministry in El Salvador, I was helping set up in anticipation of the hundreds of people who would come and stand in line for care, many who had walked for miles often with small children. As they arrived for the first step toward diagnosis and treatment, I was responsible to record the person’s weight and height. In order to get accurate measurements, I found myself saying over and over the words, “No zapatos, por favor”—no shoes please. I must have said this dozens of times before I suddenly realized that the doorway where I was receiving people had become for me holy ground, a place where shoes, when people had any, were removed for a greater purpose than I first imagined. I had moved from the practical to the place of “the love shown forth in Christ.” It was not planned. It came as complete gift. Every person met in El Salvador is Christ. And every one of you is Christ. As we approach one another, always, “no zapatos, por favor.” It is the holy ground we share between us and on which we stand as we engage God’s world in Christ’s Name. Everywhere is holy ground. Every bush is burning, including right here, right now. This is the Diocese we are called to be as seen in the first two lines of our diocesan vision statement: Centered in Christ’s love; Proclaiming Good News of God’s Grace (see the back of your worship booklet).
Of course, the love shown forth in Christ is not love in its fullness unless it takes shape in works of justice, which is love in action, making it manifest “on earth as it is in heaven.” Perhaps we can grasp this through an image. In Grace Episcopal Church, Syracuse, there is a beautiful stained glass window of David Pendleton Oakerhater (O-kuh-ha-tah in Iroquois). He was baptized there in 1878. His feast day on the Episcopal Church calendar is September 1. He became an apostle of Christ to the Cheyenne people, was ordained a deacon in 1881, and exercised a lifelong ministry calling the people of God to be a people of peace. There is a curious thing about the window, however.
What do you notice? A deacon’s stole is typically worn across the left shoulder, gathered or crossed at the right hip. Standing inside the church and gazing at the window, Deacon Oakerhater’s stole is on the right shoulder. Only if the window is looked upon from outside the walls of the church is the stole draped according to custom. Isn’t that as it should be? I have no idea if this was purposeful, but it doesn’t matter. The point is, the Church’s servant ministry as incarnated in the role of the deacon, is best personified as the Church faces and engages the world in which God has placed us. Again to the vision statement: Rooted in our communities; A Light to All; Called to Sacrifice and Serve. We have been chosen and appointed by God to “go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Love takes us out the doors.
I hope we will continue to build a robust and visionary body of deacons in our Diocese to be icons of a community of love in action. They can continually help us keep our eyes beyond mere institution so that we are always being born from the place of “the love shown forth in Christ.” Psalm 89 reminds us that, “righteousness and justice are the foundations of God’s throne.” “No zapatos, por favor.”
The gift of “the love shown forth in Christ” is how we are called to approach each other and God’s world at all times. Even as I say that it is my desire that everything we do as Diocese, our structures and our relationships in those structures, reflect the Kingdom reality of God’s love as shown forth in Christ, I am aware that for many “diocese” is often at best abstract. We get a sense of it gathered as we are now at convention, but even this view is somewhat limited. Yet let me assure you of something as your bishop. You have given me the gift of a vantage point that many of you don’t get to have. As I move around and through this Diocese I encounter people all the time who are seeking to be a community of love. I see it when we meet as Diocesan Council. I see it when we respond to hurricanes whether up in the northern part of the Diocese and the surrounding areas as manifested by the amazing people in ministry on the ground there, or in the evacuation of Bishop Gadsden’s people on their trek to Kanuga. I see it in the book studies at Grace Church Cathedral; in the people who walk in the office almost daily; in the application of St. Anne’s, Conway to be a parish; in confirmand after confirmand who are willing to share their stories of God’s grace, celebrating the manner of their welcome by their parish communities and in the incredible privilege I have of just a moment in time with them to pray and revel in God’s embrace. What I get to see and witness is way beyond South Carolina hospitality, as wonderful as that it is. We’re not perfect at it of course, and we still have lots of room to grow and mature into the “full stature of Christ,” but what I see is the gift among us of “the love shown forth in Christ.”
In his wonderful book Come and See, David Keller recounts the story of a person who was concerned that her baptism “did not take,” because she did not comprehend the nuances of Christian doctrine. The story ends with a spiritual mentor saying to her, “You don’t have to understand the mystery of God to be a Christian, but you do have to practice.” We’re about practicing here in The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. The love of God shown forth in Christ is not a mere sentimental feeling. It takes specific shape on a cross and explodes in resurrection hope. We are called to make that same love specific and concrete in our own day, in this Diocese. We must claim our baptismal identity. We must do the deep work of forming radical Christian hearts through communities steeped in prayer and committed spiritual praxis. Why? Because when we do, it looks like love!
