Godspeed for Bishop Leonard H. Bolick

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Could there possibly be a better or more appropriate day than St. Mark, Evangelist, on which to gather and give God thanks for the work and witness of Leonard Homer Bolick in the North Carolina Synod?

Today we have heard from the prophet Isaiah:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

And today we have heard from our epistle:

And the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

And again we’ve heard from Isaiah as quoted by Mark:

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’

No, today is the day.

Today, Dad, we celebrate you and your gifts, and your willingness to share all God has entrusted to you so freely for the sake of the Gospel.

We celebrate you too, Rita, for your presence by his side, for your part in his calling, and for your vital role as wife, partner, and friend.

And so Mom and Dad: Sarah Rita, Sarah Elizabeth, Lucia, and I join with the North Carolina Synod and her staff, your faithful colleagues and many friends, the ELCA, and the whole church, in saying “Thank you.”

Thank you for your faithful service throughout forty-two years of ordained ministry, twenty-nine years in the North Carolina Synod Office, and eighteen years as bishop.

We pray the Holy Spirit who has guided you in the pilgrimage thus far, would continue to guide you as you make the transition to a life with far fewer meetings, much less stress and more fly-fishing and grand-parenting.

Your most important vocation will continue. With all of us, you will continue to be called to witness to the goodness of God in Jesus Christ who has shown his kindness to us in friendship and steadfast love. This call will continue, but your call to serve as Bishop of the North Carolina Synod will soon come to an end.

Together, we all rely on the power of God to be persistent in proclaiming the Gospel, whether the times are favorable or unfavorable, no matter where we are in our journey through life, but for you, this particular race is coming to an end, and we thank God for the ways in which you have continually and faithfully pointed us to Christ.

As we celebrate St. Mark, Evangelist, I can’t help but think of the community in which you were baptized into Christ, and through which your faith was nurtured.

St. Mark’s Church near Blowing Rock came into existence in 1926, on land given by your Great-grandfather, built with timber given by your Grandfather, and when a parking lot was needed your Dad, Homer, responded to the call.

It was at St. Mark’s that your Mother and Dad grew up together as children, sometimes singing duets together during their high school years, and marrying during the Second World War while he was home on furlough. They were two friends who shared their faith and loved one another so much.

Once, when she was in her later years, we asked Naomi when she fell in love with Homer. She thought a minute and said, “You know, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love Homer.”

Those two served faithfully side-by-side at St. Mark’s for years and years. She was organist for seventy-three years, starting when she was twelve, because the church needed an organist and she was the most qualified person (because she knew how to play one hymn). Homer was treasurer of the Sunday school for fifty-nine years and sang in the choir right beside her.

Leonard’s Mother was a special woman, whom we called Grandmother. She lived to ninety-five years of age and, especially in her later years, she loved to relive and recollect old times. One of her favorite joys was to sit with friends and family in her living room and tell stories, especially about Leonard. I can still see her in her homemade dress, sitting in a great big chair, telling stories and laughing.

Imagine, if you can, her telling a story that went like this. She’d say:

“Now we went to church nearly every Sunday. Homer was treasurer of the Sunday school and I was playing the organ, so you see, we had to be there, and Leonard went along with us every Sunday, too.

“When he was about seven or eight years old, one morning he woke up sick, so he came and told us he wasn’t feeling well. Well, Leonard had to stay home. He was just old enough to stay by himself. And Homer and I went on out to the church.

“Along about Wednesday he got to feeling better and came to me and said: Mother, (as serious as could be) I’ve got to go out to the church, can you take me?

“I said, Why, Leonard, there’s nothing’s going on out at the church, why do you need to go out there?

“Leonard says: I know Mother, but I missed on Sunday and I need to go out to the church and sing praises to God.”

As the Psalmist says: My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make melody. For your steadfast love is greater than the heavens, and your faithfulness reaches beyond the clouds; and your glory extends over all the earth.

