In the name of our loving God. Amen.
Earlier today, I talked about how here in Niagara Falls this weekend we are following in the footsteps of our forebears in the faith. Today we have indeed made history for the sake of God’s mission in the world, and I am very grateful to God and to all of you for making all of this possible.
In that spirit, I want also to take this opportunity to remember one of the great bishops of the church, Bishop Charles Henry Brent, one of my great heroes.
Western New York, give thanks that you will never again have to hear a mention of Bishop Brent in a sermon.
Northwestern Pennsylvania, you need to know that Bishop Brent was bishop of the Diocese of Western New York from 1918 until 1929.
If you do not know about Bishop Brent, I commend him to you — his Wikipedia page is rich with historical detail about his time in the Philippines in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, his fight against the opium trade, and his brave and extraordinary service as the senior chaplain of the U.S. Expeditionary Forces during World War I.
But what Wikipedia will not tell you is that ninety-three years ago, here in Niagara Falls, Bishop Brent was arrested for reckless driving. He T-boned a streetcar, was arrested and taken to jail, and had to pay $10 in bail money. He was, according to the newspaper account of the incident, wearing his vestments at the time and was in a hurry to keep an appointment in Buffalo.
I have always assumed that Bishop Brent’s driving was simply a mark of dedication to his diocese and his people— and perhaps also an indication that he was taught to drive by General Pershing on a battlefield somewhere in France.
He was, in fact, so dedicated to the work of God that he was issued more speeding tickets then any elected official in the State of New York in the 1920’s.
And so, since I became your bishop more than seven years ago, I have seen myself as a spiritual and automotive heir of Bishop Brent. You know that I came to be bishop of this diocese directly from living in Italy, where the speed limit on the Autostrade was 90. So when I saw the signs for 90 on the New York State Thruway, I assumed that’s what it meant. I am sure the fact that no one would park near me when I first visited churches around the diocese was a complete coincidence.
But as my time of breaking traffic laws across Western New York draws to a close, I am pleased to tell you that you have elected yet another bishop who will follow in the footprints, or should I say in the tire tracks, of Bishop Brent and of me. You have elected Bishop Sean Rowe, who is legendary for his vision for the future of God’s church, for his quick strategic mind, and for his extremely fast and, shall we say, decisive driving.
Sean, I am proud to call you my successor, and I know that Bishop Brent’s favor shines down on both of us from heaven, where he has probably had his license revoked.
Driving aside, I admire Bishop Brent for his willingness to take risks for the sake of the Gospel, just as I admire Bishop William White, the bishop whose collect and readings I chose for this day, which is my last convention Eucharist with you. Here on this day, when you have taken the risk of following the Holy Spirit into an unknown future, you can rest assured that you are the inheritors of William White’s legacy to our beloved church.
You know, especially if you have heard me preach on Bishop White before, that he was a towering figure in post-Revolutionary War history.
He was the rector of the largest Anglican church in the 13 colonies, the first chaplain of the Continental Congress, and later the first chaplain of the United States Senate. He was also the first Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the newly liberated American colonies, and he ensured that our polity would include the voices and the authority of all orders of ministry — lay people, clergy, and bishops.
I am sure that our honored guest, House of Deputies President Gay Jennings, shares my high esteem for Bishop William White, who was also her predecessor in office, as he served as first president of the House of Deputies before there even was a House of Bishops.
Bishop White took risks. He removed prayers for King George from the liturgy after July 4, 1776, an act of liturgical defiance for which he could have been hanged. He ordained Absalom Jones, the first African-American Episcopal priest, and he made the Episcopal Church, which had been on the wrong side of the revolution, a truly American institution. It was indeed, as his collect reads, a time of turmoil and confusion, and out of it he raised up our beloved church.
Bishop White believed that as Episcopalians we look to the Bible as our authority. He knew that our church would survive and thrive by reading the Bible through the lens of tradition —how people have read the Bible before — and through the lens of reason — by which he meant, as a good friend of Benjamin Franklin, science.
And how do you bring the Bible, tradition, and science together? You do so by listening to others. And what is your guide when you are listening to others, when you are forming new ways of working together and of collaborating? You listen to the Holy Spirit, who was there at the beginning of the Episcopal Church in the colonies and is here now with us, guiding our deliberations and our decisions.
Bishop White believed that the Bible is our authority and our guide. And it is notable that when we remember him, the readings appointed for the day are not about risk-taking or daring to stand up to authority or being a champion of lay and clergy voices.
The readings are, instead, about shepherding and teaching the people of God as they journey into new lands, into a new future where all of the familiar touchstones — the ark of the Covenant, the presence of the Messiah — will be gone.
Even in the midst of that kind of unsettling change, Jesus asks us only one question – he asks it three times, in fact – to make sure we hear it: “Do you love me?”
And when we, like Peter, answer,
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” Jesus does not provide strategies or guidelines about how to lead effectively or how to allay the anxiety and fear brought about by change. Because voicing the answer to that question, “Do you love me,” is all we need. It is what grounds us and guides us through all of life’s steps and missteps – familiar and unfamiliar.
And so, hearing the answer to his question, Jesus then tells us to get to work, saying simply, “Feed my sheep.”
In these days, it sometimes seems as though our familiar touchstones are falling away. But just like Peter, and just like Bishop White, our love of Jesus, which binds us to his command, is our guide during our own times of turmoil and confusion. No matter how daunting the change we face, no matter how unfamiliar the ground before us, if we love Jesus, we will feed his sheep.
Now it is time for you all to journey into an unknown future, to remember our answer to Jesus’s question, “Do you love me?,” to find new ways of feeding and teaching and shepherding all the people of God in our communities and congregations.
It is time for you to listen to the Holy Spirit in new ways and, as the Presiding Bishop said to us in the video he recorded in advance of this convention, to learn new ways of doing ministry to proclaim that gospel.
I feel a little bit like Moses standing up here in this pulpit today. You are heading off into a new promised land, and I cannot be with you. But I know that you go into the future connected by the Web of Grace that we have woven together and that you are led by the Holy Spirit, who has given you the courage to make this future possible.
As you go, I pray that you will remember simply to love Jesus and to feed his sheep. Go with my love and my abiding faith that the Holy Spirit will guide you always.