If you grew up in a house like mine, sometimes it took a while for your mother to call you by the right name. First, she would go through my siblings’ names: “Erin . . . Peter!” On a few occasions, my mom even called me by my dog’s name, Tip. Finally, she would get it right: “David, I need you to set the table for dinner.” And I’d reply: “But you asked Erin, Peter and Tip to do it first. Why do I have to do it?”
Love’s children, according to J. Paul Sampley, are too numerous to count—who can keep track of all of them? My mother’s love has touched more lives than I can possibly count. It’s the same with my wife, Carol. We’ll be in the grocery store, and I will look down and see two little arms wrapped around her legs. For years, Carol led children’s chapel here at St. John’s. She also is a substitute teacher at Holy Comforter Episcopal School.
Wherever we go, children will run up to Carol out of the blue and give her a big hug. In those moments, I witness what a difference she is making in their lives by loving them. As any teacher will tell you, teaching isn’t about conveying information. It’s about love. No child can learn and grow without love, and love’s children are too numerous to count.
That’s the thing about love. It grows. It never keeps to itself. It’s constantly on the move from God to us, from us to each other. Love, as St. Paul reminds us today, never ends.
The Spanish painter El Greco knew this. He painted a masterpiece meant to be displayed on a church altar. It’s called the Modena Triptych. Made up of three stunning panels, it’s the center picture that I’d like for us to imagine this morning. The center panel depicts the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
The sinewy figure of Christ is prominent, but at the center of the scene, towards the bottom of the picture, there are three women walking side-by-side. These three women are personifications of what are called the theological virtues: faith, hope and love.
Love, it won’t surprise you, is in the center of the three, and she is surrounded by children who are hugging her legs, just like those children who run up to Carol in the grocery store. The figure is also holding a child in her arms.
Love is never alone. People, especially children, are drawn to her, people too numerous to count. It’s like when God reveals to Abraham and Sarah that they will be the mother and father of a great nation, that their children will be more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore, more numerous than all of the stars in the sky.
This is God’s way of saying: Abraham and Sarah, I love you. You are a part of my family and through you, I will share my love with every child. No one is cut-off. No one is less-than. No one is worthless. Every single human being is made in my image, stamped with my love and purpose. Love’s children are too numerous to count.
Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, knows all about this. Right after he gave his Royal Wedding sermon all about love, he became a sensation overnight. Carol and the boys ran into Bishop Curry at the Asheville airport a week after he gave that sermon. Carol told me that she’s never seen anything like it. Bishop Curry was surrounded by a crowd of people, who just like children in a grocery store, wanted to give him a hug and take a selfie.
Love’s children are too numerous to count. They wanted to be close to Bishop Curry not because he was famous, not because he was a spiritual rock star. They wanted to get close to him because they recognized someone who loved God and loved them.
If there was one takeaway from that sermon, it’s this: God loves you, and it’s God’s love that brings us together in relationship with each other. Or, to return to Paul: Love never ends. If Paul looked at El Greco’s Modena Triptych, especially at the theological virtues portrayed so beautifully, I think he’d declare:
“El Greco, you got them right. Faith and hope are beautiful, but some day, they will fade away. When we see God face to face, we no longer will need faith. Hope will also be unnecessary. For who has faith in what one can see for oneself? Who hopes for what has already come about?
Faith and hope are good things, but they are not eternal. They are virtues made for this side of heaven. Children flock to love, for love never ends. There will be a time when we see God in full, when love itself is all in all. Until that time, faith and hope will walk by love’s side, until they are no longer needed.”
This was the point that Bishop Curry made in his Royal Wedding sermon and just about every sermon that I’ve heard him give. The first time that I heard Bishop Curry preach was right here in the Diocese of Florida. It was my first Diocesan Convention, held at Camp Weed about 12 years ago, just after I moved to Florida.
At the time, Bishop Curry was serving as the Bishop of North Carolina. As he preached that night, the congregation was electrified by the Holy Spirit. He preached about how love never ends, that love’s children are too numerous to count, that if it’s not about love, it’s not about God. He’ll bring that same message here tomorrow.
I had a Holy Spirit-moment this week that I want to share with you. As I was opening up my copy of God Willing, the history of St. John’s, in order to double-check a historical fact, I gazed on the title page, a page that I’ve seen many times before and not really read carefully.
