Funeral Homily for The Right Reverend Arthur E. Walmsley
May 4, 1928-October 5, 2017
Delivered by the Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop, Episcopal Church of NH
St. Paul’s Church, Concord, New Hampshire
October 14, 2017
Text: John 14:1-7
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
As a disciple of Jesus and a member of the Episcopal Church all his life, Arthur would have first heard this passage from the Gospel of John through the translation of the King James Bible. Arthur grew up, as any of us did, with these words:
Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
Between the mansions of the King James and the “dwelling places” we read today, there was the Revise Standard Version, which we heard for about twenty years. That translation held this promise: “In my father’s house there are many rooms.” And that reminds me of the elderly man who came to me when I was newly ordained in order to plan his funeral. He mourned the loss of the mansions of the King James Version by telling me, “I did not join the Episcopal Church so that I could inherit rooms! I want the mansions!”
But none of us came here today to hear an analysis of translations of the Gospel, we came here to honor, to bid a loving farewell to our brother in Christ, an utterly devoted husband and cherished companion to Roberta, a loving and steadfast father to John and Elizabeth, a priest, preacher, bishop, confessor, spiritual director, ecumenist, activist, environmental steward and philanthropist, a churchman in the best sense of the word, a follower and disciple of Jesus, a friend of Jesus, a friend. That long list does not exhaust who Arthur was to and for so many of us. Though how can we be anything but grateful for the 89 years God blessed us with his life and presence, Arthur’s death still stuns and disorients in a way. It causes me to pause, to halt and reflect on the part of the Gospel that was particularly Arthur Walmsley’s to preach? What aspect of the Gospel shone through his life in a particular way that was only Arthur’s?
Which brings me back to the Gospel passage Arthur himself chose for us to hear.
Mansions. Rooms. Dwelling places. The original Greek is not a place where one is meant to stop permanently, as though enshrined in a niche. The word translated was not a place to stop permanently and remain static. It was to be resting place on the way--a place to tarry, to rest and to be refreshed along a journey where one kept moving and, we can assume, keep learning, growing, discovering how to be and become more like Christ.
I remember a clergy leadership retreat gathering that Arthur and his friend Richard Tombaugh asked me to attend in 1993. For some reason the discussion led Arthur to actually say that he hoped not to rest in peace eternally after his death. Sure, he’d like a few days’ rest. But he hoped he would keep to keep moving, keep growing, keep evolving, keep learning in Christ’s presence and love.
There is a noteworthy synchrony in the reading that Arthur chose for us to hear on this occasion and in the day of his ending his earthly pilgrimage. Arthur died so close to the day St. Teresa of Avila died, on October 4. St. Teresa was 16th century Spanish nun, mystic, and like Arthur, a sought-after spiritual director.
Teresa’s classic and work, entitled The Interior Castle, was an offering to her nuns in the Carmelite convent of St. Joseph in Toledo, Spain in 1577. It opens:
It came to me that the soul is like a castle made exclusively of diamond or some other clear crystal, In this castle are a multitude of dwellings, just as in heaven there are many mansions.
She goes on to imagine that the castle is within each of us and that as we enter each of the dwellings, each of the rooms or stations within our soul, we will be drawn ever more deeply into the love and light and freedom that our Creator so longs to give us. Teresa laments how tragic it is for a soul that doesn’t know herself, for then she would not know her Beloved.
This image of the many rooms, the many mansions is so helpful as I try to frame what Arthur has meant to me and to so many. Teresa states that “there are many ways to be in a place, whether that place is within us or not. We occupy spaces differently as we make our own pilgrimage in this life toward God, who is the origin of our journey, our companion on the way, and our end and destination. Arthur showed up at so many places in our lives and in each of our own journeys with Jesus. I can tell you that each time he appeared in my life, it marked a different place, a new moment of grace appearing, a new truth God was hoping to reveal about myself, about God. I grew up with Arthur.
And so, I thought I would share with you some of the rooms, the real rooms, the real mansions, in which I encountered Arthur. And as I do, I hope and pray that you will be invited to recognize or notice or remember those rooms in which he met you, and ask, what was God revealing to you in those rooms, in those particular encounters along the Way, along your spiritual journey.
