“Waters of Reconciliation: Turning Again to Christ?” Bishop’s Annual Address
The 183rd Annual Convention – Episcopal Diocese of Michigan
The Rt. Rev’d Wendell N. Gibbs, Jr., 10th Bishop of Michigan
October 28, 2017
My dear sisters and brothers in Christ:
In April 1968, I had just turned 14 and was in the 8th grade. My family lived in Washington, DC and I was attending DC public schools. In my memory, schools and neighborhoods were integrated (at least where I lived) and we were living a “normal” existence – at least as far as I knew.
Certainly I had memories, even then, that there were certain parts of Washington you did not go to at any time of day or night. I had also had some experience of the South, having gone to camp in Ahoskie, North Carolina, and knew that people of color “had their place”, and you simply did not venture outside of “that place” if you wanted to be safe.
I had earlier life memories of going with my grandmother or grandfather into downtown Washington – the shopping district – where there was always a possibility of a special treat: popcorn, candy or soda (we called it soda on the east coast). My earliest memories also included seeing water fountains labeled black only or white only. Some of those images confused me. Because of the people I lived around, I didn’t understand why some folks wanted to be separated from others.
Then, on Thursday, April 4, 1968, my whole world changed. That was the day that our family hero – my hero – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. I remember being on the playground at my Junior High School when the news began to be broadcast. I remember that my friends – my black friends – stopped in mid-play and began to cry. I remember a white kid said something to the effect of “why are you crying for him; he was just another trouble maker!” I remember I began to cry. And then I watched as much of my hometown burned.
All of life is a journey and it has been my experience that episodes along that journey form and affect us sometimes in ways we don’t realize immediately. They are part of our story; part of who we are; part of what makes us the people we have become and are becoming. Certainly, for those of us who claim Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, the journey through baptism into his death, resurrection and ascension contain episodes of life that form us and guide us and give us the tools and the story to be part of the Beloved Community. And, that journey is not something we take alone! Each of our stories is vital to the journey!
One focus of my journey with and among you in this diocese has been about forming and reforming Christ centered community. The catalyst for this focus began almost immediately after I arrived here and began doing Sunday visitations. On one of my visitations I had the great pleasure of having dinner with the Vestry members and their spouses. (I’m not going to name the congregation because this is not about shaming or blaming!). During the evening there was wide ranging conversation as we all attempted to get to know one another. I’m certain that folks were trying to find out who this new kid was that was wearing bishop’s garb and giving me as much information as they could to show how very special their congregation was! After dinner I spoke to the whole group about some of my hopes and dreams as we were starting a new chapter in the diocese. I believed that I was waxing quite eloquently about reconnecting disparate parts of the diocese in an effort to highlight that we are all part of a community larger than that of our individual congregations. Then, we engaged in a more formal question and answer time. A spouse of one of the vestry members eventually asked me about my hopes to connect various parts of the diocese. In fact, the question was, “why the hell should I care what happens in…?” you fill in the blank.
Does this sound like a question that has been or is being asked in your congregation?
Well, my response included elaboration on things like: It’s all about relationship; we are all Episcopalians; we are all part of a greater whole; our ability to be faithfully the church in Southeast Michigan actually requires that we depend on one another. Further, I reminded the folks gathered that we are NOT a congregational church: we are a church that is Episcopally led and synodically governed which means that the privilege of membership that comes with baptism is accompanied by the responsibility to care for our sisters and brothers. And ‘care’ means a whole lot more than just a mention in the Prayers of the People on a rotating basis on Sunday morning. It is about being and becoming Beloved Community; a community that is based on justice, equal opportunity and love of one’s fellow human beings. This kind of being requires us to be in relationship with one another.
What I did not realize then, on that day, was how much of a journey this being in relationship was going to require and still requires today.
