Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
La gracia y paz de Dios nuestro Padre y Señor Jesucristo a todos ustedes.
I begin today with words from “A Psalm of New Wine Skins” found in Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim:
Come and awaken me, Spirit of the new.
Come and refresh me, Creator of the green life.
Come and inspire me, Risen Son.
you who make all things new:
I am too young to be dead,
to be stagnant in spirit.
High are the walls that guard the old,
the tried and secure ways of yesterday
that protect me from the dreaded plague,
the feared heresy of change.
For all change is a danger to the trusted order,
the threadbare traditions that are maintained
by the narrow ruts of rituals.
Yet how can an everlastingly new covenant
retain its freshness and vitality
without injections of the new,
the daring, and the untried.
Come, O you who are ever-new,
wrap my heart in new skin
ever flexible to be reformed by your Spirit.
Set my feet to fresh paths this day:
inspire me to speak original and life giving words
and to creatively give shape to the new.
Come and teach me how to dance with delight
whenever you send a new melody my way.
We gather today as a diocese in Convention to celebrate our common life in faith, to ordain new deacons, to pass a budget, and perhaps make a few decisions. We hope that through what we say and do here that we will build up the body and make the church more focused and directed.
As we go about our task, we are anxious and urgent in this season because we sense as though we are on decidedly unstable ground. We have felt for some time that the church is losing its connection with wider society. We see our numbers fall and the average age rise. We fret and worry.
And so we talk about change. We need to change. For the past year, the question of change has preoccupied your diocesan executive council just as it has been the topic of change in many of our congregations as well as church wide circles. We now have a future church task force. They have specifically called the churches of area four to vision together a different future. At executive council, at meetings of the future church task force, in area four meetings, the challenge is not to diagnose a church in decline. The challenge is to perceive the new thing—to set a course and move.
The psalm with which I began this address frames the question, “how can an everlastingly new covenant retain its freshness and vitality without injections of the new, the daring, and the untried?” That is the question. And the theological assumption of our very existence as human beings and as a body of faith is that God has called us into being. Our story is of a God that relentlessly pursues us in love. God does not give up on God’s creation. That is the immutable. What is ever-changing is the dance with God as we strive for relationship with God and each other. And that is why we pray, “Come and teach me how to dance with delight whenever you send a new melody my way.”
Part of our postmodern struggle is that we are a people disconnected from our story, our narrative. We are a nation that is disconnected from our national story and we are a faith community whose lives are insufficiently interconnected with our sacred story. Evidence of this disconnection is ample:
- One third of Americans cannot name the three branches of the federal government; one third cannot name any of them.
- 43% cannot identify the Bill of Rights as a set of amendments to the Constitution
While we live in a country equally ignorant of religion, the Pew Research Center reports that Protestants and Catholics are more ignorant than Mormons and agnostics about religion in general. My experience over the decades is that our church represents these findings. We also don’t know much about our own faith.
We don’t read our Bibles. Rather we watch Netflix, download, tweet, post, or otherwise intersect with vast data. We are victims of too much information, but the data does not cohere into a meaningful narrative that frames our lives. We have lost the capacity to tell stories and so we do not know our story. I may be wrong about this, but I think that our lack of a coherent national narrative is a major contributor to our lack of national consensus, which leads to our polarized political environment. An analogous ignorance leads to behavior in the Christian communities that is equally unhelpful and unhealthy. Like our national community, our church communities lack connection and investment in each other.
But when we know our scriptures, our story, insight is close at hand. Let me use a specific example. Our convention theme, “All things new” is drawn from our story. It comes from a phrase found in the Revelation to John. My hunch is that many of us are not aware of that. And if we are, we would be hard pressed to place the phrase in its context. So here it is:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ …To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
By making this our theme, we assert that we see ourselves and our work within the story of God, told once upon a time and lived out in this day. We are a part of a new Jerusalem emerging. We are given the assurance God is making home among us. Our suffering, death, and sorrow are understood to be a part of God’s story. We bear our human frailties in the community of saints and with God. We will be children of God. See, God is making all things new.
That is our story. Insight is within our reach. And so our foundational task in this time is to know, reclaim, tell, and live the story of God as our story. And this is the main thing. It sums up our formation and informs our actions.
Now, the good news is that we are well on our way to reclaiming our narrative. We are living into God’s dream of a new Jerusalem. We have received God’s new melody and we are on the dance floor tentatively learning the new moves. In the past year, this new thing, this new melody, has many outward and visible signs. I see them when I am with you on visitation after visitation. I see churches increasingly engaging in formation: a St. Bartholomew’s forum hour and the growing numbers of children gathering around the altar for the Great Thanksgiving. I see an expanding Latino community at St. Matthew’s, National City. And let’s not forget refugee children being tutored at St. Alban’s, El Cajon and St. Mark’s, City Heights. I have seen the St. Margaret’s community not only run an outreach center in Palm Desert but also come together to purchase a mobile home for a homeless couple so that they would be “home for the holidays.” I could go on and on. What I see is a church no longer waiting for people to come to us. We have reclaimed our story, God’s story, of the apostolic church, sent into the world.
