You are witnesses
A sermon for the ordination of Susan Brown Snook as bishop of San Diego, preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego. You can see video of the sermon online, or watch the whole service here (the sermon begins about 1:07:30).
Jesus said, “You are witnesses.”
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
You are witnesses! We are all witnesses today of a radiant moment in the life of the church, both here in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego and in the wider church. And I hope what we are doing here today has a mark on the world outside the church.
It is the task of a preacher on an occasion such as this one to say kind things about the one to be ordained. This is not at all difficult. Susan Brown Snook will be a fine bishop because she is already a gifted leader, a wise priest, and an inspiring follower of Jesus Christ. She has also been a good friend. We met in Arizona in 2011, and we stayed in touch in the months leading up to General Convention 2012.
I mention all this because Susan sent me an email in June of 2012 that I still remember. She and Tom Ferguson and I had begun talking about ways to call our beloved Episcopal Church to embrace transformation and renounce fear. We weren’t sure what to call this new thing we were starting together, and it was Susan who suggested the name we eventually adopted for the Acts 8 Movement. She wrote:
How about a name related to Acts 8? I am intrigued by this chapter because what looks like a negative thing to the disciples – the persecution in Jerusalem – turns out to be the very thing that spurs them on to evangelism in new places and new ways. For us, the death of Christendom looks like a death for the church, and may in fact be a death of church structures as we know them, but my hope is that it will turn out to be the impetus for new ways of preaching the gospel.
As is often the case, Susan was exactly right. So often in the church, it is in our moments of challenge that we discover God’s abiding presence with us as the Holy Spirit leads us into new frontiers and new ways to proclaim the Gospel and to make disciples.
Susan, you have been called and elected to serve in a most glorious place. Let’s be honest, there isn’t a diocese in the entire Anglican Communion with better weather than you have right here. But the amazing weather isn’t even the best part of this diocese. Here are extraordinary ministries, vibrant congregations, and strong leaders.
I cannot wait to see what happens here in the months and years to come. I cannot wait to be a witness.
We are all witnesses.
Yes, we are witnesses of an ordination, of a fantastic moment in our church’s life. But we are witnesses of even more than that. In a little while, we will feast on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. As we eat the bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We are witnesses today of the Paschal mystery — God’s great love for us in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Today we will see and taste God’s love for us. What a blessed reminder for us that our God is not distant, remote, uncaring — but rather here today, manifesting love for us. We are witnesses.
In our Gospel reading today, we encounter Jesus and his disciples not long after the resurrection. Jesus opens the minds of his followers to know his love in the scriptures. The vision he gives his followers then is still very much relevant for us today.
Jesus desires that, in the bold confidence of the Cross and glory of the Resurrection, we preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to all people. Preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins might make us Episcopalians a bit…uncomfortable. We might prefer to do a few good deeds and hope that people catch on to our low-key Christianity. We might prefer to pretend that we don’t notice sin and just stick to what seem like the happy bits of our faith. But the Gospel cares not one iota for our comfort.
On the Cross, Jesus most clearly proclaimed God’s love for us. For his followers, it was not just in the familiar places in Jerusalem, but in displacement into the countryside, the villages, and even the wilderness that the witness of God’s love was proclaimed. We are called to proclaim God’s love not just in our familiar churches — standing just inside our red doors to be nice to visitors — but we are also called to proclaim God’s love on the streets, in the mall, on the beach, in the workplace, on the border, in all the places of greatest need. We are called to be witnesses.
And it’s not just the where of our proclamation that might be challenging for us Episcopalians, but the what of our proclamation. Repentance and forgiveness and sin are not the ways we might wish to share our faith. But the reality is that it is the most honest way to speak of God’s love for us and for all people.
Grace doesn’t make much sense without redemption, and redemption is meaningless without acknowledging our captivity to sin. We’re all messed up, you and I. We try, and we never quite get it right. And we will never get it right on our own. There is only one way to get ourselves out of this mess we’re in, and that is to turn to God and live a life that is transformed by God’s grace and mercy.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has called us to a Way of Love, and the first step on that way is turn. Repentance is just a fancy way to talk about turning. Repentance is a reboot, a fresh start. Repentance — something we do again and again and again — is a step on our journey into the full stature of Christ.
Look around our world. See the division, the inequality between rich and poor. Notice the racism, the fear, the homophobia. Observe the greed and selfishness all around. Now imagine there was a way out. That way out is already here, as God stands ready to welcome us with transforming embrace of mercy and grace, if we but repent.
That is mighty good news, don’t you think, and it’s worth sharing. We are meant to be witnesses.
The vision of Jesus Christ is that a whole church might rise up — proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins, offering a new way to live in the joy of God’s hope and freedom.
Those disciples could see the risen Christ standing before them, but they could not have imagined that one day the church would spread across the globe. Writing in the fifth century, St. Augustine said,
[The disciples] could see Christ talking about the church that would be. When Christ said something they could not see, they believed him. They could see the head, but they could not yet see the body. We can see the body, but we believe about the head. … He showed himself to the disciples and promised them the church. He showed us the church and ordered us to believe about himself. The apostles saw one thing, but they did not see the other. We also see one thing and do not see the other. Having the head there with them, they believed about the body. Having the body here with us, we should believe about the head.
Those disciples could not have imagined the way the church would flourish, finding fertile soil here today in San Diego. Today we may not see the risen Christ, but we can surely see his body. He is here in this service, as siblings gather as Christ’s body, the church. He is here in the sacraments. He is here as his apostolic ministry continues in the baptismal call of this diocese and its new bishop.
We have much about which to bear witness.
Lord knows our church is not perfect. This diocese is not perfect. Susan Brown Snook is amazing, but she is not perfect. But when we turn to Jesus, his perfection clothes us with grace. Let us share this Jesus who gives us mercy and love freely. Let us share this Jesus with a world in search of meaning and purpose, a world where grace is revolutionary.
Being a witness means not just seeing things, but telling what we have seen.
We need to get serious about evangelism. We need to get serious about not just inviting people into our churches but rather about inviting people to transformed lives. We need to get serious about not just being nice but rather about preaching the forgiveness of sins. We need to get over our reticence to proclaim God’s love in the public square, because when we stay silent, the voices of greed and fear go unchallenged and unanswered.
Evangelism is not the solution to the declining prestige of our church. Indeed, those who would lose their church for the sake of Gospel will save it. Evangelism is not the way to get more members for our committees or to shore up shrinking budgets.
Instead, evangelism happens when we all accept our vocation as followers of Jesus Christ — not just the vocation of priests and deacons and not just the vocation of bishops — but the vocation of all of us whose ministry began in the waters of baptism. Our mandate is to make disciples of all nations — to proclaim the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and to invite everyone to know God’s love in forgiveness and repentance and mercy and grace.
You are to be witnesses, not just today, but always.
We are not alone in this work. Jesus has promised “I am sending upon you what my Father promised.” Tomorrow when we celebrate Trinity Sunday, remember that Jesus Christ promised us an eternal gift from God the Father in the Holy Spirit. We always have the Spirit as our companion and our guide in our work and in our witness.
Let us all be witnesses.
Let us witness to this glorious day, when praises raised the rafters. Let us witness to this day when Susan Brown Snook was ordained to lead this diocese boldly into its next chapter. Let us witness that Christ was made real for us today in each other and in the bread and wine.
Let us witness that fear and hate and greed do not have the last word, but that hope and love and mercy always win. Let us witness that we find our true joy, our way, our truth, and our life in Jesus Christ.
You are witnesses. Be witnesses.