Bishop’s Address to Convention 2015

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Just a few days ago I was at the National Cathedral in Washington DC for the installation of Michael Curry as our new Presiding Bishop. I can’t possibly express adequately the enthusiasm that is running through our Church. Michael is the first African-American Presiding Bishop and the first ever to be elected on the first ballot. He is dedicated to social justice AND to growing our church. He says he is now the CEO of the Episcopal Church – the Chief Evangelism Officer. Michael is inviting all of us to join the Jesus Movement – a mission to change this world from the nightmare it is for so many into the Dream God has for it. I’m still on a spiritual high from that liturgy at the National Cathedral so if I start talking too fast, tell me to slow down.

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And I have a great love and admiration for our outgoing PB, Katharine Jefferts-Schori whom many of you met three years ago around the corner at the Mass Mutual Center when I was ordained a bishop. I will always remember a sermon Katherine gave at General Convention this summer. She was preaching on the story in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus is told a twelve year old girl, the daughter of the synagogue leader, has died. Jesus immediately goes to the bedside of the girl, takes her by the hand and says “Talitha cum” which means “Little girl, get up!” Immediately the girl got up and began to walk.

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As Katherine retold the story she reinterpreted “Talitha cum” to have Jesus shout: “Get up girl! You’re not dead yet!” Katherine then applied that to the Episcopal Church. “Get up, Church, you’re not dead yet!” We have had turmoil within and an increasingly secular society without, but we are not dead yet. Not only are we “not dead”, there are signs of abundant life, resurrected life.

Those signs of resurrection are here in WMA and our future is bright IF…Brothers and Sisters, it is a big IF. IF we allow God to be God. The God we believe in, the God we meet in the Old and New Testaments, the God we meet in the person of Jesus, the God we experience in the Holy Spirit, is a God who is constantly creating, constantly imagining and reimagining, constantly moving through death into new life.

It can’t get much clearer than the Book of Revelation. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…See, I am making all things new.” Here’s the good news. The newness is not just taking place in heaven. It’s taking place here…on earth. “See the home of God is among mortals.” This is not “fluffy spirituality.” It is not abstract. “See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them and they will be his peoples.” And God is on a mission to wipe out all the “deathliness” and suffering of the world. You see, God is agreeing with Michael Curry! The Jesus Movement is on a mission to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the Dream God has for it.

Let’s break away from Christianity for a moment and go east. I don’t know a lot about eastern spirituality directly. Maybe, someday. Most of what I know about it comes from the Roman Catholic monk Thomas Merton and the Franciscan Richard Rohr. Rohr tells us Buddhist wisdom says “Thank God for impermanence. Thank God for constant change because it sets us free. It sets us free from constantly being bound by that which is passing away.” Buddhists acknowledge that “pain is inevitable, but suffering lies in clinging to that which has died.”

There are some dimensions of our church that are dying. And we suffer when we cling to them. At one time they were new and part of God’s plan. But now their mission is over and it is time to pass through death into the newness of resurrected life, into the life of God’s endless creativity and imagination.

One of our churches closed this summer. Several others are closing or considering closing. These decisions are made prayerfully and with a willingness to look at reality. I am grateful to our senior staff – Steve, Pam and Rich- and to the leaders of these parishes who are doing the hard work of transition. And I am grateful to the neighboring parishes that are actively welcoming members of these churches into their faith communities and appreciate the gifts they bring. The buildings close but the church continues. The Jesus Movement rolls in a new way.

Let’s turn to some glimpses of God’s newness among us. One of the highlights of my year was ordaining three new young priests and welcoming a fourth newly ordained from the great state of Idaho. They bring an energy, excitement and a fresh perspective. I remember doing that 35 years ago. And now I want to listen to them because there are certainly some things God is calling us to see that these old eyes are not seeing. To take advantage of their wisdom, and that of several young and dynamic lay people, I am forming the “Young Leaders Council to the Bishop.” We will meet from time to time to see how we might be church for the 21st Century which is already 15 per cent over.

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And I invite you to do the same. I’m blessed to look out at you- faithful and wise leaders of our churches. I encourage each one of you to seek out young people (under 50) in your parishes and start incorporating them into leadership, which may or may not look like a vestry. And, when they meet resistance, support them. Turn to those who say “we never did it this way before” and with love and kindness and respect convey that we need to let God be God. Let God express imagination and creativity.

There is another expression we need to avoid. And we clergy are often the guiltiest of using it. When someone wants to try something new, we say “oh, we did that before… In 1987… It failed.” Maybe it was an idea ahead of its time. Maybe there is a new context. Maybe we aren’t hearing the idea correctly.

You see, people like me who remember when President Kennedy was shot, are desperately needed in our churches – more than ever. But one of our big jobs is mentoring. Inviting in the next generations to bring their own special gifts.

Let’s bring the gospel to new places. Like laundromats. Do you know about the Laundry Love program? You will learn about them later today. We have at least three of them in WMA.

