Third Sunday in Lent: March 24, 2019
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
The Gospel today raises some interesting questions as we seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus and not merely in passive resignation to what we find swirling around us. As Jesus continues to move toward Jerusalem, the place of his execution, the context reflects the commonly held conviction of the day that illness and misfortune were God’s punishment for sin.
Now, lest we think that this understanding was held only by ancient and unsophisticated people who did not know better, think again. Can we debunk this kind of thinking, at least among us, once and for all? Last hurricane season, in the face of natural disasters, we heard some popular TV preachers say that certain storms were sent by God to punish us for our sins. Or more to the extreme, we get people of Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas (not fair to all Baptists by the way), who demonstrate at military funerals and scream out epithets saying that the reason these dedicated soldiers have died is God’s punishment on the United States for its tolerance of gay and lesbian people. Even last week, there were Islamophobic rants from people blaming the victims of the murders in the two mosques in Christchurch, NZ, saying that they deserved what they got.
Those are attitudes that are rather easily seen as nonsense if we use our brain just a little bit. Why isn’t God zapping us for how we treat the planet in the pollution of our water and soil as we continue to feed our addiction to fossil fuels, or sending major calamities on parts of the international banking industry for its collusion with the governments of Iran and Iraq, in effect stealing from the pockets of people like you and me as well as aiding and abetting terrorist activity? Or again, unless we think we are too sophisticated for such thinking, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone say from a hospital bed, “I wonder what I have done to deserve this,” thereby linking personal behavior to being punished by God with sickness and misery.
Jesus is saying – there is no necessary connection at all! And he uses the story of the horrible murder of some Galileans and the tower of Siloam falling on the eighteen people to say that their sin was no worse than anyone else’s. So the first thing of which Jesus is asking us to repent, in order to walk in a new direction, is theological thinking that makes God into a terrorist going around looking to pick off who God can pick off when you or I or anyone else misbehaves or even is perceived to have misbehaved! Jesus says, “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
Even more, he points us to shift our attention toward impending catastrophes for which human beings, not God, bear total responsibility. While wanting to give comfort and assurance for a person who stumbles, he is also looking to light a fire under the too comfortable, the self-righteous, and other unproductive disciples. We have work to do in the life of faith! Look again to the commitments to which we are called in our baptism and the vows those being received today are making with us: calls to be disciples of Jesus’ justice and peace; standing for the dignity for every human being. Let’s go back to the story. What was happening there when Jesus says, “Repent, or you will all perish as they did?”
Pilate, the Roman governor, had just had killed some people from Galilee. Apparently he had killed them in Jerusalem, where sacrifices are offered at the temple, because Jesus is told that Pilate “mingled their own blood with their sacrifices.” So a question – why would Pilate be killing Galileans in Jerusalem, in the temple? Only one answer is possible: he believed they were rebel insurgents. He had brought the power of Roman rule down on them.
Even the tower of Siloam falling on the 18 people is most probably one of the towers of the wall of Jerusalem that had been toppled in a siege attempt by the Roman soldiers under Pilate’s command. Key here, again asking the question of what to repent or change one’s mind, is when Jesus says, “…unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” AS THEY DID, that is, at the hands of the Roman army under Pilate’s direction. The repentance, or change of mind and new direction Jesus is calling forth here is not personal sin. He is saying, and get this, unless you stop participating in this armed violent rebellion, you will all get killed in the same way they did; compliments of Pilate and the Roman army.
Jesus saw people caught in self-destructive behavior and was seeking to warn them, pulling them back from the edge of the cliff. His message was precisely the opposite of “God is punishing you.” We see this in the parable of the fig tree where the owner is looking to cut it down for its non-production, but the farmer wants to give it more time. The image conveys God’s patience with us, God’s never failing mercy, giving us always the opportunity to change course, to adjust behavior, like giving a gardener another chance to fertilize a fruitless tree.
So what at first glance today may have looked like a word of threat is in fact a word of promise and hope. Jesus, on the Cross, is our intercessor. He is the Gardener who in the act of the Cross and Resurrection accomplishes the new chance you and I and all of creation has to be made new. Jesus is working the soil, if you will, so that new life can happen and the sign will be when you and I have a change of heart and mind, when in response to God’s patience we are more awake to the Spirit’s movement, more just and more compassionate in God’s service.
In Lent, Jesus recruits us for this work of insisting on a collective repentance for policies, plans and attitudes, that are threatening entire systems on which human well-being depends. It is the work we are called to do as Christ’s people. Who will do it if we don’t?
First Sunday in Lent: March 10, 2019
Jesus would have known of the public ritual set forth in Deuteronomy today, whereby the people recall God’s faithfulness to the Israelites in the wilderness. He would have done this himself some thirty times over his life to this point. Beyond that he would have heard it read and likely read it himself hundreds of times.
