Presiding Bishop's Sermon at St. Peter’s Memorial, Geneva, NY

June 1, 2008

Last Sunday Dick and I went to a church we hadn’t been to before. At the coffee hour afterward we spoke with a woman and her son, and heard some of their story. She has been a member of this congregation for some time, but the boy is a newer member. When I asked the boy, who looks younger than his 11 or 12 years, what he likes best about school, he said Spanish class. We exchanged a few words, and then his mother chimed in, saying that he likes to write, and he’s very good at it. His English class was asked to write a play, she said, and he got an A+ on his, one of only a handful of As in the whole class. She is clearly immensely proud of him, and wants him to know it. She went on to tell me, quietly, speaking in Spanish over his head, that she adopted this boy, son of her niece and her husband, after the husband killed the mother.

She was clearly telling me and her son and anyone nearby, in word and in the way she held her arms around this little boy, that grace is at work in his life, that he is well and abundantly loved even though he has known some of the worst of the world’s violence. His earlier life was lived on a pretty rocky beach, and only through some miracle of grace did he avoid being washed out to sea in that violence. In the last few years, he’s been learning, through the love of a mother, and the intertwined communities of church, parish school, and diocesan summer camp, that grace can trump the world’s violence and meanness. Together, they’re building him a new house a lot farther from the surf.

That new house won’t protect him from all the world’s disasters in the years to come, but it will offer him a foundation strong enough to support him through life’s storms. These Christian communities are offering him what they know of salvation – surpassing love, known in human flesh.

This very building, and the community it nurtures, was born of the same conviction – that God’s love, known in human action, can change the world, one person at a time. This community began here in the 1850s with education – both of future priests and of children in Sunday school. James Rankine was called here to nurture both enterprises, and in the late 1860s organized the building of this church, as well as its funding (though it’s noted that the women of the church funded the building of the tower!). He also served as president of Hobart College, all during a time when he and his wife lost four children. As your history notes, “Dr. Rankine’s mission in life was to sow the seeds of goodness, of kindness, of love, of charity, and of Christianity.”[i] His response to all that loss was insistence that God’s love be known in concrete ways that supported children and young people.

What I’ve learned about Neighbors’ Night tells me that that kind of work continues to this day, providing loving community for children, reminding them that they are loved beyond measure, and that they have gifts to develop and share with the world around them. The service many of us participated in yesterday, to bless and welcome your new bishop, asked several dozens of people to offer their gifts. Your own choirs were an integral part of leading worship. So were two children who played a beautiful piece on piano and cello. A young man delivered a powerful reading of Frederick Douglas’ writing. Other children and young people sailed banners, twirled kites, offered bread, and entertained us all with rock music. All of them have learned their important place in the community through the love and nurture of larger communities like this one.

Building those communities that love, support, and work to transform the bad news of this world is what salvation is about. The stout house on the rock is built of living stones like those gathered here this morning. When Jesus says that crying “Lord, Lord” is not enough, he’s reminding us that words and formulas, however holy, are not going to build the reign of God in our midst. Desmond Tutu put it even more graphically when I heard him recently.[ii] He said, ‘God is not going to feed the hungry by showering them with pizzas and hamburgers from heaven, or clothe the naked with celestial Levis.’ That work is up to us. It’s not just a matter of putting our money where our mouths are, though that can be vitally important, but often of putting our hands and hearts out there. Our salvation depends on it.

That word, salvation, comes from the same root as words for health and holiness and healing. Our part in God’s mission is repairing the broken world, bringing the hurt and torn parts together in a whole that blesses not only those parts, but others far beyond. Communities like this one are meant to become fountains of blessing for the world around them. Salvation is not just about me – it cannot be solitary or individual work in God’s economy. We are only saved together, because until all of us are healed, none of us will be. While people starve and die in the Irawaddy Delta or in New Orleans or central China, the whole family of God’s children is in pain. Salvation is only possible in community. It has to be corporate, the work of neighbors. It cannot be done alone, by reciting a formula, or even through solitary prayer. It doesn’t just take a village to raise a child, it takes a community of communities to work out the salvation of the world, the bringing of the reign of God.

Yesterday I used the image of the Brooklyn Bridge in my sermon, and afterward someone came up and reminded me that one of the towers is well grounded on bedrock, but the other one rests on sand. When they built it, they couldn’t excavate deep enough through the sand on the Manhattan side, and they stopped 30 feet short of bedrock. They couldn’t go any deeper because the excavation method required human beings to work inside a pressurized box called a caisson, and the workers were getting decompression sickness, or the bends, when they left the box. The bridge builders decided that the foundation was deep enough, even in sand, and that the human beings who would eventually travel on the bridge would be safe enough. A greater margin of safety for some would have endangered the lives of others. That’s working out salvation with fear and trembling, and it’s doing it in the context of the whole community, not just one part of it. It assumes that no part of the human community is expendable.

There are some in the church who insist that a personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ is the only important thing about salvation. That usually misses the part about loving our neighbors as ourselves, and it’s not unlike going for bedrock at all costs. In the finite world we live in, we have to do the best we can with what God gives us, considering all our neighbors. It’s also a reminder that when we think we’ve hit bedrock, we’d better look around and see who else is still out there floundering.

[i] History of Geneva, Joel H. Monroe, 1912, W. F. Humphrey Press, Geneva, NY

[ii] University of the South School of Theology baccalaureate, May 2008.