Sermon Preached at the Annual Chrism Mass 2023

VENICE – Sermon Preached at the Annual Chrism Mass 2023, Diocese of Southwest Florida on April 4, 2023 at St. Mark’s, Venice by the Rt. Rev. Douglas F. Scharf, Bishop.

Just so you know, I am not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, probably because I usually fail miserably. And so instead, my practice in recent years has been to take some time in late December and early January to pray and to listen – to listen for a word or phrase that will be the focus of the coming year. This year, when I spent this time in prayer, the word that came pouring into my mind and heart was the word emergence. And so, for the past few months, I have been praying this word over my family, my marriage, my community, my staff, and our diocese. Praying that God would call us into a season of emergence.

Now, emergence can simply refer to the process of something coming into view or perhaps the process of something coming into existence. To emerge means to come forth, to come out, to rise up, or to be brought out of hiding and into the light. But this morning, for us gathered here during this Holy Week, I believe Jesus gives us a deeply profound image of emergence in today’s gospel when he says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat of falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). According to Jesus, in the life of the kingdom of God, fruitfulness and abundance are predicated on death. In other words, only when the seed is thrust into the darkness of the soil, only when the seed goes through the transformative process we call death, only when the seed is able to shed its identity as a seed – only then is it possible for something new to emerge, for something new to break forth and come into existence.

Now, of course, at one level, this image of emergence, the image of the grain wheat falling into the ground to die in order to bear much fruit, clearly points us forward to the events of this week, to the cross and empty tomb. This is the gospel paradigm that we will celebrate in just a few days. The horrific darkness of Good Friday will ultimately give way to the brilliance of the new fire of Easter. Despair will yield to hope. Fear will be driven out by love. And death will be conquered and swallowed up by life. Emergence!

My friends, we are gathered here today because at some point in each one of our lives, the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ changed us. And for that we give thanks. But Jesus made it abundantly clear that the same gospel paradigm that defined the shape of his life would also define the shape of the lives of those who would choose to follow him.

Which means if we really want to see God do a new thing in the Episcopal Church, if we want growth and vitality and transformation, and all the things we say we want, if we are going to be serious about praying for spiritual emergence, I’m here to tell you it’s going to look a lot like that grain of wheat falling to the ground to die, in order that something new might come forth. We are going to have to let go of some things.

The Rev. Dr. Donna Mote, the Rector of St. Paul’s in Key West, preached a sermon a few years ago in which she said, “We can be confident that Jesus will come again, but we can be just as confident that the 1950’s will not.” We laugh because it’s funny. But we also laugh because we know it’s true. And at some level, it scares us. After almost 2000 years, we have grown accustomed to the notion of a dying and rising Messiah, yet we remain deeply resistant to the notion of a dying in rising church. And yet that is the very paradigm that I believe God is calling us to embrace in this hour. “Unless a grain of wheat of falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Emergence!

The work of embracing this paradigm, the work of living into this vision, begins with us as those entrusted with the shared responsibility of leadership and oversight. In just a few moments, we will stand to renew our ordination vows together, and we will be reminded once again that the ministry we share together is none other than the sacrificial ministry of Christ. This is who we are called to be.

A few years ago, Jeffery Lee, now Bishop Resigned of Chicago wrote a very short essay in a very short book. The title of the book is We Shall be Changed and the title of the essay is Paschal Leaders for a Paschal Church. And in that short essay, Bishop Lee articulates a vision of leadership for our time. He says, “We need leaders with fierce clarity about the church’s identity in Christ. We need leaders who are Paschal to their core. We need leaders who know that death is not the final word, who are unafraid of letting go. It is time for the church, and for her leaders, to trust as never before that God is truly bringing all things to their perfection in Jesus Christ.”[1]

My friends, we are called to be leaders whose lives are shaped by the Paschal mystery. We are called to live lives that are shaped by the paradigm of death and resurrection. And, if you think about it, our call to share in the sacrificial ministry of Christ is deeply embedded in our common life of prayer and worship. This is what we are praying for when say –

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee. And, we pray, O Lord, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. “Unless a grain of wheat of falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Emergence!

Now I’m sorry to be preaching such a cheery sermon this morning, but I stand before you this morning as someone who remains deeply hopeful.

I am hopeful because I believe with all my heart that that tomb was empty on that first Easter morning.

I am hopeful because I believe with all my heart that God is making all things new.

I am hopeful because despite the division and discord and violence that characterize and terrorize our world, I believe God is raising up a generation of leaders who are passionate about working for truth and justice, healing and reconciliation.

I am hopeful because for 2,000 years the church has faced trials and tribulation, persecution and oppression, heresy and schism, decline and disorientation. But guess what? We are still here!

I am hopeful because I believe we are living in a season of emergence.

Something new is breaking forth.

Something new is coming into existence.

Something new is happening all around us.

“Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat (which is us) falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it will most certainly bear much fruit.”

[1] Jeffery Lee. “Paschal Leaders for a Pascal Church.” We Shall Be Changed. Ed. Mark D. W. Edington. Church Publishing: New York, 2020.