Friday, October 21, 2011

Sermon at 134th Annual Synod Mass

Revelation 21:1-7

When I was a boy, I had a sort of recurring fantasy—it may have been rooted in a dream, I suppose; I don’t know—a fantasy in which I rescued the rusted out shell of an automobile from a junkyard and painstakingly restored it to bright and shining mint condition. Then, as young adults, Brenda and I took great delight in watching episodes of the old PBS version of This Old House, and watched Bob Vila work his magic every week on another gem of an old home. At one level, it’s odd that I would find these things interesting, because I don’t really have the aptitude or the patience to actually do them, at least with cars, although we’ve have a small degree of success with a couple of houses. But at another level, maybe it’s not so odd. Maybe youthful fantasies about restoring and renovating cars and houses have prepared me for just this moment, just this season, in my life and ministry, and this season in our life together as the Diocese of Springfield.

“Behold, I make all things new.” This is the astonishing announcement that God himself makes in this mystically mind-bending scene in the Revelation to St John. “Behold, I make all things new.” These words fill us with hopeful anticipation, with spine-tingling excitement, because so much of our experience in this world feels very old, very dysfunctional, very threadbare and soiled. The patterns of ethnic conflict, political corruption, crime and violence, war, and economic upheaval, just keep on repeating themselves with distressing regularity. Only the names and the details change each time.

“Behold, I make all things new.” These words give us hope, but they also, if we’re paying attention, induce fear. They induce fear because they threaten everything to which we are attached. I make all things new. All things. Including the things that have give us comfort and joy and to which we look for security and affirmation. Some of it, of course, we need to let go of anyway. Some if it can easily become an albatross, a burden that holds us back and keeps us from making progress. But much of what we are attached to is indeed worthwhile and good and deservedly enduring.  So it’s comforting to realize that we’re talking here about renewal, not necessarily replacement. What made my car and house fantasies compelling—for me, at any rate—was that they took something which had grown old and made it new. You can buy a new car; you can build a new house. Sometimes, that’s the right decision. But there’s something about redemption, something about restoration, something about recovery, that touches our hearts in a much different place, a very sensitive place, a place of great vulnerability. This is all in accord with one of the fundamental precepts of Christian theology, which is that “grace perfects nature,” that is, God’s default mode is not to throw out that which is old and broken, but to fix it, to restore it, to redeem it, to make it not just like new, but better than new. Is not this a more satisfying vision than the one supplied by our culture of obsolescence, where even appliances like refrigerators are now virtually disposable, and are old after only five years or so?

At this moment, I am wearing, very intentionally, the ring that was made for and worn by Bishop Chambers, the seventh Bishop of Springfield. And the pectoral cross that you saw me wearing when I had my black cassock on at the hotel was one made for and worn by Bishop White, the fourth Bishop of Springfield. As you may recall, when I was consecrated, Bishop Beckwith presented me with the crozier carried by Bishop Seymour, the first bishop of this diocese. These are all outward signs of the rich heritage that is ours in the Diocese of Springfield, signs that God has indeed been “our help in ages past.” As we move into the exciting future God has for us, we do not abandon that heritage. We take it with us. It is what drives us forward. But we have grown old, my friends. We have grown old in so many ways. And when we hear God say, “Behold, I make all things new,” we hear him saying that to us. And so, the crozier that I carried into this liturgy, the sign of the bishop’s ministry as shepherd and leader, is my own new one, one of the many gifts I have received from the clergy and faithful of this diocese. Perhaps it will also one day “live” in the diocesan archive room, and be brought out by a future bishop as a sign of God’s faithfulness to us, now, in this generation, in this season of our life together. For us now, though, it is a sign of promise. If the cross and ring worn by previous bishops are, together, a sign of our heritage pushing us into the future, this new crozier, together with the new ring and the new cross made for and worn by the eleventh Bishop of Springfield, are, together, a sign of God pulling us into the future that he has prepared for us. The past pushes us into the future; the future pulls us into itself. The same God who was our help in ages past is our “hope for years to come.”

“Behold, I make all things new.”

Our access to the power of renewal is through the paschal mystery, through that which we are gathered here to tap into right now. The death and resurrection of Jesus forms the pattern, the template, for our own redemption.  And it is through baptism and eucharist that we participate in that mystery. Baptism leads inexorably to eucharist, and eucharist, if it is done well, leads without fail to mission, and mission, if it is done faithfully, leads to more baptism, and the cycle repeats itself as the Church is continuously renewed.

In the paschal mystery—or, to be clearer, in our liturgical participation in the paschal mystery—time itself is suspended and transcended. We have this wonderful image that is presented to us in the Revelation to John, the image of the New Jerusalem—the essential sign of God’s renewing and redeeming activity—the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven as a bride adorned for her bridegroom. We, together, are the bride. Jesus is our bridegroom.  St Augustine tells us that this “coming down” is not just some future event that we look forward to; it is a continuous, ongoing action, an action that has been happening since the beginning of time. This is a mystical reality that we are invited to share in every time we come together at the altar of God, and particularly intensely, I might add, when the community of the baptized is gathered together with the Bishop, and the presbyters, and the deacons. We are, at this moment, forming an image, a living icon, of the completeness of the Church, and of the workspace in which God pursues his renewing and redeeming work.  

“Behold, I make all things new.”

As we prepare now to gather in heart and mind around the Lord’s Table, which signifies for us the heavenly altar at which the saints are gathered in glory, we first do well to be renewed in the hope of our baptism. So I invite you to stand with me now as we remind ourselves who we are, and whose we are; where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.

(The liturgy continued immediately with the renewal of baptismal vows.)

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