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2019 Electing Convention Eucharist Sermon: Defined by Hope

To follow is the sermon delivered by the Rev. Carole Wageman at the May 18, 2019 Electing Convention of The Episcopal Church in Vermont. A video of the sermon is available in the 2019 Electing Convention Archive.

“Defined by Hope”
Vermont Electing Convention – May 18, 2019
The Rev. Carole Wageman, Chaplain

Amos 5:10-15, 21-25, Psalm 34:15-22, 1 Corinthians 13, Matthew 23:1-11

In the name of God whose power working in us can do more than we can ask or imagine.

Today is an exciting day, isn’t it? It is a day that has been a long time coming, for which many of us have been waiting with great anticipation and even some anxiety. On this day, we are all taking another step of faith with God into an unknown future as we elect our next bishop to join us in ministry.

Today is also a bittersweet day as we take yet another step with God in saying farewell to Bishop Tom Ely and his wife, Ann, who have been with us for so many years and whose ministry has enabled us to grow in our faith, to address important social issues around us, and to transform our understanding of how God is calling us forward here in Vermont. +Tom has brought exceptional leadership that has built upon the legacies of a rich heritage, has walked with us and guided us through challenging times in the present, and is now inviting us to stretch into the future with faith, courage, and hope.

Speaking for myself, I am very grateful to you, +Tom, and to you, Ann, for all you have done, for all you have given of yourselves, and for all the hope you have now placed in our hands. Thank you.

These days I work with congregations who are in a time of transition as they search for new clergy leadership. In that work, I try to point out to them that clergy come and go. They may have a significant impact on a parish, but it is the congregation—the people of God—who have been called to be in ministry in their unique place and time. They are the ones who remain and continue to minister in that community regardless of who comes as their clergy. It is the people of God in their location who carry the history and legacies of the past, who nurture and tend the present, and who hope and dream, worry about, and prepare for the future. Clergy come to work alongside them and help them figure out how to be Jesus’ hands, heart, and mind in any given community but to a great extent it is the congregation who must do the heavy lifting if their church is to thrive.

Transition can be a time when people get nervous and anxious the familiar is changing and the future is still a huge unknown. But I wonder if we have stopped to think about where God might be in this liminal space of uncertainty. To that point, here is a reflection by author Danaan Parry (Warriors of the Heart) called The Parable of the Trapeze.

Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.

Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the- moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the answers.

But every once in a while as I’m merrily (or even not-so-merrily) swinging along, I look out ahead of me into the distance and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It’s empty and I know. that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me. In my heart of hearts I know that, for me to grow, I must release my grip on this present, well-known bar and move to the new one.

Each time it happens to me I pray that I won’t have to let go of my old bar completely before I grab the new one. But…[somehow] I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar and, for some moment in time, I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar.

Each time, I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing I have always made it. I am, each time, afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between bars. I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience. No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow to keep hanging on to that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives. So, for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.”

It’s called “transition.” I have come to believe that this transition is the only place that real change occurs. I mean real change, not the pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get punched.

… in our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as a “no-thing,” a noplace between places. Sure, the old trapeze bar was real, and that new one coming towards me, I hope that’s real, too. But the void in between? Is that just a scary, confusing, disorienting nowhere that must be gotten through as fast and as unconsciously as possible?

NO! What a wasted opportunity that would be. I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void where the real change, the real growth, occurs for us. Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored, even savored. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out of control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.

So, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to “hang out” in the transition between trapezes.

Transforming our need to grab that new bar, any bar, is allowing ourselves to dwell in the only place where change really happens. It can be terrifying. It can also be enlightening in the true sense of the word. Hurtling through the void, we just may learn how to fly.

From: Warriors of the Heart by Danaan Parry

I think that is exactly where we are right now: “hanging out in the void”. We are in an incredibly intense and vibrant time of residing in that liminal space between the familiarity of “what has been” and the unknown of “what will be”. So I wonder, “What might God be birthing in this in- between space where we are letting go of the past in order to build God’s dream of the future?”1 What story is God inviting us to hold and make our own? We are shaped by the stories that we tell about ourselves. What do we want our story to be?

