Trinity Cathedral 10/16/09
It is an honor and a privilege to be with you this evening on the eve of the 144st Annual Convention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. You know far better than I that this diocese has been through hard times. Less than half of the clergy, congregations and laity that made up this diocese two years ago gather for this Convention. Sadly, such a scenario is not unique to the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Brother and sister clergy and laity whose friendships run deep and long stand on opposite sides of church loyalty. Harsh words have been spoken and bruised feelings are still raw. Even though the healing has started this past year, there are is still a long way to go.
Although one would think it odd, controversy has never been a stranger to the church. Few better examples of that can be found than the three historical figures whose feast we celebrate in this service tonight.
Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were giants of the English Church in the time of the great Reformation. They were colleagues and supporters of one another. Cranmer, we all know, was primarily responsible for the first book of Common Prayer and its first revision. He worked with the Lutheran reformers on the continent and cast his lot squarely with Henry the VIII, reforming the worship, doctrine and practice of the Church in Henry’s time. Although he was very loyal to Henry, this led to his undoing when the Roman Catholic Mary came to the throne. Under her hand he was arrested, deprived, degraded, imprisoned and killed before her sister and his goddaughter, Elizabeth, ever had the chance to ascend to the throne and reveres the atmosphere that had gripped England.
Ridley and Latimer were contemporary bishops to Cranmer. Strong supporters of the reforms led by Creamer, they preached against the abuses in the Church and immorality among the clergy and people. This led to them also, in the time of Queen Mary, to be arrested, imprisoned and ultimately burned at the stake.
It is not easy when one speaks out against the prevailing authority, and especially when that authority combines both secular and ecclesiastical power. Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley supported reform, but when faced with a queen who opposed those things, they paid the ultimate price.
As hard as it has been for many of you here in Pittsburgh to find yourselves in opposition to your former bishop . . . or at least to the direction in which he has gone, . . . praise God we no longer live in an age in which those in opposition are burned at the stake . . .not that fear of that would have made what you have gone through, and are still to a certain extent, any easier. If fact, given that the opposition for some is not necessarily in his beliefs as much as his actions, it may even be harder.
And so what comfort can be found in all this? I am a firm believer that Scripture hold the key to all of life’s issues and so to answer that question I invite you to go with me for a few moments into the Scripture passage from John that made up our second lesson for this service. When faced with hard times, what are we to believe, how are we to act, what have we to hope for?
Jesus says in this passage "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin." As Christians we constantly struggle with sin. It is part of our human nature. If we did we not know Christ, we would not recognize sin. Sin is rampant in our world. We find it in self aggrandizement, in the quest for power, in judgementalism and in arrogance. These very human tendencies are part of human nature – all of our human nature – and at times even held in esteem by the secular world whose standards are the standards of Christ. But such sin is a part of our humanity that Christ came to expose. He tells us in no uncertain terms that these things grieve God and showed us the way that God wants us to walk .
Yes, Jesus does not stop at just exposing sin. He also provides for us the remedy for sin. It is human nature when confronted with the sinfulness that bombards us, to want to return “tit for tat”. But Jesus provides a better way. He points us to forgiveness in order that we can turn our own lives around and deal with our own sin, rather than focusing on the sins of others.
Now the key to doing this is to focus our lives on Christ, and not on the sinfulness of humanity. A commentator on this passage points out that “there are not many who are actively hostile to Christ, but here are still many who live their lives as if Christ had never come, and who simply disregard Him..” We can avoid this pitfall by making sure that Christ is always the center of our life. If our lives are full of Christ, there will be no room for us to hate others who may not be Christ-like . . . or for us to be un-Christ-like ourselves.
How do we do this? The answer is simple, and yet hard. At our baptism, we were all given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The truth that we have received that spirit is simple. But how we receive and witness to that Spirit is the hard part. In our lesson for tonight Jesus states it thusly. “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes form the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify . . . “
Witnessing, testifying, to the Holy Spirit means kicking our life up a notch, so to speak, so that in all we say and do and think, we reflect the love and forgiveness that Jesus has taught us. It means not promoting self, and not judging others. It means loving, not hating. It means seeking ways to serve, not to exalt ourselves. It means putting self promotion second to lifting up those who come seeking Christ in their own lives.
But this is not always easy. Frankly people often tick us off, disappoint us and try our patience. There will be times when we will fail and fall short of the glory of God. We are, after all, human. But failure does not have to be the last word. There is always room for repentance. In order to allow us to bounce back from those times we need the fellowship, intimacy and support of each other. That is what the fellowship of Christ is all about.
As we seek to build back up this diocese, we need the support of each other and we need to work hard to maintain and build up that fellowship, with Christ as the head.
I believe it is already happening, and will continue if we only:
– continue faithful in our prayers and witness;
– be open to being taught by Jesus Christ whose work we constantly seek to study,
– and upheld by the Spirit which he has sent to us all.
If we do these things, then God’s will for us will prevail and the community will increase.
That is exactly what I hope will be the mark of our time together in the days that lie ahead.
Why is this so important? The answer is found in the last verse of our Scripture this evening. Jesus says, “I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling.”
If we can keep from stumbling too much, and stay on the path that Jesus has carved out for us, I believe there is no limit to what we can achieve for God here in this part of God’s vineyard that we call the Diocese of Pittsburgh.