The Bishop’s Address to the 146th Convention
of the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York
November 15, 2014
Isaiah 11:1-9; I Corinthians 12:12-27; Matthew 26:26-30
We know Body Wisdom when we see it. In Montana a Jewish family had a menorah in the window and their home was completely trashed. The next morning, word got out, and by that evening all the people in that community put a menorah in their window. The violence of that community ended because of a connective unification that stopped it. It arises on behalf of a larger purpose and is not based entirely on the knowledge of one person. This makes wisdom collective even as individuals act within its expression.
This is my body (point to self). This is my body (point to the altar). This is my body (gesture to the assembled people). Body Wisdom comes from and leads to all of these locations of the individual and of the assembly, even from outside of ourselves as we chew on sacramental outward and visible signs of the Christ among us and in us all. We ingest whom we already are and are created to be individually and corporately, the Body of Christ.
When Jesus shared a Passover supper with his friends and said, “this is my body,” what did he create? A community! A cosmological moment came to fruition during that Last Meal before his death where all time, past and future, was made present. God’s desire for a new relationship with one another and the created order was again being revealed. We call it the Kingdom, or Reign, of God. Not only is it present now in glimpses, it is also an anticipation of a continually unfolding reality. As with all Body Wisdom, new perspectives are invited and it evokes higher aspirations. Often its emergence is grounded in a different way of listening and brings attention to the immediacy of the moment.
We, as in humankind, have been rescued from all that destroys God’s creation. No longer constrained by death, we are now being made into a new creation as we are defined as Christ’s own forever. Jesus’ life has been “poured out” for forgiveness, thereby creating a community with new possibilities for life. It is this new community for which we have been created, a community that brings life to the world and one another. It has not been created primarily to gather in incessant meetings to repair roofs and replace boilers. We repeat the covenantal meal of relationship on a regular basis in order that we will always remember who we are, to whom we belong, and who God calls us to be.
Then notice what happens. It is really quite stunning. After being identified with Jesus’ broken and wounded body, yes, for God’s Wisdom has become a body of real flesh and blood, before going out from the meal they sing a hymn, probably the Hallel Psalms 115-118. Do you get it? Using their bodies they sing a new relationship into being and it takes every voice to make it so. The purpose is the praise of God as they sing themselves into unity! Then they go out, for from now on, theirs and our sole job is bringing about on earth the Kingdom of Heaven in its fullness – God’s vision of perfect justice and peace.
So what of this new community we have been created to be? St. Paul gives us a compelling image familiar to most of us by naming parts of the body - feet, hands, ears and eyes, as an organic image of the Body of Christ. Where might he have gotten such a picture? All preaching, including that of St. Paul, is done in a context. In Corinth, where St. Paul was ministering to the newly found church, there was a building called the Asclepion. People went there to find healing and left images and renditions of body parts, “ex-votos” as we call them now, to indicate a votive offering of devotion and gratitude for healing (see photo below). Such a practice is still done today all over the world in places of worship and at shrines although more often now with paintings, photographs and hand-written notes. St. Paul very likely borrowed from this cultural reality that he would have known well, prompting him to develop his image of the Body of Christ by naming body parts.
His point, of course, is that we are an organic unity, not derived from ideology or agreement on issues, but out of a relationship with a person, Jesus of Nazareth. Naming various parts of the body as examples of various responsibilities in the faith community, he says that no one part can say to another, “I have no need of you.” Or to say it more positively, we need each other and must find a way to function that way. St. Paul is clear: the Body is one and so it is with Christ. We might call this “Body Wisdom.” It means the end of power plays, manipulation, the running of personal agendas and “my way or the highway” reactivity that takes our marbles and goes home. All are watered of one Spirit. We come from the same source-faucet if you will, for “You are the Body of Christ and individually members of it.”
Let me offer you another image. Have you ever seen a “murmuration?” Hundreds, even thousands of starlings flying together in a whirling, ever-changing pattern is a phenomenon of nature that amazes and delights. Take a look (see link below). How do they do that? As they fly they seem connected as they twist and turn at a moment’s notice.
Scientists have been surprised to learn that the flying pattern of murmurations have more in common with physics than biology. It is now believed that murmurations are similar to other systems, such as crystals forming, avalanches, metals becoming magnetized and liquids turning to gases. These systems are on the edge, which means they are ready to be completely transformed in an instant. Like the elements in these other systems, each starling in a murmuration is connected to every other starling. Body Wisdom! When one turns a phase transition occurs. In St. Paul’s words, “If one suffers, all suffer. If one is honored, all rejoice,” because we have been made, through Jesus, into a new community for God - “This is my body.”
The implicit model of American Christendom we have received and absorbed is that our main job is to break down people’s resistance to going to church – just work harder to get them to come. What is being called forth, however, is vastly different. It is a community able to turn in an instant, to live on an edge that is focused on being the Reign of God present in your community. This is not for the sake of those on the inside of the Church, but for the sake of those of our neighborhoods, whether one block away or half-way around the world. It was John Chrysostom in the 4th century who said, “This is the rule of the most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good…For nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for their neighbor.” Brian McLaren would help us see that “In a pluralistic world, a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers.”
