A story from one of the parishes of the continuing Diocese of Fort Worth.
All Saints/Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Wichita Falls, Texas
Third Sunday after Epiphany 2009
Homily by Dr. Mildred Gore Lancaster
They tell me that one of the things that priests do when they prepare a homily is to look for a common thread that runs through the readings. I am guessing that one of the ways that they find a common thread is through looking at the scriptures in light of whatever is going on in their faith communities. This week, even a child could see the threads in light of what is going on in our faith community.
The two threads that I found are 1) discerning what God wants us to do, and 2) giving up comfortable, beloved places and ways of doing things, leaving them behind, and following Him.
First we have the story of Jonah. God originally says to Jonah, “Go to Ninevah and tell them to repent or I will destroy them.” Jonah didn’t want to go because he hated the Ninevites and wanted them destroyed. He hopped a boat to escape from God, but when God caused a great storm, the angry sailors threw Jonah overboard. However, instead of letting Jonah drown, the story goes that God had a big fish swallow him up and deposit him on the land three days later. God then said, “Jonah, I told you to go to Ninevah and warn the Ninevites.” This time, Jonah did as he was told, but he didn’t like it. The story goes on, but for me, I think for us, the important things are 1) that God spoke to Jonah, and 2) God made Jonah get up from his comfortable life and go elsewhere and do something new.
Likewise, in the reading from Corinthians, the message for me, I think for us, is that times are changing quickly, and we have to be ready to move. Something new is afoot. And for us as AS/GS, something new is certainly afoot.
Finally, in the Gospel reading, Simon and Andrew were fishing when along came Jesus and said, “Follow me.” And Simon and Andrew threw down their nets and followed. Then Jesus saw James and John, the sons of Zebedee mending their nets in the boat, and he called them to follow him, and they left their nets and their father and followed Jesus.
So the two messages I hear in these three readings are that God speaks to us and that sometimes God tells us that we have to get up, and leave places we love, and follow him.
So what do those messages say to us today as AS/GS?
First, they say that we have to listen for God’s voice, and then they say that once again, we have to get up and leave what has become comfortable and go somewhere else to something new.
Let’s talk about listening for God’s voice. The stories go that in the Old Testament days, God spoke to the prophets in an audible voice from the sky. Certainly, Jesus spoke in an audible voice. But in these days, we have to use discernment to hear God’s voice. We listen not with our outer ears, but with our minds and our hearts. We pray, we contemplate, we read the Bible, we study, we talk together with others whom we trust, and together we use reason to discern what God is saying to us.
And in that way, God has spoken this week to the people of AS/GS. And what he has said to us is this: “It is now time to leave this place at First Presbyterian that I have given you for a while.”
We heard God’s voice when we received an email from a fellow Episcopalian this week telling us that a small but vocal minority of members of this lovely church have formed a committee to have us “evicted.” In fact, they are scheduled to meet before The Session (the Presbyterian’s version of a vestry) day after tomorrow. Their concern is that we welcome gay people to be full members of our faith community.
And they are right; we definitely welcome gay people as full members of our faith community. And we welcome straight people, black people and white people and people of every hue between, tall people and short people, people who listen to Fox News and those who listen to NPR. We welcome the literati and the illiterate, single teenage moms and traditional families, Norwegians and Nepalese, people who speak only English and people who speak no English at all. We welcome every single person whom God has made to God’s table.
After we received this email, the members of the AS/GS vestry quickly convened by email and telephone to try to discern what God would have us do. By our corporate reason, we discerned God’s voice telling us that it is time to move. Who knows better than we, the members of AS/GS, the heartache of a church divided, and we do not believe that God wants us, by our presence, to cause division in this church.
Now please understand that this is a only a small group of people who want us to leave. Dr. Butterworth, the senior pastor, tells us that as many people love us being here and have gone to him to tell him so, as there are people who want us to leave. And understand that he and the assistant pastor are deeply saddened about this turn of events. They both told me that they had hoped that we would never hear about the people objecting to our presence, and that the problem would quietly go away. But it has not gone away, and we do not believe that God wants us to cause a division in this church.
