Hold Onto What is Good

The Most Rev. Melissa M. Skelton, Bishop Provisional

1 Thessalonians 5: 12-22
We appeal to you, siblings, to respect those who labor among you…Esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you….to encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast to what is good.

Just last week I attended a Zoom meeting with some other Church leaders. Those in the meeting, like many of us here today, were perplexed about where the Church is right now.

It was the beginning of the meeting. We had been welcomed and were about to go into small groups to do an opening exercise. This was the story and the prompt that was given to us before sending us off.

“I was visiting a congregation” the speaker said, “while on a trip to see my parents in the town where I grew up. I went to Eucharist and then to Coffee Hour afterwards. And, of course, at Coffee Hour, I had time to look around the parish hall. When I did, I noticed that there on the bulletin board in the parish hall was a picture and a biography for the rector two rectors ago.”

And then the speaker addressed all of us in the meeting:

“This made me wonder, really wonder: Are those of us in the Church about preservation or transformation, preservation or transformation?”

He went on to say: “And, so I want you to talk about this in your small groups and offer any experiences you have about this.”

Well, we got in our groups, and I could barely contain myself.

“I’ll go first!” I said.

“This is just me, but the story we just heard is not a story about preservation; it’s probably a story about simple neglect. Preservation is not a bad word in my vocabulary—in fact, quite the opposite. Preservation is about holding onto what’s good right now even as we also look to the future, a future in which God is about the business of transforming the world.”

The Church in Thessalonica was on the cusp of what it believed would be God’s ultimate transformation, the transformation of the whole world in the coming of Jesus again in power. And what happened in that community—quite understandable—was that in the face of this coming transformation, people were confused about what they should be doing. “Why should we spend energy on sorting out what was right and what was wrong, why should we spend energy on anything, if the ultimate transformation was right around the corner?” they asked.

But Paul has a different perspective on this. He tells the community, and to us, that even in the face of the ultimate transformation, they and we still have things to do. And they are not easy things.

We still have to keep discerning the difference between right and wrong, between hucksters and wisdom people, Paul says. We still have to continue to extend compassion and courtesy to those who typically don’t get it. We still have to act with forbearance in situations in which we would prefer just to cut loose with whatever we’re feeling. We still need to have courage and try making things better even if we’re not entirely sure what we’re doing or the effect it will have.

You and I are just seven months away from electing a new diocesan bishop. And I’m here to tell you today that many of the people I interact with in my role as Provisional are neither idle nor lost in the face of this upcoming change. I don’t see a lot of people just waiting around for a new bishop to come and figure everything out for us all. Rather, I see many here in this Diocese actively preserving the good things already here and, what is more, building on those good things even now.

Things like these things:

  • First, in this time of transition, this diocese is living into the commitment that Convention made to multi-cultural ministry and community transformation and work of the Circles of Color. Canon Carla Robinson and her workmate, Adrienne Elliott, are continuing to support conversations within the Circles and are resourcing congregations and leaders of Color in this Diocese. Their work and the work of Circles continue to bring needed visibility to racial reconciliation and justice for all of our sakes.
  • Secondly, in this time of transition, this Diocese continues to stay committed to its focus on congregational development. Compliments of a grant from Trinity Wall Street, the College, our comprehensive training for clergy and lay leaders, is undergoing renewal. This Diocese continues to focus on attracting clergy who embrace the practice of congregational development. This Diocese is reconfiguring Christian formation so that it better meets the changing needs of congregations. And this Diocese continues to strengthen the way that it uses the Iona School to support the formation of lay and ordained ministers whose work is primarily in congregations.
  • Third, in this time of transition, this Diocese continues to focus on Creation Care. With the recent the visit of Bp Ernie Moral and company, we’ve renewed our carbon-offset agreement with the Episcopal Diocese of the Southern Philippines. And, what is more, we will be commissioning a team to draft a new and expanded agreement in collaboration with Bishop Ernie and friends—and will have that new agreement ready for the new bishop to sign onto. All of this is happening as a number of congregations and ministries hold the Care of Creation as central to what they are doing.
  • Fourth, in this time of transition, this Diocese is strengthening its efforts in the areas of property and finances. The Board has created a new property committee to work in a more focused way on all the property matters that are before us. Part of this is assisting St. Luke’s, Ballard with the massive property development effort there. Diocesan Council will be bringing a balanced 2024 diocesan budget to this Convention for ratification. And, close to my heart, we’re continuing to work on the upgrading of D-House to make it a more functional place to work and to meet, and a more welcoming place for any who visit here.

