God-baked, God-broken, God-made
Bishop Paul’s Retirement
St. Stephen's Pro-Cathedral, W-B
Sermon by Bill Lewellis, Dec. 15, 2013
Ezekiel 34:11-16; 2Timothy 4:1-8; John 21:15-19
"Do you love me, Paul, Diana, Anne, Howard, Andrew?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Love is a word. Then what?
Even God's Word became flesh.
When Bishop Paul heard this passage read also at his 1996 consecration, as today, this passage about loving God and being taken to difficult places, he must have suspected that God's love leads far beyond what we might naively expect.
"Do you love me?" Yes, Lord, you know I love you. Well, not so fast. Then what? "When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." Will you love me then? Will you love me when you're 64?
About a month ago, I asked Paul: Is there anything you’d like me to say during the sermon. Only two things, he said without missing a beat. (1) Say that whatever has been done these past 17 years, we all did it together. (2) Tell the truth.
Seems like an easy assignment, except that there’s just too much truth to tell. But, I’ll do my best.
Sudan 2006/New Hope
Upon returning from a 2005 mission trip to southern Sudan, Paul Marshall told this story: “At the end of a week in that bomb-torn country, Diana and I baked in a bus for 14 hours.
"Finally you give up wiping your face. As we became increasingly caked with red dirt, and the overcrowded bus grew hotter and hotter, I found myself baking in a creative and holy sense: I knew God wanted my attention.
"Genesis says humans began our existence as kind of mud pies, and the red dust of the earth baking into my pores helped me have a new beginning of insight: Here were sisters and brothers with almost nothing to their names trying to build a life and a country — how could I go on as usual?
"In addition to altering how I live personally, I have had to abandon some of my bricks-and-mortar dreams for our own diocese in order to see what God would have us do for others. The question that intrigued me was, Could we dare to have a capital fund drive where we didn’t get the money?”
Do you love me? Yes, Lord, I love you. Then what?
From those African mud pies and red dust, the New Hope Campaign was created for the people of our companion Diocese of Kajo Keji and for the needy among us. With his leadership, we did dare. The New Hope Campaign – a capital fund drive for others – has been eminently successful.
Six years earlier, in 1999, with proactive encouragement from the bishop, the diocesan World Mission Committee began to focus the attention of the diocesan community on conditions in developing countries. “Our deeper attachment to brothers and sisters in the third World can only mean good things,” Bishop Paul said at that time. “I’d like to see the day when people from our diocese go to Third World countries to do various kinds of ministry.” And we did.
Bishop Paul had previously asked Charlie Barebo to help spearhead a capital campaign to develop a diocesan camp and conference center. “A funny thing happened on the way,” said Charlie, “I woke up one morning in the Sudan. It was a life-changing event that has deepened my faith and altered my outlook on this world.”
Do you love me? Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then what? Love is a word.
During that 2005 visit, Bishop Paul ordained 37 Africans, including a woman. He and Diana – attorney, registered nurse and Mama Diana in the Sudan – addressed 17 gatherings during the weeklong visit. During one gathering, laying the foundation stone of the Mothers Union Training Center in Kajo Keji, Mama Diana observed that the church in the United States is grateful to have heard the wisdom of African men, but that the African witness will be fully present in Anglicanism when women’s wisdom is celebrated and revered by all. “It is time to hear the voices of African women,” she said.
Over the past year, we have begun to hear of African women bishops.
"Would you send me a headshot," I emailed Dr. Paul Marshall back in 1995 while he was teaching at Yale when he became one of five nominees from which we would choose our next bishop. You'll have to use your graphic imagination to appreciate what I received by return email. Picture the ivy-covered buildings and walls of Yale. Paul stood in front of a building but behind a head-high wall. Only his head was visible, as though mounted on the ivy-covered wall. No body, not even a neck. Only a head. A headshot. John the Baptist's head on a platter.
We've got a live one, I thought. I hope he keeps me on staff if he's elected.
