Sermon preached by the Rt. Rev. Dr. DeDe Duncan-Probe, eleventh Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York, at the worship service for the 152nd Diocesan Convention on Sunday, November 15th, 2020. (View the full service here.)
Scripture: Psalm 19:7-14; Isaiah 55:1-13; 2 Corinthians 4:1-10; John 15:-11
Come Holy Spirit, may truth be spoken and heard. Give us ears to hear and courageous hearts to respond. Amen.
What an exciting and memorable weekend. Our first virtual Convention together, our first virtual worship in a Convention together. This has been a weekend of firsts for us, and we are so grateful and I’m very indebted to all who made it possible, especially the technology. It is an amazing thing that we have the ability to gather together across distance and through a virtual medium, that we are still communities of faith gathered in God’s name and that yes, in this virtual reality, God abides with us. We are gathered and we were brought together by God for a purpose, and so we rejoice.
The readings we have read together and prayed together today are readings that speak deeply about what it means to be a person of faith. I wonder for you, what does it mean to be a person of faith? Or to put it another way, how do you feel about death? So often we talk about our fear of death or we don’t talk about it at all. Death is something that really scares us, something that makes us worry, and work, and do things differently all the time. And yet I wonder what we’re more afraid of: to die? Or perhaps we’re more afraid to live, because living actually involves risking. We can do all of the right things, we can wear our seatbelts, we can even wear our masks, and yet we will die. That is certain. But we can do all of those right things and still never live.
For you this day, God has called you. God has called your parish. God has called our Diocese. God has called us as people of God to live for Jesus, to go out to proclaim something that’s bigger than our fear of death, something that’s more important than those things that keep us constrained or make us want to play small. God is calling us to be people of faith, which by its nature means we must be people of courage. To have the courage to hear God and then respond is no small thing. It often means we’re going to be embarrassed, feel awkward, have to face our vulnerability, maybe learn a new thing, and dare I say it, we might find out we were wrong and need to repent. For the Christian, faith really begins with repentance, with the recognition of death, and especially most specifically the Christian faith begins with a tragedy.
The cross behind me represents the Diocese. If you notice the cross, you can see that it also looks like little caricatures of people at the ends. It’s meant to. It’s the community of faith, of lay, deacon, priest, and bishop working together to serve Jesus in all we do, joined by the cross of Jesus. And so we begin with this place of repentance, of learning that life is about how we live for Jesus. For you see, the world cannot be healed by love unless we learn to love God, one another, and all God’s creation. And we cannot learn to love God, one another, and all God’s creation if we don’t pray, if we don’t listen to truths that we don’t yet know, listen beyond our understandings, and yes, especially listen beyond our fears. We need to listen beyond what we don’t want to hear about, then connect with one another beyond our comfort zones, joining together more closely. We then need to speak words of truth, to share our stories of faith, and respond with all we have, for the good news of Jesus in our midst, that the world might just indeed be healed by love.
But before any of that can happen, we must start with our own intentions of our heart. Are we really willing to live for Jesus?
People ask me all the time about riding a motorcycle and I have to admit, I’d much rather you talk about my golf game. It’s not a good game. It’s not that I play golf well, I just love to play golf, to go out in the early morning, and to be in nature with God. I usually hit a ball badly, but that is just beside the point. It’s just golf. I love playing golf.
But people often talk about me riding a motorcycle and I will confess to you that every time I get on my motorcycle, without fail, every time as I’m getting onto it and as I start it up, that fear hits me. What if I get hurt? What if I die? What if this doesn’t go right? I think what I value about riding a motorcycle, beyond the fun of it and all that, is that moment. Because what we have to understand as people of Jesus Christ is there are many ways to die, but there’s only one thing to live for. We can slip on water. A dear friend of mine died slipping on ice one winter. A young, athletic person hit an ice patch and was gone. There are no guarantees in life, and so we need to look at something and say I’m going to do my best to be safe. I’m going to take precautions. I don’t ride a motorcycle in speed or do other things, but there are many things I do every day that can just as likely harm me or my family. Even such a simple thing as plugging a light switch in. A dear friend of mine died from being electrocuted, not realizing there as a charge on a plug she plugged a lamp into.
Life is hard, and scary, and terrifying, and vulnerable, and can leave us feeling that we have no control because we have no control. For God, that really isn’t the point. For God, the point is that when we have no control, we’re yielded because we know who God is. We know who the ground of all being is. We know what it is to be people of God whose lives are more than our heartbeat or our breath, whose lives are about something bigger than our one piece of thread in the tapestry of the kingdom of God. Only when you and I live our most courageous life, can our thread in that tapestry be the right timbre, have the right weave to it.
Each of you has a calling, it isn’t just for the people who are leading or talking. Each of you has a calling to speak God, to speak your faith and invite others to know that they are deeply loved and profoundly cared for by the ground of all being, the God of love, who is in us, and through us, and around us.
