A Sermon Delivered by
The Reverend E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Trinity Episcopal Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
Let us pray: O God, grant to us that we may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I have said several times the purpose of a sermon on any occasion, and the task of the preacher, is to proclaim the good news of the Gospel. I will try to do that this morning as we declare for the final time in this season of Epiphany, the covenantal commitment and promises of a loving God that are bestowed upon us as people of faith.
The Collect for today, this last Sunday after the Epiphany is illustrative. It states quite simply: Grant to us O Lord, that we may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into the likeness of Christ…/“changed into the likeness of Christ”/ which is to say, changed fundamentally into the likeness of God. That is what happens during the sacrament of the Eucharist when we participate in “table fellowship,” a divine liturgy of the ‘heavenly banquet,’ marked by a spirit of good will, good cheer, and good faith. We are transformed as children of God, - changed forever - changed into the likeness of Christ.
But how does that work?
Walter Taylor, a retired priest, Cathedral Dean, and college chaplain who served a variety of church assignments over the years, had this to say about the reality of “change” in his life.
When I was ten years old, the world could not change quickly enough to suit me. When I was twenty, I believed my springtime world would never change at all. When I was thirty, I was old enough to know how wrong I had been when I was twenty. When forty arrived, I began to realize, not always happily, that change was inevitable. Now in my seventies, I have come to understand that change is one of the few things in life that is unchangeable.
There is some profound wisdom in these words, and it would be helpful for us to keep in mind that change is part and parcel of any religious way of faith, and particularly, it is central to the Christian way of life. Liturgically, the church is always in the process of changing; and we see evidence of that in the church calendar. Today, for example, is the last Sunday in a sequence of Sundays after Epiphany. The season further changes early this coming week with the excesses of Mardis Gras, as well as the more sobering change of a service of imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Then the church calendar changes again to a new penitential season of Lent, and we subsequently enter a different frame of mind and a more focused way of worshiping. Change, as Walter Taylor rightly points out, is one of the few things in life that is unchangeable. It’s a paradox, but it’s a wonderful paradox, full of Amazing Grace.
Here’s an example of how it works positively.
The former Presiding Bishop of our church, the Most Reverend Edmond Browning was known primarily for a phrase he used at his formal institution at the National Cathedral in 1986, a phrase he initially coined at General Convention during his election the previous year. At that time he said:
I have today invited you, all of you, to share the diversity of views, of hopes, of expectations for the mission of this Church. I want to be very clear – this Church of ours is open to all – there will be no outcasts – the convictions and hopes of all will be honored.
Note the phrase - “There will be no outcasts.”
By the time of the Presiding Bishop’s retirement in 1997, it was widely reported that at great personal cost, Bishop Browning consistently held up the ideal of “no outcasts” to the wider church during several bitter controversies. In the face of opposition and duplicity, the Presiding Bishop suffered humiliation when it was revealed on his watch that the Treasurer of the national church had embezzled millions of dollars of Episcopal funds to pay for credit cards, jewelry, private school tuitions, broker fees, and fashionable clothing. The woman offender, Chief Financial Officer Ellen Cooke, wife of an Episcopal priest no less, was convicted of a major felony on several counts and served a prison term for five years, because of what the judge called at the time, a “particularly heinous” crime against the national church. The sentencing federal judge, by the way, was the Honorable Maryanne T. Barry; the sister, interestingly, of our current president, Donald J. Trump. But the main point here is not the irony or peculiarity of judicial appointments; rather the compassion shown by the Presiding Bishop toward Ellen Cooke who was imprisoned. Bishop Browning regularly visited her in jail and sought to underscore her deeper human dignity.
Furthermore, at the same time, the Presiding Bishop continued to call upon the wider church to offer forgiveness and acceptance of sinners in all walks of life; and for his efforts, he was highly criticized for spending too much time with - you guessed it, “outcasts” - those defectors, detractors and enemies who needed Christ’s love as much as anyone else.
The crisis inevitably came to a head. Instead of attending to the task of maintaining and shoring up the formal and institutional church structures, Bishop Browning continued to seek opportunities for reconciliation and renewal on behalf of the whole state of Christ Church. He kept on reaching out beyond the ecclesiastical walls. And that made some people really mad.
Again, like Jesus being petulantly charged with moral lapses for spending too much time with wine-bibbers, tax collectors, and prostitutes, Bishop Browning sought to live by a very different set of values – so-called “kingdom values” – where you start by loving your neighbor (both next door and around the world) as much as you love yourself; where the first are last and the last first; where you love your enemies, even to the point where you bless those who persecute you. Kingdom values. Compassionate values. Complicated values. Yet in so doing, the Presiding Bishop set an example for the whole church. He believed that God worked through change – a change of heart based on the love of God.
At the Presiding Bishop’s concluding address to the joint House of Bishops and Deputies of the General Convention meeting in 1997, Bishop Browning referred to baptism as an ‘agency’ of institutional change, and in particular he called his own baptism, the “sacrament of inclusion” – no outcasts. Everyone, everywhere, is capable of changing course onto a path of righteousness.
In light of that belief, one pundit wrote in a magazine report at the time:
Edmond Browning refuses to see another human being as an enemy – indeed he is mindful of the call of Jesus to ‘love your enemies.’ Even in the face of fierce opposition the Bishop embraces friend and foe alike. He was and is content to leave judgments about the worth of individuals to God.
Remember – judge not, that ye be not judged: there are no outcasts, so … leave judgments about the worth of individuals to God.
And in the meantime for those of us still struggling in good faith to stay the course with the Episcopal Church decades later, right here at Trinity Church, Morgantown, attending a worship service of “table-fellowship” on this last Sunday after the manifestation and spiritual mystery of the Epiphany, we are open to receive our own transformation into the likeness of Christ, as we renew our commitment of Christ in the world. Remember, we are asked primarily in our baptismal vows to affirm three central questions:
- Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor
- Will you strive for justice and peace among all people? and
- Will you respect the dignity of every human being?
I trust you will answer those basic questions with integrity, and then commit yourself positively to a course of action with an attitude of resolve regarding the many challenges you will inevitably face in life. With God’s help, we have the promise that “all things work together for good to those who love Him.” Just remember, things can and will change ...
change for the better
change for good,
change for all time, and eventually
All this we ask and believe - In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. AMEN
The Rev. Walter Taylor: CPF monthly
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