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.”
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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.