Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
It’s always funny to stand as a guest in the pulpit and then welcome people, but welcome! If we’ve not yet met, I’m Pastor Casey Dunsworth, and I am in my fourth year of service to the Lutheran-Episcopal campus ministry to UC Davis, and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network. You probably know at least part of that, which is why you’re here!
Thank you for your presence this evening to celebrate the start of our seventh LEVN program year. Though we have a few years of experience in this ministry, we’re also doing a few new things this year! We have moved the LEVN residence from our little yellow house in Davis to the triplex here at All Saints. We have transitioned in leadership from two clergypeople to one pastor and one lay executive director. We are, as always, welcoming a new corps of LEVN volunteers. Our LEVNeers—Livvy, Ryan, Joy, Victoria, Sarah, Ray, and Remington—and our Executive Director, Emily, will be duly installed later in the service.
It’s our fifth full day together as the budding 2018-2019 LEVN community, and these newly-minted LEVNeers are probably already tired of hearing this, but I am a Lutheran. I am a Lutheran pastor who serves a Lutheran-Episcopal ministry. Before coming to serve the Belfry, I was vaguely familiar with the Episcopal Church, because my best friend from high school is Episcopalian and I had some Episcopal classmates in seminary, and—until then—I mostly got away with knowing that it was fancier than Lutheran but not as fancy as Catholic. As I began serving here with the Rev. Jocelynn Jurkovich-Hughes, our recently former priest, I learned as much as the students and LEVNeers did about how ecumenical ministry works.
Among my favorite things that I have learned in this ministry so far is the practice of commemorating saints and other important historical figures. Because Lutherans do a lot of things, I hesitate to say something as general as “Lutherans do not do this” but I cannot name any Lutherans who regularly commemorate saints in their liturgies.
You may have noticed when you picked up your bulletin this evening that the commemoration for today in the Episcopal calendar is twofold: Aidan and Cuthbert, Bishops of Lindisfarne from the seventh century. Before putting together this liturgy I had not heard of Bishop Aidan or Cuthbert, and unless you are Livvy or another equally astute church history superfan, you probably could use a little refresher about these holy men.
Bishop Aidan, who died in the year 651, evangelized Northern England and Scotland, and his life “provides us with a strong example that actions often speak louder than words, and the best kind of Christian evangelism is that which proceeds from godly and charitable living.” Bishop Cuthbert, who died in 687, served during a period of “plague, war, and schism,” but “went fearlessly among his people, ministering to the wounded and inspiring hope in the survivors.”
You probably did not intend to be inspired by seventh century English Bishops for your year of LEVN service, but you could do worse. The scripture that is associated with this commemoration is some of my favorite, which is another reason why I am so excited to celebrate Bishops Aidan and Cuthbert today.
We sang a hymn as we began our liturgy this evening, called “Light Dawns on a Weary World”. The refrain, in particular, is a paraphrase of the Isaiah 55 text, in which the earth celebrates: trees clap their hands, mountains burst into song, and all creation lives in peace.
The LEVNeers read a book in advance of our time together by an Episcopal author, Barbara Brown Taylor, called An Altar in the World. We’ve been talking this week about how all spaces are sacred, all bodies are good, and that the whole earth is the house of God. Jesus knew this, and Bishops Aidan and Cuthbert knew this, and now you know this.
Throughout the program year, you will be challenged by new scenarios in your community life, at the organizations where you serve, and in the wider world. As you set your intentions for your year, it is my hope that you will learn and grow from these challenges, inspired by the change you are making in yourself and in the world around you.
This is a weary world, that part is not hard to see. You will serve alongside intrepid colleagues, whether they are social workers, or clergy, or non-profit directors, or administrators, or some combination therein. You will encounter neighbors, clients, community members, parishioners, and strangers. There will be days when you feel you truly accomplished something, making a difference in the life of someone else. There will also be days when you feel like you tried as hard as you could and nothing really happened.
