One year in Maine: God is blessing our life and work together

Without much fanfare, my first anniversary in the diocese has come and gone. The time since my consecration on May 3, 2008 and now has marked a very good year, and Gretchen and I feel increasingly at home among you.

People often ask how I like my work or how we’re adjusting to Maine, so I thought a few reflections might be in order.

We continue to be very happy to be in Maine. We are continually discovering and rediscovering the beauty of Maine and the beauty of Maine’s people. Our churches are lively and, for the most part, happy. And even the recession has not dampened our enthusiasm for ministry. Gretchen and I love our home and are busy putting in new flower beds and a vegetable garden.

While I love the work of a bishop, the visitations are a special joy – although I miss not hearing our clergy preach. We have been warmly welcomed everywhere. Meeting with you and with your leadership never fails to deepen my appreciation for the challenges we’re facing and the creativity of our responses.

I have learned that a large part of a bishop’s job is just showing up. That leads to a very challenging schedule. Managing the schedule and the pace of my work is perhaps my greatest ongoing challenge. Saying “no” to requests for my presence is never easy.

Communication is a challenge as well. The diocese was well-adapted to the style of my predecessor. Every little change has a ripple affect. I’m learning whom I need to copy on correspondence, who needs to be informed of routine decisions, what groups need to be consulted, etc., etc. I haven’t dropped too many balls, but there have been some, and the learning can be painful.

New bishops are warned not to take too much on. I thought I was paying attention to that rubric, but I’ve taken on too much anyway. I’ve already agreed to do things that I haven’t been able to produce. And the recession, the state legislation on civil marriage, and the development needs of our congregations have all brought urgent demands. I’m trying to find the balance between thoughtful and timely responses, but that is clearly a work-in-progress. I’m deeply grateful for the dedication and hard work of my Canons, my Executive Assistant, and the Loring House staff who do a lot of heavy lifting for our diocese and for me.

It’s been a good year. The learning curve is steep, but considered all together, I am deeply grateful to God and to you for the call to this ministry. I’m having fun. I’m confident God will bless our life and work together.

Bishop Lane’s Christmas Eve Sermon

Sermon preached by the Rt. Rev.  Stephen T. Lane
Cathedral of St. Luke, Portland, Maine
December 24, 2008

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-20

It’s been many years since we celebrated Christmas in a time of want. We’ve watched the perennial favorite, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, but without any real sense that it was about our times. Oh, we know that it’s about the right ordering of values and relationships, yet few of us have known a time when “business,” as Scrooge called it, has caused so much suffering for the innocent.

But perhaps this year, we have a greater understanding. We’ve witnessed an unprecedented reversal of our economic fortunes over the past six months; not as significant as the Great Depression, but significant enough to cause all of us great anxiety. Will business – the mortgage industry, the hedge funds, the credit markets – cause us to lose our jobs, our homes, or our retirement? What will happen to our years of investments in 401k’s? Will we have to keep working beyond the years we planned to work? Has the good life slipped beyond our grasp?

If we’re honest, we’ll also admit that we’re not simply victims. Many of us benefitted from the inflated expectations of the last two decades. We were happy to see our housing values rise. We were happy to take advantage of cheap credit, even, to live beyond our means. We were happy to think that we, too, might be rich. If business did us in, well, perhaps we’re guilty of some collusion. We all hoped that the bubble would never burst.

As Scrooge learned, we know that life is more than business and that, even in the best of times, some people are left out. We know that a price was being paid for our prosperity, a price paid by poor workers in other lands, by declining wages in our own country, by the suffering air and water of our planet, by generations yet unborn who will be saddled with our debt.

Moreover, we know that the strain of maintaining our prosperity was hurting our relationships. It was creating sharp divisions between the haves and have-nots. We were becoming suspicious of those who were not successful or of those who wanted a share of what we had. We were becoming suspicious of one another and our motives. There is genuine bad blood between some proponents of red and blue. Prosperity was putting a hard shell on our compassion causing us to turn off our fellow-feeling for them, whoever “them” might be.

