Gretchen and I took just two minutes to drive to this Sunday’s visitation – Trinity Church, Portland. Still we managed to drive in the exit of the parking lot and miss the sign and parking space designated for us… We’ll get the right entrance next time.
Sunday was the first Sunday of the month and, therefore, a Sunday morning for breakfast at Trinity. Lots of folks pitched up for breakfast and a question and answer period. The questions covered a wide range of subjects including stresses in the Anglican Communion and the use of Facebook and other web-based programs for ministry.
Following breakfast I met briefly with two persons being received into the Episcopal Church and then we all joined for a festive celebration of the Eucharist. A bishop’s visit in Lent brings an interesting convergence of themes and readings to the day. But, since it’s always Easter on a Sunday, we managed just fine.
Trinity Church was originally founded as a Sunday School for railroad workers and congregationalists. The original church was built in the Gothic style. The new church, built in the sixties, added a large worship space at right angles to the old, combining both old and new into one unified space. Trinity has long prided itself on it’s Morning Prayer traditions and still offers Morning Prayer as the Liturgy of the Word twice a month.
Following worship and brief reception, when the Church School presented me with a picture and a sweatshirt, I met with Vestry for a challenging and exciting hour. The first question asked had to do with how the church would survive after the Baby-Boomers are gone. We talked about the rapid growth of the Episcopal Church in the decades after World War II, the building boom that followed, and the decline of the last decade. Things have changed a lot, but we still tend to do business as if it were 1955. Today requires flexibility and a willingness to try new things. Trinity is well suited for such experiments being close to USM, many community services, and right on one of Portland’s main streets. A small Sudanese congregation is developing as well. The present recession is also creating pressure to collaborate with other congregations and to find ways to share and reduce expenses. There are no easy answers, but there are certainly a lot of possibilities.
The morning ended with a conversation with the rector, Larry Weeks, about his perceptions of the next steps for ministry at Trinity. As Gretchen and I left the first flakes of the next major snow storm were falling. But it was just two minutes to home.
This past Saturday I joined with other bishops from Province I to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the consecration of Barbara Harris as a bishop of the Episcopal Church. Some 2,500 persons gathered at St. Paul’s Cathedral for a morning of reflections, including excerpts from the videotape of the consecration, and an afternoon Eucharist. It was grand day filled with powerful remembrances, Gospel music, and an outstanding sermon by our Presiding Bishop. Watching the videotape made me aware of how much we now expect and take for granted the ministries of ordained women and how great the struggle was to make those ministries possible. It is always difficult to move the church – or any institution – to a new place.
During the morning’s reflections we learned about a new program of the Diocese of Massachusetts designed to help the church connect with this generation of young adults. The diocese has engaged and trained several “relationship evangelists” who seek out one-to-one encounters with young adults at Boston University, Harvard University and several communities around Boston. The evangelists are not seminary trained and not attached to a particular congregation. Their task is to talk with young adults about their passions and then to offer the church as a place where they might find support. Relationship evangelism has been underway for eight months now, and the first goal is to invite 200 young adults to hear theologian and evangelist Brian McLaren this coming Saturday. The whole point is to meet young adults where they are and to hear from them about what they care about. It’s about taking the church out of itself and into the world – and it’s obviously very different for traditional evangelism. All of us took part in short exercise sharing our passions with our neighbor to help us get a feel for the work. I wondered how we might use relationship evangelism in the Diocese of Maine.
Our visit to Grace Church, Bath, fell on the day after the February meeting of the Diocesan Council in the same place. Because of that coincidence, I was able to meet with the Rector, Michael Ambler, on Saturday and to undertake a thorough review of the life and ministry of Grace Church. On Sunday morning, Gretchen and I drove to Bath as the temperatures rose in the first real thaw of the winter. By the time we arrived, everything was dripping.
I met first with the Vestry and clergy. We had a lively conversation about the ministry and finances of Grace Church, and, particularly, about the ongoing efforts to reach out to the community. We also talked about the tensions in the Anglican Communion and the ongoing work of the Episcopal Church in wrestling with the full participation of all our members.
After the Vestry meeting I had the opportunity to talk with a long time member of the parish who was choosing to be received into the Episcopal Church. The rite for confirmation, reaffirmation and reception is designed to give baptized members of the Episcopal Church the opportunity to renew their commitment to the baptized life at significant times of transition in their lives. The authors of the rite envisioned the possibility that faithful people might renew and confirm their baptismal vows at the time of marriage, the birth of a child, transition to a new job or community, retirement, death of a partner, etc. This was an occasion when the parishioner desired to renew and strengthen her commitment, and I was glad to encourage her in that decision.
The service was a joyous occasion. The music was wonderful. For those who haven’t been to Grace, it’s a contemporary, open space with seating in an arc of about 150 degrees. And floating serenely above, the good ship Mary Ann. I couldn’t find Gretchen in the congregation and looked up to discover her singing in the choir, blue robes and all. Great fun for her and the choir!
My visit ended with conversation with Grace’s curate, Martha Kirkpatrick, about her internship at Grace and possible next steps. Then Gretchen and I returned home through the mild, wet afternoon.
