Tell Your Story: Bishop DeDe’s Address to the 149th Diocesan Convention
Watch: Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe’s address to the 149th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York on Saturday, November 11, 2017. Transcript follows.
Come Holy Spirit, give us ears to hear. And courageous hearts to respond. Amen.
What a glorious moment this is! How great is this? That the Diocese of Central New York is gathered together in worship. Here, and virtually, we have come together to worship God and recognize that what we do together is God’s good work. That what we do together is bigger than any one person or any one diocese and can’t be held in one room. What we do transcends time together and space. The God of all that is, is in us. And it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.
I’m so honored to start our time and to continue our time. It’s hard to believe that for over one year, you and I have ministered together as the people of God in this place. Isn’t that amazing? Look what we’ve done…
I’ve thought about this moment for so many months. Let’s just hope that I don’t muck it up.
And just so you know, saying the welcome in Dinka was a humbling moment because speaking Dinka is not something I know how to do. But it was important to me to begin that way because the faithfulness of all the people that gather with us changes us, enlightens us, and empowers us. And so it’s my great privilege to try and be vulnerable even if I don’t do it well.
What we’re called to do as God’s people is to try new things even if we’re not so great at them. Because we have to remember a very important thing; the Church is not ours. The Church isn’t our possession. The Church isn’t something we do. The Church isn’t something we created or that we have any real power over. This is a very vulnerable thing for all of us because we like having power over things. We like deciding what’s right and wrong. We like deciding what God should do. In fact, we like deciding what everybody should do.
When I’ve visited some of our churches, I’ve said one of the things about humans is that we really like being right. If you think of any conflict you’re currently having, whether with a family member or neighbor or the world at large, if you only had a chart or graph, you could show them just how right you are. If only someone would listen, you could fix it.
We are very prone to say things like, “You know what they should do?” And my personal favorite, “You know what you should do?” If someone comes to you and says, “You know what you should do?” Say, “Well, how would I do that? Who would I call together? Where would we go? How might we get funding for that? I think God has a call for you.”
You’ve had that experience too, am I right?
Someone told me this week, I don’t know where this came from but some of you probably do, that a prediction was made that at the current rate of decline the Episcopal Church would be nonexistent in 23 years. Did anybody else see this? And I have one very clear statement to make: Rubbish. Absolute rubbish. Because if you want a plan that looks like it’s doomed to fail, have one guy wander around in the wilderness with a group of ragtag followers who never quite understand what he’s talking about, and then give me projections about what’s going to succeed.
Because last year I had this wonderful experience right off. I was going to a very small parish and when I talked with folks beforehand they kept saying, “Well, we’re kind of dying and we don’t really know how much longer we’re going to be here and this is a really hard time for us.” And that’s a sacred journey. And so I went with a very open heart and open arms to see what God is doing in this time in this parish.
Then I got there and there were 15 of us gathered for worship. Half of them were children. Some of them were in the middle of their lives and some were at the end. And I asked questions about, “Well, do you own the property or not own the property? Tell me about your expenses; do you pay your bills? What’s your deficit look like; how much of your endowment are you using?” And I got to say to those folks, “You’re not dying, you’re just small. Small is good. Small is faithful. Small is unique.” So if you’re going to base your ministry on small and large, it may be time to change your mind.
One thing I’ve also been going around and talking about quite a lot – and some of you have heard me talk about this – is repentance. We need repentance, we need to repent. But when I was growing up in Texas and someone would say, “We need to repent” it made me feel small. It said something about what I wasn’t. It said something about how I was lacking in something. But in the Hebrew, repentance actually means to turn again in sorrow and return to the Lord. In Greek, almost better for us, it means change your mind.
And we have an awfully difficult time changing our minds. Especially with things we’ve always believed, things we kind of counted on. We’ve believed them for so long and so diligently, that to change our mind feels so wrong and so hard. But the Holy Spirit alive in us is calling all of us to change our minds, to turn again with sorrow, and to allow the Holy Spirit to do what the Holy Spirit is doing in us.
Because the Holy Spirit is doing something in us. There is something going on in the church that is starting to percolate and bubble up. It’s always been there but it’s brewing. Some of us have really big challenges but the Holy Spirit in you, as Barbara Harris said last year in my consecration, the Holy Spirit in you is greater than the challenge before you. I think the Church is about to change in a way and break open. Where the power of God will be realized in our midst in very real and tangible and transformative ways. Because that is what the Holy Spirit always is. All through generations the Holy Spirit has broken in and picked us up and called us out.
Now I have a question for you this morning, what is your story?
What’s your story? How did you end up in this room? Really, how did you end up here? We like to say things like, “Well, I’m really dedicated to my church.” No, I’m talking about the real story. I’m talking about that moment like Paige shared with us from her story. That moment where you made a decision as an adult, no matter your age, that you were going to have faith be part of your day-to-day life. That it was going to matter enough to you to show up. What happened?
