A Sunday at the Cathedral

Although I’ve been to the Cathedral many times, for many different events, this past Sunday was my first visitation.

Cathedrals, in the Anglican Church, have always been “big tents.” In addition to being the place where the bishop had his chair (cathedra), cathedrals were also community gathering places, places where the whole community or various sub-groups of the community could come together for celebration, mourning, education and conversation. That tradition has continued in the Episcopal Church as Episcopal Cathedrals have played host to earth day gatherings, presidential burials, symphony concerts and circuses. I’m proud that the Cathedral Church of St. Luke is part of that tradition, opening its doors to the whole diocese and the wider Portland community.

The morning started early with a gathering of seven candidates for confirmation, reaffirmation and reception. After a brief rehearsal we talked together about what drew them to the Episcopal Church and what inspired them to reaffirm their baptismal vows. Over and over again, I heard the words “welcome,” “inclusion,” “family,” and “support.” Despite the high ceilings of the Cathedral, there is a sense of extended family in which each feels a strong sense of place.

Then, after a brief gathering song with the Children’s Church, I met with the Adult Forum for an hour of questions about the life of the diocese and the Episcopal Church. Some of the best questions came from some high schoolers who asked about divisions in the Anglican Communion and wondered aloud about “normative Anglicanism.” It was a good opportunity to talk about what makes us Anglicans and how the Episcopal Church fits within that understanding.

The worship service was festive in the best tradition of the Cathedral – processions, incense and special music. (I think I’m getting better at swinging the thurible – the incense pot.) As she often does when she has the chance, Gretchen sang with the Cathedral choir.

Following the service, Gretchen and I joined the Vestry for a relaxed time of fellowship at the home of the Dean, Ben Shambaugh. We talked some business, but also had a chance for informal conversation.

Then it was back to the Cathedral for an interfaith service of prayer for the people of Haiti. Canon Carolyn Coleman had worked with a small group of ministers from the Portland area to design the service. Prayers were offered in three traditions: Christian (Catholic and Protestant), Jewish and Muslim. Several ministers from each tradition were present to offer prayers for the dead, for the suffering, and for rescue workers. Each section was opened with a time of silence and ended with the reading of poetry. Bishop Knudsen ended the service with a benediction in French.

It was after 5 pm when Gretchen and I headed home. It had been a full day, rich with celebration and prayer; the Cathedral living out its vocation.

+Steve

In the midst of death, life will emerge

Sermon preached by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane, Bishop of Maine
Epiphany 3 – January 24, 2010
Cathedral of St. Luke, Portland

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

Like many of you, I’ve spent much of the last two weeks reflecting on my belief in God and on the nature of Christian hope. The seemingly inexhaustible horror of a magnitude 7 earthquake near Port au Prince, Haiti, has left something like 3,000,000 Haitians refugees in their own land. 1.5 million are homeless. All need water and food and medical care. Because most goods and services reach Haiti through Port au Prince, the whole country is at risk. As people flee the city, they take their needs, their hunger, to regions that have few resources to help. Television dissects the disaster in excruciating detail.

Observers have complained about the slowness of relief efforts, the lack of leadership and coordination, but the truth is that this is the greatest disaster to occur in one place at one time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even if the world does the very best it can, it is an open question if the world can feed, clothe and house 1.5 to 3 million people on a daily basis for months to come. In the face of such a disaster, words fail. The only appropriate response is a deep sense of grief: grief for the dead, grief for the injured, grief for the loss and devastation, grief for those we know, grief for those known only to God. And it is no surprise if we wonder about the love of God.

What we’re talking about is called, in theology, the problem of theodicy. Simply stated, in the face of disaster, God is either incapable of acting and is therefore impotent, or God chooses not to act and is therefore indifferent to human suffering. An all-powerful and loving God would not permit such a disaster. As I read the press and blogs, pundits everywhere are pointing either to irrelevance of faith in God or looking for some way to explain why God might want to punish the Haitians.

