Lights Shining in the Darkness – An Epiphany Sermon

This is the sermon that I preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the occasion of the installation of Jerre Feagin, Earle King, Colleen O’Connor, Gloria Payne-Carter and Barbara Price as honorary canons of the Diocese of Western New York

We’ve just had our first real taste of winter, so it is gratifying to be in this place, surrounded by friends, enjoying the glow of the candlelight and the warmth of the voices and music. As the old carol describes it so well, we are “heedless of the wind and weather” as we come together to honor five members of our diocese.

This is Epiphany, the day on which the church recalls the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus.

Matthew’s Gospel is the only one that records the visit of these three noble personages. We don’t really know who they were. Matthew calls them “wise men,” but that could have meant almost anything. They may have been fortunetellers, or soothsayers, or astrologers who predicted the future based on what they saw in the stars … or astronomers, who tried to make scientific sense of what they saw in the stars. They were called “the Magi,” from which we derive the word “magic,” which means “having to do with the dark arts, sorcery and sleight of hand.”

Popular legend has grown up around their visit, and we now think of them as the “three kings of Orient” because they gave kingly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

But where was the Orient? The stories about them say that Melchior was from Persia — what we now call Iran — Caspar was from India, and Balthazar — traditionally represented as a man of color — was from Babylon or Ethiopia. They represented the idea that God sent a savior not for Israel only, but for the entire world, Gentiles as well as Jews.

How timely that these visitors to Jesus should come from the parts of the world that are in the headlines today and represent races and ethnicities that are often marginalized and threatened. God works in mysterious ways indeed.

We come together tonight as a diocese, and as I look out at the congregation I am seeing the visible expression of the “web of grace,” the way we as a diocese are interconnected: parish to parish, person to person, a vast network with God at the center of all we do.

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Bishop Franklin with the new Canons of Western New York

I cannot claim credit for originating the term “web of grace.” It was Bishop John Henry Hobart — the bishop of our region in the early 19th century — who used it first in calling for a united Christian response here on the Niagara Frontier to the challenges of the War of 1812.

Bishop Mark Sisk of the Diocese of New York used the term “web of grace” again to describe how that diocese responded to the terrorist attacks on our country of 2001.

My role is to work constantly with the laity and clergy of our diocese to strengthen that “web of grace” as we seek to be the church that is facing the challenges of the 21st century.

It is God’s grace that is the energy at the center of the web of grace, which I now see as a program to reform and revive the diocese and our region.

God’s grace works through people, and tonight we will name as honorary canons of this cathedral five priests whom God has been using to do that work in this diocese. They were building the web of grace before I became your bishop. They work closely with me now and will continue to do so in the future.

It has long been the custom of dioceses to name as honorary canons people — usually clergy — who have provided extraordinary service to the diocese. These five priests have gone above and beyond the call of duty and have benefited not just their own congregations, but the diocese as a whole. They have strengthened and expanded the web of grace.

Our reading this evening from Romans perfectly describes these five priests. “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you,” it begins. These five people have been among our best welcomers in the diocese — to newcomers to our congregations, to new priests in the diocese. They have brought others into the web of grace, been patient teachers and warm friends to parishioners, colleagues and staff.

They have modeled the behavior of “servants … on behalf of the truth of God.” All five, in different ways, have been faithful servants who have put the welfare of the diocese, of its congregations, and of The Episcopal Church first and foremost, at great personal sacrifice … of time, of thousands of miles put on their cars, of energy they might have spent on other things.

All five are trusted advisers who are not afraid to tell me what I don’t want to hear, to push back, and to argue with me. They are the people I can think out loud with … and the people I can vent to at the end of a long and frustrating day, knowing they will keep my confidences and save me from my lesser instincts.

The last verse from Romans is a job description for all five: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” These are people filled with joy and peace, who have conveyed hope and life and strength and new possibilities to this diocese. I am grateful, thankful and indebted to all of them.

