Epiphany Last A 2005 Matthew 17:1-9
In the classic fantasy book by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, the book that the Lord Of The Rings trilogy does not cover, Bilbo
Baggins and his troop are traveling through a dark, dangerous forest infested with gigantic, poisonous spiders and all manner
of dark critters and creepy-crawly things. Just being in that kind of place was a frightening experience. And each member
of the group, especially Bilbo Baggins, wanted to get out of that dreadful forest of darkness as soon as they possibly could.
As they traveled on, hoping against hope that
the edge of the dangerous forest was near and not having their hopes fulfilled, one of the leaders orders Bilbo Baggins to
climb the tallest tree he can find in order to have a look around and see where the dark forest ended.
Reluctantly, Bilbo climbs the tree, with limbs, branches and leaves scratching at him all the way. S everal times he nearly
falls. But once having pushed his way through the forest canopy to the top, he is nearly blinded by the sudden intense sunlight.
It took some time for his eyes to get used to the light, but once they had, Bilbo found that it was very wonderful and beautiful
up there. Above him was the most beautiful blue sky and around him was an ocean of green treetops.
After being in the damp darkness below, he enjoyed the sunshine and was able to soak it into his weary, tired and
aching bones. The fresh air blew softly in his face and invigorated his lungs and cleared his mind. What a wonderful place
to be! And no doubt, if we could have asked Bilbo Baggins, he would have said, "Yes, 'tis good to be here." (1)
Last Saturday we returned from the Annual Council of the Diocese of Virginia. And today’s Gospel speaks of the Transfiguration
of our Lord. While transfiguration like that may not be possible for us in this world, transformation is possible, even in
church councils. And "Yes, 'twas good to be there." And "Yes, 'tis good to be here" in the Diocese of Virginia on this
Sunday morning and any morning of the year.
If you read the latest Virginia Episcopalian, the pre-Council issue, you might think that it would have been a horrible two
days, given that there are large parts of the Episcopal Church and some parts of the Diocese of Virginia in rebellion over
the actions of the 2003 General Convention and the 2004 Windsor Report of the Lambeth Commission in response to it.
But surely the Holy Spirit was at work. In the terms of today’s Gospel on the Transfiguration, I believe that this
Council can serve as a transforming event for the people of the Diocese of Virginia. In the first place the theme of the
Council was a clear call to refocus on mission and unity: “So much to be done as one”. And in the Second Place,
several remarkable documents or events were presented to the Council that set a tone of meekness, mercy, and peacemaking.
First was Bishop Lee’s pastoral address. It came to us on videotape because Bishop Lee was in the hospital awaiting
triple bypass surgery as a result of the findings of a heart catheterization about a week ago. And I ask you to keep this
good bishop in your prayers during his recovery from the successful surgery.
In his address, Bishop Lee expressed his deep regret that his vote at General Convention has caused such turmoil in the diocese,
even as he noted that he voted out of conscience. He called all of the diocese to reconciliation through mutual submission,
which according to the New Testament understanding is voluntarily refraining from actions that hurt our brothers and sisters
or create stumbling blocks for others in the life of faith. Bishop Lee himself noted that he would now refrain from giving
consent to the consecration as bishop of any gay or lesbian person living in a same sex relationship.
Bishop Lee has, I think, gone as far as he can in reaching out to those parishes which have withheld support and have joined
dissident organizations such as the American Anglican Council and the Network of Anglican Communion Parishes and Dioceses.
We shall see in the next year whether they are willing to reach back.
The second major event was the keynote address by Ambassador David Abshire, a member of the West Point Class of 1951, Ambassador
to NATO, Assistant Secretary of State, Counselor to the President of the United States, founder of the Center for Strategic
and international Studies, and currently President of the Center for the Study of the Presidency. A believing Christian and
a devoted Episcopalian in the Diocese of Virginia.
Dr, Abshire summarized his research into the subject of “The Grace and Power of Civility: Lessons from the American
Experience for the Coming Four Years.” He began by noting the line about having “A decent respect for the opinions
of mankind” from The Declaration of Independence.
He said that “America has two histories, the history of commitment and the history of tolerance. The better-known version
of commitment is the one written by the winners, those who through strength of arms, power of mind, and sureness of purpose
wrenched thirteen colonies away from their imperial masters and forged a nation unique in the history of the world. This
is the passionate America born of courageous principles-commitment to the fundamental principles of life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness. This is the America of the revolution that defied King George III, the America of the Declaration of
Independence, the America of the "greatest generation" that defeated Hitler's tyranny….
