Sermon at Diocesan Convention/Bishop’s Address
St. Paul’s Chattanooga TN
February 7, 2020
The Rt. Rev. Brian L. Cole
Two weeks ago, I was in Rome.
Italy, not Georgia. Someday, I hope to visit Rome, Georgia.
I was in Rome, Italy, as a guest of my friend, Austin Rios, who is the Rector of St. Paul’s Within the Walls Episcopal Church. It is the center of all Episcopal work in Rome.
Along with a parish church and all the ministries that come with that anywhere, St. Paul’s Within the Walls also houses a significant ministry to the refugee population in Rome. The Joel Nafuma Refugee Center was initially a response to refugees fleeing Uganda during the reign of terror of Idi Amin. While Amin is no more, we still live in a world that makes refugees. So, the Nafuma Refugee Center continues to welcome.
I was in Rome as a pilgrim, to participate in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Along with a day trip to Assisi, the rest of my time was devoted to ecumenical events organized by Churches Together in Rome, the Anglican Centre and the Vatican.
Today, we are gathered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Chattanooga. We are here for Convention because you all asked to be on the move, to return to a practice of allowing each convention to be a kind of pilgrimage around the diocese. We begin this new practice, which is actually an old one, here at St. Paul’s.
During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, while I was in Rome, regardless of where each day and day’s events took me, I returned to St. Paul’s Within the Walls each evening. I returned to an Episcopal parish church, which is quite lovely and stunning, though it might come off as rather simple and understated when compared to other Christian sites in Rome. Though I was a pilgrim, though I was many miles from East Tennessee, though I did not speak the Italian language, each night at St. Paul’s Within the Walls, I was home.
Along with the hospitality of the place, I learned a little bit about the history of St. Paul’s Within the Walls. St. Paul’s was the first Protestant church built in Rome. This was made possible in the 1870s as the Italian states began to unite to make one Italy, one country.
The building of St. Paul’s Within the Walls also took place in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. Throughout the church, there are various architectural choices and images intended to invoke a spirit of national healing, of a reconciled and reconciling Union. The first Rector of St. Paul’s had fought in the Civil War for the Union Army. So, it is not surprising that the images of Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant show up on the frescoes in the apse as icons for Union and wholeness. Like any historical figures, you learn a great deal about the story the founders of St. Paul’s wanted to tell about Union and unity, both in Italy and the U.S. What is included is significant. What is omitted is also telling.
While I was participating in services in Rome intended to deepen Christian unity, I thought often of our work here, in East Tennessee and our core work of reconciliation, of more fully expressing one faith, one baptism, one Church.
Having never traveled to Italy before, I did not have expectations of what would have the most impact, where I would find myself the most moved. I can now say it happened when I left Rome and took a train trip to Assisi. In Assisi, at the Basilica of St. Clare, I was not prepared by how entering the story and seeing the remains of St. Clare, Francis’ sister, would undo me and transform me.
In that Basilica, in a side chapel, the original crucifix of San Damiano is also found. This is the same large crucifix where St Francis prayed before and heard the commission from God to rebuild the church. For years, a small copy of this crucifix has resided in my car, situated between the stack of quarters for parking and the folk music CDs.
Before me was no copy. “Rebuild the church.”
As your bishop, as a fellow pilgrim on the journey, as another imperfect brother in Christ, I can report to you that I also heard, while praying at the Basilica in Assisi, in front of the San Damiano crucifix, a call from God to rebuild the church.
But that’s the not only place where that has happened. During the past year, on Vestry retreats within the Diocese of East Tennessee, at some point, I have heard the call to rebuild the church.
This past year, in conversations with Diocesan clergy, at Clergy Conference and on Lenten retreat together, I have heard the call to rebuild the church. In anticipation of weekly visitations to East Tennessee parish churches, while meeting with priests and deacons who serve here, I have heard them also respond to a call to rebuild the church.
This past year, whether celebrating David Burman’s ordination to the priesthood at Grace, Chattanooga, or presiding over the funerals of deacons and priests in this diocese who made promises to the church and kept those for decades, I can tell you I have heard a call to rebuild the church.
This past year, at Grace Point, gathering there for Happening or Vocare or for a Cursillo reunion, I have heard a call to rebuild the church.
This past year, at the celebration of new ministry at St. Paul’s Kingsport, at the burning of a note and the ending of a longstanding debt at St. John’s Johnson City, at the ecumenical gathering of praise and prayer called Adoration at Hopwood Christian Church on the Milligan College campus, I have heard a call to rebuild the church.
This past year, traveling to Death Row at Riverbend Prison in Nashville, to share in the Eucharist with Bishop John Bauerschmidt of the Diocese of Tennessee and Dean Timothy Kimbrough of Christ Cathedral, Nashville, along with Abu Ali, a Death Row Inmate and a fellow Episcopalian, while we held hands in prayer before sharing body and blood, I have the heard the call to rebuild the church.
