Sermon for the Celebration of Two Firsts

I delivered this sermon at the Celebration of Two Firsts Honoring both Absalom Jones and James Theodore Holly, which was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Two Firsts Photo

With friends at the Celebration of Two Firsts. St. Paul’s Cathedral, February 14, 2015

It is good to be with you on Valentine’s Day, a day that is dedicated to a celebration of love. I assume that everyone here has taken care of chocolates and flowers and dinner reservations.

There are lots of stories about St. Valentine, most of them based on fairly sketchy information, but one that appeals to me is that Valentine was arrested in the year 269 for successfully converting people to Christ and was martyred — beheaded! — after he tried to convert the Roman Emperor Claudius to Christianity.

Valentine, therefore, is one more example of someone committed to Christ, used by God as an instrument of faith. Today we pay tribute to two of those people, whose words and accomplishments remain models to us as we struggle to live in a conflicted multi-racial society.

In that society this last year there have been both high points and low points.

One of the high points is the movie Selma, which revisits that key moment in our history, reminding those who were there of the pain and pride of that event, the 1965 voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. … and tells the story anew to our younger people who need to hear the history, to know where they came from, to know how hard-fought the battles were.

And the low points have come in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the resulting anger at justice delayed and justice denied, the belief that black lives do not matter, that the inability of people of color to breathe the air of freedom and justice is not a concern to much of white America.

Map of MississippiYou know that this is a matter close to my heart because of the way I was brought up. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Mississippi, in a deeply segregated society, where I could not go to school with or be friends with or worship with people of color. It was at my grandmother’s dining table, where she invited guests both black and white, that I first began to understand how wrong that was, how much poorer I was for having been denied the richness of knowing and working with people of color, and of how that made no sense in what was supposed to be the Kingdom of God.

Since God works in mysterious ways, it may not be surprising that the two figures we celebrate today — Absalom Jones and James T. Holly — have ties to two cities that are important to me. I want to believe that God brought me out of Mississippi and ultimately to Philadelphia and Buffalo, and that there is some symmetry at work there.

Absalom Jones

Absalom Jones

We know the story of Absalom Jones — born a house slave, sold to a store owner in Philadelphia, where he learned to read partly by studying the New Testament. He bought his freedom, and he began to attend St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where his evangelism efforts greatly increased the number of black members.

That was too much for the white members of the congregation, who wanted to segregate the black members in an upstairs gallery without notice. When ushers tried to remove the black congregants, they walked out.

Subsequently Jones and others built a church that was admitted to membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, and Absalom Jones became the first black deacon in 1795 and the first black priest in 1802.

His church — St. Thomas, in Philadelphia — grew to more than 500 members in the first year. Don’t we all wish we had Father Absalom’s gift for evangelism! I’d like to know his secrets for bringing more people into the church!

He was “an example of persistent faith in God and in the Church as God’s instrument” [LFF, p.158].

William White

William White

I want to draw your attention to a great historical footnote here — please indulge me, as you know my first career was as a teacher of church history. The bishop who ordained Absalom Jones as deacon and priest was William White.

In the days just after the end of the War for Independence, the Church of England almost disappeared from the American colonies. Money that the English church had sent to support its churches in the colonies was immediately cut off. The churches here were no longer part of the structure and support offered by the Church of England. The Book of Common Prayer was immediately unusable — it held up the King of England as the head of the church, which was unacceptable for colonies that had just thrown off British rule. The churches were isolated, disconnected, no one was in charge.

But it was William White who stepped forward in that hour to save what would become the Episcopal Church.

After a series of three “conventions” in the 1780s, the newly independent Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America created, by 1789, a constitution, canons, and an American Book of Common Prayer.

The primary architect of these foundational documents was William White of Philadelphia, the Chaplain of the Continental Congress and later first Bishop of Pennsylvania and Presiding Bishop. He is described as “brilliant, diplomatic, adroit and gentle … respected and loved by all in the young church.” [Cynthia McFarland] So much of what is great and right about the Episcopal Church can be laid at the feet of William White: our structure, our understanding of ecclesiastical authority, our polity.

And it was this far-seeing, brilliant priest and bishop who took what was then the bold step in 1802 of ordaining as deacon and priest that young African-American, Absalom Jones.

He did this in the context of a new nation where slavery was still legal … where the Constitution counted a slave as only 3/5 of a person. I can imagine there was as much dismay about the ordination of Absalom Jones as there was the first time we ordained women or gay people in our own time. Yet Bishop White recognized God’s call to Absalom Jones, knew that his prophetic voice must be recognized, understood the importance of diversity among the clergy, and identified him as the preacher and teacher who was born for such a time as that.

Again we are hearing a story of faith by someone who was acting as an instrument of God.

James Theodore Holly

James Theodore Holly

We turn now to James T. Holly, the first black bishop in the Episcopal Church. He spent most of his church career in Haiti, but he has ties to Western New York. We know that he lived in Buffalo in the 1850s and worked as a school principal. I’m grateful to the Rev. Bill Wipfler, who wrote his master’s thesis on Bishop Holly and has brought forth detailed information about him that will enrich our archives.

Augustus Frank, Jr.

Augustus Frank, Jr.

You know that Western New York was an important region for the Underground Railroad. Slaves seeking their freedom made their way here hoping to cross the river to Canada.

You may not know that the earliest abolitionist organization in the nation was founded just south of here, in the village of Warsaw, in 1833 — even before such anti-slavery strongholds as Boston did so. And the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, outlawing slavery, was passed by Congress thanks to the tireless efforts of Rep. Augustus Frank Jr., a native son of Warsaw.

Holly would go on to found the organization that is now the Union of Black Episcopalians. In 1861 he led a group of African-Americans settling in Haiti, the first black republic, where they hoped to live free of discrimination. There he paid a terrible price: His wife, his mother and two of his children died in the first year because of disease. He stayed, with his two surviving small sons, to “speak of God’s love to a people who needed to hear it” (HW/HM].

