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Bishop Beckwith's address at the 144th Annual Convention

Bishop Mark Beckwith
The Rt. Rev. Mark M. Beckwith, Bishop of Newark

This year, Bishop Beckwith gave his annual Convention address in three parts, on Friday afternoon, Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon. The video of all three parts follows the text.

Part 1 - Friday afternoon

We have now heard some reports and we have been oriented to the 2018 budget. They are important stories, and they have been carefully prepared and thoughtfully presented. They are indicators of the journey we are on, and they are largely framed by tasks undertaken, goals accomplished and financial projections for the next year. They are important, and we have designed our time together to give them the time they need and deserve.

We are now going to pause the business that we are canonically required to do, and pivot to stories. Our own stories, that we will prepare and present in three different blocks of time, this being the first. After this portion of my address, I will introduce our two masters of ceremonies who will guide and support us through the process of sharing stories.

This may be an awkward or disorienting shift, because for the most part in the Episcopal Church, we officially tell stories through numbers – average Sunday attendance, numbers of baptisms, pledging units, kids in church school and so on. Each congregation gathers these numbers, plugs them into the parochial report and sends them on to the diocese, which in turn sends them on to the Episcopal Church. And there is an annual contest for who complains the most – the congregations that have to put the parochial reports together or the diocesan office which graciously (I am told) – and sometimes repeatedly, asks for them. Add to this the canonical requirement for annual audits, reconciliation of normal operating income – and one would think the Episcopal Church is one big numbers game.

It isn't, but at times it can seem that our narratives are drowned out by the challenge to produce numbers – and underneath all of that is the pressure so many feel to produce better numbers from one year to the next.

And then we have the historical reality of the reluctance of Episcopalians to share stories. We will readily talk about our affiliation – what church we go to and what we do there. We may point to the liturgy – which takes our story and absorbs it into the story of Jesus' life, death and new life – a profound mystery of grace that is hard to talk about but is nonetheless real, abiding and transforming. Or we may frame our story in theology, which is certainly important – but typically takes the particular and makes it abstract.

For me, my interest – and my growing passion for stories, has come through the now four-year practice of Dwelling in the Word. I need to confess that I was not an instant convert. I was willing to tolerate it, for the sake of others who were more committed. I thought it took up too much time; there were other, more pressing things to deal with – numbers and affiliations among them. And I couldn't figure out why we came back to the same story over and over again. And then there was the unrecognized anxiety I had carried with me – for decades, that I was supposed to know what the passage meant. Surrounding all of this was the growing cacophony of Christians who publicly – and stridently, insist that a passage – indeed the entire bible, has one meaning – and that you and I, that we, had better get on board.

I didn't want to get on board, so there was a resistance in me to avoid it altogether. But as the practice continued, I began to listen more – to what a particular passage was saying to me, and what it was saying to my partner. It was an exercise in creativity, imagination and listening- and the more I dwelt in the word, I began to realize how little space we take to engage in creativity and imagination. I began to look forward to Dwelling in the Word, because it was and is an invitation to creativity and relationship building – with someone else, with scripture -and with the Holy Spirit. Instead of it all getting old – it always – yes always, feels fresh and new. I have developed a new appreciate for scripture – and for listening.

The third chapter of the book of Joshua tells the story of the Jewish people who, after a forty-year journey, get ready to cross over the Jordan River into a new land – and a new way of living. The passage was the centerpiece of our Convention last year, the listening tables that we held in the lead-up to Convention – and it is a story we dwell in during the forum at every one of my Sunday visitations. The highlights from the story, which I keep hearing in myself and from others, include "we have not been this way before;” "God will be with you" and "sanctify yourselves".

This story has particular resonance for me – not just because in nine months I will be crossing the retirement river and I am very aware that I have not been this way before. The Joshua story has resonance for this diocese, not just because in nine months you will be led by a new bishop who will be invited into a new way of living – and that he or she has not been this way before. For all of us, the landscape will be different, but the promise abides: God will be with each and every one of us – to bless and claim us as God's beloved. And to challenge us to carry out the vital task of joining God in doing God's work in our neighborhoods and communities.