At St. Stephen’s in Middlebury where I am currently serving, the vestry and interim ministry team have begun reading a book entitled Canoeing the Mountain by Tod Bolsinger. It is about church leadership in uncharted territory but it uses the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition to discover the Northwest Passage as a metaphor for the challenges out in front of the church today. The expedition had set off with an expectation based on the best geographical knowledge they had at the time. They expected to find a point in their journey where they would crest a hill and see a wide open slope leading to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Then they would take their canoes and paddle their way there. After all, that was the way they had traveled from the east coast onward and that was what was expected.

But when they got to the point where they crested the hill and looked beyond, what they saw was totally unexpected and unlike anything they had ever seen before: The Rocky Mountains stretched for miles in front of them with snow on the peaks. Mountains that were nothing like the east coast mountains with which they were familiar. They had canoes and were experienced river men. What they needed was something they didn’t have. They had to adapt or die. “The true adventure—the real discovery—was just beginning.”2

Something new had to be born. They were in this same liminal place as we are of letting go of the familiar and reaching toward something distinctly different for which they felt ill prepared. We, too, are on a new adventure for which there is no roadmap and we might have to figure out how to adapt as we go. We are at a “hinge moment”—a place that is connecting a rich and varied past with all of its successes and disappointments with a new future that is yet to be discovered and defined.

Spiritually speaking, it frequently at this point of being in an in-between place, where the Spirit does the best work because it challenges us to call upon our better angels to show up. It draws forth imagination, ingenuity, creativity, and courage that we might not have realized we had. It calls us to turn to and rely upon an unseen energy and strength that is frequently hidden in plain sight and yet, yearns to let us personally know how beloved we are.

What spirit of discovery is God inviting the Episcopalians in Vermont to uncover? What God- shaped story is unfolding here today?

All throughout scripture are the stories of women and men whose lives were shaped by the Holy One whom we encounter every day in some way or other. In almost all those cases, God came calling…often as a surprise. Sometimes it was only in hindsight that a person really perceived how God had been at work in their lives in unforeseen ways.

Consider the story of Paul, who is credited with writing today’s Letter to the Corinthians—the famous “Love Chapter.” He was a feared and fanatical obsessive persecutor of the early Christians. After the resurrected Jesus’ confrontation with Paul on the road to Damascus, he surely must have been in a place of wondering what happened to his familiar “trapeze bar” and what was this new “trapeze bar” coming toward him. He was in an in-between place with the Spirit of God. That life transition had no roadmap, yet it enabled the outreach of God to move the early church into new territory that they didn’t realize was out there waiting for them.

Consider also the story of Peter and Cornelius, one of the first converts to Christianity by Peter’s own hand. When he, Peter, was called on the carpet by the church in Jerusalem for baptizing someone who, as a Roman soldier and Gentile, clearly did not belong, Peter acknowledged he had realized the Spirit of God was moving in a new and unexpected way—that of including Gentiles as Christians. Peter said: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11: 17)

Who are we, too, that we could hinder God in the uncertain future that beckons us forward to do the work we are called to do. Perhaps it is the blessing (and not the misfortune) of this age that we are called and challenged to figure out where God is leading.

God is wonderfully persistent and we are an Easter People. We live on the resurrection side of the cross. We are defined by Hope and we are called Beloved.
Let us pray:

Gracious God, who in your love and faithfulness, does not call us to live in chaos or anxiety, but always finds ways to redeem our story that it becomes your story of love. As we hurtle through this unknown time, grant us your grace, patience, and courage to slow down and savor these moments of transition and transformation together. Help us to make space to listen for your small, still voice reminding us that what might seem like an unknown to us, is familiar territory to you…and that you are already there waiting to meet us at your open door. Amen.

1 The Rev. Tom Brackett Officer for Church Planting and Ministry Redevelopment in the Episcopal Church in 2012 for the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont Ministry Expo in Randolph, VT

2 Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory (Intervarsity Press Books, Illinois 2015) p17.

Copyright © 2019 Carole A. Wageman. All rights reserved.

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