This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at the Special Meeting of the Diocesan Convention June 18, 2021.
North Texas Special Convention Trinity, Fort Worth June 18, 2022
We have arrived at a decisive moment for the Episcopal Church in 24 North Texas counties. I would suggest “arrived” is the right word, as it implies we have been on a journey – a journey that is coming close to full circle from the Mission Territory of Texas to the Diocese of Texas to the Missionary District of Northern Texas to the Diocese of Dallas to the Diocese of Fort Worth to the Episcopal Church in North Texas to this present moment. In an overwhelmingly affirmative vote the Diocese of Texas has agreed to our reunification. We have come – nearly – full circle, which of course, is not the end of the road.
Along this journey, you have encountered multiple decisive moments, as all dioceses and congregations do. And about 13 years ago, you arrived at what we call a “defining moment,” with a courageous decision to remain in the Episcopal Church.
There are too many of you to recognize and thank individually for your sacrificial service and bold leadership, and I’m mindful today, also, of those of us who have joined that great cloud of witnesses who pray for us and support us.
I do want to pause and express something I feel – and something my staff feels deeply – and that’s our admiration for you and our pride in the privilege of serving such great people. And, you are great. Jesus says so in today’s Gospel. I’ll say more about that momentarily.
I want to take a moment to reflect back what I heard when I joined you on this journey seven years ago. I believe the most dominant theme that ran through your personal and corporate testimonies was the theme of liberation. You were a people set free – set free to be who you are.
Yes, you were lamenting and grieving unthinkable losses – with even more to come. And yes, there is grief today. Many of you have heard me commend the book by Pauline Boss, entitled “The Myth of Closure.” As a psychologist familiar with grief, she makes the claim that closure is elusive and impossible – and most often undesirable. Rather, she says, we seek resilience. You have shown such resilience. This event today is not about closure. It’s an outward visible sign of faith, hope, and love by a liberated people.
You are liberated, and you have made it very clear that there is no desire to return to Egypt. In today’s reading from Exodus, we hear a portion of the story of the Israelites and their liberation from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. As they journey through the wilderness, there are some dark days – and murmuring. They will complain:
“It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” …
“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill the whole assembly with hunger.” …
“Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
Maybe you had some doubts along the way, and maybe there was some murmuring, but there is no desire to return to Egypt. As for the journey, along the way this liberated diocese learned that God can, indeed, set a table in the wilderness. We learned about manna from heaven – learned about “daily bread.” And, we ate the bread of angels.
And what engenders such admiration and respect around the Church and in your respective communities is your conscious choice to live and love. You did more than weather the storm. You did more than survive the journey. You chose life and love. You gave away your money, your time, and your security for the benefit of others. You proclaimed that “God loves all,” and then embodied that message. The communities and people you serve can testify that your presence and witness matters in this world. You make a difference. And you are great.
As you know, in the Episcopal Church we have appointed prayers and readings for nearly every conceivable occasion. If it’s not in the Book of Common Prayer, it’s in the Book of Occasional Services (sometimes called the Book of Very Occasional Services), or in Enriching Our Worship, or Lesser Feasts and Fasts, or any number of General Convention approved liturgies.
Well. There is not a set of appointed readings for the reunification of two dioceses. So, I chose today’s readings. I’m not accustomed to that. It reminds me of occasions I’ve been invited to preach in non-liturgical settings. Does one just pick a theme out of the sky?
The theme that came to me – from the Spirit, I believe – (and obvious by now) is liberation. I acknowledge that choosing a story from the Book of Exodus is tricky for us. To be clear, we are not the one’s who left. And to be very clear, reunification with the Diocese of Texas is not a return to Egypt. We are being met with compassion, and generosity, and respect, and an eagerness to embody and proclaim God’s love together.
Today’s Gospel. James and John approach Jesus with a request for one to sit at his right hand and the other to sit at his left hand in his glory. The other ten hear about it. It makes them angry. So, Jesus says: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you.”
In the Roman Empire – in the kingdoms of the world – “greatness” is measured by power, and strength, and the ability to dominate. Two thousand years ago in Rome that’s what made someone a “great one,” according to this passage. For that matter, that’s what makes Rome great.