Jesus was formed by this story from his time as a child through the synagogue lectionary as well as at home. It would give him his grounding as he faces his own time in the Judean wilderness. In Luke’s account we note at least two things. First, Jesus was tempted. This may be obvious, but it is important since it informs us that Jesus experienced temptation in every way we do and links his humanity to ours. As Hebrews tells us: “We do not have a great high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every way has been tempted as we are, yet did not sin.”
Secondly, note that the temptations are not trivial. They are related to the very core of Jesus’ calling and identity. Jesus is tempted here to modify his ministry to serve purposes other than what brings life, freedom and hope.
If you are hungry – get some bread. What could that hurt? Isn’t eating a good thing? Rule over the kingdoms of the world – gosh, you’re a good guy. You’d probably do a great job of it. Jump off the temple roof – didn’t God promise to protect you? Do you trust God or not? In the exchange the character of the devil says, “If you are the Son of God,” do this! Do you see what is going on here? The clever plot seeks to plant the thought in Jesus’ mind that he needs to prove his identity through these parlor tricks after he had just been told at his baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Make no mistake. Jesus is being tempted here to the depth of his being. He is being tempted to forget who he is, to whom he belongs, and to live out his mission and ministry in a manner better suited to what the world tends to value rather than God’s desire for us. The enemy, the liar and deceiver, seeks to sow in the human heart the promise of bread and comfort conjoined to greatness, fame, being number one, power and prestige, at the expense of others. The warning here is to measure such desires at the cost of one’s soul, for often the battle waged is not an exterior, objectified wilderness, but the wilderness of our own heart.
Our worth is found in who God says we are: beloved, made in his image, worthy of respect, of inherent value for no other reason than that we were born. Anything that tells us that we, or for that matter any other human being, is not of infinite worth to God, loved beyond our wildest imaginings, is a lie. It is true even when Scripture itself is used to devalue, dehumanize or demonize any person of the earth. We learn from Jesus in the wilderness that this is Satan’s ruse. This is where bigotry in all its forms is born. Jesus didn’t fall for it. Nor should we. Lent takes us back to the wilderness once again to give us the opportunity to consider deeply who we are and who we want to be as Christ’s own. It has us ask the question of how we engage our neighbor, whether here in Denmark or halfway around the world.
To engage the wilderness to where the Holy Spirit led Jesus, or even to enter the wilderness of the Israelites, can perhaps challenge us to see that our address right now is just that, wilderness. It is true for each of us individually, for us as a Diocese, and for us on planet earth. In our wilderness we get to confront our deepest fears, reestablish where we find our identity, and embrace what gives us hope. We also get the amazing opportunity to reconnect to all who are in their various wildernesses with us, all who are oppressed, treated wrongly, judged, devalued. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien…,” and there with him we find sibling journeyers, migrants, refugees, all of us together on the way seeking liberation. The wilderness experience can give us our life back in order to be set free for a true home that trusts in God’s who has said through Christ that you and I and all are worth dying for.
One of Jesus’ responses to the lies was to do what? Worship! That means, among other things, to become ever more clear about what truly is of worth, as in “worth-ship.” In worship we give supreme worth to God, and by a beautiful turn of grace find ourselves “made worthy to stand before him.” We come together to hear the sacred story over and over, to remember, to be sustained by one another, have our imaginations stirred, then set free to be who God calls us to be.
The discipline of Lent is to get clear one more time about our center, our identity in Christ. When temptation comes, and it will, we have an opportunity through a life of prayer and worship to remain grounded in who we are in Christ and to live out of that truth alone. Then, when we fail, and we will, we know we are forgiven and still loved as we find our center once again. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom is not when everyone gets it all right. His vision is when all will worship the One God.
You and I go through Lent and indeed all of life knowing the end of the story – Jesus is Risen! We are resurrection people called to worship God above and before anything else. As Christians our life is to be rooted in thanksgiving that leads us to be profoundly grateful for God’s act in Christ on the cross. Only there will we find that we are truly set free to be who God calls us to be, to see others as God sees them, and remember who we truly are – God’s own people.
Dear Friends of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
On Ash Wednesday we go to the altar twice. We go first to receive the imposition of ashes and second to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Both of these actions name a reality and a hope.
Going forward to receive ashes marked on our foreheads is an imposition, even a startling one. We are told that we “are dust and to dust you shall return.” The truth is we are mortal, finite, and subject to all the chances and changes of what it is to be human. Our Prayer Book calls it this “transitory life.” We hear similar words uttered by God to Adam in Genesis. We hear them at every funeral. It is a statement not of curse, but of reality. We are dust.
To be dust is, however, also a sign of hope. To embrace this truth means that we have named who we are without sentiment and come to the awareness that we have no hope in and of ourselves. We are stripped of our nonsensical illusions about our own power and ability to control, and are taken back to the wilderness where we can rediscover our need of God’s grace and mercy. To acknowledge that we are dust can prepare in us a place for God.
