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Sermon at the 147th Annual Convention

Bishop Hughes preaching at the 147th Convention. CYNTHIA L. BLACK PHOTO

Bishop Hughes preaching at the 147th Convention. CYNTHIA L. BLACK PHOTO

Starting with the words from Isaiah, "Behold I am doing a new thing," Bishop Hughes reflects on the new things we have started learning and doing in the Diocese of Newark in the 15 months since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and what the path forward might look like. (Time: 22:16.)

Video Transcript

In the name of the God who loves us.

Please be seated.

I just have to have a good look at you. It's been a very long time. I’ve seen so many of you online, and so many of you many times online. But it is a completely different thing to see you face to face.

I said good morning to John Webb today because he said good morning to me and I thought, “I wonder who that man was behind that mask?”

And he walked away I recognized the back of his head but I didn't recognize him face to face with the mask on.

And isn't that the way it has been with this time.

We've been out of our element and figuring out new ways to do things.

And oh my gosh you look beautiful.

It is so good to see you. It is so good to see you.

I want to start with those words from the prophet Isaiah:

“Remember not the former things nor consider the things of old. Behold I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth – do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Do not remember the former things. I’m making a new way – do you not perceive it? A way in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”

Those were words of encouragement. Those were words of instruction. Those were words that the prophet Isaiah meant for a dispirited and worn-down nation of Israel. They had been at their wit's end. They had seen the worst. They had lived through the worst. And they did not know what was next. Those prophetic words told them, “Don't look back, look forward. I’m doing something new.”

Prophetic words for the church. Prophetic words for the Diocese of Newark. Prophetic words for our nation. Prophetic words for our communities, for our households, for ourselves. Prophetic words where God says to us, “Let go of the former things. Let go of those things. I’m doing something new.”

Those prophetic words. We've grabbed on to them in the midst of pandemic and we've held on to them as we've been working our way out of pandemic. Those words spoke to our diocese.

Long before pandemic, every 10 years The Episcopal Church puts out a report, lets us know what attendance has looked like over the last 10 years. This 10 years we lost 20 percent of the Diocese of Newark –  this past 10 years to 2018. The 10 years before that we lost another 20 percent, the ten years before that we lost another 20 percent. It's not just us – it's the entire Episcopal Church.

And every time that report comes out we dutifully get upset. We are worried about it. We don't want our church to go away. We love it. We recognize we have a ministry, that there is something special about what we do and that it can touch the lives of people who desperately need to have their lives touched.

And then we just keep doing what we've always done. We know that there are some basics that we need to change in order to have an effect on that 20 percent of people who disappear. Now some of it is disappearing over age – they're aging out, they're dying, they're moving away. And as everyone reminds me of New Jersey, people don't retire to New Jersey, they retire to elsewhere. And we've also learned this year, people don't work from home in New Jersey, they move to parts elsewhere to work from home.

Part of it is that but part of it is a real unwillingness on our part to do something different. Invite people to church. Talk about our faith. Speak in ways that are encouraging to others to think about their faith. Whenever I broach this subject in my first two years with you I would have a really fulsome discussion with people as they explained to me the many reasons why they could not talk about their faith and they all boil down to this: “I don't want people to think I’m one of those people. I don't want to be that Christian. Everybody knows Christians are very judge-y. I don't want to be that person. I don't want to be one of those people.”

And so we have resisted that and watched ourselves shrink year over year. We have insisted, if we had the right priest, the right preacher, the right music program, the right children's program, that if our building was in the right shape – if we got this whole string of things right then people would come. And every year we've lost more people. We were determined to stick with those former ways. We were determined to stay with that which was not working for us. We had a real resistance towards being generous with our time and generous with our finances with our church. As every vestry would tell me, the same 10 of the people in church – you're probably sitting in this room – the same 10 of the people in church do all the giving and they do all the ministry.

And it has been impossible for us to break out of that habit that we have had, former ways, and God's been trying to do a new thing for a very long time. God has been trying to do a new thing. There is a ministry for us in northern New Jersey. There are people who need what we do in northern New Jersey. They need to know that they are beloved by God, that they have a place in the church community and that all really does mean all. When we say “all are welcome” we mean everybody is welcome. All people are in that. There are people who need to know that and we have been determined to be the best kept secret in Christendom.

Pandemic shook us up. We had no choice. Please hear me correctly on this: God did not bring pandemic to straighten out The Episcopal Church. That would be really wrong to do to the rest of the world because we could not get our act together, because we like to do what we have always done. But God this incredible recycler that God is, God uses all things. Everything gets used by God. Everything gets used by God to bring God's goodness, to bring God's healing, to bring what God wants in the world. So pandemic did what we could not do on our own.

When I asked people what have they learned in pandemic the first thing almost everybody says is… well, let me ask you what's the first thing you learned and what have you learned in pandemic? Zoom! That is what everybody says first. It is Zoom. That is the first word whether it is Zoom or Facebook Live or YouTube – however it is that you have gotten online. We jumped online. We had no choice. Years of making excuses about why we couldn't do that, why we couldn't reach people in that way, and we jumped online as fast as we could. It was not pretty but we were there.

