Bishop Shin’s Diocesan Convention Sermon
November 15, 2014
The following is the text of the sermon delivered by the Rt. Rev. Allen K. Shin, Bishop Suffragan of New York, at the Eucharist held at the 238th Convention of the diocese, Saturday, Nov 15, 2014.
Deuteronomy 11:10-15, Mark 4:26-32
The Book of Deuteronomy is a long, very long, 32-chapter long sermon Moses delivered to the Israelites at the bank of the river Jordan overlooking the Promised Land across the river. I guess the 40-year long journey through the wilderness must have prepared them well to endure such a long sermon.
You know how in the Episcopal Church we like the orderly processions in our liturgy so that at the end of the service the preacher ends up in that perfect spot in the back ready to greet the people as they exit. Well, this one Sunday the preacher was doing exactly that, standing by the door and greeting people as they went out. But, she was getting rather nervous as no one said anything about her sermon except a polite smile and a handshake. And finally coming toward her was Jerry the old fart who had something to say about everything. Now she was getting really nervous. As she greeted Jerry, he said, “Well, pastor, that was an interesting sermon. It reminded me of the peace of God and the love of God.” She was so relieved and delighted to hear that, and thought, “Finally a positive remark on my sermon.” So she asked, “Tell me, Jerry, how did it remind you of the peace of God and the love of God?” Jerry replied, “Well, it reminded me of the peace of God, because it was beyond my understanding. And it reminded of the love of God, because it seemed to endure for ever.” I hope my sermon today reminds of the peace of God and the love of God, but not for the same reasons.
The best modern definition of the church, I think, has been given by Archbishop William Temple, who said, “Church is the only society on the earth that exists for the benefit of its non-members.” Faced with the challenges of the decreasing membership and the need for renewal and new growth, this definition ought to wake us up to what the church is really about and why the church exists at all. This calls the church to live into its original meaning and mission, ecclesia, which literally means “a gathering of citizens being called out of their homes into a public place.” Lest the church becomes too much like home, making us too comfortable for ourselves and indifferent to the world outside, ecclesia calls us out over and over again to that public square where the church really belongs. Ecclesia calls us out and points us to God’s mission outside in the world.
Yesterday in my report I briefly mentioned the trip Bishop Dietsche and I made to Taiwan for the House of Bishops’ meeting in September. And I said how moving and inspiring that trip was as we visited various congregations and witnessed the work they were doing despite the challenges they were faced with. We were given five different sites to choose from, and I chose to visit a small congregation in a poor fishing village north of Taipei, called Keelung. After the beautiful drive over the hills and the seaside, our bus took us into small rundown city, lined with tenement buildings. The city was rather quiet and empty as we drove in. Our guide told us that they were all government project housing. When we arrived at the Church of the Holy Trinity, it was a four-story concrete building sandwiched between other tall tenement buildings. As we passed through the entrance, I noticed a room on my left filled with elderly people, mostly men, drinking tea and chatting away. And the other side was a room full of small children.
We were taken upstairs where the church space was. It was a small but well-kept and clean space, which looked unmistakably Episcopalian, in other words, a traditional churchy space. Fr. Richard Lee gave his presentation about the history and the life of this congregation. The church was just 50 years old, but for Taiwan one of the oldest. When Fr. Lee arrived ten years ago, he was sent there to shut the place down. In its heyday, Holy Trinity was one of Taiwan’s “cardinal” parishes. At his first service, Fr. Lee said he had two people. So, he got down to his work. In his description of his ministry, he talked of loving the people, sharing the love of Jesus with the poor and the sick, visiting the people in their homes in their time of need, providing services to the working families and caring for the children. Gradually he built the congregation back up to 50-60 on Sundays in about eight years. He talked about praying to God for the mission of his congregation. He talked about praying with his lay leaders about the mission and the vision of what they were called to do. Today this 60-member strong church has planted two new congregations in this poverty-stricken area and is in the process of planting yet another church.
We visited one of their new start-up missions very near the harbor, St. Stephen’s Mission. This mission was located high up on a hill along a narrow road where buses could not enter. We walked in the 95-degree heat and made our way into an alley between tall tenement buildings. In the middle of this alley was St. Stephen’s Mission, a store-front space on the street level of a tenement building. There we were greeted by the missioner priest, Rev. Julia Lin Shu-Hua and some of its members. Pastor Shu-Hua, too, talked about spreading the love of Jesus Christ to the people in this poor, working class neighborhood, serving the children with its after-school program, providing a space and services to the elderly, feeding program, counseling troubled teens and families and so on, and all these ministries carried out by just a 30-member congregation. The after-school program alone had 40 children, teaching them and giving them food and a safe space.
One person told us about how he came to be a Christian and joined St. Stephen’s. When his wife was stricken with cancer and dying, Pastor Lin was there to comfort her and his family and helped bury her in the end, even though they were not Christian. This man and his entire family were baptized the week after his wife’s funeral. One woman talked about a similar story while her mother-in-law was sick and dying. Because her family was Buddhist, in order to honor her mother-in-law she waited until her mother-in-law passed away to be baptized and join St. Stephen’s.
