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Bishop Beckwith's address at the 136th Annual Convention

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

Go deeper, Jesus tells Peter in 5th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Peter doesn’t want to go deeper. He thought he had already gone deep enough the previous night on the water and hadn’t brought back a thing. Not a minnow, not a mussel -- nothing. He figured he would hear some razzing from his colleagues and some complaining from his wife – but from Jesus? He is a carpenter now moonlighting as a rabbi; who may understand life, hope and freedom in a new and inspiring way – but doesn’t know squat about fish.

Go out again, Jesus tells him. And either out of duty or fatigue, Peter does go out again – deeper this time, and comes back with an abundance he didn’t think was possible.

Go deeper, Jesus tells Peter. Go deeper, he is telling all of us. And like Peter, I don’t want to go deeper. I have been fishing as an ordained person for 30 years. I know where the fish run. I know how preoccupied and scared they are. I know because I am one of them. I know every tool and technique; I have tried more metaphors and models than I can remember. And to be told to go out yet again?

Go deeper. Go out again. And I have. One thing I have learned in my three years as bishop is that there are more currents and challenges and agendas and attitudes than I have ever experienced before. There are more hydraulics. This is not a scriptural metaphor; it is an image from white water canoeing experience, which my wife is most grateful we no longer do. A hydraulic develops in river rapids, when the force of the downflowing river is met by an equal force of water coming back the other way. You don’t want to hit a hydraulic, because the canoe will capsize – and you will be stuck in a life-threatening situation. Instinct tells you to keep your head above water, which of course is the worst thing to do – because one’s energy is no match for the competing forces of the water. This is where people drown. The wisdom from the white water experts matches the genius of Jesus. Go deeper – as individuals and as a community, and meet up with deep currents that will carry you away to safety.

I have learned to go deeper – at least more of the time; to go beneath my instinct to keep my head above water and the frenzy over scarcity – and to search – and find the God-given abundance that lies deeper. I have been able to go deeper because my faith and spiritual practice direct me to do so; but I go deeper because I continually meet individuals and groups and congregations who risk throwing their nets into different and deeper water – and come away with a transformation that deepens my faith in God’s abundance. I cannot begin to tell you the enormous privilege it is for me to be in a vocation – in this diocese, in which I get to hear and see people witness to their faith and their courage and commitment– and their deep hope in God’s abiding promise of abundance. Which is the essence of creativity and faith. They have dared to go deeper.

And we have gone deeper as a diocese. We have claimed that we are all in this together. We have established a direction – because, without one – to quote a West African proverb – if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.

And we now have a mission statement: equipping congregations, empowering people, engaging the world – with the hope and justice of Jesus – which is one result of our taking that deeper journey. Our diocesan life is being aligned with the mission statement; indeed, this entire Convention is organized around it. The mission statement has helped us to determine what we are called to do – but just as importantly, what we are not called to do.

The mission statement is our ministry map, and it sets a direction for us as we maneuver around – or beneath, the increasing number of hydraulics in the culture and in the church. They are the hydraulics of scarcity – which create anxiety and anger and confusion – and take up an enormous amount of energy – to the extent that many people can only imagine keeping their heads above water. These hydraulics are real. The scarcity is frightening. We can each recite long litanies of loss and disappointment

But we are people who dare to trust in God’s abundance. And to trust in God’s hope – which, as Christian writer Jim Wallis has said, is believing in spite of the evidence; and then watching the evidence change. Go deeper. And go out again.

One of my first visitations as bishop was to Christ Church, Budd Lake, a small rural congregation in Warren County. When I first sat down with the Vestry nearly two years ago they claimed an abundance of faith, but a scarcity of purpose and direction. They were stuck in the hydraulic of poor attendance and not enough money. I mentioned a billboard I had seen on the way in, announcing a community walk to respond to the growing incidence of autism – especially in New Jersey. The treasurer said he knew a lot about that, given that his two kids were autistic. He said that there were very few places where families with special needs kids could go – without it becoming a problem for either the kids or their parents or whatever assembly they happened to be in. The Vestry talked about developing a service for these families. The congregation pondered and prayed – and planned a service, and then practiced carrying it out. Christ Church threw their nets out again – into deeper and different water.