My first encounter was in an actual mansion. I remember the day that Ruth McElraevy called me to say that I was being invited to meet the Bishop at 1335 Asylum Avenue in Hartford for my first interview to discuss the possibility of being a postulant for the priesthood. There was warmth in Ruth’s invitation, but I also felt some deep gravity about the importance of this meeting.
A few weeks later, I arrived at the brick mansion on Asylum Avenue. Inside, on the dark wood paneled walls, there were large oil portraits of bishops, almost floor to ceiling. They didn’t look happy, or if they smiled, it was more of a smirk, as though they were telling me, “Who are you? What makes you think you belong here?” I took a seat at the bottom of a broad carpeted staircase, with thick oak banisters on each side. I felt like the Cowardly Lion walking down that long corridor leading the Wizard of Oz. I thought maybe before I was called up the stairs, I could just run home.
Bishop Walmsley appeared at the top of the stairs and said, “Mr. Hirschfeld. Rob. Hello” and he beckoned me to his office, one of the many rooms in that mansion.
I entered his light filled office, after being cheerfully greeted by Ruth. We must have talked, but all I remember was that I mostly mumbled, trying to remember what I had early that morning rehearsed I would say about why I felt called to the priesthood. I guess I didn’t mumble too much, because I was shortly afterward invited to move on in the “Process.” That was the first meeting with Bishop Walmsley. The first mansion or room.
Subsequently, there were more meetings. My time as a postulant was bumpy. I had some growing up to do, I had a few deep failures and stumbles along my path. I resisted the call, left the Process, and then after three years’ hiatus, I was given another appointment to come to the Mansion on Asylum Avenue. This time, I was older, less afraid, having less to lose. Arthur graciously allowed me to return, greeting me like the merciful father welcoming the return of the prodigal son. In those days, in one of the rooms of my soul, Bishop Arthur Walmsley filled the role of a benevolent, steady, patient father. Second Mansion, though it was the same as the first. As Teresa said, there are many ways to be in a space.
There were other rooms where we met over the years. One at Grace Church, Amherst, when he came to have lunch and to invite me into the work of Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, though which he hoped the Episcopal Church would commit to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, to address extreme poverty, women’s health and education and environmental health. He had retired as the Bishop of Connecticut by that time, and I got to learn more fully about his understanding of the Church’s role in society. He believed, and was very convincing, that the Church was a powerful agent of deep change and advocacy in the world. His experience organizing and leading the Episcopal Church’s Domestic Office in the 1960’s undergirded his confidence in the Church’s voice for justice in race, class and gender relations in our country. When in his presence, I always felt the presence of certain kind of authority and conviction and influence. When the Gospels speak of Jesus’ authority--as in “Jesus spoke as one who had authority”-- the word used is ex-ousia. It came out of his essence, not his position, or credentials, or degrees, or his even ordination. It was Arthur’s own exousia, his Arthur-ness, that always made me stand up and notice, and even sometimes quiver a bit in his presence. I don’t think I am alone in this.
Let me take you to another mansion in my walk with Jesus and Arthur. (Let’s assume they were both in this). It was about five years ago. I had become the bishop of this fine diocese of New Hampshire, where Roberta and Arthur had made their home in retirement and had worshipped and become friends with so, so many of the good people here. At that time Arthur was in charge of the network of spiritual directors here and he served as Chaplain to the Retired Clergy. He was devoted to this diocese and such a close and steady friend to many as the Church here sought to thrive “in the eye of the storm” to borrow the phrase that +Gene Robinson used as the title of his book to describe the ministry of church after his own momentous election.
This time, Paula Bibber, who was the Executive Assistant to the Bishop came into my office to tell me that Arthur Walmsley had arrived for his appointment at 63 Green Street, the former Tuck Mansion just a block from here. I walked to the top of the carpeted oak-railed staircase, and below me, sitting in a chair at the bottom of the steps, was Arthur. A little smaller, grayer, thinner, but still Arthur. Another mansion, this time everything reversed.
