Diocesan Convention Sermon 2014

November 22, 2014

Bishop Lee: Picture a scene with me:

Two friends are working side by side helping to get things ready for a thanksgiving meal at a local soup kitchen. One of them is a long time member of his local parish…the other, well, not so much.

Jihan Murray-Smith:  What’s an Episcopalian?

Bishop:  How did you know I’m an Episcopalian?

Jihan Murray-Smith:  Your apron. It says, “Hug me, I’m an Episcopalian.”

Bishop:  Oh. Yes, I go to St. Paul’s Church, just down the street. We’ve been on the same corner for 150 years and just completed a million-dollar renovation of our organ.

Jihan Murray-Smith:  I think I know the building you’re talking about. It has red doors. I thought it might be closed, but if you’re there Sunday mornings, I guess that’s why I never saw the doors open. So tell me again: what’s an Episcopalian?

Bishop Lee:  Well, we’re a liturgical church, maintaining catholic traditions, but we’re not the Roman Catholic Church. We’re part of the Anglican Communion, a whole family of churches that stem from the Church of England. The Episcopal Church is the branch rooted here in America, founded just as the Revolutionary War finished.

Jihan Murray-Smith:(silence) No offense, but I’m not sure what a lot of what you said means. Liturgical? catholic but not Catholic? Anglican?

Bishop Lee:  Maybe you heard about us on the news several years ago? The gay bishop?

Jihan Murray-Smith:  Right! You’re the ones who split over homosexuality.

Bishop Lee:  We didn’t actually split. Some folks did leave, but Episcopalians describe ourselves as following the Via Media, and that means we can hold many theological perspectives in tension, but still gather at the same Eucharistic table.

Jihan Murray-Smith: (silence)

Bishop Lee: Did I lose you again?

Jihan Murray-Smith:  It’s okay. How about we get started? I think the guests are coming in now.

That little dialogue (adapted) opens volume one of the church’s newest teaching series. The book is called “The Episcopal Way.” It’s the beginning of the first book in the series and it’s written by our friends Eric Law and Stephanie Spellers. I wonder if it was at all recognizable to you? I wonder if it might even have made you wince a little. I’m pretty sure Eric and Stephanie meant it to. It certainly worked on me.

So much of our time and energy, so much of our attention, our blood, sweat and tears seems to me to be focused on, well, us. The most read news source for the Episcopal Church is a remarkable, comprehensive website called the Episcopal Cafe. News items and commentary are contributed from across the church. The Cafe was created by and until just recently curated by someone who works on our communications team in this diocese (and who is in fact back there in the room today) Jim Naughton. It’s full of news and opinion pieces on many topics of concern in both the church and the wider world. It is interesting though to me to see just what news items are most read and gather the most comments. You might wonder that with me in a world like ours. Can you guess which stories might be at the top of the heap? Ebola? The sins of racial inequality? The environment? Gun violence? Nope. The most recent prize for the highest readership (by a landslide) is the high drama and internal conflict at our oldest Episcopal seminary - the General Seminary in New York. I won’t even go into the quality of the commentary on that topic in both the Cafe and on Facebook, except to quote one memorable Facebook posting that likened the firing of faculty at General to (and I quote) “Jesus being crucified all over again.” Jim Naughton likes to joke that on slow news days they could just put up a headline that says, “Let’s argue about church music” and sign off for the day.

All this reminds me of a sermon preached by Lillian Daniel in St. James Cathedral last spring to a gathering of church communicators. She told a story about making a presentation at a conference in Amsterdam. It was her first visit there and she wanted very much to take in some of the sights. It was hard though she said to find any local folks who seemed to share her excitement very much. Maybe the Dutch are just kinda staid, she thought. “Where’s your favorite place to go?” she’d ask again and again. The answers came back, “Well, some people like the art museum” or “I had a cousin who enjoyed biking the river.” That kind of fairly lackluster thing. Finally, though, she found a local guy who perked right up when she asked. “Oh, we have a festival that everyone should see,” he said. “It has dancing and music and all kinds of wonderful food,” he enthused. Great! Lillian thought. At last. “Yes,” he said, “This festival is the greatest thing … but … it is over.”