As I draw a picture of the story on newsprint during Sunday forums, I express some envy of our spiritual ancestors, because the tents they camped out in could be folded up and carried across the river. I point out that in this diocese, we have some 99 tents – none of which are portable. We can't pack them up. Quite the contrary. We spend a lot of time and money taking care of them – fixing leaks, repairing boilers, upgrading electrical systems, and trying every which way to enhance their beauty and highlight them as sanctuaries of hospitality.

We get grounded in our church buildings, by all that happens inside – the worship, the fellowship, the mission, the community. We are grounded – and then guided, if not goaded by the Holy Spirit to go into the world – with our faith and our commitment. But what sometimes happens is that we become anchored in our buildings, which creates a very different dynamic than being grounded – because then we can't move. We get tied down. The burdens of the building (one of the killer B's) takes over – or we think that all ministry needs to be anchored in our buildings, which hinders our ability to see or imagine the other side of the river.

At this Convention, we are moving on from Joshua 3 to Joshua 4. We will dwell with this text this afternoon and tomorrow morning. It recounts how the Jewish nation has now crossed over the Jordan, but twelve leaders are sent back to pick up a stone from the middle of the dry riverbed and bring it over to the other side. The stones symbolize stories of their forty-year journey from slavery in Egypt through the wilderness of Sinai to the promised land of Israel. The stones are visual reminders that God went with them, and they were committed to go with God, despite some potentially covenant-breaking exceptions.

“What do these stones mean to you?” was the question to be asked by future generations. The implication is that stories are embedded in the stones. What do those stories mean? How do those stories inform and guide?

The genius of these biblical stories – from Joshua 3 and now Joshua 4, is that they provide leadership through and meaning for two powerful dynamics that are as present today as they were some 4000 years ago: the anxiety of crossing over and the resistance to going back.

It was quite an ordeal to get the entire Jewish nation across the river, even though it had miraculously stopped flowing. And once on the other side, Joshua tells twelve leaders to go back – and my guess is that many, if not all, had had it with the river and the wilderness and the Red Sea and Egypt and all the rest. But Joshua sets up a different economy for it all – you don’t need to carry over every injury, escapade and abandonment of God’s instructions. No, just bring back twelve stones – which are freighted with stories.

This past summer I was invited to walk, eat, and dwell in the word with people from Grace, Madison, St. Mary’s Sparta and All Saints, Millington. What I remember most about dwelling in the word was the laughter. It was fun. And I think the lighthearted mood had to do with the freedom people felt because there were invited to have just one passage speak to them – and not feel the need to bring knowledge of the entire book or bible to the conversation. And the more we dwelt, the more that I and others felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit. And the more comfortable we become with stories.

We don’t need to go back and bring everything across the river. But we do need to take the risk and cross it in the first place, which kicks up no end of anxiety.

Two blocks from my office at Episcopal House is the Passaic River. Two hundred feet from our building is St. John’s Roman Catholic Church, which feeds hundreds of people outside, mostly men, twice a day. When I arrived eleven years ago, there was locked gate between the two properties, which meant that the men had to walk around a long block to get to their meal. And which also meant that everybody stayed on their side. In effect, the gate was a river I didn’t want cross. Not because I was afraid, but because I didn’t have time. I had too many things to look at, worry about and deal with – on my side of the gate. The thought of paying attention to the other side raised high levels of anxiety, because it felt like one more thing.

A few years into my ministry in the diocese, a priest asked, what happens next door? I mentioned that there was a soup kitchen. She said let’s go – not to serve, but to listen. And after our first time going, she said – you can’t go once. You have to keep at it.

And I have. I have told this story in my 2013 Convention address, but I continue to reflect on it as I continue to cross through the gate – which has been permanently open now for the past five years. And as I continue to build relationships next door – and as I continue to discover how the practice of dwelling in the word has taught me about the importance of stories, and as I continue to reflect on this ongoing story (much like dwelling in the word), new insights continue to emerge, and the more I can recognize the divine breath of the Holy Spirit in the midst of it all.

