Bishop Singh's Convention 84 Address: Seeing the Face of God in Each Other
I invite you to a moment of silence. Let us come together in heart, mind and spirit, and especially draw our attention to the memory of all veterans among us and those who defend freedom and are in harm’s way. Will those of you who are veterans please stand so we might give thanks to God for your ministry. Thank you.
I would like to take a few minutes to give some thanks and congratulations! We are at Hobart & William Smith Colleges and we have the privilege of having the Rev. Lesley Adams, who retired after twenty years serving as a chaplain at Hobart & William Smith Colleges. Congratulations, Lesley.
Carmen Seufert has also elected to retire this year, and we pray God’s blessing upon her. She’s not present with us, as she’s taking care of Woody, who is recovering.
We also wish Godspeed to Craig Uffman, who resigned as rector of St. Thomas’ in Rochester.
We welcome new leaders to new calls: Dan Burner, Billy Daniel, Jay Burkhart, Christa Levesque, Virginia Tyler, and Andrew Van Buren, Cameron Miller. Thank you, welcome.
I would like to also give a shout out to a few groups and individuals for extraordinary work this year: The Health Insurance Task Force, the Staff Assessment Task Force, Diocesan Council, Standing Committee and Bishop Joe Burnett (who is not with us but was a facilitator), our joyful Secretary Susan Woodhouse, Marlene Allen and Kit Tobin, the directors for the Task Force for Seeing the Face of God (and all the display that is there is the work of this extremely competent committee), and I would personally like to ask you to show some love to our Chancellor Phil Fileri for his exemplary support, and wisdom in safeguarding our Church and guiding your Bishop through what has been a difficult year.
My amazing staff:
Carolyn McConnell, Diocesan Hospitality and Leadership Support
Julie Cicora: Canon for Congregational and Missional Development
Todd Rubiano: Chief Financial Officer/Missioner and more
Kristy Esty: Chief Operations and Benefits Manager
Matt Townsend: Communications and IT Missioner
Cathy Shoemaker: Missioner for Parish Audits and Finance support
Kristin Woodward: Diocesan Accountant
Winifred Collin: part-time Coordinator of Anglican Studies and Leadership Development
Our Deans: Rick Hamlin, Phil Kasey, David Hefling, Deb Duguid-May, Cindy Rasmussen.
And finally, on a personal note, my beloved Roja: for her fierece and incredible love for God, for Church and even me.
We gather today for our 84th Diocesan Convention 230 years after the first convention of the Episcopal Church convened on September 27, when our spiritual forebears, all men at that time, met in Philadelphia in 1785. Interestingly, the Church of South India, where I was ordained a priest in the Anglican Communion, was also born on September 27, only in 1947. These gatherings had one act of prayer in common. They were striving to be united, despite the cultural history of divisions that were caused by potential agents of fragmentation. The Church of South India met under the banner of the great high priestly prayer of Jesus, which we heard at the Eucharist, “…that they all may be one.” John 17.
Gathering here at Hobart & William Smith Colleges is especially significant because it was Bishop Hobart, the third Bishop of the then state-wide Diocese of New York, who rode on horseback to the frontiers as a missionary bishop and came to Geneva. His leadership in promoting education as a significant priority gives us a window into his generative vision for wholesome formation of citizens who live lives of consequence. When he first visited Geneva in 1818, we are told Geneva Academy was practically done. Four years later, in 1822, with grants from Trinity Episcopal in New York City, Geneva College was resurrected, and thirty years later renamed Hobart College in honor of its founder.
In her last sermon at this General Convention, Bishop Katharine, who received the Elizabeth Blackwell award from HWS, preached on Jesus raising the little girl presumed to be dead saying Talitha Cum. “Get up, girl,” she said, “You are not dead yet.” Women are an intrinsic part of leadership in our Church and we are grateful for Bishop Katharine’s cool-headed and exceptional leadership through a trying time in our journey together as a church. She alluded in her sermon that Jesus might say these essential words to the Church she has nurtured from the helm, “Get up, Church, you are not dead yet!”