So much of life is slowing down to notice what God is trying to show us. On the title page of God Willing, the author Carl Stauffer dedicated the book in these words: ″There are those who have attended St. John’s, And those who have served St. John’s; And those who have supported St. John’s; And those who have received spiritual nurture from St. John’s; and those who have been infatuated With St. John; but this book is not dedicated to them. This book is dedicated to those who have loved [sic] St. John’s.
And then, just below the dedication, Stauffer includes this quote: “Some day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love; and then for the second time in the history of the world man shall have discovered fire.”
Some of you may recognize these words. They come to us from the Jesuit priest and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin. If those words sound familiar, it’s because Bishop Curry quoted them in the “Royal Wedding” sermon. Remember that “God Willing” was published in 1984.
Brothers and sisters, I don’t believe that it’s any accident that the Presiding Bishop is visiting St. John’s tomorrow evening. The Holy Spirit is up to something here. The Holy Spirit has been up to something here since 1829.
St. John’s was first a mission of the whole Episcopal Church. The church now led by Bishop Curry generously pooled its resources and set aside funds back in the early-19th century to start churches in what was then the Territory of Florida. From our founding, we’ve had a strong relationship with the larger Episcopal Church, and it was at this parish that the Diocese of Florida was started.
All of that is wonderful, but it’s 2019. How is St. John’s doing right now? I can only comment on the last 9 years, and right now, I believe that St. John’s has never been stronger, never been more faithful, never been more loving than it is right now.
That has everything to do with the Holy Spirit, and that has everything to do with your response to the Holy Spirit. That is what our strategic plan, Fruits of the Vineyard, is all about.
It is a faithful and creative response to the Spirit’s leading. In looking ahead at 2019, you can expect to see our new strategic plan come alive. And rather than a multitude of new programs, you can anticipate expanding and going deeper on ministries that are already in existence.
Initiatives from the strategic plan such as historic preservation of the church and enhancing other buildings on campus is another key priority. You will get a full update on construction from Charley Redding and Michael Spellman, our Building Committee’s co-chairs, during the Annual Meeting.
If you haven’t had a chance to read the strategic plan, I commend it to you. During our annual meeting, you’ll be hearing more about the implementation of Fruits of the Vineyard, which is our blueprint for the next five years.
Other than bringing Fruits of the Vineyard to life, there will be one additional area of focus in the coming year. This month, I will be asking the Vestry to appoint a consultative group to discern whether this parish will offer same-sex marriage.
At the last General Convention, the Episcopal Church passed a resolution called B012, which makes it possible for all clergy in the Episcopal Church to officiate at same-sex marriages, even if they are resident in Dioceses where the Bishop historically hasn’t allowed same sex marriage. Florida is one of those places.
But now it’s up to the rector of each parish to decide whether or not to offer same-sex marriage. I believe that the best course forward isn’t a unilateral decision by the rector. I think you know me well enough by now to realize that’s not how I lead. Instead, I’m going to ask the vestry to appoint a consultative group made up of people who, as Carl Stauffer once wrote, dearly love St. John’s.
These will be long-time, faithful members of the parish who will meet with me for about nine months for prayer, study and reflection. We will proceed prayerfully and carefully. It will a time of Sprit-filled discernment.
The consultative group will provide a recommendation to the vestry by the end of this year, and early in the 2020, the vestry will make a decision regarding our marriage policies at St. John’s.
The Bishop is aware of our approach. We will remain in close contact with the Diocese of Florida and keep the parish well-informed of the group’s work. I am deeply grateful to Mary Call Proctor for agreeing to chair this consultation. I first met Mary Call on that day when Bishop Curry preached at Diocesan Convention. It turns out that St. John’s was responsible for organizing that convention. Caterers from Tallahassee made the food. We had fried grouper, shrimp and grits, and hush puppies. It was amazing, because that food had been cooked and served by members of this parish with love. You could feel that love.
I can remember meeting Mary Call that night, and she tells me that she can remember meeting me. At the time, it would be three years before I was called to St. John’s, a parish where I have felt the love of God more strongly than I have anywhere else.
Love’s children are too numerous to count. Think of all the lives shaped by this church through the years, all of the children of every age embraced by God, who is love that never ends.
A sermon preached by the Rev. David C. Killeen during the Annual Parish Meeting on February 3, 2019, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL.