Good morning, and welcome to the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church! My name is Gay Clark Jennings, and I’m a deputy.
Today is a big day. For us deputies, it’s our first chance to be together in three years, and it’s our first chance to welcome our 398 new members. First-time deputies account for 46 percent of our house, and taken together, first- and second-time deputies make up 66 percent. The potential is enormous!
Today is also our chance to meet the nominees for presiding bishop in person and hear each one’s vision for how he would help lead the Episcopal Church into the future God wants for us. I’m looking forward to this afternoon.
Now, I’m sure it’s a coincidence that we’re greeting our presiding bishop nominees on the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. And I’m sure we will all enjoy the special lunch of locusts and wild honey that the Salt Palace staff has prepared for us.
But I think it’s not a coincidence that we’re beginning the work of the 78th General Convention on this feast day. Here’s how Luke’s Gospel tells part of the story:
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Now, remember that Zechariah had been struck dumb some months earlier for doubting God’s messenger. He didn’t think things could change for him and Elizabeth, and he said so. It appears that he came by this reluctance honestly: his neighbors and relatives who came to circumcise the baby didn’t even think it was okay to step out by trying a new name.
But Zechariah had spent his period of silence well. And when the people assembled had witnessed the miracle and heard his praise, they knew they were on the edge of a strange and wonderful future.
“What then will this child become?” they asked. What indeed?
You won’t be surprised that now I’m going to turn from preaching to meddling. The first thing I want to point out about this reading is that in order for Zechariah to hear God speaking to him, he had to stop talking and listen. For a long time. You know who you are.
The second thing to notice about this text is that what’s at stake is the baby’s identity. God is moving, strange things are happening, and no one is sure what’s going on. So they disagree about what the baby’s name should be. We have had a version of this naming problem in the Episcopal Church these last few years, as you may have noticed.
Just like Zechariah, we are standing on a boundary between the old and the new. Gathering here to wrestle with the future of our beloved Episcopal Church, we are standing on holy ground, straining to hear God speaking above all the noise. And we are not quite sure who we are.
Whenever I find myself on a boundary, Paul Tillich is my go-to guy. Tillich, a theologian who taught at Harvard Divinity School and the University of Chicago, said this in a sermon reprinted in his collection titled “The Shaking of the Foundations:”
Nothing is more surprising than the rise of the new within ourselves. We do not foresee or observe its growth. We do not try to produce it by the strength of our will, by the power of our emotion, or by the clarity of our intellect. On the contrary, we feel that by trying to produce it we prevent its coming. By trying, we would produce the old in the power of the old, but not the new. The new is being born in us, just when we least believe in it. It appears in remote corners of our souls which we have neglected for a long time.
So, thinking of Zechariah and of Tillich, for a few moments, let’s quiet the din around us and listen for the new within ourselves. Let’s turn down the volume on the Pew Center’s statistics about the decline of the institutional church, the endless online arguments about what Millennials really want, and what one tweeter recently called the “church decline industrial complex.” Let’s quiet our souls.
When we can do that, I think we’ll sense the rise of the new within ourselves and know, as Tillich says, that it arises from what’s already in the corners of our souls, from what we have been neglecting, discounting or taking for granted.
What will we find there, in the corners of the collective soul of the Episcopal Church?
I think we’ll find our Baptismal Covenant, in which we affirm the Creed, repent of our sins, proclaim the Good News, and promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons and respect the dignity of every human being. All of them—not just the ones with orthodox theology, or any theology; not just the ones who make us comfortable; not just the ones whose understanding of marriage or access to communion or the calendar of commemorations accord with our seminary training or our bishop’s direction. Not just the ones who know how the Virtual Binder works.
I think we’ll find our history of seeking the kingdom of God by distributing authority among clergy, bishops and laypeople so that all voices are heard, all people are welcome, and all visions of justice and mercy are honored.
I think that in the neglected corners of our souls we’ll find the saints who have gone before us. There are a lot of them, and you might be surprised who you’ll find lurking in your soul. As I have been preparing for this General Convention, which marks the 230th anniversary of the House of Deputies, I have been keeping close company with Deputy and later Bishop William White, with Deputy Thurgood Marshall and Seminarian Jonathan Daniels, with the women of the Philadelphia Eleven, and with my sister Pamela Chinnis, the first woman to lead this house, just to name a few.
By the way, on Saturday after the Community Eucharist, we’ll have a party to celebrate the 230th anniversary of the House of Deputies, and we’ll celebrate these saints who have gone before us and some saints who still blessedly walk among us. I’m told that the bishops have other plans for Saturday, but if you’re nice to your deputies, they might save some M&Ms for you.
Now, unless you’ve been off the Internet for about three years, you know that we’re going to spend a lot of time at this General Convention talking about church structure. I think it is safe to say that we are not always going to agree. I think we have probably had our last unanimous structure vote for a while. And that is okay. Because when we’re talking about structure, we’re really talking about our identity. We’re talking about what’s growing in the neglected corners of our souls. We’re talking about what to name the baby.
We’re talking about our vision of the Beloved Community, and we are asking important questions. Can we restructure in a way that inspires and energizes the people of our church? Can we restructure in a way that continues to respect the gifts of all orders of ministry? We are talking about who we are as the people of God if we are not the church we have always been. We’re talking about what it means to be a deacon or a priest or a bishop if it doesn’t mean what it meant—or what we thought it meant—when we finished a local formation program or seminary. We are talking about the fate of the governance structures through which we have progressed—sometimes haltingly, sometimes kicking and screaming—toward equality for people of color, for women, and for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians. We’re talking about the shared leadership by which we have achieved our prophetic stands on the death penalty–which we have stood against as a church since 1956—on racism, gun safety and poverty, and the enormous amount of work we still have to do. We’re talking about the fact that our governance structures gave many of us a seat at the table for the very first time, but that when we sat down, some of our brothers and sisters stood up and left.
We’re talking about the fact that God isn’t done with us yet.
We’ve got a lot of work to do in the next nine days. Not just meetings and hearings and legislative sessions, but also listening to each other and paying attention to what new things are arising among us. Much of the work we have to do is about our own institutional future. But that’s not all of what we do.
The church isn’t the only segment of our society that’s reeling right now. Income inequality is greater than it has been since 1928, our cities are besieged by gun violence and racial injustice, and too many young black men are caught in the school-to-prison pipeline. Even as we wrestle with the church’s future, we must reckon with its past. We must realize that the long, hard struggle to eliminate discrimination within the church required so much energy and vigilance, that we did not do enough to right the wrongs of discrimination, white privilege, and inequality in the world around us. This summer, especially, we must repent of that. Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, Charleston – General Convention is where we Episcopalians have the ability not only to proclaim that black lives matter, but also to take concrete action toward ending racism and achieving God’s dream of racial reconciliation and justice. We can do no less.
We have a lot of work to do. We are people of God who have been shaped, in ways that endure, by our history, by the fundamentals of our faith and by our common prayer. Surely we need to change, to restructure, to adapt, and surely we need to do it drawing upon the strengths of the identity given to us by God and shaped by the saints who have gone before us.
After the baby who Zechariah named John had lived and died, Jesus was traveling when some people brought to him a man who couldn’t hear and couldn’t speak clearly. Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus took him aside, put his fingers in his ears, spat and touched his tongue. “Then looking up to heaven, Jesus sighed and said to him, ‘Ephaphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’”
May we be the man who Jesus healed. This General Convention, may we hear and may we speak, but most of all, my brothers and sisters, may we be opened.