Let me show you another picture.
What we see here are the gravestones of a wife and husband who happened to be of differing religious traditions and therefore unable to be buried in the same cemetery. What happened, creatively and beautifully, was that each person’s grave was placed on each side of the wall. The markers were then made to stretch above the wall, joined hand in hand to connect the couple in an image of unity. But I hope you are not satisfied by this image as novel as it is, for our work is not merely to reach across the wall, but to remove it. As we seek the opportunity to be in conversation with God’s people of the 29 parishes being returned to us, the reconciliation work affected in Christ is never satisfied until every obstacle is removed. That is our goal however long it takes.
That’s the work we have been given to do in our time of history, in this Diocese, “to do the work God has given us to do as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord” (BCP p. 366). Love looks like the parable of the Good Samaritan – our neighbor is everyone. Love looks like the woman at the well – all boundaries transcended for the sake of the other. Love looks like the Syrophoenician woman – even willing to be taught by the other. Love looks like the pouring of costly oil even to excess, or the scattering of the seed of God’s love everywhere, with wild abandon. Love looks like the outrageous welcome of the Prodigal as we recognize the inherent dignity of every person as made in the image of God, no exceptions. No exceptions. No exceptions.
Love is like that. We go to “the other side” in joy because that’s what Jesus did.
If we’re serious about this as a people of God then there is one more matter we must address as a community. Every one of our faith communities recently received a letter from me along with a declaration of intent for your offering to the Diocese in 2019. I hope you will take it very seriously. I know you’ve been through a lot. I've walked some of that with you. I realize we are still rebuilding. But this year coming is filled with many unknowns and the rebuilding we are about takes financial resources to make it happen. Everyone needs to step up and consider, if you are not there already, moving significantly toward the 10% asking in support of our common life. And to remind us again, we do this why? Because giving, if truly Christian, whether to our parish or the Diocese, is to be a response to the love shown forth in Christ. Giving to our common life is an act of love.
I now offer you what I will call a “choral amen” of a different variety than most might expect. It is my firm belief that God is already present everywhere we go, for as John’s Gospel teaches us in the first chapter, the divine Logos has infused the entire creation. God is present in the culture and a part of what we do is name wherever we see resurrection presence and hope as we go forth in mission. It will not surprise many of you to know that one of the main places I find God present is in music of many genres, even in the group “Sugarland,” whose song “Love” is before you now as they ask in their way what love looks like.
(Watch the video here)
“Faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is the ‘love shown forth in Christ.’ ” Love heals. Love sustains. Love is hope. Love is faith. It looks like Jesus. My hope is that it looks like us, and we look like him.
Dear Friends in The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
As you know, a hearing is scheduled in Orangeburg at 10 am Monday, November 19 on how best to implement the South Carolina Supreme Court's ruling in August 2017 that the properties of the disassociated group and 29 parishes must return to The Episcopal Church. While we do not anticipate an immediate decision from the court on Monday, the hearing is an important step toward resolving this matter so that all who are involved can move forward.
This weekend, as our Diocese comes together in Convention, I again recall the words of St. Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” We have many reasons to rejoice and give thanks at all times, and especially as Thanksgiving Day aproaches. We also have a keen awareness of the work that remains to be done in restoring, rebuilding and repairing this Diocese.
I ask you once again to hold in prayer Judge Edgar Dickson and all who will gather at the courthouse on Monday. As well, I ask your prayers for the people in congregations who are discerning how to respond as faithful disciples of Jesus to what the future holds for our Diocese. And I add to that my own prayers of thanksgiving for your witness to the love of God in this time and place as followers of the Way of Jesus.
Bishop Skip Adams and Archdeacon Callie Walpole of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina have written an article seeking to clarify and explain the status of The Episcopal Church and The Episcopal Church in South Carolina with regard to the outcome of the litigation first brought against The Episcopal Church and TECSC, and the eventual ruling of the South Carolina Supreme Court in August 2017. A hearing is currently scheduled for November 19 in Orangeburg to implement that decision. Their article is a summary of the Church’s stance concerning current realities, as well as a call for the restoration of unity.