Frederick Beuchner writes in his essay, Stewardship of Pain that “pain can become a treasure if we treasure it to the point where it can become compassion and healing, not just for ourselves, but also for other people.” That was exactly what those people in these small Episcopal churches in Keelung were doing, sharing their hurts and pains, their experiences and their joys in ministering to each other. This is precisely what the cross of Christ is all about–that out of the greatest pain endured in love and faithfulness comes the greatest beauty of holiness and our greatest hope. Those people in Keelung were living and bringing to life Jesus Christ crucified in their lives. The church is called to be the living body of Christ crucified here in this world.
I came away from that trip wondering how it is that these small poor churches in Taiwan can do so much with so little in their mission and ministries, while we who have so much in abundance often find ourselves helpless and lost in our mission of spreading the love of Christ crucified. What do we need in order for us to refocus and reorient ourselves once again to God’s mission and God’s mission alone?
This is also exactly the point Jesus is making in the two rather odd parables we just heard from Mark’s Gospel. By the design of the convention planning committee, the scripture lessons we just heard are the lectionary for the Rogation Day. Entering into the new Promised Land, or scattering seed and harvesting the abundant fruits of the earth, or a small mustard seed growing into a shrub large enough to provide nests for the birds–they all seem to provide wonderfully ready-made metaphors for the evangelism and church growth we all wish and yearn for. Indeed, how wonderful and sweet it is that the Promised Land is just across our reach and the abundant harvest ready for our sickles! Only if it were so easy as that!
The important point of these parables is not so much how we can harvest the fruits after just scattering the seeds, or how such a small seed as the mustard seed grows into a large shrub. The Good News of these parables about the kingdom of God is what God can do and does in between the scattering of seed and the harvest, and in between the sowing the small seed and the final large shrubbery we see. God’s surprising grace is at work all the time despite our inaction and indifference.
Mustard plants were wild plants and, thus, were considered unclean by the Rabbinic purity law. It was forbidden to plant the mustard seeds in one’s garden of ritually clean vegetables and plants. So, telling a parable using the mustard plant was scandalous enough. But, to compare that to the kingdom of God would have been close to being blasphemous.
John Dominic Crossan in his book, Historical Jesus, sums it up quite poignantly: “The point is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher. It is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedars of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, but like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses–if you could control it” (The Historical Jesus, pp. 278-279).
Jesus is offering in these parables the dangerous and scandalous hope that God is going to establish his kingdom and there is nothing we can to do to stop it, and it is going to include all of God’s creation even the unclean. While we certainly cannot control or even summon it, we can actively anticipate it by looking for and even aiding its unexpected growth in unexpected ways. It’s all about the unstoppable mission of God’s grace right in our back garden, my friends.
In many of my parish visits, one of the issues that comes up during my meeting with the vestry is inevitably church growth. We cannot help being concerned and worried about decreasing members in our pews. I am sure you are all too familiar with the growth of the Nones and are perhaps tired of hearing and reading about how churches are not doing so well in this post-Christian era. Many ask me if there is a secret to church growth. If today’s parables and Moses’ sermon in Deuteronomy are an indication, there is no secret to God’s grace. We are just called to love God and serve God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength. We are called to participate in what God is already doing in our garden.
The kingdom of God manifests itself in solidarity with other people, in sympathy with their pains and hurts, and in unconditional love of Jesus Christ unconditionally shared with others. The kingdom is manifested in ordinary daily life and in how we live it. Everyday life, as Thomas Keating puts it, is the arena where the kingdom is most powerful. Can we accept the God of everyday life? Can we answer to God’s call to his mission of his surprising and scandalous grace in our daily ordinary life?
Rogation in its Latin root, rogare, means “to ask.” We are accustomed to and conditioned to ask God for blessing on our work, on what we want and need. Perhaps we ought to turn ourselves upside down and inside out and ask God what God is asking us to do. What is God asking you to do in your life as the servant of Christ, other than not to remain inattentive and indifferent to God’s surprising grace at work right outside the doors of your churches? This is the most important fundamental question we all must ask ourselves both individually as Christians and collectively as the diocese.
Today we celebrate in the Episcopal Church the consecration of Samuel Seabury. Seabury had a complicated personal history with the struggle for the American independence and the ensuring Republic and, I would say, even with the Episcopal Church of which he became the first bishop. I wonder how he reflected upon God’s wicked but gracious sense of humor in his vocational career. As a Tory he was a staunch supporter of the British colonial rule and even served as the chaplain in the British army during the Revolutionary War, and was captured and imprisoned for it at one point. So, when he was refused for ordination by the Church of England and had to go to the independent Scottish Episcopal Church, I wonder what went through his mind. He, of all people, must have been humbled and awed by the mystery of the surprising grace of God.
Despite his character flaws and paradoxes, however, Seabury had immense zeal and energy for mission and evangelism. I have been impressed again and again by the number of the Episcopal churches in the Diocese of New York, Long Island and Connecticut, which claim a historic connection with Samuel Seabury as their founder. At least a dozen or perhaps even a couple of dozens, I believe. St. John’s Church in Huntington, Long Island where I had the privilege of serving, for instance, claimed Samuel Seabury as its founder in 1745, when he was a mere sixteen-year old lay reader. So, as we remember Samuel Seabury today in this convention Eucharist, I would like to suggest that what we ought to celebrate is his missionary and evangelistic spirit and ministry, the spirit and the work we sorely need to renew and revive in this diocese and in the Episcopal Church.
I return to Archbishop Temple’s definition of the church for us to continue to ponder upon: “Church is the only society on the earth that exists for the benefit of its non-members.” So, what is God asking you to do?