Part of our journey together has taken us through a closer examination of our Baptismal Covenant so that we as a diocesan household could gain a deeper appreciation for and understanding of how we put into action the faith we proclaim in our God who is Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Part of our journey has given us the opportunity to celebrate and welcome new partners in mission. We have been pleased to welcome sisters and brothers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and of the Moravian church as partners in mission. We are particularly blessed to have ongoing mission partnerships throughout the diocese that continue to highlight and define the Call to Common Mission that was accepted by both The Episcopal Church and the ELCA in 1999 and 2000. In various ways our convention themes have encouraged us to find the stranger, embrace the outcast and share the gifts we have been blessed to receive.
This convention is the third year that together we have waded through the waters of reconciliation. We began this part of our journey considering the broad topic of Race Relations and Diversity. Our time together at that convention and in the months that followed was devoted to beginning to hear the stories from the community around us and learning about ways to get involved. At that convention, we were introduced to our Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion and have benefited from their work with us and on our behalf since. Last year we gathered to learn more about “Who is My Neighbor” and how our commitment to serve and learn from those around us can be part of our path to reconciliation. We were also introduced to the important work of our friends at Visions, Inc., and have welcomed them among us in the months since our last convention. Recognizing that the work of being in relationship and thus the work of being reconciled to one another is ongoing and life formation work, gatherings last February and March, and at our Ministry Fair in May have provided nearly 800 people around our diocese new ways to converse and share story with one another. Many diocesan gatherings are now undergirded with the Visions Guidelines to help make it possible for all of us to hear and be heard.
This year, our theme, Waters of Reconciliation: Turning Again to Christ is a further acknowledgement that we are engaged in lifetime formation and that it is not a journey that we take alone. As Christian disciples, either we walk this path with Jesus or we’re really not walking at all. This is also an acknowledgement that the journey is not a bed of roses. The conversations we must have with each other inside and outside the church will be difficult and they are necessary. Why do we need to have these difficult and important interactions? One reason is that by virtue of our baptismal promises we have a duty to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and ad duty to “strive for justice and peace among all people”. We also have a duty to “respect the dignity of every human being”. I have absolutely no clue how to seek, let alone serve the Christ that is in you if I am not in relationship with you. I cannot be in relationship with you if I haven’t taken the time to know who you are. I cannot know who you are – you cannot know who I am – if we haven’t taken the time to hear the story. Without the story we can be to easily convinced by misinformation, false assumptions and other distortions that rob a person of their human dignity. And frankly, there is much too much pilfering of personal dignity going on in the world today and most especially in our own country!
We can sit by and moan and groan about how awful things are; we can tweet about who said what or post to Facebook about how inappropriate someone is; we can pass resolutions aimed at telling others how bad or inconsiderate they are, or how 400 people voted that they should change; OR, we can get involved. We can be present, stand with and fight for people whose rights are being abused. We can knock on doors, march or even write letters (I know that may be a lost art for some, but it is still quite effective), so that the people who have been elected to exercise power know that the power they have comes from the people. We can be part of the solutions rather than complain about the problems. And this can all start by truly listening and being fully present to one another.
So what is true listening and what does being fully present look like? The best way I can answer that question is to share two key experiences I have had in the year since our last convention.
The first experience I share with you happened in mid-November last year: a group of 34, including yours truly, embarked on a Holy Land Pilgrimage. We were a diverse group including clergy and laity, some who were not Episcopalians. Several in the group had extensive travel experience, others had very little. One or two had been to the Holy Land previously; for most of us it was a first experience. Yet, even for those who had been to the Holy Land before, there was a newness to this trip that made it an exciting adventure for us all.
Because of the blessing of being your bishop for several years, I was one of the experienced travelers and yet one who had never been to the Holy Land. Much of my knowledge of the area and of its recent history was informed (or under informed) by news reports and by propaganda intended to paint either or both sides of the Arab/Israeli conflict as the “bad guys”. And, of course, all of the rhetoric was superimposed on the land and territory that Jesus walked. That, in itself, brings its own set of biases and preconceived ideas.
There were several encounters from our pilgrimage that have stood out for me and have contributed to my ongoing prayers and meditation since. Here I will highlight a few of them: two are attached to places we went and one is an event that involved listening to others.
