Bishop's 2021 Convention Address
The Right Reverend Deon K. Johnson
Eleventh Bishop of the Diocese of Missouri
Sermon/Address to the 182nd Convention of the Diocese of Missouri
November 18, 2021
Gospel: Matthew 19:27-29
Peter replied to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.”
In the name of the One, Holy, & Living God. Amen.
Good evening! It is so good to see you here and to be with those joining us online. God is good!
I want to begin by telling you a Church story. There is a wonderful story of two ushers who served the 8 a.m. service in their local parish church. Every Sunday, barring a few, they were present and faithful to their calling as ushers. For over 30 years, these two ushers greeted the faithful as they arrived and wished them well as they departed. They were inseparable on a Sunday morning. They couldn’t stand each other! They had been friends, but at some point along the way they fell out. No one knew why, they just know that it had been over 20 years since the two spoke to each other.
None the less, the time came when one of the ushers died. The community gathered for the funeral only to find out that the remaining usher paid for the reception afterwards. The usher threw an extravagant party after the funeral. (Victory lap perhaps?) The priest of the parish was a little puzzled by all this and decided to ask why the surviving usher would go to the expense for someone he couldn’t stand. So she pulls him aside and asked, “Why go through all this for someone you haven’t spoken to in over 20 years?” The usher replied, “I’ve been in this church for most of my life and I’ve heard more than a few sermons and I’ve read the bible a couple of times. I could not stand him. Did not like him one bit, but I loved him. And love will make you do things that like never could.”
Love will make you do things that like never could.
We find Jesus in our Gospel for tonight responding to Peter. I have to confess that I love Peter. Peter is my absolute favorite follower of Jesus. Peter suffers from a debilitating condition called F.I.M.S. - foot-in-mouth syndrome - and most of the time our rock-headed friend just does not get it. Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus had just encountered a rich young man who thought that he could buy his way into eternal life, that his stuff would save him. Jesus quickly dissuaded him of that notion, reminding him that, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
I am certain that Jesus loved Peter, but I am not sure Jesus always liked him. Peter pulls Jesus aside after hearing all this and asks, “What then will we have? What’s in it for me? What’s the great reward for following you, Jesus? We gave up everything; families, fisher-friends, livelihoods, 401k’s, family vacations. We gave it all up to follow you. And now you’re saying it is impossible to be saved? What gives?”
Peter articulates the fears and the concerns of the disciples to Jesus. They knew what had come before them. They knew the stories of the hardship of the people of Israel. They knew the challenges that faced them in their own day; Roman occupation, brutality, division. They did not have the slightest clue what would come next.
Jesus says to Peter and the disciples, “Do not worry, you have given up a lot, but you will gain even more than you could imagine. The things you had in the past will be nothing like compared to your future.”
I think Jesus speaks not only to Peter and to the first disciples but he speaks to us in our own day. Over the past 20 months we have been echoing Peter’s words in one form or another in asking, “What comes next? Where do we go from here?” We have seen transformation and change happen in the Church at a pace that none of us could have ever imagined.
The questions the Gospel demands of us is can we walk in love, can we live in love, can we be in love with the Good News of following Jesus? Yes, we can. Are we in love with God enough to speak and hear hard truths? Yes we are. Are we in love enough to do the hard work transforming a Church to look and love more like Jesus? Yes, we can! Because deep in our hearts we know that love will always make us do things that like never could.
We as a Church and as the Diocese face many challenges. This time of pandemic has been hard on so many levels. We are tired, we are weary, we are worn. We worry about our buildings and the cost of repairs. We stress about our worship attendance and the financial health of our communities. We live and move and have our being in a polarized and divided nation and the drum beat of disunity seems to grow louder each day. We like Peter have asked, “What’s next?” We have left our buildings and parish halls and places of comfort in order to love our neighbors. We have worn face masks and gotten vaccines and booster shots. We have learned to live stream, and Zoom and new ways of being. Now what?
Yet through all of this, we have borne witness to the wonder working power of God to bring new life in the midst of death. What our faith calls us to is not to avoid the hard places in this life, but to cast our care on a loving God who is in the business of resurrection. We may be tired but we must be courageous in living into the resurrected life that is before us.
We know deep down in our bones that in order for resurrection to happen somethings must die. For new life to happen the old way of being and doing must come to an end.
The problem in the church is that we have believed the lie that our best days are behind us and not ahead. We can too easily fall for the falsehood that we cannot make a difference in the world and that God’s work is done. We sometimes fall prey to the temptation of relegating Jesus to about an hour each week which makes no great demand on our lives. Well I am here to tell you that God is not done with us yet!
Over the last 20 months in pandemic, we have worshiped in parking lots and in parks, under shelters and open skies. We have preached to cars and to canines. We have discovered new ways of being and doing church that we could not have imagined in the past. We have shared the good news of Jesus Christ in places that were known and places that were unknown, online and in person, in all sorts of communities and neighborhoods across the eastern part of Missouri. We have done the all the things, even when we had no clue where we were going, what we were doing or how we would get there. We have rediscovered what it means to be a resilient, responsive, and receptive diocese. God is doing a new thing.
I am here to declare to you that we are more than our average Sunday attendance! We are more than our buildings. We are more than our parochial reports! We are more than our budgets and balance sheets. I am not worried about our attendance, our parochial report or balance sheets. These things will not make us relevant; these things cannot save us, because Jesus has already done that.
Jesus says to Peter, the disciples, and to us that we need to be faithful to our call to follow Jesus!