Let me tell you a little about each of these new canons. I can rattle off their resumes, tell you all the boards and committees they’ve served on  — and I will do a little of that — and each of them has shared with me a personal anecdote or two that reveals their role in the web of grace.

 

Jerre Feagin

Every diocese has its “grand old man,” the one who has been here forever, knows the history — was involved in making most of the history! In our diocese that person is Jerre Feagin, who just two weeks ago celebrated the 42nd anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood … and has spent almost 38 of those years in this diocese. He serves me as bishop’s assistant for congregational support. He and his team have assisted nearly half the congregations in the diocese with stewardship campaigns, financial issues and building projects. He has served as rector of Calvary, Williamsville; St. Mark’s, North Tonawanda; and Good Shepherd, Buffalo, where he has just returned to serve as extended supply priest? Jerre and his wife Amy are part of diocesan life. They are at nearly every diocesan gathering — Shakespeare in Delaware Park, Discover Sundays, One Diocese book events.

During the 1990s Jerre was a hospice chaplain. He recalled visiting a woman named Arlene at the Nazareth Nursing Home on North Street in Buffalo, near Kleinhans. Arlene was concerned about her roommate. She kept pointing at her — the roommate was asleep at the time — and telling Jerre, “Father, she doesn’t believe in God! She’s an Episcopalian!” So much for the way other people perceive us!

As he works with congregations in financial difficulty, Jerre tells me, “I have been overwhelmingly impressed to see the outstanding ministries being offered to the communities in which our parishes are located. Especially outreach ministries. More and more of our congregations realize that it’s not only about ‘coming to church’ for worship but by serving others in need that makes the Church the Church.”

Jerre models for us the grace of faithfulness.

Earle King

Earle King was weaving the web of grace before there was one. He has served at St. Martin’s, Grand Island, for 28 of his 30 years in ordained ministry. He has served multiple terms on Standing Committee. He has been a tireless promoter of clergy communication and collegiality. He is a longtime deputy to General Convention, and I can assure you he is a beloved figure there. The President of House of Deputies, the Rev. Gay Jennings, is delighted to recognize Earle when he steps to the microphone because she knows he is there to save the House of Deputies from itself by moving to end a lengthy and tedious debate and call for a vote on the resolution at hand.

Earle recalls a time back in 1991, when things were tough at St. Martin’s. They were experimenting with changes in the Sunday schedule — we all know what that’s like — and a lot of anger was directed at Earle. He was seriously thinking of leaving St. Martin’s.

It was December —the next Sunday was Advent 3 — and Earle felt a powerful push from the Holy Spirit to preach on Philippians 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” He tells me, “I wasn’t feeling like rejoicing — my mother was about to have heart bypass surgery — but the Holy Spirit was making it clear what I was to do. So I preached on the need to always rejoice, even to have fun.”

“During communion, I remember sensing that there was some unrest in the congregation. When I looked out at them, a lot of people had strange expressions on their faces. I didn’t know what to make of it.

“During the final hymn, as I was processing to the rear of the church, I suddenly looked up and saw about 100 paper airplanes flying in toward me.  Someone had organized the making of paper airplanes during communion, which explained the “unrest” in the congregation.  Afterwards, folks were saying, “See, Father Earle, we DO listen to your sermons.”

“That was how I really came to know how much the wonderful folks of St. Martin’s really loved me. The airplanes were a fantastic sign of that. My mother died after her bypass surgery, and I was surrounded by the love of both my family and my parish. All that love and support caused me to stop considering the possibility of leaving St. Martin’s.”

Earle models for us the grace of love.

Colleen O’Connor

Mother O’Connor is rector of St. Mark’s, LeRoy; priest-in-charge of St. Paul’s, Stafford; dean of the Genesee Deanery; a General Convention Deputy; coordinator of the Ministry in Transition group; a member of Diocesan Council, and an advocate for small and rural congregations.