But such an understanding of belief, in particular, of Christian belief, rests on the theological speculations of fourth century theologians, early fathers of the faith, whose view of the cosmos and knowledge of science was very different from our own. In the fourth century, many things that we now understand as naturally caused were ascribed to God’s actions. It was an easy step to theologize that God caused and controlled everything.

Yet if we look to our Holy Book, there is nothing in scripture that suggests that God was or is able to prevent people from experiencing the consequences of living in a real world. Indeed, most of scripture is an extended reflection on how to live with the pain and the suffering of life in a real world.

The fact is that God created an ordered and predictable universe. Scientists have been working for centuries to understand that order. But with or without science, we can usually predict what will happen in our world. We can predict what will happen if we step off a cliff or in front of a bus. We know what will happen if we build homes on a flood plan or a fault line. We know what will happen if building codes are inadequate or there’s too much sand in the concrete. We know what will happen if we put a lot of people in a place with too little water or food. The world that God created is open to us and allows us to learn about it and to grow and organize our lives so as to live better.

And in this ordered world things collide – tectonic plates, weather systems, people and objects, ideologies, and nations – and when they do the consequences are predictable and often destructive. The Bible is the story of a people who conquered Palestine and then were themselves conquered over and over again. They saw their cities and their temple destroyed. They were carried off into exile. They were restored by foreign powers. They rebuilt their cities and their communities. Then they were conquered and nearly taxed into oblivion by the Roman Empire. And through it all, scripture says, God was with them.

Our faith is not that God will protect us from life in God’s ordered and predictable world. Our faith is that in the midst of that life God is with us to help us endure and to encourage us to live in ways that are closer to God’s intentions. The question for us is how do we connect more deeply to that life, how do we live more in tune with God’s intentions?

For the exiles returning from Babylon to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and restore the Temple, it was the keeping of the Law of Moses. Indeed the physical walls were a symbol of the wall created by the Law. The Law was the gift of God through Moses to God’s people. It gave the people an identity and an ethic, a way of life. Keeping the Law kept the people in touch with God’s intentions and distinguished them from those who lived outside the walls.

Paul doesn’t speak of a walled community, but he does speak, in equally concrete terms, of a body. The Christian community is like a human body, and all who are parts of the body have a role. People have many different gifts, but all can be used and, in the context of the body, none is superior to any other. Being part of the body connects us with Christ and distinguishes us from those who are not part of the body.

But the question remains… is this connection with God enough. Can it give us hope? What about being a walled city or a body can give us hope?

An answer, I think, is found in our Gospel. Those who have the Spirit of the Lord, who obey God’s law, who join with Jesus in fulfilling God’s intentions for the world, proclaim good news, freedom and recovery. They proclaim a world in which every person is part of God’s jubilee, the shalom, the harmony, which God intends for the cosmos. And they and God are working right now to make it happen.

This past Wednesday, the eighth day after the quake, I watched as a search and rescue team from New York freed a young girl and her little brother from the rubble of their home. As the young boy was raised from a hole in the ground his face broke into a huge grin and his arms were flung open wide in a spontaneous expression of the victory of life. At the joy of this rescue, all gathered broke into a roar and applause. That, for me, is our hope: not that the world will suddenly become magical, not that we will no longer suffer the predictable consequences of life in our world, but that, in the midst of death, life will emerge again. And we will have a chance, again, to live in harmony with God and one another. That’s the Good News – that God brings life from death and we can share in that life.

In just a few minutes we will renew our baptismal covenant with those who are confirming or reaffirming their baptismal vows. And we will commit ourselves again to work with God to bring life from death, to be signs ourselves, of the hope that is in us. Will it make our lives easier? No… Indeed, it may make them harder. Will it make our lives safer? No… it may prompt us to take great risks. But it will align us with the One whose will is to free and to heal and to recover. It will join us with God in God’s hope for the world. It will join us to a world in which the lives of 3,000,000 Haitians are essential to the harmony of our own lives. It will join us to a world in which new life rises from a hole in the ground. May it be so. Amen.

participants at the interfaith service for Haiti
Members of Maine's Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities and civic leaders gathered at the Cathedral of St. Luke on Sunday, January 24, for an Interfaith Prayer Service.

