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"Risking something big for something good" - Bishop Beckwith's address at the 138th Annual Convention

Bishop Beckwith speaking at Convention. NINA NICHOLSON PHOTO
The Rt. Rev. Mark M. Beckwith, Bishop of Newark

The assignment from God to the prophet Jeremiah is a tough one. God asks, no God tells Jeremiah, that he has a prophetic sermon to preach: to “pluck up, tear down, overthrow and destroy – in order to build and plant.”

Jeremiah is intensely ambivalent about being the mouthpiece for such a harsh message. People didn’t want to hear it several thousand years ago, nor do they want to hear it today -- but a variation of Jeremiah’s dissembling message is just what we have been hearing and seeing for the past several years. Much of the economy was plucked up and torn down four years ago, and while we can now see signs of rebuilding and some new planting, there is a deeper realization that the economic model of continual and consistent growth we have counted on for so long is simply not sustainable. The public education system has become a political football, and various initiatives are being passed around with the intention that we need to overthrow the whole business and build something that works. And it is hard to build and plant in a culture that is wired in 24/7, and which leaves people endlessly distracted and with precious little discretionary time. Add to this the ravages of Hurricane Irene, which swept through the Northeast and damaged 24 of our congregations – two to the tune of nearly a quarter million dollars of damage each; and we have a lot of plucking up and tearing down going on.

The dissembling of our economy, and the increasing fragility of our educational, religious and social systems present a perfect storm for some very deep anxiety. The quick and easy answer in all this is to assign blame. Find a scapegoat. Identify a villain. It may reduce the anxiety for a moment or two, but doesn’t do much in presenting an alternative vision or engaging in prophecy, which is what Jeremiah had been called to do.

And Jeremiah wants no part of it. And he rattles off a series of excuses: he doesn’t know how to speak. He is only a youth.

I know those excuses. We all do. We have all used them. And we have a lot more we can add: I don’t have time; someone else will do it; it’s not that bad; if we sweep it under the rug it will all go away.

“I am only a youth” has been one of my favorite avoidance mechanisms over the years. It is no longer available to me. I turned sixty this past summer. Now I can say that I am a young sixty – and I invite you to affirm that. I am healthy and eager to continue to equip congregations, empower people and engage the world – with the hope and justice of Jesus (our mission statement); but I can no longer claim rookie status. And in turning the corner into a new decade of my life, there is a new image that I have never looked at before. It is the image of retirement. It is far enough off in this new decade that I don’t think about it all that much; but I do need to say that I am spending more and more time pondering and praying about what I want to do and accomplish between now and then. What do I want my legacy to be? What are our goals? What do I and we need to pluck up and tear down in order to build and plant? What am I; what are we, willing to risk?

As I ponder these weighty issues, I need to confess a temptation that tugs at me from time to time. It is the temptation to kick the deep challenges of the church down the road. Leave them to my successor. Manage the system, tweak some things, move some things around – take some risks, but limit those risks so we can easily predict the outcome.

It is a powerful temptation. And I need to say that I see and hear a version of this temptation in nearly every congregation I visit. And while the people in those congregations are remarkable in the many and life giving ways they hang in with each other and their faith, we have inherited an institutional and spiritual arrogance – yes, a spiritual arrogance, which makes the assumption that as the mainline church – all we need to do is keep on doing what we’re doing and ride out the economic and cultural storm. Just keep the doors open and eventually things will turn around. People will find the Episcopal Church.

That spiritual arrogance won’t cut it today. More and more of us know that, but we find it hard – emotionally and spiritually, to move away from the old model. My response: get over it.

I am saying that as much to me as to you. Get over it. Get over your/my anxiety and fear. Get over your/my allegiance to old models and dare to take some risks. I have been ordained for almost 33 years. And while I can say that my passion for the Gospel and the faith continues to grow – and my relationship with the living Christ continues to transform my life, I have developed some assumptions over that time. Some of them are so deep rooted and long standing that I don’t even know what they are. They are not necessarily bad assumptions. But a lot of them aren’t very accurate. I remember being on vacation a few years ago; and after going to an 8 am service I did a bunch of errands. And all sorts of people were in the stores and on the roads and at the parks. Who are all these people, I asked myself? Why aren’t they in church? That’s my Sunday assumption. Why wasn’t it theirs? And then I remembered that Sunday is not the Sabbath for everyone; just before I realized that more and more people are claiming Sunday as not much more than a day off from work – a non Sabbath sabbath. Some of our assumptions make it hard for us to see what is staring us in the face.