In December of 1995, during our Diocesan Convention when he was elected bishop, however, despite my great appreciation of his wit, I neither rooted for nor voted for Paul Marshall.
He soon found out. The tell was that I had prepared a news template with Rosemari Sullivan's name and address, the nominee from Virginia. When the electors voted Bishop Paul in, I substituted his name. In my haste, however, I did not delete Rosemari's address.
He did keep me, but he never let me forget. There were many strategic instances of "You didn't vote for me. I know" – or, to others, "You know, Bill didn't vote for me." I was an easy mark for his wit ... for years ... and years.
Move forward. Seven months.
July 29, 1996. In this church ... when Paul Marshall was to be consecrated the 919th bishop in the Episcopal succession and eighth bishop of Bethlehem. I understand that four burly men stationed themselves at strategic parts of the church. Many mistook them for ushers. They were police. I didn't know it at the time.
Edmund Browning was then presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. He would ordinarily have been the principal consecrator. He wasn't present, because he had received death threats. The late Bishop Robert Rowley stood in his place ... wearing a bulletproof vest.
Bishop Paul, that was some beginning!
All because you invited the late Walter Righter, retired Bishop of Iowa, to be a co-consecrator.
Six years earlier, Bishop Righter had ordained an openly gay man to the order of deacon. Two months earlier, he was cleared of charges of heresy brought by ten of his brother bishops. Thus the death threats and the security.
Bishop Righter took this essentially political charge in good humor. He got a vanity plate for his Subaru Legacy: HRETIC. Being accused became for him a mark of honor.
During her homily at the consecration Eucharist, Bishop Cathy Roskam read a poem by Alla Renee Bozarth-Campbell. I think you will want to hear it. For some of us, hear it again.
I am your living bread.
Strong, brown, Bakerwoman God,
I am your low, soft and being-shaped loaf.
I am your rising bread,
well-kneaded by some divine
and knotty pair of knuckles,
by your warm earth-hands.
I am bread well-kneaded.
Put me in your fire, Bakerwoman God,
put me in your own bright fire.
I am warm, warm as you from fire.
I am white and gold, soft and hard,
brown and round.
I am so warm from fire.
Break me, Bakerwoman God.
I am broken under your caring Word.
Drop me in your special juice in pieces.
Drop me in your blood.
Drunken me in the great red blood.
Self-giving chalice, swallow me.
My skin shines in the divine wine.
My face is cup-covered and I drown.
I fall up
in a red pool,
in a gold world
where your warm
is there to catch
and hold me.
"When we put ourselves in God's hands to be bread,” Bishop Roskam said, “God keeps messing around in our lives … The process is dynamic, creative, intimate and sometimes painful.”
It's not easy being bread. But, it seems to me to be a bishop's occupational hazard ... and call.
Paul's ministry among us
From my unique perspective, over the past 28 years, on both Bishop Mark Dyer's and Bishop Paul's staff – I saw how broad and deep Bishop Paul's ministry and dedication among us has been ... well-kneaded, God-baked, God-broken and God-made: teacher, pastor, preacher, administrator, author, advocate and participant in ministry with people in the developing world, children and youth, the poor and the marginalized, advocate and reconciler with those within the church who consider themselves progressive as well as those who consider themselves traditionalists, interpreter of family systems theory, communicator within and beyond the diocesan community, a leader who consults with colleagues, and a person whose ministry as bishop proceeds from prayer and a contemplative vision of God's kingdom.
From my unique perspective, I saw not only how broad and deep was Bishop Paul’s ministry among us, but also how deep was his suffering and how en-fleshed was his love.
Messages in the Mall
During his first year with us, Bishop Paul decided to write a monthly column and offer it to dailies and weeklies that circulated to some 400,000 homes in our 14-county diocese, and a bit beyond, over the next 13 years. It was a unique ministry that no other bishop in the U.S., episcopal or other, could claim, then or now.
He meant the column to engage the secular culture and to bring the church's message to the culture by commenting on the realities of the human condition and on issues of general interest. With dry and gentle wit, deep compassion and, sometimes, anger, he wrote about topics from the tragic Columbine school shootings to the spiritual ramifications of the TV series The Sopranos.
