2023 Convention: Bishop's Address
by the Rt. Rev. Deon K. Johnson,
Bishop of The Diocese of Missouri
presented Nov. 3, 2023
at the 184th Convention of The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but they doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In the name of the One, Holy, & Living God. Amen.
One of the constants in my childhood was my grandmother. Coincidentally her name was Constance Katherine Murrell Johnson. Her singing voice was the soundtrack to my childhood. I often woke up to her singing or humming a spiritual or a hymn. Many mornings I woke up to her singing and many nights her voice was the last thing I heard. She died in 2001 and I imagine her in heaven among the celestial voices,
“When I’m happy hear me sing,
When I’m happy hear me sing,
When I’m happy hear me sing, give me Jesus.
Give me Jesus, give me Jesus.
You may have all this world,
Give me Jesus.”
She sparked my faith. She ignited the ember of God’s love and joy for me, not because of what she said, but because of how she treated others. No one was beyond saving and no one was outside the realm of loving.
She welcomed strangers and friends into our house so much so that everyone called her Mother. My story of faith began and continues because of her story. I got my courage from her, my strength from her, my inspiration from her. She sparked my faith with her stories. She did not just tell me stories of faith, she showed me what it meant to be faith-full! Constance was not a woman of great learning, she only had an 8th grade education, but she was full of wisdom. She knew who she was and more importantly, she knew whose she was. She knew without a doubt that she was a part of God’s unfolding love story for her and for the world. She knew Jesus, not as a distant figure in a far-off place, but as a constant companion and friend along every journey, every highway, and every byway.
- Who sparked your faith?
- Who brought the story of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness alive for you?
- Whose story are you sparking with your life of faith?
We find Jesus in our gospel for today gathered with the often-bumbling and somewhat dimwitted (duh-ciples) disciples. Jesus has been preaching and teaching. He had healed the sick, cured the broken, and centered the marginalized. Jesus had upset the status quo, cleansed the temple, and found himself hanging on a Roman cross. Today he stands with the disciples on the other side of the resurrection, sending them out into the world with his final blessing.
On the Mount of the Ascension Jesus sends his disciples out into the world, not with a snazzy program, a beautiful building, or a well-balanced budget. Jesus didn’t send them out with a great Sunday School program, a well-organized young adult engagement series, or even a steering committee (thank God Jesus didn’t give us a committee). Jesus sent them out with something far less tangible, but infinitely more beautiful and compelling. Jesus sent his disciples out into the world with clothes on their backs, a staff in their hands, shoes on their feet, and a story in their hearts. Jesus sent them out as sheep among wolves with a story, a powerful story of God’s love and care for All, ALL God’s people. Jesus said to them and to us, “Go! Go therefore and make disciples of all nations!” Notice Jesus did not say, “Wait for them to come to you!” “Stay where you are and make Episcopalians!” Jesus sends them and sends us with the transformational love story of God to make disciples, to look like Jesus, to act like Jesus, and if we are careful, to smell like Jesus. Knowing the promise and the blessed assurance that we remember, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
- What more do we need to proclaim the Good News of Jesus?
- What more do we need to transform our communities, neighborhoods, and cities?
- What more do we need to be outposts of hope and waystations of love?
Like the disciples, we are sent with nothing but the story of God’s transformative love made real and tangible in Jesus the Anointed One. Now, more than ever we need to be bearers, keepers, and sharers of the story.
I am convinced that for the times in which we live, and move and have our being, the church is at its best as a Church in the streets, with the incense of justice billowing about us. The church at its best is the church in the gutter when we reek of hope as we lift up those who have been abandoned and forgotten. The church at its best is the church in the barrio and the ghetto, in the hamlet and the village, where Jesus’ siblings struggle and we are called to wash their feet. The church at its best is the church that prays as St. Augustine posited, “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”
We must learn a new language of prayer and a new way of being. We must learn to pray with our feet and go where God already lives among the places and people who are hurting and lost. We must pray with our hands and reach out in compassion to those in greatest need, healing and making whole that which is broken. We must pray with her eyes to see the division and disunity present in our communities and become agents of healing and wholeness. We must pray with our ears and listen for the cries of injustice, oppression, and segregation so that we may step out in faith and be Christ on the margins. We must pray with our hearts and sit in the hard uncomfortable place of forgiveness, asking that our past hurts may be forgiven as we move forward. We must pray with our very being, knowing that the only gospel some people will meet, the only Christ people encounter today is you. We must pray with our very selves and be present in the world in desperate need.
We as a diocese face many challenges. We have seen, like much of the Church, a decline in attendance and engagement. Many of our communities face financial deficits and fear for our futures. We face head-on the mistrust and at times disdain for organized religion that has come to characterize modern American life. We have too often taken on the fear and despair that has infected our society as our own. We face many challenges. Nevertheless, we will not be defined by the number of butts in pews. We will not be limited to our bottom lines. The biggest challenge facing the church is not the decline of our numbers, our lack of funds, or even fear of the institution. Our biggest challenge is our insistence on clinging to the stories that defined us in the glorious 1950s and our unwillingness to adapt our stories for today. We must be willing to hold tightly to the Jesus of the Gospels who transformed lives and shared love and let go of the stories that no longer give life because we are closer to 2050 than we are to 1950! We must let go of the false narrative that our best days as communities of faith are behind us because God is always, always, in all ways in the business of resurrection.
You are a witness to the resurrection! You have known the pain, and hurt, and loss of Good Friday! You have walked the hard road of Holy Saturday! You have come with despair to the garden like Mary Magdalene looking for death and finding life. Your story, your life, is the story of bearing witness to the spectacularly unexpected grace of resurrection! How dare we keep silent! How do we who have borne witness to the transformational power of God working in, on, and through us in so many ways keep silent? We have a story to tell, perhaps we should tell our story and let God worry about the rest.