So, here’s what happened. I actually felt more frightened, more scared, timid, insecure, inadequate, unprepared, anxious, then the day I sat at the bottom of those stairs on Asylum Avenue in Hartford 28 years before. The reason I felt these all these things --rather than being amused and tickled at this strange turn of events, this reversal that sometimes takes place as parents diminish and children grow up, or as our students become our teachers, or as life just twists and turns-- the reason I felt such butterflies was that Arthur had come wanting not just to be a colleague or a brother bishop or a partner in church business. What he came for, I somehow knew, was to be a friend. God was calling me to let go of all the paternal and patriarchal...all the trappings of this office, all the mansions as terminals rather as stations along the way...God was calling us to become friends. And that, to me, was more scary, because it meant we had to be vulnerable to each other. We would talk about the pain of the church, how it was always dying in order to be reborn, but that still meant a dying. We would talk about the cost of leadership, the sacrifice it placed on our spouses and children. We would talk about what it meant to have limits. By God’s grace, that’s what I, in the deeper mansions and rooms of my soul, was what I wanted, too. Jesus said in the Gospel of John “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” We became friends. Friendship is a gift that the Bible says “is the medicine of life.” And he was your friend. He cherished you, I believe, because he saw the mansions of God in you, and he saw the light that radiated clearly like a crystal from your souls, so many of them he shepherded, light that perhaps we couldn’t see ourselves because of ourselves.
One more room in God’s house with many mansions. The room I will describe now is perhaps my favorite room in all of New Hampshire. It is the timber-framed barn or wood-shed that Arthur and Roberta converted into their--what’s do you call it?--their family room? Dining room? Gathering room? It’s a room that actually defies naming. It’s where you’ll find Roberta’s piano. It’s where the tall built-in bookcases stand, that Arthur built by hand. There is a large work of abstract art on one wall. There is a coffee table with book titles that are always changing. There is a small table near a window that overlooks a meadow in Deering. Arthur loved this place. Above the table is a little light under which is a small icon of Andrei Rublev’s Holy Trinity at table. It’s there where Roberta, Arthur, Elizabeth and John shared so many meals. Maybe it’s the room where Arthur met so many of you for Spiritual Direction. (After his death, I can’t count how many people told be they had Arthur as a spiritual director, and the shear diversity of people made me wonder how he did it! He truly must have had many rooms in his own soul to hold us all!). It’s the room where we have shared prayers, laughter, Arthur’s soup, remembrances, hopes and struggles for the church and for the world in their changes for the better and for the worse. I imagine it such room where Arthur is now, still learning, serving, listening, loving, having conversation with the likes of St. Teresa, Thomas Merton.
Roberta, know that we’ll come over whenever you want. We can bring the meal. Know of our abiding love and prayers and our presence. Friendship. Friendship, the medicine of life.
Arthur, we pray that you find yourself today at the heavenly table with all your friends who have gone before, and we will someday join you to feast at that holy table with your creator who made you holy, with Jesus who was, and is always, your friend, and with the Holy Spirit who blessed you with so many gifts and who continues to recreate and reform the church, and this world. And may the friendship we shared with Arthur extend into deeper friendships with each other, and so heal this world. That would so please and delight his heart, which had such room for all of us. Amen.
Bishop A. Robert Hirschfeld
Eve of the Holy Cross; September 13, 2017
Diaconal Ordination of Sandi Albom, Shawn LaFrance, Charles Nichols
Texts: Philippians 2:5-11
We gather tonight to ordain three new deacons of the Church on the Feast of the Holy Cross. Charlie, Sandi, Shawn, you have each travelled the way of the cross to this moment in your lives when you stand ready and eager to dedicate your lives to service in the name of the Crucified Jesus and his Risen Body, the Church. From now on, I hope that whenever September 14th comes around, you will pause in your prayers and reflect on this new anniversary on your personal calendar. What will Holy Cross Day mean for you and your ministry as a deacon, as a servant of Jesus, his church and his world? How might the observance of the day, and your being ordained on this day, shape or inform your diaconate and your ministry as deacon?
A little investigation into the meaning of this feast would be helpful. Some history that I will quote from a commentary on the Book of Common Prayer. 