Now we are hungry and thirsty. Now we long for something that can refresh us and make us new. Now we return to the altar to be fed with Christ’s very self offered for us in the Sacrament of Bread and Wine. The reality that gets named is that we come forward needy and incomplete. Even more importantly, however, we come forward to meet the ultimate reality, God, and our God reaches out to feed us and make us whole. We are made worthy in Christ in the very act of eating and drinking from what God offers us in Christ.
Participating in Eucharist is then also our hope. We meet Christ Risen and alive in us and among us. It reminds us of who we really are: the redeemed, loved and embraced people of God empowered to be Christ for the world. Once again you are invited by God through the Church to begin the Lenten journey. Walk with us and discover again your reality and even more, your hope.
The Last Sunday After the Epiphany: March 3, 2019
Listen to Good Shepherd's podcast of this sermon.
We stand at the edge of the season of renewal we know as Lent. Ready or not, we transition into its wilderness of honest introspection of who we are as God’s own people. Yet before we make this shift, we are given the opportunity to look through the window of the Transfiguration, the crowning event of this season of light, as we are introduced once again to the clarity of Jesus’ identity. From the holy mount we hear: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” His Baptism and Transfiguration are bookends of the season after the Epiphany, each a manifestation – an epiphany – of who Jesus is.
Note, however, that this day is not only about who Jesus is. It is also about who you and I are. We are invited to contemplate the heart of God as seen reflected in the radiant Christ, and see ourselves through the One who is unbounded love, shown forth perfectly in his departure, that is, his exodus, on the cross.
On the holy mountain Jesus’ identity was affirmed amongst the community of Peter, John and James, descendants of the historical witness of Elijah and Moses, the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. They also had experiences of the glory of God on holy mountains. We too are descendants of what occurred on the mountain, as the identity of those receiving the laying on of hands by the bishop is reaffirmed. Just as Jesus, you are God’s chosen, sealed by the Spirit, Christ’s own forever, and empowered for service to be God’s ambassador of love and grace for the sake of the world.
One of the purposes of the liturgy is to draw us into a relationship with God and one another, where the veil is pulled back just a bit, in order to catch a glimpse of the glory of God. We are given the opportunity to fall in love with the Holy One as we bask in the light of God’s love for us. Hopefully, we find ourselves reminded of who God is, who we are, and what God intends the world to be. We see on the holy mountain a vision that all creation is full of God’s glory, that beauty is everywhere, and that each moment vibrates with God’s presence, if only we had eyes to see and hearts ready to be opened. Such awakening, or heart-opening, is the primary purpose of prayer, where bit by bit our marination in the Spirit occurs, and we are formed more deeply into the mind of Christ.
Some years ago I was travelling on a warm summer day on my way to a diocesan meeting. Part way there I came upon road construction where one lane was shut down. There was the guy doing his job, holding the sign that said “Stop!” in large letters, causing us to wait for the other side to clear. I found myself irrationally irritated that this interruption in schedule might cause me to be late, because clearly, the universe is all about me.
While waiting, however, by grace I was able to slow my breathing and look around, slowly letting it all go. Out of my peripheral vision I saw a Wooly Bear, one of those fuzzy fat caterpillars walking across the yellows stripe of the road. Each undulation of its body and the manipulation of its many legs moved it along at a rather rapid pace. I found myself relieved when it made it to the side of the road not being squished by a tire.
I looked out the window on the other side and gazed upon a red-winged blackbird, perched on a cattail as it swayed back and forth in the breeze, glowing iridescently in the sun. Transfiguration? All of the sudden what seemed like an inconvenient interruption was transformed into a moment of grace, even contemplation on the beauty of God’s creation. I was awakened by that grace to a reality that was present whether I noticed or not, but fortunately circumstances caused me to slow way down, pause, and see with different eyes. The veil was being pulled back.
I wonder if you have heard of something called “the sacrament of the moment?” In essence it means that each second of life, every breath we take, is full of the grandeur and wonder of God. Too often, however, we are too busy, too preoccupied, too distracted to notice. Someone has said that in our time we are not suffering from a decay of beliefs as much as a loss of solitude. We are being called to stand boldly before the radiance of Jesus. Today, as some of you come forward, I hope you will know that it is not as much about standing before the bishop as it is standing before the Christ, veils removed, in the desire to be made new.
That is what this day seeks to do as it calls forth from us a new way of seeing. This life isn’t the only one there is, but we are called to live this life in a way that respects what God has made, including ourselves, and calls us to be stewards of every relationship on earth to which we are called. What we discover in Jesus’ Transfiguration is that each human being is made in God’s image. How we treat every human being matters, and is why we promise again today in the Baptismal Covenant to “work for justice and peace among all people” and “to respect the dignity of every human being.”
The nature of life is always to be in transition. We often resist since we human beings really like the status quo. Yet this day teaches us, once again, that the journey into holiness is not only to change, but to change often. Or to put it more eloquently from today’s Collect as it echoes II Corinthians, to be “changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” Hopefully, by grace, we’ll be opened to the possibility, discover the joy of being co-creators with God for the “metamorphosis” of the world, and find ourselves transfigured along the way.
