Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Homily to the Council of General Synod on Sunday, November 17, 2013 given by Sister Elizabeth Rolfe-Thomas, SSJD

Homily to the Council of General Synod on Sunday, November 17, 2013
(Readings: Mal 4:1-2a;Psalm 98; 2 Thess 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19)

When I first looked at the readings for today, they seemed dark and foreboding. From Malachi: “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble . . .”. The writer of the 2nd letter to the Thessalonians tells us to keep away from believers who live in idleness (or in another translation) those who conduct themselves in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us. . .” In Luke’s Gospel, the disciples are told that the temple will be destroyed: “the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” This leads into a horrifying description of the end times and all that will happen before the Son of Man appears. There will be signs such as wars and earthquakes, famines and plagues.” It’s no wonder that the end of the world has been proclaimed so many times in the past. I remember back in the 70's or 80's when I was teaching high school, some people were convinced that the world was going to end during our Christmas holidays. We had heard of people building underground bunkers in Australia. Some of my students asked if they needed to study for their exams in January. I told them it was their choice, but if the world didn’t end, there would still be exams so they might want to hedge their bets.

Things can seem as bleak today as they have in the past: we have become so familiar with wars and rumors of wars, with hearing about devastating earthquakes and famines, typhoons and tsunamis, with news of climate change and the effects of global warming and the pollution of our planet. And the sense of impending disaster is not limited to the outside world. We sense it too in our church; we see an aging population, fewer people attending church especially children and young people; less money in the bank and many churches closing. It’s almost an echo of “not one stone left upon another”. It’s so easy to become discouraged. On Thursday afternoon, however, during the World CafĂ© exercise, I was particularly struck by something that had been written on one of the paper tablecloths. “Actual circumstances are an obligatory push to mission . . . they are an opportunity for mission.”

Times of crisis are challenging but they can also be seen as opportunities for change, opportunities to take risks, to try something new, to experiment because in one sense there’s less to lose. It’s almost as if we sometimes need to experience major losses in order to envision something new. I can be extremely comfortable with what is until something terrible happens which eventually opens me to new opportunities. When my husband died of a brain tumor in 1992, it seemed like the end of my world at that time. I no longer had a great desire to live. Life was simply putting one foot in front of the other, doing my job as a high school teacher and administrator the best way I could. I couldn’t have imagined at that time that I would enter the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine five years later and embark on a new life that would be completely fulfilling.

When everything is going well, there often doesn’t seem to be the same need to cry to God for help or to listen so intentionally for God’s still, small voice. But when disaster strikes or life seems to be falling apart, we remember that God has promised to be with us always to the end of the age. We become more intentional about listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit within; we may even take time to go on retreat to be more open and attentive to God’s guidance. 

On Friday evening, I took some time to look at the sticky wall. Some of the words that attracted my attention were hope, trust, openness to the Holy Spirit, humility, vulnerability, risking together, flexible creativity and experimentation, celebrating our identity and strengths. And finally a question: What are others both inside and outside the church calling us and needing us to be?”  I think this is a question that is well worth pondering not just at CoGS but throughout the church family.

Phyllis Tickle, an Episcopalian lay woman from the southern U.S. who has written 2 or 3 books on the Emerging Church, believes that these are exciting times in which to live. Among the Anglican Religious communities in North America, all of us are smaller than we once were. Some are down to fewer than 5 members but at our annual conference in Racine, Wisconsin, this past May, there were representatives of about 15 new communities that have been or are now emerging. It was very exciting to hear about how they had come into being and what they are doing. Only a few live together in community or have a mother house as more traditional religious communities do, but all of them are finding ways to be community and to serve in their respective churches and communities. It’s so important to see this present time as an opportunity for new life, for the birthing of new ways of being church. Our readings this morning are not completely dark or without hope. There are positive signs in each of the readings.

The reading in Malachi ends with these words: “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness will rise, with healing in its wings.” We saw a beautiful example of this in yesterday’s video [on the 2nd National Native Convocation in Minaki in 1993].

Psalm 98 is full of love and joy:
“O sing to the Lord a new song, for God has done marvelous things. . . “

“Shout with joy to God, all you lands; lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.
Sing to God with the harp, with the harp and the voice of song.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn, shout with joy before . . . the Lord.

We have heard this joy in the Lord many times over the past few days especially in the commemoration of Archbishop Michael Peer’s apology to the Indigenous peoples we had last night in the context of a communion service. The 2nd letter to the Thessalonians tells us not to “weary in doing what is right.”

Even the passage from Luke’s Gospel has words of hope:
“I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

On Friday, I so enjoyed hearing Melissa [Green] and Bp. Mark’s report of the World Council of Churches’ conference in Busan, Korea,. While I was saddened that our differing theologies about the Eucharist still prevent Christian churches from coming together around the sharing of bread and wine, I was profoundly moved by Melissa’s description of people coming together in the washing of one another’s feet. To wash someone’s feet or to allow someone to wash one’s own feet is an action of great intimacy. How wonderful that members of so many denominations could enact this sign of servant-hood and hope, providing us with a concrete way in which we can come together in Christian unity.

St. Francis is supposed to have said:
Proclaim the gospel and if necessary use words.

We can give thanks for what Anglicans have done in the past and seize the many opportunities we have to show  by our actions that we genuinely care for one another in the church and even more especially outside the church, not only in words, but in all that we do.

We have a message of healing and reconciliation for the world, a message that was proclaimed yesterday afternoon in such a powerful way. People need to be reassured that healing and reconciliation are possible, that “neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else is all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Jesus call us to feed the hungry, to provide clean water for those who thirst, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to visit those in prison, to care for the sick. We can’t do everything but we can all do something. We can look at our skills and areas of influence and choose where to focus our attention and our energies so that we can make a difference and have an impact on our world.

Our church may be much smaller than it was, at least in North America, but it can still make a difference.