I rise in the spirit of the prophet Isaiah (45:1-7), to whom God proclaimed that he was sending Cyrus to subdue all the nations that stood in his way – to humble tyrants by stripping them of their royal finery, shattering the locks on their palace doors, flinging the doors wide open, and letting the spirit of God’s love blow through like a cold, fresh wind.
Cyrus was the Persian king in the sixth century before Christ. According to our most precious biblical traditions, it was Cyrus who enabled the captive people of God to return to Jerusalem, rebuild their temple, and recommence their precious religious practices — while resolving anew to care for the poor, welcome the stranger, and walk in the way of God’s justice and peace.
God’s prophets still whisper in our ears – still speak comfortably to Jerusalem – promising to break down the doors of all the places where acts of violence and injustice against other people are conceived and plotted and letting the spirit of peace overtake them, turning war-plotters into peace-makers.
There is still so much work to do in the spirit of the prophet. Gathering in joy to celebrate the peace and unity of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Hacienda Heights, CA these 60 years of its mission and ministry, I know we all pause today to pray that, by grace, God will inspire those in authority to end the violence in Israel and Palestine, and then help all the people of the region achieve peace with justice at last – and do the same in Ukraine – and everywhere in the world where people are at risk because of war-plotters locked behind their palace walls.
“I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me, there is no god.” This is our Lord’s assurance, by way of the prophet’s words. All people everywhere are made for the same purpose – to glorify God, give thanks to God, and then take care of their neighbor as our God in Christ cares for us. Doing what’s best for those around us, spending our money and our emotional energy to put others first. Children of the same God, dispersed in many families, as siblings often are, with our differences mattering far less than what we have in common – which is the love of our one creator for one people. Finding the birthright of our unity in spite of our differences – this is God’s invitation, and this is St. Thomas’ example.
St. Thomas people know this story, of course. In the midst it, the Rev. Dr. Fennie Hsin-Fen Chang’s friend and mentor, Mo. Deborah Dunn, had a vision of a church community where people from many backgrounds, speaking three languages – sometimes four! – would worship together, break bread together, celebrate and mourn together, and serve their neighbors side by side.
I remember hearing about it from Deborah herself. She was my spiritual director during those years, when I was in seminary. She said she couldn’t understand why language or culture was a barrier to people who all loved Jesus Christ exactly the same and experienced all the same joys and sorrows in their lives. She wanted to try something different at St. Thomas, and she got the bishop’s blessing.
I’m sorry to say that many churches around the country are different from St. Thomas. They’re a little like those palaces we heard about in Isaiah. The people mean well. They love and serve our God in Christ and pray every day. These churches don’t do it on purpose. But their doors are effectively closed to people who are different, don’t speak the same language, or don’t have quite as much money.
Fennie call Deborah our prophet. And that she was. But she also played the role of Cyrus in our drama, helping the Holy Spirit like a gust of wind, blowing the church doors wide open. Fennie’s own St. Thomas story began when she was a doctoral student from Toronto, visiting family members in the neighborhood. Deborah recruited Fennie to translate her sermons. Noticing her passion as she mediated God’s Word, Deborah gave her a book about preaching. Seminary was next, then ordination, then a successful turn in campus ministry – and finally back to St. Thomas as its seventh vicar. Five years ago, as her proud parents looked on, I had the blessing of presiding at her celebration of new ministry. Under her leadership, St. Thomas continues to thrive. Her devotion and love are in every detail of this wonderful celebration.
It includes a play written and directed by veteran Christian educator Phoebe Pao, retelling the story of Ruth – more from our sacred scriptures about the love we have in our hearts for one another being more powerful than nation, culture, or language. It will be performed by St. Thomas members from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China. We all know about the political tensions in the region. But our performers will join together nevertheless to tell the story of Ruth and Naomi – the timeless story about love defying country and creed – the love that leads us all back to the heart of our creator, to our God in Christ, and to the needs of our neighbor.
“From the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me.” This is our Lord’s promise to the prophet and to us – a promise, but also a challenge. We look around our world and see borders and walls, misapprehension and war. Our God in Christ looks and sees one creation and one people – and through his prophets, from Isaiah to Deborah, invites us to see ourselves as he sees us. We are a unity on which the sun never sets. The light of God’s love never goes out. That light shines so bright here at St. Thomas – it has for 60 years – and by God’s grace, it will shine for 60 years more and beyond.
— My remarks and photo album from Saturday’s 60th anniversary celebration at St. Thomas