A Message from Bishop Adams:
Dear Friends of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
I am taking what may seem to be the unusual step of requesting that you consider my sermon preached this past Sunday at St. Alban’s, Kingstree on the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany. I make this request as I believe the Scriptures for the day address in compelling ways this particular time in our life as a diocese, and I offer this sermon as a perspective for your pondering and discussion.
Please know how grateful I am for all of you and for your engagement in our common mission to be a faithful community of the Risen Christ.
Grace to you in the peace that passes all understanding,
The Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany: February 24, 2019
As I wrestled with all of the Scriptures for today, I could not avoid how I experienced them addressing me as your bishop, our common life as a diocese, as well as our individual faith communities such as St. Alban’s. These Propers arrive in our liturgical calendar at a time in our diocesan life of an extended period of waiting. The words of Psalm 13 echo in my mind: “How long O Lord?” They come when many of us are frustrated, to varying degrees depending on your context, by the apparent inactivity of the court process. It can seem like nothing is happening. Thus, this sermon is not just for you at St. Alban’s, but also for our Diocese.
The Gospel presents us with the radical core of the ethics of the reign of God, “on earth as it is in heaven.” It is addressed to would-be disciples then and now. We are learning from Jesus what it means to live under the authority of God. What we find is challenging to be sure. “It speaks of reconciliation, risky solidarity, love that is unconditional and generous, indifferent to profit or even breaking even” (Martin L. Smith), all to resemble more completely the God who created us in his image.
Let’s start with the note of challenge found in Psalm 37. In the ancient hymnody of the Temple, it addresses the very real human fear that someone, somewhere, might be getting away with something. Our sense of justice has been offended. We want the scales balanced and those who have offended us to get what’s coming. Most of us, and I’m including myself here, find it very difficult to extract ourselves from the hodge-podge of emotions that arise when we believe we, or even our community, have been wronged.
The Psalmist responds, “Do not fret yourself because of evildoers,” that is, the ones who work against God’s justice. As hard as it is to put into practice, the Psalm calls us, just as the ancient Israelites were in their time of waiting, to “Put your trust in the Lord and do good.” “Take delight in the Lord.” “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” The call here is to go deep, that is, to drill down into the bedrock of what it means to be a child of God. It is not content to leave us in the superficiality of mere slogan in perhaps well meaning yet pie-in-the-sky utterings. You know, things like, “Don’t worry, everything will come out okay.” Here we are called to a deep trust in God. Our hope is not in outcomes, but only in the depths of God’s love and justice. It is this for which we are to wait, patiently.
I wonder if you are moved as I am by the awe-inspiring story of the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis. After being left for dead by his brothers out of raw jealousy, Joseph is able to see his time of estrangement as being used by God for the benefit of the Hebrew people. Once again our sense of justice is turned topsy-turvy. Joseph’s words to his brothers were, “Come closer to me,” when he had every right by any code of fairness you may want to apply, to be rid of them forever. The one wronged was the one who took the initiative. No one would call the brothers’ treatment of Joseph a good thing, but grace entered the picture and God used it for good and the ongoing formation of what was to become Israel.
I have said in several places that perhaps this time of waiting on our part, as a diocese, is a time of formation, a crucible if you will, to learn again that our dependence is solely on God. No one in her or his right mind would have chosen a split in the Church, but it happened, and in the middle of it and as scary as it sometimes is, we are finding new ways of being church, new ways of being in relationship, and new liberation to be the Church we believe God calls us to be.
We discover such depth in Luke’s direction that, “the measure we give is the measure we will get back.” Do good even if, and perhaps especially if, you get nothing in return, not even expecting to do so! As the Collect clearly says, “Without love, whatever we do is worth nothing.”
So what do we do in the meantime? Our waiting, even our frustration, can have meaning, be redemptive, and participate in God’s grand sweep of justice. The Scriptures today call us to continue to go deep, grow up and mature in Christ, and embrace ever more willingly the fullness of what it means to be an instrument of our loving, liberating and life-giving God (Presiding Bishop Michael Curry). Some of the answer is we do what we have always done. We pray, but even more deeply. We worship, but even more joyfully. We cast our cares on God, but even more trustingly. We engage the people of God in mission as we seek to transform everything that holds God’s people captive, but even more boldly.
I Corinthians reminds us that, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” “What is sown in weakness is raised in power.” Our hope lies nowhere but in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. I would then ask this. What in us, individually and as a community, is to die in order that God’s life might burst forth? Of what must we let go, whether it be our sense of fairness, specific outcomes, or even deep hurt and mistreatment, in order that it can all die in Christ? And once released to die to God’s mercy and love, is it possible that it could be given back to us, not because we deserve it, but as a complete gift of God’s grace for the use of the Kingdom? Then we would be a renewed people, a renewed Church, one that God can surely use for the transformation and renewal of the world.
