The Bishop’s Address at Diocesan Convention’s Eucharist
Convention Address 2012,
The 144th Convention of the Diocese of Central New York
Deuteronomy 8:1-10; Psalm 80; Luke 13:6-9
This address is an invitation. It is an invitation to all of you and all of the people back in the parishes you represent, to be willing to look at our faith, our tradition, our beloved Church, and ponder it anew, so that as our diocesan mission statement says, we can faithfully be “The passionate presence of Christ for one another and the world we are called to serve.” It is the awe-inducing possibility we are given by God to hold things deeply in new ways, while remaining rooted in our history. We can be about reconsidering what it means to be a faithful person in Christ; what it means to be church; what it means to be in relationship with one another locally and globally; how we understand and interpret our tradition; make choices in what words we use to describe and articulate our faith; or even how we talk about God. This is happening and has been happening all through the Church’s history, but we are called by the Spirit to continue that conversation even now. So with me once again, secure in God’s goodness and mercy as Hymn #390 bids us, “ponder anew what the Almighty can do, who with his love doth befriend thee.”
So I turn, oddly you might think, to the parable of the fig tree in Luke’s Gospel. As recounted by Luke it varies in slightly different ways in placement and content as compared to Matthew and Mark. In order to even invite myself to ponder this parable anew, I must look at my experience of a fig tree.
As a boy in Baltimore, I have fond memories of such a tree in the backyard of my childhood home. My father and I planted the tree together, as we would other fruit trees over the years. I found the shape of the leaves intriguing, especially as the tree grew over a period of my young years from the ages of four to eight. Pretending to be my favorite Baltimore Oriole, Brooks Robinson, we were careful when playing catch or rundown in the smallish backyard not to damage those precious stems and leaves. I remember the coming spring of the first full year of the tree’s presence in our yard and the expectation of fruit. I also remember the disappointment when no fruit appeared. Hope did not dim, however, and we waited, this boy not so patiently, to see what might be different the next year.
As the days lengthened there it was. Hope identified and taking shape. From the infancy of a hard pale green knob, they would mature to take on a violet glow as the flesh of the fruit expanded into expectant ripeness. If walking near the tree, an aroma like that of honey would draw me into its spell. I wonder if any of you have ever eaten a sun-warmed fig, seemingly ready to jump from the stem right into one’s hand?
I would look for the fattest ones, the ones just beginning to show a split which signaled that when pierced by that first bite, the explosion of sweetness that occurred when breaking through the skin would not only delight the palate, but the soul as well. Julian of Norwich saw the fullness of the Kingdom of God in a hazelnut. I saw it in a fig. And it was very GOOD.
So it is with such an experience in mind that I view the man as he comes upon the fig tree in this parable. Surely it is my projection, but since he too in his life must have tasted the wonder of a succulent fig, he must have been disappointed to find no fruit on the tree, just as I was that first year.
Whatever the reason for its barrenness, I say, don’t blame the tree. I would like us to look at this parable and ponder it anew because I also think it may help us re-imagine or even reinterpret our present time in our life in this Diocese and indeed the wider church. Looking at our aging parishes and infrastructure as well as our aging congregations, we sometimes bemoan that there are less people in our pews than in the 1950’s and 60’s. We often conclude that somehow we are doing something wrong or perhaps what we are dealing with is a judgment on not having enough faith or somehow not doing things right. I believe that such thinking is completely wrongheaded.
In the recent conference with Diana Butler Bass, she guided us to see that much of what we deal with as parishes in our age is not our fault at all. It is the result of shifting demographics and the sea change in cultural expectations. We also tend to forget that the churches some of us experienced in the 50’s and 60’s, as regards the number of people in church, were a blip on the screen in North American Christianity.