Doing the column, he told me, was a monthly agony, but it was a way he had ... to reach the most people.
In Learning From What Jesus Did Not Do, he wrote that Jesus "did not give in to his disciples' desire to have more power than others, did not force anyone to believe in him, did not condemn those who were pushed to the edges of life ... The ministry of not condemning was one of the most radical things Jesus did."
One of my favorites, from a column subtitled Don't Confuse Being Valuable with Being Right: "We don't maintain the unity of Christ's Church by being right. The late Rabbi Edwin Friedman said in his lectures on family systems that no aquarium survives unless some fish is willing to eat the garbage.”
Many people beyond the Episcopal Church got to know Bishop Paul through those columns.
Permit me a commercial. Messages in the Mall -- Looking at Life in 600 Words or Less (Seabury, 2008) is a compilation of some 90 selected columns from those years. I recommend it to you for entertaining ... and spiritual ... reading ... and to get to know this man better. It's even available for Kindle.
“We are a curious lot, we who serve the church in whatever capacity,” Bishop Paul wrote in one of four sermons he preached during the summer of 2012 when he served as conference preacher during a gathering in Philadelphia of the Anglican Association of Musicians.
Paul's sermons, not only these four, are among the best I've ever read or heard. But, of course: in his 1991 book on preaching he wrote, “I have a rather pragmatic view of preaching. If it doesn’t help people live, then it’s probably a waste of their time.”
Those who visit our newSpin blog or read my online notes may have wondered why I very recently posted those sermons: Because Bishop Paul told me only recently that he wrote them at a time he thought he was soon to die.
With that in mind, I searched those sermons for a perceived “soon-to-die” passage. Allow me to quote, in slightly edited form, a passage from the first.
He noted that Gustav Mahler, when asked why he never composed a mass, said it was because there was a creed in it.
“For the orthodox Christianity of Mahler’s day, the creed was for the most part data, not a song. So perceived, it ultimately reduced God to an object, capable of study, dissection, and definition, the fuel for debate and even persecution. Such talk of a domesticated and definable God does not invite the ecstasy of music.
“Beliefs, including our own,” Paul preached, “are motivated, by many things going on inside of us in our deepest unconscious. Not all of us believe with words.
“The creed has gotten more musical of late. The revival of Trinitarian theology in the last two generations has been, at its heart, the rediscovery by western Christians that what the ancient church chose to say about God is not in the first place data; it is doxology (praise).
“Doxology comes from reflection on both practical and ecstatic experience, and Trinitarian doxology comes to the conclusion that God is, in God’s deepest self, in relationship, from before time and forever.
“Many have observed that the Greek word for that relationship is very like (but not identical to) the word for dance: Three distinct persons in one eternal Dance. Delicate, rhythmic, supple, inviting.
“What we call the heresies often moved theology from the mystical dance to something like bad PowerPoint.
“So to the part of us that resonates strongly with Mahler and other spiritually rich composers who balked at dogma perhaps because of its unmusicality, there come two words.
“The first is that our God worshiped with the creed is not worshiped as a datum, but is adored as the eternal dynamic relationship; we perceive that very God inviting us to join the dance.
“The second word is that if I try to figure God out rather than relax and adore the mystery, and lose myself in it, I condemn myself to theological tone-deafness and will not get to dance.”
I said earlier that, when Paul asked me to tell the truth, I thought that there were too many truths to tell. One of the truths is how deeply he touched many with his writing and his sermons. We’ll never know.
As one who is well into the last quarter of life, I can tell you that Bishop Paul has touched me deeply with a tune that’s easy to dance to.
Will you love me when you’re 64?
Bishop Paul, may the bakerwoman God continue to bake, break and remake you. You’re not too old. God meddling in our lives is good even for bodies he has molded more than once. May Christ, the bread of life, feed and sustain you.
"Do you love me?" Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then what?
"When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go."
Will you love me then? Will you love me when you're 64?
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