Note: Video of Bishop Shannon’s sermon is available at https://vimeo.com/369225587.
[00:00:07.4] May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
[00:00:25.33] As we come to the end of our first convention together, less than a month after I began my time with you as your bishop – 28 days and approximately 14 hours and I don’t know, maybe about 40 minutes or so, and a few seconds, give or take – there’s hardly a day that goes by when I’m not asked by both members of the church and outside of the church, “What is your vision for the Episcopal Church in Vermont?” Now, you won’t often find me quoting the King James translation of the Bible, but using his words, I’ve heard it said where there is no vision, the people perish. We must have a vision, and we’ll get there. Through the spirit led process that brought us together, I vowed to work with you to discover our vision together. You’ve heard me say in order to lead, I have to listen and love first. And not wanting to be presumptuous or disrespectful of you, I’ve hesitated to call my dreams a vision. Dreams that have been stirring in me since I knew of you. But that is where I pray that we will begin. With our dreams. My vision for the Episcopal Church in Vermont is that we will dream- and dream and discern a bold way forward together. I’m reminded of two great writers, James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, who mused about the past and how it relates to the future. James Baldwin, in a letter to his nephew, expressed his love and hope, despite his concern about how his namesake might navigate a future in a society that was hostile towards him. And Baldwin wrote, “Know whence you came. If, you know, whence you came, there’s really no limit to where you can go.”
[00:02:43.38] And Maya Angelou once said, “I have great respect for the past. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going. I respect for the past, but I’m a person of the moment. I’m here and I do my best to be completely centered at the place I’m at. Then I go forward to the next place.” So I’ve been thinking about dreams. Where they come from and where they can take us. And I’m wondering, when does a baby first dream and what do those dreams contain? Colors? Sounds? Sensations?
[00:03:31.37] And I wonder, can you dream if you have no context in the world? And today I say to you, our best dreams would will be born out of thoughtful reflection on our past. Knowing who we are and knowing and recalling our identity as followers of Jesus. And today’s passage from Corinthians. Paul told a story of how he was undeserving, yet came to be included as a minister of the Gospel because of God’s grace. By recounting his unlikely call, he hoped to encourage the church to believe in the resurrection, not just of Jesus. But in God’s power to resurrect anyone from the death of terrible mistakes and from the death of sin. And Paul said. “I would remind you, brothers and sisters of the good news that I proclaim to you, which you in turn received and which also you stand, through which also you are being saved.” I love the way the Greek forces us to think of the Divine’s presence in our lives as an active and forward moving force, calling us to life. Paul doesn’t speak of a one time action. So thoughtfully reflecting on our story and identity as articulated in this passage, this is what I hear about us. We are people who are being saved. We are people who stand and the good news of God. The good news of Jesus. The good news of the Holy Spirit. We are recipients of Grace.
[00:05:24.44] This is from whence our dreams take form and begin to have a life and become life giving. And in our gospel from Matthew today, it says, “When Jesus finished telling these stories, his parables, he left there, returned to his hometown and gave a lecture in the meetinghouse.” That’s a different translation that you heard earlier. “And the people acknowledged his gifts and then took offense. Where does he get this wisdom? Where did he get the power to work miracles? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son?”
[00:06:05.96] Jesus’s hometown wanted to put him in his place while they could recognize his gifts. They couldn’t stand the fact that he dared to be himself, but he dared to step out of the constraints that were a barrier to everyone in his community living a life of freedom. They were so eager to make him dull, to ignore what they saw and knew about him, to bring him down to their level. As if in merely speaking the words they could change or control Jesus’s identity. So then I have to say, if it happened to Jesus, certainly we should expect that it will happen to us, too.
[00:06:53.27] As we engage with our communities in this state who at best, you know, are indifferent to or to us or they think that they don’t have much use for us. We must be clear about our identity. In a state that has been presented while not just our state, but it’s really important here that, you know, we’ve been people have been presented with a media version of a church that doesn’t match what we know about ourselves. And so we must be secure in our identity. As the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement in Vermont, as we dream up a vision, it would serve us well to reflect on our identity also as Episcopalians. And yes, we are Eucharistic people. But first, we are a people who are shaped by our Prayer Book, and I wish I had a prayer book right here with me to prove it. I mean, in it, there’s a reason you open it up, and one of the first the first thing that we really get to do with each other is pray we’re supposed- Well, I won’t say suppose because it sounds judgy, and I don’t want to say it that way. But, you know, it starts with prayer and it’s daily prayer throughout the day, setting a rhythm for our lives. Because you see, prayer is our heartbeat.