Today, Dad, we have to tell you that in your pastoral ministry at Calvary, Concord; St. James, Fayetteville; and serving the North Carolina Synod you have pointed us to Christ. But to tell the truth, the Lord has blessed you with a lot of help.

Firstly, Leonard has received help from Rita. Rita Abee grew up with her family at Holy Trinity in Hickory. And it just so happened that, during seminary, Leonard came along to serve as vicar at Holy Trinity.

A little bit of insight from those days comes from my Bishop, Jim Mauney, who remembers his first month as a student at Lenoir-Rhyne, in Hickory, waiting for the bus that would take him to Holy Trinity.

He says, “Up drove a large school bus, the door opened and there sat Vicar Bolick – all 6 feet 18 inches of him – with a smile as wide as North Carolina, and a welcome as warm as any freshman could hope for.”

Maybe that’s what Rita saw in Leonard, too – his kindness and warmth.

Certainly that’s part of what Ethel, Rita’s mother, saw in Leonard when she came home one Sunday morning, before Leonard and Rita had ever even met, and said to her husband Russ, “I was sitting there looking at Leonard this morning and listening to him preach and I thought: I hope Rita marries somebody just like Leonard.”

And she did marry somebody just… like… Leonard.

Yes, over the years you have received a lot of help from friends and colleagues, the Synod staff, the Synod council, pastors and rostered leaders, council presidents, and so many, many gifted women and men.

During your time of service to the Synod, the Synod imagined the Book of Faith program, cut a historic covenant with the AME Zion Church, and in the Forward Together initiative reimagined what God is calling us to do and to be in our communities for the sake of the Gospel.

Yes, you have been blessed.

But for all your partners in ministry, and for all the many people who love you, if there’s one thing you do learn in life, you know we can’t please everyone.

One church professional had gotten to know Leonard in seminary and in 1970, when he heard that Leonard had been assigned to serve as vicar at Holy Trinity – a large, healthy, vibrant congregation – he remarked, “Why, Leonard Bolick, at Holy Trinity? He’s nothing but a raw mountain boy.”

Maybe he thought Leonard was a little rough around the edges, from too-rural a background, still a little green, or still had too much of a Blowing Rock accent.

But that perspective was selling the Holy Spirit short.

Certainly, John the Baptist was rough around the edges, with his camel hair clothes, strange eating habits, and choice to set up shop out in the wilderness.

John was a raw mountain boy by any account with his tent pitched down by the River Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But we hear that both folks from the country and people from the city are coming out to confess their sins.

And in the midst of all these people John cries out: “Not me but the one coming after me. He is your health. He is your salvation. The good news is that he is coming to bring the Kingdom of God in which we are made children of our Heavenly Father and invited to take refuge in the shadow of his wings.”

We remember John at all because he announced Jesus’ coming. It’s the voice in the wilderness crying, “Prepare the way,” that points beyond itself to the One over whom we hear the Voice say, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased,” that points us to the voice that says, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”

The Beloved, the Son of God, the crucified and risen one, is the voice always calling us into friendship with God and telling us the time has come. This is the voice we are listening for. And when we hear it, we realize that  before we were seeking him, he was seeking us.

To tell the truth, even if we are rough around the edges, we too are beloved by God. We too can still be useful to the Kingdom. And we even find ourselves in good company: with John the Baptizer, the Apostle Paul, the prophets, and Our Lord himself, whose closest friends were labors and tax collectors, whose work was done among the unclean and hungry, who came for sinners and the sick.

Let us not underestimate the Holy Spirit!

God’s Holy Spirit chooses to work through us for the sake for the world.

The same Spirit that descended on the Lord, drove him out into the wilderness, and enlivened his ministry has been poured out on us in our baptism – and this same Spirit continues to empower us, ignite our gifts, and make us useful in the work to which we’ve been called.

So today, on St. Mark, Evangelist, as we remember before God Leonard’s forty-two years of ordained ministry, twenty-nine years in service to the North Carolina Synod Office, and eighteen years as bishop we celebrate the Holy Spirit who called him, who has equipped him along the way, and who has surrounded him with partners in ministry, so that the name of Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, might be proclaimed.

