Sermon at St. Alban's, Kingstree
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.”
Sermon at Christ Church, Denmark
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
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.