Deacons: Teaching Us to See Need

Ordination Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen Lane
June 20, 2009
Cathedral of St. Luke, Portland, Maine

Jeremiah 1:4-9; Psalm 119:33-40; Acts 6:2-7; Luke 22:24-27

When I served in parish ministry one of my favorite services was the service of Maundy Thursday with its agape supper and foot-washing. There is a simplicity and directness to the service I found very appealing. The message is eat and drink and be like Jesus, and even very young children could grasp it. We held the service in the parish dining hall where spilling water wouldn’t be a problem. The children loved that part. Making a mess was part of the liturgy, and a grown up got down and washed your feet! Too cool!

The foot washing was never really popular. I think it grew to maybe 30 people over the years. There was always a particular awkwardness to the foot washing. I always found myself a little flushed afterwards. I discovered that no one thinks they have nice feet. And a lot of people actually have club toes and messed up toenails. There’s a kind of reversal of the expected social order. And then there’s the whole matter of offering personal service, of treating someone’s unlovely feet with reverence. It’s recognition of an intimate, a sacred, a holy, connection with someone I don’t usually think of in that way. After a time, I came to see the awkwardness of the foot washing as the whole point: a reminder that social conventions are simply that – matters of arbitrary status – and a reminder that the service of Christ always involves relationships of love and care with other folks – folks who are all pretty much the same under their socks.

The early church made the connection between preaching Christ and serving Christ pretty early on – in fact, almost immediately. The apostles quickly discovered that there was more work to do then they could manage by themselves. They saw their primary responsibility as preaching the good news of the Jesus Christ crucified and risen. Yet they recognized their responsibility for what their preaching produced. Everywhere they went communities of believers sprang up. And those communities needed to be supported and organized, worship needed to be conducted, instruction needed to be offered. And then, in every community, there were those members who could not really care for themselves – who were poor or sick or old. The community needed to care for them.

Indeed, care for the widows and orphans soon became a major undertaking, so important and so time-consuming that the apostles needed help. And so the first servants of the church were chosen, the Magnificent Seven, who were given responsibility to care for weaker members of the community, to visit the sick, to prepare for worship.

And so, from the very earliest days, the church was marked by worship, by preaching and teaching, and by service. We now call the icons of Christ’s service deacons. Deacons represented Christ’s own service. Deacons represented and were emissaries of the bishop. Deacons shared the gifts of the community with the wider world.

But foot washing has never been all that popular in the church. As the church grew, the deacons were soon outnumbered by the elders, the leaders of the local communities, who represented the apostles in that place and led the services of worship. And over time, as the church embraced the trappings of empire, the offices of deacon, priest and bishop became hierarchical and serial. Eventually the diaconate became a stepping stone from the offices of acolyte and sub-deacon to the office of priest.  And it has remained that way until today. We still require priests to be transitional deacons before they may be ordained priests.

The recovery of baptism and the renewal of the diaconate both began in the Vatican II era in the mid 20th century. It’s probably no surprise that they’re linked because both movements are rooted in the conviction that the church is the body: the church is the body of Christ whose members carry the ministry of Christ to the world. And because that’s so, what happens outside the church is every bit as important as what happens inside the church. The renewal of the diaconate is helping us to recover our balance as a church, to rediscover the ancient balance of worship and service.

And perhaps, even more important, the diaconate is helping us recover our theological conviction that the purpose of the church is to help us grow up into Christ, to be like Jesus, to be like the one washing the feet. “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. I am among you as one who serves.”

To make direct, intimate human service the goal of the Christian life is awkward. It means to forego our usual notions of status and power. It means to recognize our essential equality as human beings and the need we all have or will have for such personal care. It means to acknowledge that someplace close to the heart of our faith is the necessity of putting the neighbor in first place. It means being like Jesus with all the risks he once faced.

