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Dean's Corner
Sermon: September 17, 2017

The Very Rev. Judith Sullivan                                                                                      

September 17, 2017

Welcome back, everyone!  Welcome, home!  You know that old saying about Episcopalians: We are the only ones whom God trusts enough to take the summer off.  And in this congregation, a number of us evidently see ourselves as being quite trustworthy.  Including me.  For the first time, in a while I was able to take some weeks away for rest and refreshment, which makes coming together today and being with all of you to launch our new program ministry year that much sweeter.

If you’ve been in church any time recently, you know that we’ve been telling two stories this summer: The first is about Jesus with his disciples, teaching and healing on the shores of the Galilee and then ultimately, turning his face toward Jerusalem where he will encounter his cross.  And also the second story from Genesis and Exodus about some of the earliest patriarchs and matriarchs of the Hebrew Scriptures: Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Rebecca, Joseph, Moses, and Miriam encountering and struggling to understand the transcendent wonder and power of the one, holy, and living God, the great I AM, whom we share with all the children of Abraham.  All of them, moving from place to place, on a journey to fulfill God’s purposes for their lives and for their people.

It’s a repeating theme. Over and over again in the history of the people of God, from the moment God tells Abraham and Sarah to get up and go, to Joseph who travels to and from Egypt, to Jesus who turns his face and walks to his death in Jerusalem, to the travelers on the Emmaus Road who affirm the resurrection, through all the books of the Bible, it is clear that God’s people are a people of journey.

There is no greater example of this than the Israelites who follow Moses out of Egypt into and across the Red Sea. How extraordinary it is that they are given a visible manifestation of the presence and protection of God, the angel of God and the pillar of cloud, with them night and day, yet this is not a gentle story.

God’s fierce protection of the Israelites stands in bold contrast to the cruel fate of the Egyptians who are tossed into the sea or who drown when the wheels of their chariots get stuck in the mud.  Yes, the Israelites have cast off the bonds of servitude and slavery, but the Egyptians have stood no chance.  The fact that there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support the account matters little because this is a foundational story that demonstrates that God will defend God’s favored people.  The Israelites are triumphant; Miriam dances; and they don’t know yet that they will wander for forty more years before reaching the promised land.

Today, our journeys with God are usually not so dramatic.  Unless I’m mistaken, none of us has witnessed a parting of the seas or a burning bush.  Compared with the drama of the Hebrew Scriptures, our stories seem smaller, quieter, more modest.  Here in the Cathedral, we frequently reference journey when we speak of our worship.  But as we move throughout the space, we are most often mirroring interior journeys taking place in our hearts, minds and spirits, as, just like the people of old, we struggle to understand the transcendent wonder and power of God. And we struggle to understand God’s purposes for our lives, as individuals and as a community.

Still, there are moments on those journeys, in the lives of individuals and communities that are foundational. That reveal God’s plan more broadly.  That go to the heart of the community’s story and identity.  They are moments that challenge us to respond more expansively and immediately to God’s compelling call to us.  Moments like the decision by the Israelites, who despite complaining a lot before and after, to follow Moses to the banks of the Red Sea, wade into the water, and trust that God had their backs. 

In its more than 150 years, this Cathedral has experienced a few moments like that: The decision by the Vestry who stood in the rubble right about there of what was then the Church of the Saviour and decided to rebuild after a disastrous fire in 1902; by 1906, the new, expanded Church rose out of the ashes.  In 1998, the controversial decision to transform the interior of this Cathedral whose floor was about to give way and whose pews were falling apart into the beautiful, sacred space that meets our needs so well today.  Then in 2011, the decision to be prudent stewards of our land and air rights by engaging in a development partnership that would provide resources that would assure our continued presence in this community, the expansion and deepening of our ministries to the community and the Diocese, and the stabilization of the exterior of our historically certified Cathedral church.  This summer, through the sale of the tower and the stabilization of our business model, we have come close to realizing this dream. 

The question before us this morning is, I think,  “now what”?  Where will our journey as followers of Jesus lead us now? Where is God calling us now? Let’s be clear that we are not done yet. In this place, we do not proclaim the “prosperity gospel,” the idea that somehow God has rewarded us financially because we are specially favored or exceptionally deserving.  While we are intensely grateful to God and we are counting these blessings, there is no room or time for triumphalism, or self-satisfaction, or smugness.  There’s just too much else that God is calling us to do with our reinvigorated resources and there are other dreams to dream.

Desmond Tutu captures both the sentiment and the challenge so beautifully in his prayer:

Disturb us, O Lord

when we are too well pleased with ourselves,

when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little, because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, O Lord

When with the abundance of things we possess

We have lost our thirst for the water of life;

When having fallen in love with time,

We have ceased to dream of eternity;

And in our efforts to build a new earth,

We have allowed our vision of heaven to grow dim.

Stir us, O Lord

To dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas . . .

[where storms show Thy mastery,

where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars,]

In the name of the One who pushed back the horizons of our hopes, and invited the brave to follow.   AMEN

At this next important moment in our collective journey as a faith community, how shall we dare more boldly, and venture into those wider seas?   While we may not have the constant comfort of the angel of God and the pillar of cloud to show us where to go, we have the presence of the risen Christ who infuses our world and our sacramental worship, and who makes all things new.   We have the gift of our Scriptures and we have the gift of one another.

In the past month, those gifts have led our congregation, Cathedral Chapter, and Bishop to an affirmation of some of our most deeply cherished beliefs and aspirations in a document entitled “Renewing Our Covenant: A Statement of Commitment and Action” for the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral: We will go deeper in faith. We will listen. We will be truthful. We will affirm pluralism, diversity, and equal opportunity. We will love our neighbors by protecting them from hate speech and attacks. We will welcome the stranger, as our Scriptures instruct. We will expose and oppose racial profiling in policing. We will defend the religious liberty of our Muslim sisters and brothers. We will work to end misogyny that enables sexism and a culture of sexual violence. We will fight for climate justice and protection of our environment. We will lead with our best values. We will need each other.  

Here we stand and how we do these things will be a focus of communal and individual discernment throughout the fall.  Through workshops and small group discussions, we will consider our spiritual gifts and how God is calling us to more active participation in the life of this church and community.  From prayer to advocacy, we will engage this work with wisdom, discretion, compassion, and grace.

Our development project and its success are thrilling. They are a national and international model for church sustainability, but in the end, we know what those vestrymen knew as they stood in the center of their church that had burned to the ground:  The buildings are just a vehicle for what we have to share—our faith, love, and hope.  We know that it’s really about the people and how we fulfill God’s purposes in this place. 

Stir us, O Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas.




Last Published: November 13, 2017 1:18 PM