“But there is another history and another force that has seen America through some of its most difficult challenges.
This story is less glamorous, to be sure, but perhaps even more important. It is marked by countless unsung instances of
peaceful disagreement resolved in a spirit of give-and-take and fair play. The foundations of our government that still persevere
today were laid during this period. This is the America of compromise and collaboration in the face of differences when strong
personal convictions were balanced by a willingness to work for the common good. It is the America of Lincoln’s “malice
toward none and charity for all.”
I really appreciated his example of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the focus of the Federalist Antifederalist debates
of our high school and college textbooks. It seemed that there would never be agreement on a Constitution for the new United
States. A speech by old wise Benjamin Franklin seemed to carry the day in the end when all still remained in doubt. He rose
to give his blessing to the draft document before the Convention. He conceded that it was not a perfect Constitution but
a compromise created by fallible men.
Then Franklin said this: “On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every Member of the Convention,
who still may have objections to it, would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make
manifest our unanimity, put his Name to the instrument.
Abshire observed that “This, then, was Franklin’s definition of civility – the ability to doubt one’s
own infallibility. And therein lies the lesson of the Constitutional Convention: no human or human creation possesses “all
truth,” but by melding the passions of fallible men, something of great worth can emerge.” (2)
It is also a lesson for church councils and conventions, General or otherwise, in this uncertain world in which we live.
The third thing was the presentation of the “Statement concerning the work of the Diocese of Virginia’s Commission
on Reconciliation,” dated January 14, 2005, just two weeks or so ago. Members of the Commission were selected from
across the entire spectrum of worldviews in the diocese “that inform what we believe Scripture teaches on matters of
human sexuality…. We believe that these worldviews are not likely to change significantly. Although our views are
quite divergent, all of us believe we are acting and speaking in accord with Scriptural truth, and that is the root of our
The Commission assumes that the answer to whether we can live together in the midst of conflict is “Yes – but
how?” The question then becomes “To what extent are we willing to change in order to remain one for the sake
of the Gospel.” And notes importantly that ”Any reconciliation is only possible is we stand together at the
foot of the cross of Christ.”
The key metaphor suggested by the Commission is “the concept of “safe harbor”, a way in which we can all
find respite from the pressures of these issues and continue to live out our lives in Christ Jesus…. The concept of
safe Harbor means that the various parties in the disputes…are not to be persecuted or demeaned for their stands, but
The fourth important event was the admission of the mission of the Church of the Word, Gainesville, to full church status.
This was important because the Church of the Word is composed of people whose majority do not send funds to the Diocese of
Virginia because of conscientious objection to the actions of General Convention and the equally conscientious vote of the
Bishop of Virginia.
I voted in favor of their admission and rose to speak in favor of it. I long ago determined that it was a good Christian
principle not to let the behavior of those with whom I disagree determine my own behavior. Jesus called it turning the other
cheek – and let me hasten to say that I have failed more often than I care to confess publicly. But in this case it
was important to affirm the principle of diversity in unity, of agreeing to disagree and to stay in conversation, and of learning
to live together under the roof of as big a tent as possible.
And I was pleased to hear the rector of the Church of the Word assure the Council that they would not regret this action in
accepting them to full church status.
If there were ever a gospel text pertinent to Council this year, the Beatitudes from Saint Matthew’s Gospel are it.
And these three verses in particular:
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
I reported to you after I attended the Atlanta Conference at Saint Phillips Cathedral on “Going Forward Together”
several months ago that I was much more hopeful about the future unity of the Episcopal Church. We have been giving the Holy
Spirit time and room to work, in this diocese, in the Episcopal Church, and in the Anglican Communion. The seas are still
stormy -- but safe harbors, lit by the shining beacons of the Holy Spirit, will guard, guide, and keep us afloat and safe,
with our eyes on Jesus and our minds on mission. And indeed, "Yes, 'twill be good to be here."
1. As related in eSermons email illustrations for Epiphany Last.
2. From David M. Abshire, The Grace and Power of Civility: Lessons from the American Experience for the Coming Four Years,
Washington, DC: Center for the Study of the Presidency, Election Day, 2004