He was ordained bishop of Haiti in 1874 at Grace Church, New York City, not by the mainstream Episcopal Church, which refused to ordain a black missionary bishop, but by the American Church Missionary Society, an Evangelical Episcopal branch of the Church.

He became the first black bishop in the Episcopal Church, and later was also bishop of the Diocese of the Dominican Republic.

Arthur Cleveland Coxe

Arthur Cleveland Coxe

I am proud to say that one of my predecessors — Bishop Arthur Cleveland Coxe, the second bishop of Western New York — was a co-consecrator at his ordination.

Under very difficult conditions Bishop Holly confirmed hundreds of Episcopalians, raised up dozens of Haitian deacons and priests, trained physicians, and oversaw the creation of mission stations, churches, chapels and schools in Haiti. He doubled the size of his diocese. Twice in 15 years the main church in the capital, Port-au-Prince, burned, and twice he had it rebuilt.

Today, the Diocese of Haiti is the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church. [84,301 members in 2013, per, “Baptized Members by Diocese”] The Diocese of the Dominican Republic is making major strides in a nation that is 78 percent Roman Catholic. []

These accomplishments are in no small measure the results of the groundbreaking work by James T. Holly, another leader of steadfast faith who acted as God’s instrument.

And now we turn to today. In this season of heartache over the state of race relations in our country, what are we doing to heal and reform … how do we respond to the events of Ferguson and Staten Island, and the discrimination here in our own city, reported in the pages of the Buffalo News? How do we address the sin of racism and confront the fact of inequality in our city and our nation? What would Blessed Absalom and Blessed James say to us today?

On January 1, 1808 — the day that, by act of Congress, the importation of slaves was outlawed in the United States — Absalom Jones, well-known as a fiery orator, preached a sermon at St. Thomas, Philadelphia, in which he enumerated the ways that slave importers, owners and overseers had oppressed and tortured fellow human beings: stuffing them into airless holds of slave ships, where the prospect of jumping overboard to swim for home or to face death “in a watery grave” by drowning was a preferable alternative to “their impending misery”; “all the different modes of torture, by means of the whip, the screw, the pincers, and the red hot iron.”

“Inhuman wretches!” he exclaimed. “Though you have been deaf to their cries and shrieks, they have been heard in Heaven. The ears of Jehovah have been constantly open to them. … he has come down to deliver our suffering countrymen from the hands of their oppressors.” Importation of slaves was banned in 1808, but slavery itself was still legal until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865.

How do we make ourselves instruments of God today in delivering those who suffer at the hands of their oppressors? How do we listen with the ears of Jehovah? We are taking a number of steps:

  • Recently I joined with Bishop Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo in a historic joint pastoral letter on the future of our region and the need to expand the voices at the table and insure that the new prosperity in Buffalo extends to everyone in Western New York.
  • On Wednesday, as a result of that joint letter, Bishop Malone and I met with Mayor Brown. He has asked us to work closely with him on issues of reconciliation and to publicly sign a “Buffalo Opportunity Pledge.” . He has asked me to be his guest when he delivers the State of the City Address next Friday, which I will gladly do to show that our diocese is a willing partner with the city in dealing with issues of inequality and racism, and we are eager to align our resources with the city’s to meet the needs of Buffalo’s citizens.
  • Starting tomorrow, we will conduct a series of conversations that I am calling “Do Not Be Afraid: Five Fears Facing the Episcopal Church in Western New York.” Before we can take the next steps on strengthening existing connections and building new relationships, we have to be honest about some of the things we are afraid of.

The purpose of these conversations is not to seek answers but to share with each other and find common fears, common strengths and common questions.

I hope we may draw on the inspiration and courage of our “Two Firsts,” Blessed Absalom and Blessed James, as we begin these conversations. The conversations are only the first step in bringing our region and ourselves into closer alignment with the Kingdom of God. We look to Absalom and James as examples of perseverance, patience, fearlessness and determination as we work for deliverance from captivity and bondage.

We have focused a lot today on the “Two Firsts,” but I want to close by talking about some ways in which our hope and prayer is that we may not be the first but that we may be the last. We seek God’s power and the public will to change our world and our society and ourselves so that no one need suffer again what so many have suffered for so long.

  • Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed by law enforcement officers without provocation. No more men of color should die this way. Let them be the last. 
  • In Cleveland, the 14-year-old sister of Tamir Rice was tackled by police, handcuffed and placed in a squad car when she ran to the aid of her 12-year-old brother, who had been shot to death by police. No child should be treated that way. Let her be the last. 
  • The women and children who today are victims of human trafficking, who have been sold into sexual slavery. No one of any race, creed or color should be condemned to this life of hell. Let them be the last. 
  • The men of color disproportionately incarcerated. Our nation represents 5 percent of the world’s population — and 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned population, overwhelmingly men of color. [The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.] No young man should grow up just waiting for his time in prison. Let them be the last. 
  • The adults and children who go to bed tonight hungry or cold. In a nation of abundance, no one should be without the basic elements of a decent life. Let them be the last. 
  • The children who live in poverty in our region, described as the most segregated in the country. No child should grow up without dignity, without financial security, without hope for the future, without enjoying the sunshine of opportunity. Let them be the last. 
  •  The parents of young men and women of color who worry whether their children will come home safe at night. No parent should have to wonder whether children will be assumed to have done wrong because of the color of their skin. Let them be the last.

In the words of Absalom Jones, from that same fiery sermon preached on that day in 1808:

We implore all these blessings and mercies, only in the name of thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. And now, O Lord, we desire, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, ever more to praise thee, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty: The whole earth is full of thy glory. Amen.

Posted in Current Issues, Miscellaneous, Racism in America | Leave a comment

Change & Transformation

I delivered the following sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday, January 25, 2015. I believe its message applies widely to our diocese’s many congregations and even to us in our own personal lives.

Good morning, and welcome to this celebration of the Conversion of Paul and the annual meeting of St. Paul’s Cathedral. I believe that what I say here speaks also to other parishes today.