What we do now is get down to business to demonstrate to each other and the world how we will look like the one who created us, the one who redeemed us, the one who continues to make us new. Grace and reconciliation are not passive. It cost Jesus his life. The work we are about is hard. We must be diligent as we speak hard truths to one another and those who disagree with us. And we must listen well. It is the work we have been doing and the work we remain committed to do. Now, “Act as if it all depends on you. Pray knowing it all depends on God.”
The Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany: February 10, 2019
The symbol of fishing, of which we have heard in today’s Gospel, has a rich background in antiquity. Since Luke was writing for those familiar with Greco-Roman traditions, he singles out that aspect of the symbol which was exploited by teachers who “lured” people to themselves (yes, pun intended), and through their education of them transformed their lives. That aspect is the “bait.” Peter will now be catching women and men with the bait of God’s word and thereby bringing them new life.
I like the imagery of fishing, especially as I am one who is passionate about the sport of a particular kind of fishing, that of fly fishing. If you look closely at this chasuble I am wearing today, you will notice that on the central front panel there is a depiction of a rainbow trout rising to a fly. The means of catching, whether it is a net, or live bait, or a fly, is not what’s important here. What is important is the catching. So let’s be a bit playful and look at the scriptures to see what God is up to in the drawing of people to himself and then what that might mean for our role in the catching.
First we have an account of the call of Isaiah. He “saw God’s face,” indicating he had an experience of divine presence that was compelling and potentially life-transforming. This led him to accept God’s call as a prophet, a truth-teller to Israel and also to the power domination system of Assyria. As is often true in call stories in Scripture, he is at first resistant, even horrified, to be chosen in this way by God. Why? He knew of his foul mouth, but a seraph is sent to Isaiah with a burning coal to burn away anything not of God.
So God first caught Isaiah with a vision of his transcendent holiness: “Holy, holy, holy,” three times holy, meaning really, really holy. Then, after Isaiah has been cleansed for this new role by God’s gift of grace, Isaiah is prepared to be one who dares to tell God’s truth with beauty and power, to catch others with divine love and mercy. I wonder if we, individually and as a community of faith, might be caught if you will, by a vision of God renewed in our passion to be radical truth tellers to power, calling forth the changing of hearts wherever we see God’s hope for humanity being threatened? It can be risky to be sure, but that kind of integrity just might be attractive bait to the world out there to which we are called to minister.
Then we have St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian Church. As you will recall, he was caught by a compelling experience of God’s call when he was knocked off his horse on his way to Damascus to continue his persecution of the followers of Jesus. Again by the gift of grace (there’s a theme developing here), he is granted a new vision of God’s liberating truth, where God’s net is cast wider than St. Paul ever could have imagined. The net was cast wide, and it was cast deep. It transformed his life and it transformed not only the lives of the people of the churches to whom he wrote, but eventually the entire world. So much so, it is the reason you and I are here today. We at some point were “caught.”
Don’t forget that the Church to which Paul was writing was a church in conflict. Some things don’t change. The bait he offered in the part of his letter we read today is the resurrection of Jesus, the promise of new life not just after we die, but the “life-giving, liberating, loving” truth available to us even now. Any Gospel worth sharing is one that sets us free to be fully who God calls us to be. That is the bait—when people see us set on fire with God’s love, transformed as God’s people to a new vision of hope and peace for the world. Our call is never to threaten people into the Kingdom, but to love them into it with a love that knows no bounds. No bait and switch allowed once people join us. “All are welcome” on our signs needs to mean just that, all are welcome, no exceptions. What is that to look like here at Christ Church and through you to the people of Denmark and beyond?
Then we come to Luke’s account where we specifically find the fishing metaphor played out. Peter took the bait, “hook, line and sinker,” as they say. He, the expert fisherman who had caught nothing after an entire night of fishing, was so overcome with amazement by the abundance of the catch, he totally abandoned the life track he was on in order to follow Jesus.
We hear stories like that all the time and I have experienced it myself. In the late 70’s I was all set to go off to Frenchman’s Reef in the Virgin Islands to be the assistant manager of a new hotel there, but because of the call of Jesus went to seminary instead. Gosh, I was all set to retire 2 ½ years ago, but because of an experience of the beauty of God in God’s people while meeting with the Standing Committee, followed the Spirit’s call to come be among you in South Carolina. I’ve watched young people go with us to El Salvador for mission work with one life-goal in mind, then be encountered by God in a way that they shift those goals completely in service to God’s people. I hope you have seen such life-changing grace in your own life.
The compelling call of Jesus shown in the grandeur of God through the great haul of fish caught the imagination of Peter’s heart. He then was able to hear God’s call that from then Christ’s life in him was to be the bait as he was to be fishing for people. To be clear, Isaiah, Paul and Peter were not the bait, but it was the Good News of God in them. Just as the net was let down into the deep water, we too are called to go deep, not willing merely to play around on the spiritual surface, but to plunge the depths of our faith in ways that make us irresistible in our all-embracing love, in our extravagant mercy, in our never-ending hope.
