From “Radio Nowhere” to “The Rising”

The following is the text of The Bishop’s Address to the 121st Annual Diocesan Convention given on November 5, 2022, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The Bishop’s Address was the sermon at the convention Eucharist. Photo: Episcopal WMA

In reflecting on our convention theme, “Sing a New Song,” my mind turned to two old songs that might help us to do that. They were written by….Bruce Springsteen. One is “Radio Nowhere” which includes these lyrics: 

This is radio nowhere

Is there anyone alive out there? 

This is radio nowhere 

Is there anyone alive out there? 

Is there anyone alive out there? 

I was spinning around a dead dial 

Just another lost number in a file 

Dancing down a dark hole 

Just searching for a world with some soul 

Bruce Springsteen

Although we have some churches that have come out of these two and a half years of COVID-19 stronger, many of our churches are hurting. Some churches of all different sizes are down in Sunday attendance by 30-50 per cent. Many Sunday Schools are really hurting. And it is so hard to get volunteers. Some clergy have told me how discouraged they are and are wondering if they have done all they can do in their present situations. 

And so we sing, “is anyone alive out there? Is anyone alive out there? Dancing down a dark hole, just searching for a world with some soul.” 

But there is another Springsteen song that he wrote in response to the tragedy of September 11, 2001. It’s called, “The Rising” and starts off with a firefighter going up the stairs: 

Can’t see nothing in front of me 

Can’t see nothing come up behind 

I make my way through this darkness 

Bruce Springsteen

Then he segues to:

Come on up for the Rising 

Come on up lay your hands in mine 

Come on up for the rising 

Come on up for the rising tonight 

I see you Mary in the garden 

In the garden of a thousand sighs 

There’s holy pictures of our children 

Dancing in a sky filled with light 

May I feel your arms around me 

May I feel your blood mix with mine 

A dream of life comes to me 

Bruce Springsteen

How can we get from “Radio Nowhere” to “The Rising?” How will God working in us get “The Rising” to be our song? I’ll spend the rest of this address wondering and exploring that. 

The great theologian Karl Barth says the basic human response to God is gratitude. Everything else flows from there. When our kids were little and would get overly upset about something Betsy and I would say to them: “Stop. Tell me five things you are grateful for.” Recently, I have begun a simple practice when the wake up alarm goes off of thanking God for five things before I get out of bed. 

It is amazing what gratitude can do. The preacher David Lose says: “Gratitude frees us from fear. Releases us from anxiety. It emboldens us to do more than we could ever imagine.” 

What would happen if we started every vestry meeting, every diocesan meeting going around the room asking for expressions of gratitude. 

A remarkable example of this recently took place in Pittsfield. Jenny Gregg tells me that all the churches in the city got together and wrote ‘thank you’ notes to all 1,200 people who work in the school system. Teachers and school workers continue to be so very challenged because of how COVID shut-downs effected children’s development. And the churches of Pittsfield responded with gratitude for the hard work being done there. 

And that flows into my next wondering about how to go from “Radio Nowhere” to “The Rising.” And that is collaboration. No one church could have written 1,200 ‘thank you’ notes. But together they could. Long before COVID I was preaching the benefits of collaboration – between Episcopal churches and with churches and synagogues and mosques of all traditions. Yes, we are experiencing in our society the Great Resignation. Our ministries might be understaffed. And working with other churches might be the solution. We learned during the pandemic that we don’t have to start a much needed food pantry. Maybe we can send volunteers and financial support to the church across town or down the block that already runs a food pantry and is struggling to meet the growing need. I’m really humble about presuming to know what God thinks, but I think it is possible God would love that. 

Do you know that more times than Jesus said, “love one another,” he said, “stay awake,” “look,” “see.” What is going on right now for us to see? Something I have spoken of many times in the past year is the depression many of our young people are suffering. I’m often invited to speak at campus ministry gatherings and I ask the campus minister what they would like me to speak about. Always the answer is the same – “hope.” In a four month period of time earlier this year 7 students died by suicide at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The early church, in the very first years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, looked around and saw the great need of the widows in a culture where women could not earn money. They saw and they responded to that need with the ministry of deacons. What is God calling us to in our 32 college campuses and for those young adults who are not in college? I don’t have an answer but maybe you do. Let’s stay awake to what God wants us to do. 