A Bishop of the Church, in response to criticism of public fighting within the Anglican Communion, once quipped that “we Anglicans do tend to wash our dirty laundry in public, but at least it gets clean.” The rupture of the once-grand Diocese of South Carolina brought serendipitous creative energy, especially among those Episcopalians who were displaced when their leadership left The Episcopal Church in 2012. But it also brought vast devastation, much of it owing to misinformation.
Thousands of church members of various denominations across the state have been paying close attention to the resolution of this legal battle. Some have decried – and denied – the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court in August 2017 as somehow threatening religious freedom. Actually, by finding that church property did in fact belong to The Episcopal Church and its local diocese, currently operating under the name The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and not the breakaway diocese, religious freedom was affirmed.
The Court held that The Episcopal Church’s structure is hierarchical as opposed to congregational like the Baptist and Congregational churches. Episcopal bishops, clergy, and lay representatives of dioceses across the country and beyond enact the policies and procedures that guide the whole Church. That is why a majority of votes from lay and clergy leaders in every diocese, as well as bishops, must consent to the election of any new bishop in the Church. Churches hold their property in trust for a general governing body.
In contrast, congregational churches own their property outright and have no wider body to answer to in matters of property ownership and control. One governance structure is not better than the other; however, they are markedly different. This Supreme Court decision has nothing to say about congregational church property, and only affects churches which are hierarchical in nature.
Religious freedom ensures that religious bodies are free to govern themselves as they see fit – to determine their own polity without threat of outside influence. This right is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It does not permit us to possess property that is not ours simply because we decide to leave and form our own ecclesiastical organization.
It is understandable that people have been confused. Witness after witness speaking for the disassociated congregations declared they were unaware of the governance structure of The Episcopal Church, despite having participated in its governance, many for years and years.
In fact, over the last generation or so, across the country, The Episcopal Church has won virtually all of these property dispute cases – more than 30 and counting, in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, and now South Carolina. The court finding in August 2017 is by no means a rare ruling in our country’s jurisprudence; rather, it enforces the rights of freedom of religion as numerous other high state courts have done.
The group that broke away now claims that the Supreme Court decision is unclear. Yet they clearly understood the decision at the time they petitioned the Court for a rehearing to mean that the property must be returned to The Episcopal Church. Former Chief Justice Toal, in her opinion, summarizing the result of the Court’s decision, explained that the property of the church organizations which agreed to follow the rules of the national church would remain as property of the national church and its local diocese. (See footnote 72 of the August 2017 decision.) Thus, to the extent the breakaway diocese now asserts “confusion” over the decision of this State’s highest court, which is final because the U.S. Supreme Court denied its petition, it need only look to its own acknowledgement in its petition for rehearing and to Justice Toal’s footnote.
In 1865, the Reverend Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a senior priest of the diocese, declared it was time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union. The war was lost, and it was time to restore and heal after the bloody conflict. While our ecclesiastical conflict has not been bloody, it has been brutal; it has wounded the heart of God, as well as numerous souls. We who remained in The Episcopal Church did not want this division. The disassociated group filed the lawsuit when they left the Church.
The decision of the Court is clear that the property is to be returned to The Episcopal Church and its local diocese so that Episcopalians, and all affected in this corner of the world, can begin to reunite. We cannot go back to the way things were, but we can be restored because, as people of faith and as Christians, we believe in the Resurrection. New life from the grave. A resurrected body is itself healed, but it also can bring healing to a world desperately in need.
Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey wrote, regarding Anglicanism: “Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy; it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as the ‘best type of Christianity,’ but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died.”
Just as the Resurrection Fern growing in the limbs of the live oak comes back to life, so too can our battle-weary souls be transformed into agents of grace and healing, bringing new life out of death.
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III
The Venerable Calhoun Walpole
The 25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 11, 2018
Jesus continues to teach. At this stage of the chronology of Mark’s Gospel he is getting closer to the time of his execution in Jerusalem. There is a sense of urgency building as he addresses what it means to be one of his disciples. For us, it is about allowing today’s scriptures to shape our identity as a baptized person of Jesus.
We find Jesus today across from the treasury. Money, our resources and how we use them is front and center as a teaching tool about discipleship. Specifically he calls to account, pun intended, a group of people called the scribes. In case you’ve forgotten, they are a group of lawyers tasked with being interpreters of Old Testament law as it is to be applied in the circumstances of the day. One other part of their responsibility, crucial to understanding today’s Gospel, is that they were often appointed to be trustees of widow’s estates. Jesus takes the scribes to school.