And that narrative has increasingly informed our shared identity as a diocese. Indeed, 2014 was a profound year for change and transformation as an apostolic diocese.
As I have already suggested, formation is an essential part of a healthy church. In the fall of 2013, we started the School for Ministry. Now in its second year, the school is serving those studying for ordination and those who are not but who wish to know more about the Bible, ethics, Church History, theology, and liturgy. Each Saturday during the fall and spring semester, folks come to the Episcopal Church Center for the School; they come and learn and grow. As your bishop, I have made a commitment to be a bishop who is both a student and a teacher. It has been my joy to actively teach in the School for Ministry. What a gift that has been to me and I pray for you. I certainly see myself as a student when I take part in continuing education opportunities through the House of Bishop and through extensive reading. But I have come to understand that my most profound classroom is our diocese. And you are my teachers. You have given me the privilege to practice and grow in my craft. I cannot fully describe my gratitude to you for this opportunity and for your patience as I hopefully learn and grow.
I believe that spirit of mutual learning is at the heart of our diocese and is now centered in our School for Ministry. The School for Ministry is guided by the Rev. Dr. Mark Mann as dean. Mark is a professor of theology at Point Loma Nazarene University and director of the university’s Wesleyan Center. As a part of the educational experience, those studying for ordination have a field work experience, as many of you know because your own congregations are field education sites. I am grateful to the Rev. Dr. Alex Nagy for serving as director of field education. In the fall, under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Simon Mainwaring, we have expanded to include periodic midweek offerings in the evening. I would encourage everyone here to visit the website of the school for ministry. There is a handout in your pews table with information on the school. Take a Saturday class; come to a midweek offering. Come, know our story, learn a new thing, and learn to dance with delight.
An outward and visible sign of the transformation that flows from the School for Ministry is the ordination of three new deacons: Phil Loveless, Tom Morelli, and David Rhodes. They represent the first wave of new deacons for a reinvigorated diaconate in our diocese. They join deacons who have been serving us faithfully in redoubling our movement to be the serving church. Deacons are called to bring the church and Jesus’ gospel to the world and the world’s concerns to the church. Their ministry of service and proclamation is an iconic incarnation of the calling of each of us. They are a part of the new thing God is doing. I wonder who among us today is called to be a deacon. Which one of you might have the gift to be a bridge between the church and the world?
Much of what has happened in the past year and much of what is emerging is a result of our first successful capital campaign, Build the Serving Church. To all of our donors and pledgers, I want to offer profound and deepest thanks for your giving. We set out to raise $2,500,000 in capital funds and we raised $2,685,340.14. Amazing! Because of this campaign, we were able to renovate the former Holy Trinity Parish in Ocean Beach into the Episcopal Church Center. Yes, it is the location of the School for Ministry. It also houses the Bishop’s Office.
Each week I meet those who are fed at the Church Center or are refreshed by taking a shower on Wednesday night when the mobile shower unit, Showers for Blessing is there. There is something profound about having the Bishop’s Office be a place where the homeless are fed, clothed, and receive mail and medical care. It may transform them. It has changed me. It seems to be changing this community. As I travel around our diocese, I marvel at the synergy among congregations as we make new ground as servant ministers in our communities. Our neighbors are learning to know us by our love, by our love. In addition to this, your generosity has created two new endowment funds: one to provide income to be used for grants to congregations to place our newly ordained in mentoring congregations within our diocese for their first years of ministry. This is nothing less than an extension of their formation process and essential for healthy, well prepared clergy. The second endowment will provide loans to congregations for infrastructure improvements so that resources can be wisely used for mission. As the pledges are paid, the two endowment funds grow. I should add that for these funds to be highly effective, we will need to continue to seek gifts to them. Rest assured that will be part of my focus, and I encourage you to make these endowments a part of our continued giving.
As I look ahead to this year and the years beyond, I believe that we have made important steps to pivot to a yet fully-seen future. Our School for Ministry, our new deacons and diaconal focus, our new Episcopal Church Center, and emerging endowments are critical building blocks. But in some respects, these pieces are the easy things. These actions have a certain continuity to the recent past. We have been a church for the last hundred plus years that has been institutionally focused. We have been building focused. And we have appreciated our endowments. But now, the new thing that God is calling us to do, while not disconnected from those things and enhanced by those things, is really of a different character and quality.
You have heard me say before that the church of the 21st century needs to look a lot more like the church of the first century than the last century. And so the next step is deeper into the roots of our story. The texture of what lies ahead will have more the character of movement. It will be much more dependent on grass roots than hierarchy. I am keenly aware that part of my discernment is to seek to know and understand the role of bishop in this movement. Indeed, that will be a challenge for all the ordained? How much do we let go? How do we empower? What does accountability look like? Because churches can be incredibly resistant to change, we also need to be aware of resistance. And let us be honest, every one of us—myself included—will resist some of the important changes that are before us. How do we work together to join God in this new thing?