The story of Paul’s conversion has to be one of the most colorful and dramatic in the Bible.

Just listen to it! Here is Saul — Pharisee, defender of the faith, staunch supporter of the status quo, who has been out persecuting followers of Jesus and feeling pretty darned proud of himself. He locked them up, he voted the death penalty for them, he pursued them to foreign cities. Those early followers of Jesus learned pretty quickly: You can run but you can’t hide from Saul.


And until.

Except and until that day when he is headed to Damascus to persecute more Christians, and suddenly comes a blinding light, brighter than the sun, and Jesus’s voice from heaven asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

It stops Saul dead in his tracks.

As you well know, my wife Carmela and I lived in Rome, Italy for five years before we moved to Western New York. There we worked at the American Academy, and I also at the Anglican Center in Rome. In addition, I was also priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Rome, just a block from the house where the Apostle was under house arrest. So you see it seems that I cannot get away from St. Paul. Every Sunday I would walk back from the church to the American Academy past the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Inside that church hangs the painter Caravaggio’s great masterpiece “The Conversion of Paul.” Hundreds of people would be lined up outside the church to go in and see the painting, and I would take my place. It is such a dramatic scene they couldn’t resist seeing it and neither could I. Looking at that great painting what you see is brilliant light streaming from a dark sky … and on the ground, Saul is writhing, covering his eyes, suffering from a major dose of shock and awe.

All around him are his traveling companions and their horses. Take a good look at the horses. They are rearing, pawing the air, their eyes are rolling, they are in sheer panic. I think Saul has a lot more to fear from the hooves of those hysterical horses than he does from Jesus. He’s at the risk of being kicked or stomped to death. Talk about being outside your comfort zone!

Notice what Jesus says to Saul: “It hurts you to kick against the goads.”

It hurts you to kick against the goads. What does that mean?

A goad was a prod or stick that herdsmen used to guide oxen in the right direction. It had a metal tip that poked the oxen when they strayed from the right path. Sometimes the oxen would resist, and they’d kick at the goad, only to discover that when they did, its jab was even more painful.

So in kicking against the goads, they hurt themselves even more.

What Jesus is saying to Saul is: When you try to resist me, you hurt yourself even more.

Relax, Saul, Jesus is saying. Don’t rebel. Accept me. Follow me. Hear my call. Work with me.

What tender, forgiving statements from Jesus to a character who has done everything to hurt Jesus and his followers!

The story behind the story here is that Jesus is telling us: I can use even the most unlikely people … the people who disagree with me, the people who are angry with me, the people who persecute my followers. All of them can have their hearts turned, their eyes opened, their thinking changed. And sometimes we have to go to unpleasant, uncomfortable places for that change to occur.

It’s a good lesson for all of us. Sometimes when I am dealing with people who disagree with me and are absolutely sure that they are right and I am wrong, I want to interrupt our conversation and sit down and read them this passage from Acts and see whether we can learn from it and consider whether both of us need to have our eyes opened, each in our own way.

So it is appropriate that St. Paul is the patron saint of this Cathedral, because cathedrals are often highly politicized places where there are strong differences of opinion, people are convinced that they know what God wants, and it can be hard for one side to acknowledge anything good about the other side’s position. Imagine what it must be like to be a member of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, or St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, or the great St. John the Divine in New York City.

It sounds like it could be a little like Congress and the White House, doesn’t it?

It has been seven months now since Father Will came to St. Paul’s as your interim dean, and although I never doubt that the Spirit keeps us moving, if anyone needs evidence, just look around you.

  • At this difficult time in our national life, as we re-examine racial prejudice, we hear the voice of an African-American preacher helping us to understand what the events in Ferguson, MO, and Staten Island mean to us as Americans and as Christians.
  • As we as a Diocese look for ways to align ourselves with our region as Buffalo turns around, Dean Mebane’s commitment to social justice has been a significant factor.
  • He has given a clearer identity to the three services here at the Cathedral, turning the 9 a.m. into a contemporary music service that is very different from the spoken service at 8 a.m. and the choral service at 11:15.

All of these are the appropriate roles of an interim in helping you, the congregation, to disengage from the previous era, which was a good era but a different era … to learn that you can, indeed, try new things, worship differently, listen to different voices, see the world in a different way. Sometimes all this has felt uncomfortable and unpleasant, but we walk through the hard times with hope for what lies on the other side.

That’s exactly with Saul learned when that blinding flash of light and the voice of Jesus overcame him. Saul was transformed into Paul — evangelist, spreader of the Good News, the one who took the faith in Jesus Christ beyond the Holy Land and into the wider Mediterranean and into all the world.

So you all have been having your own “road to Damascus” moments over the last seven months — in slow motion, perhaps, a little less dramatically than Saul did — no panic-stricken stallions here — but nevertheless, you have been opening yourselves to new ways of thinking, new ways of doing things, new approaches.

That is what an interim is all about.

But you are not alone.

All around our diocese, congregations are in the same situation you are. They are confronting change and transformation. Some of them are seeking new clergy leadership. Some of them are facing the fact that they can no longer afford full-time clergy leadership and need to consider new ways of doing church, partnering with other congregations. Our other large congregations — Trinity, Buffalo and Calvary, Williamsville — are wrestling with their own challenges, doing the hard uncomfortable work that is necessary for growth and health.

It is a time of change and transformation for everyone in this diocese and across the Episcopal Church. So if you begin to think you’re alone, let me assure you: You’re not. It is an anxious time, just as it was for Paul, who had to figure out what to do and how to do it once he had literally “seen the light” and was inspired to follow Jesus. Being in transition is the new normal.