But now the shades have visited us. Now the bubble has burst. Now we know that there is no dividing line between them and us. The poor are simply fellow pilgrims on the road, trying to get from here to there. Our own needs have given us a sharper sense of what others need. Perhaps now compassion can be reborn, can expand outward to encompass all those we meet.

What better story for a time like this than the story we read tonight? What story is more relevant for our times, more relevant to our needs? A poor homeless couple looking for a safe place to spend the night. A birth in poverty among the farm animals. An intimate family celebration shared only by poor shepherds watching the night sky with their flocks. And in these unseen and unremarkable events, the story of creation’s renewal, the story of the cosmos’ rebirth – God born to us, the son of God given to us. Immanuel. In God’s birth, our lives are joined with heaven, blessed, and given back.

You know the interesting thing about the birth of Jesus is that the birth is contagious. Mary was the first theo-tokas, the god-bearer. She it was who was visited by Gabriel, who conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, who told her husband of the unexpected pregnancy, who visited her cousin Elizabeth in her pregnancy, who journeyed her slow, clumsy way to Bethlehem, who gave birth to her first born son in a feeding trough and named him Jesus. And yet, the child born to Mary was then born in the loving heart of her husband Joseph, who claimed him as his own.

The shepherds witnessed the fireworks in heaven and heard the voices of angels and went to see what the fuss was all about. And the child was born in their hearts, and they went on their way rejoicing.

Then the kings. They saw the light. They came, they saw and were conquered. And then the disciples. And then us. By baptism we bear the light of Christ. By baptism we carry Christ into the world. And every year we come here to witness the birth, to hear again the sound angels, to see the light in the darkness, and to carry it home.

Times like these can make people cynical. That’s business, we might say, let me get my piece. Or we might despair, saying that good life has been snuffed out, believing that all is vanity and a chasing after wind. But our purpose tonight is not to celebrate the good life. It’s to celebrate hope, and hope has never been related to the state of economy. Hope comes from our God who has never abandoned us; our God who seeks after us and finds us, our God who is born among us. Like the people of Israel we are a city sought out, a city not forsaken. In all times, whether ancient Israel’s, Dickens’, or our own, God comes to us and gives himself to us and invites us to bear his good news.

And unlike dear old St. Nick, God isn’t concerned about whether we’ve been naughty or nice. God hasn’t come only for Tiny Tim. God’s come for Scrooge as well. And he’s come to tell us that whatever the state of business, we are not forsaken. “Unto you is born this day a savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

As Scrooge discovered, true joy comes not from prosperity, but from sharing what we have with others. Like you, I pray for better times. I hope that next Christmas we’ll be less worried about the things that trouble our hearts tonight. But more than that, I pray for a rebirth of compassion among us. I hope our celebration of Jesus’ birth will remind us how much God loves us. I hope our hearts will burst with God’s love and that we will carry that love from this place back to our homes and back to all the places where we live and move. I hope that the contagion of Jesus’ birth will continue, that he will be born in our hearts, and that we will bear him to the world.

May it be so. Amen.

A Christmas Message from Bishop Stephen T. Lane

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To the Saints and Angels in the Diocese of Maine:

We, in the Episcopal Church, celebrate our worship through a series of sacraments. That means in worship we celebrate and break open for one another the truth of God’s relationship with us.

The fundamental truth we celebrate is that God is with us. God is always with us. This annual season of Advent to Christmas is our yearly reminder that God is with us. At Christmas God joins us in the flesh. God knows our lives. God understands our circumstances. God experiences our joys and our sorrows. God is present with us to help us in our lives.

These are difficult days. There’s war. There’s recession. There’s global warming. There’s lot’s to worry about. But in the midst of all of that, we know that God is with us and, being comforted by that truth, being strengthened by that reality, we are then empowered to go and serve others.

This is a time when we remember especially the poor, the lonely, the homeless. This is a time when we open our hearts and our pocket books. This is a time when, even as we struggle, we know we are loved and blessed.

May this annual celebration be a comfort to you and, in the strength of that Good News, may you reach out to serve others.

All of us here at Loring House – the staff, Gretchen and I – wish you a very joyous and peaceful Christmas.

Bishop Stephen