When I visited the Christ Church again last October, things had changed. The visible difference was that more people were coming to church – but the more profound difference was that the All God’s Children ministry was not a program; it was a mission. Everyone was gathered up in the Spirit of it – whether or not they had special needs kids. The sense of mission not only defined the congregation; it shaped the people who were a part of it. Everyone was being transformed by this risk to go deeper. Including me.

While preparing for this Convention, and specifically for this Convention address, I felt a bit anxious by all the hydraulics of scarcity we have faced in the past year – as a culture and as a church; and how to respond to them. So I went and read from the wisdom of the two bishops who presided over this diocese during the Great Depression – Wilson Stearly, who served as Diocesan Bishop from 1927-1935; and Benjamin Washburn, who led the diocese from 1935-1958. On one level, scarcity was disarmingly real. Giving from the 158 congregations to the diocese went from $252k in 1929 to $151k in 1933 – a decrease of 40% in 4 years. Giving to the national church went from $136k in 1930 to $40k in 1936 – a 67% decline in six years. The Bishop’s Church Extension Fund (BCEF), then 25 years old, which solicits contributions from people across the diocese to meet needs identified by the bishop, was deployed almost exclusively to help churches with mortgage payments. The hydraulics of scarcity were everywhere – and they caused Bishop Stearly to reflect in his 1932 address: “there is no question about carrying on the work of church although the economic conditions may enforce upon us radical changes of organization and method such perhaps as we had not in former days thought feasible.”

There was, running through eight years of bishops’ addresses, some gentle carping about falling church attendance – and an observation that people were rather unwilling to live fully into their faith; which led to a challenge to live with greater spiritual discipline. Not to mention some advice as to how to cope with the new prayer book.

The scarcity was real, but so was the commitment to abundance – and the willingness to cast out nets again. In 1932, Bishop Searly proposed what he called a teaching mission in each of the 158 congregations – that would run from Saturday afternoon until Tuesday evening -- “to participate in a fresh vision and new understanding of the relationship of the church to the need of the world”. Two years later, over 100 congregations had participated.

In 1935, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church launched Forward Movement – to move the church forward in faith in a time of deep stress. The Forward Day by Day pamphlets which are issued quarterly, and which I see in almost every congregation I visit, is a legacy of that initiative. On Pentecost Sunday, 1936, Bishop Washburn challenged the diocese to participate in the Great Recovery offering – to respond to the shortfall in mission giving. The goal was $20k in additional funds to the national church -- which was a rather lofty target, given that the average salary of a married priest at the time was 2k per year; and all the money to be given to the national church (which would be about $500k in today’s dollars).

What these stories from the Depression say to me – and I hope say to you, is that our immediate spiritual ancestors refused to be defined by scarcity – and dared to go deeper into mission, trusting in God’s abundance.

75 years later, we will build on the commitment and courage of the past by launching the Alleluia Fund. Yes, it is being created by economic reality (and “may enforce upon radical changes such perhaps we had not in former days thought feasible”), but that scarcity has provided us with an opportunity for some radical change; and it challenges us to live into a new sense of abundance -- with individuals and congregations giving directly to outreach.

There are two things I have learned from reading over these accounts from the Great Depression: that we need to intentionally and regularly look back – to moments and memories in this diocese when we have been fed – and led, by the combination of our resolve and God’s mercy and abundance; and that we now also need to consider some sort of forward movement that reinforces and promotes Christian discipleship -- that leads us into the future and points us to the deeper waters of abundance.

