Archive for May, 2012

Will All Things “Be Well?”

May 21, 2012

Easter 7B 

I always have to smile when I hear our First Lesson today from the Acts of the Apostles. I smile because, 24 years ago, this was the weekend when the Diocese of Iowa met in Convention to elect their 8th Bishop. I was one of four finalists and, during the week, I had awaited Saturday’s phone call from Convention with real anticipation and no little anxiety, I can tell you!

 Of course, I had to prepare a sermon for that Sunday in my parish, St. Mark’s inCocoa,Florida. And what Lesson confronted me when I started the preparation, but our First Lesson today — The story of those early Apostles selecting a new member to join their ranks and replace the traitor, Judas. They discussed the matter and prayed, and finally “cast lots” (rolled the dice!)… and the text says, “The lot fell on Matthias.” Of course, there were two candidates in that selection process, Matthias and a man called Joseph Barsabbas, also known as Justus.

 We know that Matthias went on to become an Apostle and tradition says that he was eventually martyred for his faith. We don’t know anything about what happened to poor old Justus. But, as I prepared my sermon for that Sunday, trying to ready myself (and my congregation) for whatever might happen in Iowa’s election, I sort of felt like both of those early Christians. So I actually prepared two sermons – one from the perspective of Matthias (the “winner” in that apostolic election) and one from the point of view of Justus (the supposed “loser!).

 Fortunately, I was able to preach the Matthias sermon because I was elected Bishop of Iowa on the fourth ballot. But what I had come to understand was, it was going to be OK either way! If I was elected, if the “lot fell on me” I was off to a new adventure in ministry. If someone else was elected I got to stay in a wonderful parish with people I had come to know and love over the last nine years, and stay in the diocese I grew up in and in which I had so many friends and colleagues. I kept thinking of the words of Julian of Norwich (a 14th century English mystic) – “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things, shall be well!”

 I’m not sure those earliest Christians, written about in the Book of Acts, would have that same confidence during the time we are observing in the Church Calendar today. Last Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, the day on which Jesus’ physical presence was withdrawn from the apostles. He had told them to return toJerusalemand to wait for a new gift he was going to give them. He had prayed for them in the words of today’s Gospel, he had promised them that new gift, but they had almost no idea what he was talking about.

 It would only be on the Day of Pentecost (which we will celebrate next Sunday) that they would receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit and be transformed from timid, frightened followers of Jesus into bold and committed Apostles who were to take the message of Jesus all over the Mediterranean world! But, on a day like today – poised between Ascension and Pentecost – they must have wondered if all things would indeed “be well” for them…and for the Church.

 That sort of sounds like the position many of us are in today in The Episcopal Church. We are Christians at a time in history facing enormous change. And we don’t know quite what to expect. A scholar named Phyllis Tickle has written a book called “The Great Emergence” in which she points out that historically, about every 500 years, the Church has undergone a huge, transformative change — Change which unsettled everyone and shook the faith of many as to whether the future of the Church was secure or not.

 In roughly the year 500 Europewas entering the so-called Dark Ages when many would wonder if even Western civilization, let alone the Christian Church, would survive. Five hundred years later, in the year 1052 the Eastern Orthodox Churches split away from the Roman Catholic Church in what came to be known as “The Great Schism.” And in the 16th century, 500 years later,  the Catholic Church itself blew apart as Protestant Christianity was born in the Reformation. Many believe we are in a similar situation today.

 Old certainties are being challenged. New perspectives and approaches are confronting us. And we’re not quite sure what the future will bring. Lest you think this is only happening in The Episcopal Church, let me assure you (as one who spent nearly a decade as ecumenical officer, working with Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and many others), exactly the same thing is happening to them. So…what do we do?

 Well, I’ve always loved the image in today’s Psalm. The Psalmist is trying to describe the people of God as opposed to “the wicked” who he says, “will not stand upright when judgment comes…(for) the way of the wicked is doomed.” (Psalm 1:5-6). God’s people, on the other hand, “are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.” (Psalm 1:3).

 The Psalmist is saying that we need to be like trees, planted along a rushing brook. Our roots need to go deep and be well grounded. But our branches and leaves need to be green and flexible, to be able to sway in the breeze and turn toward the sun. In a time of rapid change like this, as Christians, we need to be even more deeply committed to the basics of our faith, and to our spiritual disciplines of daily prayer and Bible study, weekly Eucharist, and perhaps an annual retreat or experience of ongoing adult education in our Christian faith.

 Deeply rooted, firmly planted, we can then afford to be open and flexible about what God may be doing in the life of the Church. Not every new development or trend is of God, certainly, but our God is a God of change and a God of the future, so we need to be open to what that God may be doing in our day. Very few of us find change easy. But it is also true to say that whatever is not growing and changing is probably in the process of dying.

 But our confidence is this: Jesus promised us that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church. And our Gospel today reminds us that he is continuing to pray for us. He says, “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours…Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one…As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes, I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

 That’s what Jesus prayed for the Apostles. That’s what he is praying for us. And that is why we can be confident along with Julian of Norwich that “all shall be well…all shall be well…and all manner of things…shall be well!”


































