Episcopal Diocese of Rochester
Joy in Christ, a way of life

77th Annual Convention Sermon: We are the ones we've been waiting for

October 25, 2008

WE ARE THE ONES WE’VE BEEN WAITIN’ FOR…. She was a single mother working as a social worker at the YWCA where she coordinated the adult literacy project. Her two boys 17 and 13 had recently moved in with her after staying with their grandmother for two years. They had been forced to move in with their grandma because their dad had walked out on them leaving them with little more than the clothes they were wearing. The house they had moved into was on a city highway. Due to a highway expansion plan the Public Works Department had issued notice that their house was going to be razed to the ground. Their house had two almost identical parts separated by a wall. The night they got this devastating news, the family of three prayed, as was their custom, and was ready to go to bed when the 13 year old noticed something unusual. Lying on the floor was a sparrow’s nest, which had been perched on the dividing wall where the roof peaked. Being the precocious one he climbed up a ladder and put the nest right back where it was supposed to be. 

The next morning, the sparrow was back working on the nest. That afternoon the mother got a phone call to say that there had been a miscalculation and that only half the house was going to be brought down. The sparrow’s nest and the family were safe for now! The 13 year old boy couldn’t contain his joy and was smiling from ear to ear, just like I am 33 years later, because I am that boy! It has been quite a journey from that simple home on a highway in Madras (Chennai), India, to Diocesan House in Rochester, New York. 

In the words of Carol Christ:

Telling our stories is a political act.
without stories there is no articulation of experience...
without stories we don't learn the value of our struggles or
comprehend our pain...
without stories we cannot understand ourselves or
dance in the rain.
We are closed in the silence. 

Luke tells us of two friends and a stranger on a journey. What had happened in Jerusalem in the recent past was devastating to them and they were more than a little perplexed that the stranger had no clue. Journeys have a way of opening us up to opportunities regardless of whether they are journeys of the mind, spirit, or literal journeys. Let me invite you to consider three interesting movements or shifts that I have gleaned from this journey on the road to Emmaus. 

First, I see a movement from recalling to remembering. Cleopas or Clopas and his friend were in this animated conversation recalling what had happened to Jesus. The risen Christ, however, wanted them to go beyond recalling an event to be re-membered by it. They saw Jesus break bread, give thanks, and suddenly they found themselves moving beyond recalling. They were re-membered, and re-oriented, and found themselves hastening back to the place where they had started their journey. 

To be re-membered is to be open to changing our value system of operation. Altering our sense of what is important and what is not is informed by our love of Christ. Remembering involves:

  • affirming our identity as God’s beloved: (Lion King story: “Simba, remember who you are”)
  • recognizing God’s image or dignity in people who don’t seem to matter in our culture: The Diocese of Rochester’s record on inclusion and compassion for those whose dignity is in question is tested and true. But, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels because the stakes are too high. Now is the time to lead. Verna Dozier: “That is what the Church is all about…”
  • offering correctives to the systemic ways in which we have often normalized prejudices in our culture: ableism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, classism, racism are all in our midst and we have to be vigilant in confronting them. Story of an encounter at a sandwich store. 

We have the opportunity to be re-membered, re-oriented, re-freshed, and re-booted to relate to a changing world. 

Second, I see a movement from denial and resignation to a reasoned faith! The two friends on the road to Emmaus were so distraught by the death of Jesus their grief and sense of panic kept them from recognizing the risen Christ walking with them, listening to them, and teaching them. Let’s consider a reality right in our context. I want to make sure we do this in the right frame of mind. Our Diocese has been a radiant witness to the power of the Gospel and we are grateful for the Lay and Ordained leaders we have inherited. We stand in the continuum of these saints as we consider our current challenge along with other mainline Churches. It’s not about Deuteronomy, it’s about numbers! Our overall diocesan average Sunday attendance over the last decade shows a decline of 38%. We have the option to choose denial and resignation or faith. Let me break this down some more. 

  • Denial often swings from pretending that everything is OK to panic/despair: resignation often leads to doing nothing. Someone has said: The problem with doing nothing is you never know when you are finished. Ironically, resignation could lead to doing many things that are not consequential to the problem at hand. It’s a way to avoid the important questions by getting very busy with lots of programs and events. Faith, on the other hand non-anxiously takes on the real challenges and humbly, but tenaciously invests on solutions that embrace hope and vitality.
  • Denial often takes solace in explanations that justify resignation FX: story of the paralytic in Mark 2. Faith, on the other hand, looks fear in the eye and takes a leap trusting in the fact that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
  • Denial also takes cover by pretending to be someone you are not. Encourages inauthentic living. FX: story of a man who was looking for a job… Faith, on the other hand, risks for God and strives to live into the true self. “Come as you are.” 

If you think about it, denial and faith look alike. On the surface, both seem to ignore reality. However, reasoned faith transforms reality because of a dynamic connection to a higher power, a greater purpose, and a lasting hope. This is in our DNA. Let’s consider taking small steps. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it, “The only way to eat an elephant is in small pieces.” (For all the vegetarians that’s just a metaphor!) 

Finally, I also see a movement from ritual to the spiritual. We are a people of rites and have the propensity to find ourselves in rote mode. FX: priest’s story: “and also with you.” We are so programmed that we sometimes miss the wondrous. 

  • We must remember that the spiritual is sometimes found in the comingling of the sublime and the ridiculous. FX: story about the Alleluia Chorus ringtone. Be present!
  • The Spiritual is always found in the Eucharist with the comingling of water and wine or grape juice. FX: story from Kothapallimitta of an ant in the chalice. “Look out!” Do this in remembrance of me.
  • The spiritual is always in the lived experiences of life with the comingling of the sublime and the ministry of absorption. FX: profound words attributed Kent Keith and Mother Teresa. “People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered, love them anyway…” 

So, here we are, A PEOPLE OF STORY. Stories that re-member and resurrect us; stories that invite us out of our tomb of denial into the radiance of Christ; stories that bring together rite and righteous action. I want to thank you for electing me to serve as your bishop. I want to thank Roja, Ned and Eklan for joining me wholeheartedly in this odyssey. It is a true honor and a privilege to be called to serve; but it’s not going to be business or ministry as usual. We have to celebrate our story thus far and in some specific areas we have to collectively rewrite our story. I am grateful that I can stand on the shoulders of amazing stewards of the Gospel who have led as bishops in this place. I am deeply humbled to receive the baton from them, and I need you to work with me. God needs your radical hospitality, your passionate spirituality, and your response through fresh and creative mission to create God’s new future.