Bishop Lee's Convention Sermon: Love One Another
November 18, 2017
Bishop Lee preached this sermon at the 180th Convention of the Diocese of Chicago on November 18, 2017:
In the last parish I served as rector, a parishioner there named Tammy taught me one of the most significant lessons I have ever learned about the nature of leadership and serving with love. She was a teacher in the Bellevue, Washington public schools. Her school served some neighborhoods where many families had significant needs, not something that was very obvious in Bellevue, and certainly not on the public radar screen of the little enclave called Medina where St. Thomas Church was located. Medina is home to Jeff Bezos and Bill and Melinda Gates and lots of other celebrity business folks and high profile families. But just a few miles away live decidedly not particularly high profile folks, significant numbers of recently arrived immigrants, service workers, and not a few households just getting by. By virtue of her teaching role, Tammy knew the realities on that side of town and she knew the needs.
One of those needs had to do with food. By staying engaged with the neighborhood, she knew there was way too little available by way of food pantries or other grocery support. One fall she learned that there was no one, absolutely no one on the east side of Seattle providing anything for people in need around Thanksgiving. And so she brought all this to the attention of the rector (that was me) and to our vestry. “We need to do something,” she announced. And it was difficult to disagree with Tammy when she used that particular tone of voice. And so she was off and running. We worked with a couple of agencies in town who knew particular households in need and through them issued written invitations to come to St. Thomas for a big Thanksgiving Day meal and entertainment. As I recall, we invited 150 folks to come. We had dozens of turkeys being roasted in the church ovens and in nearby restaurants. Tables decked out with cloths and centerpieces and cutlery. A huge big-screen TV with all the lounge furniture we could find for the big game. Lots and lots of volunteers from the parish to serve as hosts and greeters and cooks. And so Turkey Day came, the doors were wide open, greeters were in the parking lot, and…and…exactly 3 people came.
Now, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Tammy to have thrown up her hands and for all the rest of us to conclude that this was one big flop and failure. Indeed, that’s what the rector was inclined to do. But Tammy would have none of it.
“Something’s not right here,” she said. And in a stunning act of reframing the presenting reality, instead of accepting defeat, she went to work. She went back to the agencies we’d worked with and she started a series of conversations with families and she found out the simple truth to which our privilege had blinded us in the parish. People in need were afraid to come to Medina. Driving into that affluent community was intimidating and actually frightening to people who could never imagine living in houses like the ones there.
And so, against some misgivings in the congregation, the Thanksgiving meal project was on for the next year - with one exception. This time, the meals were all packed into beautifully decorated boxes, they were tagged with hand-made greetings and sent out in a small army of cars and vans and hand delivered to households all over Bellevue. The Thanksgiving Day feast grew year every year until at its peak some 1500 meals were sent out on one day. It became a driver for the growth of the parish - people actually joined St. Thomas because they were introduced to this outreach ministry. Tammy’s refusal to accept defeat and her insistence on reframing reality, turned into a source of abundance and generosity and goodness. At the vestry meeting after that first Thanksgiving Day bust she said, “I just wanted to find a way to love our neighbors. Isn’t that what Jesus told us to do?”
Sisters and brothers, I don’t believe we find ourselves following the way of Jesus because we decided to based on a careful weighing of the pros and cons. I don’t believe you and I are here today and week by week in our congregations and involved in all the ministries throughout our diocese because we did a careful analytical study of why it would make sense. I don’t believe we chose Jesus. He chose us first. Just like his earliest friends and all the others who have followed through the centuries and millennia. There’s no other reasonable explanation for all of this and all of us. Given the foolishness and sinfulness and hatefulness of which we are capable, given our sorry history of disunity and prejudice and our talent for turning our theological opinions into weapons, I don’t know how else to account for the fact that we are here at all. I have a friend who likes to say that the surest proof for the existence of God is the fact that the church exists. No, we are here because Christ has chosen us to be his own and, foolish as it may seem, Jesus Christ has entrusted us with his own life, his own mission, his own intention to love the world back to God. He has called us his friends. He has made us living limbs and members of his very body.
And this is the best news there could ever be. This is the bedrock on which we are built. This is the reason we can look to the future without fear. This is why we can be free to rewrite the stories of decline and failure. Our church is not dying. Or rather, from another perspective, of course it’s dying, it always is - dying to sin and all the ways it clings to us, dying to selfish preoccupations, dying to fantasies of worldly power and success, dying to status and prestige. Of course it is dying … and it is constantly rising. It rises when it rediscovers again and again that life in Christ is about giving ourselves away. It rises when it lives by the logic of love and service to the least and the lost. It rises when it abandons the lie that we can save ourselves. We are dying and rising always, just like the Lord whose own we are.
And what could be more important right now than remembering who we are and recommitting ourselves to the way of life we have been called to live? In a world like this one in which derisive posturing has replaced political and diplomatic discourse, in which the only answer we can seem to come up with to the epidemic of gun violence is to arm the entire population to the teeth, in which fear of “the other” is justification for stripping immigrants and their children of a sense of safety and hope for a better tomorrow. A country whose social fabric and sense of community seems as fragile sometimes as a teetering statue about to fall to the ground. A world hell bent on self-destruction.
And for all of that this is still the world God loves. And God calls us not to flee from it, not to take up arms - spiritual or otherwise - against it, not to ignore it. God calls us to love it. To live like this (open hands) not like this (clenched fists). Knowing full well that if we will follow the way of Jesus, if we will live with this kind of vulnerability, someone may very well come along and nail us to the cross too. But living from the deepest possible conviction that this is the only way to a life really worth having. So let’s get on with it. Let’s follow Christ. Let’s give up our narrow definitions of success and failure. Let love, even crucified love, be our sign.