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2007 Annual Convention Sermon

Bishop-elect Mark Beckwith

1 Cor 12:12-27 Luke 4:14-21

The first verbal message of Easter in the Gospel of Mark is actually a commandment – do not fear. When the women arrived to anoint the body of Jesus on that first Easter morning, they found that the stone had been rolled away. Jesus was gone; and the women were told that he has been raised. “Do not fear”, an unknown young man tells them. But they were out of their minds with fear – they could not absorb all that they felt and heard and seen. And they left the tomb afraid.

Do not fear. But we do. Because of all that we feel and hear and see in our lives and in the world around us -- we are often afraid. We try and avoid fear or shake off fear – or cast out fear – and all we seem to do is give fear more space in our psyches. Many of us tend to approach situations with a measure of anxiety – and leave those situations with even more.

We have a lot to be afraid about. Since 9/11/2001, a vapor of fear has smothered some and seeped into the souls of others. Many of our key national leaders have bottled that fear – and then have released it under the guise of strategy and safety – with disastrous results. Our national church is becoming more fragmented; the international Anglican Communion is threatened with an irreparable fracture. And our congregational lives are often frought with the fear of what I call the killer B’s – budgets, boilers, buildings, boards – and the various banana peels of biblical interpretation. We have a lot to be afraid of.

I have learned – and am still learning, about the challenge and invitation not to fear. We have been sold a bill of goods into thinking that the opposite of fear is bravery. It isn’t. I need to tell you that I have been feeling very brave during these last several months – but I have to confess to some fear – fear of a new role, fear of a new identity, fear of a new place to live and work – and fear of moving into a region that has more Yankee fans than God should ever allow. I have been rather brave during this transition – and many others have displayed similar bravery, but we can all admit to some levels of fear. Transitions do that – and the resulting fear is a normal part of our life experience.

No, the opposite of fear is not bravery. The opposite of fear is hope. Christians dare to hope. Our day to day lives are often consumed with various hoops we need to jump through – which leave us feeling afraid and exhausted, but our calling as the people of God is to claim a hope that we can live into. The world needs for us to hope – and our hope in Christ can transform whatever darkness the world throws at us.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes to the synagogue and tells his home-town congregation that good news will be brought to the poor, the blind will see, and the captive and oppressed will be set free. His is a transforming hope – so radical that it is hard to be believed. Jesus is proclaiming that there is hope for people who have systematically been taught that they can expect no hope. Why? Because their culture and/or their religion have said they don’t deserve it. Jesus announces that there is hope for people who have otherwise been pushed out or beaten down. And the genius of Jesus is that not only will the marginalized be given hope, but it is from those margins where hope is born. As Martin Luther King Jr. preached so eloquently forty years ago, when the poor and oppressed are set free, so is everybody else – and true hope can reign.

There is a sense of urgency about this. In the last decade or so, I have met more and more people who have never had an experience of hope. People whose lives have – for whatever reason, been pushed so far out and down that they don’t know how to hope for a birthday or for Christmas -- or for help. They may do things that enable them to get a buzz or get over or get even – but that is not hope. On the other end of life experience, there are more and more people who have bought into the secular distortion – no, the secular lie; that hope can be bought and sold as happiness. The secular spin is that having the right home and hearth will generate happiness and security – and insulation from the poor, the blind and the oppressed. Happiness certainly has its place – but we need to remember that happiness is rooted in the word happenstance. It is conditional. Happiness happens if certain conditions are lined up in the right way – and we will expend enormous amounts of time, energy and money to make that happen. Having that happenstance may make life easier, but it is not hope.

The hope in Christ is that we all can be set free. Free from the invisible oppression of having too much, and free from the all too tangible oppression of having nothing at all. It is a wild promise and a profligate hope. And we need to become bearers of that promise and servants of that hope – and not just when we feel like it. I have to admit there are moments in my life when I don’t want to be a bearer or servant of anything. But – if I didn’t believe that Jesus’ hope could be lived into and the promise could be fulfilled, I would get out of the ministry business faster than you can say the Nicene Creed.

Which is where Paul’s image of the body comes in, as outlined in his first letter to the Corinthians. Using the metaphor of poetry, Paul paints a verbal picture of the distinctive human parts being forged by the Holy Spirit into one body. He is describing community – a community of the various parts -- Jew and Greek, slave and free – of poor and rich, black and white and yellow and brown, male and female, gay and straight, suburban, rural and urban, high church, low church and emerging church. All one body – one community, that works – or doesn’t work, not through our ability to solve problems or tolerate our differences, but in our commitment to embrace and celebrate one another’s gifts – and through those gifts to live into a common hope.

We need each other. To help us hope, especially in those moments when hope doesn’t seem possible. We need each other – to nurture and sustain the body – and to grow into the fullness of Christ’s vision of freedom.

In 1983, shortly after I arrived in this diocese for the first time, my wife Marilyn and I attended the annual clergy/spouse conference (we didn’t identify partners in those days). We were not only new to the diocese, but we were newly married – and weren’t sure if and how we would fit in. As we drove out to Pennsylvania, ‘fear not’ was not an admonition we could easily embrace. There was a self appointed group who organized the conference and provided hospitality – and for the life of me I can’t remember who they were. But inside of ten minutes, it became clear to both of us that the real hosts of the gathering were Jack and Marilyn Croneberger. They were warm and fun and funny. Their ease with and devotion to each other provided us with an abiding model of partnership; and without seeming to exert any effort, they welcomed us into the diocesan community. Jack and Marilyn subliminally invited us to claim our gifts – and to discern the integral part we would take and play in the larger – rather unique body called the Diocese of Newark.

In recent years, as we all know, Marilyn Croneberger has experienced some health issues to the degree that she hasn’t been able to play the extraordinary visible partner that she has been in years past. But I know – and we all have seen, that Jack’s and Marilyn’s mutual devotion continues. And for Marilyn Olson and me, the gift of welcome that the Cronebergers gave us twenty five years ago is matched – if not exceeded, by the care and compassion they continue to offer each other. They have provided my family with an abiding image of community and a compelling vision of hope. And I join with many here today who deeply thank them for that.

Fear not. Claim the hope – as we are reanointed by it with water, as we hear it in scripture, as we receive it in the Eucharist – and as we see it demonstrated by brothers and sisters – of all sorts and conditions, who embrace hope in the face of fear. The living Christ gives us that hope. Let us claim that hope and use it to help set people free.