Here are some things you might consider doing in the new normal:

  • First, you can pray for the health of this congregation. When Paul was recovering from his blinding experience, a disciple named Ananias came and laid hands on him to help him regain his sight. I invite you to pray for yourselves as a congregation that your vision be clear and your thinking straight.
  • God called Paul “an instrument of mine to carry my name to the Gentiles and the kings and sons of Israel.” It wasn’t about Paul, about what he needed or what he wanted. It was about Paul’s role as an instrument of God. And so is your transition. It is not about what each of us needs as an individual. You are here to be instruments of God, to do what is best for the whole cathedral and its role in Buffalo and in the diocese. Let Paul be an inspiration to you.
  • Let your patron saint be an inspiration to you in another way. Paul spent a lot of his time mediating quarrels among the churches he established in Greece and Turkey. He would feel right at home here at St. Paul’s, which remains anxious. People blame the unhappiness on the leader — “If we just get the right person, everything will be better” — but leaders come and leaders go and unhappiness lingers. There is still work to be done here as you develop constructive ways to sort out differences, and focus on what is best for the whole congregation.
  • Be proud but humble. I love this cathedral. I am pleased with the strides this congregation has made. I am grateful to the clergy and the leadership and so many of you are my friends. You are a strong and smart cathedral family, and you are accepting of different ways of worshiping, of doing ministry, of serving the wider community. You have added 18 new pledging units. You have demonstrated to yourselves that you can disconnect from one style of clergy leadership and reconnect with another … which should give you confidence that you can do it again when your permanent dean is called. That’s the proud part.
  • Now here’s the humble part: We need to be uncomfortable sometimes as we discover together what it means to love and serve our Lord in new circumstances.

Uncomfortable? Uncertain? Of course. And those are exactly the circumstances in which Paul found himself after he regained his sight and began to follow our Lord. He was shipwrecked, he was imprisoned, he was beaten, he was reviled, he was threatened with death, he was chronically ill — and he changed the world. Some say that after Jesus, Paul is the most significant figure in the Bible. He turned a small Mideastern religious sect into a faith that transformed the world.

Two years from now we will celebrate the Cathedral’s 200th anniversary. I can think of no better way to mark that historic event than with a vibrant vision for this Cathedral, and a new commitment to the world around us.

Paul was joyful, we read in today’s Epistle, that new believers glorified God because they were in this Kingdom work together. Let that be your charge as we move forward with our work: together. That new people come to Christ because of you, what you do here, and the leadership you raise up. Just as it did in the work of Paul, may the light of the Gospel shine through our work here.


Posted in Current Issues, Hope for Future, Leadership, Miscellaneous | 4 Comments

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Inspires our Future

Myself & Will Mebane at MLK Scholarship Breakfast January 19, 2015

The Episcopal Diocese of Western New York has participated in honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on this holiday weekend in a number of ways: Youth, clergy, and laity have worked in social service projects in Niagara Falls and in Medina as a public witness to social justice. Clergy, including me, have joined in the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Breakfast in Buffalo on the morning of January 19, and many gathered at the Diocesan Ministry Center on afternoon of January 19 for a screening and discussion of the film “The Watsons Go To Birmingham.”

In this Diocese we are beginning now a series of conversations for all on racism and segregation in our region of Western New York, We are asking the question: “What actions can we take to break down walls and wedges of separation.” Some have asked me why our diocese has embarked on this course of action.

On this day to honor Dr. King, I answer those questioners by providing you a few excerpts from Dr. King’s great “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail.” This seems appropriate for this occasion when “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” is being viewed.

Dr. King was arrested several times, and it was during one such period of incarceration that he composed his eloquent “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail” of April 16, 1963. It was a response to the urgings of white church leaders in Birmingham that blacks should negotiate and be patient and not protest or resist the wedge of segregation in any way.

Passages from Dr. King’s letter of 1963 speak to the Diocese of Western New York in 2015:

  1. “…segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality….segregation substitutes an “I-it” relationship for the “I-thou” relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things….Isn’t segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?”
  2. “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress …comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
  3. “I have been so greatly disappointed with the white Church and its leadership.. Of course there are notable exceptions…..But despite these notable exceptions I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed by the Church.”
  4. “ I hope the Church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the Church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle….If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands….”

MLK-Day-2014As a diocese which inhabits the most segregated metropolitan region of our nation, Dr. King’s words give us the heart to address our fears, the courage to engage in a process of self-examination, and the hope that the Spirit will be with us as we engage in the work of struggling to build the Kingdom of God in this our land. God bless us as we undertake new tasks of conversation, analysis, action, healing and reconciliation.

Posted in Current Issues, Diversity, Miscellaneous | Leave a comment

Tonight We Travel with the Magi

I delivered this sermon on January 6, 2015, at Church of the Ascension, 16 Linwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY.

Tonight we travel with the Magi.

On this night we follow a star to the place where God is leading us.

This is our last service in this building. The Church of the Ascension has been on this location for 165 years. It is a leave-taking, a farewell, a time for saying goodbye to this church building — though not to each other.

It’s a night for traveling together as this congregation moves three miles away to take up residence, as the Church of the Ascension at Good Shepherd on Jewett Parkway. This is not a funeral; it is a rebirth.

We travel into an unknown future, just as the Magi did. It is their arrival to worship the infant Jesus and present their gifts that we celebrate each year on January 6, this night of the Epiphany.

We know almost nothing for sure about the Magi. If you read Matthew’s Gospel carefully, you’ll see that he never says there were three of them. We’ve just made that assumption because they presented three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Tonight is all about gifts.

And they’ve been referred to as kings because of the royal quality of the gifts they brought. But again, Matthew never calls them kings. He refers to them as “wise men from the East.”

What made them wise? Some people think they were priests from Persia — who interpreted the heavenly signs the way we now get to know our own signs of the Zodiac, and then we read our horoscopes in the paper every morning.

Others say they were astronomers, scientists, who saw a strange bright star in the sky and were moved to explore it — without the help of the Hubble Telescope.

It was very common at that time to believe that unusual actions in the natural world heralded the birth, or death, of an important person. Bright stars, comets, eclipses of the moon and the sun — all of them were signs that something unusual was taking place, something worth paying attention to.