Get over them.

The best way to get over our habits, assumptions, our stuckness and our anxiety is to stop kvetching about what has been plucked up and torn down – and look out to the possibility of what can be built and planted. Look beyond what we can immediately see. Jeremiah did that. Jesus did that – and 2,000 years later as the living Christ he still does that; by showing up in the Eucharist, in the stories from scripture – and in the faces of a glorious humanity. Jesus calling us to look beyond what we see, to use our creativity and imagination.

Living into Christ’s mission is the theme of this Convention. It has been taken from our image-filled, metaphor-rich vision statement that we draw on to help us look beyond all the plucking up and tearing down going on – and enable us to see what we can build and plant. Beginning today, and over the next 18 months, we are going to live into a mission season; and take a more intentional risk of living into Christ’s mission.

This is not to say that we are going to do this for eighteen months and then be done. It doesn’t mean we are going to put it on a bunch of posters or up on a web site, have people salute it – and move on. No, it means we are going to shape our lives around mission; we are going to work at defining mission, claiming our own mission – and then living into it. Don’t for a minute think that we will be done in 18 months. We will be getting started – and by next June we will have some clarity as to what next steps we are called to take.

It helps to begin by saying what mission is not. Mission is not just about belonging. That is a habit that many of us have subscribed to – which needs to be plucked up and torn down. For much of my life, the church was the community to which I belonged. That is the case for most of us. That was important. It still is. But it is not enough. Mission goes beyond where we belong and brings us to the discernment place of what we are called to do – as parents, children, friends, neighbors, colleagues, Vestry members, deputies to Convention, and on and on and on. Many of us say – with some self righteousness, if not pride – I am a Christian, or I am an Episcopalian. We identify our affiliation. We think that tells the story. It doesn’t. The mission challenge is to know our story with the living Christ, and have the chutzpah to tell it to someone else. For most Episcopalians I know, that is risky business. What story are we prepared to tell of our relationship with the living Christ? What risk are we willing to take for the sake of the Gospel? We are we called to build and plant? All of this involves action, planning – and becoming disciples, which means people who live a disciplined life with the living Christ.

And this is not about the church’s mission. We might think that it is, but it is not. It is Christ’s mission. They sound the same, but are very different things. When people get tired or anxious – which happens to many of us a lot of the time, we fall into the trap of engaging in the church’s mission – which involves more preserving and protecting what we have and less building and planting of what we are called to create. Christ’s mission is not to keep some current or earlier model of church in business, tempting though that may be. Whenever that happens, and it happens often and at every level; we end up in the preservation rather than the creation business – and we become more susceptible to being consumed by the killer B’s – buildings, budgets, boilers and boards. And we either squander the mission opportunity, or suffocate in our institutional squabbles and shortsightedness. Christ’s mission was conferred on us by our baptism – to restore all people, and all creation – to unity with God and each other in Christ. In many important ways we exist for the people who are not here yet. Our work is to go out and look out – so we can build and plant.

We will need help in making this paradigm shift. I am deeply grateful for Tom Brackett’s presence with us at this Convention. His work in the national church is to help individuals, congregations and dioceses claim and live into Christ’s mission. He has done that with us this weekend – in his sermon and two workshops yesterday, and in the reflection he will offer near the end of our time together. But he will continue to work with us over these next eighteen months. He has agreed to serve as a coach/consultant to our newly appointed Mission Strategy Committee. In that role, he has agreed to train a cadre of coaches/consultants who will be ready to go by the time of our June Convention; and these coaches/consultants will offer their services between June 2012 and June 2013 to interested congregations that want to identify and implement their mission.

The Mission Strategy Committee will have two teams – the mission team and the finance team. The co-chairs of these teams will be introduced later today. The mission team will coordinate the congregations working on and in mission. It will also look at the geographical landscape of the diocese and recommend how we can most effectively engage in Christ’s mission. It will provide the necessary leadership in planning an event – or series of events, in the Pentecost season of 2013, which will help us claim and celebrate our developing mission.