Today we celebrate and give thanks for the work and witness we all share – as a church, as a synod, and as congregations – and we join our voices to sing praises to God.

We come to the church to sing praises to God, and we are sent out into the world to sing praises to God.

We sing: “Our heart is steadfast, O God, our heart is steadfast; we will sing and make melody. For your steadfast love is greater than the heavens, and your faithfulness reaches beyond the clouds; and your glory extends over all the earth.

O God, You are King of Creation, You are Lord of the Nations, You are our Beautiful Savior.”

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Peace You Can See

In the kitchen, at my mother and father-in-law’s house, there’s a magnet stuck in a place of prominence on the refrigerator. Given to John by Esther, it reads, “My wife says I don’t listen.  At least that’s what I think she says.”

Jesus’ disciples probably have the same magnet on their refrigerator, because they just don’t seem to listen. The stone has been rolled away.  Lo and Behold, the tomb is empty!  Jesus is not dead but alive!  He appears to the women and sends them to tell his disciples, who we think would say, “Yes!  Start the parade!  Shout the news! Dance in the streets!”

Mary tells these men she has seen Jesus with her own eyes, but it went in one ear and out the other, so they are huddled together in fear with all the doors locked, hoping that the people who killed Jesus won’t come find them out, arrest them, and kill them too.

Imagine you were in this locked room with the disciples: You might think it was a surprise party about to happen.  The lights are turned down low, they’re all hiding as quietly as they can, and everyone is as still as possible.

“Surprise!” The lights come on. Of course, it’s Jesus who has surprised them.   They are the ones caught off guard when Jesus comes through the locked door and stands tall in the room and says, “Peace be with you,” and shows them his hands and his sides.

Only when they see the marks of the nails in his hands and his side, do they rejoice. Only when they see the scars, do they know for sure it’s Jesus. Then and only then do they actually HEAR Jesus greeting, “Peace be with you.”

jesus_christ_on_trial

Peace, or Shalom in the Hebrew, is a greeting, but means more than just a wish for freedom from conflict. Shalom, Peace, means “Wholeness,” and also, “It is paid for”…and “It was worth it.”  Peace.

The Peace that Jesus brings is the only thing that could change the disciples from the people we hear about in the Gospel into the people we see in the Acts of the Apostles.

They go from huddling together in fear and failure and despair to living out in the light of day, confidently believing in the salvation of the world and sharing their testimony so profoundly that thousands and thousands join them and give them all their worldly possessions so they can distribute equitably to any who have a need.

ONLY the PEACE OF GOD could explain such a revolutionary transformation.

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Every year on the second Sunday of Easter, the church has decided, we need to hear THIS story.

Along with Roman Catholics and Mainline Protestants, we are on a three year cycle of reading the Bible in worship: one year we read the gospel mostly from Matthew, the next mostly from Mark, the third mostly from Luke, with John salting and peppering each of the three years.

Sometimes we hear the Christmas story from Matthew or Luke. We can hear the Easter story from Mark or John.

But never once on the second Sunday of Easter do we get to just skip to Matthew’s Great Commission, or to Luke’s Road to Emmaus, or to any of the wonderful accounts of the Ascension.

Every year, without fail and without deviation, on the Sunday after Easter Sunday we hear the story of Thomas and his friends trying to come to terms with the extraordinary message that Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, WAS ALSO raised up by God to live and walk and talk again.

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Thomas says he needs to SEE Jesus and touch him if he’s going to believe, and Jesus comes and stands in front of him and shows him his hands and side and says, Peace be with you.

If you have never doubted the Easter story, maybe someone you love has; someone in your own family, a very good friend. Some people question its rationality, others say (with Thomas), “Unless I see, test, and measure it, I won’t believe it.”  Others look around the world, with all the pain and suffering of so many, and don’t find evidence of a New Creation.

But I tell you I have HEARD THE VOICE of Jesus.

