Bishop's address to the diocese: 176th Convention of the Diocese of Missouri
Anyone who has ever had a high fever has probably endured some weird dreams. And I mean weird. Malaria, with its chronic and very high fevers, is notable for producing lucid and never-ending dreams. Malarial dreams are often shape-shifting and exhausting. Some people barely have to close their eyes to enter this undulating, fugue-like dream state. One of the most effective antimalarial drugs seems to work its way by giving you the dreams but not the disease. I do not take that drug, thank you very much. But as you might guess, some people and some cultures value lucid malarial dreams, fever dreams, as mystical resources or as spiritual ordeals. There is a fearsome quality to draw the dreamer to God, and perhaps even tell something about God. Even so, it is the rare person who would go outlookingfor the lucid dreams of malaria or any other disease.
It has been a year for us, one almost like a fever dream, a difficult but God-haunted year. Since we last met, St. Louis City and Country has faced the crisis following the decision of no-indictment in the death of Michael Brown.
The crisis is ongoing. There was a staff crisis in my office. Our Diocese and our Church have seen separate crises in alcohol addiction. The news from our partner diocese in South Sudan, the Diocese of Lui, is heartbreaking.
Civil war, not so long ago was a few hundred miles distant, has come to Lui.
The war has destroyed whole towns and villages, displaced people whom we know, some into the bush and others into refugee camps. Lui is in humanitarian crisis.Deacon Deb Goldfeder, Chair of the Companion Diocese Committee, will bring us a more detailed report on the situation in Lui later on.
Parishes and their clergy are facing the hard realities of an aging Church in a post-Christian society. It is as if these demographic and cultural issues are coming to a head, all at once. It costs more to do what we need to do as Church, but there are fewer people to do it. And dollars are becoming more precious. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, with something much larger underneath. My thirty-five-year-old seminary education did not prepare me for this landscape. Whatever I know about it now, I have had to learn on the fly.
Suddenly, it seems, more than a few parishes find themselves on the bubble.
Then to highlight and personalize the year that has been, I discovered that I had cancer, for which I had successful surgery in August. Let me note, as I shift to good news imbedded in the year past, that the people and clergy of this Diocese have been unstinting in your care for me. You asked about me, you wrote me notes and sent me emails, you prayed for me, and you told me so. The gift of Jesus Christ and the work of Christ’s Body the Church have mattered deeply to me, and I want you to hear it. Know my deep gratitude. It stuns me still to realize that not so long ago I heard the words: You had cancer. And surprises me still to speak the words: I am cancer-free. It is all but certain that I will die from something else than this disease. It has become cause for joy.
Our Church has reason for joy, also. At the General Convention, we did a good thing in electing Michael Curry to be our Presiding Bishop for the next nine years.The man loves Jesus, and he is happy about that basic truth, and he will tell us about what loving Jesus can mean. He is the right bishop at the right time for our Church.
The General Convention also made pastoral provision for extending marriage to all couples—and did so with almost no rancor. Those who disagreed with this decision mostly did so without being disagreeable. It is my intention to extend this provision to the parishes and people of this Diocese, without reserve.
In Missouri we have been blessed to find extraordinarily gifted clergy to serve great congregations in our Diocese and to take other positions of leadership.
I am convinced that we have the right ordained leadership to take the Church through the hard demographic and cultural challenges that I mentioned earlier.
Many of them, in fact, are trained to lead precisely in the landscape where we live. Many of them are young.
Deaconess Anne House continues to thrive, and it gives our Diocese an important base in St. Louis City. Through its residents and mission, the House expands our imagination about mission.
One more good thing is the ordination of another deacon today, in the person of Beth Simpson. The health of our congregations and other communities depends on our moving beyond the walls. Internal obsession is death; pathways leading beyond the walls give us life. If you have not heard me say this already, then you have not been listening. The work of a deacon is to help us on these paths, in the way of life.
One more thing that is cause for joy: The hard times during the past year which might have driven the clergy apart have done just the opposite. I think that the clergy have learned a greater sense of common purpose, of belonging to Christ Jesus and to one another, than at any time in my nearly fourteen years as your bishop.
Hard times for the people of God, into which moments of unexpected grace occasionally intrude: That’s a basic trajectory of scripture’s narrative.
The Bible is hardly an anthology of sweet sayings to print on greeting cards. There are Psalms that your mother would not like to hear you say out loud.
There is much joy in the Bible. Oh yes! But that joy comes in the living of our days and their craziness, and through hope, and laughter, and sorrow, and tears, and through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Which becomes the template for our own living. We die, we die, we die. And then God raises from the dead. Here’s a basic pattern in the Bible: hard times without end and God’s grace. The value of praying the Psalms comes with their relentless portrayal of life as it is. There is hatred, complaint, bitterness, lives and whole nations wrecked by human sin, despair. God does not seek us in spite of these realities; God pursues us in life as it is. As a lover scorned, God pursues us. And surprises us.