Stay awake. Do you know that 10,000 baby boomers in the United States retire every day? I know we want to invite young families to our churches so we might live out the mandate to pass the faith on from generation to generation. I’m inspired by all our churches trying to do that. And could it be that some of those non-church going baby boomers might be searching for faith formation in this next stage of their lives? What would outreach to them look like? 

And staying awake also means curiosity about ministries that are working so well within our diocese. This is not a full list. Just a few. Building Bridges – our ministry with veterans – is growing and growing and growing. We have 13 churches now that offer a free meal to veterans every week or every month. Approximately 500 vets attend. Many don’t need a free meal but they go for the companionship. And some really do need the food. Through the years I have met so many who literally live under bridges on the Connecticut River. We see that. What is God calling us to? 

Stay awake. See. Look. Climate change isn’t just in the future. It is now. I’m so grateful for the ministry of Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, her Leadership Circle, AND for your response to that ministry. 

See the awesome work that several of our churches have done welcoming Afghan refugees. I’m blessed to hear the stories of my Executive Assistant, Lainey Hurlbut, as she drives a refugee family cared for by our Cathedral and St David’s in Agawam to many appointments and to their mosque. See the work we do to stand up for the rights of immigrants including our advocacy for driver’s licenses for the undocumented. 

See the work we are doing to get ghost guns and AR 15’s off the streets. See the inspirational work of our street ministries in Springfield, Worcester, Northampton, and Pittsfield. 

See the incredible energy that is put into our Good News Gardens in ten of our parishes and the food given to local food banks. 

See our Loving The Questions experience for those discerning where God is calling them. It is an incredible process that has impacted many lives and focused the gifts of lay and ordained leaders for Jesus’ mission. 

See our Human To Human ministry (what in the old days would be called Episcopal Charities) which financially supports outreach ministries. (You will hear from the director, Mark Rodgers, later today.) 

See our 80 Sacred Ground circles – congregational groups that have honestly and faithfully engaged the impact of white supremacy on our nation and church. Sacred Ground is changing us and shaping our work for racial justice. 

See that our Latino faith communities have grown from one – Christ Church Cathedral – to three. San Marcos in Worcester and St. Paul’s in Holyoke are growing with the Holy Spirit and sharing the Gospel of joy. 

See our Indigenous Peoples Justice Network with the Diocese of Massachusetts. We are telling the truth of our history, listening to Native voices, and naming what we owe to those whose land was taken with violence and lies. 

Go to Sheffield in the summer and witness our ministry to hikers on the Appalachian Trail. Last summer over 740 hikers stopped by our tent. 

In a time of clergy shortage, see the work of Rich Simpson to get us great clergy. See the ministry of our clergy who are working in two churches. See the so-called retired clergy who are serving our churches. 

And see the wonderful collaboration of our diocese with that one to the east with even more Red Sox fans than we have here. We have joined together in ministry to be stronger together. 

I could keep on going with what we see, but we have a lot to do today. And I have two more things I’m curious about. 

Our hard working chaplains chose to make this liturgy an All Saints liturgy due to our proximity to that holy day. Which leads me to wonder: if our diocese had a patron saint what would it be? 

I looked through the whole Great Cloud of Witnesses (trust me – it took a long time with many possibilities) and I offer for your consideration – Mary Magdalene. 

Mary loved Jesus. We love Jesus. And when he died a terrible death, she stayed faithful. Stayed faithful at the cross. She faithfully went to anoint the body on Sunday and was stunned that he was not there. She asked the gardener where he was because she just wanted the old body back. And the gardener turned out to be the Risen Jesus. She embraces him but the Risen Jesus tells her he needs to keep on moving. But tell the disciples he is Risen. And she becomes the apostle to the apostles. 

I think Mary Magdalene is our saint for WMA in 2022. We, too, want the old body back. 2019. Or 1955. But the old body is gone and Resurrection to something unknown and a little scary is here. And Mary Magdalene goes with this new reality and gives a message to the apostles that changes the world. Friends, that could be us. That is how we are invited to go from “Radio Nowhere” to “The Rising.” 

Marianne Budde, the bishop of Washington DC, says this: “You are a unique expression of God’s creative genius.” I love that insight. “You are a unique expression of God’s creative genius.” Thank you for bringing that gift in service of Jesus’ Mission of Mercy, Compassion and Hope. 

We began with the song imagery, so let’s end with it. I’m going to end with a much-loved prayer from The Book of Common Prayer. I invite someone in this gathering today who is musically talented to make this a song. Make this our new song. 

Glory to God whose power, working is us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Amen.