Resurrection is a sign of God’s intervention in overcoming the world’s stagnations, paralyses and nightmares. Thank God for leaders before us who were visionaries and activists who worked to overcome status quo. If it were not for them, just imagine, women would not be able to vote, as a person of color I would not be your bishop, we would still have segregation and slavery, same sex marriage would not be legal - you see where I’m going with this? Resurrection is the ultimate form of change. We are a people of resurrection, and we are gathered here in place of rebirth, resurrection, new life!
The ancient Greeks referred to time as chronos, which is a quantitative or chronological measure of time. They also referred to time as Kairos, which is another way of saying supreme or opportune season, or as we say it, God’s time. I believe we are in a Kairos season in the Episcopal Church when we are daring to engage two foci that don’t naturally seem to fit: reconciliation and evangelism. It takes crazy people to think this up! I think, as Bishop Curry would say, we are crazy Christians.
Both these have hitherto been controversial, taboo or both. Right now, we are prioritizing our mission around reconciliation and evangelism. Both these are Gospel mandates that have deep theological and missiological underpinnings. Look at the call response in the baptismal covenant. Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being? Systemic and personal reconciliation! Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as yourself? Reconciliation for the sake of Christ! I will, we say, with God’s help. Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Evangelism, or sharing the Good News! I will, with God’s help.
I love our Presiding Bishop Michael. What’s not to love about this Jesus-loving Curry! (I had to get that in.) I love him for his clear focus on the Jesus movement, a socio-political movement which has sustained peoples all over the world through trying times when things were unsure and unclear. In the words of James Weldon Johnson, “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died; yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet come to the place for which our parents sighed? Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmony of liberty; let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”
If we are in the business of reconciliation we have to be in the practice of kenosis. This has to do with self-emptying, the kind that Jesus modeled. As followers of Jesus, we have a choice, and all choice is political and powerful! Jesus invites us to self-emptying and the larger culture tempts us to be self-obsessed. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross, Paul reminds us in Philippians.
The alternative is narcissism. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was known for his beauty. He was the son of the river god Cephissus and nymph Liriope. Narcissus was proud. He was full of himself. He fell in love with his own reflection in the water and drowned because he was consumed by himself.
When we are not so consumed with ourselves we are even more open to change. For transformative change to occur in our reality, we had to change. Change is hard. Yet, we have embraced change with the long view of our relevance and sustainability in Christ. Our Diocese has changed a few practices that worked well in the past. We had to move beyond business as usual. We had to thoughtfully stop doing certain things and start doing other things. After thoughtful processes of discernment we decided to stop certain practices that were sound at the time of their inception, but were not sustainable in the long run. Some practices were: giving loans to congregations to stay afloat, closed our retail operations of the Good Book Store, and scaling down draw from our endowment. All difficult choices, but serious choices. We also started engaging congregational development partnerships that included strategic visioning with measurable goals for growth with annual monitoring and evaluation. We did a similar thing with mission development partnerships.
What strikes me most importantly is the fact that we stand on the shoulders of those who have served before us. We are only building on their faithfulness to share the good news of Jesus in relevant ways. In our changing world and in some cases changing neighborhoods, this work is most clearly experienced in the work of discernment about current identity as a local congregation by faithful lay people and clergy. We are noticing that such ongoing discernment leads to greater clarity of purpose for the local congregation, which has also led to deepening spiritual practices that are about following Jesus in joyful, missional, relevant and creative ways. Since every context is unique the only way to get clear about identity and purpose is through local discernment. And only local people can do local discernment.
Our Diocesan mission is to develop and grow in missional, spiritual and numerical ways - the last one being a lagging indicator. Last year 41% of our congregations grew numerically in our Diocese. Four of our over 20 community gardens donated upwards of 4000 lbs of produce to Foodlink; that’s two tons of vegetables, from the city! One of our parishes is the highest producing of the 22 partners with Foodlink. Deacon Georgia Carney with her team has received one of only five of the Episcopal Church’s Domestic Poverty Ministry Grants out of 129 applications. At SewGreen, which will inaugurate at the end of the month, anyone in the greater Rochester community can learn the basics of sewing, and even use one of the shop’s sewing machines to make all kinds of wonderful things. As Bishop Macholz said earlier on, we are looking to make the South Wedge Mission a congregational church plant that is shared by both Lutheran and Episcopal Churches.