Other people have theorized that they were interpreters of omens and dreams. Or they were fortune-tellers. Or they were magicians. Indeed, the word “magi” later was transformed into our very word “magic.”

But regardless of who they were, and where they came from, we do know five things about them:

  • First, they were adventurous.
  • Second, they were risk-takers.
  • Third, they were willing to leave behind all that was friendly and familiar and take off on a journey, following a star — a star instead of a reliable GPS? Where is Siri when we need her?!
  • Fourth, they knew there was something out there that was worth exploring, worth discovering.
  • Fifth, they heard a persistent call, an insistent voice that said, “Go. Now.” And they obeyed that call.

The Magi sound a lot like the congregation of the Church of the Ascension.

When you leave this place for the Church of the Good Shepherd, you are taking a risk. You’re stepping out into the unknown. You’re listening to God’s persistent, insistent call to do a new thing. To risk the known, the familiar, the loved and cherished … to see what is out there that is worth discovering. And all of this is what the Church of the Ascension has been doing for a very long time.

Tonight we travel with the Magi, following our own star, and your precious identity as a congregation has been your star.

When you get to Good Shepherd, I know you will receive a warm welcome. That historic church, with its Tiffany windows, built and led over the decades by people with names like Jewett and Darwin Martin — names that are synonymous with the history of the City of Buffalo — is ready to open its doors to you.

And like the Magi, you bring gifts: Yourselves. Your unique worship. Mark Digiampaolo’s wonderful music. The pet food pantry. Your energetic and imaginative clergy. This precious identity, your unique history is your gift.

The gifts of Ascension are to be groundbreaking but also a church founded on love of the community, family community, and an embrace of the whole human community.

Five bishops ago, during the time of Bishop Scaife, Ascension was our first white parish to be racially integrated.

In the early twenty-first century, a previous rector wrote an courageous public letter to the Buffalo gay and lesbian community. He made an invitation with these words: “Ascension is a safe home for you, your partner, and your children.”

Two stories illustrate both of these gifts.

First, a home. It was the family of Al Price, his parents, at great personal cost, who were the first African-Americans to join this church. Some white members left Ascension, some white acolytes left the altar when Al Price began serving there.

After college and graduate school, now Prof. Al Price moved back to Buffalo for a faculty position at UB. He admits that he was pretty focused on using his graduate education when he returned to his hometown. But because he was a good son, Prof. Price agreed one morning to accompany his mother to church soon after he returned. That Sunday morning Al noticed his mother placed two offering envelopes in the offering plate. Upon inquiring, Al learned that the entire time he was away from home, his mother had pledged twice, once for herself and once for her son, saying that everyone needs a church home. Ascension was Al’s home.

Embracing the beloved community of humankind.

Guy Richards was a longtime and beloved member of Ascension. Before Guy left Buffalo he planned his funeral with the then rector Armand Kreft. When Guy died, the family asked Armand to return for the funeral. A blizzard on Cape Cod kept Armand from getting back to Buffalo. With no priest, Tom Zimpfer called Mother Cathy Dempsey to ask if she could step in to help. After the funeral, the Ascension search committee met and decided that Guy had spoken to them about who should be their new priest, through a blizzard and the inability of Armand to get here for the funeral. Listening to the Spirit, they decided to approach Cathy and Good Shepherd about a possible covenant.

The rest, as they say, is history, and then exactly two years ago tonight, the priest of Ascension, Cathy Dempsey-Sims, and the deacon of Ascension, Pete Dempsey-Sims were the first same-gender clergy couple in the history of our diocese to be married by the bishop, by me, in this very space.

Risks and community: the gifts of Ascension.

* * *

The bare-bones description of the Magi that we read in Matthew’s Gospel has been embellished over the centuries in beloved carols and great works of art. Each in its own way illustrate these two themes. The three have been given names and ethnicities and they began to look like this: Caspar to be Indian, Melchior, Persian, and Balthazar, traditionally to be represented as dark-skinned, thought to be Arabic. The notion was that God was reaching out to the Gentiles, to all the peoples of the known world, as a way of indicating that the Messiah came for all of them, not for Israel alone. Just so this congregation strives to be a richly diverse church family. That is what you will take with you on your trip north to Good Shepherd.

* * *

And after all, the journey you are taking is only three miles up Main Street, but it is a very significant journey for the Episcopal Church today. In every diocese, in every city, there are churches like Ascension: small congregations that want to survive but find themselves with property they cannot heat or cool or maintain. They are burdened with far more space than they need, or space that does not support the way we do ministry now. Every single one of my brother and sister bishops is wondering what to do about those congregations. Merge them with others? Close them? Sell them?

You are Exhibit A in how creatively to solve this problem. I want to tell other bishops what we are doing here: your move as a continuing congregation to be housed at Good Shepherd … and the transformation of this sanctuary into a community-oriented space for music and art, and social services … and the construction of affordable senior housing on this site, both developed by the Episcopal Church Home & Affiliates.

We gathered here tonight also can be a light to the nations — well, at least to the rest of the Episcopal Church — in how to rethink property and buildings and mission and ministry to serve our communities and our congregations.

We have other examples of this mission of our diocese, at Grace Church, Lockport, and at St. Simon’s, South Buffalo, where we are engaged in projects of adaptive reuse to turn buildings that are part of these church facilities into community-services centers also—centers that meet the needs of those outside our doors.

As your bishop, I am proud of this congregation and Good Shepherd for your willingness to show the wider church what it might mean to “do church” in the 21st Century …

to be a model to other churches in our diocese for what is possible when a congregation can think together prayerfully and faithfully and creatively, and with serenity about the future …

to show churches of all denominations and civic leaders in the City of Buffalo how we can use our resources wisely and in untraditional ways to meet the needs of humanity and to strengthen both our congregations and our cities when we do so.

* * *

The wise men followed the star to where Jesus lay, and when it was time to return home, they knew they needed to go by a different road to avoid King Herod. He would have pressed them for details about where to find the child so he could harm him.

