A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, John 17:20-26
I often tell people that one of the key foundational elements of my upbringing in faith, in the Episcopal Church, was attending summer camp as a youth (and young adult) at Camp Cross. I honestly believe that without the time I spent at Camp Cross, the growth I experienced there, the exploration of what faith meant in practice in a unique and powerful community, I would not be a priest today. I know for a fact that without Camp Cross I wouldn’t be married to Krista, with our two daughters, because we never would’ve crossed paths otherwise. But, Camp Cross was not where I began to understand the deeper meaning when Christ says today that the “glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.”
When I was 15 years old, I had the blessing to attend the Episcopal Youth Event in Laramie, Wyoming. The Episcopal Youth Event is a tri-annual event that brings together youth from throughout the whole country and beyond (including the Convocation of Churches in Europe and Province IX of the Episcopal Church located in Central and Latin America). As a teenager from Moses Lake, Washington, this was an eye-opening and reality-shifting experience. Where I grew up, I was often speaking from a unique understanding of faith and how that faith dictated how I approached the world in terms of acceptance, social justice, and more. This was largely because I was one of the only practicing Episcopalian in the school (not to mention that those classmates who were willing to engage were by-and-large members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). Even at Camp Cross, there was a blending of Episcopal voices and fellow teens who had simply found an amazing community in that place.
EYE was different. Here was an opportunity to go and worship in powerful and moving ways. Episcopal and yet different than any Episcopal service I’d ever seen. And to do this with 2000 other teenagers who self-identified as Episcopalians. Who cared enough about that identity that they were willing to spend a week of their summer in Laramie, Wyoming at a Church event. This opened my eyes to reality that the Episcopal Church really truly existed outside of the little world I knew about. This connected me to a church that was bigger than I could imagine, a church that wasn’t sleepy and old, but rather a church that was full of life, energy, passion, enthusiasm, and all of that about being an Episcopalian as much as about being a Christian.
I had the privilege to chaperone the team from the Diocese of Spokane at EYE 2017 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (not all of the events have been in such exotic locations as Wyoming and Oklahoma, 2014 was Philadelphia, 2020 is Washington DC). And as an adult reflecting back on my own experience 15 years prior, and getting to watch our youth share that same experience at this event, I truly connected with this understanding of oneness, of seeing Christ in each other and connecting to that larger body that is the church. One of our youth from a church where she and her sister were often the only youth (an experience I knew quite well) mentioned that it was so cool to meet so many kids who were just like her, that is young Episcopalians who are exploring faith and the practice of that faith in their worlds: at school, with friends who didn’t get it, within themselves as they asked those same questions many teens do about faith and belief. But here, at EYE, they found camaraderie, they found safety, they found friends from throughout the church. This was the same experience I had as a youth and to enable these youth to connect to that reality was as powerful in reminding me of that wider connection we have with one another through Christ, as Christ is with us and within us.
I share this story today because it can be hard to remember that this connection we share in Christ with each other is not simply in this one place. Being part of a larger denominational system sometimes carries its own challenges, but as a body of people who follow Christ, we all come together to share in this reality of faith. This is why our liturgy, our readings, our music, is largely the same (of course with the influence of local culture) from place to place. This is what makes us doing church in this manner so important, because we are the Episcopal home for anyone who moves into our community or is simply passing through and is seeking that unique approach we offer.
And, it is important to remember that we are not doing this alone, we are not venturing into this world as people of faith from a silo, we are people of a larger movement, we are people of a larger way. When I put together the contact info sheet for visitors that is found in the pews, I adapted the Presiding Bishop’s words in writing that we here at St. Stephen’s are “The Southwest Washington Sprig of the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.” We are part of a greater whole that is doing the same work, and it is helpful to be reminded of that reality.
We are reminded of that reality when we take advantage of local opportunities through the diocese to receive trainings from those in our region who have expertise. A team from St. Stephen’s is heading up to St. Mark’s on the 15th of this month to engage in a training about how we as people of faith can better serve our communities. Just a couple of weeks ago we had 4 people (out of 110) receive laying on of hands by our Bishop at Cathedral Day. In the fall we have Diocesan Convention where people from all across Western Washington come together to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit, to discern how we as Episcopal people of faith are called to act in this region. These are important connections to our larger church. These opportunities keep us connected to that larger reality that is the church.
We are also reminded of our shared efforts when we engage with people from throughout the church. Whether it be at a national church conference (the biggest of which in recent history will be this January at a conference called: Rooted in Jesus), running to represent our diocese at General Convention, or simply visiting a local Episcopal Church when you are out of town. These connections with our larger church outside of our diocese even, remind us that this church is much bigger than just us here in this place, and from that we are reminded that we have the power of this larger church standing behind us as we look to do the work of Christ here in our own community.
For, as Christ is with us, within us, just as God is with and within Christ, if we are made one through this connection, then as one unified body we stand up as one Church. When we stand up and speak out and do the real work of outreach that we are called to as followers of Christ here in this community, we do this with the full support of the whole Episcopal Church standing behind us, empowering and encouraging us.
It is when we connect to this larger reality of our faith in this world, that we are not only not alone, but that we are not alone even in our one church here in Longview, that we also begin to shout out to the Lord, “Come! Lord Jesus!” For we are doing the work that is before us. We are paving the way for the Lord to come once more and establish his kingdom here, with us. Without our work, without the work of our connected and unified church, all working towards this common goal, then we would not be able to shout to the Lord and ask him to be with us once more. Without our unified connection we could not shout to the Lord for we would not be living into that connection as one that has been left for us.
It is in this same vein that I work diligently to connect to other Christian churches in our community. For even if we have different theology, we all serve one Lord. Even if we disagree on what that means, even if we disagree on how that looks in how we treat our neighbor, we are still connected to one another through our own identification as a Christian. And, in that connection, we can move hearts. In that connection, we can find common ground in serving Christ. In that connection we come to the common table that Jesus is constantly inviting us to, ready to put aside our differences and create real change in our communities where we live into the call that Christ has left for us.
We are one body, one church in Christ. We are connected as one, just as Jesus and the Father are one. If Christ is with us and within us, then we cannot help but be connected to one another. In that connection, we must be inspired to live into our lives as followers of Christ, for that is our call, and together we can rise to answer it.