By The Rt. Rev. Douglas Fisher
Grace Church – An Episcopal Community in the Southern Berkshires
(context: St. James Church of Great Barrington and St. George’s Church of Lee merged to form Grace Church. The church buildings were closed and the new community meets in the large reception hall of a pub at Crissey Farm. Bishop Fisher lives five miles from this new church.)
It is so good to be here with you today and to celebrate liturgy with my neighbors. Often bishops begin their sermons with greetings from their home. A couple of weeks ago I was with Bishop Daniel Sarfo in St. John’s of Williamstown. He began by saying “Greetings from Ghana.” When our Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts-Shori, preaches throughout the world, she says “Greetings from the United States of America.” I stand before you today and say “Greetings from the other side of Guido’s Food Market.”
Last week you celebrated the 250th Anniversary of St James. I heard it was a glorious celebration. I am sorry I could not be with you but I was at our Cathedral, being “seated.” Part of that wonderful, traditional service is banging on the door with the crozier, asking to be let in. I’m really happy they allowed me through the doors and I invite you to come to our great and holy Cathedral and see the dents I put in that door.
When I was ordained a priest on May 17, 1980, after the ordination and before the reception I stopped in to see an elderly priest who was dying. I prayed with him and then asked him what advice he had for me as a young priest starting out. He said, “Doug, love the people, just love the people.”
Your rector, Francie Hills, loves the people of this church. She is doing what Father Basil told me to do those many years ago. Let’s tell her how much we love her. (applause)
I have known for a long time what story I would use in this sermon. Here it is. My youngest daughter’s name is Grace. When she was three years old and we were at St. Peter’s in Peekskill, whenever she would hear the word “grace” in the liturgy, she would shout out “Hey, that’s my name!” You would be amazed how many times we say “grace” in our service. One time the Fisher family was going to an Anglican convent of cloistered nuns (yes, there is such a thing in our Church). A friend of mine was being installed as chaplain. We told our children this was not like St. Peter’s. We had to be really quiet.
As soon as we entered the convent chapel, the kids understood this was not like St. Peter’s. It was a time to be quiet. The service went along fine and then the word “grace” was said. I thought “ok, here it comes.” But Gracie stayed quiet. She just tugged on my sleeve so I would look at her. And then she silently lifted her hand, thumb up, and pointed to herself.
I am going to come back to that image. Store it in your soul.
In today’s gospel we have what some theologians call the most important line in the whole bible. (A great advantage to preaching every week in a different place is that I can say “today’s gospel has the most important line in the whole bible” every week and get away with it.) Here it is: In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Lysanius ruler of Abilene, and Caiaphas the High Priest, the word of God came to a man named John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.”
Why is that the most important line in the whole Bible? Because it tells us our story of faith is not make-believe. It is the opposite of “once upon a time.” It is not “in a galaxy far away.” It is not a fantasy. In this time and in this place, when Tiberius was Emperor and Pilate governor of Judea and Herod ruled Galilee, the word of God came to a man named John who had a dad named Zechariah and it happened in the wilderness.” You can’t get much more precise than that. Our faith is not an abstraction. It is God working with us in the real world.
There are other important dimensions of this passage. Notice the Word of God did not come to the Emperor or the Governor or the King or the High Priest (their equivalent of a Bishop). It did not come to the Royal Palace or the place of political power or the Temple. It came to a man with no titles (John), and it came in the wilderness – a real place and a place that symbolized confusion and chaos and dislocation. The Word of God is wild and free. It can arrive anywhere – in the wilderness of the year 30 or maybe in the reception room of a pub in Great Barrington in the 21st Century.
One of my spiritual heroes is Thomas Merton. Merton was a Roman Catholic monk and social activist who died 44 years ago tomorrow while visiting a Buddhist Monastery in Thailand. After many years in the monastery of Gethsemane Kentucky he went to Louisville for a doctor’s appointment. And here is what happened in his words:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved these people. That they were mine and I theirs. It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race…there is no way of telling them that they are walking around shining like the sun.
“I suddenly saw the beauty of their hearts, the depth of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self knowledge can reach, the core of their reality. The person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only they could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”
The word of God came to Thomas Merton. And it was not in church. It was not in the monastery. It was on the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville.
There are a number of churches in our great diocese who are suffering under the burden of church buildings they cannot afford. Their mission is being blocked by maintaining buildings. They don’t know what to do. We are all looking at the new Grace Church – the merger of St James and St George’s- praying together in a building that is not a church. And we are looking – does the Word of God come there? You are a new model. We are all praying for you and hoping for you and looking to you for a new way of being church.
Here’s another story, borrowed from other preachers. There was a Sunday School class where every Sunday the teacher would end the class in this way: she would invite the class to do the old hand prayer of “here is the church and here is the steeple, open the doors and here are all the people.” (acts this out) On this Sunday there was a visitor –a little boy with only one hand. The teacher did not know that and went into her invitation for the usual ending. The girl sitting next to the boy with one hand saw immediately his feeling of discomfort and isolation. She reached over to him with a hand and grabbing his said “let’s be church together.”
Someday you might be with a person without a church. With great courage and breaking from your Episcopal sense of holding back, say to that person “I know of another dimension to life. My life has been changed by faith, by knowing I am not alone in a meaningless universe. I am held by a God who gives me life. Let’s be church together. Let’s be Grace Church together.”
And when that person says “where is this Grace Church? Where is the steeple?” Just lift your hand with thumb up and point to yourself. Amen.