Now let’s be clear. I am not wearing a hair shirt underneath this alb. My last physical reported no stigmatas. But I have heard a call to rebuild the church. And I dare say, you have heard it, too.
This is not a call to go back, to recapture some past glory, to grasp after a program or a project or a personality that will save us. The Risen Christ has saved us.
This call to rebuild the church is not about propping up old structures or blaming past leaders. This call to rebuild the church is the call that God’s Spirit has whispered to countless pilgrims across time who have ever taken the time to stop and pray and listen.
This is time to stop and pray and listen. When we do so, when we have done so, I believe the call to rebuild the church remains our call, too.
Francis rebuilt the church at San Damiano from ruins. He then realized he was not simply being called to rebuild one structure. He was being called to renew the story of the Risen Christ in his age.
In the gospel lesson from St. Matthew we have just heard read, Jesus instructs us on how the church is to deal with conflict. He gives us a series of steps. He gives us a process.
When we hear a parable from Jesus, we have come to know that they are intended to undo us, to require us to think differently about ourselves and the world, about who is in and who is out. To grasp a parable, we must first lose ourselves and our everyday way of thinking.
In contrast, this passage from St. Matthew is somewhat straightforward. Of all the teachings of Jesus, this might be the most practical, the most like an instruction manual for communal living. Seek to resolve the conflict at the same level where it begins. If that does not work, slowly add others to serve as witnesses, again with the hope of resolving the conflict with the least amount of damage to others.
If that does not work, tell it to the church. In telling it to the church, you do so with the hope of reconciliation, not in order to have a winner or a loser. If that does not work, then recognize there is a boundary in the Christian community. A person’s actions, a person’s unwillingness to see their fault, to amend their ways, if ignored in each step, can cause us to break fellowship with them.
Needless to say, that hurts. That hurts everyone.
My sense is that we have this lesson in Matthew because the early church understood that conflict, ignored long enough, with time, will fester and destroy the fellowship of believers. So, Jesus is inviting us to a process, a way to heal conflict, which is inevitable in any human community. Especially, a human community that gathers around the Divine.
The tone of this gospel lesson may sound harsh to you. However, I would suggest it is a lesson overflowing with grace. It is a lesson overflowing with grace, especially in our age.
In our age, whether in the world or in the church, we have another process for dealing with conflict. If you find yourself in conflict, blame the other person before they can blame you. Also, it is helpful to ridicule them, to ignore the actual hurt at hand, and pile on with other criticisms and controversies. Also, it is quite helpful to amplify the conflict well beyond its actual boundaries. Remember, too, all of life is a zero-sum game. If you are not winning, you are losing. And no one wants to be losing.
So, Matthew’s lesson with steps for healing conflict is a series of grace upon grace upon grace.
At the end of the lesson, Jesus reminds us just how much power resides when two or three people can agree about anything, especially in the common life of the church. If two or three people are together, and if they are together, if they come to agree with one mind, then the Christ is also there.
You and I, then, can respond to the call to rebuild the church. Francis rebuilt a church out of ruins. Jesus gives us instructions on how to rebuild a church that is fractured. If you and I can agree, then the Christ will appear. If the Christ appears in our midst, then the rebuilding and the renewing of the church is sure to follow.
This past year, because of a conversation that happened at last year’s Diocesan Convention, over 80 Episcopalians gathered in Maryville in order to learn how best to tell the story of God that has been found in their lives. It was a day of evangelism. It was a day of hearing and sharing sacred stories. It was a day of rebuilding the church.
In this time, if we are to rebuild the church, we must first possess a story about how God has actually been present in our lives. And we must learn how to tell that story. That is evangelism.
In this time, if we are to rebuild the church, we must be intentional in how we deepen the presence of God and God’s story in my daily life. And we must be intentional in inviting others to join in that search and that hunger. That is formation.
In this time, if we are to rebuild the church, we must find ways to recognize that our diocese already possesses trained mediators, gifted folk prepared to help us heal conflict in our parish communities and in our wider world. That is the gift of mediation.
You and I are a people on pilgrimage. As pilgrims, we can travel to holy sites all over the world, all over the country. As pilgrims, we can travel throughout East Tennessee, sharing in ministry and mission together.
As pilgrims, we can travel that most difficult journey, the inward one, to find a place in ourselves where we become quiet and pray and listen. That is a pilgrimage, I would invite you to continue to take with me, with each other, and with those being called to join us.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is observed from January 18th through January 25th. January 18th is when the Church observes the Feast of the Confession of Peter and the 25th is when we observe the Feast of the Conversion of Paul. That’s a week.
But what is before us as the Diocese of East Tennessee now will not be accomplished at one Convention and will not be accomplished during one Octave of Prayer.
I believe instead of being called to a week, we are being called to a Work of Prayer for Renewal and Rebuilding. It’s a work for the long haul.
It begins now. It will last as long as it will last.
It will last until another generation comes after us and stops and prays and listens. AMEN.