This feast is known as "The Exaltation of the Holy Cross" in the Eastern church and in missals and sacramentaries of the Western church, and it is known as "The Triumph of the Cross" in the Roman Catholic Church. It was one of the 12 great feasts in the Byzantine liturgy. The 1979 BCP is the first American Prayer Book to include Holy Cross Day.”
Historically, the feast has been associated with the dedication on Sept. 14, 335, of a complex of buildings built by the Emperor Constantine (c. 285-337) in Jerusalem on the sites of the crucifixion and Christ's tomb.
Constantine's mother, Helena (c. 255- c. 330), supervised the construction of the shrine, and a relic believed to be the cross was discovered during the work of excavation. [I believe that the church of the Holy Sepulchre in the center of the Old City in Jerusalem contains some of the remains of the building that had been destroyed, rebuild, destroyed, and rebuilt by centuries of conflict among the three Abraham faiths over the centuries].
Mythologies around the True Cross abound. The artist Pierro della Fransceco in the apse of the Church of St. Francis in Arrezzo, Italy has a series of frescos that tell the story of Tree of Life--you know, the other tree in the Garden of Eden--that had become the source of the wood for the Cross on which our Lord was crucified. So, there’s a kind of magical power around the idea of the true cross, not unrelated to the magical power of the Indiana Jones movies about the Arc of the Covenant or the Holy Chalice, the Holy Grail.
All this is to say that there is a layer of meaning about the cross that has little to do with what actually happened on the cross, which was, let’s be honest, a bloody execution motivated by religious insecurity and at the hands of a thin-skinned and anxious empire.
Remember, it was Constantine, a non-Christian, who before a battle against a competing Emperor in the year 312 was told in a vision that if his army bore the symbol of the chi-rho, a form of the cross on their shield, they would be victorious. They wore the cross, Constantine won the battle at the Milvian Bridge. Constantine converted to Christianity, making it the state religion, and in very short order, Christians were no longer a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire, but enjoyed a place of privilege in government, society, and the economy. Thus Christendom, the era when the marriage between Christianity and the presumption of worldly power, military might, and privilege was born. As was stated, in some places, today is known not as Holy Cross Day, but the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, the triumph of a Christianity that, having once been oppressed, then becomes aligned with, and an agent of, the oppressor.
Which is not, praise God, what we are celebrating tonight. What we celebrate tonight is a triumph of a much more lasting, eternally enduring, utterly more liberating. Because, brothers and sisters, Christendom is dead. Indeed, there are many in our culture, nationally, locally, and even in the Church, who grieve and kick against the notion that Christians should accept their status as being on the margins of a society, and who insist that Church needs to reclaim its former entitled and privileged place in society. Many reject or bristle at the notion of a Church that identifies with the weak, the oppressed, the homeless, the unarmed, the diseased, the rejected, the addicted. And yet, these are precisely the qualities of being human that were lifted up. By Jesus. In his body. On the hard wood of the cross.
In “by this sign we conquer,” it is not a triumph of military or political power that we celebrate, but the power of weakness, of utter surrender, of vulnerability. Of self-emptying through which the Lordship of Christ springs and brings light, as Jesus says tonight, in the darkness. These are the realities of our frail existence that make the cross we bear indeed, true. And they are the qualities that the devoted follower of Jesus Christ is called to accept, embrace, and see as the means of our salvation. As an ancient prayer goes, “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.” As deacons, you are called to proclaim, remind, and even annoy the Church (including your bishop!) with the message of the True Cross, that path of solidarity with humanity, both broken and beautiful, as none other than the way to the renewal of Christ’s Church. A story of that way to God through the human comes to mind.
Years ago, my oldest son and I had a chance to visit friends in Southern California. It was the week after Easter, and, after a long cold snowy winter in Western Mass, we were looking forward to seeing sun and ocean and to cast off our wet New England wool for a bathing suit and running shorts and t-shirts. On the boardwalk along the beach, we saw roller-bladers with ear plugs, sunglasses. Everyone seemed so fit, sculpted, glamorous, very wealthy, healthy, bronzed, enhanced. On a run along the board walk, I turned to Willie and said, “Toto, we are not in the land of Emily Dickinson anymore.” It was Sunday morning, and the only reference I saw of Jesus were small gold crosses on tanned men doing their bench presses on Muscle Beach.