The Finance team will look beyond a year-by-year diocesan budget process; and project what we might expect in terms of revenue and expenses in the diocese over the next three to five years – and how the diocese should position itself accordingly. At the same time, it will do more detailed research in the finances of congregations – looking at trends, offering support, guidance and challenges about expenses, stewardship, endowments and reporting.

We will be doing this for two reasons. First and foremost, to reinforce our commitment to mission and how to re-mission ourselves – as a diocese, as congregations and as individuals. And second, to become clearer about what we are able to sustain as we live into Christ’s mission. I predict – that by engaging more intentionally, prayerfully and efficiently in mission, that we will end up with more people who claim the Episcopal Church as their church home. But I also expect that we will end up with fewer church buildings in this diocese. How many fewer? I don’t know. Part of the work of the mission and finance teams of the mission strategy committee will be to make recommendations in this area. They will be making a preliminary report at the June Convention. It is becoming clearer to more and more of us that for many congregations the buildings are just too big and old to maintain, and the support base is too small to sustain a congregation. This is not an issue we can kick down the road.

As they recommend plucking and pruning, these two teams will be offering up new models of building and planting; new ways of living into Christ’s mission. Newark ACTS is a model for mission. Some of them are creating a new – and very different, worship experience at St. John’s Union City. It has brought ten young people from across the country to live and work with us for a year. This developing ministry is having an enormous impact on we conceive of and live into Christ’s mission.

A little over a year ago, we identified children as a particular mission and justice focus. By my count four congregations have claimed the mission of providing worship services for children with special needs. Other congregations are engaged with kids by providing tutoring, mentoring, music and artistic opportunities for children in their communities. For the second consecutive year, we have a resolution that asks congregations to identify the needs of children in their local community. In my work as a co-chair of the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope and Peace, we have invited the mayor, business leaders and the wider community to embrace a community-wide message: support and protect our children. Ministry with and among children is a compelling mission strategy. I challenge you to discern how your congregation can engage in this important work.

Our mission initiatives are driven by our passion and commitment. In many instances they also require money. Sarah Rosen, who will be introduced to you later today, is the new bishop’s advisor for development. Sarah will be working with me – and the fund development committee, to identify potential sources of revenue from within the diocese and beyond, who will be able to help us undergird congregation-based mission initiatives that our budget is simply too constrained to support.

One of the things I have learned over the years is that bishops seem to have a signature blessing. The blessing I continue to use has been adapted from a prayer by William Sloane Coffin, a dynamic Christian prophet in his own right who did some rather eloquent verbal plucking up and tearing down over the course of his ministry at Yale University, the nuclear freeze movement and Riverside Church in New York City. In that blessing, I call upon God’s grace “to risk something big for something good”. It is a compelling definition of mission.

The deeper the crisis, the more opportunity to take a bigger risk. There are an increasing number of clergy and congregations across the diocese that are taking bigger risks. Many of the clergy are new to us, and their creativity and vision has been a real gift to the diocese and to the congregations they are called to serve.

Several years ago the leaders of St. John’s Boonton told me they had eighteen months of ministry left before their money ran out. After some prayerful discernment, they decided to open up a storefront mission risking venture capital from their reserves. A year later they said they had eighteen months left. Now they aren’t saying how much time they have left, but are putting money back into the endowment they borrowed from. They have developed a mission mantra – “you get it by giving it away”. St. Elizabeth’s in Ridgewood has a practice of asking parishioners tell their stewardship stories in church. I have heard some of those stories – which risk a level of honesty and openness that is inspiring – by talking about the discovery of their need to give rather than the church’s need to receive.

Four years ago, members of a dwindling Lutheran congregation in Bergen County was searching for a new church. They found one – in an Episcopal congregation. Risks were taken – on both sides; relationships developed – and a new identity emerged. St. Luke’s Haworth is now identified as St Luke’s and Our Savior Church, with membership in both our diocese and the New Jersey Lutheran Synod. Something very good has emerged that certainly couldn’t have been predicted four years ago.