I have heard him in the voice of my wife who forgives me, in the voice of my Grandmother who taught me to pray the Lord’s prayer, in the voice of the camp counselor who taught me to sing songs of devotion to my Maker, in the voice of the pastor who reminds me God forgives my sins, in the voice of the friend who assures me in my time of crisis.

And I tell you I have SEEN THE FACE of Jesus…

In the family who invites me into their home, in the beggar at the intersection, in the youth who is on fire for social justice, in the couple who works in the food pantry, in the woman who takes flowers to a person in the hospital, in the community who hosts a fundraiser to help fight Malaria, a preventable, treatable disease.

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Where have you seen and heard Jesus? How might God have gifted you and be calling you to be Christ to a world in need?

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Thomas wanted something concrete, something he could see, something tangible. The world wants that too if they are to believe.  The truth is, WE also need to see and to hear to believe.  And so God comes to us.

WE NEED TO HEAR.

Today we have heard: Jesus is well acquainted with the suffering of this world.  His hands still bear the mark of the nails.  His side still bears the mark where the spear gouged him through.  God knows our suffering better than we do because he has carried it, for us.

WE NEED TO SEE…and today Christ comes into our midst so that we can see him, taste him, touch him in bread and wine, given so that we might believe; so that, along with Thomas, we might say, “My Lord and My God!” and have our faith renewed.

Oh, yes. There is pain and suffering in the world today. You can see it in the scar from open heart surgery, the port scar for chemo treatment, the scars from accidents that remind us of our mistakes and our limitations, but we are NOT ALONE.

Today, see the bread placed in the palm of your hand, in the place of his wound, reminding you of Jesus and his love for you. Listen to his words of Peace, “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.”

We have shared his peace with one another today. Let him transform you again as we come to his table. Just as the BREAD enters you, Let the word of Peace from JESUS penetrate deep within you…into your heart, and mind…deep within your bones…let his Peace be your breath and your life.  This meal is his peace FOR YOU and for me.

Sisters and brothers: Rejoice!  For Christ has come to give you peace.  Your sins are forgiven.  The Lord says, “Peace… it was worth it… it is paid for… you are mine.”

Holy Thursday

 

What would you do if you knew that tonight was the last night of your life?How would you choose to spend the rest of this day and tonight, if you knew that tonight would be your last?  What if all your days, your disappointments and successes came down to today?  How would you want to spend your last few hours?

Jesus gathers with his friends on what he knows will be the last night of his life, and at the evening meal, his last, he gets up from the table, ties a towel around his waist, pours water into a basin, and washes the feet of his friends as a sign of how much he loves them.

With deep and abiding love he takes his friends’ tired and dirty feet, pours cool water over them, and towels them dry.

Jesus takes the foot of Judas, cradles it in his hand and washes the foot of the man who will soon betray him, and who is probably thinking at that moment, “See, I was right to turn this guy into the authorities, because what kind of Messiah washes feet?”

And Jesus washes the feet of Peter, who asks, “Lord are you going to wash my feet?” He is just a little overzealous in his allegiance to Jesus for a man who will soon deny knowing the Lord three times, saying, “I am not his disciple, I don’t know him, I have never seen him before.”

And Jesus comes around the circle with the basin of water and takes the feet of each of the other disciples who will desert him into his hands, one by one, and washes them.

I don’t know if I could do what Jesus does. Honestly, I don’t think I’m a big enough person to spend the last few hours of my life taking care of and pampering others…Is this how you would want to spend your last hours?  Especially if you knew these men would deny you, desert you, and leave you in your darkest hour?

But Jesus knows all this and loves them anyway – and loves them to the end – even preparing them for life together after he is gone. Because when Peter does realize his mistake and tries to gather these men back together (after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection), they will still be men of broken promises, and broken promises are hard to forget. It will be difficult for these men to forget this moment at the table in an upper room when they all promised Jesus they would have his back.