Now, full stop. After the horrors of the mass slaying of people in worship at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and then the disgusting uptick of anti-Semitic rants on social media immediately thereafter, we need to be aware that too often the scriptures of the Christian faith have been used to contribute to anti-Semitism. Today’s Gospel and its parallel in Matthew are often used to denigrate all Jews and to substantiate prejudice against Jewish people. I hope it is clear to us that anti-Semitism of any kind, including crude jokes, is an abomination to God, contrary to Christ, himself a Jew lest we forget, and clearly sinful. The Christian Church must continue to repent for the ways it has historically contributed to this sin.
Jesus was not against Judaism and genuine Jewish piety. He did take to task any group of people who were not honoring God and the intent for which the Temple and synagogue existed. So today he is addressing one group of Jews who had forgotten who God called them to be. He’s not even addressing all scribes, and certainly not all Jews, just this one group of scribes who had gotten off track. Using them and the widow in comparison, his teaching goes right to the heart of why and how we live our faith as the Church, the Body of Christ.
When you and I walked into St. Thomas’ today, every single one of us brought all kinds of life history through those doors—our pain and brokenness as well as things to celebrate that bring us joy and reason to be grateful. You’ve walked in from a world that is changing so fast we can hardly keep up. We’ve had a mid-term election that pleased you or caused chagrin, or something in between. We had another mass slaying. Gun violence is a plague. Wildfires are raging in California. Incidences of hate and bigotry are on the rise. According to the FBI, domestic violence is a much greater threat to us than international terrorism. We all can add to the list.
It is in this context I ask why you are here. My hope is that you are here to celebrate and create new life, give mutual support for the journey that is too hard to do alone, find love and acceptance, and then be empowered to be Christ’s people in the world. This parish church, as well as our place in it, exists in Christ to prepare the table of welcome to all, to nurture the gift of hospitality where the stranger and fellow traveller of any description can find a place among us.
The scribes Jesus was addressing were not doing that. He was criticizing them for being oblivious to the plight of the socioeconomic poor: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Remember, they were to be trustees of the widow’s assets, not be profiting off of them! These ostentatious and hypocritical scribes were manifesting the exact opposite of discipleship. Giving out of their abundance so as not to be too inconvenienced and hold onto their wealth, they were content to give God a tip and line their own pockets.
The poor widow on the other hand gave the smallest denomination of coin that existed. That kind of sacrifice Jesus is holding up as true discipleship, the kind of attitude he is taking to the Cross very soon. She gave all that she had as will he. If we have any privileges on this earth, we are to use them in service to the widows among us, those most vulnerable, disrespected, marginalized or considered disposable, for Jesus is showing us they are our teachers.
The Gospel is telling us today that as we move through life, it is easy to get off track, like the scribes, and forget who we are and why we are here. We are to be about God’s justice as shown forth in Jesus, “on earth as it is in heaven.” It is in him we find our hope and why we are offering the laying on of hands today and renewing our baptismal vows, to claim once again our identity as the people of Jesus, our first loyalty beyond all other loyalties. We renounce everything that works against God’s love for all and to the destruction of God’s creation and its people. We affirm everything that brings love, life, hope, restoration, renewal.
Called by Jesus as disciples, we work tirelessly to participate in God’s vision for all people, no outcasts, no exceptions. We continue to seek to be God’s people out there in the world God has given us, looking for opportunities to offer a word of hope, a word of compassion, a word of reconciliation. All the while, we trust the promise of God that love wins, God prevails, even if we cannot always see how. God turned the widow’s limitations into abundance. If we offer what we have, no matter how small, God will do the same with us. The Way of Jesus teaches us nothing less.
All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2018
I’m wondering. Is there anyone here today who has been to Winchester cathedral in England? Do any of you recall what it says as you enter? Allow me to remind you: “You are entering a conversation that began long before you were born and will continue long after you are dead.” You and I are taking part in that conversation that spans millennia by what we are doing here today as we continue the conversation of prayer and thanksgiving that has been going on in this parish church since its inception.