What I see in this parable is an invitation to hope. The barrenness holds a promise and it is in the tree that is still there. Even my own pear trees this year, which bore no fruit because of the late spring freeze, were lush and ready to bear fruit next year. Certainly Jesus is calling people to pay attention and move away from ways of being that do not give life, yet this parable shows us, in the words of Robert Farrar Capon, “grace remains sovereign over judgment.” It is a parable of compassion where the barrenness holds a promise, and it is in the tree that is still there. It leaves open the possibility of next year and lights a fire of hope for all that can yet be! As long as there is a tree, even a barren one, there is hope. Too often we look at barrenness, our barrenness, as a malady rather than the invitation and promise that it is. Pondering anew and rethinking and reimagining what we can be is the digging and good old manure of the parable. And let me tell you, when one can look at a manure pile like outside my horse barn and see hope, that is saying something.
What if, for instance, the small parish in a village community may in fact be called to be authentically just that. We can drop the idolatry of the mega church. Our ministry is not identified in the parochial report. We need not pine for the old days. We can, however, anticipate a new future in Christ. What if we shifted our models of leadership, lay and ordained, from merely being the ones who run the place and keep order, to center on being the leaders of transformational communities? This is the kind of preparation we hope to be doing in our ongoing focus on formation efforts in the Diocese. The tree can often seem barren, but Jesus knows the taste of the fig and it is the fullness of God among us. This is not looking through rose colored glasses – this is the promise of the Gospel!
If you need any more convincing, look at Israel’s experience of the wilderness in Deuteronomy today. The wilderness is another kind of barrenness. We find here an appeal to the people’s memory that in the wilderness they learned of their complete dependence upon God. It is in the wilderness that God came to know what was in their heart, teaching them that self-sufficiency is not the way to life, but it is to be found in a complete dependence upon God’s mercies. The promise of course is the good land, “…a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates…” Do we need to be reminded that it was in the wilderness that Israel would be called to faithfulness and where their identity as God’s people was forged?
In the same manner, it was the Holy Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness and where he became clear about his mission and for what he was called – his true purpose of self-offering love. Jesus was tempted to power rather than self-offering. Maybe the church, no longer being in a position of power in the culture, is a good thing. What I would ask us to ponder anew is the possibility that barrenness and wilderness are a part of the fabric of life, and if we are so graced, it will break our heart open to new possibilities of hope, and grace and love. I think for Jesus, the wilderness may have caught his heart off-guard and blown it open, to paraphrase the poet Seamus Heaney. We never know fully where love may take us, but again from Julian of Norwich, “love was his meaning.”
In what I believe was an extraordinary prophetic word way back in 1985, the Rev. Herbert O’Driscoll, Anglican preacher extraordinaire, said that our address in this time IS wilderness. So…what if…what if this time of our church-life wilderness, in the midst of our anxiety and fear about the future, and even as we sometimes mourn the death of what was, is in fact what we are given by God and where we are called to be faithful? If we can ponder the barren wilderness anew, we may be able to see this time as gift and not a threat – a place where we can become re-centered and clear as to why we exist and who we really are before God.
We live, I believe in a future/past disconnect where all that once made sense does no longer. Yet the breakdown of church as institution may in fact be a good thing. Could it even be a movement of the Holy Spirit? So that, in the words of Deuteronomy: We might live and increase, so that we can know what is in our heart and know the promise of the good land. The Israelites and Jesus were being asked to ponder anew! And so are we.
So if this time of uncertainty, our barren wilderness experience, is a gift and a call, how might we respond? Some of you will remember when Diana Butler Bass was with us that some of us asked, more than once, what is it we can do? She was careful not to suggest any magic answers. She in fact said there are no fixes and that we needed to come to the answers within our faith communities in our living and in developing our relationships. Our temptation is to find the fix, however, and we too often do so with technical fixes rather than the harder work of adaptive change. Let me give you an example from Hurricane Sandy.
Parts of Rhode Island and Connecticut fared well through the storm. Why? – Because they had 14 foot sea walls that held back the storm surge. Some are now calling for such sea walls to be built below Manhattan and other low-lying areas. Technical fixes to be sure. But the technical fixes do not address what most scientists believe will be increasingly severe and more frequent storm events. The sea walls do not address the adaptive changes necessary, such as severely limiting our behaviors that rely on an addiction to fossil fuels and raise sea levels.