As far as communication goes, we are making some progress. We now have 20 new parish websites. We have had 76% growth of E-News in readership in last 3 years, 223% growth in Facebook in last 3 years, our most popular post during General Convention had around 25,000 views, a reflection on Genesee Street shooting had 3,000 views, there have been more than 80 videos/podcasts in the past three years, with 30 just this year. Our readership is increasing and we’re beginning to mail hard copies where there is a request, and we're reaching more people - but we also know that if you're left out of the loop on an important communication it can be painful. Thus, we are working to figure out how to better target our messaging in this age of constant information flow - and we appreciate your feedback and input, when things are working well and when things need adjustment.
There are bells pealing out of Ascension in the city. We are getting involved in climate change issues - in fact I invite you to join me and Ruth Ferguson on the first Sunday of Advent at Two Saints at 1 o’clock for a half-hour march that will begin at Two Saints on that Sunday. My friends, there are so many signs of resurrection all around us. I have just mentioned a few. God is at work, the Jesus Movement is really on in our midst.
As Bishop Curry refers to it, the Jesus Movement invites us to take a path of being reconciled with God and because of that with one another. If God can accept a sinner like me, can we not accept each other as sinners with a capacity to change? Some of you know that over the last year, we have been in an intentional reconciliation process. Some came and talked with me, with or without the visiting Bishop Joe Burnett, to help us be reconciled as Christ’s siblings.
With the help of the Standing Committee I sat with and listened to the disappointment and pain that some have felt over tough personnel and other decisions we have had to make under my leadership. For any pain that have been caused due to our decisions, I am sorry. I am your bishop and while I am not perfect, I love each of you as a follower of Christ and seek nothing but the best for you and our diocese. I ask you in the name of our brother Christ, if you are upset or angry with me or anyone else, let us be reconciled. I have taken a few steps toward you and will continue to do so. This is the Christian thing to do, and hey, I am easy.
The Standing Committee and I are working on ways to clarify expectations and we will communicate this to you when we’re ready. I ask that the advocates, a non-canonical body that is spreading some mistrust and division and not promoting the mission of God to stop. Help us unite and build the beloved community we are striving to be.
In my physics class in school I remember studying about two kinds of forces: centripetal and centrifugal. They are opposite to each other. Centripetal force moves inward from the center and centrifugal force moves outward from the center. These physical forces share some commonality with spiritual movement as well. There’s a time to gather and look inward and then there is a time to scatter and look outward. This last year, I have invested along with many others, a lot of our time looking inward. It is time for me and us to focus outward. We have work to do beyond our walls.
I invite us to continue raising our gaze to the horizon and increase our scope. We have important work to do in seeing the face of God in each other. Understanding and reconciliation in the area of racism will be crucial if we are to welcome the stranger among us with the Good News of God in Christ! We have persons of color, those who are different because of their abilities, socioeconomic and linguistic backgrounds around us, many of whom have internalized a sense of an identity that they are without value. I heard during our orientation at a school that in the Rochester School District alone over 80 languages spoken. Other worlds are around us, in our neighborhoods. What is stopping us from becoming the Church of Jesus Christ that chooses the fire of Pentecost and move away from the inwardly focused frozen chosen? It is a choice and all choice is political.
Reconciliation is also about reconnecting our broken, isolated or estranged neighborhoods. What is stopping us from finding our way out there to be reconciled with our broken, estranged and often isolated neighbors? Many of them have forgotten that they are children of God and brother, sister, father, mother, grandpa, grandma, uncle, aunt, to you and to me. We will not know unless we go. So go, go to your neighborhood. Go to your local public school. Go to your community garden. Go to your homebound person. Go to your local prison. Go to your legislator. Go to a policy maker. Go and proclaim the Good News of God in Christ and bear witness to what God is up to in your neighborhood. What does it mean to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ?
Let me try and break this down. This is an important distinction that God is showing us in this post-Christendom and post-colonial Kairos season. It is contained in that responsive moment when you like many others said YES to God! Agency; when you move from being spectator to participant. When you hear yourself say, “Here am I Lord, send me!” And what is agency in a world that is post-Christendom and post-colonial? It is not about taking a dominant and triumphalist Christ to a world that does not know him. That has been tried, and it is not Good News. It is an aberration of the Gospel whernever it was practiced. In slave camps where people were forced to convert to Christianity and taught to submit to the Doctrine of Discovery, that is a sin - not the Gospel. And that is not evangelism. That was not about proclaiming, it was about coercion in the name of Christ. And that is not Good News.