It was Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple who said that the Church exists primarily for those who are not a part of it. Filled with gratitude for God’s life-changing presence in our life, let’s go fishing.
The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany: February 3, 2019
We live in a strange time in the life of the Church, and I don’t just mean in The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Participation numbers in any kind of a faith community across our country continues to drop. If we are paying attention we must always be asking what it means to be a people of faith in a 21st century context and how we will live fully into our call to be disciples of Jesus. We do this work knowing that there are no easy answers or any quick fixes. What we do know is that we have a God who promises to be with us always and is calling forth our trust in the possibility that God’s vision can be made manifest, an epiphany, in you and in the life of our own faith context.
We talk a lot about love in the Christian faith. You will recall this theme from our most recent diocesan convention. Today we hear once again that great ode to love in I Corinthians 13, commonly heard at weddings. In some ways that’s unfortunate, because it means that the point St. Paul is making is often lost in that context. His letter to the Church in Corinth is not about a feeling, an emotion, or a romance. He is talking about a gift of the Holy Spirit given to a community of people in order that they might be who God calls them to be. To Paul, love is selfless action always seeking the good of the other. In Jesus’ life we see this perfectly on the Cross. Our discipleship as a community of faith is to be an outward and visible sign, a sacrament if you will, of the radical nature of God’s love for the entire creation, including you and me, as found on that Cross. Allow me to share with you some places where I see that kind of Jesus-love lived out.
In about ten days I will be leaving for El Salvador. I will be meeting as a member of the Board of Trustees of a human rights organization called Cristosal, originally founded through The Episcopal Church and with continued close ties. The people of El Salvador continue to struggle for the basic norms of justice that you and I might take for granted. When there, I witness the people of that country who, in costly ways and sometimes at great risk, seek to change the structures and confront the violence that keep God’s people oppressed and without the basic rights that all human beings should inherently be able to enjoy just by being human – made in God’s image. The work is about loving as we seek to tell God’s truth to power.
Or perhaps you recall an occurrence in an Amish community in Pennsylvania a few years ago, when many of their children were horrifically murdered while at school. Do you recall the response by the Amish? It was to forgive, right in the midst of their own deep pain. They said that the killer had been hurting too, clearly ill, and had not yet come to the light. They even went to his family to console them. Why? Because they said, it is the Way of Jesus.
Then there was the moment in Florida outside of a prison where an execution was about to happen. In a TV interview of the mother of the murder victim, there protesting the execution, she said, “To execute this man only perpetuates the violence, it doesn’t end it.” Contrast this with another scene on that same parking lot where at a beer party the group cheered when the body of the executed man was taken away in a van.
All three of these accounts are about radical ways of loving. They challenge us. They might make us a bit uncomfortable. Such a feeling may give us a sense of what Jesus’ hearers may have been thinking and feeling when they heard his teaching in today’s Gospel. Jesus was at a homecoming of sorts, in his home town, Joseph’s boy, but does not hold back confronting them with who they are called to be as the people of God. He lays before them the thought that God always tends the outsider, those on the edge and beyond our comfort zones. He was confronting a community that had focused too much on itself. What was the result? They tried to throw him off a cliff. Indeed, he ended up on a cross.
Likewise in the I Corinthians reading. It is not about weddings. It is about loving your worst enemy, the quirky neighbor, the person in the pew next to you, the refugee, the outsider. It is about loving those who want to saw you in two as tradition tells us happened to Jeremiah when he dared to speak God’s truth. It is about loving those who want to crucify you. This is radical stuff. No sentimental loving anywhere to be found here. Jeremiah protested that he was not capable to speak for God. God’s response? I called you and will give you what you need. God expects big things from us while on this earth.
True justice is love in action. Love is hard work. We don’t have to look to El Salvador, or the Amish community or that prison parking lot. We know its hard work. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom, his way of loving, is not passive. It does not settle. It is about leveling the playing field of the exercise of power and dominance over one another, calling all of us, including politicians by the way, to a way we’re often not ready to hear much less put in place in one’s life.
Herein lies my struggle with being a disciple of Jesus. It is the Christian’s call to stand not only with the victims of our world, and here’s the rub, but also with the unforgivable, the condemned and the hated. Why? Because this is what Jesus embodied in his life. It cost him his life and he forgave them from the Cross even as they were executing him.
I am convinced that being an authentic community engaged in radical, costly love is how we begin to reshape who we are as the people of God. People would find the integrity of this way irresistible, as hard as it may be. We know it is the better way and it is the work we are called to do. This way of love is to be definitive for all who follow in the Way of Jesus.
