Saturday, May 1, 2010

We Got a Robe

Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 4th Sunday of Easter: Revelation 7:9-17. This was my last Sunday before beginning a three month sabbatical.

I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

I had just made the decision that it was time to leave my beloved St. George’s in the Diocese of Washington where I had been first Vicar and then Rector for 12 years when a former Washington colleague of mine, Gayle Harris, was elected Bishop Suffragan of Massachusetts. I knew a little bit about her parish in Rochester because I knew her, of course, but also because I was a native of that diocese. I remember thinking that it was the kind of place I would like to go next, with the added attraction that it was close to my family, but the timing was not right. I was looking now and they wouldn’t be ready to call for some time.

I thought about her parish again when I attended her consecration in Boston in January 2003 (Lord, it was cold that day!). By then, though, I was already in a couple of parish processes and feeling good about my prospects.

2003, however, was a frustrating year for me as those processes and several others did not pan out. I could never get past the final cut. At the time I was President of Integrity USA and I became convinced that was influencing people negatively. One parish with a very progressive reputation told me flat out that I was too risky. Another gave me the feedback that I “Googled too well.” I was beginning to think I might be in Maryland for the rest of my ministry. There would have been worse things, but I kept trying.

In November of 2003 I attended the consecration of my friend Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. It happened that the Bishop of Rochester, Jack McKelvey, was there. I asked if we could have a word and I inquired about Two Saints. It was a great place, he said, but he discouraged me from applying. “Not a good match,” he said. He’d love to have me in the Diocese, though. How about St. Thomas’, Bath? No, I said, that was basically my hometown and I recall Jesus having some advice about that.

Most of you know me well enough to know that Bishop McKelvey’s advice only made me determined to put my name in here, and I did, and, to his credit, he didn’t try to stop me.

Well, I advanced in the process to the visitation stage. I remember I was in Safeway, a grocery store, when, I think, Betty McClenney called me on my cell phone and asked me if such and such a date was OK for them to come. My brain went into panic mode. It was the day after John and I were having our union blessed by the Bishop of Washington with a couple hundred people in attendance. Not a good Sunday for me to be at my best! “Of course,” I said, “We’d love to have you.”

Betty and Jackie Hopkins came for the visit. Little did I know that neither of them were very favorably disposed toward me. I was being sent the Two Saints hit squad! Instead, of course, we fell in love with each other. I’m convinced it was because I took them to lunch at Ruby Tuesdays!

John and I came to Rochester for the final interview. Armond Kane, with all his gregariousness, took us on a tour, the highlight of which was the Pittsford Wegman’s and the Eastview Mall. We guessed he had us pegged for shoppers. He did also take us to see the fast ferry. Actually by the end of the trip we had been taken three times to see the fast ferry! You were really proud of that boat!

I decided by the end of that visit that I would say, “yes,” if you called me. John, despite the fact that he is a native of Florida and was convinced that from Rochester he could see the Arctic Circle, didn’t veto me.

The votes in the Search Committee and the Vestry were not unanimous, but I was elected by one vote by the Vestry and Jack McKelvey signed off on it. On the second Sunday of September I said good-bye to St. George’s and on the first Sunday of October 2004 I stood at this Altar for the first time. And here we are five and a half years later and you are sending me off on my first sabbatical.

I tell that story this morning because it is a story about how God works through and oftentimes around us to create his great multitude. It is a story of how God is determined to bring together people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” This parish is a glimmer of that great multitude which is the dream of God and I am privileged to be a part of it.

The story of our coming together (and I only told my side of it, of course) is a story of grace. It is ultimately a story of thanksgiving and joy. It is also a story with its amusing moments, proving, as so many things do in this life, that God has a sense of humor. But it is also a hard story with some very painful moments, moments that the vision from Revelation this morning calls “the great ordeal.” But these characteristics are those of all our lives and of communities like this one, and the ones that preceded it, through the years. Moments of joy, moments of pain.

What to do with this mixed bag of a life that belongs to each one of us? Revelation suggests, quite simply, hope. The whole Book of Revelation, with all its weirdness, violence and terrible portents of the future, is really about just one word: hope. And the hope is contained in today’s vision:

These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb…They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

In a story like ours we are not only formed into the kind of community of which God dreams, we are also enabled to stand in this life and say, “This thing that is happening to me is not the end of the story. I know the end of the story and it involves a robe and a palm branch and a God who wipes away tears.

This is such good news. We have such good news to tell, my sisters and brothers. God make us a little less afraid to tell it.

Well let’s today close this sermon and give thanks for our story and mark this beginning of sabbatical time by singing from LEVAS #180[1] (you might not need the book; it will save your hands to clap). Do me a favor and change the “I” to “we,” for truly this is about us. Nobody’s got a robe on in the kingdom by him or herself. Surely that is part of the good news here at Two Saints.

We got a robe up ina that kingdom
ain’a that good news.
We got a robe up ina that kingdom
ain’a that good news.
We’re a gonna lay down this world,
gonna shoulder upa our cross.
Gonna take it home a to my Jesus,
ain’a that good news.

We got a crown…

We got a savior…


[1] Traditional Negro spiritual.

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