We turned to run on the beach itself. Then in the distance I saw something in the mist of the surf. An assembly was gathering. I saw a huge white banner flapping in the sea breeze. As we ran closer I began to make out that people were coming together around the banner which was staked next to a small amplifier speaker and a man with a microphone sitting on the sand. “Come on in, friends,” he said in a gentle voice. I looked around and there were people coming who seemed as sleek and groomed as though they were from Hollywood. Others were pushing what must have been stolen shopping carts, their wheels getting clogged in the beach sand. Every shade of skin was there: there were Anglos, Latino, black, Asian, native American, men, women, transgendered, gay, straight. Old, wrinkled, gray-bearded, teenager and middle-aged. Some seemed to be carrying the worn torn soiled sleeping bags they’ve lived in near the pier. All were there. The whole span of humanity. “What is this?” I wondered.
And then the man with the microphone shouted, “Good Morning everybody. My name is Jorge, and I am an Addict and it’s a beautiful day!”
And the hundred or so gathering…they were still coming onto the beach, shouted back, “Hi, Jorge!”
And I looked again what was flapping in the breeze. It was a large, huge, white flag. A white flag. The symbol of surrender! We had stumbled upon what I would later learn was the largest twelve step meeting in California. Outside. Every Sunday. Under the sign of the white flag that could just as easily meant to those gathered…“by this sign conquer.”
It could have been the cross, but for many of us, the cross is a symbol of privilege, of religious domination, of anything but surrender. I have spoken to Jews and Muslims who have been the victims of persecution or ridicule in the name of the Church who really get nervous around proud displays of the Cross. This is part of our heritage, too.
But I wonder what would our church look like if we see the sign of the cross with the same joy, sense of liberation, serenity, purpose and fellowship as did all those on the beach who gathered to admit their powerlessness, their limitations, and, putting aside all need to keep up appearances, sat in the dirt with each other and asked for their God to get them through just one more day.
That’s what the Holy Cross means for me. Another story, that I think you probably have your own version of, and if you don’t yet, you will as a deacon. Last Sunday I walked out of a Church where I believed I, as their bishop, helped. At least I did no harm. I was feeling relieved, exhilarated, even gratified in my work and role. I was walking to my car parked on the street and I could hear a Jeep coming down the road. Not wanting to open the door and get side swept, I waited for it to pass. And just as it did, the passenger chose that exact moment to flick his cigarette butt right at me. So much for my happy, triumphant Sunday. Again, if you haven’t had an experience like that yet, you will as a deacon. The collar invites these events, sometimes.
My blood began to boil, as I thought to offer another sign to the Jeep as it revved past me. But then, by God’s grace, and only by God’s grace, I chose to breathe, and even smile, and to pray. I waved. This is where we are now. Post Christendom. Post Constantine, relying solely on the Christ who had much worse thrown at him and who answered ridicule, hatred, and insults with love, prayer, forgiveness, prayer. This is the way God calls us. This is, sometimes, the way of the cross. Pray. And there is a power in that that stems from more than any accomplishment, any worldly or ecclesiastic success we might enjoy. The power that comes from the love of God who chose love over retaliation and humiliation over domination. I don’t know if my smile or my prayer accomplished anything beyond letting my sadness and anger dissipate, or anything beyond sending a ripple of peace and light into a sin-darkened road. Just a ripple, and that may have been the most significant thing that I could have done that whole day. Pray and lift up our humanity to God.
So, on this day, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness, And being found in human form
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Therefore, God also highly exalted him.
May your service as deacons be the means by which you carry the awful and beautiful cross of Jesus, and may God supply you with sufficient joy and grace in following the way he leads, that you may find true life and peace in your service. Thank you for saying yes to this calling. AMEN.
From Bishop Hirschfeld:
"Prayers tonight for #Charlottesville and all the places in our nation beset by the sin of racism and hatred. We will wake up tomorrow with work to do, equipped with the love of Jesus."