Bishop Skip Adams sent the following letter on January 30 to leaders of each congregation in the diocese. A copy of the letter can be viewed here. The text follows:
Dear People of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
This letter comes to you in a spirit of celebration and thanksgiving. The support you continue to manifest for the life and ministry of our Diocese is to be commended. You do so while exercising leadership, remaining connected, and joining in our common mission of God’s liberating Gospel in Christ.
I want you to know that now that we have been able to close the 2018 financial books, the parishes and worshiping communities of the Diocese exceeded what you initially promised to send in support. Diocesan Council and I wish to extend our gratitude for your wonderful response. This is especially important because, understandably, gifts from outside the Diocese have fallen off over the last couple of years.
There is more good news to celebrate. Promised giving for 2019 has for the first time in our re- forming Diocese exceeded $500,000. We are still waiting to hear from a small number of parishes, but it looks like our pledges will be approximately $515,000. Last fall during the Pre-Convention Deanery Meetings and Diocesan Convention, our Diocesan Council did an outstanding job of presenting the 2019 budget and making the case for giving at the requested 10 percent level. I am grateful to report that there have been many positive responses, and more congregations are planning either to meet that goal in 2019, o r make a significant step in that direction.
While financial numbers alone do not indicate all that is happening in a community, they are a substantial outward and visible sign of the commitment of our faith communities and the people of God doing Christ’s work in and through the local mission stations of The Episcopal Church.
We still have many unknowns before us, to be sure. What I do know, however, is that we continue on in faithfulness to God for the work that we have been given to do. Just this morning I was struck once again by the words from the Daily Office in the Suffrages when we say: “In you Lord is our hope; and we shall never hope in vain.”
Blessings and grace to you all in Jesus’ Name,
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina
The Third Sunday After the Epiphany: January 27, 2019
So, why are you on the earth? Why are you here at St. Mark’s Church in Charleston? Why gather in this beautiful place to celebrate this meal of thanksgiving to God we call the Eucharist and confirm and receive three wonderful people of God? Today’s Gospel raises such crucial questions for all of us.
Make no mistake – here in Jesus’ first sermon as recounted by St. Luke, standing in the synagogue in Jesus’ home town, he identifies his reason for being on the planet, why he came to us as a babe in Bethlehem. He quotes from Isaiah 61 and says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Wow. That’s quite an agenda. Here we have Jesus’ mission statement. If we are the Body of Christ as St. Paul so clearly indicates in today’s reading from his first letter to the Church in Corinth, then is this not our mission too, our primary reason to exist as a parish church and the primary ministry to which each of us is called through our baptism?
This past week Bonnie I attended a presentation at the Charleston Museum. It was an event to introduce the newly released book Unexampled Courage. It addresses the story of Sergeant Isaac Woodard, a young African-American soldier returning from World War II in 1946, who on the day after his discharge was taken off of a bus and brutally beaten by a Batesburg, South Carolina police chief to the point of blindness. This incident, long buried and untold in our history, served as a wake-up call to Judge Waties Waring of South Carolina as well as President Harry Truman, leading to the desegregation of the military as well as the grounding argument leading to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown versus Board of Education.
Sometimes in life, corporately and individually, we get wake-up calls, those times when we are awakened, even jolted out of our slumber to a new perspective. The light is shined on a moment in time exposing a truth, perhaps even confronting us in some significant way to ask of ourselves ultimate questions about purpose and meaning. They can come in many ways. Without getting caught up in any one political perspective, anyone paying attention can see that our country is now, as in other times in history, in the midst of a wake-up call. We are in the midst of a cultural struggle to define once again what we want to be and what we want to become. How does Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue form our answer as disciples?
So too for us in our parishes, we live in odd times in the life of the Church. The split in our life as an Episcopal Church in South Carolina is another kind of wake-up call. We, even as we wait (and wait and wait) for courts to move and make decisions, we get to decide what the quality of our waiting is going to be in faithfulness to Christ and the work we are given by the Spirit to do. Jesus’ sermon is not saying we sit idly by for others to act. There is Gospel work to do to set at liberty one another and the people we are called to serve.
Beyond our immediate particularities, the cultural realities around us are shifting faster than many might have ever imagined. By 2044 we reach a tipping point when minorities will make up the majority of people living in the United States. What will this mean for the mission of the Church? The old days of being church are gone forever, arguably for the good. Many of us are anxious, however, even fearful about our future. Yet we do have a choice. We can choose to live out of fear and hunker down to mere survival mode, or we can see this time as a call from the Holy Spirit to reorient, plant our feet once again deeply in God’s love and hear a call for us to re-awaken to our purpose for being as a community of faith in the discipleship of Jesus. What kind of church do we want to be?
This is the new thing being celebrated in Nehemiah today. Why were they weeping? They had been set free to the joy of God after they realized how far off they had wandered and were introduced afresh to the divine healing of their brokenness as a people. They heard once again the call of God on their life. They had forgotten their purpose for being and when they heard again that God was with them, had not abandoned them and would never abandon them, that God was in their midst and even had joy for them, they were stirred to new faithfulness and a new sense of purpose.