I think if each one of us answered that question, we’ll answer honestly and say, “Well there was just this nudge like Paige said. Or this drawing. Or this sense where I just got up one morning and thought there’s got to be more to life than this.” That’s the Holy Spirit in you. That is the Holy Spirit calling you. And every person who comes to our church and every person we have the opportunity to serve: that’s a moment of the Holy Spirit as well.
We aren’t in charge of the nudges. We aren’t in charge of who does what – the Holy Spirit is. When we come together, it’s the Holy Spirit at work in us that makes what we do important. So if you’ve gotten to where you do the spaghetti supper because you’ve always done the spaghetti supper and someone’s got to do it, so you’re just going to do it… Stop. Stop!
What we do as a church needs to be done out of joy, and out of hope, and especially out of love, and with ministry and offerings to the world. With love, not with “sincere dedication.”
Don’t get me wrong, sincere dedication is really important. Somebody does need to step up and make the spaghetti dinner and that’s really a cool thing, and we’re grateful for that. But if you’re doing it out of obligation and duty in kind of a curmudgeonly way because it’s supposed to be done, then don’t do it because everyone can feel the lack of God’s love in it. Because God’s love calls us in ways that inspires us.
Now in this room, we have four holy orders. We have the deacons and the priests. But we have the “Holy B Team.” And if you’re wondering what the Holy B Team is, it’s the laity. You’re a holy order, laity. And when I say B Team, I don’t mean A and B like football. I mean B as in B E. You be here before the clergy came. You’ll be here while they’re there, but you’ll be there after they’re gone. Oh yes you will!
And I love that I’m looking out here and most people who clapped don’t have collars on.
I’ve learned a few things about this diocese that I’ll share with you. This diocese has these two very strong qualities: One, there’s a real lovely colloquialism about you. You have a very ordered way about you. And before you get too far down that road, you’re a group of rebels. At any given moment, you may feel like, “We’ve always done it this way.” Or you may feel like, “Well, I’m not doing that anymore because I’m going to go with something different.”
There’s four holy orders here, the Holy B Team, the laity who’ll be here. You have a calling just as surely as any of us. You’re calling is to be who God has called you to be. At work, in the marketplace, on the public square, with your friends and neighbors. You’re the people who get up in the morning and go, “Oh, Harriet was having surgery today. I need to call and see if she needs help with meals for her family.” You’re the people who wake up in the middle of the night and think about the neighbor who you don’t think you’ve seen for a while and you just have to pray for them.
You’re the people who really notice that something needs to be done at the church so you go there early in the morning to work on that. You’re the people who have the calling to be God alive at work in that place. This is something that those of us who have other callings can’t do because God’s at work in you.
And you are enough. You’re enough. Because God in you is enough. You don’t need someone else.
We’re not waiting for the calvalry. We’re not waiting for the next new idea. Sorry Dwight. Because when I talk about Dwight’s idea, it’s an old idea: What is God calling you to do?
God’s calling you to have a relationship. God’s calling you to ultimate relationship, to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. God is calling you into relationship. Now what will you do about it? How are we going to stop being people who try to get people to come into our church and how are we going to start being the church that goes out with a message to proclaim?
We have the diocesan cross up on the screens. I have to remember to say this, some people don’t know this, and I always forget this because I used to know this diocese, so I knew this story pretty early on: notice how the cross is made up of people. Four holy orders of people. The diocesan cross proclaims to the world what we’re about these four holy orders, united for the service of Jesus. That’s what that cross is saying in the way it’s depicted with four people in the cross.
The deacons. The deacons’ role is not the role of a layperson. And the deacons know this, because we talk about this, but if a deacon can empower a layperson to do something, the layperson needs to do it, not the deacon. Because the deacon’s role that they’ve been called to is to connect the world with the church and the church with the world. To empower the going out. There are real true missioners going to the prisoners and taking people with them to empower more people to be able to partake in this ministry and feel their calling. The deacons are the engines of the Diocese. The little engines that could. And some of them aren’t too little, they’re big engines that can. Amen?
The deacons help us in our ministries and the priests are the presbyters; they preach and teach and empower. The role of the priest is to build up the laity for service and to be in communion with me so that, together, we can help the laity be the church.
The church needs all of us functioning within each holy order so that we can proclaim Jesus together to the world.
We have good news to proclaim as we are, who we are. If you’re waiting to be someone different in order to go proclaim, don’t! God called you and created you as you are. Healed you and redeemed you as you are. So your unique skills and talents are just what we’re waiting for. We’re waiting for you. And we’re celebrating you. You’re enough. Because God in you is enough.