The two places were our visit to Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank and is walled off; the second is the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall. Both places have to do with walls and what they mean or don’t mean.
Bethlehem is a Palestinian town about 6 miles south of Jerusalem. As you know it is the biblical birthplace of Jesus and it is a major Christian pilgrimage destination. If one was to go to the internet and Google to find images of Bethlehem, there would be a picture of Manger Square at Christmas time, views of the inlaid silver star in the grotto that marks the place of Jesus’ birth; and, you might even see images of the Church of St. Catherine and the Mosque of Omar which share Manger Square with the Church of the Nativity. The images you will not come upon readily are pictures of the walls which encase Bethlehem. The wall is a separation barrier in the West Bank or along what is known as the Green Line. Israel considers it a barrier against terrorism, while Palestinians call it a racial segregation or apartheid wall. Whatever names one uses for the wall, the on the ground reality is that neighborhoods and families were separated from one another, literally overnight. The movement of those who must travel to Jerusalem for their livelihood has been severely hampered; the International Court of Justice found the barrier/wall to be in violation of international law and the United Nations General Assembly condemned the wall. Unfortunately, United States vetoed a resolution condemning the barrier wall in the Security Council and Israel has chosen not to recognize the authority of the International Court of Justice.
The point of all this is that politics is crushing people! Without regard for the personal dignity of individual children of God, an entire people has essentially been tried and convicted of terrorism and now sentenced to life behind a wall allowed only to move beyond the wall when another oppressive people chooses to allow it. And, many of the people forced to live inside the wall are Palestinian Christians! How odd that Israel’s right to build the wall is being supported by Christians for Israel made up of American Christians – Christians imprisoning Christians. Sadly, all that we really know here is what the Israeli leaders tell us. But, when you take the time to listen to Arab Christians, Israeli Jews and even non-religious Muslims (as we had an opportunity to do) you get more of the story; a story that is not being widely shared; a story that points to the desire of diverse people to live side by side together in peace; and a story that is being overshadowed by those who want a peace that is unequal and bereft of diversity. In being fully present to the people living in Bethlehem, I had to admit my own guilt in not knowing and doing enough to address and change the injustice that I was witnessing.
The second place that was a highlight for me was the Wailing Wall or the Western Wall. This wall is all that remains of a much larger wall following the destruction of the Temple. What we learned about the wall is that its location places it very close to what was the area known as the Holy of Holies: the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle where God dwelt; the place where the Ten Commandments had been kept; the place where the High Priest was allowed to enter only once each year on Yom Kippur to offer the blood sacrifice. Today, the Dome of the Rock sits atop the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is the closest that Jews today can get to the Temple.
To the uninitiated, it is “just a wall”. As one gets closer to it, it’s a wall with bunches of pieces of paper sticking out of it. And, a general overview of the area reveals that men and women, by the hundreds and sometimes thousands go there to pray. One does not have to be Jewish to pray there. My initial thought was, “ok; here we are at the Wailing Wall. People have been coming here for dozens and dozens of years to offer prayers. It’s considered a holy place. I can embrace that.” So, I wrote down the names of several family members and some personal intentions for which I wished to pray – kind of like a living Prayers of the People. I covered my head, which is required, and began to approach the wall.
I’m not sure when I began to see the wall as something more than a wall, but by the time I was just barely close enough to touch it, I had begun to shake. I took the piece of paper I wanted to leave at the wall and pushed it into an opening between two stones. And then, I went to place my hand on the wall as I had seen others do. As my shaking hand got closer to the wall and my eyes filled with tears, I felt myself leaning toward the wall. At once I wanted to be supported by the wall and somehow become one with it. For the next few moments I just wept. I began to give thanks for God’s presence in that place and in my life and asking for God’s presence in the lives of those whose names I had just buried in the wall. And finally, I asked for God’s peace for me and for the world. Then I just stood there, in silence, my hand on the wall. At some point I felt myself remove my hand. I began to back away from the wall. I didn’t want to leave; I didn’t want to turn my back on the wall. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed do next. I felt a calm that was both overwhelming and reassuring.
