PITTSBURGH: "Take Courage. It is I. Don't Be Afraid..."
A sermon preached at the 143rd Diocesan Convention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh on the occasion of the secession of the diocese from The Episcopal Church to the Province of the Southern Cone.
By Rev. David Wilson October 4, 2008
This year is different. For as long as I can remember diocesan convention has been held the first week in November: As it comes it always reminds me to remember my wedding anniversary, also in the first week of November. November 3rd to be exact or is it November 2nd ? And every year Gale asks me where are we going to dinner for our anniversary? And I say, "To a hotel ballroom for a scrumptious meal! And you can even have your choice of beef tips over noodles, stuffed chicken breast or vegetable lasagna!
I have attended every diocesan and special convention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh since 1982, save one, that is, in 1985 when Gale and I and our family resided in Fairfax VA. This is my 26th diocesan convention either as a lay member or as a presbyter of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. If anyone is a son of this diocese, it is me.
I came to Christ here as an Episcopalian, I was raised up for ministry here as an Episcopalian and I have ministered as a layman in three parishes and also as an ordained pastor in three parishes, and I interviewed to be rector in two others in the diocese though not called (now there's two parishes that knew what they were doing!), I have preached in at least 20 different parishes in our diocese and have visited over sixty. I have served on more committees, task forces, Cursillo teams and diocesan search committees than I can remember, I been on Diocesan Council and served on the Standing Committee ---now as the President.
In short, I spent my whole Christian life here in this diocese as an Episcopalian. There is no other diocese that has claimed me and no other diocese I have ever desired to be part of. I am thoroughly a Pittsburgh Anglican --- I bleed Stiller Black and Gold.
For the previous twenty-five conventions I sat out there and faced this way during Convention sermons and addresses. Now in this my twenty-sixth instead of standing with you I now stand before you and so I ask your prayers that I might be adequate to the task that I have called to do. This morning I would like to reflect on our gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 14 that Karen just read. I want to hone in on verse 27 "Jesus immediately said to them [his disciples] Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid". Three short sentences, no sentence more than three words --- Take courage! ---It is I. --- Don't be afraid.
First sentence: "Take courage". It took courage for Peter to get of the boat and walk on the water, to attempt something he had never done before, something beyond his human experience, something outside of his comfort zone --something beyond his rational, cognitive being --- something that takes total faith and trust.
The safe place is in the boat. The safe place will always be in the boat. Getting out of the boat is risky and being a risk taker requires courage. A well known Anglican evangelist once said there are three kind of "takers" in this world, caretakers, undertakers and risk takers. If nothing else Peter was a risk taker. Throughout the scriptures risk-taking for the sake of Christ was one of Peter's most admirable qualities and God wants us to be risk takers for him too.
What does it mean to have courage. The word itself comes from the French word for heart "coeur". Literally to have courage means to have heart or to take heart. The dictionary defines courage this way: it is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, without fear; bravery. Some synonyms are fearlessness, acting with daring and an intrepid boldness, pluck, spirit, "guts".
What we are about to do in this convention will take courage. It will take courage from all of us, both clergy and laity and both re-aligners and re-organizers. It is a courageous act to acknowledge the truth --- to acknowledge that our differences cannot be reconciled without one side or the other capitulating to the other. That will not happen –nor should it. Among other things, many in the majority and many in the minority have diametrically different beliefs about the nature of sin, about the meaning and scope of salvation and about the authority and interpretation of Scripture.
To be true to our beliefs, it would be far better to bless each other in separating, each going our own way than to continue the internecine warfare of winner-take-all. It will take courage to let each other go and to bless each other in the going. We have an opportunity today to make this convention a testimony to love and forbearance among brothers and sisters in Christ. To be a blessing to each other. Do we have the courage to do it? Will we do it? Can we forgo parliamentary shenanigans that in the end will cause more pain and more distrust and bless nobody? Can we get on with it decently and in order?
One of the watchwords from our bishop, first spoken in the fall of 2003, has been --- Courage breeds Courage. These words, when first uttered, instantly transversed the whole of the Anglican Communion. They inspired many, including me. But I don't believe they were meant simply for one side or the other in the divide we find ourselves, but for all of us in this Diocese. Does the courage of Nano Chalfont Walker inspire me to be courageous: it does.
Does the courage of Mary Hays encourage Bruce Robison to be courageous, I believe it does. Does the courage of Doug Wicker inspire Doug Toth and vice versa - I believe it does. We may be opponents today but can we be worthy opponents. That is, can we be opponents that honor God and honor each other even as we disagree and as we separate. Can we be amicable as opposed to hostile, even in the midst of strongly held views. That takes heart. That takes courage.
In November 2005 over 3,000 Anglican Christians gathered in Pittsburgh including hundreds from our diocese at the "Hope and A Future Conference", last month about 300 Anglican Christians from our diocese gathered in Mount Lebanon at the "A Hopeful Future" meeting. Each side is looking to its own future and looking to its future with hope and with confidence. Now is the time for both sides to put the strife of the past behind us and bless each other's efforts to make their hope a reality.