[00:08:19.64] I encourage us to dream of ways that we can have lively, engaging and hospitable worship in all our communities of faith. If a congregation doesn’t have a priest, we all need to be dreaming and experimenting with new ways of being church that brings us together to share what we have and to support one another. We are people who worship and pray. We’ve already committed as a diocese to develop a robust ministry of evangelism and even voted on it again today. So I encourage us to dream to dream about how that commitment calls us outside of our buildings and into our communities. Experiment. Get curious. We are a people who have been sent to baptize and make disciples. And as we’re out and about, people may want to reduce our identity down to something that doesn’t challenge them or that they can control. All while we contend with our insecurities and preoccupations about our future and numbers. And I tell you that while we are engaging in amazing ministries around the state – I’ve seen that you know about it. That’s what drew me here – But we still might hear you part of an organization that the world has deemed irrelevant. What do I what do we need you for? Aren’t you struggling with small numbers? Aren’t you just a Episcopalians? Aren’t you just followers of Jesus? Aren’t you just the body of Christ? Yes. Yes, of course.
[00:10:09.27] And while mostly they’ve been subtle about these, asking some of these questions- You know, I’ve had a few interviews and those are really the questions that they asked me. And at the core of my answers, I’ve claimed our identity as followers of Jesus who like him are absolutely concerned with and engaged with the world around us. We care about this world. And then not to gloss over that little bit in the Gospel that always nags at me every time I preach on it. It’s disturbing to read that Jesus could not do many miracles because of the town’s peoples words and attitudes. And so this is my take on it. I wonder if maybe he was distracted or did he make a choice. Maybe he just didn’t want to perform any miracles. And then I start to think, well, if they could get Jesus down, who are we to think that we can be strong when others try to define us based on limitations?
[00:11:23.51] But then maybe, maybe the lesson in Jesus not performing many miracles is a word to encourage us to not become boarded by or changed by attitudes that have nothing to do with who we are, or that are projected onto us, and perhaps these roadblocks are an opportunity to discern a new way of expressing ministry that pulls us in a different direction. Today we have on the red because, you know, it’s a saint’s day. Well, we transferred it because there was another saint today and he didn’t seem as lively as the brother of Jesus. And so we transferred him. We can do that. I’m sure that Jesus doesn’t mind.
[00:12:13.71] So today we’re commemorating James of Jerusalem: James the Just. And beyond being the brother of Jesus, he’s also known for including people. He was welcoming to Paul and he advocated for Gentile’s by encouraging leadership to not put up barriers that would exclude their inclusion in the life of the church. And in today’s passage from Acts, Paul continues that same story. And he says, listen to me. And the whole assembly listened to Barnabus and Paul as it told the story of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them. They also told the story of how God had moved them to include people who were different from them. This story was being told as a nascent church with articulating her identity. They told- the story they told then is in essence our foreword. And this is what it says about the story that we are living right now. We are inclusive people. We are people who listen. We are people who are connected. We are a people who God works through.
[00:13:35.84] And this diocese has carried this identity forward by taking a stance for marriage equality, through migrant justice work, electing the first woman diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church and even electing the first African-American woman in Province One. Of course, you know that these are just a few of the stories that have been told and that remain to be told. And knowing the story of the Episcopal Church and Vermont’s identity as a groundbreaker with a heart for social justice, I wonder what we will dream up next. And I won’t always bring up the story of Bishop Hopkins belief about slavery and the abolitionist movement. But clearly, this is not the only story- and clearly it’s not the only story that should be told in this diocese, but it is part of our story. It holds importance in relationship to my presence and future ministry here and the strong stance the diocese has taken on other social justice issues. I’m reminded of Paul’s awareness of the beauty of reconciliation and of God’s grace. Reflecting on our past and identity and dreaming are three essential pieces to the puzzle of articulating a vision. Being honest about the past, celebrating who we’ve become, how we’ve grown, what we’ve learned. That is all part of how we will discern together. And that is the immediate work ahead of us.
[00:15:21.39] And as we dream, we’ll ask ourselves, what are the stories we want to be passed down about the life that we have together? How can those stories take shape and become a reality? Those dreams take shape and become a reality? We are living the foreword of the next chapter of the acts of the Episcopal Church of Vermont. I’m dreaming about evangelism, formation, welcoming and engaging liturgy, social justice, creation care, contextual and regional models of ministry. We’ll do all of that and more. And so I invite you to dream dreams of the stature of a sister or brother of Christ who changed the story of sin and death. We are people who have wisdom. We are people who have power. And we are a people of resurrection and unlimited potential.