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Going where God sends, together

Bishop Hughes' sermon at the 149th Convention

In her sermon Saturday morning at the 149th Convention, Bishop Hughes talks about ways we can work together to be God's church in a changed world. (Time: 36:48.)

Video Transcript

In the name of the God who loves us, amen. Please be seated.

While it's fresh on our minds, I want to go back to three things that we've heard already, from the collect. "Grant to your church, such a ready will to go where you send, and do what you command. Grant to your church, such a ready will, to go where you send, and do what you command." And then from the Isaiah reading, the prophet says, "I'm about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth, sharing God's words with people. I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth." And then from the Gospel reading, "And which of you, by worrying, can add a single hour to your span of life." But we do spend some time worrying, don't we?

I wanted to start with that mix of things, to put things in a framework for us. That we are actually called by God, and called by the church and called as diocese, parishes and individuals to go where God sent. And to do what God commands. It's helpful for us to remember that when we're thinking about where our churches are now, and where they're going, that it is God's church. And God is sending us to do things for God's church, and commanding us to do things for God's church. I say this, because I can't tell you how many times people tell me about "my church." And we're going to do this my way. And I know what needs to happen here. Because I know this church better than anybody.

It helps us to keep going back to the beginning, how this all started, whose church it is, and whose people we are. And that God has almost always been saying, I am doing something new. Can you see it? There are those words all throughout scripture, that I am doing a new thing. And you know, that's tough for Episcopalians, and I'm an Episcopalian, because that thing we did coming up the aisle, I love me some of that stuff. I just love it. I love every bit of who we are in terms of order and the Prayer Book and what it represents. But it is our common prayer, something that we hold together. And then I'm going to pray it here and somebody else is praying in an hour later, and somebody else is praying it five hours later. And we're all saying that same prayer. And I cannot help but think this is the way God meant it to be for all people. Not just Episcopalians. Because this is my church. And I know how to do worship in this church.

And I have to remind myself, this is God's church. I just get to be invited into the space for a little while. And then I go, and somebody else comes in. And if we can all hold it as God's church. And God is always doing a new thing in God's church. It can help us, help keep us from experiencing that sense of bumpiness and whiplash and the needing to grip on with all of our might. "You're gonna pry that liturgy out of my cold dead hands." It can keep us from going there. And then the hard part for us, I think the really hard part for us right now is, you know, we're making our way out of pandemic but we are tired, and we're worn down and worn out. And when you're tired and worn down and worn out, you can't help but get even more worried and more fearful. And when we're afraid, that's when we really want control. We want to take over because we can fix it. If we have enough control, if we can tell enough people what to do, if we convince enough people, that our way is the right way. And if we can't convince them, just do it anyway. And if we really can't convince them, leave and go to another place and take our pledge with us.

And you know, there's some churches that call that church growth. When someone who's mad at one church goes to another church, taking their pledge with them, I have news for you. They did it to the other church, guess what they're going to do with you. Somewhere down the road. That is how these things work. Fear, when it takes hold of us, makes us behave in ways that are decidedly not Christian. Decidedly not Christian. There's some part of us that – when we hear God is doing a new thing, or we sense God is doing a new thing, or we feel God is doing a new thing – there's some part of us, that should be like, I don't know, like my husband was when the Eagles won last week. God is doing a new thing. Woo-hoo! God is doing a new thing, can I be a part of it? God is doing a new thing, thank heavens, because the old thing stinks, it doesn't fit us anymore. Let's rush into the new thing.