There is a tradition in LeRoy that at the annual Oatka Fest weekend in mid-July, the churches have an ecumenical service. A few years ago St. Mark’s hosted and the Baptist minister preached. Their theme was “Christmas in July,” and they sang Christmas carols in shorts. “It seemed almost silly to read the Nativity story,” Mother Colleen said, “yet it was also very moving. None of the cultural hoopla around Christmas was present. It was familiar, yet strange. And because it was out of context and unexpected, it was surprisingly moving.The preacher’s theme was that it is always Christmas; Christ is among us all year, not just in December. I have thought about that experience each Christmas since — how easy it is to get in a rut, to keep God familiar and comfortable and predictable. And yet the story of Christmas is anything but life as usual and comfortable. My challenge and joy in ministry is to find the uncomfortable surprise of what God is doing in our midst.”

Colleen models for us the grace of discovery.

Gloria Payne-Carter

Mother Gloria, the rector at St. Philip’s, Buffalo, is a founder and chair of the Anti-Racism and Diversity Commission and a longtime advocate for diversity, inclusion and social justice — graces that have served us well in this season of racial division in our nation. She has mentored and encouraged lay people and clergy of color to run for diocesan office and initiated the re-formation of a new local chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians.

She speaks eloquently of the way she was welcomed warmly into this diocese, and of how she in turn has worked to incorporate other newcomers and to value the presence of new and different voices.

“Staying in the struggle and encouraging others to do the same … and having an impact on diocesan practices, policies and mission … is my way of intersecting with the web of grace,” Mother Gloria says.

“I had a deep sense of urging to stir the pot of too-comfortable slumber with respect to race and racism in the church, the diocese and society, specifically in this region,” she says.

She has mentored many, many people through the ordination process and is a teacher in the Canterbury Institute and Prepared to Serve classes. She has served numerous terms on Diocesan Council, is a General Convention deputy and a consistent presence at diocesan events.

She tells me: “I’d like to think that when I responded to a need to serve on the board of the Family Justice Center, it led directly to the significant representation of members of this diocese who now advocate for and counsel victims of domestic violence, as well as the expansion of FJC into the suburbs with the establishment of satellite centers.”

Gloria models for us the grace of witness.

Barbara Price

Barbara was the first woman canon to serve on the diocesan staff, at a time before she was ordained, when David Bowman was bishop. It was not an easy time to be a woman in the church. She was the staff member in charge of the Forward in Faith campaign that raised several million dollars for diocesan and parochial ministries. She has been diocesan administrator, transitions minister, rector at St. Peter’s in Eggertsville.

Somehow she balanced a full-time diocesan job with full-time attendance at seminary. Her work took her all around the diocese — “I had to get a new car about every three years, putting on more than 120,000 miles per car,” she tells me. “No matter where I was in the diocese, I knew where to stop and get ice cream.”

Barbara led the groundbreaking work in this diocese on sexual misconduct, creating a program that has been duplicated in more than 30 other dioceses. She has worked with dozens of congregations to call new priests and resolve conflicts with existing clergy.

Barbara recalls working with one congregation where the priest wanted to be reimbursed for performing a wedding across the country. He drove to the wedding and was billing the congregation about $750 in mileage reimbursement. “The one glitch,” she tells me, “the reason I was called in to help the vestry respond, was that the wedding was his own son’s.”

Barbara models for us the grace of perseverance.

In his spellbinding eulogy last June at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston — where nine African-American worshipers were gunned down — President Obama made this comment about grace:

“We don’t earn grace. We’re all sinners. We don’t deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway. And we choose how to receive it. It’s our decision how to honor it.”

These five priests have chosen to honor the graces God has given them by strengthening the web of grace in this diocese, by making themselves instruments of God’s work. God is reforming and reviving and renewing our diocese through these faithful servants who find joy and delight in doing that work.

I thank God for them. I thank them for their service to this diocese and to the Episcopal Church. They are living examples of how faith works wonders.

Amen.

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