And evidently, it’s not just those in power who see it that way. A couple of humble fishermen live, and move, and have their being in the most powerful kingdom in the world (to their knowledge). This is the water in which they swim.
So, we cannot be shocked that it’s not enough for James and John to be one of the 12; it’s better to be one of the three. That’s how the world works; that’s how life is. One’s worth is based on one’s rank. And they want to be seen as great, so they make this “prosperity gospel” request for glory. And it’s not long until the other ten become aware of the power grab, and in essence, Jesus says, “That’s how the rulers of this world operate. But it is not so among you.” It is not so among you.
I would suggest today that Jesus is saying something more than “we don’t act that way,” or “good Christians don’t behave like that.” I would suggest that in this encounter with James and John and the other ten, we are seeing – one more time – evidence that Jesus is turning the world upside down, or as our Presiding Bishop says, turning the world right side up.
Jesus says, “… whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” He’s saying, “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” This is something more than how good Christians should act. This is turning the world upside down.
Jesus concludes: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” A ransom; if there is a key word in this passage, I think this is it.
A ransom. That word has been misinterpreted in ways that have led to some unfortunate and harmful theology, but in this context it connotes being released, or liberated, or set free. The Son of Man came to set us free, to liberate us from the kingdoms of the world, to release us from the principalities and powers.
And by his ransom, we have been released from the kingdom of “success and failure” to live in the kingdom of “Grace and Forgiveness.”
We have been released from the kingdom of “reward and punishment” to live in the kingdom of “Acceptance and Mercy.”
We have been released from the kingdom of “privilege and prestige” to live in the kingdom of “Human Dignity and Worth.”
We have been released from the kingdom of “power and domination” to live in the kingdom of “Justice and Communion.”
The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many – to liberate us from the principalities and powers to live in a new kingdom, God’s Kingdom, God’s Reign, which according to Jesus, is at hand. It is near. Now.
Jesus gave his life, a ransom. I think he means he gave his whole life, a ransom. It’s all liberating: his birth, his teachings, his miracles, his healings, his suffering, his death, and his resurrection. There is confusion around the word “ransom” – particularly in our culture if we are honest. It is as if the only purpose of Jesus’s birth was actually his death; he was born to die on our behalf, so we would be saved, and of course there is truth in that. But, it’s as if the saving, liberating work of Jesus is located entirely on the Cross.
Yet, when we locate the saving and liberating work of Jesus entirely on the Cross, it does seem that we are making his life and teachings less relevant than his death, and for that matter, making his resurrection rather anti-climatic.
The Franciscan monk and theologian, Richard Rohr, writes about what he calls “the Great Comma.” He is referencing the Apostle’s Creed when we say:
“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, [comma] suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried … .”
Notice, there is nothing in the Creed between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate” except a comma. Rohr says: “Called the ‘Great Comma,’ this gap certainly invites some serious questions. Did all the things Jesus said and did in those years not count for much? Were they nothing to ‘believe’ in? Was it only his birth and death that mattered? Does the gap in some way explain Christianity’s often dismal record of imitating Jesus’s actual life and teachings?”
Maybe Rohr has gone from preaching to meddling. But, his observation does take us from an academic exercise around the word “ransom” to real life consequences. The Great Comma represents the life, the teachings such as the Beatitudes, the parables, the healings, the life example of Jesus – who calls us to follow him.
James and John come to Jesus with a proposition to sit beside him in glory. Jesus says: “Are you able to drink from the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They reply, “We are able.”
With God’s help they are able, and as Jesus says, they will partake of his baptism, and they will drink from the cup. And so, too, do we. And in that cup we find undeserved forgiveness, and unmerited grace, and unconditional love.
Momentarily, we will say together the Baptismal Covenant. Every time you answer those questions – those Baptismal Covenant questions – with, “I will with God’s help,” you are saying, “we are able, with God’s help.” We are able.
And you do strive to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. And you do strive to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself. And you do strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. And, that’s what makes you great.
Along with James and John and the other ten, we drink from the same loving, liberating, life-giving cup in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.
+J Scott Mayer
Bishop Provisional of the Episcopal Church in North Texas