But it's funny, it's not how we work. And I love it, people that have been in these, we've been running these sessions, primarily for churches that do not have clergy. And in those sessions, we talk really honestly, about where we are right now and what God might be calling us into. And there have been people in those sessions who've said, after weeks of us talking about this, talking about what is hard about letting go of things and what might happen if we did let go of things, and what the church of the future might look like. And for someone to very bravely and honestly say, you know, I don't even know how to think like that. I'm so trained to hold on to what we do. And to keep this group of people safe in what we do. Or to say very honestly, and genuinely, every time somebody uses the word "change" in this conversation, a little piece of me wants to throw up. That there's so much change happening in the world. But in some ways, it's a gift to go to the place that I know when I turn to – open my bulletin or turn to page 325 or page 323 in the Prayer Book – I know what's going to happen. I don't have to worry about some people are talking about changing liturgy and changing the music and changing the prayers and inclusive language and expansive language, and using these new interpretations, to try to lose some of the sense of patriarchy and all of our language. When they talk about all those things, they're taking away the things that bring me comfort. And I'm afraid of all that change.

And so we have to go back again to who we are. That we are people who are following Jesus Christ. Christ has changed who we are. There's a landscape of Christ all over our lives. The things we do, the things we want, the way we respond, the way we treat other people. But all of those things are shaped by Christ. We have to remember that we are Christians. We can get confused sometimes. We can get caught up in taking care of our group of friends, the group that we travel along with in our church. Sometimes that group can be hard to break into. And sometimes that group thinks it's inviting other people in. But basically they're saying, Come if you want to. And if you come, hello, I'm going to talk to with my friends. That group has become a club, in a church. Doesn't see itself as a club. But that is what it is. Sometimes, we have become so devoted to our building, the bricks and mortar, the building that our church is in – this is where people get really upset with me. That we call that building "church." And when something comes as a threat to that building, we get upset with it. People say to me, from time to time, this building, this church, deserves to stay open. This building deserves to be here. There have been generations of people who have worshiped here. It deserves to be here. It is bricks and mortar and when we go back to Jesus, not once did he say," And take with you your bricks and mortar and go out and make disciples." Not once was it about a building and one of the things that we discovered in the last three years is church is this. It is the people. I keep saying lately – I haven't said it to you – but I keep saying this: The day that Kentucky Fried Chicken forgets to fry chicken, they are done. The day that Nike quits making sneakers, they are done. The day a church thinks that they are all about a building, the day a church thinks that they're all about a club, they are done. It is not club-ianity, it is not building-ianity, it is Christ-ianity.

We have got to remember it is Christ, the risen Christ who has transformed us through death into resurrection. That even if we walk away from a building, that Christ is resurrecting something new. Christ is bringing something new into that church, which is the people, and into the world. I'm not saying sell all of our churches. That is not what I'm saying. But we do have a couple of churches that are asking that question: "This building take 60% of our budget. All of that money going to the building, and not to ministry and not to clergy leadership." To ask the question, and spend the time discerning about, "Where we are to go?" That is something that Christians do.

Sometimes God makes it so clear to us. You are sent. Where's the youth in here? Are there youth... where... they're all in... would you guys stand up? Thank you for being with us. And let me ask you a question, I'll put you on the spot, and I want you to tell me the truth. Can you tell me if there have been people of Convention that have spent time talking with you? I heard one "Yeah" over here. You're kind of a ringer. Because, sorry, you're family to someone on staff. But they love you. They are talking to you. I'm curious, anyone else? So they're more yeahs? A couple of nods. All right. Very good. Well done. So everyone sit down again. Thank you. Thank you for standing and thank you for letting me, let you be show and tell. I promise I will not ever do that again.

Let me say this. We talk about how much we want youth. You know, where we're sent? Over to that corner. That is where we're sent. Sometimes God makes it so obvious. We know where we're sent. But do we put anything in the budget for it? Oh, no, the building needs that. Sometimes God makes it that obvious where we're sent. And sometimes we don't quite know where we're sent.

