Bishop’s Sermon at the 234th Annual Convention
See video text below
Jesus said, “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” I offer you these words in the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So, I know what you’re thinking about all of this scripture about seeds and vines and bearing fruit, you’re thinking the bishop went through the Bible and just started picking stuff out. Honestly, you were thinking that weren’t you? Even though technically, as a bishop, I could do that, I didn’t. This actually comes from the Book of Common Prayer, these are the lessons for a church convention. And so when the book was being put together in 1979, they had us in mind 40 years later. How wonderful that would be! But, yes, I am hammering the framework home one lesson at a time — sowing, tending, and sharing. Let’s talk about that for a moment.
Last night, after the first session, I was leaving and walking through the crowd in the exhibit hall, quickly heading to the next thing, and there was a group of delegates visiting. I didn’t get to see who all was there, but they were talking about the garden idea that I had just talked about, and someone was talking about having a garden at home. I was passing and I heard the person say, “Well, I don’t know. The bishop never told us what the new garden is supposed to be, so maybe tomorrow he’ll tell us.” And someone else said, “It’s not about a new garden.” And this is the part that I remembered, one of you said, “It’s a guide for good gardening.” I said, “I wish I had said that.” So if you don’t mind I’m going to start using that. A guide for good gardening — because what we’re doing is not new. It’s as old as the Garden of Eden. A person wants to plant in fertile ground and rich soil to produce fruits of plentifulness and of great abundance for us to enjoy, and to share, and to spread. All we’re doing here is talking about renewing our energy, renewing our vision, and reclaiming an old vision that’s been part of our history for a long time, but we just, well we just kind of forgot.
So yes, today’s lessons are all about seeds and vines and bearing fruit, to remind us that our faith is alive. It’s living. There’s an old image, I learned some time ago, and it’s been so, so very helpful for me. When we think about our faith, we often use language of having faith. One must have to have faith and that sounds like faith is kind of a possession, that you either have it or you don’t. It’s kind of binary. But really the old image that I heard a long time ago, was we need to think of our faith as a garden and something in our lives that we tend. There are going to be periods in our lives when our faith feels verdant and strong and other periods when it doesn’t. I find this image incredibly helpful. I’m sure as I go back and reflect on what has helped bring me to this place, and us to this place, and talking about gardens, it has to be from that old image that I’ve been carrying around for so many years, and that our faith is something to be tended. If we don’t tend it, then we shouldn’t be surprised if it falls on hard ground. Has anyone else heard about that image before? It is powerful, indeed.
We read an entire chapter from Isaiah today — Isaiah 55. That’s good stuff. We really should just call that the discernment, right there. Oh, that’s powerful. Here we’re talking about the Word of God, an old Hebrew word translated into the English word, ‘Word’. It speaks about the Word of God being sent out as an agent of God. It’s goes out into creation. It causes growth and renewal. But it’s not just a word. It’s more than just the verbalization of what God has done. It’s the proclamation of God. It’s a representation of the way God works. The ‘Word’ spoken. Do you see what I mean? It’s not just that God said, “Do this.” But it’s as if God is saying, “This is the way it’s supposed to be. My Word has gone out and the whole earth is bearing fruit, seeds are being watered and raised up.” And that Word will not return empty, God says, but, will do those things for which I have given it purpose. There’s power in that word.
John 15 reveals to us Jesus as he’s talking to his disciples in the farewell discourse, and he uses one of the many images from the Gospel of John, one of the many ‘I am’ images. “I am the true vine”, he says, “those who abide in me and I abide in them, we abide in the Word of God. The very Word of the Father.” I guess it’s about bearing good fruit and abiding in love, but really that image of the vine helps me remember that my work in the garden, my garden of faith, my garden of church, whatever my garden metaphor may be, that I am not alone in this. I am part of a vine that is so much bigger than me. You are part of a vine that is so much bigger than you, and at those times when we feel that our faith is just getting a little thin or we feel that the job is just a little tough, we can take great comfort knowing you’re rooted. Rooted in something powerful, ancient, and glorious. How about that? How about them apples? We’re not gardening alone my brothers and sisters.
We talk a lot about growth and we’ll hear it at this convention and for conventions to come. You’ll be tired of hearing me talk about it. Good Lord have mercy bishop! It’s not like it’s not all over in the Bible! That’s what I’m going to say right back to you. All this talk about seeds and about nurturing —from life, comes life. We expect to be alive and vibrant, and we need to be willing to talk about growth. Simply, if anything I want to leave us with today it is this — a reclaiming of our roots. Living things grow or they die. We know this, whether it’s an organism, whether it’s a plant or an animal, whether it’s a company, whether it’s a nation. To grow, we must grow or we die. Now that doesn’t always mean in size. You have to be careful because it’s an easy step to say, oh, bigger is always better. That’s not the same. That is not the same whatsoever. That growth is not simply about getting bigger. Jesus says that, “I’m the true vine and you are part of me because you will abide in me, you live in me.” So there’s a sense of abiding in depth. A growing depth. So, yes, we should be talking about spreading numerically because that’s a goal, but that’s not the only goal and that’s not the only way to measure how we’re doing good stuff. There’s the health that we have spiritually and how wide is our impact.
I was doing a vitality workshop, at one of our parishes a few weeks ago, and we had this very same conversation. That you can’t simply say that bigger is better. That’s not healthy and it’s not biblical. Growth is about so much more than just looking to get bigger, for bigger’s sake.