Another way of joining in the conversation is by engaging scripture to discover the dialogues with God held therein. As we come upon midterm elections, confront the epidemic expressions of hatred and bigotry, deal with national tragedies, or even face a time of parish transition in the retirement of a rector, I find it helpful to hear from the Bible its wisdom by taking the long view it affords us. When the One seated on the throne says, “See, I am making all things new,” it can be hard to trust that promise if we but take a snapshot of a moment in history. But the Revelation to John goes on to offer the big picture, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
Even the conversation we overhear in John’s Gospel among Jesus, Mary, Martha and some religious authorities, calls us to see in a more universal way. In the short term Lazarus is dead. Flesh is corrupted. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Yet look what Jesus does. “Take away the stone!” Big picture. “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Back to narrow picture. But hold on for the biggest picture, “Lazarus, come out!” “Unbind him and let him go.”
Scripture teaches us time and again, and it might be good for us to hear this today, God is the master of history. “…the Lord will reign over them forever,” the Wisdom of Solomon says. Big picture. “Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones and he watches over his elect.” Even bigger picture.
All Saints Day reminds us again of this grand vista. We find ourselves part of a vast community that spreads beyond the limitations of time and space. And perhaps you can find a degree of hope in this, that what we see at any given moment is not all there is. The Nicene Creed calls us to believe in God, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen. The Apostle’s Creed calls us to believe in the communion of saints. We are reminded that we are always a part of something, held in God’s love, which is much bigger than anything we can observe. In times like ours we need the perspective All Saints Day gives us, that what we see is not all there is. Once again from Revelation, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples.” Panoramic!
Look at it another way. Some years ago I was visiting one of my retired priests in the hospital and standing over the food tray table, you know, the one on wheels that can be positioned over the bed. Such a table often serves as a makeshift altar. As I was opening up the portable Communion set and placed the sacred Body and Blood of Christ on the square linen cloth, something began to happen.
“Who sent you the flowers?” I asked. He told me, “A member of the parish I used to serve.” The card said, “From a heart filled with love.” Suddenly, not just two of us were at that table, there were three – one in the bed, the one who sent the flowers, and me. God was in our midst.
The community was growing and it continued to grow. I noticed cards on the wall. Some were from other parishioners and some from family. The wine and the bread – they were provided by the people of the parish next door where I had stopped to obtain the reserved sacrament, consecrated at a gathering of God’s people in worship some other day. There was a white linen cloth, gently washed and pressed by a member of the Altar Guild. The Communion set was given to me by loving friends from yet another parish where I was ordained priest 38 years ago this week.
It was an amazing flood of love and presence and joy and communion, a communion of saints, All Saints, known and unknown. Beyond the priest and his bishop was a whole community of concern and care, joined by Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven. Talk about the big picture! I wanted to turn and tell a nurse in the hall, “Are you aware that there are several hundred people, maybe thousands, in this room right now?” But I wanted to make it out of the hospital that day.
You and I are here because of a great repository of faith from over the millennia. We are inheritors of these gifts that must not be taken lightly. Nor can we forget the church expectant, those yet to be born who will inherit the legacy of God’s faithful people in the ages to come, all because of you.
Those being confirmed and received today, do you see the great treasure of which you are a part and through which you are making vows today? You are a part of God’s great vision as we participate with God in the power of his 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.
Before falling asleep tonight, I hope you all will intentionally thank God for the communion of saints which we experience every day and in whose prayers we are held and sustained throughout eternity. Never forget that what we see is not all there is, beginning long before we were born and continuing long after we are gone.
St. Stephen’s, North Myrtle Beach
Proper 25; October 28, 2018
In a display of faith as extraordinary as any in all of Scripture, the blind beggar Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and comes to Jesus. That simple act of wild abandon is a detail too easily missed. The cloak was likely Bartimaeus’ only possession. Not only that, as a beggar, it would have been the receptacle placed on the ground to receive coins tossed his way.
Contrast for a moment the beggar’s wreckless gesture with the response of the rich man earlier in this same chapter of Mark read two weeks ago. Bartimaeus gives up all that he has to come to Jesus, but the rich man apparently is not able to give up even a small part of his fortune. The man at the top of the pecking order in terms of wealth, status and virtue (remember, he said he had kept all the commandments since his youth), gets a direct call from Jesus and walks away grieving because of his many possessions. The blind beggar Bartimaeus on the other hand, jumps at the chance to be with Jesus. The well-heeled can’t say yes and the destitute blind beggar can’t wait for the opportunity. The first have become last and the last have become first. Once again, Gospel surprise. What does it teach us?
