231st Diocesan Convention
Holy Cross Faith Memorial Episcopal Church, Pawleys Island
Sermon given at the Sending Eucharist on November 13, 2021
There is a day I will remember forever.
It began with an early morning short plane ride then a bus ride to a place north of Chang Mai, Thailand where Lek Chailert has made a home for elephants who have been abused. In that home, the elephants lucky enough to be found by Lek are cared for and loved. Our family of four went there on July 22, 2013, the day I will remember forever.
We saw elephants whose eyes had been gauged out, whose ears had been cut and legs had been broken, elephants who had lived their whole lives in fear of physical violence. Often, when Lek found the elephants, they did not want to be with her, or even with the other elephants. They would isolate, hide even, for days or weeks before they would venture out into the clearing to join the rest.
Similarly, the trainers she recruited, called mahouts, often did not want to speak about their former work. Many of them had come from a tourism industry that taught them to use violence and methods of torture to subdue the elephants. They were trained to tie them up in what is called “the crush”, then jab them until they bled with spears, even blinding them, gouging out their eyes.
I’m not sure what attracted these trainers to Lek and Elephant Nature Park. It’s a mystery how a person comes to desire to change the things that harm the soul. Perhaps, it was simply getting a taste of Lek’s vision. Or perhaps it was something they saw in the eyes of the creatures they sought to subdue. Whatever it was, something led these trainers to Elephant Nature Park, to care for elephants who had been abused by the very methods they themselves had used.
With Lek, the elephants and their human caregivers were learning a new way of living, together. It was beautiful to witness the love between the elephants and the mahouts. They easily showed affection to each other. They played together. The trust was obvious.
Our day with Lek and her friends was one of the most beautiful days of my life. All four of us would describe it to you, I think, as a day when time stood still, suspended.
There are moments in life when we just know we are in the center of our purpose. We are fully alive. Fully aligned with love. Those are abiding moments.
In his farewell discourse in the middle of John’s gospel, Jesus’s uses this one word over and over. Abide. Or, in the Greek, meno.
Meno implies something more than just physically staying in a place. It has a deeper sense of connection, companionship, and harmony. It is used to describe how we are knit into God, like a baby is knit into the mother’s womb. John uses it to describe the deep down rootedness of a vine with intertwining branches.
We were made to abide. To dwell with one another and with our God. And from that place of deep connectivity, to live with joy, with generosity, and the kind of uninhibited delight we knew as children.
Episcopalians of South Carolina, I’ve seen how you abide. I can say that with some authority now, because I have visited most of you in your home churches—I have listened to your stories. And those I’ve not yet visited, I am coming soon! By early in the new year, I hope to have been with every community in this diocese.
You know, I’ve walked in to beautiful churches you where you have abided with the saints before you for generations. And, I’ve walked into a bank, into a storefront, into a grove of trees, onto a college campus, into spaces borrowed from other churches—I’ve walked into living rooms and onto porches, into gardens and beside beaches.
In all the places where you are, you share the same story—of how you love one another—how you are tending each other’s souls, how you have opened your eyes to see your neighbor and love them. It’s happening everywhere, this abiding.
That would be enough. Truly. I could stop preaching now, and your witness would be enough. God is smiling on you. But, as we know, the story does not stop there. Your story, our story, has another layer. A very particular layer. You have lived for a decade now with a deep wound. The schism has been costly in more ways than we can ever count or name. I know that.
So, what does it mean, then, to abide in the face of such pain? How do we abide with those from whom we are cut off? In the church…in the world.
There is no easy answer to this question. It looks different in each circumstance. What we know is that God is in the business of bringing all the broken pieces, all the shards of our lives, back into oneness—knitting us back together. Like Lek was knitting back together the community of elephants with the mahouts who trained them.
As I’ve listened, I hear some of the same wisdom Lek had coming from you. You have talked to me about your neighbors, friends, even family, with whom you find yourselves in conflict. I hear your pain and your hope. It might be easier to cut and run from our adversaries. But their wounds, too, Christ calls us to tend. I’ve heard how you are tending not only your wounds, but their wounds, too.
This tending the other, the one who has harmed you, is hard work.
I understand the cost of these past ten years has been great to you. I understand that, even now, we are not finished with that difficult road.