The world desperately needs this humble service. We are confronted by so many intractable problems in the 21st century – global warming, religious fundamentalism, declining standards of living, poverty, air and water pollution – you make your own list. None of these problems will be solved unless we are willing to humbly wash our neighbor’s feet.

We in Maine have done a good job with the renewal of the diaconate. We have deacons serving in many communities. But we have much more to do because the goal is not to make a lot of deacons. The goal is to help the people of God be like Jesus. Deacons can be for us persons whose own ministries serve as examples of the ministries to which we are all called as servants of Christ. Deacons bring the needs of the world into the life of the church so that we can see and respond in the name of Christ. Deacons help us pray for the world, recruit and train us for service, organize us to do Christ’s work. There is no limit to the need and no limit to the possibilities for service.

These ordinations this morning give me hope… not because I think these deacons are a source of cheap labor for the church – I’ve given them specific instructions to resist that – not because I think they will help us solve our financial problems as an institution, but because I think they will call us to wash feet. The heart of our baptismal promise is to live a life that is faithful to the one who calls us, the one who sees us all as children of one family, the one who understands that we all have the same needs and the same hopes, the one who died for us that we might live for him and one another.

My prayer for you, my friends and colleagues, is that you will simply get on with it. That with our support you will plunge into the work that lies before you, that you will show us the opportunities for our own service and help us claim them, that you will makes us feel a little awkward, help us to see the world as it really is – help us to see all those feet out there in need of a good washing.

God grant you the will and the grace to accomplish the ministry God sets before you.

Amen.

A full morning and a more-than-full week

Today Gretchen and I visited the Cathedral of St. Luke in Portland. In honor of the Feast of St. Luke (Saturday), we used St. Luke propers. We had a full morning.

St. Luke's gathers at the font for baptisms
Gathering at the font for baptisms

The visit began with an adult forum, an opportunity for members of the Cathedral to engage with me in conversation. I began by sharing some of my impressions of the Lambeth Conference. That sparked a series of questions about the Anglican Communion, including questions about the Episcopal Church’s support for faithful Episcopalians in the Diocese of Pittsburgh and Fort Worth. I explained that the Episcopal Church consists of the faithful Episcopalians living in a geographic area. Although a number of Episcopalians have chosen to leave the Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh remains. Already faithful Episcoplians of the Diocese, with the support of the Presiding Bishop, are preparing for an Organizing Convention to elect new leadership. Although there will undoubtedly be litigation over property, the Episcopal Church will continue. A similar process will take place in Fort Worth and other places, if necessary.

The forum was followed by festive worship which included the baptisms of four persons: an infant, two teens and an adult. It was a great celebration of the community, accompanied as always by colorful pageantry and fine music.

Bishop Steve commissions volunteers
Bishop Steve commissions volunteers

The morning ended with a coffee hour and a special presentation in words and pictures of the life of St. Luke’s. A number of parishioners spoke movingly of their experience of the Cathedral and the reasons why they worship there and undertake the ministries they do. I concluded our time together by commissioning a large group of volunteers for their ministries.

Our visit to the Cathedral followed an up-and-down week. Having spent 30 hours in Maine General Hospital in Waterville during the week, it was great to spend Saturday and Sunday doing what I usually do. I also want to note that our experience at Maine General was the best hospital experience we have ever had. The staff, from the ER to the cardiac staff to the Nuclear Med staff to the housekeeper, were unfailingly attentive, responsive and kind. Our stay gave us more reasons to be glad we’re in Maine. I am happy to report that all tests came back negative and indicate that a recent change in medication may have been the cause of an episode of lightheadedness that sent me to the ER on Thursday. I will follow up with my regular physician. Gretchen and I are very thankful and greatly appreciate your prayers and concern.

+Stephen

photos by Nancy Mawhinney