They were not called wise men for nothing.

So Matthew’s Gospel tells us that “they left for their own country by another road.” They went home by another way.

Before too long, senior citizens will find safe, warm, affordable housing in the apartments to be built on this site. The elderly will find their new home, here, by another way.

The residents of Linwood and Allentown will find a welcoming source of beauty and artistic life, needed services and community when this sanctuary takes on its new purpose. They will find a new home, here, by another way.

You, the congregation of the Church of the Ascension, will have a new location for your spiritual home, a place of fellowship and love, mission and ministry. As your rector, Mother Cathy, said recently, “We are not an address, 16 Linwood Avenue. We are a community of people dedicated to serving and loving God in all we do.” You are going home by another way.

Tonight we travel with the Magi – with our fears, with our uncertainties, with our memories, with our sorrows … AND with our curiosity, our expectations, our joy, our willingness to take chances and to be open to how God is calling us to do church now. What an opportunity!

Tonight we travel with the Magi — to find ourselves home by another way.

In the name of our God.


Posted in Miscellaneous | Leave a comment

SealsJoint Pastoral Letter on the Renewal of Western New York

December 14, 2014
Third Sunday of Advent

To Our Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

This letter comes to you on the Third Sunday of Advent, when we Christians continue our journey from darkness into light. As we sing in the familiar Advent hymn, we remember Israel, “that mourns in lonely exile here/ until the Son of God appear.” This is a time for anticipation, waiting, and joyful expectation of new light and new life. Soon we shall celebrate again that Emmanuel — God with us — is here.

This is a pioneering letter. It comes to you from two bishops — Roman Catholic and Episcopal — who, incidentally, live just a block from each other in Buffalo’s Elmwood Village. We join in writing this letter because the new light and the new life that we write about affects all of Western New York and the two dioceses we lead as bishops, not just the City of Buffalo or County of Erie.

There could be no more dramatic example of the interdependence of the City of Buffalo and the region surrounding it than the lake-effect snowstorm of mid-November. The city and the northern suburbs received virtually no snow, but the suburbs and counties to the south and east were pounded with record-breaking snowfall. We saw what happens when we are cut off from each other. Employees were unable to get to work. Roads that were drifted shut with six feet of snow meant no deliveries of goods and services. School and church services were cancelled. Rescue vehicles and ambulances could not get through.

We can measure the cost in lost productivity — dollars and cents — but more importantly, we can measure the cost in what happens when we are unable to function as one united region, cooperating with one another, relying on each other, supporting and benefitting each other. It doesn’t matter that there is no snow in North Buffalo when Lackawanna and Lancaster and even Cowlesville in Wyoming County are overwhelmed, when hundreds of vehicles are stranded on the Thruway, when buildings are collapsing, when the entire region cannot operate normally. The snowplows cleared the roads for all of us.

This historic corner of New York has always been the home of pioneers who saw what many others did not: the value of hydropower from Niagara Falls, the significance of the Erie Canal to open up what was then the Western Frontier, arts and culture in Chautauqua and at the Roycroft, the verdant agricultural and timber lands of Western New York, the value of key positions on the railroad lines between New York City and Lake Erie, Buffalo as the Queen City, reigning proudly over shipping and heavy industry on the Great Lakes and beyond.

It has also been a pioneering place for those who knew that justice, freedom, peace, and dignity reap their own benefits. As a region we have historically supported the abolition of slavery, the extension of rights to all people, and religious tolerance, though we did not always respect and protect the dignity and culture of our Native American peoples.

Today, after many decades of decline, the City of Buffalo — and by extension, all of Western New York — is on the brink of unprecedented prosperity: new business, new investment, new construction — accomplishments unimaginable 20 years ago. A new generation of Western New Yorkers is envisioning new opportunities and making them a reality. With regard to education, medicine, technology and quality of life, this is the time for which we have all waited and prayed and worked. This wave of prosperity benefits not only the city, but also the entire region.

Yet at this time not everyone is benefitting. Blacks and Hispanics still live in poverty in greater proportion than do other groups in our population. Children still go to bed hungry. Jobs and security elude too many families. And because some are left out and locked out, the rest of us are poorer. We fail to benefit as much as we might from this new golden age.

This must change.

And positive change is possible for gone are the days when the photographs of our leaders show mainly images of white men.

Gone are the days when we ignore leadership and authority in the voices of women or those who first spoke a language other than English.

Gone are the days when the creativity and innovation of those whose experiences and backgrounds — different from our own — are excluded from our work force, our cultural circles and our educational institutions.

But there is still much to be done, for gone too are the days when the wages paid to many for a 40-hour workweek are sufficient enough to pay for basic housing and food for workers and their families.

And yet, this is the start of a new day.

For us as Christians, as bishops, as spiritual leaders of this region, this new day is not just an economic concern, or a business concern, or a public relations concern. For us, it is a Gospel concern. In this new day before us we hope to see The Kingdom of God on earth reflect the community Jesus built around him: full of women and men, minorities, the poor, and the marginalized. In this new day we hope there will be plenty for everyone, that all will share in the bounty, and labor will be adequately rewarded. We envision a just society where the dignity of every human being is respected.

This is our hope for Western New York, where the prosperity generated in one place of renewal must ripple throughout the region. The economic renewal of our region must be a renewal of the Gospel values and ethics that we share as sisters and brothers in the Christian faith. What we say and pray on Sundays must now go out into the world, into the workplace, to the ballot box and to the councils of government to ensure that Western New York becomes a more prosperous community, not only in dollars, but in our investment in each other. Jesus did not call for a society in which each person was out solely for personal gain. He called for a kingdom of shared prosperity, generosity and justice, a society that is more human because it is in conformity with the Kingdom of God.

We have been pioneers once in settling this region. We ask you now to be pioneers again in supporting efforts to maximize the strengths and gifts of those — all women and all men, native-born and immigrants — who offer their skills and their desire to prosper and make our region prosper once again.