And something started to happen with us being online, in our relationships, with each other. We needed each other. Some of us had people in our congregations that understood A/V better than others. We helped each other out. There's a group that still meets every single week to this day talking about being online. We've been getting progressively better at it and we've been asking questions that didn't cross our mind. Because what do you do with someone who wants to be baptized and confirmed that's never set foot in your church and probably never will because they live 3000 miles away – but you are their church. You've been online, they've been online with you for a year now, and you are their church. God made a new way. We have churches that have grown during pandemic, and I see some heads nodding – some of you have had that experience. Churches that have increased the number of people who consider themselves active. They're not just sitting there, they consider themselves members of that church. During pandemic God made that way for us. God made that way of our working together and recognizing that we are stronger together.

We are not 96 separate entities in competition with each other. We are all The Episcopal Church and we can help each other out. Not only do we have information that we can share with each other but we can decide to work together. We can support each other in our ministries. One church brings in a speaker, they can invite all the other churches to come in and enjoy that same speaker.

God made a way for us to be stronger as church. God made a way for us to learn more about the faith. I keep thinking of a conversation that I had with someone in one of our churches in one of the lay meetings who said that after a year of leading online worship, doing – I think they did Noonday Prayers for their church on a regular basis, on a weekly basis, they were part of a rotation – he said after a year of doing that, “I’m not the same person. My faith is deeper. I have a stronger sense of what God is doing. I don't feel so shaky about what's the next right step to take. I know that I’m living in God's will in a way that I have not known it before.”

God made a way into deeper faith for us.

This time has been full of ways made in the wilderness. It has also been full of rivers brought into deserts where people were thirsty or hungry. We simply decided as church we weren't going to let people be hungry in northern New Jersey. We just weren't going to do it. We were going to figure that out. Churches doubled, tripled, quadrupled, in some cases gathered with other entities and became much larger than they ever could have imagined on their own. And it wasn't just about the food, it was about the relationships that began with seeing the same people week in, week out. That brought that living water. That water that we know so well from baptism. That water that refreshes people that Jesus gives us. That brought that water to our communities and that stream of water kept going with us.

We stopped asking how we could get more families with children, like you go pick them up at the “Families with Children” store. We stopped asking that question and we started asking, “How do we support families with children in the middle of a pandemic? They are struggling. How are we meant to be their friends? How do we support them in pandemic?

We brought that living water to people who were lonely, to people who were grieving. I’m keenly aware, in the two memorial services that we did in this diocese this year we named 750 people. Seven-hundred and fifty names were called out, of those who died in this year. That's a significant amount of loss and grieving, and funerals have just begun. And that river in the desert for people who are in the midst of great grief – you do feel like you're out there on your own.

And I would say the place where we have jumped in the river full force with boldness is trying to understand what we need to do and how we need to be a witness for racial justice and racial healing. That we recognize, as church, more is needed in our prayers. That advocacy is good and will continue, but relationship also matters. And how do we build those relationships? And churches all over this diocese have been asking that question. Studying books. Running Beloved Community or Sacred Ground. Asking hard questions. Looking for answers.

And we don't have the definitive answer right now, but one of the things we do have is the ability to reach out to people and let them know how important their safety is to us, and that we will do what we can to make sure they are safe.

Here's what I hope you hear in all of this in this year.

I hope you hear how bold we've been. There have been groups of people talking about boldness in our diocese all this year. About taking bold steps. About having bold faith. About making bold actions. About having bold love. We have been in that conversation and I want us to be clear that we have been living that life.

We have discovered that being church – as much as we love our buildings – being church is not about the building. And that is a bold statement of faith.

We have discovered that every lay person has the same power and authority to lay hands on and pray for people as do the clergy. And that is a bold statement of faith.

We have been working consistently to raise up lay leadership so that we stop going to that same 10 percent. Sometimes people just need to be asked, that don't think that they qualify. “I haven't been here long enough. I didn't grow up Episcopalian. I don't want to step on anyone's toes.”

That when we call people into their ministry – and their ministry is not just in this church, the ministry is beyond the church – when we help people live fully into their ministry, that is a bold action.

It is going to take this boldness as we move out of pandemic. And the boldness is going to mean we've got to continue looking forward. We've got to continue asking ourselves what is next. What has passed, has come and gone. It has been a blessing to us – we do not want to forget it – but the people of the past were doing the ministry that they were called to do 30 years ago. We are called to a completely different ministry now.

Aa ministry that means we find the way to say, “I know Jesus and I know he loves you. I will hold you in my prayers.”

When we find the way to say boldly, “Would you like to go to church with me? Would you like to meet a group of people who have a life of faith?”

When we stand in the truth and speak the truth. When we move our eyes to those who are feeling harmed, who are not safe. That means anybody of color. Right now, it also means everybody who's Jewish. It especially also means trans people, in particular black trans women. All of those people need to know that their safety is important to us and that they have our love and care. And we need to speak that truth to them and to those who are charged with their protection.

The way forward is forward. It's in front of us. We want to celebrate and we want to honor all that is behind us and we want to learn from it, but we are not trying to rebuild it.

God is doing a new thing. A new thing in the world. A new thing in our nation. A new thing in our communities. A new thing in our church. And a new thing with us.


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