So here's the bad news right now, that everybody talks about and I don't want to make it seem like I don't know because I know. And people feel like they need to hear me say it, so you're gonna hear me say it. Again, it feels like. So Pew told us, Pew polling told us, oh, maybe 12, 13 years ago, that 20% of the United States was unaffiliated, consider themselves spiritual, not religious. About five years after that, they said that the number, it was 25%, had grown from 20%. They have done another survey recently, it is now 30%. Is there a surprise? It's a growing number. I would imagine if they do that survey, even a year or two out from now – they typically do it every five years – we're going to hit half, much sooner than expected. So we know this. We've been experiencing it in our churches. Our own church has looked at data and we look at the data knowing that every 10 years the Episcopal Church loses 20% of its membership. All across the Episcopal Church, including the Diocese of Newark, I've looked at our numbers, I've gone backwards, every 10 years, we drop another 20%. I expect that we will, if we follow that trend will drop another 20% in my ten-year tenure with you. But I'll tell you what else. I'm not going down without a fight. I'm not. Because we're called to it. We're called to it.

Barna did a study recently, where what they've discovered in pandemic is that people are still calling themselves spiritual, not religious, but half of that group is saying, I could use some help with my spiritual life. I need to know how to connect with whatever that is, I need to figure out how to get my sense of peace. I need to know what I'm supposed to do with my life. I need to have that sense of fulfillment. That half of the people walking around unaffiliated are wanting that in some way. And I can tell you what else, they have no intention of coming through our red doors. So we are being sent outside the red doors to be with them. I don't know how long it's been – I meant to look and I just didn't get a chance to do it – I don't know how long it's been since the Diocese of Newark has planted a church. But my plan is, within the next two to three years, we will plant two alternative groups for the spiritual life. Two. Alternative communities for people to learn about their spiritual life and to develop that relationship with each other and with God. They've already let us know, I don't do church. I don't want to do church. There are some people who do want to do church, and we need to invite those people. But there are large numbers of people who have no intention. And the thing that we have learned in pandemic is Jesus isn't limited to what's happening in our bricks and mortar. Jesus showed up all over the place for us when we were stuck outside of the bricks and mortar. That Jesus kept coming for us. So in all things, again, it's reminding ourself that it's Christ that is guiding us. It is Christ that has transformed us. It is Christ that allows us to know we're sent and to go and get after it.

So we're spending this weekend talking about one of the ways we get after it being the regional ministries. You'll talk more about that at lunchtime today. You've been seeing these videos about it. And that really and truly is about this sense of collaboration that we need to do ministry going forward. That it's not so much about what a church can do on its own. And yes, parishes have their own work to do. But how do we do that in relationship with each other? And how do we do that in relationship with other faith communities and other organizations in the community in which we live and move and have our being? That sense of collaboration is going to define who we are. It will help us continue to evolve into what church is going to be next. And we have to get ourselves ready. Half of our churches, have clergy support, have clergy leadership, a quarter of our churches have part-time clergy leadership, a quarter of our churches have very little to no clergy leadership. We are flying together, we're going to have to look out for each other. And we're also going to have to look at other ways of doing church.

We talked last night about the many ways that lay people stepped into ministry, being lay leaders and leading services, lay leaders doing pastoral care, lay leaders preaching. We need to make sure as a diocese that we're preparing people to do that. I am so delighted, grateful, and proud of everyone who simply stepped up during pandemic. And now I want to make sure you have the kind of education that you need to do it well. I want to make sure that we – if you are going into somebody's home on a regular basis for pastoral care that we have done a background check, so we know that you're safe. We want to make sure that you take Safe Church so that you're not just walking up and hugging every single person. Some people don't want to be hugged, they don't want to be touched. And our tendency is to think that that is a good thing. It shows our friendliness. But for somebody who's experienced trauma that doesn't feel friendly, it feels threatening. So you need to be trained in those things. We will train lay preachers. Thank you for preaching so far, I'm not saying that your preaching is wrong. But I want to make sure that if you sit with the Gospels, you can do some homework in those books, and preach a sermon that theologically sound. That is not simply limited to a priest. A person simply has to want to know God and let God follow them, or guide them into the Scriptures. And let God speak to them about what the people of God need to hear. We can train you for that. And we are specifically looking at developing a school that prepares people for ministry, lay people and ordained people here in the Diocese of Newark. There are folks on that team that are already asking those questions, trying to decide, do we do something independent? Do we partner with another diocese? How do we collaborate for this?