The richness of a diverse workforce enriches all of us.

Therefore, we as two bishops of our Churches urge our leaders in both business and politics to further all efforts to make opportunities for employment, training, and advancement that grow out of this hopeful time of growth and expansion accessible to all.

The Bible is full of questions about, “Who is my neighbor?” and “To whom am I a neighbor?” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that when we do right by and for others, we serve Jesus. God now offers Western New York this opportunity to live out our faith in a way that strengthens our communities for today and for tomorrow creates a better region for our children and our grandchildren — where all they have to offer will be valued and rewarded.

Join us in advancing this noble and creative vision of hope and renewal.

Yours in Christ,

R. William Franklin
Episcopal Diocese of Western New York

Richard J. Malone
Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo

Posted in Current Issues, Diversity, Hope for Future, Leadership, Miscellaneous | Leave a comment

Statement to the Diocese of Western New York on the Aftermath of Ferguson

In the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision just a week ago not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown we see how differently blacks and whites view the issues of race. How different our expectations are of how we will be treated by law enforcement. There is fear in the white community and despair in the black community, and violence offers a temporary remedy and a relief from decades of pain and frustration.

The parents of white teen-age sons believe their children will come home safe at night. The parents of color have no reason for such assurance.

Our Presiding Bishop said last week, “All Americans live with the consequences of centuries of slavery, exploitation, and prejudice. The color of one’s skin is often the most visible representation of what divides God’s children one from another.”

This is a highly personal issue for me. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Mississippi, in a society where the vestiges of black enslavement existed in a complete segregation of the races. As a boy I was forbidden to experience the gifts and talents and experiences of half of our state’s population. As a consequence of segregation, my early life was culturally and spiritually diminished by the reality of the separation of the races.

I saw firsthand the stranglehold of the Jim Crow laws that had kept African-Americans in an inferior status in the South for more than 100 years after the Civil War. I witnessed firsthand the hatred and violence of whites who were entrenched in power as the grip of segregation was finally broken during the Civil Rights era.

As we continue our walk through Advent and await the arrival of our Savior, we are charged to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” I can think of no better metaphor for the work we are called to do now.

We had initial conversations at our Diocesan Convention about race and poverty and inequality and how those three issues make a negative impact on the lives of all who live in Western New York.
In the aftermath of Ferguson, I thank our African American clergy for inviting our Diocese to think and talk and pray together. On November 25, the Very Rev. Gloria Payne-Carter, chair of the Diocesan Anti-Racism Commission, issued a call for prayer in our congregations for deliverance from complacency and for comfort to the wounded. Dean Will Mebane invited the Diocese to St. Paul’s Cathedral on November 30 for a special “Dialogue with the Dean: Finding Our Way After Ferguson.” Our historic African-American congregation at St. Philip’s, Buffalo invited the Diocese that same day for another discussion on Ferguson and the grand jury decision.

Future conversations in our Diocese on these topics are important because of this dismal statistic: The Buffalo metropolitan region is the most thoroughly segregated region in the United States according to a Rochester Area Community Foundation study of December 2013.

That is a mark of humiliation. That must change.

In the light of this statistic I am calling for action. At its December meeting I will be asking our Diocesan Council to develop a plan of action to further into 2015 the conversation we began at Diocesan Convention. This will be a concrete plan of action, accompanied by specific, accessible, and effective resources to help us to continue to talk about issues of race and segregation, poverty and inequality in Western New York. We must have these conversations together as a Diocese, and we need to move now from talk to action.

For us, this is a Gospel concern. A Gospel society will be a just society where the dignity of every human being is respected. We need to start talking now about how to make this Gospel society a reality.

We as a Diocese are looking at a variety of new ways to do ministry, groundbreaking ways to align ourselves with all our communities, to find places where what we can offer meets the actual needs of the people of Western New York…to be their neighbors.

The Bible is full of questions about “Who is my neighbor?” and “To whom am I a neighbor?” God offers us the opportunity of these conversations into 2015 on racial segregation to live out our faith in a way that strengthens our communities for today, and creates a better region, and a better Diocese, for our children and our grandchildren, our friends along with our neighbors—-where all they have to offer in its God-given diversity will be valued, treasured, and rewarded.

We need to proclaim the vision of a new City of Light, a region of light, and we need to be strong and courageous to do this work to make it reality.

As we move this Advent from darkness into light, my prayer is that these conversations can help us see how Emmanuel—God with us—is breaking through in new ways, all around us, so that we can find the face of God in each other.

Posted in Current Issues, Diversity, Hope for Future | 1 Comment

Salt and Light

Delivering the SermonThis was the sermon I delivered at our Diocesan Convention Eucharist (worship service) on Saturday, October 25, 2014.

Good Morning and Welcome to our Convention Eucharist!

This looks like one of those “mass mobs” I read about in the paper that had their start among our Roman Catholic friends in Buffalo—throngs of people who show up at a church that would normally attract a fraction of that number. All these church people worshipping by the side of a swimming pool at a hotel in Cheektowaga—who’d have thought it!

If this is our 177th annual convention, that means that our first convention would have taken place in 1837, when this diocese was part of the Diocese of New York, which covered the entire state. Andrew Jackson was president until March of that year.

At that time there were 42 steamboats plying Lake Erie.

And that was the year that Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph—a harbinger of the communications revolution that was yet to come.

Most of you probably have in your pocket or your purse the latest development in that revolution, a smart phone that some of you are probably using right now to time this sermon.

I will try to make it worth your while.

Though I caution you about the old saying: “It is not just the bishop’s sermon that can seem to last for eternity.”

It was much more recently—1998, in fact—that the Intel chip was first used in Macintosh computers. The advertising slogan for this technological wonder was, “Imagine the possibilities.” Macintosh wanted users to think about all that they could accomplish with this powerful, fast chip.

As I began to study the lessons for today, it occurred to me that their theme is exactly the same: “Imagine the possibilities.” That is an excellent theme for us as we come together for this diocesan convention. Our readings assure us that with God at our side, the impossible will become possible.