I wanted to share that experience of a wall because it was such a stark contrast to that of the barrier wall in Bethlehem. One was a wall of anguish and protest and separation and one was a wall of contentment and bringing together. One represented an action of disregard of other and one was an action of embrace of other. One wall represented defeat and oppression; the other a wall of liberation through prayer. Of course, the area of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount are still political obstacles that too frequently cause friction particularly for those on both extremes of the debate. And, both the Wall and the Temple Mount are symbols of faith and hope and trust in a God of justice. I realized that my experience of the Western Wall was a surrender to being fully present in that place and at that time so that I could, if only for a moment, inhale the reality of what it is like to have the holiest place for your faith guarded by soldiers with submachine guns, and open my eyes to the reality that even God has become a pawn in human political fighting. Such openness changes ones perspectives!
The third high point for me was actually three different evenings when our pilgrimage group got to sit with three different people with perspectives of both the political and religious debate that continues in the Holy Land. I will tell you that for some of our group it was difficult to listen each night, not because we were tired, but because some perspectives were harder to hear than others. Something I learned as we listened to and mulled the Palestinian perspective, the Israeli perspective and the Muslim perspective is that to each presentation we bring our own values, our own understandings, our own expectations. As I listened to each presenter I found that what was welling up inside me was not a response to what I was hearing based on my presence in Jerusalem. Instead, what was causing my reaction were my own western ideas, my western ways of approaching things, my western privilege and my western interpretation of propaganda that I had trouble restraining so I could truly listen to our presenter and be fully present to the new ideas each was putting before me. I won’t say I was successful. I learned a valuable lesson.
I said there were two key experiences that happened recently and the second key experience I share with you happened just recently in September when the House of Bishops met in Fairbanks, Alaska. Although Alaska is indeed part of the United States, I couldn’t shake the feeling that to get there was a lot like leaving the United States. It takes a long time to travel there and when we got there, the flora and fauna didn’t fit any memory cells I had. I am used to trees that are bigger around than I can hug alone and wild animals are usually confined to zoos. In Alaska where there are trees, they are slender and tall because of the permafrost that doesn’t allow them to develop root systems that are deep like trees here. In certain parts of Alaska, even Fairbanks, moose can be seen walking down Main Street and humans are given warnings about what to do and not do when a moose is nearby.
Part of our time in Alaska included an opportunity to travel to a village above the Arctic Circle. The group I was part of went to Beaver, Alaska: a village of 62 year round residents; 13 of the villagers are children ranging in age from a few months old to High School. The people are engaged in subsistence living: which means they depend upon the natural resources around them to survive. While in the village we got to see the school, the water treatment plant (which doubles as a public restroom and shower facility), the tribal community center, the church and the Post Office. The villagers are proudest of the school and the water treatment facility. They are proud of the school because as long as the number of children stays above 10 they can educate their kids locally. They are proud of the water treatment facility because it is the product of a successful grant request that allowed them to save hundreds of thousands of dollars by not trying to run water lines to every home in the village through permafrost and instead having a central place for water and sewage treatment.
We also learned that the Yukon River, which flows alongside the village, is dropping in depth because of global warming which is causing the shifting of the glaciers. The concern is quite great because one of the glaciers has shifted in such a manner as to severely limit the flow of water into the Yukon. As the water levels drop, so does the availability of salmon which deeply affects their ability to subsist off of nature. Of course, as the fish disappear, so do other animals that also depend on fish for their subsistence and thus the villagers have to travel even further to hunt as they attempt to lay-in winter provisions. The other issue with climate change in their area is that the permafrost is melting. (In case you didn’t know, permafrost is soil that has remained below 0C (32F) for more than two years. It occurs in regions where the summer warmth fails to penetrate the ground sufficiently to thaw the soil.) In fact, the permafrost has been melting for the past 30 years. The difference now is that various support beams used to hold up buildings like schools and water treatment plants are beginning to collapse from the melt and villagers are fearful of losing important parts of village life.