This must be our focus, for as Julia Stetcher said on Twitter through a Lutheran pastor, “We are at serious risk of being a Blockbuster Church in a Netflix world.” We cannot be about protecting self and our own interests. Christianity is a call to a relationship that changes all other relationships. It is our phase transition like the starlings. When we dare to live on the edge and take risks, even to fail, the results we get are like when 40 years ago this year a group of brave women stand together in a church in Philadelphia to be ordained. One was from Central New York and will be recognized later today. We are still reaping the benefits of that Body Wisdom here today in Central New York even as it occurred at great cost for some. The Body Wisdom continues as now it is permissible to ordain women to the episcopate in the Church of England.
This past Monday I sat in the State Capitol building where other New York State bishops and I met with members of the Governor’s staff. One of the things we spoke about is our concern for public education in New York. It was there I learned from a brother bishop of a public school in the South Bronx brought about there by the leadership of an Episcopal Church, where the percentage of students going to college is 98% when the other schools in the area are sending 16% to college. The reason? Some believe that even beyond good educational models, it is the system of love, support and accountability that leads to such positive outcomes. Body Wisdom!
When we gather in Interfaith dialogues with those most different from us and find common compassion and no need to dominate, we build bridges to the other that calls for each being solidly anchored in one’s own tradition in order for the bridge to function. We see this take shape when members of our Diocese reached out to a Sikh community when vigilantes burned their temple to the ground in the mistaken idea that it was Muslim. We saw it when one of our parishes provided a worship space to a Jewish community after the synagogue had been vandalized by bigots. This is the Wisdom of the Body!
And who can deny the great gift we have received as a Diocese from the amazing people of El Salvador? Obispo Martin has been a great friend of this Diocese for many years, indeed, most of his episcopacy. This relationship has brought joy to many in Central New York. We have been enriched in our vision of God’s reign among us because of standing in solidarity with La Iglesia Episcopal Anglicana de El Salvador and they with us over the years. We are a people empowered by this relationship and it has changed who we are and how we see the world. Sitting around a campfire with former Salvadoran guerillas and hearing their stories of pain and horror, I developed a theology of hope that today still informs my faith. Body Wisdom.
Bishop-elect David has been formed in part because of his relationship with us. Many years ago, when he was the priest of Santisima Trinidad, sister parish to St. James’, Skaneateles, he had been hosted several times along with his wife, Irma. Look where that led! I will be present for his consecration on January 31st, in San Salvador. This is the richness of being a part of a worldwide communion. Nothing we do, including your own vestry decisions, are ever done in a vacuum. When one suffers in South Sudan, we all suffer. If one finds new life and a reason to hope through the ministry you offer in your faith community, all rejoice. Body Wisdom.
It was Martin Luther King, Jr., who observed that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We need to participate with God in the bending. It is the hope as shown forth in Christ that urges us forward to live into the great vision of Isaiah. “A shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse.” Rooted in history, connected to the Wisdom of the ages, we discover once again that true religion brings peace where the created order is reconfigured. We are called to make it so. The spirit of the Lord is given to us and throughout the ages to fulfill the mission God gives us, a mission otherwise beyond our mere effort and good intention. Once again we are given a call – to delight in the awesomeness of God, which is, in the Wisdom tradition, the favorite quality of human beings. Be reminded of the words at the entrance to Winchester Cathedral: “You are entering a conversation that was going on long before you were born, and will continue long after you are dead.”
This Diocese, gosh, the whole Church, no the world, needs your wisdom. It is why we cannot say “I have no need of you.” We need, together, to be offering our best to re-imagine our structure in the local parish and diocese along with the entire Episcopal Church, to re-imagine the language we use to communicate eternal truths, to seize the moment God is giving us to assure that the main thing really is the main thing – the Reign of God. I once again call each district grouping of parishes in this Diocese to come together to do this work, to participate in Body Wisdom. The Board and I want to know what you discover. We are reminded in the book The Wisdom of Crowds that, “when more are involved it is more likely we will get it right.” Collective Wisdom tells us it “is about how we come to make sound judgments with others, touched by what is common and decent in all of us.”
I wonder if you would be willing to do a self-assessment in your vestries and parish committees. Sometime soon, perhaps at your next gathering, ask yourselves the following questions:
Are you willing to do everything in your power to be more fully formed as spiritual leaders? What would that look like?
What do you need to undertake in order to strengthen the formational life of your congregation and participate in Body Wisdom?
What will it take for you to move out beyond self-care and survival to be a transformative Kingdom presence in your neighborhood and beyond?
The way to start is “to be so developed in a prayerful, contemplative consciousness that it allows illusions and judgments to fall away,” so Rose Marie Berger would tell us. The purpose of leadership is “not to make the present bearable, but to make the future possible.” It is born in community. If we do this from a deeply centered place rooted in the wisdom way of Jesus, it will lead to action that is life-changing for all. Being a Christian is supposed to be a radical statement. Mature spiritual leadership is rooted in Body Wisdom.
Our focus as a Diocese is going to continue to be formation and mission, the two facets necessary “To be the passionate presence of Christ for one another and the world we are called to serve.” Yes it is all scary. Yes we are filled with anxiety and fear as it appears that so much of what we have known is falling away. I remind you of what I said last year, that our longing for God’s dream needs to exceed our dread of loss. We cling too often to status quo even when it kills us. But we are followers of Jesus. “If we knew where we were going, we would not have to follow anyone” (Francis Wade). Again our call: follow Christ into the unknown and do not do it alone, “for you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
For now? - Pray without ceasing, listen deeply, act boldly. For you are the Wisdom of the Body, as Christ has made you to be.
The Rt. Rev. Gladstone B. Adams III
Diocese of Central New York