This 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.”
You 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.
Imagine 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.
Imagine the possibilities.
Say it with me: Imagine the possibilities.