Into that scene, the village brought food to share with us; food that we realized was part of what they had put away for themselves. We ate moose soup, salmon jerky and fry bread. And, in that culture, to turn down food offered to you is an insult. They are more than happy to share with you and see it as their gift of welcome because you took the time to travel to be with them.
The point of our visits to the various villages was to pray with them and to bless the water, the land: the environment. It is their livelihood and the importance of having the bishops and bishop’s spouses of The Episcopal Church among them cannot be overstated. It was historic and will not be forgotten, either by them or by any of us. Before we left Beaver, one of the eldest members of the village (her name was Clara) asked us, “Do you want to see some old stuff?” With a grin, we all said sure and followed Clara to her house. Upon entering the house, all of my lower 48, western preconceptions and expectations were challenged and I had to leave them at the door. There we stood in the middle of a one room unheated cabin. All around us was a history of the tribe: a canoe frame that is still used by putting canvas over it; one of those old wringer washing machine that you have to feed the clothes through the rollers; rams horns left from a hunt; tools used in fishing, hunting and preparing the food for storage and eating; and an old coat for providing winter warmth. In setting aside my narrow view of reality so that I could be part of her reality, I honored Clara’s humanity and learned something about life in Alaska. I also learned that my way is not the only way; that my way is not the right way; and, while we should always honor the past we cannot dwell there.
Saying goodbye to the village and villagers of Beaver, Alaska was one of the hardest and most emotional times I can remember. In the short three hours that we were there, the people of Beaver, Alaska became part of me, in a way that I really do not have words to express; they became family. No, they will never be genetic family. Yet, in the way that all of us as children of God are family, I came to know another branch of the family tree.
And, isn’t that what reconciliation, diversity and inclusion is really about?
As I look about this room today, there are at least 400 stories that I do not know. And since no one is reducible to the worst story that you can tell about them and since no one is reducible to only one story, there are truly thousands of stories in this room that I do not know and that you do not know. Without knowing those stories we dare not make assumptions and judgments about our fellow human beings. Our call is not to build walls because we don’t agree with someone or some people. Rather the gospel call is to find ways to bridge those things that make us different from one another so that the things about us that make us alike can be highlighted and celebrated and put to use for the good of all. All of this reconciliation, diversity and inclusion requires that we truly listen and be truly present to one another and that is hard work and it is gospel work.
Last Sunday morning I was driving to my visitation and was listening to National Public Radio. I was able to hear a good portion of the Krista Tippett show, “On Being”. Ms. Tippett was interviewing psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In part, Mr. Haidt said:
“I started at Yale in 1981, just as diversity was becoming a major, major watchword of the left. And my entire academic career, it’s all been about diversity: diversity this, diversity that. And what’s really meant by that is racial diversity, and then, secondarily, gender diversity. And claims are made for diversity, that it has all these benefits for thinking, it does all these great things… And so we do need certain kinds of diversity, but the key to remember is that diversity by its very nature is divisive, and so what’s the function of your group? If your group needs cohesion, you don’t want diversity. If your group needs good, clear thinking, and you want people to challenge your prejudices, then you need it.”
He goes on to say:
“Start by building the sense of our community, how much we have in common…Start by building all of that, and then you can address the harder … issues.”
Why does anyone in one part of this diocese need to know anything about what’s going on in another part of the diocese? Because we are building community! We need people who don’t think like us to keep us thinking. We need people who are not exactly like us to help us be faithful to who we are. We need diversity because without it we have boring sameness and no one learns, grows or becomes any more than they already are.