When I first began my weekly conversations next door, I was intent on listening. But I was listening for things I expected to hear – that someone was homeless or strung out or medicated up or had a long rap sheet. Which wasn’t listening at all. They were my projections, and they got in the way of establishing a relationship. Slowly, and I mean slowly, I was able to get past my projections – and really hear what people were saying. And as I became more available to hear their stories, the more open I was to share some of my own. And these were not stories of my affiliations or my status, but real stories, that began to be filled with more vulnerability and honesty. As many of these guys shared their vulnerability, their stories opened me up to my vulnerability. And opened me up to how God’s presence was weaving through it all.

There is risk involved in crossing over through a gate, over a street or through a river. But the possibilities open up our vulnerability – and create more space for the Spirit to do its work.

As we continue to grow in our understanding of a commitment to Joining God in Shaping our Future, all of the stories – the biblical stories, our own stories, our stories of encounter with our neighborhoods and communities – invite us to see how God is working. To be more aware of God’s desire to bless – as opposed to our need to dictate or control. To be more aware of God’s extravagant love, as opposed our ego’s need to judge or withhold.

Our stories open us up more to God’s work. That is why we are doing this. That is why this is important.

Part 2 - Saturday morning

Two years ago at this Convention I said that business as usual is no longer an option. That the tsunami of change is so powerful and moving so swiftly that we can't stay on this side of the river. God is calling us to take the risk and cross into a new way of living. But the anxiety which always accompanies the tsunami of change, generates the impulse to dig in, anchor ourselves down in our buildings – fix what needs to be fixed, and wait for things to be different.

That won't cut it.

Our buildings may not be portable, but we are. We can carry our faith, need to carry our faith, out from our buildings – where our own stories get absorbed, honored and then transformed by the Jesus story, into our neighborhoods and communities. It is more important to be a Christian outside the church than inside. And I am not talking about being a nice, caring or kind person – important as those things are. I am talking about being sent by God into the world to see and hear what God is doing, and to join God in that work.

I can't overstate the importance of bringing our faith and our stories out into the world. For two reasons. One, the public Christian message is increasingly being cloaked in certainty, which is laced with xenophobic, if not racist ideology. Protect our own, marginalize others. Jesus loves those who love Jesus in a prescribed way . Too bad for those who don't. The message continues: the bible has one meaning, and you had better know what it is; and our stories need to have one trajectory accompanied with a pre-formulated narrative.

The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty. And we need to stand up against that dangerous certainty by telling our stories that are soaked in humility, honesty and vulnerability.

The second reason we need to bring our faith into the world is that our culture, especially in the last year, has been caught in a vortex of accusation and blame. Stoked by the President, whose tweets and words are filled with insults, blaming and disdaining; triggers – yes triggers, a similar response in others; who either defend his comments (perhaps not with the viciousness and vulgarity with which they were made) or believe them but don’t say anything. And then there is the anti-President crowd, which is all over social media and elsewhere – and which can be just as vulgar, vicious and loud in their denunciations and certainty.

There is not much listening going on. The pronouncements, accusations and denunciations – from both sides, reinforce silos and bolster anchored positions so that people can't move. And if some stories are being told at all, they tend to resound with the self-righteousness of' “I'm right, and they're wrong." Or even worse – the stories reinforce the widely supported delusion that God is on my side. The only side God has ever been on is God's side. God is not some divine tool we employ to do our bidding. No, we join God – we are the employees, the apostles of God’s mission.

We join God by listening, by deeply listening to what is going on. Not listening to what we want to hear, which serves to reinforce our ideology or our projections, but listening to see what God is up to. And – and this is even harder, to listen to the stories from our own experiences which have shaped our lives; listen/see/feel how God has been working in those stories, and then be prepared to share them with others.

When I graduated from college, I had a fellowship to teach at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan for two years. I lived in a New England style fraternity house that was home to 18 Japanese students, who wanted to live in a Western style building, improve their English and absorb as much as they could about American culture, which would then make them more attractive to the Japanese companies that they hoped would hire them after graduation. We ate together, played together, I taught daily morning English practice and a weekly seminar on American culture and had a couple of classes in English conversation at the university.

I was there to get a cross cultural experience, to build relationships – and to see how other people looked at the world. I figured that I had successfully purged myself from an American imperialistic mindset, which in 1973 was a common desire among many self-righteous 22-year-old American college graduates.