Then there is that question, that strange question Jesus asks of Bartimaeus that he also asked of James and John last week in the Gospel, “What is it you want me to do for you?” Mark, the gospel writer, continues to be clever with irony. The Zebedee brothers had been with Jesus from the outset. They had listened to him teach and witnessed his mighty works. Of all people they should get it. Yet when Jesus asks what they want from him, James and John respond they want to be top-dog, numbers one and two with Jesus, thus showing severe spiritual blindness. In contrast, poor, blind Bartimaeus shows his capacity to see by wanting Jesus to restore his sight. Another Gospel surprise. What does it teach us?
We are caught in a tension aren’t we? We know we are called to trust in our Lord totally as the readings from Job, the Psalm and Hebrews make abundantly clear: “The Lord has done great things for us and we are glad indeed” (Psalm 126:3). Like Bartimaeus we are called to toss aside our garment, whatever that may symbolize for us, and go to receive God’s love and wholeness for our life. Just as we discover in the life of Job, it is God’s desire to restore all things.
Yet we continually hear the lies being proffered around us: “Be strong. Take control. Don’t show your weakness. Never apologize. Fear those different from you. Be rid of ‘the other.” You come first.” Left unchallenged, buying into such lies results in our inability to see the blind beggars around us or even our own blindness. In the extreme, it can end up expressed in hatred and bigotry such as what we saw manifested in the horrors of Pittsburgh yesterday. Our blindness divides us and refuses to acknowledge that all are made in the image God. What does it teach us?
I’m thinking that this is precisely why Jesus asks the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” The answer may seem obvious to some—of course he wants to see. Yet the truth is, often we are content to remain blind. If we remain blind we don’t have to change, be challenged or walk in a new direction. Our presumptions and prejudices can remain intact. We don’t have to recognize God in the other.
Some fascinating research has been done about the response of blind people who are given sight through medical treatment. Their transition is remarkable. Even after being able to see, they would crack their shins on tables and chairs that before had not been a problem. They had issues judging distance. For many, suddenly having sight was not the wonderful gift the sighted would have imagined. One individual is reported to have simply closed his eyes and went back to the comfortable and familiar world he knew. Another said that he couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to tear his eyes out. Seeing was too painful.
To receive God’s sight as shown to us in Jesus is to see differently, through different eyes if you will. It can be difficult. It cost Jesus his life. It has been costly for other prophets of God over the centuries. The call of our baptism and as being renewed today in those coming forward for the laying on of hands, is to acknowledge that Jesus has given us new eyes through a new identity. The reason Bartimaeus can get up with such self-abandon and throw off his only security to then trust in God alone, is that he has come to some awareness of the depth, magnitude and beauty of the gift. When Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well,” the verb Mark uses there signifies a physical cure to be sure, but it also indicates the gift of salvation itself. What it teaches us is that until we see, really see, and know deep within ourselves the immensity and wonder of the gift of God in Jesus, we will too often be content to hold onto our cloak, remain in blindness, what we think we already know, and seek the comfort of the status quo.
Our invitation today, as always, is to follow Jesus “on the way” as Bartimaeus did. The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen says in his little book, Here and Now: “If we could just be, for a few minutes each day, fully where we are, we would indeed discover that we are not alone and that the One who is with us wants only one thing—to give us love.” “Start by doing what is necessary,” St. Francis of Assisi said, “then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
As you renew the baptismal covenant today, throw off your cloak, whatever that may be. Then begin to see, really see, like Jesus.
Bishop Skip Adams offered a video message on October 28 following the attack at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left at least 11 people dead. A transcript of the video is here:
Dear People of God in South Carolina, as is mine I know your hearts are torn and your minds are reeling in response to the horrifics acts of hatred and bigotry as they were perpetrated in the synagogue in Pittsburgh.
As I visited with the people of St. Stephen's, North Myrtle Beach this morning, we prayed together for the victims, for their families, for all who respond to them, and also spoke of how we ned to be a people who are reaching across all kinds of barriers for those, and to those, who are different from us, to show the way of love to which Jesus calls us.
These things strike awful close to home as we continue to remember the people of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston.
If you are in a communtiy that has a a synagogue, if you have Jewish friends, I hope you will especially reach out to them in care and concern. Find ways to pray with them, for them, and perhaps you can find other ways for all victims of hatred and bigotry to talk about a new way, a new possibilty, a new hope, a new way of being.
It seems appropriate at this time to share with one another the Shema, the great Jewish prayer spoken before and at the end of worship, and before bedtime each nite, and we share that prayer with our Jewish sisters and brothers: -- Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. --
We know it to be so, and may we share in solidarity with those who are grieving and are hurting this night. Blessings to you all, and thank you.
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.