In our first lesson, Isaiah is writing to a nation of Israel that has seen its city of Jerusalem destroyed. They themselves have been carried off to Babylon in captivity, their families separated, their beloved homes lost. There is nothing to be happy about—you remember the opening line from Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.” It is so hard to maintain a belief in God when everything seems so lost, so hopeless, so wrong.

We as a diocese have been through hard times.

Yet it is to these weary, grief-stricken people that Isaiah gives a promise of hope and new life that is so lyrical, so lush and beautiful, that it feels as if it ought to be sung:

“You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace;
The mountains and the hills before your shall burst into song,
And all the trees of the forest shall clap their hands.”

 The trees of the forest shall clap their hands! What a beautiful image of all creation responding with praise and joy to the goodness of God.

Let me just stop here. Can we do that? Can we say that we believe so strongly in the new life and the powerful future that we are creating here in Western New York that, we, like the trees of the field, can clap our hands? Can we give a hand for all that we are going to do, with God’s help, to renew and refresh and rebuild our diocese and our communities? Can we clap our hands for that?


Episcopalians clapping in church—talk about the impossible becoming possible: Thorns and briers—symbols of judgment and pain—will be gone, and instead we will see lush, lovely, shade-giving cypresses and myrtle.

After the agony of the Babylonian depopulation—torn from their neighborhoods and homeland, everything lost, many dead, captivity for a once-proud people—we have these symbols of renewal, rebirth, regeneration.

Imagine the possibilities.

The word that goes forth from God’s mouth shall not return to God empty, Isaiah tells us. It shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing which I sent it, God says.

This is God’s work.

When I read these words I feel as if God is putting a hand on our shoulders and giving us a blessing: that we will accomplish what God purposes, and prosper in accomplishing what God has in mind.

These are words of joy, of accomplishment and satisfaction, of challenge and fulfillment. Imagine the possibilities.

Our reading from Matthew’s Gospel is a very familiar one, about salt and light. It follows directly after the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus teaches the crowds the sayings we have come to know as the Beatitudes: proclaiming God’s favor to those who want to live under God’s rule….the mourners and the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are persecuted.

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus tells them. “You are the light of the world.”

Salt and light. What meaning do they have for us?

I pondered this Friday last week. After celebrating a week-day eucharist at our cathedral downtown, I was having a beef on weck at Charley the Butcher’s in the Ellicott Square Building also in downtown Buffalo. We can have our argument later about who does the best beef on weck in Western New York: whether it’s Charley’s, or Schwabl’s in West Seneca, or Eckl’s in Orchard Park, or Anderson’s, or somewhere else.

I love the way those crystals of kosher salt explode in your mouth, sinking into the beef juice and bringing the flavor of that wonderful sandwich to the peak of perfection.

Salt is one of those seasonings that is at its best when it is at its most subtle. My wife, Carmela, is a serious cook, and the room in our house where our marriage faces the most tension is the kitchen. The times I have seen her most annoyed with me in the kitchen are when she thinks something is undersalted—bland! Awful!—or when in my usual enthusiasm, I oversalt, and all you can taste is the salt.

Salt is at its best when it makes the food we’re salting taste most like itself…not when all we can taste is the salt. Salt alone is not a useful substance; we don’t eat spoonfuls of salt all by itself. It is useful as it is applied to other things.

And perhaps most tellingly, salt is a symbol for wisdom…and light. The Law of Moses was referred to as “Salt and Light” because it offered wisdom and enlightenment to those who studied and obeyed it.

“You ARE salt and light,” Jesus says. Not “you could be, if you so choose,” but the flat statement: no option. You ARE salt and light. It is your job to bring wisdom into the world, and not just by-the-book rote following the law, but the bold ability to follow not just the letter of the law but its spirit.

That means you can shake off the false gods. You ignore the temptations to be careless or indifferent—the “salt that has lost its taste.”

Bishop3You can get rid of the bushel baskets in our parishes that would hide your light and you can let it shine, let it glow, let it be seen by others “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” You are the beacon, the lighthouse that makes a clear and safe path for others and draws them to you, and thence to God.

Imagine the possibilities.

So what are the possibilities we might imagine for ourselves as we strike out into this new territory…as we, the people of salt and light, look forward to our future in Western New York, a hospitable garden of rich possibility for the first time in over sixty years.

  • We want to make sure every child in Western New York knows how to read. This should in particular be the project of the Episcopal Church for so long a people of the book, or really two books, the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
  • We want to look at the way we form younger people. We talk about the millennials, we talk about the “nones,” we talk about our children and youth and our family ministries…and for too long we have talked about them as if they were separate things, instead of part of the unbroken arc of our lives in faith. We are going to focus on the first 30 years.

Toobers & ZotsImagine the possibilities.

  • We are working with our partners in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania to learn how to do ministry together. In this we are real pioneers in the church today. Many dioceses are wondering how to save money, avoid duplication, share our strengths. We are doing more than wondering about it or talking about it. Bishop Sean Rowe of Northwestern Pennsylvania and I are taking concrete steps in what we believe will be a model, a demonstration project of cooperation for the rest of the wider Episcopal Church.

Bishop Sean and I are very excited about imagining the possibilities!

And you know what—right now we have everything we need to make all those possibilities into reality.

  • We have the people in this room—lay and clergy—and so many people all around our diocese who are committed, eager, ready to act.
  • We have the strength and the courage to will and to persevere even when things are not easy.
  • We have Emmanuel, God with us, to help us prosper in the things God wills.

Together we will do what our Lord Jesus Christ did: With mercy, justice, and dignity, we will change Western New York, and we will change the world.

Greeting worshippersImagine the possibilities.

Say it with me: Imagine the possibilities.


Posted in Miscellaneous | Leave a comment

Launching Health Awareness Week this October

Posted in Miscellaneous | Leave a comment

Eaton Summer Camp 2015

Posted in Miscellaneous | Leave a comment