God, in Jesus, is always looking to restore his people, in every age, in every time. It is true today and right here at St. Mark’s Church. It may look different in every age, but what we do know is that God desires to be in relationship with us. Out of that relationship we are to take on God’s agenda of justice for the world which is one where all things are set right in our relationship with God, one another, and the entire creation. Perhaps we can even move from the mere tolerance of diversity to being able to celebrate the diversity with which God has endowed the creation.
If we are the Body of Christ, then our mission must be Jesus’ mission. We must not settle for the status quo. We must be a people of radical hospitality and generosity of spirit, known by a love of God and one another so deep, so significant, that through us everyone will see the beauty of the Way of Jesus. We are to be known by our revulsion at injustice and our committed attention to the most in need of our community. By this we will show our love of God as we identify with Jesus in the ministry he describes as the center of his mission, our mission, on earth. It is why we are here.
The Baptism of Our Lord: January 13, 2019
In just a couple of weeks we have jumped some 30 years in Jesus’ life, from his birth, then his naming on January 1 when we celebrated The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus (you see it’s not just New Year’s Day), to The Epiphany and the visit of the Magi, to today, his Baptism. We have gone from infant to adult, from his birth to the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry, leaving out all of those intervening years.
We do have one account of Jesus as a 12 year-old in the temple, but even though we may have curiosity about what kind of child Jesus was—have you ever wondered if Jesus ever gave Mary a hard time—we won’t spend too much time there speculating. The Gospel writers want us to clearly see that Jesus was born, chosen and sent for a purpose. Today’s celebration then, is to help us claim our own baptismal identity and see that we too are born, chosen and sent for a purpose.
Born. We just spent the 12 days of Christmas, from Christmas Day up to The Epiphany, echoing the hymn of the shepherds – “Glory to God in the highest.” I hope we discovered the message that Jesus’ birth was no accident. It was a dramatic unfolding of a tapestry showing forth God’s desire to be in relationship with all of creation. God acts in history. I realize the sweeping theological implications of what I am about to say, but I am going to risk it. Part of what we discover in the birth of the Christ is that in God’s amazing providential love, even under circumstances that may confuse us, no birth is an accident. I am not saying that every birth story unfolds in a manner God wills it, but no birth is an accident. In other words, no person is an accident.
Hear again the words of Isaiah: “…Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…Do not fear, for I am with you…everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” This is true for each of us and for all of us. One of our responsibilities as we claim our baptismal identity is to help each person among us discover that she or he was born for a purpose and is of infinite value, loved by God beyond our wildest imaginings. In so doing you will discover that you too were born for a purpose. What might that be?
Chosen. “…when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” In his baptism Jesus is beloved and God is well pleased, and he hasn’t even yet started his ministry!! God’s favor comes before he does anything.
Too often we go about life trying to earn favor, to prove our worth. Unfortunately we often feel like we have to do that with people, even those closest to us. I am here to tell you, however, that you do not have to do that with God! In baptism we already have God’s favor. God is already pleased. When the water was poured over you at your baptism, God was saying– “you are my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We cannot impress God; we cannot earn God’s love; we get no brownie points. The love is given and we are Christ’s own forever. You were chosen for a purpose. What might that be?
Sent. This is Jesus’ inauguration day, the beginning of his public ministry. Even though we sometimes used to do private baptism, except in an emergency it is a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing in Christianity as private believing. Jesus was baptized to be sent. This is where the rubber hits the road, for we are baptized to be sent. It is what the word “apostle” means – “one sent.” Martin comes forward today in Confirmation in order to be sent, to live out his faith in the world as one transformed by the Spirit’s love and hope. Our call, no different than that of Jesus himself, is to give our life, so deeply secure in the embrace of God that we will be resolute about bringing healing, freedom and hope in collaboration with God’s vision of justice for the world God has made.
In the birth of Jesus we might say that God hit the streets. We take our faith and go into the streets of our living. In that sense faith is more a verb than a noun. You will remember that Jesus asked if a city built on a hill can be hidden, or if you would light a lamp and put it under a basket so that no one could see that light. I do not want to stretch this too far, but private baptism can lead to private thinking, which can lead to private believing, which can lead to private Christians, that is, those who may believe but keep it unseen and hidden. You are sent for a purpose. What might that be?
Faithfulness is meant to move us through life so that even when we find ourselves in darkness, and there is plenty of that to go around, we who are the beloved in God’s Spirit will be a source of light to touch and change the world with God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. Each of us must be able and willing to tell our faith story, just why it is we are disciples of Jesus, and why it matters. That’s why we baptize and confirm. Our baptismal identity is to infuse everything we are and everything we do.
Jesus was born, chosen and sent for a purpose. You were born, chosen and sent for a purpose. And especially Martin receiving the bishop’s laying on of hands today, you were born, chosen and are sent for a purpose. The joy of life is in knowing it and living it if you have the courage and will to do so.
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.