Now when I was at St. Peters of the Woods in my former life as just a priest… I was going to say “just” because for me, being a priest was such an honor and a privilege that I never thought I would get to have. And I can’t even describe to you…
But when I was in that former role, I would start meetings by praying for the people who were driving by. Praying for the people who were outside the church, that something we were about to do would matter to them. That God would be with them in whatever their walk of life, whatever their religion, that God would be present to them.
We’ve kind of gotten out of the habit of praying for people and engaging with people and wanting them to have a relationship with God. Because we want to be respectful of them, and that’s a very good quality, but we also want to be praying for people. Something really remarkable happened during the renewal of vows when I was up in Watertown. What happened was, I shared this, I shared about how we used to pray for people driving by. And after the service, two people came up and I don’t know if they’re here, but two people came up to me and said, “You were praying for me.” And I said, “I was what? What?” Well sure, of course I was, I pray for a lot of people. And she said, “No, my daughter lives around the block from that church and I used to drive by it all the time. And not long ago, we felt the call to come back to church.”
Pray for people. Keep your eyes open, because what we have is what people really want, which is community, hope, love, acceptance. The beauty of our church is that we accept people no matter where they are on life’s journey. People of all beliefs, people of all opinions, people of all walks of life. Diversity is what makes us strong. Because in the diversity of our church is where we meet the Holy Spirit at work. It’s where we encounter the risen life of Jesus.
Just a minute ago we sang a hymn that said the resurrection of Jesus continues. It has that wonderful line in the hymn about how it happens over and over. And it does because it happens in you.
How many of you have started to feel like maybe it just isn’t enough anymore? Maybe what we do isn’t what people want because they don’t really come in and do the same things? The answer is that’s probably true. People may not want to come in and do the same things that have always been done because what feeds them may be something different. And that’s probably where we need to repent the most because we’re going to have to change our minds. We’re going to have to let Jesus meet people where Jesus wants to meet people because Jesus is calling us out there to meet them. It will require us to be vulnerable. It will require us to believe that God in us is enough. It may even push us back to growing in our own relationship before we seek to serve other persons.
You have a calling by God. So what is your story? How did you come to be here? What is God really doing in your heart and how might God be calling that out of all of us?
There’s a great saying, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” What would you do? Or, for some of our churches, let’s put it a different way. What would you do if you had all the money you’d ever need? What if money wasn’t an issue? Because let me tell you something. It’s really not the issue.
The issue is will we say the words? Will we go and build the relationship? Last year I said to you, and I’ve said it all year; relationship, relationship, relationship. Your relationship with God, your relationship with your neighbor. Will we go and build a relationship or do we really not want to know our neighbors? Because apparently Jesus didn’t understand who our neighbors really are. It’s all fine and good to talk about love your neighbor, but you haven’t met mine.
The cross on that screen didn’t look like that with Jesus. It was not so neat and clean. It was hard, sorrowing. The gift and the power of our faith is there is no tragedy, no horror, no awfulness that isn’t intrinsically a part of what we believe – because of Jesus on the cross. Because of what happens when our sinfulness meets holiness. And that’s just an ageless, timeless story that hasn’t changed at all.
The world is hurting. If we knew that outside that door people were on fire, we would all jump up, take the pitchers of water, run out, try to put the fire out. Well understand me, the world is on fire, people are hurting.
Right this minute, in Syracuse, we’re number one. In the State of New York, outside of Manhattan itself we are number one for homeless high school students. Number one. Right now in our neighborhood, someone’s starving. This is especially true if you live in a rural area. Rural poverty is significant all around us. Right now, outside of those doors, people are wondering if life is really worth living and that may not be any different than inside this room. Some of us are feeling lonely and isolated and hurting and alone. And we, too, wonder how long? How long can we make it?
The love of Jesus is how long. It’s eternal, full, robust, enabled today. The love of Jesus in you heals you. The love of Jesus in your community, brings you hope. But first our communities have to be healthy. They can’t be toxic. They can’t only be for the in-crowd, whoever that in-crowd may look like. We need repentance. We need to change our mind. We need to stop being so worried about the future of the church and whether the church will last and start being really concerned about sharing the love of Jesus.
How many times do you hear people say, “Well, what would happen if we all went out those doors and in authentic, real, helpful ways, talked about our love of God?” Yeah, that isn’t happening, is it? But what would happen? Look around, look at how many of you there are. If every one of you went to your place and talked about your love of Jesus, just shared your story, it would transform Central New York. It would transform this diocese. It’s our stories that are the places of encounter with Jesus. The gospelers don’t tell you a whole bunch of, “Well, you should really be doing this.” The gospelers tell us the story.
So tell your story. Tell your story and what God has done in you. Tell your story and how the love of God has transformed you. The story is enough. Because the story is really the place where we’ve encountered Jesus.