Laying Down One’s Life…in Maryland

May 14, 2012

It was not hard to decide on a central theme for this sermon today. The theme would almost certainly have to be “love.” By my count the word love appears 14 times in our Lessons from Scripture this morning (17 times if you count the Collect, or prayer, for today!). But it’s not just any old kind of love being described. I did a little word study and discovered that in each of those 14 instances the Greek word which we translate as Love is the word Agape.

 You have probably heard that the Greeks had at least three ways to describe love – Eros is used when referring to romantic or sexual love. Philia is used when referring to friendship or sisterly/brotherly love. But when Agape is used it is describing the kind of love God has for us. The essence of Agape love is self-sacrifice. Agape is love which is of God and from God; the God whose very nature is love.

 The simplest, and perhaps clearest, definition of God comes from the author of our Epistle today, but in another part of his First Letter. In chapter 4, verse 8,St. John says simply “God is love.” And, once again, the Greek word he wrote, and which we translate into English as love, is Agape. What John is saying there is that God does not merely love; God is love itself. Everything God does flows from love.

 But it’s not a sappy, sentimental kind of love like we often hear portrayed. God loves because it is God’s very nature and the expression of God’s being. God loves the unlovable and the unlovely – us! – not because we deserve to be loved but because it is God’s very nature to do so.

Our Lessons today are very clear about how this works. In the Gospel Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (John 15:9)

 The love that flows from God’s very nature was experienced by Jesus. He loved his disciples with that kind of unselfish love. And he encourages them to abide in that love; to remain in that love. More than that, he tells them “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” So they are not only to love Jesus, they are to love one another. And how are they to love? With the same kind of self-sacrificing love that Jesus had for them. “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus said, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

 On Thursday May 3, a priest and a staff person at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church inEllicott City,Maryland, were doing what they did nearly every day. They were involved in feeding the homeless poor from their church’s food pantry. Apparently they had to tell a 56 year old man named Douglas Jones that he would have to limit his visits to the food pantry because he had been there so often and they had to make sure they had enough to feed others as well.

 The man became belligerent when told that. He produced a handgun, shot and killed the parish administrator, Brenda Brewington, pivoted and fired at the priest, Mary-Marguerite Kohn (who later died of her injuries in the local hospital), and finally turned the gun on himself in the woods nearby. The parish, the Diocese of Maryland, and indeed all of us in The Episcopal Church who heard about this over the internet, on Facebook, and in the news, were simply stunned by it.

All of us who have been engaged over the years, in ministry to the least and the lost, the poor and the mentally unstable, know – in our heart of hearts – that this kind of thing can happen at any moment. And yet, still the shock is there.

Last Sunday, Fr. Kirk Kubicek preached these words from St. Peter’s pulpit to a grieving congregation: “Brenda and Mary-Marguerite were doing the Lord’s work. They were serving the Lord directly. ‘When I was hungry, you fed me.’ Like every day of the week, Brenda was leading a profoundly hungry person to the Food Pantry. In a matter of just a few moments it was all over. We will never understand it. We will never understand it no matter how many reports come out of the Howard County Police Department, who have served us all faithfully and well, we will never understand it.”

 “But we do understand this. We come from love, we return to love, and love is all around us. Brenda and Mary-Marguerite have returned home. They have returned to the heart of Love, the eternal center of God’s very Being. Their time with us magnified the sense of God’s love being all around us every moment we spent in their presence…and now they have returned home to the heart of God’s love…..”

 “…We come from love, we return to love, and love is all around us. If we want to know what ‘love all around’ looks like,” said Fr. Kubicek, “just look around. As I look back over the events of the past few days, I see a people who came together Thursday and Friday nights to affirm our faith in the Risen Christ.”

 “I see a diocese that stops its business and takes the time to pray and reflect on our mutual trauma and loss. I see an avalanche of messages from all around the world offering prayers and support on our St. Peter’s Facebook page. I see a community of people called St. Peter’s who know what it means to surround one another with love.  And I still see two women who were and continue to be exemplars to us of what it means to abide with Christ…”  

 Actually, I learned on Friday that the Diocese of Maryland has offered forgiveness and even to conduct a funeral service for Douglas Jones believing that this homeless man, was, in some ways, as much a victim as anyone else. Bishop Sutton cited the example of that wonderful Amish community inPennsylvaniawho, a few years ago, forgave the man who fatally shot five school girls in 2006.

 No dear friends, the Agape love which you and I – as Christians – are called to share is not some sappy, sentimental kind of love we so often hear portrayed. The essence of Agape love is self-sacrifice. The kind of love we see – most clearly – on the Cross. But which we also, so often, see in some followers of the Crucified One.  Hear again some words from this morning’s Gospel. Familiar words. But this time, try to hear them as the friends and fellow parishioners at St. Peter’s Church will hear them this morning. Hear them through the experience of Brenda…and Mary Marguerite:

 Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for ones’ friends…”