Bishop Sisk's Farewell Sermon

January 7, 2013

The following is the text of Bishop Sisk's sermon at the Celebration of his Episcopacy held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine Today, Saturday Jan 5.

January 5, 2013
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine
The Rt. Rev. Mark S. Sisk

Well good morning. It is wonderful to see you all. I feel deeply honored that friends from so many parts of my life have taken the trouble to be here today. Thank you.

For some of us today is a kind of full circle. Bishop Griswold, the 25th Presiding Bishop, who was the chief consecrator and preacher at my ordination as a Bishop nearly 15 years ago, is here; as is Bishop Roskam who welcomed me as an Episcopal colleague all those many years ago. Isn’t it great to see her back home? And I am very pleased that a number of our Ecumenical friends, as well as neighboring bishops and other colleagues from the House of Bishops are with us. And, coming all the way from England, my good friend of many years Canon White, recently retired as Canon of St. George’s, Windsor Castle has made the journey.

Today is billed as a celebration of my episcopacy. And, sure enough, I am the one who is standing up here in front of you. But the truth is that I could not be here without the support, guidance and hard work of an awful lot of very dedicated people. 

Professionally speaking the list is long. It includes my wonderful successor Bishop Dietsche soon to be the 16th Bishop of New York, as well as Bishop Smith, Dean Kowalski, and all those folks who walk in the procession today. But, in addition it includes those who are not here, but who have worked with us in years past. What’s more, and extremely importantly, it includes all those who work so hard and never get to march in any procession anywhere. It includes those who work in the diocesan offices, and this great Cathedral Church. And, as well, it includes those who work so selflessly in congregations all across this Diocese. You see, the truth is, we are all in this together: every parishioner, every congregation, every priest, every deacon, every person who has been part of these past now nearly 15 years should be standing up here with me, side by side.

And this service today: it has taken the work of so many: I think of my staff and particularly my Executive Assistant Margaret Nodine, as well as Canon Miller of the Cathedral staff and Kent Tritle our wonderful Organist and Director of Music.

And what of Paul Winter who has contributed so much to the life of this Cathedral over so many years? Paul, I am so grateful that you are able to be here this morning. 

And Judy Collins. What can I say? Your soaring voice and serene presence has meant so much to so many. I know that you took the red-eye from Los Angeles just to be with us this morning. I simply cannot tell you what it means to us all, and to me, personally, for you to be with us today.
And speaking even more personally still; I have simply been surrounded by folks who have been supportive. Jonas, my physician of nearly 50 years has worked to keep me healthy, Elena who did her level best to teach me Spanish. My children Michael, Heather and Bronwyn, their spouses: Erika and Eric, and our grandchildren: Decker, Aidan, Touella, Wilson and Charlotte. And what can I say of Karen: the blessing of my life. The one through whom the Holy Spirit has spoken so often. Without her support and counsel, I don’t believe for a minute that I’d be standing here today.
I have taken this extra time to recognize, if briefly, a few of the people who have made these past 15 years possible. I have done so because I have wanted to underline the point I made at the opening of these remarks. The work of a Bishop might look solitary, and in fact on occasions it does feel that way. However, a much better picture of the vocation is to see it as a collective effort.
Serving as your Bishop for nearly a decade and a half has brought with it many privileges. Perhaps the most remarkable among these has been exercising the episcopal duty of oversight. 
I know that people generally think that episcopal oversight pretty much means being the boss: the manger that oversees her or his employees, or oversees a production process of some sort. Of course this is part, but I would say, effectively speaking, a very small part of its meaning. Being the boss is not the point. The point is having the perspective and the giving that perspective expression.

Having the perspective that oversight offers and requires means having, or getting, a larger picture, a broader vision of what is, or should be going on. It is the getting, and developing that larger vision that proper oversight requires that I have found most deeply rewarding.