And I think your stamina to continue to see it through comes from the fact that, through the trials you’ve endured, you have realized how important it is to you to stand for what you believe is right. You are crystal clear that when you say all are welcome, you mean all. You are crystal clear about God’s justice. There is nothing naive about your faith.
And, from that non-naive place, I also hear something else. I hear that you believe a heart can change. I hear that you have become adept at finding common ground with those who see things differently than you do.
There is a great temptation in the face of chronic conflict to withdraw, to become cynical—or, worst yet, to begin to think the gospel doesn’t really hold in every situation, that it’s not up to the acid test of real life.
But we know the gospel holds. In every situation.
The gospel holds in every circumstance precisely because God’s love is the strongest force in this world. And that love conquers fear.
Late in the afternoon of July 22, 2013 at Elephant Nature Park, Lek Chalert walked with our family into a field where several elephant families were resting in the afternoon sun. Lek took our sons, George and John, and invited them to sit with her at the feet of one of the young elephants. Lek then crawled under the elephant. It was a moment that could have been fearful for me—in fact, I probably should have, by all accounts been really afraid. Here were my two sons sitting where this elephant could take them out with one stomp.
But, I did not really have an opportunity to engage fear. Because, what happened next was more compelling than fear. Lek began to sing a lullaby. Quietly, to this young elephant, while she was sitting underneath him. There in front of me were our two boys sitting at the feet of this elephant with Lek, singing the lullaby from under the elephant belly. And, somehow, I did not fear for their lives.
I knew, in that moment, I was hearing the song of redemption. Redemption from all the violence, from all the harm these creatures had endured. Redemption from all the shame, from all the burden the mahouts had carried.
When Lek sang her lullaby, she sat under a beast who could have killed her with one movement. Hers was not a sentimental act. It was, rather, an act of resistance against a belief that fear and hatred win. It was an act born of the conviction that love is stronger than any evil. She chose to abide beneath the belly of the elephant.
Such is our calling. To sit beneath the belly of the elephant and dare to sing a lullaby. To abide in the company of the saints and martyrs.
God redeems this world by our abiding in all the places that need love most.
There will come a day when we will lie down under the belly of all we have feared the most. Only, we won’t be afraid anymore. Instead, we will sing the lullaby of redemption, together.
What a day that will be.
A day we will remember forever.
The Feast of All Saints
The Seating of the Bishop in Grace Church Cathedral
November 7, 2021
There is a sound I know of my shoes on metal. The metal is textured and thin, welded together with old bolts. The bridge has born many people, and dogs too. Children have raced over it with abandon, with no concern for its apparent fragility. It shakes when I cross it. It is a bridge that does not belong to me, or to my family. For many years it belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Hill. Until they died and the house was sold off and the bridge that went with it. But, before that, in the season when I was a child across the street from the bridge—for all those years—they let us traipse through their backyard without invitation or warning and cross the bridge. That bridge was my crossing to a telling place, a place where heaven and earth met for one small girl. It was a place worlds away, yet just steps from home.
Coming up from the metal bridge, I remember the tingle I felt on the grassy slope when I heard the first quack. I remember my first glimpse, time and again, of Belhaven lake. My hand in Mama’s hand, I would laugh with delight and some trepidation as the headstrong ducks who resided there approached, anticipating the bread in our sack, and began nipping at my fingers. I remember the island in the lake where they would sun bathe. I remember watching them glide on the water, propelled by the unseen movement of their webbed feet.
And I remember, after time had drifted out of my consciousness, suspended for a while, there came the moment when Mama took my hand and walked me back down the grassy hill, over the metal bridge home. I walked home with Mama, carrying the wisdom of another world with me back across the metal bridge.
Jan Richardson wrote a poem about how close we really are, all the time, to unseen worlds that lie just on the other side of all our inventions and distractions. She says:
When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
When it seems
and sharp edges.
When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
all over again.
Then may you be given
of how weak the wall
and how strong what stirs
on the other side,
breathing with you
and blessing you
forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.
from The Cure for Sorrow
Today, to my great joy, I am being seated as your bishop in this beautiful and holy cathedral on the feast of All Saints. Thank you, Dean and people of Grace, for being our cathedral.
You know, Cathedrals are our family living room. Look around you. On the walls, in the windows, in the floors, in the chancel and sanctuary—everywhere, there are remembrances of the saints who have gone before us. Beautiful images to remind us who we are and what we are meant to do in this world.