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Invocation and Benediction for the Dedication Celebration of Winant Plaza, Concord, NH
By The Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop
Episcopal Church of New Hampshire
June 30, 2017
Almighty God, we gather to honor your faithful and diligent servant John Gilbert Winant, who served as educator, Army air corpsman, Governor, civil administrator, and Ambassador in a time of tremendous turmoil, uncertainty, and peril. We gather to express our gratitude for the example of Governor Winant’s humility, integrity, wisdom and commitment to the well-being of the citizens of our state, the nation, and the world. As he called us to remember that “it is the things of the spirit that in the end prevail, that faith and hope count, and that without love there can be nothing good; that by daring to live dangerously we can learn to live generously, and that by believing in the inherent goodness of humankind, may we learn again to stride forward together into the unknown of our own day with growing confidence.”
May words spoken this day lead us beyond mere expressions of gratitude for how one noble and courageous man acted in the past, but help us see in Governor Winant inspiration to serve the common good and welfare of all people. May those entrusted with the authority of government in this and every land be endued with wisdom, compassion, and courage that there may be justice and peace at home and abroad. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness; in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee, Almighty God, to fail, nor our generosity and concern for others to falter. All these we humbly ask in Your Holy Name.
We give you thanks, O God of Creation, for the gift of sculptors and artists who adorn our public spaces with monuments, which lead to the contemplation of inspiring figures from the past. May this monument of Governor Winant inspire us to deeper civility and to great acts of public service in the present and in the future.
May our lives be fashioned by a holy and life-giving Spirit, and may that same Spirit move every human heart, and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, hatreds cease, and that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice, freedom, and peace. Amen.
 Adapted from speech delivered to coal miners in Durham, England, 6 June 1941. Cited in Citizens of London: Lynne Olson, Random House, New York, pp. 183-184.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a colt and a donkey--rather than on a war horse--is significant. His choosing to wash the feet of disciples whom he knows will betray, deny, and abandon him is significant. His choice not to call for a divine airstrike on the detachment of soldiers that came to arrest him in Gethsemane, but to surrender himself willingly and peacefully, ordering his fearful disciples to put down their arms, is significant. His choosing to be silent and not to engage in a jousting of rhetoric with Pontius Pilate, who has the power to crucify him, is significant. His choice to give himself up to death on one of the most agonizing, humiliating and degrading methods of execution devised by humankind is significant.
As Jesus entered the environment of Jerusalem on that last week, so we Christians are called to enter a deep contemplation of the agonizing elements of our world and our neighborhoods. Our Holy Week began with a searing reminder of how the world yearns for God’s salvation and healing and justice. On Palm Sunday, as we assembled at our various churches to begin the reenactment the Jesus’s humble entry into Jerusalem, we heard of the two suicide bombings that killed or injured scores of our brothers and sisters in Cairo, Egypt. This horrific news follows the pictures of the victims of the inexcusable chemical attack on civilians in Syria. Closer to home, we continue to hear of the limits of our work to free our neighbors from the scourge of opioid addiction, from gun violence, and the legal resistance to continue to provide hospitality to refugees, including those of the on-going civil war in Syria.
It occurred to me to say to a group of young people being confirmed on Palm Sunday that being a member of the Church does nothing to protect us from the sorrow, the pain, and the vulnerability of the world. In fact, following the Jesus movement means walking the way of the cross as the only means to a lasting life of purpose and true joy. Any church that is solely concerned about its own self-protection and survival has begun its own funeral procession.
But, in Christ, we are alive. Though government executive orders are already curtailing refugee resettlement and Episcopal Migration Ministries is forced to reduce its staff, I know that so many in our parishes are seeking ways to support efforts to bring relief to the suffering of those who live in fear. Several of our churches take seriously, as I do, the Episcopal Church’s commitment to the Sanctuary movement, even as we explore how to open our doors and communities as our Bible urges us to, sometimes at some risk of public and legal opposition. In my travels among the parish communities in the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire, I see the Holiness of Holy Week, the Good News of Good Friday. These include our solidarity with those battling addiction of all kinds (please accept the invitation to observe the Recovery Sunday, on April 30th!); our work to mentor, tutor, feed and support youth and children who on the losing side of the Opportunity Gap; to sit with the dying and those in prison; to weep with and comfort the grieving; and to give God great thanks and praise for the chance that God is always giving us to reconcile with those with whom we have been in conflict. You want to hear about an Easter miracle? Let me tell you about the congregations all over New Hampshire, that have faithful people on every political side, but who would do anything to help their neighbor as a child of God, or their fellow parishioner in need simply because they are members of the Risen Body of Christ.
