Monday, November 6, 2017

Bishop’s Sermon To the Forty-Seventh Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota

October 21, 2017
Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant 
(Mark 10:43-45).
As an aging baby boomer and hippy wannabe of yesteryear, I actually used to state as one of my life’s goals “to be happy.” (Wow, man, that’s deep.) Life certainly looks and feels differently in my sixties than it did in my twenties.  And one of the important lessons I have learned is that “happiness” is not an appropriate life goal, but rather happiness is a by-product of a well-lived life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was not known for his Christian faith. (After all, even the Unitarians were too much for him.) But no one has said it better than he when he wrote in the nineteenth century: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Jesus says: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45). Jesus, the servant, calls his people to follow in his footsteps as servants as well.

This downward mobility goes against the grain of our culture, but within it one finds a kernel of wisdom for life in the Kingdom of God, and dare I even suggest a well-lived life with accompanying happiness? In another place, Jesus says that, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for [his] sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). That oftentimes surprising paraphrase known as The Message says it another way:

Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself?
How have we as a local church, as the Diocese of North Dakota, been doing in our call to imitate Jesus, the servant, as we serve him by serving others? Reviewing issues of the past year from the diocesan newsletter, The Sheaf, gives us a glimpse:
  • The Youth Group of Grace Church in Jamestown began last fall with a goal of reaching out to other youth in the area in working within the Five Marks of Mission. What are the Five Marks of Mission? 1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. 2. To teach, baptize and nurture new believers. 3. To respond to human need by loving service. 4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation. 5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth. (Now, there’s something there for everyone’s passion.)

  • St. Peter’s in Williston continues to provide monthly community suppers for the elderly, homeless, and needy. They serve 50-80 people each month

  • The churches at Standing Rock provided a Christmas celebration for 400 people from the DAPL protest camps, as well as meals and shelter for those suffering from the winter cold at St. James’ in Cannonball and St. Luke’s in Fort Yates.

  • The East Africa Scholarship Committee has been sponsoring students in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan for almost 20 years.

  • The “Piece-makers” at St. George’s, Bismarck made 27 quilts and 43 pillow cases to give to the Charles Hall Youth program, the Burleigh County Child Protective Advocacy services, and as a fundraiser for scholarships for six students in South Sudan.

  • A group of ten from the Diocese visited Haiti last summer and have been instrumental in building hand-washing stations at a school without running water using resources from the North Dakota Episcopal Foundation, St. George’s Church in Bismarck, and the Diocese of Dallas.

  • Grace Church in Jamestown partnered with the University of Jamestown to sponsor Patrick Atkinson’s presentation on human trafficking. And their youth partnered with Bread of Life Episcopal ministry to serve Ministry on the Margins in Bismarck by stocking their food pantry and serving breakfast to the hungry.

To what other forms of service is the Lord calling us in the year ahead? Small numbers and shrinking resources are no excuse.

Admittedly, the mainline churches such as ours live in a time of institutional decline. While there are places that are blessed to be able to be exceptions to the rule of decrease, most of our congregations, and not just in North Dakota but throughout the Episcopal Church, are unable to afford to support full-time clergy and live with the reality of aging members and dwindling numbers. (At a recent diocesan council meeting, someone remarked that we collectively seem to be moaning because of sore knees a lot more than we used to as we walk down the basement steps to the meeting.)

Before we become too depressed, however, perhaps it is time to remember what God is able to accomplish with small, committed groups of people. Remember, there were only twelve apostles, Jesus himself said he would be in the midst of two or three people gathered in his name, and stories of “the remnant,” or those remaining faithful people are told time and again in the Old Testament. This morning we heard God speak of such a remnant through the prophet Zechariah:

Thus says the LORD of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me? … Here shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of the people to possess all these things (Zech. 8:6,12).

God’s future belongs to someone, my sisters and brothers. I believe it belongs to the remnant who follow Jesus, the servant, as servants to those in need. Who knows? Such service might even bring us a little happiness.