The next step seems to me to be again found in God’s story as our story. Throughout history, God has called God’s people to venture into the unforeseen: Moses guiding the people of Israel out of Egypt through the wilderness, Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, Paul and the gentile mission, the Benedictine rule, Augustine’s mission to England, to name a few. And what was characteristic to all of these was an openness to join God in the process of something new and a willingness to take profound risks.
I must confess to you. I think all too often we have practiced the disciplines of preserve, conserve and protect. I believe our beloved church is structured in a way that can impede the spirit. Actually, the bishop as overseer can too easily become the one who keeps everything in order and in line. You may know the nautical term, “in irons,” when a sailing ship stalls and cannot turn as it is facing into the wind. Sometimes, I think church leaders—bishops and such—get so overwhelmed negotiating the seas that they place the church in irons. Indeed, we teach stasis. We teach stagnation and thus decline.
I recently read Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, the cofounder of Pixar Animation. It is the story of not only building that enterprise but more importantly sustaining its creative life blood. What Catmull asserts is that the Pixar formula is all about people. But it is people that work in an environment of deep candor and honesty, openness to criticism and new ideas, where risk is tolerated. He writes: “Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.” In my heart, I believe that the future church is going to require all of our creativity. The future of the church will require just that. It will require less control, more empowerment, risk-taking, trust, and dealing with that which generates fear forthrightly and honestly.
The earliest churches cultivated a similar environment. The church was the people. The people were nurtured as they built up the body and became a legend for love and healing in a harsh world.
To become that kind of church again, we will have to change. We will have to retrain our community muscles to move and act differently. It will take great effort. That effort that has begun in area four is a good start. We are taking risks. We are learning valuable lessons. The churches of area four, St. Andrew’s, Encinitas; St. Michael’s, Carlsbad; Holy Cross, Carlsbad; St. Anne’s, Oceanside; All Saints’, Vista; and Grace, San Marcos, are pioneers in this new movement. We are asking hard questions about how to use the resources of the church. As you may of noted, our proposed budget for 2015 allocates $100,000 in unrestricted reserves to be used for what we are calling “new initiatives.” These are funds we can strategically allocate in the mission field—put in your hands—to make things new, to do the new thing. They are to be catalysts for mission as we ask “Who is our mission?” And so, now we strive to leave the old model and create the new thing.
As this work of reimagining extends across the diocese, it has become increasingly clear to me and the executive council that we need to pay attention to three parts of the community that are not represented in leadership: Young Adults, Latinos, and Youth. An exciting new possibility that will support our efforts at connecting with Latino persons is an emerging partnership with the Diocese of Western Mexico. I have just this past month appointed the Rev. Colin Mathewson, the Rev. Cristina Borges, and Rom Ituarte to a team to work with counterparts from our neighbor diocese to see how we can mutually support each other. I am pleased that the Rev. Pedro Cuevas and the Rev. Armando Casillas are here today to give witness to this partnership. They have much to teach us about how to be a nimble and effective church with fewer resources. And we have important resources and ideas to share with them. Together, we can be a mighty church and a powerful force of God’s love and transformation.
With all of this in mind, the nominating committee this year did great work to assure a field of candidates that would change the composition of leaders to reflect the community in which we minister. For too long our church has been talking about Latino, young adult, and youth, but not leading with them. Today that changes. I would urge similar changes in our congregations. I should also add that as this movement is happening on the governance level there is significant grassroots energy that is also having an impact: the continuing service summit, a new youth summit, and our ongoing Latino leadership project.
Our invitation from God is ancient and fresh: God is making a new thing. A new melody is being sent our way. Can we take the risk? Can we change? While I don’t have a crystal ball, permit me to use my imagination and paint a picture of what the future church might look like.
The future church will be a church that is first and foremost a church of discipleship. It will be a church that lives into God’s story, God’s dream. It is a church that is active in the world. It will be the servant church. It will be a church that is nimble in how it forms congregations and interconnects congregations with each other. We will take seriously empowering the laity to be the church. It will fully utilize the sacred order of deacons. While there will be seminary trained clergy, there will also be a substantial part of the ordained trained locally. Many clergy members will be bi-vocational. We will have fewer buildings and more congregations. We will be mobile. We will be creative and be co-creators with God in this new thing.
Beloved, I want end with a word of gratitude and a promise. I cannot tell you how fortunate I feel to be your bishop. We have had tough times and wonderful times. We have interwoven our stories and have become more than friends. We have become members of the body. I feel the love of this body and I pray you feel mine for you. And my promise is this: I will continue to try to grow as your bishop, seeking God’s will for our common life. May God continue to richly bless us as we live into what is fresh and new and holy.
(The bishop received a standing ovation.)