The Rt. Rev. Susan Brown Snook, fifth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, preached this sermon during the convention eucharist at the 46th Annual Diocesan Convention that took place at St. Margaret’s, Palm Desert.
You will be my witnesses, says Jesus. You are witnesses.
A witness is someone who saw or experienced something and who speaks about it. During this convention, you’ve heard some witnesses on video, speaking about their experiences with Jesus and with the church. You’ve had an opportunity to share your own stories with others as witnesses to Jesus’ work in your lives.
I wouldn’t ask you to do something I wouldn’t do myself, so here’s my witness. Or at least one witness to one event at one point when Jesus changed my life.
I was raised in the Episcopal Church, and was very involved growing up. I remember feeling, as I served as an acolyte, that it was the most holy, mysterious, awesome experience I could imagine. But like many others, I fell away from church as teen. I left as a college student, and I didn’t come back for many years.
When I finally did dip my toe into church again in my late 20s, it was at a time of trouble in my life. For one thing, I had adopted all the wrong priorities in life. I had bought into the idea that our culture gives us, that the purpose of life is to be as successful and earn as much money as you possibly can. I was working hard at it. But by this point, my life felt like it was coming up empty. It all seemed purposeless. My assumption that success would bring me happiness turned out to be a lie. I didn’t know where my life was going, I felt that everything was falling apart.
It was at that point in my life that I woke up one Saturday morning, looked at the paper, and noticed that the next day was Easter. I hadn’t been paying attention. I thought, hmm, maybe I’ll go to church. I hadn’t been to church for years. I had to look up my closest church in the yellow pages. I think I had to drive by and look at the sign to find out what time their services were. (Life was hard before we had the internet.)
And on Easter morning, I showed up. To be honest, the service was so-so. The music was ponderous. The sermon was dull. During the prayers of the people, the family next to me in the pew started crying when the name of someone who had died was read. I didn’t need that! But I was squished in the pew between the crying family and a family of rambunctious children, and I couldn’t leave. I had to stick it out.
I went forward for communion, and the priest came along, “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” She gave me bread, and then she stopped. She said, “you look like you could use a special blessing. Can I bless you?” I nodded, and she did. And I don’t know what she said, but I felt like Jesus had reached down his hand out of the clouds and touched my shoulder, and said, “I’m here. I’ve always been here. I will always be here for you.”
That is why I am here. Because Jesus was here for me.
I believe there are many people in our world who are living in quiet despair. It may be a time of trouble in their lives, like it was for me. Or it may be a sudden realization that although they look successful and fortunate on the outside, the dream they have devoted their lives to, a dream of money, power, success, appearance – the false gods of our society – is an empty dream, that ultimately won’t bring happiness. It may be a simple longing for a deeper meaning and purpose in life, a suspicion that this surface world with all its joys and distraction isn’t really all there is. It may be a yearning for community and belonging. It may be a suspicion that love can be found in an ancient tradition founded on love. It may be a draw that a person can’t really explain, because they don’t know what drew them, they only know that one day they found themselves in a church weeping because they were overwhelmed by a sense of holiness when they walked in door.
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, said St. Augustine, and our hearts are restless until they find their home in you. And what restless hearts we find in our society. What conflicted, angry, unjust, suffering despair we find, with many of those who have much, never exposed at all to those who have little, and no common sense of justice, mercy, restoration, reconciliation. What a divided, unhappy world we live in, to the point where many of us are afraid to look at the news each day, to find that everything from our national politics to our climate seems to be on the brink of falling apart.
In this conflicted, angry, unjust world, we Christians have a calling as the bearers of the love that God offered us in Jesus Christ. We have a calling as the bearers of a treasure – the good news that the Son of God has entered this world as a human being, lived a life of love, healing, and reconciliation, died, and yet God resurrected him from the dead, and he took our human nature into very presence of God. Death itself has been conquered in him, we have nothing to fear any longer. We can live with courage. We can act in the face of fear.
And we are called to make disciples. To sit at the feet of Jesus and listen, and learn, and be formed in his image. To pray and to listen for God’s voice assuring us of our own belovedness. To worship and to allow Jesus to nourish us with his Body and Blood.
And then to go into all the world and help others become disciples. He doesn’t say to do it because our religion is better than anyone else’s. He doesn’t say to do it because we have a lot of deferred maintenance on our church buildings and we need to get more pledging members. He doesn’t say to do it because that’s how people get to go to heaven when they die. He says, teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
And what Jesus commands is, love God and love your neighbor. Love God and love your neighbor.
I am convinced that that kind of love can change the world. It changes those who practice it, from the inside out, and it allows us to change those we touch every day – co-workers, family, people in need, people in our communities who don’t know they are loved. We follow Jesus’ command to share the good news because it is good news – news of a transformed way to live.
I know that times are tough in some Episcopal churches. I know that this diocese is emerging out of a time when a number of people left the church, a time of lawsuits and conflict and anxiety over whether we would get our buildings back, how the few people left would be able to maintain them, what to do when we have many fewer people in church, and whether we should combine into fewer churches because we have too many churches for the number of Episcopalians out there. I know that for years we have heard a narrative of decline, all over the Episcopal Church.
I want to say that I believe that that narrative of decline is a false narrative. We may have too many churches for the number of Episcopalians, but we have too few for the number of people that are longing to hear about God’s love, who need to hear about God’s love, whose lives could be transformed by God’s love in the Episcopal Church. Our church is not dead and it is not dying. It is the living embodiment of the Body of Christ, right here on this earth, right now.
And our church has a mission. We are witnesses Jesus is alive. You can ask me – do you really believe Christ is risen? And my answer is: Believe it? I’ve seen it! I’ve seen it in my own life and in the lives of others who have put their trust in him. I’ve seen it in the dedicated servants who help people without homes in my office at the Episcopal Church Center each week. I’ve seen it in children and adults who know that Jesus is with them and they are loved.
If there was ever a time when the church of Jesus Christ seemed to be dead, it was right after his crucifixion. Yet love is stronger than death. And the risen Jesus came to the disciples and told them to go into all the world and make disciples. He told them that they would be his witnesses – witnesses to the love of God, witnesses to the resurrection, witnesses to the fact that God’s will for this world is healing and transformation, justice and reconciliation.
He told them that they would be witnesses, speaking the truth of God’s love in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
And here we are at ends of the earth, in a place none of those disciples had heard of. And that witness is still going strong. We are here because we are witnesses to the ongoing work of transformation that we can see with our own eyes. Transformation in ministries of service to refugees, migrants, those without homes, those in need of healing from addiction. Transformation in our homes and in our churches, as we are nourished by Jesus’ Body and Blood and sent out to continue his mission. Transformation in our hearts, as we realize that we don’t have to live in fear, that we can live with courage, that we can act as witnesses to Jesus in courageous love.
Transformation in that narrative, as we realize that the church of Jesus Christ has never been part of a story of decline. The church of Jesus Christ is a story of mission. The mission of God that sent God’s beloved Son to us. The mission of the Holy Spirit that infuses our church and our lives. The mission of each one of us as we go out into the world as witnesses to God’s love. It’s time for our narrative to change – from a narrative of decline to a narrative of mission. We are sent. We are commissioned. We are witnesses.
So Go. Go and be witnesses. Go and make disciples. Go and proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ. Go and serve Christ in all human beings, loving your neighbor as yourself. Go, strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being.
We’re not called to stay, we’re called to go. Let’s go.
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