If you knew this was the last day of your life, what would you do? One impulse would be to gather with family, a few close friends, and try to close the rest of the world out, so that you could spend time with them uninterrupted.  Knowing that this night would be your last night with those who are so precious, you might try to savor every minute and soak it all up like a sponge…but… you can’t just absorb all the laughter, tears, events, and celebrations, that you had previously supposed would make up your lifetime, in a single evening.

But Jesus, on his last evening, isn’t trying to absorb love to keep for himself at all. Like a Big Bang of Love, Jesus is sending love out from himself to all.  He is creating a new love which is expanding out to infuse love into all it touches – first these betraying, denying disciples (transforming them so they touch many more lives, which will create a new community of compassion, which will multiply throughout the world, across continents, and through the centuries, creating kindness and friendship so that our very own lives today are touched by this new love Jesus is creating and sending out from his holy, final night.

As we imagine what we might do with one final evening on earth, and compare it to what Jesus does, we might find ourselves in awe of how Jesus chooses to depart the world, serving others – particularly others that will hurt him and leave him alone.

How do we treat those who hurt us? Could we wash their feet?  Could we humble ourselves before them and see to their best interests?

If, for whatever reason, we were forced to spend the last few hours of our life with the people in our lives who have betrayed us, hurt us, and refused to help us, we might be disappointed. We might be furious.  We might see it as the ultimate disaster.

But this night is not a disaster for Jesus.

The Lord doesn’t have his life taken from him, but he chooses to lay it down. And the Lord chooses to be with and love this group he has gathered around himself.

No, this night is not a disaster for the Lord – he has come to the hour that defines his reason for coming into the world in the first place. The hour for him to depart this world has come, but he is going to the Father and this night, his last night, is about showing us the nature of his love.  A servant-hearted-love, a humble, self-giving love, a love overflowing with kindness that can embrace all the wrongs we have ever done, all the hurt we have ever caused, and all the pain of the whole world.  This night is all about giving us the love that he and his Father share, so that, we can experience him, even in the troubled world in which we live.

We will not see the Lord until he comes again, but the apostle Paul, tells us that we experience the Lord in the Meal, when we are gathered to receive the bread and the cup.

In the bread, we experience his body. In the cup, we experience his blood.  In this gathering we experience the servant-love of our living Lord.  As often as we eat and drink, we tell of the Lord’s death until he comes.

Because this is the chief hope of the church: Christ’s return. For some of us the news that tonight would be our last night would be tragic. Our thoughts might turn to gathering with loved ones, of hugging those we love and not letting go…but for others… the news might come as a relief.

Maybe there are some among the very faithful, who are already near the end of life, and whose loved ones are all in the arms of Jesus, who can say “I’m ready to meet my Savor face to face,” and to be embraced with the love that made me in my mother’s womb.

And…being with the Father might be preferable for those who have a chronic debilitating disease, or live with unbearable pain day after day. For those in the world who live in warzones, those who live as refugees, or those who live in poverty, go to bed hungry, and have no hope for the future.  For those who are slaves to addiction, who are trafficked for their bodies, or who live with severe depression.

Maybe for some people who suffer, it would be good to be with the Father who promises to receive us into his healing.

Certainly, Like Jesus himself, Paul himself suffered for the sake of the gospel. He was imprisoned, beaten, flogged, went cold, naked, and hungry, and ultimately was killed because of his faith.

After the words we heard read tonight from Paul, he would write to the same community about his small group of traveling gospel-workers:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;   persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.

So in fact, Paul points out, whatever we feel about our death – be it reluctance or relief – while we live, every day…we are always dying for Jesus sake – so that we no longer live, but Jesus lives in us and through us for the sake of the world.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we no longer live for ourselves, but for him who died and was raised for us. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

So today is our last day… AND our first day… living in the New Creation. We are always dying to our sin and selfishness, and always being reborn into what God would have us become.

This, and only this, is how we can love others, and even serve those who hurt us.

We come to the table of the One who washes us in the waters of forgiveness, and sets a table before us in the presence of our enemies, and who gathers us for a meal at the table of his love.