Our Church, with Christ, bursts out of tombs of fear, grief and cowardice when it sees how, despite the fracture we may be feeling in our hearts about the fallen state of the world, God is not done with us. God is still working God’s purposes out. Even with people like us--fallen, broken, and gorgeously risen in Christ Jesus.
 The most recent policy statement of The Episcopal Church is found in Resolution 2015-D057:
"Resolved, That the 78th General Convention recommit to the spirit of the New Sanctuary Movement by supporting congregations so they can assist immigrant individuals, unaccompanied minors, families, and communities by being centers of information, services and accompaniment, and by supporting families facing separation in the absence of comprehensive, humane immigration reform."
Yankee folk wisdom says, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Each of the issues the recent Presidential Executive Orders seeks to fix deserves a considered, bi-partisan conversation, combined with a measure of humility from all sides. Blunt force can make matters worse.
The Executive Order tightly restricting immigration and refugee resettlement based on religious identity has done very little but intensify global tensions while worsening human suffering among those who honor and admire this nation. What is called for is competent diplomacy, informed statesmanship, and a clear commitment to the biblically informed ideals of hospitality to the stranger and the oppressed. That these values are being so cavalierly rejected in favor of rash and fear-based edicts not only violates the dignity of those immediately affected, but also damages our own reputation. This is not what gaining respect in the community of nations looks like.
We appear to be descending quickly from the Republican vision, as held up by President Ronald Reagan, of America as 'the shining city on the hill.' It is worth noting that President Reagan was quoting John Winthrop, a Puritan who was himself, like so many refugees of our day, fleeing sectarian persecution and tyranny.
--A. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop, January 30, 2017
Sermon for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Concord, NH, on the Occasion of their Bicentennial Celebration
By The Right Reverend A. Robert Hirschfeld, 10th Bishop, Episcopal Church of New Hampshire
delivered January 8, 2017
“And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehendeth it not.”
So, the newspaper reports that we can’t help talking about fires around here. That may be so. The fire I want to talk about this evening is the fire of God's love that kindled the hearts of the several souls who decided to build a church in the Anglican tradition in Concord. More than that, I want to talk about the fire of God that couldn't be contained within the boundaries of heaven itself. It is the fire of love that burns so wildly and urgently that it came down from heaven and took the form of a human being in Jesus.
As we celebrate the beginning of this parish community, I can't help but first talk about the very beginning, the beginning of creation. The prayer for this Sunday speaks of how God wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature. And, granted us grace to share the divine life of the One who shared our humanity: Jesus Christ our Savior.
The early church spoke of the relationship between God and Humankind as a fire intermingling with its medium. In a fourth century Christmas-Epiphany sermon, Basil the Great, the bishop of Caesarea, spoke of the mystery of God becoming human and shedding light into the world using fire and an analogy:
How, then will you say, did the light come everywhere, through one sole person? In what manner is the Godhead in the flesh? Like fire and iron: not by moving about, but by spreading itself. The fire, indeed, does thrust itself toward the iron, but remaining where it is, it distributes its own power to it. In doing so, the fire is in no way diminished, but it completely fills the iron, into which it spreads.
In other words, we are to see ourselves on fire, our own bodies, minds, souls, utterly consumed by a God who choses to be ablaze in our lives, but who also promises never to incinerate us. Because the papers say we can’t help but talk about a fire, let us always keep in mind that wonderful showing up of God who calls Moses to free the people of Israel from their oppression by Pharaoh. Remember the burning bush by which the God of all history, the one who stated his name as “I who am, who was, and who will be,” burns wildly when being revealed to us, but is not destroyed. Thus it is to be with us.
This is the image of our life in Christ, in a God who is indeed suffering, is crucified, and yet who lives. That same God lived and inspired the first men and women who founded a church first named for one is famous for doubting, and then was reformed into a church named for one who is famous for his preaching to the religious and ethnic outsiders: St. Paul. They were aflame with love for God’s mission, for over 200 years, and yet this congregation was never incinerated.
I’ve been thinking of the second law of thermodynamics in the light of the today’s gospel, the construction, and the continual reconstruction, renewal, and re-creation of St. Paul’s. I’ve consulted with some physicists, and this is what they tell me the law says in terms a scientific layperson like me can understand.
Things fall apart. Indeed, everything falls apart. Energy, when converted into motion or work, eventually expends.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal wrote:
The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses [churches] burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail. Matter doesn’t spontaneously arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things don’t jump onto our plates to become our food. What needs to be explained is not poverty but wealth.
In summary: poverty, social decline, the disintegration of values in our political and social spheres…all can be seen as analogies, parallels, of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It’s worth noting, by the way, that the Second Law was postulated, as it happens 200 years ago, just as Messrs. Albert Cady, Hill, Greenleaf and their colleagues chose to organize themselves as church and to worship according to the order, not the disorder, of the Book of Common Prayer. Presumably, they found, like I do, that one’s soul is strengthened and equipped better to confront the entropy of life when one reads the daily office, is nourished by the sacraments together, and seeks to build a commonwealth of good under the benevolent auspices of a God who gives and forgives,
Here’s what saves us from being a collection of Debbie Downers or Bob Bummers: “In the beginning is the Word. And the light that enlightens everyone has come into the world.”
You and I, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are being continually remade, rebuilt, re-inspired, re-ignited, reconverted, re-born again, to our original Godly glow. Though the original founders of St. Thomas Chapel encountered some kind of failure in their beginning, and though St. Paul’s has encountered episodes that might have led to its undoing, including fires, conflicts both within and outside its walls, not to mention a civil war, World Wars, and national political upheavals that would have shaken its confidence, the Second Law doesn’t really apply to us.
We are not a closed system. The power of God’s love continually infuses new energy, new vision, new confidence, indeed new joy and delight in our worship of God and each other. It’s not that we have to generate the power and energy to come here every day to offer our prayers for the world and our prayers of thanksgiving. Rather, God is praying us, continually drawing us into God’s eternal and infinitely life-giving presence.
God is heating the cold iron of our hearts, aglow with God’s loving, justice seeking, peacemaking Spirit, so that the world may see the Incarnate Christ, God’s very presence, in our bodies, in our actions, in our thoughts and words, in the hands that reach out in service to those in need and to find reconciliation, even with those who have hurt us or seek to cause harm.
Otherwise, we’d be nothing but burned out, unforgiving, grumpy and tired. Instead, God calls us to into a warm strengthening fellowship without which life can indeed be as Thomas Hobbes describing in the 17th century “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Here, we partakers of the Jesus movement, indeed people of all descriptions of belief and unbelief, have found the peace that surpasseth understanding, and therein the power, the fire, to bring light to this fallen world where for many life is very dark indeed.
My wood stove…the embers burn…even after several days of what looks like cold and ash, there is still light within the pile. So I take a piece of kindling, blow on it, watch the kindling ignite, then a dry log or a piece of birch bark, and behold, the thing is set ablaze again. All from a small, wafer-sized ember.
So it is with us. Our embers seem totally extinguished, from exhaustion, despair, frustration. Sometimes, driving around Concord or the highways and byways of New Hampshire, seeing very hostile stickers from the left or from the right, I can fall into despair at what the cover of Time magazine referred to as the Divided States of America.
But then I come to a church like St. Paul’s. To see the light pass through the faces of these persons on these reconstructed windows, essentially the light of Christ enlightens them all, faces that cannot be separated from the light that fills them. So, let us welcome the light, the fire of Jesus’ love for you and for this broken world. Let us welcome it. And, may it burn continually in our lives, which we offer in God’s service to the world.