I am grateful to Lual for having read to us in Dinka this passage from 2nd Corinthians 4, and it begins like this, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” Imagine a clay jar. Is there anything quite as, I don’t know, vulnerable? Touch it with a hammer, it’ll shatter. Some of them may be a little bit heavier duty.
We are made extraordinary because of the power of God in us, the power of God in our being, the power of God that can do more than we would ever imagine, but first we have to imagine that we will say “yes” to God. First, we have to step out in faith and say I don’t know how I could possibly do this, but it’s really been on my heart. I really want to call that person. I really want to be involved in this ministry.
I looked this up this morning. I was curious about this. I was thinking about poverty. I was thinking about other people’s reality in our midst. Did you know that in Syracuse, 50% of those who live in poverty are children? Fifty percent. Did you know that in Binghamton, the poverty rate is 33%? Or that in Watertown, it’s 25.6%, or in Utica, 30%, or Elmira, 28%? Did you know in rural areas, there are children who are going without food, who are off the grid? Did you know that there are elderly people and people all around us suffering?
The majority of the poverty in America is shouldered by people of color, indigenous people, and those who have been left out of what we would erroneously call the American Dream. These are not numbers to God. These are God’s beloved children who also have callings, who may be just the people in that tapestry of the kingdom of God to infuse and inform all of us about what it is to be about God.
Now, yesterday during the Convention, Carrie mentioned that I say this a lot, and I do, and I mean no disrespect to St. Francis at all, if it was St. Francis. “Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary, use words.” We do like that because we are people of action, as Carrie said. I mean when you have 90% of congregations feeding people, 70% of congregations clothing people in the Diocese of Central New York, we are about action. But we need to speak words, too, of our rules of life, to speak and to share, involve our ability to communicate our deepest beliefs about God.
In this time in the world, so many people are already talking, it can feel like, why add to that cacophony of voices already speaking? The reason we should add to it is if God is calling you out of your comfort zone to speak, if God is calling you to share your unique story, if God is calling you to listen to someone else’s unique story. But first to have the courage.
Now, this year, 2020, oh my goodness. A lot of things are going to be said about 2020. We’re going to talk about … In the future, I predict COVID-19 is going to come up a lot; pandemic. elections, divisions, partisanship… but do you know what I’m going to talk about in 2020 in years to come? I’m going to talk about when the church is pressed down, it rises up. I’m going to talk about that when we have been the most afraid, we have done courageous things, and we have found God in them.
I’m going to talk about the churches that dare to have virtual worship like we’re having now and found that people from surprising places joined them, gathered with them, and became part of their community. I’m going to talk about what it was like in 2020 to have so many things go wrong, and in the midst of all of that failure to realize that all that really mattered is already here. That God’s love is beyond all those challenges, that God’s grace is greater than all of the brokenness, and that who we are as a community of faith is stronger than the divisions and even the technology, even the inability to gather in person. In this time, we have seen God’s work among us that has built us up in ways we could never have imagined, and we have been courageous. We’ve tried new things and we’ve helped one another.
Do you realize we had a Convention yesterday? A lot of people are having conventions and they’re not doing resolutions because it’s virtual and it’s kind of a mess, and we had a convention with resolutions, and we passed resolutions that are substantive, prophetic, and meaningful for this time in this world.
We’ve committed ourselves to be about something that goes beyond a day-to-day ministry. A world healed by love, what a daring vision we crafted in 2019, that in 2020, we can see the blessing giftedness of it. Yes, the world cannot be healed by love unless we learn to love, unless we have the humility and the grace to admit that we’re wrong and repent, unless we have the courage to step out in faith and say you know what matters more than my fear? The love of Jesus Christ. You know what matters more than my insecurity? My commitment to God. You know what matters more than my self-doubt? God.
For God so loved this world that we abide in God and love. And when we abide in God, we meet Jesus face to face in the most unlikely places. The miracle of ministry, the hardness of ministry: that at times we think, “I just don’t want to do it anymore.” And then we get up that last morning and someone comes in and says, “I wanted to let you know what this has meant to me.”
Courage to live for Jesus comes from a conviction that death is not the final thing. The courage to live for Jesus comes from a knowledge that who we are is greater than the challenge before us.
And so as I think about 2021 and all the things we don’t know about 2021, I think about 2020, and I think two words: Bring it.
God is with us. We are the people of God. We’ve been through pandemics together, a lack of internet, partisanship, selfishness, greed. We’ve been handicapped by institutional racism, and misogyny, and homophobia, and xenophobia. God is greater. God is calling us forward and God’s already there. And so we have hope because we abide in love and we seek a world healed by love.
God loves you. You are a part of God’s tapestry, God’s vineyard.
We may be pressed down but we are not destroyed.
We rise up together and with one voice, say we seek, God, a world healed by love. We will learn, we will pray, we will connect, and listen, speak, and share, and we will respond.