I am humbled by the many flashlights of faith from around the diocese that point to where we are headed. I am guided by our mission statement that has enabled us to converge those many flashlights into a focused and defining spotlight; and that has literally created both vehicle and map for our journey forward – and our deeper exploration of God’s abundance. And I am fed by our four core values – which represent the cargo – indeed the treasure, which we carry. I have been talking about the four core values – worship, spiritual formation, justice/nonviolence and radical hospitality for a little over two years now – and the more I talk about them the more important they become. The more we learn about the core values, the more we live into them; the more challenged and transformed we are by them – and the more creative and vital they are.

I need to talk for a moment about my gratitude for this. This inanimate thing. My pastoral staff. Yes, it is the symbol of the office and the mark of ecclesiastical authority. But what I have discovered after three years of holding on to it – when processing in and out of worship, when hearing the Gospel, when blessing a congregation, an ordinand or a confirmand – or when I am in private prayer; whenever I hold onto it, I have this deep sense that I am holding on to God’s promise. I can feel God’s promise. And so I hold on to it a lot.

And just as I can feel God’s promise, I can see it as well. The office of bishop -- along with our mission statement and core values, gives me a unique perspective. And what do I see? I see worship – not an event that people go to, but a carefully crafted experience that takes people’s breath away as they go down beneath the hydraulics of scarcity to the depths of abundance, and then gives it back in the form of a transformed Spirit and breath when they come back up for air. I see worship as the opportunity to enter into what the prayer book calls – “the beauty of holiness”; and so beauty is expected and the holiness creates mystery and invites transformation. I see us more and more drawing on the genius of our Anglican tradition – and dusting off the incredible resources for movement and language, music and color, symbol and sacrament – that leave people with the experience of being with the living Christ. And I see worship exquisitely offered in the church – but I also see that more and more congregations are daring to bring the altar out into the world. I hope – indeed I expect, that people – clergy and lay, will realize that how we worship determines our future. It is that important.

When it comes to spiritual formation, I see people and congregations going deeper, discerning and discovering – and becoming competent and confident in their faith. Which means that they are equipped and empowered to carry that faith out. And which also means that we need to be about the more important work of creating more disciples. As I see more disciples, I see more people living with a discipline – a practice of praying, serving, giving, being formed – which carries them beyond Sunday through the other days of the week. There is some urgency about this discipline, because the hydraulics of secularism and distraction – not to mention tragedy and disappointment, give no quarter to people who do not have a personal direction and a sense of God’s abiding presence. This is about embracing a rule of life – which is not a set of commands that gets you into trouble if you break them; but is really a railing; something to hold onto that resonates and reinforces God’s promise. And I see people holding onto it a lot.

Justice. When I grew up in the Episcopal Church, the congregation was often seen as an island in the community. A place where people retreated to. As I look out from my vantage point, I see our congregations becoming centers of hope and justice for the community. Which means that the church knows the needs, concerns, pain and hope of the community – and offers a pastoral and prophetic response to them. Which means that people in our congregations are committed to being in the community; helping to level the playing field – so that the connection from one person to another is not over a mountain of difference or a chasm of prejudice or a hydraulic of misunderstanding; but is a relationship of soul to soul so that people can learn from each other – and from the Spirit which is the energy between them. I see a diocese in which all life long relationships marked by fidelity and commitment are honored and blessed – and that we continue to join with the passion and effort of so many to provide marriage equality in New Jersey.

I will talk about radical hospitality in a moment, but I want to inventory some other things that our flashlights of hope point us to – as we journey on the conveyance of the mission statement with the treasure of our core values. I envision a deacon in every congregation. I see our new young adult ministry – now called Newark ACTS, being an opportunity to match young adults desire to serve with our many places in need – beginning in Newark and Jersey City – but moving out to Paterson and Dover and Warren and Sussex counties. And through their service, these young adults will be exposed to the inequity of our educational, social and economic systems – and as they are empowered to act as agents of change, they begin by changing the rest of us.

I see planned giving being an enormous opportunity for us to bequeath a legacy of our faith to future generations – that matches the desire that long- standing members of congregations have to support their church beyond their lifetime – with the future needs of those congregations – by holding an annual diocesan event that grows in number and commitment and passion from year to year.