You are invited to spend this year paying particular attention, though, to the light that shines in that darkness. The light of Christ is not overcome by even the most exhausting circumstances. Some days, you will be the one shining the light into the dark corners. Other days, you will be the one breathing the sigh of relief as someone else shows up with the flashlight. We’re all in this together.
Y’all may have heard about the huge undertaking that was getting this program year off the ground. Our move across the causeway could not have happened without the generous contributions of household goods and furniture from our community, or the countless hours put in by volunteers to move all of those household goods and furniture, and to prepare the apartments for the LEVNeers to move in. Several days out of the last few weeks, friends of the Belfry shined a flashlight for me and for Emily. This community is not just seven LEVN volunteers, or our staff, or our board, but the whole network of people who come together to build it, piece by piece.
This year, I hope you feel like you are part of something. I hope you feel like you are invited and welcome to be all of who you are, whether you’re even sure who you are. I hope you feel like the other people here are learning alongside you, and that you—as individuals and as a community—are growing. I hope you feel like, as we talk and learn and read and sing and laugh, that you belong here.
There’s another Episcopal author named Diana Butler Bass who has written several books about church. She wrote one called Christianity After Religion that looks at what we’re going to be in this age of “spiritual but not religious”-ness. It’s an interesting book, but it has one part that I’ve carried with me since I read it several years ago. She says that in the old way of being church, there were three B’s: Believe, behave, belong.
You went to a church because you believed the things they believed (or wanted to) and then learned from them how to behave according to those beliefs, and then once you’d gotten all of that squared away, you could “join” the church officially. You could really belong there. That probably sounds familiar, and maybe doesn’t sound entirely problematic to you.
But what if we flipped it? She asks. What if instead, we belong and then behave and then believe? What if we are invited and welcomed into a community, no questions asked? What if, then, we see how others act and we learn new ways to love ourselves and our neighbors? What if, then, we come to believe the truths they teach?
You may not find this particularly radical, because you have been part of a community that operates this way. Or, you may be surprised to hear that such a way is possible. In either case, you belong here. This is a year of discernment, where you may change your mind about just who you are and how you belong here. That’s okay! That’s actually great!
If you discern that you’re Lutheran or that you aren’t; if you discern that you’re Episcopalian or that you aren’t; if you discern that you’re queer or that you aren’t; if you discern that you’re called to be a pastor or that you aren’t; if you discern that you’re going to go to graduate school or that you aren’t. You belong here.
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans that we just read from, he names outright that we are all bringing different things to the table. This year’s seven LEVNeers come from five different states, not counting the other states they lived in before that, or the countries they’ve lived in and served in. Y’all come from seven different families, communities, specific Christian traditions, and ways of being in the world.
This is the greatest strength of the Body of Christ. The seven of you and the wider community that supports the ministry of the Belfry are made up of prophets, ministers, teachers, preachers, givers, leaders, and helpers—just as Paul suggested. Our common life only works when each of us lives fully into the whole self that God has called us to be.
We talked this week about purpose and vocation, wondering about our passions and gifts, and how we can combine those into something beautiful and meaningful and life-giving. As this year continues, you will be amazed at how many different component parts make up the LEVN whole. You will begin to see the connections in the broader network of this diocese, this synod, this non-profit community, this city, and the Body of Christ. I don’t know where we’ll be when we gather to close this LEVN year, eleven months from now. But I know we’ll get there, together.
As we prayed the Daily Office together this week, one of my favorite prayers we prayed was written by—you guessed it—Martin Luther. I love it because it acknowledges that the journey we embark on—whatever that journey may be—will be difficult, but that God will always accompany us. We will need our wits about us, and we will need to be courageous. Not because we are going it alone, but because God gives us the capacity to reach just a bit farther; to take the first step, even when we cannot see the whole road. Please join your hearts in prayer with me, one more time.
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.