A sermon at the Special Convention of the Diocese of Bethlehem, March 1, 2014
Cathedral Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
I was reading blogs on the internet a few weeks ago when I ran across a post by the Rev. Susan Brown Snook, the rector of the Church of the Nativity in Scottsdale, Arizona and a member of the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council—the interim executive body that meets between General Conventions much like your vestries and our diocesan council. She was blogging about her experience at the last meeting of that group.
Each morning at an Executive Council meeting, we begin with prayers and meditation on a Bible passage. At my table last week, during our discussion of one passage, a member said that every time he stands up to preach, or to lead a church group or meeting, he says to himself, “I hope this is about Jesus.”
She tells this story before launching into a description of all the wonky stuff about process and decisions to help us think about what people like us are doing at this convention and all the committees and boards that busy church leaders like you go to. She says “All the minutiae of budgets, by-laws, and boards – tiresome as [they] can be, I hope it’s about Jesus. And surely it is. The way we use our resources, organize ourselves to make decisions, and argue and advocate for different positions, may be complex. But in the end, if all that politics helps us to advance the mission of Jesus, it’s all worth it. I hope....”
One can imagine the Apostle Paul muttering “I hope this is about Jesus” as he dictated yet one more communique to his troubled and rancorous congregation in Corinth. After struggling with issues of inclusion in the body, morality, divisiveness and squabbling, spiritual gifts in a community where people questioned his authority and his motives, one can almost picture him throwing up his arms in despair saying “what now?!?” And yet out of this, he has this truly startling idea that this imperfect, divided, hurting body is precisely, precisely, the group of people God has raised up to incarnate and communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ in that time and place.
He says that we carry around the glory of the face of God in Jesus Christ and that we have within us the light that can cast away darkness…and that we store this glory in simple, ordinary clay jars.
I love that image. Ever been to an antique store? My wife and I love to go around to find really good antique stores. And when I hear this passage I have this image of a variety of things that not only look cool and are fun to hold but also have stories and memories and history that are both unknown and tangible. And sometimes you will find fine china and sometimes mug collections with the eighth mug missing a handle. There might be playful cookie jars that look like cats sitting next to fine crystal. You get the idea. Here we have the power and light of God that spoke the world into being and changes hearts…carried around in the most amazing variety of containers, some gorgeous works of art and some of them cartoon jelly jars.
Paul’s image teaches us that God intentionally chooses to communicates the salvation of the world and the healing of creation through every day clay jars likes us. Containers that are easily chipped and easily soiled.
This is completely consistent with what God does in Jesus Christ, isn’t it? In Jesus we see the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity brought together in one glorious, ordinary, life-changing, and everyday package!
So if God knows that God’s glory and light will reside in such an ordinary package like you and me and the rest of the Church, then how does God’s expect revealing light, transforming power and healing grace to reach the rest of humanity? I mean, if we don’t look perfect and grand and have it together all the time, then how will God’s saving power possibly become known?
It will require a change of heart. This is what I have learned, along with the rest of the Standing Committee, over these past seven months.
We have a lot of work to do, my friends.
We have clergy and laity in deep pain, and at the same time the towns and cities where we live are filled with people also in deep pain and are every bit as hungry—craving!—the Gospel we carry around inside of us, we imperfect crockery of many shapes, styles and sizes.
We are a community with a memory of growth and success and, yes, with a complicated history. And we are wondering where God is taking us next.
And we are working out our faith in a culture that is changing fast and among people are looking for the direction, purpose and meaning that we hold tantalizingly nearby right here in our hearts, in these sacraments, in this gathering.
We are a people who yearn for justice and welcome, and we have been made new by the cross of Christ and adopted into God’s family. We Christians experience that newness of life in a world that is also experimenting with (and rebelling against) the possibilities of freedom, inclusion and opportunity from the Ukraine to Uganda to Arizona to wherever you live. This struggle for freedom and dignity and hope continues. And everywhere you look Christians are on both sides of the experiment—some at the forefront of inclusion and others manning the barricades saying “whoa!”—because we are all, we people of light, figuring out what it means to be holy, ordinary jars of clay.
We have a lot of work to do.