Let’s bring the gospel to new places like our streets. I didn’t walk those 175 miles for exercise. I did it to bring the faith out of the church building and into the places where people live and work. And it wasn’t me just bringing the faith, I received the faith. I was inspired by so many who are working for Jesus’ Mission of Mercy, Compassion and Hope. Later we are going to hear about our urban mission to Worcester. I know many of our parishes have done the 20 minute walk north, south, east and west from their buildings and have re-imagined their ministry based on what they found. I might be wrong, but there might be more community outreach going on through our parishes than ever before. You will hear about a few of those parishes in videos later today.

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One of the awesome blessings of my walk through the diocese was meeting with community leaders, including police captains and sheriffs at jails. I learned so much. Including staggering facts about the heroin addiction that is crippling New England. Some of you are engaging community leaders in conversations about what churches can do. God bless you. This is Matthew 25 work for today’s world. “I was addicted and you cared.”

Let’s bring the Gospel to new people. Theologian Brian McLaren asks “why do denominations assign leaders to buildings when they should be sending them to populations?” In WMA we are taking that question seriously. We are actively engaged in ministry with veterans, immigrants, Latino populations, to the addicted and the incarcerated. It does not look like traditional parish ministry but it does look like God’s imagination at work.

How about bringing the Gospel to old places with new people? I’m thinking of our college campuses. There are 32 of them in WMA with 130,000 students. Now some outstanding campus ministry is already going on, but not nearly enough. Some of you were around three and a half years ago when I told this story in the “walkabouts” leading up to the election of a new bishop. Or the “Hunger Games” as my kids called them. When our youngest child Gracie was a freshman at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA her spring break was just two weeks before Holy Week. When I was taking her back to school at the end of the break, she said “dad when will you or mom pick me up for Easter?” I said, “Oh honey, you have classes right through Good Friday and you need to be back in class on Monday morning. You know your parents are both priests. There is no way we can drive 4  ½ hours to Carlisle and pick you up and drive you home on Good Friday and make that nine hour round trip on Easter Sunday after services.” She was disappointed but understood. We kept driving and when we stopped at a traffic light in Carlisle, she said “There’s the Episcopal Church…Where I will be sitting all by myself on Easter Sunday morning.”…We figured out a way to get her home for Easter.

Is there a college campus near you? How are you reaching out to those young people? Remember, most of them – the vast majority of them, unless like Gracie a P.K. (preacher’s kid), have been raised with no religious experience at all. They are not looking for a church to go to because they have probably never been in one. “Church? Hmm… I think when I was around ten my cousin got married and I was in this building with candles and windows with paintings in them.” But that might be to our advantage. College is all about learning new things, new experiences. It is about rebelling against your parents. What could be more radical, more “out-there” than discovering life in Christ? And I bet that discovering could come through service to the community because young people love to volunteer for worthy causes. We have an opportunity here, beloved of God, if we can tap into God’s imagination. Lawrence House is one such example and you will be hearing about that later on.

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It is great to be a believer, a Christian, an Episcopalian in 2015 because the imagination and creativity of God has given us social media. The word “gospel” means “good news.” John’s Gospel tells us “in the beginning was the Word.” We are in the communications business and God has given us more tools than ever before. Let’s use them! That stroll I took through WMA had 100 times more impact because Vicki Ix, the best communications director anywhere, got the word out on the website, Facebook, twitter, Instagram and traditional newspaper and TV outlets. I know, I know. I have the luxury of a full time professional communications director to do this work. I invite you to tap into God’s imagination to see how you might take advantage of social media to proclaim good news. Someday we will all see Jesus face to face and we might say “Jesus, I know I promised in the Baptismal Covenant to proclaim the Good News in Christ and I’m sorry I did not reach as many people as I hoped. It was so frustrating.” And Jesus will say “But I gave you Facebook!”

Here is one last area for God’s creativity for this Convention address. I have not covered nearly all of them. That is the all-important area of social justice. I have been inspired by multitudes in this dimension of the Gospel, some famous and by some oh so grassroots. One of the famous ones is the theologian Walter Bruggemann who writes about our Revelation passage: “I saw a new Heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. The future is not a private, individualistic future. It is a new epoch in the history of the world.” Here is a key line for us church folk. “The church knows that the old earth cannot be sustained.” That’s right. I’ll add the old earth that burns fossil fuels without limit cannot be sustained. The old earth that does not allow refugees and immigrants to move away from war torn and gang-infested and impoverished areas of the world cannot be sustained. The old earth where a gun culture in the US is allowed to run wild cannot be sustained. The old earth where one per cent of the population takes in the vast majority of the wealth cannot be sustained. The Church of the New Creation God knows this. The Pope, the Bishop of Rome, knows this and when he said it he was called too political. The Episcopal Bishop of Western Massachusetts knows this and has been called too political. But friends, know this, the anti-casino bishop, trying to catch up with the imagination of the God of the prophets and Jesus, is going to double-down on social justice issues. Because I can’t honestly say I believe in the God of the Old and New Testaments if I do anything else.

There is a prayer we all say at the Easter Vigil and we say it at ordinations which means I got to pray it four times in the last six months. It speaks to our situation in the church and in the world, and expresses our never-ending hope in the promises of the living God.

“O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on you whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”

The Jesus Movement rolls on. Amen.

+Doug