Evensong, Diocesan Convention 2016

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Taylor November 10, 2016

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  This is the salutation I use prior to every sermon because grace and peace are always my first prayer of our people.

It’s hard for our people to hear anything else we may say unless there has first been some expression of grace and peace; to create space for them to hear from the Holy One.  And I want our people to know that grace is fundamentally a word about God: “God’s extravagant demonstrations of care and favor”, as one blogger put it.

And I want them to know peace.  God, I want them to know peace; peace to those who are far off and to those who are near, to know the peace that passes all understanding – a peace that we literally have the grace to share with one another each week.  Like love, peace not only bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, but gives us the grace to endure all things.  It never ends. And neither does the love and presence of Jesus.  And this is what I want to share.  This is why I am forever excited by the Gospel.

Almost 17 years ago a small group of people and I started a new church, Holy Comforter.  The genesis of Holy Comforter started in two ways.  The first was when the diocese bought some property in Columbia County and put up a sign that said, new Episcopal Church coming.  If interested, please call.  Apparently that’s how we did evangelism back in the day.  Put up a sign and hope someone would call. Put up a sign and say the Episcopal Church welcomes you and leave it at that.  Isn’t that so like the Episcopal Church back then…or now?

Not surprisingly there weren’t a lot of calls.  The sign in Columbia County became weather worn and beaten down.  None of this was a concern for me because at the time I was the Assoc. Rector at St. Paul’s here in Augusta.  However, I had begun to be in discernment about where next Jesus may be leading me and praying for a sign.

A parishioner came up to me one Sunday and said, “You know that sign out in Columbia County advertising a new church?  Well, it’s falling down and looks awful.  What are you going to do about it?”  My first reaction was to say, “This had nothing to do with me.”  Except that I was praying for a sign and here it came.  In the form of a sign.

That was the first nudge toward planting a church.  The second came with the death of my father.  I had already been ordained many years when my father died on a Thanksgiving weekend.  I thought I knew something about death and grief.  I knew nothing.  Riding with my family to go to the church was surreal.  All I felt was fear.  Heart pounding, hand shaking fear.  Then we got out of the car and walked into church.  And what we walked into was love and joy.  Wave after wave of love washing over us, love that said, “You’re not alone.”  It was the kind of perfect love that casts out fear.

I came away from that service shaken in a different way.  I never wanted anyone else to go through such an experience alone, without knowing what the love of a community could do for you through Jesus.  I wanted people to have a home, a spiritual home where you could be loved and hugged, nurtured and challenged.  And then do the same for someone else.

I went on a search through Scripture to find a verse that would best express the mission of this new church.  God lead me to Ephesians 2:19:  “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

Eugene Peterson puts it this way, “You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here…God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together.”

We live in such a transitory society.  People move in and out of our communities all the time.  But we are the faith community that says, “You’re no stranger.  You’ve never been a stranger.  I know you. And, by the way, do you know your true identity?  That you’re one of God’s saints and you have always had a home.  Welcome home.”  That’s the invitation to the feast – welcome to our home.  We’ve been waiting for you because the party wouldn’t be complete without you.

For many years Holy Comforter’s home was in a beautiful community center on the Savannah River.  Every Sunday we would come together and set up for worship and then take everything down.  It was exhausting.  It was wonderful!

For a while all the accruements of worship lived in my garage and guys and gals with trucks would come over to load up for worship.  A big day for us was when we were given a small trailer to load and store our things.  On the outside was the faded lettering for a lawn care company.  And on the inside…well, on the inside when we opened the trailer, out came the unmistakable smell of manure, fertilizer if you want to be polite about it.  And after the first breath, I thought, what a perfect place for a church plant to store their things.  This is where things grow!

I remember that story with you because we need to be reminded that in order to bring others to the feast you may have to go through a lot of manure.  In fact you may have to stand in it for a while with them because that’s where so many people are stuck.  You have to stand in all that crud and say, “You don’t have to stay here anymore.  Come, let me help you up.  My home is just over there.  No, no, no, you don’t have to change to come in.  Just come as you are.  You’ll be changed inside.  Come on in.  Come home with me.”

Jesus said, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” I think the political pollsters would agree to that.

The signs of our times are fear, mistrust, alienation, gaping wounds that feel as if they can’t be healed.  Our people are up to their necks in this mire.  They’re looking for some kind of sign- of hope, of courage, of love, of grace and peace to them from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Because we are living in history making times we sometimes forget that there have been other times of great upheaval.  In the 3rd century a bishop name Cyprian wrote to a man by the name of Donatus.  This is what he said:  “This seems a fair world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden, under the shadows of these vines.  But if I climbed some great mountain and looked out over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see.  Brigands on the high road, pirates on the seas, in the amphitheaters men murdered to please the applauding crowds, under all roofs misery and selfishness.  It is a really bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world.”

“Yet in the midst of it I have found a quiet and holy people.  They have discovered a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasures of this sinful life.  They are despised and persecuted, but they care not.  They have overcome the world.  These people…are the Christians…and I am one of them.”  And so are you.

It is our joy to be part of a people who can point the way to the sign of God’s presence.  It’s weather beaten and may not look like much.  Just two beams of wood nailed together that once held a raggedy man who would not just change the world but save the world.  And on that cross, a sign.  It says, welcome home.  Amen.