Bishop Stephen T. Lane’s sermon at the 196th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine
October 24, 2015
St. Luke’s Cathedral, Portland
“I don’t know about you, but I find all this incredibly challenging. How will I ever find away to offer myself in service to the one who made the world? … God is on the move. The world is changing and I can’t stop it. Moreover, it seems that God is behind the change. God is not satisfied with the world as it has been, with the structures and institutions that we have created. God is always creating a new heaven and a new earth.” — Bishop Stephen T. Lane
Bishop Lane concludes a three day trip to Aroostook County to visit with the clergy and members of the churches of the Aroostook Episcopal Cluster . This morning he gathered for worship at St. Paul’s, Fort Fairfield, and St. Luke’s, Caribou. Today marks a sad day for the people of St. Luke’s: the service of thanksgiving was their last as a congregation, a congregation that first met in 1868 and became a parish in 1955.
In his sermons this morning, Bishop Lane had this, in part, to say:
In our time, with all the rapid shifts we’ve experienced, with declining cultural support for religion, with aging members and tight resources, we may be tempted to think that God can’t be truly trusted, that what God demands is more than we can give, or we may be tempted to think in primarily financial terms or institutional terms, to think in terms of what we can do to save our church. Our lessons today tell us that people have thought that way before. But then or now, what God asks of us is the same: to trust God, to give our whole lives to God, to serve God in all that we do, to make every act, even the smallest, a sign of our love for God and God’s world. God’s promise to us that such faithful lives will not be lost, that even the smallest act will be noticed and will count for good.
He had a special word to the Episcopalians of the Aroostook Cluster, which has marked the closing of two – St. Luke’s and St. Anne’s in Mars Hill – of its five congregations in 2014:
All of you – have been faithful and brave in making the difficult decisions you’ve had to make over the past year. You have stepped out in faith. You have taken big risks, and you have pulled together for the sake of Christian witness here in the County. You have trusted in God even when it was hard, and you have made painful sacrifices. You have given up things you love for the sake of common good.
I want you to know that God cares. That God knows what you have done and that the work you have done will count for good. And I want you to know that I know what you have done and that I care, too. You have been leaders in helping all of us discover again how to be the church in a new time. You have helped us place our devotion to secondary concerns in second place in order to strengthen our witness to Jesus Christ. For all of that I thank you. And I think God thanks you to.
On Saturday, October 19, the people of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Portland celebrated 100 years at their annual Harvest Home Dinner. Bishop Steve Lane was on hand to offer blessings and a homily. He said, in part:
As we celebrate 100 years of St. Peter’s today, we must also acknowledge that our assumptions about the church, about dioceses and parishes, have prevented us from recognizing the vast changes that have occurred around us and have inhibited our ability to adapt. We love the English Harvest Home festival. Most of the world hasn’t a clue, and isn’t interested.
Jesus’ charge to us has not changed. The love of God is revealed in the feeding of God’s people. Those people will certainly not be English railroad workers. But they are beloved of God. They need to hear the Good News of God’s love. And we need to hear it as well.
Yesterday, I “secularized” the church building of St. Matthias’ Episcopal Church in Richmond. It was a bittersweet occasion, both sad and satisfying. It was sad because a building that has been used by the church since 1895 will no longer be used for that purpose. It was satisfying because we have been able to fulfill the deep desire of the people of St. Matthias’ that the church building and parish hall be used to serve the community. Just before the service of secularization, Canon Terry Reimer turned the buildings over to the Town of Richmond to be used by the community food pantry and for gatherings of senior citizens. The ministry of St. Matthias’ will continue.
“Secularization” is such an odd and churchy term. In our understanding, things are made holy, are consecrated, by their use. Holy things become holy because holy people use them. So St. Matthias’ was made holy not only by formal, liturgical consecration, but by the presence of so many holy people over 118 years. The Episcopal Church will no longer use the building for worship, so it was formally released from the bishop’s control, but… holy things will continue to happen: hungry people will be fed, lonely people will find friends and fellowship, and community meetings will take place. The church does not have a corner on the holy or on God’s presence.
And I was starkly reminded by the words of the secularization service that a church building is not a church. It is a building set apart for the ministry of word and sacrament; it’s a place where the church meets, but it isn’t the church. The church continues, in other buildings and other places, to serve God and God’s people.
I suppose the most normative event in the history of the Christian Church, after the planting of churches, is the closing of churches. The Church of Jesus Christ follows God’s people, planting churches wherever they go and closing churches when they leave. Around the world new cities are built on the rubble of old cities, and the rubble includes uncounted churches. Neither the cities nor the churches contain God’s people, but only serve them for a time – God’s time.
I left yesterday’s service of secularization feeling oddly uplifted. God is with us and goes before us. We are God’s stewards for this time. The closing of a church is sad – and one more step on our pilgrimage. God has more in store for us.
Join Bishop Stephen T. Lane for the next seven weeks as he grapples with questions around who we are as the Episcopal Church. Today he introduces the series and begins to answer the question. Look for a new video each Wednesday.