Every saint is a bridge, a bridge between this home and what lies on the other side of all our prayers—just beyond our reach.
The saints we know and love are real folks, ordinary folk, sinners themselves, sometimes with difficult pasts, sometimes shaky, vulnerable, worn—yet able to bear our souls like that metal bridge carried me to the lake for so many years. Teachers, grandparents, gardeners, nurses, clergy, friends, adversaries, spiritual guides, waitresses, mail carriers.
These saints show us just how weak the wall is between our world and the world beyond.
And that world, the one John writes about in the book of Revelation, is not only a far away reality we meet after death. Rather, it is the world Christ beckons us to build every day when we rise. A world made of those who have come out of the great ordeal—which, finally, before this life is over, will be all of us, each and every one.
It is a world where we, the multitude of humanity, truly become one. In that world, we see each other clearly—with sight no longer hindered by hatred, division, or fear. In that world, every child of God knows respect, experiences justice, lives in abundance. That world is no farther from this home we call the church than Belhaven lake was from my childhood home. Cross the street, wander through the neighbor’s backyard and across the worn metal bridge and you are there.
The saints in our lives show us this world just beyond our home. Saints like Catherine “Kitty” Springs, a freed slave who gave her earthly goods to found the Church of the Epiphany in Summerville in 1887, saints like Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, who in her early twenties, in spite of betrayals, arson, and threats to her life, in 1897 founded the school we know as Voorhees College, saints like The Rev. A. Toomer Porter of Holy Communion Charleston, who, convicted of the evil of having enslaved people, turned to take a new path, and used his inheritance to educate and lift up those left destitute in the wake of the civil war. Saints like The Rev. Dr. Stephen Mackey, the first Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, who guided it through the challenges born of injustice with a pastor’s heart and a prophet’s courage when it finally was granted parish status in 1965, saints like Mrs. Ruby Forsythe who founded a school on Pawley’s island that educated a generation of African American children in the low country and her husband, Reverend William E. Forsythe, who guided the spiritual community out of which the school was born and Johanna Brown and Cathcart Smith who moved their vision into a new generation.
These saints, and countless others like them, saw another world was possible and brought it home. They have been letting us cross over their lives and legacies like a well worn bridge for years upon years. They remain in our collective consciousness—standing firm, though worn by years, so we can get a glimpse of the world Christ beckons us to bring home—not someday at the end of time—but today. Now.
And what about you? You, people of this beloved diocese, who carried prayer books to docks and funeral parlors? You who worship without bricks and mortar, without clergy and vestments? You who fashioned tabernacles and altars of beautiful wood to take into strip malls and bank buildings? And what about you who worship with buildings and altars, inviting those without them to share what you have? What about you who quietly fill backpacks with school supplies, you who march in the street bearing witness to justice? You who insist that all means all, no matter the cost. You who cook for the hungry week after week, you who start flower ministries and get cards to those who are lonely? You who raise up children and youth to lead a new generation? Yes, what about you? You, my beloved ones, have become the bridge that once carried you.
By your life, by your witness, born of the saints of old, you reveal how weak the wall truly is between this present world with all of its limitations, and the world to come, in all of its glory.
In you, I have seen glimpses of the world to come. I have seen glimpses of home.
Home, where the banquet table is laid out lavishly for all who are hungry. Home, where all know they are welcome to feast. Home, where everyone slumbers in peace, taking rest without fear of violence or the storm that comes by night. Home, where people of many languages, tribes and nations become one—not by some being subsumed into the likeness of others, but rather, by each one being fully the person God made that one to be. Home, where we are all fully who God made us to be.
Ram Dass once said we are all walking each other home. Perhaps, being Christ’s body looks something like crossing a worn metal bridge on a warm sunny day to get a glimpse of a shimmering lake, to feel the bite of duckling beaks on our fingertips, and then, when time suspended comes back into our awareness, to walk each other home, bringing with us the paradise we have glimpsed—only to discover that, somewhere along the way, we have become the bridges that once carried us.
Look around you, Saints of God.
Behold who you are.
You have become the bridges that once carried you.
Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley
The Rt. Reverend Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was elected by the Diocese of South Carolina in May 2021, and consecrated as a bishop on October 2, 2021.