So we believe that God is speaking to us and telling us that it is time to go.
“But where?” That is the question that the vestry members were asking each other Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; the telephone lines and email were burning up. Some of us were panicky. All of us were immensely sad, as I know all of you are, both at the knowledge that we had caused pain in this dear congregation, and at the prospect of leaving this lovely worship space that we have so quickly grown to love. But we discerned that we had heard God’s voice, and that if we followed, he would provide for us, although we did not know how.
And provide for us is exactly what God did.
You may remember that last week in our Order of Service, newsletter, and announcements, our Verger, JD, urged us to go to the ecumenical Service of Prayer for Christian Unity Friday night at Trinity Lutheran Church. JD and Don and I went to represent AS/GS, and lo and behold, the pastor giving the sermon told the congregation that she was the chaplain at United Regional Health Care. After the service, we were going to ask her about using the chapel at the 11th street campus (the old Bethania) when another pastor told JD that it had been dismantled when the nuns left.
When we got to talk to the hospital chaplain, Susan Lanford, she confirmed that 11th Street no longer had a chapel, but said that the 8th Street campus, the old General Hospital, did. We told her that we were AS/GS Episcopal Church who were remaining in The Episcopal Church USA, and that we had lost our buildings to the people and priests who had left our denomination. We told her that two Lutheran churches and the Christian Church had refused us a place to worship, and now we needed to leave First Pres because our presence was creating conflict in their congregation. We asked her if we could temporarily use the hospital chapel to worship. She lit up like the Star of the East on Epiphany. She said that she was delighted to have us worship there. She said that this is what the Service of Prayer for Christian Unity was all about. We asked her whom we had to see to get permission to use the chapel, and she said, “You’re looking at her. I’m the person in charge of the chapel, and you may begin using it and continue using it as soon, and as long as you wish.”
We were speechless. Then we asked her, “By the way, what’s your denomination?” She said, “Southern Baptist.” I nearly fainted.
A Southern Baptist woman pastor, in a Lutheran parish, at an ecumenical service, giving a bunch of homeless, rejected Episcopalians a place to worship. Who but God could conceive of such a thing? Who but God could cause it to happen?
And if JD hadn’t publicized the event, if the three of us had not gone to the service to pray for Christian unity that bitter cold night, if our minds had drifted off during the two seconds that Susan Lanford introduced herself as the hospital chaplain, if we had heard her say that she was Southern Baptist and so had not dared to ask her to use the chapel, if she had been the typical Texas Southern Baptist pastor, if, if, if, we would not have asked, and she would not have given us her blessings to use the chapel.
When we got back home that night, by telephone and email, we spread the word among the vestry, who discerned that this gift was from God. That this was a message from God that said, Go to a new place and do something new. Follow me.
But that’s not all. God continued speaking to us, and in an even more direct and personal way.
On Saturday morning, our Verger JD went to see the chapel and discovered something amazing. Later, our Senior Warden, Owanah, and I went to see the chapel and discovered something amazing.
Oh, yes, we fell in love with the chapel immediately. It had a movable altar, a place to kneel at communion, little primitive stain glass windows, and even a small organ. We loved it and felt that God was calling us there. But any doubts we had were blown away when we were leaving. On the wall at the back of the chapel near the door was a beautiful crucifix. We stopped to admire it. And to read the brass plate below it. That was when we knew that God was speaking to us, that He was telling us that it was time to leave First Pres, and that this chapel was where He would have us go. How did we discern this? Because the plaque underneath the crucifix had the following words: Given in memory of Sydney Gaines, December 1990, by All Saints Episcopal Church.
Our name and our crucifix on the wall. Our name and our crucifix on the wall. Our name and our crucifix on the wall. How much more clearly could God speak to us?
So like Jonah, and the Corinthians, and like Simon and Andrew, James and John the sons of Zebedee, if you, too, discern that God has spoken to AS/GS, and if you, too, discern that he has told us that it is time to go and that he has prepared a place for us, then we of AS/GS will be obedient, and go we shall with joyful hearts and love for the members of this dear congregation of First Presbyterian who gave us shelter for a while on our journey.