Agency in reconciling-evangelism, I believe, is following the vulnerable Jesus, the servant who chose to be in solidarity with the poor and the broken (Matthew 25). Evangelism is about seeing the face of God in each other. Evangelism is about joining Jesus in the streets where he is already leading the way. Evangelism is listening deeply to the “other” and sharing our own story of hope to help somebody who needs a word or action of hope. Evangelism is reminding someone else the obvious: that they are God’s very beloved children, since Christ is already with them. Innovative evangelism is about sharing the good news of the Gospel from a place of engaged curiosity and not from a place of domination. It is a place of kenosis that acts believing that God is already at work in every person and the world and seeks to join in that work of discovering the self fully or and the self more fully in the presence of the “other.” That is a holy exchange. I am not asking you to proselytize; I am not asking you to do anything like that. I am. however, asking you in the name of Christ to proclaim the Good News of hope and transformation and leave the rest to God.
Now, who is doing this? I think you are! Each of you is in some stage of doing this. As baptized followers of Jesus, some of you are incubators where with God’s grace you are doing the interior work of marination (which is a good cooking philosophy) and transformation. Some are cultivators who are curating and experimenting with meaningful ways to grow into this new reality of leaving your comfort zones and cultivating new behaviors that nurture curiosity and sustainability of faith that is shared. Some are accelerators who are kinetic. You are living into your potential. You are rapidly growing in your capacity to invite and make room for others to grow with you in their own authentic spiritual ways. We are the Episcopal Church striving to follow Jesus. We are an inclusive Episcopal Church striving to follow Jesus. We may be the best kept secret, but we are striving to follow Jesus. Let us be careful that in all our clarity about inclusion of all that we don’t exclude Jesus, whose face we see in young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.
Over the last fifteen years, several of us paid attention to the Millennium Development Goals. While much progress has been made globally with the MDGs - as we affectionately call them - on the goal to provide education alone, 58 million children are out of school worldwide. For the next fifteen years we have an opportunity to invest and pay attention to the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. 193 countries have signed on to the 17 global goals - please Google them, they are awesome. Having traveled since 2000 to bring attention to address the eight Millennium Development Goals, we now have the opportunity to maintain momentum and increase focus on the Sustainable Development Goals - or the SDGs are they are affectionately called. The universality of these goals is powerful. They carry unifying themes that resonate with all 193 countries. Here’s another miracle. Climate change and poverty agendas are not seen by their curating NGOs as binary issues anymore. Now that’s a miracle, when people don’t get at each other on their issues. There are many lessons learned from our investment in the MDGs that will help us do even better with the SDGs. One such is that we don’t pitch one issue in opposition to another. All 17 matter! Some will matter to you and some others with matter to others. That just means we need all hands on deck; a new democratized scale of human resource where everyone’s gift matters. Your gift matters and in fact is indispensable. It is like the ministry of all the baptized. All are welcome to belong and all are welcome to mission! Welcome to the post-colonial, post-Christendom Jesus Movement!
Finally, let me bring this to a close by reminding us that ultimately we are a Jesus Movement with a deep spiritual yearning to see the face of Jesus in the face of the “other.” When I was a student in college - much like this, only it was in Madras, Madras Christian College in Tambaram - one of my friends invited me to join him in visiting a leprosy colony. And I went, and I helped bind some wounds and serve some medicine and have some conversation with those friends. And I could have left after that, after that encounter, and felt good about that encounter. Except that my friend who took me, on our journey back talked about what this means to him. And he opened a window that day to me, about seeing the face of God in the leprosy patient that I had met. I continue on that journey spiritually because that friend opened a door that helped me understand that I wasn’t just doing something good. I was on a journey with Jesus, and that continues to be a lifelong journey. You and I are called to do just that - share authentically your story, and open a window and introduce this Jesus who has meant so much to you to another. The ordinal to the priesthood calls priests to love and serve the people among whom they work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. We are exemplifying what really is a call for the priesthood of all believers, all of us, to strive to do. This is our common journey. The Jesus Movement, post-colonial, post Christendom. Are you with me?
Let’s do it.
Photo by David Burnet.