I don't know how they're going to do it. But I'll tell you what, there have been people who've been in the process to be a deacon since I arrived here, that will not happen again. It shouldn't take five years to be a deacon. It should happen far more quickly than that. Listen, if somebody has life stuff going on, and they have to slow it down and pump the brakes, that is one thing. But if it's taking that long, because we don't have access to the learning, if we don't have people that we're preparing for ordained ministry, we don't have access to the learning for them, we definitely don't have the access for the laity. And we have to address those things.

So this piece of stepping into the ministry, it's not simply about celebrating the fact that we got through a tough patch. But it's preparing ourselves for where God is sending us next into a new model for some of our churches. We have at least one church in our diocese that is without clergy, that is discerning if they are meant to stay without clergy. They're are a small group of people, and they're supporting a preschool. And they are convinced and convicted that God has asked them to keep that preschool going. And it is thriving. And as they have said to me, the preschool is more important than our needs. We know how to tend each other. We can do that. We just like to have a priest come and give us communion. But we can preach and we can lead Morning Prayer and we can take care of the finances of the church. That's a completely different model. And those are the directions that we're headed in. God is in the middle of doing a new thing, now. Already.

And even in our churches that feel stable, that feel like there is no change, that we go from bigger to bigger, to greater to great to greatest to best. But even in those churches, God is working at doing new things. We have at least one of those churches who is asking the question, we funnel so much money overseas. Is it possible that we could partner with a parish in this diocese, and help them get their legs underneath themselves? This is, this is where we're being sent. This is where we're being sent.

There's another piece of this, that I keep coming back to in, rarely in these situations, but it's important for us to remember that we are bigger than who we think we are. We think that we, the Episcopal Church, is our church. And the Episcopal Church is all the parishes, all the diocese, all the provinces, and the provinces go around the world and to the Anglican Communion – we are part of something that is so much bigger than any one of us. And we've gotten so caught up in our worry and our fear and our diocese. And when I say "diocese" be clear what I mean: 93 congregations, a camp and a convent, all of them in ministry together, along with a bishop who checks to make sure that everybody has what they need. In our diocese – that's what, when I use that word that's what I mean. Sometimes when you use that word, you're talking about the bishop's office, that's just a handful of people providing support.

When the diocese gets afraid, when 93 congregations get afraid, when the camp and the convent get afraid, we forget how much bigger we are all together. And that our impact can be far larger. And part of the reason that we're designating the offering today, the way we're designating it, is to make a statement about who we are as diocese, that these 93 congregations and our camp and our convent say we care about what's happening in the rest of the world. We know that the Diocese of El Salvador is working as hard as it can, in order to bring up new clergy. Miguel Hernandez who is here is working as hard as he can to help teach clergy down there to prepare people for ministry. We know that the Diocese of Gitega and Burundi, which has come to us two years in a row for Alleluia grants. As they built their well – that's what their grant was for – they spent so much time talking to people, that people wanted to know why are you doing this? Why are you building us a well? Burundi is a very poor country. And their response is, our God says that we take care of our neighbors, and the people said I want to know that God. So they planted a church that already has 300 people in it off of a gift that we sent them. When I talked with the bishop there, Bishop Joseph Aime, I said, "So you planted the church off of that too?" And he goes, "Yes." And I said, "So, do you mean to tell me the Diocese of Newark planted a church in Burundi?" And he said, "Yes, you did."