To put it succinctly: These years as your Bishop have allowed me to see things from a vantage point that few have the luxury of sharing.
One of the things that that broadened perspective has allowed me to see is just how remarkable you all are. The parishes of this Diocese are more diverse than any of you can imagine. And in that diversity you offer yourself to the service of Almighty God. And you do so with a quiet elegance you rarely are in a position to recognize in yourselves. But I have seen you work. I have seen you work day in and day out, year in and year out, in courageous service. You are so close to your work, and see its challenges so sharply, that it’s easy for you to overlook, or discount, just how much has been accomplished through you. Lives have been touched. I am here to tell you that in you I see the Hand of God at work. I am humbled by the work you do to the Glory of God and the betterment of humanity. 
One of the principle reasons that it is so easy to overlook the daily accomplishments is precisely that they are daily. The truth is that our work is almost always a matter of minute steps; steps taken along a pathway that we follow in faith. We never know the exact fruit of our work. We cannot even be certain of the exact direction of the path, though we do know its end.
My experience of this enlarged perspective is that it has two quite opposite effects on me. On the one hand it creates a sense of urgency. Being aware of some of the wonderful things that others are doing intensifies a desire to do, or to see done, similar wonderful things. When I learn of another Diocese that has developed what seems to be a highly effective program in some area I feel an intense need to relook at our own work in that area. Are we doing all that we can or ought? Are we responding to the opportunities and challenges that God has placed before us?
The other effect that this perspective gives is almost the opposite; it has a quieting effect. It says, in essence: be not anxious. Be not anxious because, over time, dedicated lives bear wonderful but often unforeseen fruit. 
The perspective that oversight reinforces is the heady reassurance that, whatever may befall us; ultimately all things are in God’s good hands.

I want to close with two observations, quite literally two things that I have seen during my years as your Bishop, and both of those things in this very Cathedral Church. 

First, the view from behind the High Altar: When I stand there as I, or any celebrant, looks out at the congregation, what we see in the foreground is the altar itself. And on that Altar there is a Fair Linen. Some time ago I noticed that in that Fair Linen there was a large “X” shaped gash that had been carefully repaired. The story behind that gash is that, years ago a troubled man had attacked the Altar and slashed the Fair Linen with a knife. That tear had been carefully repaired, allowing the Fair Linen to continue to serve its sacred purpose for many years.

That strikes me as emblematic not only of our own private lives but of the life of the Church itself. From time to time we stumble and fall. From time to time the Church is attacked. Often enough the wounds are self-inflicted. But we need never fear. Even the worst wound can be healed. Though our lives may be scarred and though the life of the Church is far from perfect – yet we go on – aided by the Spirit to do our best – aided by the Spirit – never losing hope. Even the apparently fatal tear can be mended. That is the Promise of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

The second thing I have seen is from my rather grand Episcopal Chair. From there I can see the partially carved scroll work that covers about one half of the arch opposite my chair. The first part is deeply etched, then it becomes less so, and finally the carving stops altogether. It is left unfinished. 

The story of the unfinished carving is that when the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor came, and war was declared, the stone carvers simply put down their chisels, they literally left them on the ledge, to be discovered years later, and went to serve their country.

This speaks to me of the particularity of each person’s contribution. This great edifice, as awesome as it is, is actually made up of the contributions of individual people. Each step, each part, depended upon some particular person, usually, a forgotten someone, to bring this magnificent structure this far in its construction. 

And so it is with the community we share and the Church we treasure. Our lives are based upon the contributions, the irreplaceable contributions, of countless men and women over the millennia who have gone before us. Each and all of us, in our own time, are builders. Each generation of builders depending upon the work of those who have gone before. Each generation having the terrifying duty of correcting the flaws in the work that they find, while being careful to maintain the integrity of the structure’s essential purpose. That is a daunting task that can only be approached in deep and searching prayer. The knowledge that those came before us did their best, should imbue us with a deep sense of humility when we, in our turn, are so bold as to offer the work of our hands to those who come after us. 

I pray that each of us will have the courage to do our part in building up the community of faith of which we are a part. I pray that we, each and all, will live without fear, and never ever lose hope. We can do this because, whatever new challenges emerge, and they will emerge, whatever new opportunities present themselves, and they will present themselves; we can have unflinching confidence that we can meet both challenge and opportunity. We can have this confidence because as St. Paul writes,

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Which is to say; we live and move and have our being in the embrace of God’s Almighty Arms of Love today, tomorrow and unto the ages of ages. AMEN.

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