In the past year, the Church of the Epiphany in Orange has become more and more aware that its mission was inhibited by its large and grand old building. The Tiffany windows are beautiful to behold, but impossibly expensive to restore to their original luster. The congregation has found itself in the middle of the tension between the church’s mission and Christ’s mission. After careful discernment, they chose Christ’s mission – and have put forth a proposal to sell the windows to a worthy buyer and invest the proceeds in mission.

Each one of the congregations that has developed worship services for all God’s children – Christ Church, Budd Lake, Church of the Atonement, Fairlawn, St. Andrew’s, Harrington Park and St. John’s, Montclair, has done so on a wing and prayer. And each of them has discovered that the wing has become the heart and soul of the congregation. It’s not a program. It is a mission.

Several other congregations from across the diocese are taking the risk of linking ministry with another congregation – by sharing a building or a priest or a program or a dream. There is no one way to do it, except to start with a risk.

With each passing day I feel more and more called to lead, challenge, invite and cajole the people and congregations of this diocese to risk something big for the sake of the Gospel. To live into Christ’s mission. But if I am going to have any credibility in this, I need to do some risking myself. For most of my life, I have made an effort to create good will. To be polite, friendly and caring. These are laudable values – except when they’re not – as when I try and smooth over my sharp edges in order to maintain the good will -- which can have the corresponding effect of blunting creativity and minimizing risk. I am going to risk some good will by exposing some sharper edges – not so that I and others can see them; but so that the edges can lead me – and lead us and take us, more fiercely into the mission work that we are called to do. Much as I have tried to find it, the Gospel doesn’t call us to be nice. It calls us to be faithful. Audacious. Committed. That Gospel challenge will require me – and all of us to find the creative edge that the Holy Spirit has planted in each of us. To find it, to claim it – and to build on it.

The risk also involves stewardship. For nearly thirty years my wife and I have tithed 10 percent of our income to entities that do God’s work in the world. For these past several decades, I have treated ten percent as a goal. It isn’t. I felt some pride in achieving it. I shouldn’t. Jesus asks for 100 percent of us. For the past thirty years the national church has set the 10% tithe as a minimum standard. This next year we are going to try and raise our percentage giving level. Now it can be said that we are in a better position to raise our level of giving than we were five years ago. But it still feels risky, but we do so in the faith that we get more by giving it away. Sacrificial giving transforms the giver as much, if not more, than the recipient. I invite you to take this step with me.

Then there is prayer. Over the years I have discovered that the discipline of regular daily prayer is one of the best ways of getting over myself. Prayer has the capacity to move me beyond the demands of the ego to the abundance of the soul. Prayer takes me beneath the place of reactivity to a deeper and abiding peace. I pray a lot. I am going to pray more. I expect you to join me as we continue to develop opportunities for people to pray alone, in groups, in silence and in song – practices that “resonate with God’s promises”, as expressed in the vision statement.

The third area involves public witness. Speaking here at Convention and preaching in churches is indeed a public witness. But they are situations in which a public faith witness is expected. After 33 years, it doesn’t feel like that much of a risk. There is a great phrase is the vision statement – “forever seeking new venues in which to proclaim the Gospel, we dare to cross the invisible barriers in our communities and venture into places where we are not expected; indeed, where we are not even welcomed – to be seed throwers, fire starters, hope peddlers, risk takers and dreamers on behalf of the Gospel”. We are not expected at train stations or on street corners. That’s where some of our clergy will be on Ash Wednesday. With ashes and prayer. Canon Jacobs and I have agreed to join this witness by offering ashes at Penn Station and Broad Street stations in Newark. As one who scores on the outer edges of the extravert scale, the prospect of this still makes me nervous. I’ll get over it. I invite you to find a train station – they are all over this diocese; or a well trafficked street corner. And make a public witness of your faith. Get over your nervousness. Let us know that you did it and how it went. Wouldn’t it be something if people from 107 congregations made such a public witness?

I hope to do something similar on Pentecost –taking the processional cross out from the church and around the neighborhood of whatever church I am visiting. And stopping to hear and tell stories. And to reintroduce rogation events – in which we take what we do best – which is our worship, and process around our communities.

We are called to mix the Gospel message with the genius of our Anglican tradition and then live into Christ’s mission. And then dare to see the abundance of God coming to meet us in ways that we couldn’t begin to ask for or imagine.

Are we willing to take that risk?