In her sermon to a room full of professional church communicators, Lillian held out that story as an image for how we behave too much as churches. We’re often answering questions that no one is asking. Or at least not asking much anymore. Or we’re like Israel there in the wilderness, gazing backward through rose colored glasses at a world that is over - and that wasn’t really that hot when we were there. There may have been water to drink there (besides cuisine that included leeks and garlic) but we seem to forget the terrible, back- breaking cost of drawing it.

There is nothing wrong with telling the stories of our past. We need them and we need to work hard at telling them accurately That’s the work of everything from our anti-racism training to search committees writing parish profiles. I am not suggesting we forget our history, or reject the memories of how things used to be, or that we should not care about our internal affairs of governance or ritual or theological perspectives. We need the Apollos in our life as church who know well the story up to a certain point - we need them, even the fiery ones. But we desperately need the Priscillas and the Aquillas too. We need to know the rest of the story. We need to remember that there is always more to tell. Always.

We need to remember the way Jesus tells it. The way he lives it. It is his story. And it defines us. Look what we have before us this morning as we gather with Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. First, the Jesus story is not a monologue. It’s a conversation. And it’s not simply about religious niceties. Oh tradition is there - they banter (almost flirtatiously it seems to me) about history and the correct place to worship, but that’s not where the conversation begins and certainly not where it ends. It begins with a simple request. It begins with the basics of a shared humanity. Jesus is tired and he is thirsty and he does not pretend otherwise. Breaking many conventional religious rules (as usual) he simply asks for a drink of water. He meets this woman, not as though she were a label, a despised ethnic minority, not as a woman unworthy of a rabbi’s attention, not even as a sinner (I suspect she may have come to the well at midday to avoid the whispery gossip of the other village women who would have come to the well in the early morning). Those five or six men who have possessed her might well have been the only way she could’ve survived. Over and over again the scriptures show us Jesus as far less concerned about labels like sinner or outcast than his friends and adversaries are. No. Undefended, vulnerably inviting her vulnerability, Jesus meets this woman as with so many others simply in their common humanity. Who knows what else they talked about beside the little bit recorded in John’s gospel. I suspect it may have been a lot more. She ran to the village after all with the shock of Jesus’ recognition of her: “He told me everything I have ever done!” Jesus goes to the heart of her life. He addresses head on her thirst for the only water that can ever satisfy, the deepest longing of her heart … and maybe ours. He addresses it by honoring her as a person worthy of his attention - no strings attached, no threats (I suspect she’d had enough of male threats in her life), no hidden agenda. He offers her the gift of himself. With open hands and an open heart, he offers her living water - not an idea, not a doctrine, not a set of rules to follow, not a tradition, but a life changing, living relationship with God.

This story is for us. This is what it means to announce the good news. This is evangelism. Not what usually passes for it. I love the New Yorker cartoon I saw many years ago of a frowning, well-dressed woman shaking hands with her rector after church at the door. The caption read: “Really, Father, I don’t know what all this talk about evangelism is about. Surely everyone in this town who ought to be an Episcopalian already is one.” We need to follow Jesus and get out of church more. Go to the well, the public square, the statehouse, the street corner, the office water cooler. And to go there conscious of our own evolving, living, breathing relationship with Jesus. That’s what I’m planning to do a lot more of in 2015. And I want to ask for your help. On visitations this coming year, along with Bishop Epting I’m going to ask members of vestries to invite friends they may know who are not members of any church to come for coffee so I can meet with them. I want to hear from them, listen to them, ask them what might make participation in the life of the church worth their while. No strings, no tricks to get them to sign up, no sales pitch. What might we learn from them? What might change us? What do we have to offer them? How precious is a living relationship with Jesus Christ to us anyway? I’m asking you to join me in this project of listening to stories we might not otherwise hear; to offer our own stories in language and images the world around us is dying to hear. We need to get out there.

And we need to go like Jesus, aware of our own thirstiness. Open handed. Open hearted. We need to meet others not pretending we already have all the water we need, exclusive access to God, all the answers. We need to listen, to acknowledge the questions, the pain, the joys and the sorrows of those who are not part of the church. We need to receive from them. And with all of that we need to offer what we have been given - nothing less than Jesus himself. Accept no substitutes. Offer nothing less. Not favorite liturgical styles, not the clubby details of too much congregational life, not theological ideas no matter how lofty or dear to us. Only Jesus and his love. Only the conviction that he has called us friends and that he is drawing us more and more, day by day, into the deathless life of God. That’s our story. That is our song. Let’s sing it.