We are communities of faith that are loving, liberating, life-giving, and Christ longing! We reflect the hope of a future we cannot see! Our communities of faith across this diocese are places where the good news is present, places where hurting people can be made whole, where the lost can be found, where those on the margins can be brought to the center, and those who are looking for a loving God can find hope in each and every single one of us.
That, my sisters and brothers, my siblings in Christ, is where God’s longing for us and our longing for God meet. We must be about the business of being prophets of hope, we must be about the business of being bearers of peace, you and I must be about the business of transforming the world towards justice, and we must be about the business of being humble and walking with God.
Love will always make you do things that like never could. We have seen and shown the love of God in Christ Jesus in countless ways this past year.
We have seen small rural congregations like Trinity-Kirksville and Trinity-DeSoto, become places of hope and holy hospitality, welcoming everyone in need of God's unfenced loved, especially our LGBTQIA+ siblings. We have engaged in the hard work of racial reconciliation, of speaking truth to power, and seeking justice in the re-investment in neglected neighborhoods in the City of St. Louis in congregations like St. Peter’s-Ladue, St. Micheal & St. George-Clayton, and St. Timothy’s-Creve Coeur.
We have fed Christ in the many blessing boxes and good news gardens in places like Trinity-St. Charles, St. Martin’s-Ellisville and St. Paul’s-Ironton. We have cared for the environment and sought to be stewards of creation in everything from solar panels at St. Paul’s-Carondelet, to participating in the U.N. Conference of the Parties (COP26) from Holy Cross, Poplar Bluff. We have discovered new paths, renewed purpose, new ways of reaching out to our neighbors in communities like All Saints & Ascension-St. Louis, and Faith Christian Church of India, in Ballwin. We have planted seeds to birth new communities of faith here at the Cathedral and Holy Communion-University City. We have stepped up in so many ways to be the Church for such a time as this.
By the grace of God, we are becoming more and more the church that has rediscovered what it means to be missional in order to manifest God’s dream in this time and place. We have accomplished all of this and so much more in the midst of a global pandemic, no less.
In the words of the great philosophers and theologians McFadden & Whitehead
“Ain't no stoppin' us now we're on the move.
Ain't no stoppin' us now we've got the groove”
We are moving and grooving with a God who is doing a new thing, who is casting a new vision, who is remaking us as Christ-shaped people who know that the best is before us.
Imagine what we will do when we are not in a pandemic. Imagine what we will accomplish when we partner with God in transforming our communities, our neighborhoods, our towns, and cities. Imagine what we will do when we continue to pray together and protest together and gather together to make the gospel new. Imagine what it would look like for us to throw off the fetters of how we have been and find freedom in Christ. Imagine if we decided to not worry about our attendance, or our buildings, or our budget and we got on with the business of telling the good news of Jesus. Imagine breaking free from how we have always done things and to dare to envision a church that is focused on the life-giving essentials of prayer, community, worship and ministry to and with our neighbors.
Friends in Christ, love will always make us do things that like never could and it is time for this church to rise up in deeper love. To rise up to the challenges for such a time as this. To rise up to the work of justice. To rise up to the work of love. To rise up for speaking for the poor and the outcast and the forgotten, the left behind and the lost. It is time for this church to stop talking about the gospel and be about living the Gospel.
Rise up, O saints of God!
From vain ambitions turn;
Christ rose triumphant that your hearts
with nobler zeal might burn .
Goodness rises up. Hope rises up. Love rises up. Goodness rises up even in the midst of pandemic. Hope rises up even in the face of hate and injustice and despair. Love rises up when everything around us says to stand down. We rise up when we act in love without counting the cost.
Something new is about to be born in this diocese and in this Church. New life is not found in the rearview mirror or in the glories of the past. New life is found when we are bold enough to get out of God’s way and be faithful to our call.
This has been a diocese on the move in many ways. From the time of our founding to this time of pandemic, we have been faithful to our call to be a people about hope, faith, justice, reconciliation, and love. I have fallen in love with you and I could not be more proud to have been called to be your bishop and companion along this journey.
We stand looking towards a future bolstered by the payers and hopes and longings of the generations that have gone before.
What possibilities lie ahead of us? What new bridges do we need to cross? What new thresholds do we need to encounter? We must choose to step in to the light of resurrection. We must choose to step into the dream of God. We must choose this day whom we will follow and whom we will serve.
Speak out, O saints of God!
Despair engulfs earth's frame;
as heirs of God's baptismal grace,
the word of hope proclaim.
As followers of Jesus Christ we can no longer be comfortable with simply being, we must be Christians doing! We can no longer be content with simply showing up at our places of worship on Sunday and making no difference in our communities on Monday. We must be a church that is on the move, that is nimble, that is responsive to the needs and concerns of our neighbors, no matter who those neighbors might be.
We must loudly and boldly become a church that advocates for the poor, that stands with the oppressed, out on the front lines rather than on the sidelines. We must be about mission and not maintenance; we must in a word be a transformed church because our world needs a transformed church for such a time as this.
The road ahead will not be easy, it will not be smooth or without peril, but it leads to the heart of God. Peter knew this. Our spiritual ancestors knew this. The path ahead takes us into an unknown future, but we travel it together. We will not turn back, we will love one another, we will support one another, we will learn from our faults, failings, and failures, but we will keep our eyes on the prize. We will witnesses to the power of God to heal and make whole.
Commit your hearts to seek
the paths which Christ has trod,
and, quickened by the Spirit's power,
rise up, O saints of God!