I have been most disappointed recently to learn of individuals in some of our congregations who choose to attack their clergy or others who are providing sermons and homilies because they don’t like that the topic challenges either the way they (the individual does something) or it challenges the way in which our national leaders do or don’t do something. As the church, as representatives of Jesus Christ on this earth and exactly because we are not a state church, we have a responsibility to call out and point out behaviors that are not faithful to the Scriptural mandate to love one another. I have yet to read a sermon by any of our clergy that would remotely suggest that any clergy in this diocese is breaking ecclesiastical or secular rules regarding preaching politics from the pulpit. I’m sorry to have to break this news to you, but Jesus wasn’t crucified because he disobeyed the rubrics of the Temple prayer scroll. In Jesus’ day, talk about the ‘kingdom of God’ was political. His passion for the kingdom of God created conflict with the authorities of his day. If Jesus had wanted to avoid the political meaning of kingdom, he could have spoken of the “family” of God or the “community” of God, or the “people” of God. But he didn’t, he spoke of the kingdom of God. How then can the disciples of Jesus avoid the politics of justice and equality? We must not and we cannot. Our baptismal promise to strive for justice and peace for all people convicts us of the need to speak up and show love.
And, of course, there is room to disagree. That’s what diversity is about. The concern is when our disagreement becomes violent and insistent that things must be only one way. One example that comes immediately to mind has to do with guns and gun violence. And please, if you are a gun owner, don’t turn me off yet. I’m probably not going to say what you think I am going to say; so in the interest of reconciliation, diversity and inclusion, please listen.
I am not a gun owner. Truth be told, I have a visceral reaction to being in the same room as a gun. I have never liked guns and have, as long as I can remember been extremely afraid of them. As a Boy Scout, the merit badge for rifle shooting was the only one that I could not complete during summer camp. Whenever I held the rifle my hands shook and, although I attempted to aim, I literally could not hit the broad side of a barn. Nevertheless, I have always respected those of my family and friends who owned guns, who hunted or who were part of law enforcement. I have never asked or expected them to give up their guns or their rights to own one or more guns. I am not anti-gun, I am anti-gun violence. I do not believe that even my new found family and friends in Beaver, Alaska who hunt in order to eat and live need an assault rifle to hunt moose or catch salmon. I also do not believe that giving everyone a gun is the answer to eliminating gun violence.
A former police officer I know recently told me that if you’re going to own a gun, especially for personal protection, then you had better be prepared to take a life. Because, he said, if you don’t the person you aim at will take the gun from you and either beat you with it or shoot you. Too many children are being killed by gun violence. Too many innocent people are being killed because people who should never have had access to guns are getting access. And no matter how many of those folks in Las Vegas had been armed, not one of them would have been able to stop the shooter by return fire in that situation. Gun violence needs to stop. And I ask those of you who own guns to help us stop the violence.
Violence committed by guns is not the only violence we need to take action against. Violence perpetrated because of race, ethnic or creedal difference; violence perpetrated because of someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity; violence committed against women; violence committed because of any power differential be it real or perceived; all violence, be it physical or psychological, in person or on social media; all violence must stop! And we must do more than just pass convention resolutions asking the secretary to write a letter on our behalf; we must do more than pray and decry. We are part of the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement and movements don’t stand still, they move, they do something, they exert effort to make a difference. If we want these things to stop, if we want violence to end and if we want everyone’s basic human needs to be provided for; if we want immigration reform and if we want to be sanctuary for those in need, then we must be the church and being the church is not about sitting around drinking tea and voting about where we send the next check. Like Jesus who upended the tables in the temple we are called to action to upend the status quo and do something about those things that do not provide justice, dignity and peace for all God’s people.
I am looking at about 400 diverse folks who have the gifts, talents and skills to do some of the work. The reality is that there are more like us in each of our congregations. There are more folk out there who are not in our congregations or any congregation, who carry the image and likeness of God and are also called to share their piece of God’s truth with the rest of us. There are more who can join us in this work, yet we need to do more to invite them to join us. We need to do more to let them know they are welcome. We need to do more. We are part of the Jesus movement. We have stories to share and to hear. We have privilege that needs to be laid aside so we can embrace other realities. We have work to do
Before I close, I want to share some hard and sobering facts with you. As most of you know, each of your congregations is required to submit a Parochial Report each year. The deadline, just as a reminder, is March 1st of each year. (I believe some of you need that reminder). What many of you may not know is that the data from each of these reports is compiled and published by The Episcopal Church each year and the report for 2016 was published just a few weeks ago in September.
