John 15:9-16, Romans 12:1-18, Joshua 1:7-9
What a grand occasion this is! When I became the Bishop of Springfield in March of 2011, it was right before both the rivers that define the geography of this town were so swollen with spring rains upstream in both the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, that there was a great fear that Cairo would be flooded into oblivion. There was great fear that this lovely and historic church, the very place where we are at this moment, would be covered with several feet of water. Instead, as you may recall, the Corps of Engineers diverted that water to some Missouri farmland, sparing Cairo yet one further indignity. A couple of months later, in June of that year, I made my first visit to this area, and witnessed the high water mark on the levee wall, and saw the large sinkholes that had opened up in what were once busy downtown streets. I met the one remaining active Episcopalian who continued to worship faithfully at Redeemer, and it broke my heart to think that we might well have to put these beautiful windows into storage, board up the holes, deconsecrate the building, and simply let nature take its course gradually over the years. So, with that as my introduction, you can imagine the joy welling up in my heart as I share this celebration of a new ministry with all of you here this morning.
The scriptures appointed for this event are full of advice, which is entirely appropriate for the celebration of a new ministry. Let’s look at some of the highlights. In the twelfth chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Romans, we hear the Apostle tell us to “outdo one another in showing honor.” In other words, don’t just be polite and respectful, but make it a competition among yourselves. Always be looking for ways to one-up your neighbor in showing honor and affection and love. In the gospel of John, Jesus takes leave from his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion and tells them to “abide” in him, to remain steadfastly connected to him, to draw their life from him, and, along the same lines as Paul’s advice to the Romans, to constantly be about loving each other. And, in our first reading, from the Old Testament book of Joshua, in a scene that also takes place at a turning point, a watershed moment in the experience of the people of God, the Lord himself is commissioning Joshua as the new leader of that people. Moses has died; the people are about to end their wandering in the wilderness and enter the Promised Land. It truly is the celebration of a new ministry! And the Lord tells Joshua, in effect, “Keep to the straight and narrow. Go where I’ve told you to go and do what I’ve told you to do. Don’t let curiosity or boredom get the best of you, and start veering off this way or that. If you do what I’m saying you will have good success.” Good success. That’s a pretty compelling argument, isn’t it? I mean, who would not want good success?
Now, I hope I’m not being incredibly presumptuous by taking advantage of the moment and piling on with some advice of my own. First, of course, I’m going to reiterate what the scriptures have already said. Dear people of the Church of the Redeemer, along with James their pastor: Abide in Christ, love God and love one another with genuine zeal and enthusiasm, follow the course that the Lord lays out for you and enjoy some of that good success! Joshua led the people who had come up out of Egypt into Canaan. Now, James, my brother, God has called you to lead a portion of the spiritual heirs of that people, in a sense, back down into Egypt—“little Egypt,” that is---and bear the light of Christ where there is darkness, the healing power of Christ where there is sickness and disease, the peace of Christ where there is anxiety and fear, the love of Christ where there is discord and strife, and the life of the Risen Christ where the kingdom of sin and death threatens to flood the area and carry away the dignity and freedom of women and men and children who are made in the image and likeness of the Most High God.
That much comes from the Holy Scriptures. But now let me be be bold enough to add my own advice, as Chief Pastor of this flock, hoping that whatever I say is in line with what we’ve heard in sacred scripture, and is the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in my own mind and heart.
Father Muriuki and people of Redeemer: Love Cairo. Love all of Pulaski and Alexander counties. Love this very special piece of God’s earth, where the mighty waters of the Ohio and the Mississippi come together. Love the land and love the people of this land. This is your parish. As your Bishop, I am, on this very public occasion, assigning you all of Pulaski and Alexander counties as your mission field. You and the people God sends you to be part of this community at Redeemer are evangelists, missionaries, heralds of Christ, responsible for the mission of the one church of the Diocese of Springfield in this corner of extreme southern Illinois. The fields are ready for harvest, and our job this morning is to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers who will work in his field and who will come home rejoicing at the end of the day, shouldering their sheaves of grain with that “good kind of tired.”
Then, as you love Cairo and the people of your mission field, come into this place of sanctuary to find refreshment, to meet Jesus. Be nourished in the Word of God from this pulpit. Be nourished in the Body and Blood of Christ at this altar. Outdo one another in showing honor as you gather after worship in the parish hall and see one another on the street during the week. And then be Jesus to those around you. Make him known. Make him visible. Take him out from here and let him love the people of this city through you. Knowing a little bit about the history of this church, it would not surprise me if, probably on more than one occasion, there has been a Corpus Christi procession, taking Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament, in solemn procession out into the streets of this city, reminding everyone that Cairo is under the watch of Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Next, never let the baptismal font go dry. Now, I have to tell you that, and here’s why. Last August, on the feast of St Mary the Virgin, I was the guest preacher at the church way out in Salem, Oregon from which I was sent off to seminary 29 years ago. Now, in that church they baptize by immersion; they have a font that’s large enough for an adult to get in it and be dunked. The reason I was mentioning the font was because of Mary being the Mother of the Church and the font being the womb of the Church, the place where new Christians get born, with the water in the font being a sort of amniotic fluid. It’s a very rich image! And I told them on that day about Redeemer, and about Cairo, and about what both the city and the church have been through. And I told them about the long period of time—some fifteen years, if I’m correct—in which the baptismal font in this church was bone dry, but how, a couple of years ago, there was actually a baptism. And I told them that I would be here on this day, doing what I’m doing—and I asked them to pray for you, by the way, which I expect many of them have—I told them we would be here today celebrating this new ministry, and that I would tell you what I told them: Never let your baptismal font run dry! I’m overjoyed that, when I’m back here tomorrow to celebrate the Lord’s Day, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, there will be Holy Baptism. It will be the fifth Sunday in a row for me with at least one baptism in the churches that I visit, so that’s just plain wonderful. But the baptismal font is the place where new disciples of Jesus get born. We still have to make them into disciples as they grow in their faith, but they get their start right here. So keep it busy. Don’t let it dry out!
Finally, pray for God to act and then expect God to act. It never fails to impress and amaze me how, whenever a great work of the Holy Spirit—a revival, a revitalization, a turnaround in a church—whenever a great work of the Spirit is analyzed and dissected after the fact, it invariably turns out that the whole thing began with one or two or three people just praying—faithfully, consistently, persistently, usually over a rather long period of time. There’s no formula for confecting a mighty work of God, of course. But it always starts with prayer. So pray, my brothers and sisters. Pray that the Spirit of God will be poured out not only on the Church of the Redeemer, but on all the Christian communities in Cairo and the surrounding counties. Pray that the Spirit of God will be poured out not only abundantly, but disruptively. Pray that well-laid plans will be interrupted and business as usual turned upside down, and that every eye shall see him, and every knee bend, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Alleluia and Amen.