With courage Peter was able to get out of the boat and walk on the water. When he became afraid - he sank. Will we operate today courageously or fearfully? Will we bless or curse? Will we walk or will we sink? It's our choice to make. Second short sentence, "It is I" Jesus reminds Peter of who it is that is calling to him. Only one person calls and only one person saves. -Jesus Christ.
The scriptures say Salvation is found in no one else[than Jesus], for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved." Without Christ we flounder. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us in chapter 12 verse 2, Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith As long as Peter kept his eyes fixed on Jesus he was able to walk on the water but when he began to focus on the storm about him, he sank. Our text says But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!"
Shortly after hearing the news of Bishop Duncan's deposition, I received an email from the Rt. Rev. Stanley Ntagali of Bishop Masindi-Kitara diocese, who had preached in my parish early last month, he wrote, Dear Rev. David: My wife Beatrice and I would like to assure you and the entire Diocese of Pittsburgh that we are praying for you at this very difficult moment in the history of your Diocese. We know how much you love your dear Bishop Bob Duncan and have enjoyed his ministry over the years. We are praying for Bishop Bob and Nara too. We pray that God will give you his peace and you will have courage to withstand the storm. Was that a timely prayer! A coincidence? I don't think so-Just like Peter, the appeal is for courage to withstand the storm.
Peter cries out "Lord, save me!" Only one person calls and only one person saves. First Jesus calls out to Peter "It is I" and then as he is sinking Jesus saves Peter. Our text says verse in 31, "Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. Bible teacher and Episcopal priest Chuck Irish once said, "If you don't think you are helpless and in need of a Savior perhaps you are still helpless and in need of a Savior.
God loves us so much that he was willing to offer his only Son so that we might not only be saved but that we might be transformed, made new, made whole, delivered and set free from a life of sin and death ---transferred from the Kingdom of darkness into his marvelous light. That's the good news, brothers and sisters. The gospel isn't an affirmation of who we are in our sin but a transformation from it. There's change involved.
I came to know Christ as my Lord and Savior in 1981 through the witness of a priest of this diocese. He had the courage, the heart, to share the gospel with me. And it was good news for me. Before I responded to this free gift of God's grace, I was, as St Paul reminds us in Ephesians "without God and without hope in the world". My life was aimless.
Like Peter I was unfocussed and sinking fast. Adrift, without direction, I lived from one day to next without a thought of tomorrow. I was self-centered and I was self-directed, lost in my sin and separated from God. Just like with Peter on the water, Jesus reached out his hand and caught me. He saved me, rescued me from my sin.
The Bible says, "While we were yet sinners Christ died for us –the godly for the ungodly". He didn't wait till I cleaned up my act. He didn't demand I work harder, or do better. He snatched me up as is --- "Just as I am, without one plea!". But he didn't leave me there. He transformed me. He gave me new direction in my life, joy, peace and contentment. He gave me deeper love for my wife and children. He gave me a depth of commitment to my family which had been so very weak.
After I surrendered my life to Christ, I strived to be Christ- centered rather than me-centered. And my life has never been the same since. Thanks be to God. Third and last sentence, Jesus said "Don't be afraid". This third and last sentence reminds me of the first words uttered to the faithful by John Paul II upon becoming Pope. "Do not be afraid to open your heart to Jesus... I'm begging you, please do not be afraid." Brothers and sisters, we have nothing to fear. God is with us in this. He really is.
In this great debate we have been having these past years I have heard many analogies to past wars and inspiring war leaders, men like Thomas Paine, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill and even Neville Chamberlain and Marshall Petain. Even the title of this convention "A house divided against itself cannot stand" from Matthew 12:25 was quoted most famously by Lincoln. In the midst of the Civil War a question was asked of President Lincoln. The inquirer said: "Mr. President, we trust during this time of trial in which the nation is engaged, God is on our side, and will give us victory." Lincoln replied: "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side. My great concern is to be on God's side. For God is always right!" I think Mr. Lincoln was right on target.
If we act out of godly motives, with godly love toward each other then both sides will be on God's side and no matter which side carries the vote, both sides will win in the end. And if that be the case we have nothing to fear. Moses spoke these words to the people of Israel as they prepared to engage the Amorites, "Be strong and courageous.
Do not be afraid or terrified [because of them], for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you." So it is with us. God has not given us a spirit of fear. He will see every re-organizer and every re-aligner through this challenging time, every one who puts their full faith and trust in him. Can we trust him in this vote. Can we trust that His will for all of us will prevail in this convention today? Can we bless each other as we separate? In the last several years our Bishop's final blessing has often begun with these words of St. Paul from I Corinthians 16:12-14. Be watchful; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. Let it be so today and always. For His sake I pray, Amen.
---The Rev. David Wilson is President of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Pittsburgh
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