Now I want to close with my own story so you know this isn’t just about me telling you to go do it and I’ll stay here eating bonbons. I can’t remember the last time I ate a bonbon. I say that all the time. We might have to put that on the to-do list. I always say, “Well I’m just going to sit and eat bonbons.” Maybe it’s because I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten one…
Anyway… A year and a half ago I had a very clear plan of what I was going to do with my life. Very clear. It was so clear in fact, I was having meetings about it. I had my calling, I had my spiritual director, and I felt pretty good about the next steps. I had a clear plan. I could have charted it in a graph for you. And the people with whom I was talking were really excited too. They were like, “Oh, this is great. Yeah, we could do that.” My calling in my mind was to be a seminary professor. I was very clear about that. I love academia. I have to refrain from using Greek words. And it’s not been easy. I actually had for a moment on my iPad the word theodicy, but I took it off.
I famously preached a children’s sermon one time and I did include, true story, sad to tell you, the word “Johannine.” As the children stared at me blankly, I quickly realized, this isn’t working for me.
So I was all ready, I was going to be a seminary professor. Really feeling good about it. And then a friend said, “I’m going to put your name forward for something.” And I said, “No, that’s okay because I’m already in the process of something and it’s good.” And she said, “No I really want to put your name forward to be bishop.” And I said, “I don’t want to be a bishop. Don’t. That’s just a lot and I could never be that. I’m just glad they let me be a priest, I could never aspire to that.”
So I went to my spiritual director and we were talking and we talked about all this ministry stuff. And at the end she said, “Well, tell me about how you’re feeling called.” So I told her my plan, how things were coming together, it was going very well. At the end I just casually mentioned this silly idea that came up and kind of laughed about it and she said, “Well, did you pray about it?” No, I didn’t pray about it. Silly person. No, I’ve got it figured out. This is what I do. I’m a teacher, it’s good, we’re going to do that.
Of course, when your spiritual director tells you, “You need to pray about this,” you pray about it. So, as soon as I started praying about it, I realized something terrible, which is that God is actually in charge. And it’s kind of hard sometimes when you realize God’s actually in charge because then you realize you’re going to go do what God tells you to do. I will tell you now, a year and a half later, if I could say something to myself at that moment where I was wrestling with God and saying, “I won’t do that. That’s a dumb idea because I’m just going to do what I know how to do,” I would go back and say to myself, “God’s plan is better than yours.”
God’s plan is better than yours. God’s love is more powerful. God’s calling for you is deeper and richer than you could ever know. But it’s going to start with one very important moment. The moment where you say, “Yes.” “Yes Lord, I will go where you send me and I will say the words you put on my heart. Yes Lord, I will change. Yes Lord, your love in my life means more than my likes and dislikes.”
And let me be clear with you, when God calls you, you can often know because it’s this thing that scares you the most. If you look at something and say, “I really hate doing that; that scares me.” You might as well just suck it up. Get a friend – notice that Jesus always sends you together, you go together, and just go for it.
God is at work in this diocese in powerful ways. For us to encourage people to have a relationship with their creator, we’re going to have to repent. We’re going to have to change our minds and we may have to do something new; all of us, including that person in your church that you can picture having a really difficult time with the idea that you’re going to change how you minister. You know who that person is – it may be you. I hope not, but it could be. But then you say, “We’re not going to do it the way we’ve always done it. We’re going to try a new thing and we might fail.” Failure isn’t an option because the Holy Spirit isn’t going to allow you to fail! But I’ll tell you what is an option; that thing that you think has to happen may not be the thing that God thinks has to happen. And it’s probably better that way.
Every day I get up in the morning and I am called to do the thing that I love most in this world which is be your bishop. I love being your bishop and I love you. I love the Diocese of Central New York and I am proud of you as a diocese. Look who you are. 90% of you feed people, 70% clothe people. We have nurses. We have people who are willing to be filmed who don’t ever like to talk in public. I can’t see her but I know Elaine’s here somewhere.
You are amazing at being community. You are amazing at welcoming people. You struggle with it sometimes but you do it. And you stick together to work through things. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to stick together and be the gospel of Jesus alive in this place – the laity, the deacons, the priests, and me as your bishop. We’re going to share the gospel of Jesus with the people in this room and outside this room so that no person is alone. So no person is isolated anymore and so people have what they need to become whole. Because that is what the love of Jesus does. The love of Jesus calls us to be people in relationship, holding us in the tender mercy of God’s love and grace. All people. All places.
So what is your story? When’s the last time you shared it with someone? Especially a stranger?
When’s the last time you said to someone, “I love God. This is my story.”
“I love Jesus. This is my story.”
“I believe that God’s love can cast out fear and this is when I experienced it.”
“I was afraid to say yes, and now I give thanks every day for God’s goodness. And I’m humbled by it.”
Tell the story.