2010 Convention Eucharist Sermon by Bishop Price
Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh
October 16, 2010
John 15:20-16:1

Last year, the Eucharist at Diocesan Convention was at the end of the day and within it was the ordination of Linda Wilson to the Sacred Order of Deacons. Bishop Johnson preached his farewell sermon after ten happy months as your assisting bishop. At the end of the service, he handed the pastoral staff to me and there has not been a single moment of regret for either Mariann or me. We believe we are in the midst of a new day for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and are delighted to be part of it.

In my written report in your Pre-Convention booklet, I recounted much of the activity that has occupied my time this past year. In my address last night, I offered a perspective on where I believe the diocese is now. And so, in this sermon, I will not repeat either of those summaries. Rather, I invite you to join with me in reflecting briefly on the individuals commemorated this day, and then on the Gospel lesson chosen for this Lesser Feast, with an eye to how it speaks to us today.

Let’s begin with a short excursion through history.

Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley lived in tumultuous times in the church. The Diocese of Pittsburgh has had its share of tumult the past couple of years, and I do not want to dismiss that, but compared to the church of the mid-sixteenth century, our tumult was but a burp.

These three men were all bishops and men of extraordinary faith. They were loyal to King Henry VIII in a time when church and state were so intertwined that when the king sneezed, the bishops wiped their noses.

Ridley and Latimer, bishops in their own right, were strong supporters of Cranmer, who served faithfully Henry VIII and his son and successor, Edward VI. Cranmer, as archbishop, had a free hand in reforming the worship, doctrine, and practice of the Church and was responsible for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and its first revision in 1552. It is said that though Ridley and Latimer had a conservative bent, they were supportive of the reforms of the time. When Edward died, they followed his wishes of promoting that succession go to Lady Jane Grey, thus keeping the protestant flavor of religion in England. Unfortunately, this would have departed from the normal succession of passing the crown on to Edward’s oldest sister, the Roman Catholic Mary. While Henry or Edward would have rewarded their loyalty, there is, after all, English tradition. For reasons more political than holy, Mary was crowned and sent all three to the stake for their treason. Thus was the civil and religious life of the time was so intertwined.

After Mary’s death, when Elizabeth ascended the throne, many of the reforms of Cranmer’s time were restored and enhanced, and the Church in England truly became the Church of England. Today, we are the inheritors of all that, and like our English ancestors, cherish our traditions.

We tend to think of Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer as heroes of the faith. Indeed, their work in helping to shape the Church of England is very important. And yet, Henry, whom they served primarily, must get mixed reviews. As a human being, history tells us he was no moral guide. He certainly will never receive a husband of the year reward from the English Family Association. Yet still, these three bishops were loyal to him and when his son, Edward, tried to rewrite the rules of succession, they supported him. Their reward for that loyalty was a nasty end to their lives.

Now let’s move from history to Scripture.

It is interesting to note the Gospel lesson chosen to be read on this feast day. There is a lesson in it for these figures from centuries long ago — and for us today.

John quotes Jesus when he says, “Remember the word that I said to you. Servants are not greater than their master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you, if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.”

Who is our Master? It is no less than Jesus himself. My reading of history tells me that Henry’s greatest fault was that he often put himself, not Jesus, at the center of his life. But before we throw too many stones, we need to reflect how often we do likewise. When people fall flat, it is usually because they have put their own desires, passions or wants before those of the Master. Oh, there may be moments of temporary glory, but hardly ever is it lasting. When nations, or even dioceses, run in to trouble, it is often because the leaders have mistaken their own positions for that of the Master. And humans can only maintain that spotless center for so long until it all comes crashing down.

At this Convention, we will be considering a resolution that will, in eighteen short months, lead to the election of the next Bishop of Pittsburgh. It is a solemn and holy task that we will be about. Before names are ever considered, a profile committee will gather from everyone in the diocese data on how they see this diocese and just what kind of person you, the people of this diocese, want for your next bishop. Unless I am way off the mark, I suspect high on the list will be the following: We want a person of God, a person who is spiritually directed and a person of prayer. In other words, you want a person who knows they are not greater than their master, and who continually looks to the master for guidance, and who will lead the people of this diocese to a stronger relationship with the Master.

The Gospel goes on with more instructions but then it ends powerfully. Jesus says “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the father, the spirit of truth, he will testify on my behalf.”

We all know that at Pentecost, the Advocate came as a mighty rushing wind and overwhelmed all who had come to be baptized. Now today, every time someone is baptized, that same Spirit is present and imparted to the one who is baptized.

We who are of the community of faith called the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh have received that Spirit at our own baptism and it dwells among us. Now, as we face the huge task of choosing from among God’s ordained servants one to serve as the next bishop, it would be blasphemous if we turned our backs on that Spirit and let anything other than choosing a person who is truly a person of God dictate our priorities for the choice we will make.

That means couching our entire process in prayer. Today all of you will be given a prayer to use daily, certainly at every public gathering, for the next eighteen months to connect us to the Advocate whom Jesus has sent to us. We must make that clear connection stronger than Verizon, Sprint and AT&T all together. It must not be broken or interrupted.

Now the devil is a crafty being, and he will try to derail this process by substituting human, selfish pursuits in place of Godly ones. He will try to turn this process into a political adventure and will implant impure and suspicious thoughts into the heads of us, leading us to seek ulterior motives in the actions of our brothers and sisters. WE MUST RESIST THIS TEMPTATION AT ALL COSTS. And the way to do so is, of course, remembering who our Master is, and seeking always first the direction of the Advocate for all we do.

And lest we fear we are not up to the task, let us take heart in the last phrase of our Gospel for today, “I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling.”

I do not think it was an accident that we were given this gospel for this Convention. It certainly is appropriate as we launch our bishop search, but it is also appropriate as we go about the normal day-to-day duties of continuing to rebuild the diocese while we look for the next bishop. There is a lot of other work to be done as well. But we will accomplish it all and all will be well.

There is a reason that in spite of all that has happened to us we are OK – no, more than OK — we are God-centered. It is because we do not depart from keeping Jesus as the center of our being, and from, in the end, always following the Spirit.

I, as your provisional bishop, am humbled daily by the sacrificial nature of the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. But just when I start to get puffed up over the job we are all doing together, I read a lesson like our Gospel today and it all becomes clear. We are who we are because we are led by the Spirit, and secure in that fact, WE WILL NOT STUMBLE.

May God continue to bless us all.

 

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