This compiled report gives us a picture of how the whole of The Episcopal Church is doing in the areas of Baptized Members, Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) and Average Pledge. The news is sobering because the decline in baptized membership across the Episcopal Church continues, although the decline may be slowing ever so slightly. The decline in Average Sunday Attendance continues but the decline from 2015 to 2016 is much less than it was the previous year. The bit of good news in the reports is actually in the area of stewardship. The average pledge in the Episcopal Church went up slightly from last year and that is a continuation of an increase that has been a trend for a few years. In other words, there are fewer Episcopalians but the ones we have are more generous with their financial resources. To bring these numbers closer to home, the Diocese of Michigan saw a decrease in baptized members from 2015 to 2016 of 2.3% or 396 members; we saw a decrease in ASA from 2015-2016 of 1.3% or 80 people; and, we have seen an increase in average pledge from 2011-2016 of 14%, an increase of $306 per pledging unit.
What does this mean? Is the Church dying? What do we do?
I suspect there are all sorts of meanings that could be gleaned and have been gleaned from this data. Those who believe the church is going the wrong direction by welcoming all people see these numbers as evidence that we’re going about it all wrong. Our Presiding Bishop sees the numbers and believes that we all have work to do but that we cannot sit and focus on the numbers. If we are going to live and die simply by what the numbers are saying we are not out doing our job as evangelists for the living Jesus. My personal opinion is that there is a certain part of the church that is dying: that is the part that believes that if we just go back to the way it was in the 1950s when the pews were full and folks had to get to church an hour early to get a seat everything will be fine. That’s nonsense. And I say this partly because such thinking is based on false memories and partly because the world and the church has changed and is changing; we cannot go backwards. As I said earlier, it is ok to honor the past; we cannot dwell there.
The world has changed since I grew up in the church. What we, the church, need to accept is that we are no longer the spoke of the wheel. Everything in our society no longer revolves around what the church or church people say. The church has become one of a number of choices for what people do in their lives. Far too often when folks look our way they see in-fighting and hypocrisy that is not attractive and certainly not inviting. If we are going to see a change in how people regard the church today, if we are going to see a change in the numbers, we need to start being the church. We need to be the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. We need to share the gospel story and show how that gospel story has made a difference in our lives. We must be active, not afraid. We must stand up for what is right and just and equitable. We must be there for the less fortunate and the marginalized. We must be there for the immigrant and the bullied. We must speak up and show love.
Also, I don’t believe the compiled data give credit to the places even in our own diocese that are growing. We are actually seeing growth in Brighton; Southfield; Bloomfield Hills; Williamston; East Lansing, Pleasant Lake and others. And growth is more than just the numbers of bodies in the pews. It is also about spiritual growth and formation. And the numbers do not highlight when a person learns something more about themselves and their relationship to God by attending Bible Study, Adult formation or Sunday School. Disciples have to be taught before they can be counted. We have much work to do.
I began by telling you a part of my story. That story has many, many more parts to it and it is a story that carries the foundation of why I believe what I believe and why I am so passionate about this holy work we have all been called to do. Each of you and each member of your congregations have stories to tell and from those stories you will learn so much about who these sisters and brothers in Christ are and what makes them passionate about following Jesus. My challenge to each of you is to use the resources we have to help those stories find a way to be told. Listen carefully – truly listen to one another and practice being fully present in receiving the stories by laying aside your preconceived ideas and your judgements and your expectations, your prejudices and your need to be in control.
I believe we can change the world if in truly listening and being fully present we turn and see the Christ that is in each and every one of us. As we wade the waters of reconciliation let us turn again and always to Christ.