But if you buy my assumption, my statement, that this is part of our roots that we’ve forgotten, then it’s a logical question to ask how did we forget? If it is true that in the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew 28, Jesus told us to go out and proclaim the Good News to all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to send us out with this great commission, why is it that we seem to have let the evangelical, evangelism imperative, fall behind? I think we can look at our own history and see that’s what happens when a church becomes established and becomes part of the establishment. Would you agree? That when the church is not on the outside anymore, when we become part of the inside, part of what’s expected, then you don’t worry about spreading the Good News, because you just assume that it’s going get spread. You assume, we the church, and we’ve been doing this for generations, have assumed that folks are going to find us. And if you’re coming to a place and hearing us talk about growth and evangelism thinking, where did this come from, don’t feel that you missed something because you were probably never taught. You probably were never taught what it is that you needed to do.
So I just turned 50 — I’m a generation Xer. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. I find generational talk a little bit like astrology personally, I know there’s truth to it and I am a Sagittarius. So anyway, I was born in GenX. The point being that even growing up as recently as my generation, it was fundamentally assumed that people went to church. It was pretty much assumed still that folks went to church. Now some people would go to a temple or some would go to a mosque, but it was pretty much assumed that people would find themselves in a religious setting on the weekends. And for the vast majority, growing up in the South, there are Christians, mostly Protestant, some Catholics, but it was assumed that we were all religious at least, and mostly Christian. And so the difference was really what flavor of Christian. I’ve used this image before that it’s sort of like we all eat ice cream, we just have different flavors that we prepare. So the question I was so often ask growing up is, “Well, which church do you go to?” “Oh, well I’m an Episcopalian, I go to the Episcopal church.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you’re 50 or older, that’s kind of what you were taught growing up. That was the question people asked, “Which church do you go to?”
The question people ask now is, “Why do you go to church?” Which, if you ask me, is a good question. Why do you go to church? Because we no longer assume this idea that we’re part of the establishment, that people are just going to find a way to church because they’re pressured into it. That’s the downside to establishment, that you’ve got to do it, and so if you’re not in a church you get shamed into it. We’ve been through this for a while and it’s not fun. But one of the upsides is that the folks who are in church now really want to be here. I mean, come on folks, nobody made you come this weekend. I’ve got some very persuasive rectors in this diocese, so maybe some of you were strong armed. No, you’re here because you want to be. And the people who will come in on Sunday, there’s something drawing them there. There’s something that draws us. Maybe we can’t name it perfectly, every single Sunday, but something has drawn us there, drawn us closer. So, being outside of the establishment, people are no longer just saying, “Well, what church do you go to?” They’re saying, “Why do you go to church?” But I was taught growing up, just to say,” I’m an Episcopalian.” “Why do you go to church?” “I’m an Episcopalian.” “Why do you go to church?” “Oh, I’m First Baptist down the street.” “Why do you believe in God?” “I’m a Methodist”, “I’m a Catholic.” But that’s what we were taught. Nobody told me when I was I was 15, “Why do you believe in God?” My answer was very personal. It’s not as if, don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if the church has just been devoid of spiritual thought for all this time. That’s not what I’m saying. But I think part of that establishment and our track record there is that all this gets internalized very much. All this faith becomes this internal thing we just do internally because people have to do it. So we don’t really have to talk about it. You just pick one and kind of go on. And so we really internalize our faith. What we’re saying now is we have to go back old school. I’m talking Bible old school, early church, and be ready to talk about our faith. As Saint Peter wrote, “Be ready to give an account of the faith that is within us.”
We have talked about the word evangelism, and I have shared that the word itself, evangelism, is one that is not naturally attractive. Because I know that when I grew up I didn’t have the benefit of someone saying, “Do you know what evangelism means? It’s from the Greek to share good news, and everybody loves to share the good news. We all love to do that.” Instead, I had evangelism defined for me by people who call themselves evangelists in a very narrow sense, and they were yelling and aggressive and it was all about conversion, conversion, conversion. Well, that’s a narrow slice of the evangelism pie my brothers and sisters, because when it comes to sharing Good News, we’re talking about sowing seeds in the way that we know, in the way that we have been taught. Like Canon Robertson was talking last night about, this Anglican way, this Episcopalian way. He talked about the love of God. He talked about abiding in a kind of love that has lasted for centuries. We can do that. We can share that which is in us. To not be afraid of the Word or the concept, not think that we have to go and convert. We’re not converting folks. We’re simply sharing the good news that’s within us and we let the Holy Spirit do the work. Let the Holy Spirit do the work.
You know this talk about growth is energizing, and I find it inspiring, but we must always be honest — this is long-term work. This is work of not just our ability to invite people to church but to be able to talk about our church. That’s one thing we need to learn to do, but also to be willing to invite people to God. And to be able to do that, we have to learn our own internal language and how to articulate things that we may never have really stopped to talk to ourselves about. We know that we love God, but sometimes it helps just to stop and to say, “Why?” This doesn’t call into question our faith, but it does challenge us to be able to articulate it.
So, I tell you, the real guide for good gardening, I think, is holy scripture. And I think it is a life and witness of Jesus Christ. When the word of God goes out it does not return empty. And we, as the church, have been given the very Word of God and charged to go and send it out. And let’s not be surprised when it comes back to us and it’s not empty. Let’s not be surprised when things happen. Because in us and through us, this great garden that God first planted and has charged us to grow, can and will grow greatly.
This is a great challenge that we share together my brothers and sisters, and man, am I looking forward to it! Amen.