These, for me, are examples of our holding onto what is good even as we await a momentous, potentially transformative change.

And, I suppose, this could be enough for me say here at this 2023 Convention. To praise what has been happening in the Diocese during this time of transition.

But of course, there’s more to say because our lives, your lives, are more than this at this time in our country and in the world.

Some of you are, for instance, working hard at the congregational or the ministry level. But, in the light of a pandemic that has changed things, you’re not at all sure whether what you’re doing will make any difference in your congregation or within your ministry area. Sure, you’ve heard that life in a pandemic-influenced world means that Church will be forever changed. But how? And where do you or your congregation fit in this changed reality as we move from here to there?

Added to this, most of us are troubled about the political and ideological divisions in our country. It doesn’t seem to let up. Where is all this division, this rhetoric, heading as even now we’re building towards the crescendo of the 2024 elections? Sure, we know we should vote, but what else might we do to be seen and heard as things develop and heat up?

And finally, I don’t know of a person in my life who isn’t worried and fearful about the conflicts going on in the world—in Ukraine, in Sudan and South Sudan, in the Middle East, in other places. Sometimes it can feel as if we’re in a world where the unthinkable is commonplace, where the humane treatment of others is an antiquated idea, and where the voice of Christian groups, when heard at all, contribute to polarization rather than the restoration of relationship.

It would be easy in the grip of any or all of these things—in the grip of a Church and a world changed by Covid, in the grip of political divisions, in the grip of the brutal conflict that dominates the news—it would be easy to believe that what we do is too small to affect what will happen, too small to matter.

But what I want to say to you today is this: We as Christians believe that every action matters; we as Christians believe that all of life is connected. And so, for us, no action is too small and no action stops with just itself.

As it turns out, then, Paul, a person who’s not right about everything, is right about an important thing.

For he said that no matter the circumstance—transition, suffering, persecution—and no matter the emotions—anxiety, fear, numbness, or dread—no matter the circumstances or emotions—you and I are to hold onto what is good—the good that the wisdom of the Scriptures points to, the good that Jesus, himself, exemplifies. We are to hold onto what is good, trusting that God is somehow already working towards the transformation of the world and will keep at it. We are to hold onto what is good because God needs us to play our part in the places where God has given us responsibility or where God has presented us with an opportunity, no matter how small.

And so it matters…

  • It matters that we let someone in ahead of us in line at the grocery store.
  • It matters than when a driver yells at us for making a mistake, that we don’t yell back.
  • It matters that we write our Congressional representative about issues and actions important to us and to our communities.
  • It matters that we act with forbearance in conversations with people we don’t agree with.
  • It matters that we contribute money to Episcopal Relief and Development or to the Refugee Resettlement Office.
  • It matters that we greet someone new who’s shown up in our congregation and simply ask them what brings them to our church today. It matters that later we don’t abandon them at Coffee Hour!
  • It matters that we sign up for a formation class that we know will stretch us beyond our areas of comfort.
  • It matters that we listen, that we really listen, to another person in our life.
  • It matters that we call our parent/grandparent/adult child/sibling simply to ask how they’re doing.
  • It matters that we nourish ourselves with beauty—with music, art, nature or through gazing at the faces of those we love.
  • It matters that we feed the birds or drive slowly enough not to hit the deer that wanders into the road in front of us.
  • It matters that we contribute to the planting of trees across the globe in the Southern Philippines to offset our carbon emissions.
  • It matters…It matters…It matters.

When I arrived in the Canadian Church as Bishop of the Diocese of New Westminster, one of the legacies of the previous bishop, Bishop Michael Ingham, was the blessing he used at the end of every Eucharist. He was there for 20+ years, so people had committed much of it to memory.

As I came to learn, it was his adaptation of a prayer from an edition of the prayer book in the English Church that was prayed at the end of confirmations—confirmations those occasions when confirmands remember their baptisms, are affirmed as adults in this ecclesial tradition and are sent back into their lives strengthened for service.

Here is that blessing, newly adapted by me, that I offer you now to send us into this Convention and its work. I’ll offer it again at the end of this Convention to send us back out into the world.

As you will see, some of its words are right out of Paul’s letters:

Return now to the place where God has given you responsibility. Remember the peace and love we have celebrated and do not fail to show to all people the new life that is already among us. Have courage; hold onto what is good; return to no one evil for evil; strengthen those who fail; support the weak; and honor all life. And the blessing of God: the One Holy and Undivided Trinity be with you and remain with you now and for ever. Amen