Those relationships with our overseas siblings remind us that we're bigger than our fear. We are bigger than our fear. For us to give money to that film project about the Philadelphia 11 says this is a, this is a piece of information and history, and history that has affected this diocese. That to give to that is bigger than our fear. All of these things, this sense of knowing who we are as people who are following Christ. This sense of doing this with other people, that we're collaborating, not only with us in our regions, but collaborating as a diocese. So it's not just us in our parish, not just us in our region, it's all 93, one and one. That all of us are doing something together and that we collaborate with a world that is much larger than us. That's when we stop being fearful and we start being courageous.

You know last night we spent a lot of time talking about what you've experienced in the last three years of pandemic, and the things that really can be celebrated in that. And I hope, I truly hope that every parish takes the time to remember, to reflect, to celebrate, and to some way memorialize the stories of the way people stepped into ministry over these three years. We have to remember those things. It helps us remember that we are Christian. It helps us remember that we've always been working together. It helps us remember that we're courageous. This is who God has created us to be. And the most important thing about all of that together, is God is sending us. We don't remember this just because it makes us feel good. And just because we have a little bit more peace, if we remember these things, but when we remember them, we remember that we are sent.

I keep making references to geese. We talked about geese yesterday, so for people who were not here, the very short version of this is that geese fly in a V formation. And then when you fly in that V, you've got the lead goose, and whoever's flying behind that lead goose – well, whoever is a goose too – the goose behind that when it's getting a little bit of lift from the air stream created by that, that goose in front of them, and it keeps going down the whole V. So that they're all flying a little bit higher, and they stay in sync and faster. And the whole time they're flying, you hear they're honking, you can hear them coming before you see them. The scientists believe that the honking that we're hearing is two things: them telling the lead goose, "Keep it up, keep going, appreciate you man," that it's encouraging them. But honking is also a way of letting each other know where they are.

It's a helpful way for us to think about what it means to be in collaboration with each other, that we're talking with each other. And that we're encouraging and supporting each other. That we have our own version for honking, it's "Alleluia." It's "God is good." You know, and all the time. It's things like that, that remind us. And I'm gonna give it to my Baptist friends again – I'm not going to make you repeat anything today – but they are onto something with that repetition. Last night, I had, I told the group that they were courageous and I asked them to repeat it after me three times, and the last time to say it like they really meant it. And that's something, if you've been in a Baptist church, is not unusual for someone say, Look at your neighbor and say, neighbor, and they tell you all the things to say. There's something hopeful about claiming those words. About claiming the words, I'm a Christian. About claiming the words, I'm in this region and I collaborate. About claiming the words, I am courageous. When we keep saying the words to ourselves over and over again, we diminish the other words that lead us to fear and to worry. And lead us into being trapped in churches that are not working.

It's important to me that you know, that I'm having these conversations with you and with small groups all across the diocese all the time. Not just because I love the Episcopal Church, which I do. But that is not my primary motivation. We have a ministry in northern New Jersey. There are people who need to know they are loved. There are people who need to know that God cares about them, and God thinks they're wonderful exactly as they are. Regardless of their skin color, regardless of disability, regardless – I shouldn't say regardless, because of their skin color, because of their disability, because of their sexual orientation, because of their immigrant status, because of whatever it , that makes them unique and special, and in this place we say, "You are welcome." Because of all those things, they need to know that a church says, "You're welcome here. I love you. God loves you. This is your place." This is our ministry, and now is the time to claim it.

So I'm going to leave you with that one final thought about the geese. Because I find it so touching. When I stop talking, we're just going to take a little time in silence and let all these things settle in you. And as you sit in silence, you just ask Jesus to reveal to you what you are to be doing as a follower of Christ in this particular time in our world. The last piece about geese is, if one goose gets sick or gets hurt, and has to go down to the ground, two more go with it. And they stay with that hurt or sick goose until it feels better, or until it dies. And whichever the case may be, once that is done either better or death, the two or the three geese take off again. If they have a deep sense of where they're going, they go to their regular place and they catch up with their friends who've left already. And if not, they listen til they hear honking and they join another convoy. They join another flock. There's something about that, that speaks to me about the life of those who follow Jesus Christ. Amen.

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