In 1868 Bishop Charles Robertson and his wife Rebecca arrived in St. Louis to serve as the second Bishop of Missouri. Bishop Robertson was at the ripe old age of 33 when he was elected and upon arrival in Missouri found, “21 parishes and 6 missions stations supplied with 28 clergy, with some 2500 communicants” across the entire state. In his memoir, he wrote, “The people were discouraged, and the parishes burdened with debt.”
Later on in 1873, Rebecca Robertson, upon finding out that the Cathedral was on the verge of closing, and by extension the Diocese, made a visit to every member of the vestry and any clergy that would listen to her, to remind them of their Christian call to follow Jesus and to support the work of spreading the gospel. Almost singlehandedly she saved the Cathedral and reset the life of the Diocese. Her writing desk lives in my office as a reminder of the spiritual DNA that animates us today.
Like our spiritual ancestors, we are writing a new story out of the ashes and loss of the old. We cannot be agents of gospel change if we are not willing to change for the gospel.
We lose sight of the gospel when we become more concerned about the walls that we have built than going out the doors from which we are sent. We lose sight of the Gospel when we are so concerned about being holy and not concerned with those who need to be housed.
When we are more concerned about our image than seeking the image of Christ in the poor and the rejected, we have lost sight of the gospel. When we are more concerned about balancing our budgets and our bottom line than we are about those who were born into poverty, we have lost sight of the gospel.
Perhaps it is time to move from comfort to conviction. We cannot be agents of gospel change if we are not willing to change for the gospel.
Our faith at its core is not about affirming us as we are, but transforming our lives as we could be in the love of Jesus. That is what Jesus offered to the disciples on the Mount of the Ascension. That is what Jesus offers to us here and now.
Building on the stories of faithful followers of Jesus who called Missouri their home, we are shaping a new story for our Diocese that is centered on love, compassion, and justice. These stories shape our identities. They provide a mirror through which we see our own experiences reflected, helping us make sense of our lives. Whether they are passed down through generations, etched on the pages of books, or depicted on screens, stories are a testament to our innate need for narrative.
We are bringing to life the desires and dreams of God’s people with God’s vision for our communities and neighborhoods as we craft and create a new story. We are defining and refining the story of God’s love in countless ways across this diocese! We are living and sharing the stories of Christ’s compassion, hope, and joy in the many lives our communities of faith touch in immeasurable ways. I love to tell the story of this diocese!
I love to tell others about the amazing things and the life-giving ministries present here in our corner of the kin-dom. Through community outreach, new church planting, and reorientation towards deepening spirituality, we are a church writing a new chapter in the way of Jesus.
From the giving gardens in our communities including, St. Paul’s in Sikeston, St. Mark’s in St. Louis, Trinity in St. Charles, St. Martin’s in Ellisville, Hope in Town & Country, and St. Barnabas in Florissant we are caring for God’s creation and feeding bodies and souls. Through community meal programs at St. John’s in Tower Groves, Christ Church in Rolla, and St. Francis, in Eureka we are deepening the bonds of community and feeding Christ in the guise of strangers and friends.
We donned orange across the diocese to amplify and lift up the stories of those who lost their lives to gun violence. We remember those killed in the City of St. Louis each week in the votive lights on the high altar of the Cathedral.
In mid-summer, eleven congregations participating in Requiem or Renaissance gathered in retreat to bear witness to the transformative power of collaboration and holy hospitality. Each faith community reminds us that God’s work is in our hands and that even though we may not see the clear path ahead, we walk by faith and not by sight into the Christ-centered future.
We cannot be agents of gospel change if we are not willing to change for the gospel. Change is happening!
We cannot rest on what we have done and we dare not stay how we have always been. This moment calls for us, like the disciples, to go out into the world and worry less about growing our church and worry more about showing Jesus!
We must become a nimble church! A nimble church that walks out to meet people in the midst of their story. A nimble church is a church willing to go out into the streets and engage with a hurting world. A nimble church is one that is focused on Jesus, willing to take risks, fails spectacularly, and loves relentlessly. We must put away all that weighs us down and holds us back as we go to make disciples. We cannot be agents of gospel change if we are not willing to change for the gospel.
Earlier this year, I visited the Rev. Richard Tudor as he prepared for his final journey. We talked about many things; I gave him the last rites and a final blessing. He stopped me and told me about his first call after ordination. In the pulpit of the church in a spot only the preacher could see was engraved the words from John’s gospel, “Sir, we would see Jesus!” Rich said to me, “I hope that in my life and my ministry, I showed Jesus.” I assured him that he did. Rich died a few days later.
“Sir we would see Jesus!” That is my prayer, my dream, my hope for us, for such a time as this that we can boldly and proudly say, that in us, through us, by us, we have shown the world Jesus. That with Constance and all those who have sparked our faith we can join and sing:
As we’re going hear us sing,
As we’re going hear us sing,
As we’re going hear us sing,
Give me Jesus.
Give me Jesus, give me Jesus,
You may have all this world
Give me Jesus.
Inch by inch, story by story, community by community, we move forward toward a new future, a new chapter in the story of God, where love is paramount and justice stands firm, where hope is our currency and joy is our language. We move forward toward a Christ-centered story where the pandemic of fear is vanquished and the tightrope of hope is our lifeline.
Now is the time. This is the moment. Amen!
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Amen.
 African American Spiritual. ‘Give Me Jesus’ was the first spiritual arranged by African American arranger Edward H. Boatner (1898–1981)
 Missouri’s Episcopal Church 1819-1959, by Charles Rehkopf Page 216