St. Paul’s Cathedral, Peoria, IL
October 1, 2011
Remigius was born around 437 or 438 in what is now France, into a Christian family. His father was a nobleman, and his mother the daughter of a bishop. From his youth he was known for his holiness and learning, and when there was need for a bishop in Rheims, the people of the area insisted that Remigius be elected, even though he was a layman and only 22. [You might remember that when it comes time to elect a bishop around here!] He is remembered in particular for his work with the Frankish people, and for baptizing their leader Clovis. Clovis was responsible for uniting the Germanic tribes in Gaul, and his baptism was significant in a time of considerable controversy over how to understand the nature of Jesus.
That conflict was the reason for the Council of Nicea, which adopted the statement of belief we call the Nicene Creed. There was great debate over whether Jesus was to be understood as co-equal with God the creator, or had a secondary, derivative nature – mostly this was about whether he was a creature or not. The debate was called the Arian controversy, and it was a big political fight as well as a theological one. The outcome was central to how we understand Jesus.
When Remigius baptized Clovis, he reportedly told him and the 3000 other Frankish pagans who were converted with him, to “worship what you have burned, [and] burn what you have worshiped.”
Idolatry is still one of the central issues for Christians. Most of us don’t set up wooden or metal statues of multiple gods on our altars, or what Jeremiah says are “dumb scarecrows in our cucumber fields,” but we all struggle with inadequate and incomplete understandings of what is most central in our lives. The way home, the way to God, is through truth and life, and it isn’t found in lesser things.
I’m wondering where you are, two and a half years after reorganizing this diocese. What’s most important to you right now? As I look around the larger church, I am continually amazed that people can find other things to worship – like canons, or parliamentary procedure, or the way we do the liturgy. Individually, we all wrestle with lesser things, getting wrapped up in money and security, whatever new thing there is to buy, even our own children. All around us, we can see the latest issue or political position becoming an idol – immigration, human sexuality, the debt ceiling. All may be important, but they aren’t the way to God – they’re lesser things. Where do we put our ultimate trust?
The issue about Arianism is still with us. Do we worship a God who isn’t really God? Is Jesus really God in human flesh? The incarnation is central to our faith, the knowledge that the divine walked among us in flesh as frail as ours, that God is with us even unto death. It’s important because it means that God isn’t just some distant good idea. God is present with us, Immanuel, in times of joy and in times of intense suffering, even when we wander in the wilderness – especially when we feel lost or abandoned.
What lies ahead for this diocese? I don’t think any of us knows exactly, but I do think we can be sure the future is going to be different than the present and the recent past. Your journey may involve what some think of as diminishment – joining with another diocese to become part of a larger whole. Your journey will likely involve some more struggle over legal issues and properties. But none of those is central – following Jesus is. When he says he’s the way, the truth, and the life, it’s about keeping the main thing the main thing. Worship God, not lesser things.
Those are easy words, but it’s not always clear how to do it, either for dedicated Christians or those like Clovis and his Franks, just becoming followers of Jesus. What does it mean to worship?
The word comes from the same root as worth – worship is treating something as infinitely valuable, what’s priceless. We worship what is worthy of our complete trust. That’s the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus’ own life is the best example we have of what living that truthful way looks like. What did Jesus do? How did he live? What sort of person was he? A worthy life emulates that example – caring for neighbors, trusting in God rather than worldly power, offering our own lives for others.
God’s people, all of them – all humanity – are made in the image of the divine. We are capable of being the face of Christ to the world around us. The eastern Orthodox understand the Christian journey as one of divinization, becoming Christ-like, so that others might see and learn and be invited onto the same road.
Miguel Angel Escobar offers an example of what life on the road looks like: 1
“Approximately three years ago, the Rev. Brian McVey, an ECF Fellow and rector of St. Alban’s in Davenport, IA, learned that a truck stop just 15 miles from his parish was considered to be one of the largest and most active trading posts for human trafficking in the United States. This fact set off a chain reaction which is continuing to transform the I-80 truck stop in Iowa: Brian began a ministry of listening and presence there which has in turn mobilized St. Alban’s. This, in turn, has mobilized local law enforcement as well as several larger churches in the area who were surprised to learn that such a small church was taking on such a daunting, potentially dangerous ministry. The Senior Warden of St. Alban's recently wrote ‘We now have a waiting list of people wanting to serve in a chapel at this truck stop.’”
That’s the kind of sacrificial, reconciling work that Jesus did. That’s what it looks like to follow his road of truth and life. And it’s the kind of living work that the people here are invited into. The congregations in which you worship are caring for people within and beyond your communities – taking meals when people are sick or grieving, working at food banks and homeless shelters, helping to rebuild the church in Haiti. Those are all worthy ways of taking the Jesus road.
The primary task is to take a hard look at the bad news of the world around us – the hunger and loneliness, even the anger – they’re all pleas for truth and life and a way home. Clovis was literally looking for a way out of his battles. Remigius answered the plea of the Franks for the possibility of peace.
Whatever decisions you make about the structures and future of this community, living like Jesus is the most central – that is worth all you have and all you are. Nothing less. It means walking into the hard places, confronting the challenging questions, and being willing to see the suffering face of Jesus in our neighbors. That’s the road, and ultimately it is filled with peace and joy and homecoming. Happy trails!
1 Episcopal Church Foundation: Three Cups of Coffee. http://www.ecfvp.org/posts/three-cups-of-coffee/