Likewise in the church, we can focus on technical changes, or we can be about the adaptive work necessary. I believe we are being called in this time to cease from being rectors and CEO’s and program directors and institutional regulators. We need priests and deacons and bishops and vestries and pastoral leaders to be first and foremost leaders of transformational communities.
Our operating metaphor as Christians is death and resurrection. It requires that something dies, becomes barren, so that new life can spring forth. In a recent interview, Bob Dylan said this, “There is the old and the new and you have to connect to them both. The old goes out and the new comes in, but there is no sharp borderline. The old is still ending while the new enters the scene…before you know it, everything is new, and what happened to the old? It’s like a magician trick, but you have to keep connecting with it.”
One of the conversations we have been having is that in our formation work we might spend a good amount of time working, with aspirants to Holy Orders as well as lay leadership, in community organizing. My dream: What if our communities and neighborhoods and villages could not imagine existing without our local church’s presence in mission through feeding, teaching, challenging systems that keep people in poverty, being communities of deep prayer and Gospel action. “Restore us O God of hosts,” Psalm 80 pleads. Ponder anew!
What if, and this is a bigger deal than we might realize, we plumb the depths of our tradition and find new ways to talk about God. For example, we could shift from thinking about an interventionist God that on occasion drops in on creation at various points and not at others, to do some marvelous thing here and there, but by necessity, not somewhere else. This makes us look theologically silly and much of the culture just doesn’t buy it.
Ponder anew then showing God not as coming down from somewhere else and intervening in a process where he was absent before, but as God emerging from what God has already created as holy and making known what is already true about the whole creation: that it is blessed, good and holy. This is the sacramental principle. So rather than an alien presence from above, God is an emanating presence from among and within us. Then all of our actions, even sacramental ones such as Baptism and Eucharist, are real presences of a reality that was present among us all along. The consecration of bread and wine at the Eucharist is not then a presence that was not there before, but particular manifestations at a particular point of a mystery and presence that was never absent at any point. Every moment then participates in eternity; or is eternity that participates in every moment?
And then there is church speak, which to much of the culture makes no sense. Code words like redemption, salvation or sin no longer carry intelligible meaning, even for many people in our pews. Much of this is a turn-off to those not a part of the church who primarily look at us and describe us with the word “judgmental,” and therefore want no part of what we are selling. Do you know that when I use the voice identification abilities of my iPhone to send a message or make notes, that it does not even recognize the word “sin?” It keeps wanting to print the word “send,” s-e-n-d. Although I have not yet read it, I like the title of Marcus Borg’s new book, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored. Of the word “redemption” he says, “It is now narrowly understood as Jesus saving us from our sins so we can go to heaven. But in the Bible it refers to being set free from slavery.” Ponder anew!
Many of you have heard me say that in this time it is no longer each person for him or herself. It is no longer each parish for itself. I want to expand that to say that it is no longer each diocese for itself. Just last week, in conversation with the bishops of Western New York and Rochester, we developed and sent off the first stab at a proposal that would include the three of our dioceses as well as the Diocese of Albany in a new venture of cooperation and bold leadership development work funded and supported by Trinity Church Wall Street. Ponder anew!
In the Board, we are continuing conversations that began in the Youth Council, developing new ideas for formation of youth in the Diocese that forge new strategic territory in forming souls for 21st century realities. Stay tuned and ponder anew!
These things are still very new in development, but hopefully they bear the promise of fruit yet to be realized in our barrenness, yet creating the possibility of a new sense of wonder among us. Diane Ackerman has said, “wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table.” How might we reclaim a sense of wonder in all we do, in our life of prayer, our liturgical life, our communal activities, an attitude of abject gratefulness? “Even a tiny fleck of it,” she says, “stops time.”
So it is with hope-filled wonder I direct your attention to the portal. Notice the aging arch, built of stone of what we presume was once a great edifice. Yet we are not trapped by it. It is our launching place as we ascend the steps to a doorway and a landscape that opens onto an infinite palette of possibility. We are beckoned, by God, secure in the love that befriends us. The invitation? Ponder anew!
The Rt. Rev. Gladstone B. Adams III