Reconciliation is a primary consequence of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. The consequence has yet run to a completion. But God has set loose the forces of it. Reconciliation is also a primary focus of this Diocesan Convention, and I want to sketch out what I think it means for us to be reconciled, so in turn we might become reconcilers. This broken world cries out for reconciliation of all sorts. Racial reconciliation lies right in front of us. Class reconciliation. Reconciliation among the nations. Among the Churches. Within this Church. Among the religions of the world. Within relationships. With our pasts. With God, the relationship with whom is a primary locus of human brokenness.
God was in Christ reconciling the world to God. Glorious words that Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5. We entreat you on behalf of Christ, he goes on to say: Be reconciled to God.
I started with three scriptural narratives to hold before you to show both the complexities and the surprises in reconciliation. I could have chosen dozens. Be of good cheer. I have whittled the list down to one. It’s the story of a deliciously dysfunctional family, Isaac and Rebecca, and their twin sons Jacob and Esau. By the way, anytime that you encounter the word “family,” you can automatically insert the word “dysfunctional” in front of it. One of the glories of the Bible is that it does not hide such things as dysfunction. It marches messed-up families out onto the front porch for everyone to see and to admire.
I’ll not go into the details contributing to the bitterness between these twin brothers. It is a long story, worth pondering over in all the details. Here’s the summary: Jacob cheats. Esau rages. It is the case from them moment of their birth. It happens again and again. Esau wants to kill him. Jacob has to run. That’s the story in a nutshell.
Fast-forward many years, when both brothers have amassed wealth and huge clans. Both brothers are desert wanderers. There comes the day when the rivers and the roads in what is now Jordan make it certain that the paths of the brothers cross. Jacob freaks out. He knows his brother’s rage and fears it. So he carefully divides his clan and his wealth, so at least some will survive.
The night before he will meet brother Esau, he spends the night alone at the ford of the River Jabbok. Though as it turns out, he does not spend it alone, but a God-creature comes and wrestles all night long. Or is it fact God who comes? The story is ambiguous. In the course of the struggle, the wrestler gives Jacob a new name: Israel. Jacob asks the wrestler forhisname. No response. But the wrestler oddly responds by blessing Jacob. The wrestling pulls the thigh bone from Jacob’s hip-joint, and he walks with a limp the rest of his days. A new name, a blessing, and a limp.
Now Jacob is ready to meet brother Esau, at the dawn of the new day. So he has wealth and clan divided up, and then he limps out to meet whatever Esau has in store for him. Jacob goes first. Undefended. Jacob prostrates himself seven times. Esau runs—that’s the word, runs—to meet his brother. They collapse onto each other in an embrace, reconciled.
Some observations from the narrative:
There is an obvious and painful spiritual component upfront. Without the wrestling and wounding of Jacob, he may have never been prepared to greet his brother. I underline that the spiritual encounter leaves Jacob wounded, not just for the next day but for the rest of his life. Jacob then approaches his brother undefended. He has the force of the clan available to him. But he goes first, no army for protection. Esau is the stronger and brawnier brother, physically. Butheis the one dispossessed. He has lost his birthright and his father’s blessing. Because of Jacob’s cheating. But Esau, the one dispossessed, makes the final and crucial move. He is the one who runs to his brother. The dispossessed, the marginalized, the cheated are not without resources. The misplaced fantasy is often that reconciliation comes by strength of force. Reconcile—or else. This scripture suggests other resources.
The coda to this story is also important. After these two brothers embrace and reconcile, there is no record of their having ever met again. Sometimes reconciliation looks like that.
It may be that going forward undefended can help us live into God’s reconciling work. It may be that dispossession offers leverage that is not always apparent.
During this convention three of us will put before you personal narratives, to spark the imagination about how we might reconcile and be reconciled—and do it without the brokering of force. You will hear from Shariya Molegoda, Harry Leip, and me. You will have a chance after each of these presentations to engage in conversation around your table.
In reconciliation, we cannot lose sight of God’s hand in it. We will never make perfect all the things wrong in this world. God will. That truth, however, does not excuse us from the work. I think that Christians’ favorite saying from the Mishnah, the codification of the oral Law at the heart of the Talmud, is from the final tractate, Pirkei Avoth. The Sayings of the Fathers. And with good reason it is a favorite: It is not required that you succeed, but it is not allowed for you to give up. We are not allowed to give up. Anne Tyler writes about this in her novel, Saint Maybe, when she tells about a character learning that that he must make good for all the errors of his ways, intentional or otherwise, and to work toward full restitution, insofar as is possible.And trust that Jesus will do the rest. That is actually good, classical, Christian moral theology.
We must address the wrongs we have done, or those wrongs done on our behalf, insofar as possible. And we cannot allow the inability to close the gap completely to become an excuse for doing nothing. Nor can we escape into the sweet pietism that would say, Jesus will take care of all these problems.
So be reconciled. Do the spiritual wrestling required. Know when to show up defenseless. Learn how to leverage dispossession into an embrace. Tell the truth. Look to God. Do not be afraid. The Lord is near.