Sermon at the Eucharist of the 180th Convention of the Diocese of Western New York
Preached at St. Andrew’s, Buffalo October 27, 2017
I am standing in this pulpit this evening with a little fear —not because of my audience—
I know I am surrounded by friends—but because all around me are the symbols and reminders of a great churchman who has shaped my priestly vocation and the life of our diocese and the world-wide Church. This pulpit is HOLY ground.
I am referring to the fourth bishop of our diocese, Charles Henry Brent, who once served this very St. Andrew’s congregation as its curate, who later consecrated this church building , and who went on to found what was to become the World Council of Churches of the whole world.
Brent was a very high churchman who love the liturgy and the ritual of the Church. He had the misfortune to first serve this diocese in the late 1880’s under our second bishop, Arthur C. Cox, who was a very, very low churchman, and also very anti-Roman Catholic, even in public.
At one service Brent dared to put candles on the altar of this congregation—at a time when that was thought to be a “Catholic” innovation in our Protestant Episcopal Church—and when Bishop Cox was shocked to see them, he told Brent on the spot, ”You’re fired!”
Brent, of course, had the last laugh. He left Western New York and moved to Boston saying, “I did not set such store by candles, as I did by my rights as a priest.”
The candlesticks you see set on this altar tonight are the very same candlesticks for which Brent was fired. I am wearing Brent’s vestments and we are using his chalice and paten on the altar this evening.
But the reason Brent is my hero has nothing at all to do with candlesticks, vestments, or fancy chalices. He is my hero because we share a great commitment to the power experienced when two or three are gathered in Christ’s name—the immense power of being in community.
The power of this very St. Andrew’s community is an example of this, for all of us.
It shows how a community can change the world.
In many ways St. Andrew’s is a snapshot of the wider church—-the diocese of Western New York and the diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, and beyond. It has had its glory days, and it has had its darker days. If you need an example of resurrection, here it is all around us. In any given week, here is a sample of what goes on here and in the building next door, the Bishop Brent House.:
Four weekly Eucharists, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline.
Supper is served to anyone and everyone who comes in after the Sunday evening Eucharist.
There is a spirituality group for developmentally disabled adults.
There is a Pentecostal Group, One in the Spirit, who share this space with St. Andrew’s.
The Buffalo University Heights Arts Association holds events here throughout the year. Brent House hosts the offices of the Western New York Anti-Violence Project, a queer women’s writing group, the Spectrum Transgender Group, the Stonewall Democrats, and a monthly poetry reading group.
The congregation has opened its doors to welcome the community into dignified, beautiful spaces that honor the work these groups do.
But what thrills me the most about all this activity is how it flows from this sacred space for worship, where the act of corporate prayer is practiced with a faithfulness that is full of joy.
Last fall, on my visitation here on a Sunday, I preached and I celebrated in the morning and then I came back in the evening AGAIN to preach and celebrate and confirm, and so I was pretty depleted when I returned. But when I walked in at 5:30 at the end of that long day, I could hear the sound of Mother Ellen Brauza and her husband Walter Brauza praying evening prayer together in the chapel (as they do every Sunday)—two people doing the work of ensuring that the voice of prayer is never silent.
That buoyed me up, that sound inspired me for the service to come. At 6 pm we had a congregation of 40: an entire University of Buffalo fraternity chapter was here, worshiping together. Three people came forward to be confirmed.
The whole congregation stayed for a spaghetti supper cooked by Mother Ellen.
To me, this was a vision of the future of the church: Prayer, Commitment, outreach, good food.
It is this tapestry of liturgical life that feeds our souls, enabling us to deal with the anxieties of our times.
The is a tradition that goes back to the very earliest church in Roman times—the burgeoning Christian communities in Corinth, in Philippi, in Ephesus—communities of faith gathering for an encounter with the Divine. Just as the Eucharist transforms the ordinary things of this world—bread, wine—into the real Presence of Christ, so we, by joining in community, are transformed from solitary individuals into a vibrant cohort, from one to many, from the singular to the corporate body.
