Celebration of the Ministry of M. Thomas Shaw, 15th Bishop of Massachusetts
I am grateful for the invitation to break the bread of God’s word on this occasion as we gather here to give thanks for the amazingly fruitful episcopal ministry of the Rt. Rev. M. Thomas Shaw.
I am particularly pleased to be with you this morning to celebrate someone who has been a close friend for many years – since the 1980’s and his years as Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, and, additionally, for the past 20 years, as a colleague in the House of Bishops where he has been deeply valued as a person of wisdom and insight with the ability to draw to draw people together beyond differing points of view into a broader understanding and wider vision.
Prior to his election as a bishop, Tom served as chaplain for the House of Bishops, which meant he took part in all of our planning meetings, our twice-yearly week long retreat gatherings and our legislative assemblies. During these occasions he preached and offered meditations and helped the bishops – many of whom felt overburdened by the demands and expectations of their dioceses – to find their grounding in Christ, to enlarge their availability to the Spirit in prayer, and to experience afresh the ever-welcoming compassion and mercy of God through his spiritual counsel and the sacramental rite of reconciliation.
The fact that Tom’s own life is deeply rooted in prayer was evident to all, and gave to his ministry an authenticity and quiet force that encouraged the bishops to recover some of the freshness and joy that can so easily be occluded by our preoccupation with the vagaries of the church’s sometimes unseemly institutional life.
A little more than 20 years ago, on March 12, 1994, the bishops and our chaplain were secluded in the mountains of North Carolina at the Kanuga Conference Center in the midst of our spring retreat. It was there that Tom received word he had been elected on the first ballot at a special diocesan convention in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston to serve as Bishop Coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. When Edmond Browning, the then Presiding Bishop and my predecessor, announced the outcome of the Massachusetts election the bishops burst into wild applause and cheers. It was not clear for some time whether it would be possible to restore order to this now jubilant gathering. The fact that someone they knew so well, and appreciated so deeply, would now be among their number was a cause of great rejoicing. Tom was brought forward from his seat at the back of the room and stood with Bishop Browning to receive the sustained applause. As you might expect, he said very little, no doubt somewhat overcome himself in that moment.
Because he had shared the burdens associated with the episcopate as confessor and guide to bishops, Tom probably had fewer illusions about what lay ahead than most of us who have received that call. However, the unexpected can also overtake us, and many of you no doubt remember well that Tom’s season as a coadjutor was cut short by the sudden and tragic death of Bishop David Johnson. Thus, on the 15th of January in 1995, M. Thomas Shaw, SSJE became the 15th Bishop of Massachusetts.
As many of us are aware, in addition to being a monk, a priest and a bishop, Tom is also a potter. When is he not occupying his cell at the monastery in Cambridge, and needs to step back from the responsibilities and demands of his episcopal office, he takes himself to Emery House, the West Newbury retreat center of his monastic community, and to his little house on the grounds, which is known – with exquisite monastic understatement – as the Congreve Hermitage. Within it is a studio where Tom can absorb himself in the shaping and molding of clay: into bowls and mugs and other forms of beauty and utility, and then fire them in a working kiln set just across the driveway.
The capacity to shape and mold that Tom has spent years practicing and perfecting has not been confined to clay. The shaping and molding, and also the uncertain but necessary act of firing in order to bring the clay vessel to its full integrity and completion, are hallmarks of his ministry. He has worked as a potter among you: shaping your common life and the ministry you have shared with one another over these last decades.
However, just as you have been shaped and molded by Tom and the ministry of episcopé, oversight, and care he has exercised on your behalf, so too – according to Paul’s notion of the church as Christ’s risen body constituted by the relationship of its diverse limbs one to another – you too, who together constitute that manifestation of Christ’s body known as the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts – you have shaped and molded Tom. All that has happened over these years is the fruit of common effort and a shared vision.
To be sure, Tom has acted as a catalyst – and at times a provocateur – and certainly, he has not been reluctant to challenge classic Episcopalian reticence and reserved expectations. The challenge he has given is a battle cry: a call to action in Christ’s name. And, you have responded: both out of a desire to serve Christ’s larger purposes and, I would venture, out of love and respect for your bishop, and a deep desire to follow his lead, to accept his challenge.
One challenge to the diocese – one that has been accepted to great good purpose – is to share your treasure and to give of what has been given to you. Actually, I know of no other bishop who enjoysthe responsibility of raising money as much as Tom does! And, he has done this with a clear purpose and as the outworking of a carefully discerned and articulated vision of how the body of the Diocese, constituted by its diverse members, can be more true to Christ – its head – in witness and service.
One portion of Christ’s risen body that has received particular care and attention during Tom’s episcopate has been its younger limbs, and here I speak from my own experience as a father. My younger daughter, Eliza, who, thanks to Tom’s urging, found herself during the summers of her college years as the nature counselor at Camp St. Augustine, once a ministry of SSJE and the precursor to the Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center. One summer at the conclusion of the camping season Eliza informed me that while she had no problem with God, she did have a problem with the church. She told me that she was disturbed by the fact that the church singled out certain people, given them high-flown titles, dressed them up in various costumes and paid them special homage. (I, of course, had no idea who she might be talking about!) One person, very much part of the church, who escaped her judgment was Tom Shaw. According to Eliza, he can dress up all he wants but the costumes don’t cover his essential spirit. He remains the friend she has known since her youth.