We began our visit to Christ Church, Gardiner, with a parish breakfast and a conversation with Grand Pa. Grand Pa is a muppet-like figure who lives in the pulpit and speaks to the children before each 10 am service. Rector Jack Fles says Grand Pa has been speaking with the kids for nearly thirteen years! This morning we talked about the Bishop’s vestments, particularly the miter, and his crozier. Grand Pa had a cold this morning and his voice was raspy, but his wit was lively. I’m not sure who had more fun – me or the children.
The worship that followed was joyous with both the choir and Christ Church Unplugged leading our singing and offering praise. After the service we joined for a reception. At both breakfast and the reception, members of the congregation asked questions about the recession and the future of the church.
Of particular interest was the recent meeting held for nine congregations in the greater Augusta region. I had invited the clergy and wardens of the congregations to come together on Saturday, January 24, to talk about the possibilities for shared ministry in the region. There was no planned outcome, just a hope to share common strengths and concerns and to identify possibilities for collaboration. The meeting was lively and enthusiastic, and we ended the day with a long list of possibilities. The participants are now sharing their experiences with the leaders of their congregations, and we will consult together about next steps. For their part, the people at Christ Church are eager to explore possibilities for working together with others to strengthen their ministries.
After the reception, I met with the vestry for a conversation about the life of Christ Church. While finances are a concern, a greater concern is to reach out to a new generation of church goers and to find creative ways to extend hospitality to the visitors who come through their door.
Our visit ended with lunch at the rectory. Gretchen and I joined with the Fles family and Deacon Gary Drinkwater for delicious soup and delightful family conversation. A great visit to the Mother Church of our diocese.
I’d been waiting for a Sunday when the winter weather would test our ability to make a visitation. And one finally came. We visited St. Philip’s, Wiscasset, on January 18. A major storm was expected and, as Gretchen and I drove north from Portland the caution warnings were lit and the pavement was slippery. Snow was falling heavily when we arrived, and I wondered for a moment if we, the wardens and the organist would be the congregation. But the members of St. Philip’s turned out in force for the service.
St. Philip’s has just begun the transition process. The rector departed early in January and the congregation is considering next steps. As always in small communities, the issue of finances looms large. But the spirit is good and the ministries of St. Philip’s are strong. The worship, held in the parish hall to reduce heating costs, was lively, the singing robust. After the service I had the opportunity to tour St. Philip’s extensive clothing ministry in the parish hall basement.
Because the weather continued to deteriorate, conversation after the service was briefer than usual. And I would be back during the week to speak with the vestry. The drive home was truly an adventure of blowing snow, poor visibility and snow clogged roads. But the joys of the morning kept us warm ’til we arrived back home.
In the Diocese of Maine it is customary for a new bishop to send a formal photograph portrait, suitable for display, to each congregation. Never before, however, have the members of the Diocese had the opportunity to weigh in on which photograph should be chosen. Bishop Lane has picked his favorites from a choice of eight and now we invite you to make the call. Please resist the urge to vote more than once.
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.
I had no formal visitation this past Sunday. Instead I participated in two special events that testify to the vitality of our ministry in Maine.
On Sunday morning, Gretchen and I joined with the vicar and people of St. Nicholas, Scarborough, in the Celebration of a New Ministry. St. Nicholas’ has been on a remarkable journey this past year. Burdened by the debt for their new and beautiful worship space, there had been times when some questioned the congregation’s vitality. But with the loving leadership of Vicar Eckart Horn, St. Nicholas’ has experienced genuine renewal. We celebrated that renewal in a service that focused on the renewal of baptismal vows. (I just love the opportunity to get people wet!)
A fine sermon was preached by the Rev. Ron Baard, a Reform pastor and CPE colleague of Eckart’s. The congregation presented and shared symbols of ministry througout the service. Since it was Sunday morning, children assisted with the Advent wreath. And, for good measure, we blessed a roomful of new chairs (already fully blessed by their use). The chairs, replacing green plastic lawn chairs, were the gift of a grateful parishioner.
In the afternoon we journeyed to St. Stephen the Martyr in Waterboro for the ordination of Kit Wang to the priesthood. Kit has been serving St. Stephen’s since her ordination to the transitional diaconate in June. Her ordination was an eagerly-awaited occasion, and St. Stephen’s was packed to the rafters. There was good support from diocesan clergy and the congregation despite somewhat hazardous travel caused by the ice storm. The Rev. Suzanne Poulin preached a thought-provoking sermon, Kit’s son Jesse served as crucifer, and Kit was ordained with the enthusiastic affirmation of all present. She was vested in a beautiful stole and chasuble crafted by Challwood Studios, who also made my vestments. Our time ended with a great feast, and I understand the ham came from one of Kit’s pigs!
Occasions like these are very different than my regular visitations. The focus is on the larger life of the church, the diocese, and the way that life connects with congregations. This kind of vitality is essential if our congregations are to flourish. A celebration of new ministry lifts up the success of a transition process that is shared by congregation and diocese. And an ordination brings to conclusion a process of discernment and formation that benefits both a congregation and the whole church. Hopefully the energy of these occasions reverberates in the growing vitality of the congregations.
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.