About six months into my fellowship, something didn't feel right. I was getting some resistance, if not hostility, from some of my dormmates. I went to talk to Sanzo, who was about to graduate – and who seemed to be the most sour about my being there. When I asked him for some feedback, he freely gave it. He said that I was younger than the seniors (all of whom had studied for two years after high school before taking the university exam); and difference in age was a big deal in Japan. Because I was a teacher, a sensei, I acted as though I was older. The community was committed to speaking English, which, he said, meant that I was able to win every argument. And finally, he said, I was bigger than all of the other Japanese students – and I used my size to intimidate.

Sanzo was harsh, but honest. And what he said was true. I hadn't seen it. He exposed me to levels of privilege and prejudice that I didn't know I had. It was devastating – and transforming. I have, we have, depending on our size, age, gender, race, economic status – and so on, levels of privilege and prejudice that are often hidden from us. Since my conversation with Sanzo – I have tried to identify other dimensions of prejudice and privilege – before someone else does. But other Sanzos have shown up in my life who have needed to point out – sometimes harshly, sometimes compassionately, imperialistic attitudes, projections and positions in me that I have not been able to see. As I continue to reflect on this story – and share it, I appreciate how important that story continues to shape me. And how my journey with God is integrally connected with this and other stories. For years, I had not connected Sanzo's critique with the divine breath of the Holy Spirit. Now I can. Not that God sent Sanzo to set me straight, but that God is continually inviting me to pay attention to God's presence, God's mercy and blessing, before trying to press ahead with my agenda – which may be skewed, no, will be skewed, by unrecognized prejudice and privilege. We call that sin. It comes with the territory.

But so does God. That is the promise, that is the witness from scripture – and trusting God's presence is the daily challenge for any of us on the journey of faith.

At a recent visitation to one of our congregations, a leader on the vestry asked – how do I talk about this? How do I talk about my faith? I quickly responded that I had heard a recording of his sermon on stewardship; and that was filled with faith, honesty and humility. And he immediately responded to me – “l know how to do that here in church; but I don't know how to talk about it out in the world.”

What an honest disclaimer. And that's our challenge. That's the work we need to be about, and following this portion of my address, we will build on the story work we did yesterday, and be guided and supported in identifying our own story – of moment and/or meaning, that we can reflect on and share with another person. We need to bring our stories into the world.

This is important work. This is holy work. Is it self-indulgent? It is if we just keep our stories to ourselves. The good news is that over the past eleven years of serving as your bishop, I hear more and more people being free and open in sharing their faith journey. Paul Shackford, our recently retired CFO, has told the story that when he first went on the vestry of his church over thirty years ago, there was an unofficial agreement that there were two words you couldn't say in a church meeting: Jesus or God. Oh, has that changed. Increasingly, people on vestries tell me how their relationship with God has deepened, how their faith has transformed their lives – and how the mystery of worship has become more important and meaningful. Yesterday we heard one story that was recorded at a workshop organized in preparation for this Convention. Today we will hear four more. All the stories are honest and real and vulnerable – and gateways to a deeper faith. Thank you Rosie, Phil, Cynthia, Grace and Janet for the models you have provided.

Our stories are holy documents which have been printed on our souls. We need to rediscover these stories, play them back over and over to ourselves, tell those stories to each other in church. And then – and then, we need to take the risk to cross the river and learn how to tell those stories in the world. Stories about how our lives have been changed. Moments when God showed up. Stories of how ministry in the world is not just about doing good works, but is joining God in God’s work.

The world needs our witness. The world needs our stories.

Part 3 - Saturday afternoon

From age 3 to 10, I lived in Glen Cove, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago on Lake Michigan. Then, and I suspect now, Glen Cove was 85 percent Jewish. On Yom Kippur, I was one of two or three people in my school classroom.

We lived, our family did, on the edge of town, which was more Christian. The kids who lived in that neighborhood mostly were Catholic, and they all went to a Catholic school in another town. So I had neighborhood friends and I had school friends, and rarely if ever did the twain meet.