I think here of two of Tom’s initiatives focused upon the younger members of Christ’s body: the Youth Leadership Academy and Life Together, the young adult intern ministry.
His capacity to honor, respect and to be genuinely interested in young people and their lives has opened pathways for the Spirit to bear fruit within them, which means that the fruits of his own ministry will continue long into the future.
Most of us are accepting of differences in the limbs and members of the body of Christ within the context of a congregation, or even the larger context of a diocese. However, the sorts of differences that exist within the broader church, or within our worldwide Anglican Communion, often lie outside our line of vision. When we step beyond the boundaries of the familiar and the known we plainly see that there are very great differences in what is considered normative and congruent with the values of the gospel. This is when we need to remind ourselves that the gospel is always locally embodied. How it is lived out, given flesh day-by-day, is determined to a greater or lesser degree by the culture, history and social norms of a particular community, be it a village or an entire nation. That is: my sense of what is of God, of what is holy, or of what is just is influenced by my personal history, shaped in large measure by the context in which I live and move and have my being, and by reading with care, as the 12th century abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, advised, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Experience.
This is both a blessing and a limitation: the limitation being that we sometimes are slow to acknowledge that the reconciliation of all things to God in Christ can be articulated differently, according to variations in context and the different ways in which scripture and experience are read and interpreted.
This was brought home to me once during a meeting of Anglican primates: primate being the name given to the bishop who heads each of the member churches of our Anglican Communion. (And I might say here that there is no lack of jokes about primates and their relationship to the primates found in jungles and zoos who love to climb trees.)
In any event, during one of our annual meetings we primates gathered each morning in small groups for Bible study. As our time together ended a primate who lived in a context very different from my own exclaimed: “You know, the Holy Spirit can do different things in different places!” At this point the eight of us in the group looked at one another with delight and surprise and said, “Of course.” We had been converted at the level of our hearts to a deeper awareness of one another as true brothers in Christ, able to respect, though not necessarily embrace, the divergent opinions that existed among us.
Tom understands the reality of our unity in Christ in the midst of our differences. During these last 20 years he has exercised a ministry of accompaniment in various parts of our Anglican Communion that has both respected and transcended difference. As Paul tells us in today’s second reading: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” This sense of being with and being for requires a heart into which the love of God has been poured, and a mind and imagination renewed by the action of the Holy Spirit.
Mission trips to other parts of the globe initiated by Tom have been more about meeting the other as true limbs of the same body, rather than ego gratifying occasions to demonstrate the power and superiority of American affluence. Not that the sharing of resources is wrong or inappropriate, but the spirit in which it occurs and the willingness to receive and not simply give – to meet Christ in the very different other – becomes the deeper reality that binds us together in a mutual relationship of giving and receiving.
“I am the true vine,” declares Jesus in our gospel reading….. “you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
The energy that flows from the vine into the branches and gives them life and renders them fruitful is love. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.” Jesus gives to his followers – to us – what he has received, and invites us to abide – to find our home, our resting place, the deep ground of our being – in the boundless, profligate and all-embracing love which emanates from God in Christ and is poured endlessly into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In this way our hearts – the symbolic core and center of our personhood – are cracked open and transformed from stone to flesh and rendered merciful: able to “burn with love for the whole creation,” in the words of St. Isaac of Syria.
The Society of St. John the Evangelist, which has been Tom’s home for the last 40 years, practices a Johannine spirituality of abiding and being available and present to the motions of the Spirit, who is the agent of love and the minister of communion. And hence the centrality of prayer: giving root room to love on every level of our being.
Father Benson, the founder of the Society, reminds us: “Our role in prayer is not to try to raise ourselves to God by the violence of natural effort, but to surrender, to cooperate in the movement by which the Holy Spirit rises to the Father.” Such surrender and cooperation lie at the heart of our life in Christ. They are also the source of our ability to be fruitful.
So much of what has occurred in the diocese over these last 20 years has been the result of prayer: of that deep abiding and attending to the Spirit who prays within us with sighs too deep for words. “Glory to God,” cries St. Paul, “whose power at work in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” The wide ranging ministries, the ever deepening sense of being united in Christ as members of his risen body: these bear witness to the power of prayer and are the fruit of abiding in God’s love.
May the boundless love of God, the companioning grace of Christ and the life-giving communion of the Holy Spirit continue to sustain and guide Tom. May they sustain and guide Alan Gates in the days ahead he comes among you to serve as the 16th Bishop of Massachusetts. And, may they continue to sustain and guide you – the limbs and members of this faithful and gifted diocese. I pray that each one of us having been baptized into Christ – in all that life sets before us – may continually draw strength and courage from the One who is the true vine, such that we are made more fruitful still in ways that exceed all that we can ask or imagine.
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