I see the Alleluia Fund as an ongoing opportunity for individual and congregational outreach giving – with a clear focus and deliberate intent to move beyond assisting budgets to leveraging change. The Alleluia Fund is an opportunity to respond mightily, as we have already seen in response to the Haiti crisis, to include other areas of need.

I envision a diocese in which discernment and discipleship are a part of our DNA – and spiritual practices come so naturally that we don’t call it a program. I envision a diocese in which the distinction between clergy and the rest of the baptized is a matter of detail, because everyone is serious about discipleship. I envision a diocese in which we can clearly – and honestly, say that we are all in this together – and our sharing ourselves and our resources with one another is not done out of a sense of obligation, but is yet another act of hospitality.

I see a diocese in which the felt need to generate program is scrapped in favor of the desire to engage in mission – to the extent we can say to one another, “it’s the mission, stupid”; and hear it, not as a put-down, but as an invitation to take an adventure together with the living Christ.

Finally, I see a diocese that can take seriously a hydraulic that I see growing in ferocity and size. It is the hydraulic of xenophobia – which literally means fear of the stranger. The messages that we receive daily warn us to stay safe. The subliminal message is that we are not. The temptation is to hide under a rock – or sit at a computer – or live our life in a silo. Away from the stranger – because you can never be too careful. Every advertising agency in America sells personal satisfaction. I submit they broadcast clever – if not ruthless, messages to build yourself up with the expectation that it will distance you from the stranger. Terrorism, which every day seems a little closer to home – is xenophobia in the extreme – because its intent is to destroy the stranger. And as the incidence of terrorism grows, the xenophobia quotient goes up.

The opposite of xenophobia is xenophilia – love of stranger. This is what Jesus did. He welcomed, he embraced – he loved the stranger. This is what ubuntu (I am because we are) calls us to – this is what radical hospitality is all about. In a world that is becoming more phobic and inward looking, we need to go out into the world – to become a trained corps of xenophiles; people who embrace the stranger; people who love the stranger.

Why? Because we are not strangers. We are brothers and sisters – and the challenge is to become people who are equipped and empowered to engage the world with that message. The Benedictine directive – which I see us adopting in our common life – says that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome Christ. This is radical hospitality: the other person becomes more important than we are – because they bear the image of God, no matter how unfamiliar he or she may be to us. In a world that systemically and relentlessly seems to keep us apart as strangers, we have a commandment to see us others as brothers and sisters in God’s ongoing creation. We don’t welcome or embrace the stranger so that the stranger can become like you or like me – but we welcome the stranger to experience the transforming dimension of God’s love.

This diocese has been doing this for a long time. In 1904, 106 years ago, Bishop Edwin Lines talked in his address about “beautiful tolerance for the beliefs of others”. This is a century old call to xenophilia. My brothers and sisters, this is in our DNA.

And we are uniquely situated – in every way, for us to carry this out. There are not many other geographical pockets in this country – nor in the world for that matter, that have so many strangers so near to one another. We have some of the economically poorest communities in America within our diocese; and we have some of the economically wealthiest. In many cases, they are no more than five miles apart from one another. Different languages, cultures, religions. History, practice and prejudice have kept us strangers from one another. What an opportunity to discover God in a new way. In the case of many, if not most, of our congregations, we are not demographic strangers to one another. No matter. Every community across the diocese is filled with strangers to each other; our silos and xenophobia ensure that.

We don’t have to go across the world; we can start by going across the street.

So – what I see, is a diocese that dares to embrace the stranger; is willing to listen to the story of the stranger; to be transformed by the stranger – and through all of that to be brought deeper into relationship with God.

This is countercultural. It may seem radical. So be it. It is what we have been doing; what we are called to do. It is what God calls us to be. Take a deep breath. We’re going deeper – with the hope and justice of Jesus.

God bless us all on this adventure.