One day in the spring, after playing baseball with my school friends, Mitch, Lee and I were walking home to Mitch’s house. I was 9 or 10 years old. The “twain” between neighborhoods met when Mike, a kid from our neighborhood, maybe a year older, and another kid whose name I can’t recall, met us. Mike said hi to me, and before I could say hi back, Mike and his friend proceeded to punch out Mitch and Lee, inflicting all sorts of anti-Semitic slurs as they did so. Knocked them to the ground. They were bloodied, but they were able to get up and walk on, to Mitch’s house. Got to Mitch’s house and his father, who was huge as I remember, immediately sized up what was happening.

And he was furious. At me. I didn’t do anything.

[A pause, while facilitators lead a storytelling exercise with the Convention Deputies.]

I told the story earlier about what happened when I was 9 or 10 years old and I said I didn’t do anything, because I didn’t know what to do, and I was surprised at Mitch’s father’s anger at me. Over the years I figured out why he was angry. Because I didn’t do anything. I stood by while anti-Semitism raged in a violent way. In my defense, I can say I was 9 or 10 years old. It happened so quickly, I’d never seen anything like this before, I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t do anything.

That story, of Mitch and Lee – I’m so grateful for Dwelling in the Word, and now, dwelling in my stories. Because that story had been distant from me. And as I recount that story to you, and as I continue to reflect on that story, I see and recognize how important it has been to me, and continues to be, in the shaping of my life. That story, as I recognize it, was “ground zero” in my commitment to engage in social justice. And that has been an ongoing passion for me.

But at the same time, there’s a shadow side. There’s a shadow side for doing something. Part of the shadow side is wanting to rescue the situation without really knowing what the situation is. Assuming something and jumping in before the discernment has really taken place. And often I react in a reactive mode, without really knowing what’s going on.

And then, another sort of shadow side of jumping in. It’s what I would call the Sanzo effect. Of jumping into a situation and trying to help someone so we can render that person like yourself. When I went to Japan, as I said this morning, there was a part of me that assumed that the Japanese all wanted to be like me. They didn’t want to be like me. They wanted to learn English, they wanted to learn about American culture, for their own self-interest, not mine.

And the third shadow side is doing nothing. “Do not stand idly by” is a passage from Leviticus 19:16. I know that, because that is the clarion call, the theme of one of the anti-gun violence movements in this country that many people in this diocese are involved in, sponsored by New Jersey Together. Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds. The theme of moving against gun violence is something that I expect to give more attention and time to in my retirement.

But there’s also some other dimensions of “do not stand idly by,” and I’m reminded of a story that one of my colleagues told, about his perception of evangelism in the Episcopal Church. Evangelism in the Episcopal Church is taking a small aquarium filled with water down to the beach, and waiting for the fish to jump in. [laughter]

That’s standing idly by, and many of us have done that. Certainly the church I grew up in in the 50s and 60s, you could do that, because if the church door was red, the music was on key and the sermon was 15 minutes or less, people automatically came. Those days have been gone for 30 years, and they are not coming back.

Another challenge, and a more subtle issue around standing idly by, is what I call the creeping tide of functional atheism. It’s not my term, it’s by Christian writer Parker Palmer. A functional atheist is someone who says they believe in God, but lives as though God does not exist.

I’m a recovering functional atheist. My guess is most of us, if we were honest with ourselves, we would say we’re functional atheists as well. Or, we might say, I’m a Christian in church, but I leave it there. As I said this morning, it’s more important to be a Christian outside of church than inside. [applause]

The world cannot afford us to be functional atheists. God is at work. God is at work. We heard that testimony throughout our time together in our plenary and in the table sharings. God is at work. The journey of joining God has, for me, over these past four years, been the most important work I’ve done in 38 years of ministry. Because it expands my horizons, it forces me – invites me, forces me, challenges me – to see how God is working in the world, when my instinct – when my anxiety, sometimes my fear – causes me to limit God’s presence in arenas that I can control.

God needs us to join with God. This journey has inspired me to continue to join God, to cross the river, as I cross the river to retirement. To listen and discern. I hope it has inspired this diocese to continue this journey as well. You are the bearers of the faith. We are the bearers of the faith. Trust it. Use it. Amen.