One body, one spirit, one faith, one baptism. These words, written by Paul to the Ephesians, sum up what happens all the time in our Diocese—from Youngstown to Olean, from South Buffalo to LeRoy—and in our neighboring diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, from Lake City to Osceola Mills, from New Castle to Erie. We gather to bless, break, eat; we sing God’s praises in canticle and psalm; we worship the Risen Lord—not for our own entertainment, but for nourishment, not for solace only, but for renewal, that grace—God’s spiritual energy— may make us one body, one spirit, in Christ, to serve the world in God’s name.
The goal of our worship is not to get to the coffee hour, nor to a feeling of self-congratulation that “There I have done my duty for the week.” No, worship is what inspires us to action to be the face of God to all those whom we encounter.
It was in the 1960’s that the Liturgical Movement finally prompted many denominations to encourage the full active participation of all lay people in the Eucharist as a way to make mission begin. It led to our 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The American Center of the Liturgical Movement was St. John’s University in Collegeville Minnesota, not far from Lake Woebegone, where I taught for 17 years and where the liturgical movement influenced me as much as Bishop Brent has.
The key thing about this movement that shaped me was that it connected worship to social justice in a very concrete way. It encourages all of us—laity and clergy—all of us to take the gifts with which we are blessed tonight—bread, wine, Christ’s real presence—and use them to build up the body of Christ OUTSIDE the doors of our churches. The liturgical leaders said, “Worship is the School of the Lord’s service.”
They took seriously the idea of equipping ALL of us—that is you and me—for ministry. They underscored what we say in the post-communion prayer: ”And now, father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do—to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”
Now, not everyone today and not everyone back in the 1960’s agreed with the notion that worship is the springboard to social action. Among the fiercest critics was Sister Antonia McHugh, president of the college of St. Catherine, founded by IRISH nuns, and a college that was a neighbor and rival of St. John’s. Sister had no use for the GERMAN monks who had established and populated St. John’s, nor for their liturgical movement.
In one of her speeches Sister sniffed:
“The Liturgical Movement centered at St. John’s, which aims to diffuse social charity through increased lay participation in the worship of the church is something with which I will have nothing to do.”
Sister went on:
“The thought of connecting the psalms with socially activated prayers is too irritating to be considered. The whole commotion is doubtless of German origin.”
But I believe that this commission of prayer AND action, that we have been given, is the call of God, and the call of the prophets, and it has been heard by so many down through the centuries, by the Apostle Paul, by Martin Luther, by Queen Elizabeth I, by Charles Henry Brent, by Katharine Jefferts Schori, by Michael Curry—and through the grace of God given to US in our communities of faith, by you and by me.
“The harvest is plentiful,” our Gospel reading tells us. At this time of year, when we pass the farm stands overflowing with produce, as we think ahead to Thanksgiving feasts, we can envision bounty and plenty, our tables and our pantries laden, more than enough to see us through the coming winter.
The harvest IS plentiful all around our diocese.
Think about what your congregation does: Some excel at welcome, some at outreach, some at feeding the hungry, some at teaching children to read, some at caring for the bereaved, some at resettling refugees, some do many or even all of these things. And we encounter God’s grace in many things in this diocese, and then we use it to cook, to teach, to sing, to study the Bible, to nurture youth, to feed and clothe and empower.
What matters is that we are constantly reminded and encouraged that we are surrounded by God’s grace—as naturally as the air we breathe. Each of us is given grace according to the measure of Christ’ gift.
And the WEB of grace is that invisible network that binds us all together and enables us to do far more together than we can ever do alone. This is what the Web of Grace looks like: the power of community in ACTION.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,” our Gospel says. I parish after parish we see workers emerging, people who have been energized and are ready to do God’s work in the world.
Tonight I ask all of you, faithful and hard-working Episcopalians of this diocese:
Will you be a laborer who makes vision become reality?
Will you proclaim the good news and teach and heal?
Will you translate the energy and strength generated by our worship into real action that will sustain our diocese for the generation to come?
Will YOU use the power of community to change the world?