Bishop Sean is a great guy. I am so grateful that the Presiding Bishop’s office called Sean and called us on the Standing Committee and put us together. But I gotta tell ya, when the idea of having a provisional bishop who would remain a diocesan bishop was first floated, I remember thinking (if not saying) “what? Are you nuts?”
But when we looked at the wish list that the Standing Committee created from the input you brought to us last October and that the clergy helped us created last November… a bishop who would lead collaboratively, who could help us heal our injuries and rebuild a sense of trust, who thinks about the church in different ways… I found myself, and I believe the rest of the Standing Committee, began to say “yeah. Yeah! This might work!”
When the Rev. Adam Trambley, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church way over in Sharon, Pennsylvania heard about what was proposed for his bishop he said “I thought it was a kind of challenge that was just out of left field enough and just hard enough that it was probably of God.”
Left field? You think?
What kind of God works like this? Oh, yeah! The kind of God who puts the eternal glory of the creator of the cosmos into cookie jars.
And he’s right. It won’t be easy. I know that some of you are tempted to confuse Bishop Sean for a magic bullet. And it is tempting to kick all of our problems down the road and say “let him fix it.” Well, my friends, the truth is that with any pastoral leader in community from country mission to the diocese of Bethlehem, there are many more forces working on him to become like us than he can, alone, bring to bear on us to become like him.
So we have some things to do. We must get this audit done in as competent, as expeditious and as transparent a way as we can possibly muster. We have had a wake-up call and we are not letting up.
And we must work on personnel policies and how we structure our common life.
We must do the hard, essential pastoral work of listening to each other, bringing justice and reconciliation to reality in our diocese. We must hear the truth of our pain and injury and loss, and we must hear the truth of our giftedness, accomplishments and capacity to heal.
We have an incredible opportunity to heal, to change and to grow. We are the vessels of God’s grace and love and light and power for our communities. God has put us where God needs us at the time God needs us.
But for all the skills, tools, technology and processes available to us. For all the knowledge about organizations and psychology and liturgy and theology we possess, we chipped coffee cups lack one thing. A change of heart.
What will get us through this transition will not be the application of technique by itself….good process is essential, don’t get me wrong!...but what we need is change of heart.
Now metanoia is not for wimps. A changed heart requires courage and risk and a big dose of honesty.
When I was a brand-new priest, I read a novel which has stayed with me ever since because it illustrates the power of God to change hearts and the power of a changed heart. The book was Lazarus by Morris West, the third of his so-called ‘Papal Trilogy’. In this story, an old-fashioned, rigid and legalistic Pope Leo XIV experiences a conversion. He is converted from seeing his faith as a rule-book and his job as one who utters pronouncements for the purpose of establishing order to the realization that the Gospel of Christ is communicated and transforms lives through love. The drama of the novel is to watch his change of heart and see how the structures he helped build resist the implications of his insight. As he recovers from open-heart surgery, he looks over a farm that is also a community for disabled children at harvest-time:
Suddenly here he was, on a hillside in Castelli, watching the grape pickers moving up and down the vine-rows, tossing the fruit into baskets, emptying the baskets into the cart hitched to the yellow tractor that would haul them to the crushing vats…. The scene was so lively, so full of human detail, that the Pontiff stood for a long while contemplating the simple wonder of it—and the bleak futility of much of his own existence. This was where the people of God were to be found. This was how they were to be found, doing everyday things to rhythms of a workaday world.
In the novel, the character of the Pope stands in for the Church. Whenever we are distracted into thinking that our evangelism is only about improving attendance; when outreach is designed to make us feel better rather than allow us to be changed by the poor and those we meet; when we use our resources and time to look inward rather than to give us the tools to represent Christ in the world, then we have made the mistake of thinking that our job is to survive and preserve the Church in the world. And when we do this, we are nothing more than empty jars.
Except that God takes empty jars and changes them into arks of the holy to transform the world.
And so my fellow coffee mugs, as we enter Lent, the season of changing hearts, take a moment to hear again the words in the Ash Wednesday liturgy that remind us that God "desires not the death of sinners but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live."
Turn and live.
In simple containers living the love of God every day.
Turn and live.
In simple containers living the love of God every day.