Year C; 5 Epiphany; 2.10.2019
Thirty-five years ago, I was a new Episcopalian in the diocese of North Carolina. John and I had moved there from Kansas and soon I was beginning to enter into deeper relationship with God. I even began to think that God might be calling me to consider what I thought at that time was to be a ridiculous career change – to become a priest.
I met a woman who was to be my role model as a Christian leader. Phyllis Barnes was a formidable black leader in the diocese of North Carolina. She was my mother’s age. She was a cradle Episcopalian, and had served on most committees including being elected to the Standing Committee, the most influential group of advisors to the bishop.
Phyllis was also president of the Episcopal Church Women which was and still is in the South, a powerful group of women who raise funds for ministries worldwide. Phyllis and her family were members of St. Titus’ Church in Durham. St. Titus’ is located next to the campus of the historically black university North Carolina Central. St. Titus’ members are mostly professors, coaches and graduates of the university.
John and I were members of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham and immediately became active. I headed up Adult Formation and ran the Adult Sunday morning class. Later, some of the young professional women started a book group. We met on Saturday mornings because of our work schedules. Phyllis Barnes contacted me because she discovered that I was hosting that group at my house one Saturday. Always evangelizing about God’s work, Phyllis asked if she could join our meeting and share the important mission of the Episcopal Church Women with our book group.
That day, Phyllis arrived at my house before the others arrived. I was surprised by how sick she looked. I could see clearly that the whites of her eyes were yellow. She was jaundiced. That meant she was very sick. She explained to me that she had been diagnosed with liver cancer and that she was determined not to let it stop her from God’s work. She shared with me that all her life she loved the Episcopal Church. She shared with me that over her lifetime, she had felt a clear call to the priesthood. She wistfully spoke about how, as an elderly black woman she would never achieve this in her lifetime.
Soon, I was to be assigned to St. Titus’ as an aspirant to discern the call to the priesthood I was experiencing. There I met Phyllis again. She was excited to tell me that she had just been trained and commissioned as a Chalice Bearer. With her tired smile she said she had just bought a white alb and was proud to wear it when she served at the altar. Nothing stopped Phyllis in her work for God’s glory. But not too long after we talked I learned that she lay dying in Duke Medical Center. Her cancer was finally taking her.
At her funeral, Father Freeman preached about her calling to be a priest. Everyone who knew her discerned a priestly vocation in her. We were sad that earthly circumstances prevented her from achieving this vocation. For her funeral she had chosen the lessons from the ordination liturgy. The passage from Isaiah was read. It’s one of the best passages in Scripture to describe a call from God and the humble response from a woeful human.
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’” The hem of God’s great robe filled the temple. Six-winged seraphs called out loudly, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.”
For a human to experience this temple majesty, even for us to hear the words today, we are elevated to awe, wonder and even fear. “Woe is me!” is certainly the proper response! “I am not worthy! I have unclean lips! I am a sinner!” But God in God’s great wisdom and power sees a vocation in the lowly human, commandeers one of the seraphs to take a hot coal with tongs and place it on the human’s lips and declare, “Your unworthiness is now gone! Get up and answer my call! Whom shallI send, and who willgo for us?…Here am I; send me!” is really the only response to make!
Yesterday, the diocese of Maine just concluded a lengthy process to call the 10thbishop to be our chief shepherd. Some 30 applicants tested their call to leadership as our bishop. We have hoped for a bishop to lead us, love us, serve us and help us stand for justice and love in a changing and challenging world. On the third ballot our diocese elected The Rev. Thomas James Brown, rector of the Parish of the Epiphany in Winchester, Massachusetts.
Not too long ago, Thomas Brown would not have been able to become a priest much less a bishop. He would not have even been welcome in many areas of our country. He is a gay man who is married to a man named Tom.
His acceptance of our election as our 10thbishop was live streamed yesterday from his home via online media to the convention floor. He appeared on the big screen and he spoke directly to us about the longing our church and communities have of inclusivity, unity and love in a world of harsh division.
His words reinforced what he perceived as God’s call in us. He said, “What you have said today [in this election is that] you are an inclusive diocese, you are open to all, a welcome-home diocese, and you are being invited to new places.”
As happy and excited as we are to have elected Thomas James Brown as our next bishop, at the same time we acknowledge that we are a church that has failed many vulnerable people. Just as the church is called to reclaim our discipleship, drop our nets and follow Jesus to share his good news with the world, we are also to make amends for terrible sins of our past, and to change our ways.
As your rector, I am charged by our current bishop, Stephen Lane, to read his Pastoral Letter giving direction to those who have been sexually abused by clergy, to confidentially report their case even from many years ago in order that justice can be served and healing can take place. As hopeful as the election was for our diocese yesterday, our new bishop will have his work cut out for him in leading us to seek justice and re-build the trust of people who have been abused by the church.
The good news is that we will be accompanied by our awesome God.
And so, today is a day when the church is invited to consider God’s call to us – “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” we delight in all the humble leaders God has called into God’s service. And that call extends to you and me right now. “Whom shall I send who will go for us?” We answer the call as a “welcome-home, inclusive, open people of faith who are being invited to new places.” And we dare to answer, “Here am I. Send me.”