Bishop’s Address

2012 Diocesan Convention

A year ago, when many of you left diocesan convention, someone handed you a mug. It was white and purple, it introduced our new diocesan logo, and had a website address that read:

I don’t know about you, but we in the diocesan office have been drinking our coffee and tea out of those mugs for a year now, and the message on the mug has lost none of its punch. “We will see Jesus” is just as powerful today as it was a year ago, and it continues to be the focus of all that we do, from budgeting to deployment to communications.

The phrase, “We will see Jesus,” has several meanings. One such meaning is that of ultimate hope; we wait for the day when the kingdom of God is finally and completely revealed. Another very powerful meaning for me is that we will see Jesus in the form of all the people with whom we work or attend school or share neighborhood life or even in those whom we rarely see because our lives are so very different from theirs, whether due to where we live or class or education. Seeing the risen Christ is part and parcel of resurrection. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus as testified to by the gospels are still happening, and as such, we are open to being surprised in our own gardens and locked rooms and journeys along whatever roads we might be traveling. Jesus is there, waiting for us.

Focusing on resurrection as Christians and consequently seeing the resurrected Christ still walking among us is another way to say that we Christians value relationships above all else. St. Paul talks a lot about the value of the body of Christ, but never about the high value of all the things we might acquire.

To reinforce our calling to value relationships above things is why I remind myself that it is important for my own salvation, my own health, to tithe, and it is why I ask you to tithe your own income, and why I ask congregations to tithe their congregational income, and why I ask that the diocesan budget tithe its income to the work of the wider church. Aside from the power of the theological statement that being generous makes, I have to say that this country would not be in the economic shape it is in today had Christian churches been serious about getting out the message of the primacy of relationships over stuff.

“We will see Jesus” is also my vision for the ongoing work of the Episcopal Church in Arkansas. Many of you heard me last night say that the coming of the kingdom is not something that we sit by and idly wait for, but also something in which we participate in the here and now. The coming of the kingdom and the appearance of the risen Christ are not abstract theological concepts. They are as real and as tangible and as current as when Jesus reminds us in Holy Scripture, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Most of us can easily visualize what visiting people in prison looks like, and how we might go about feeding the hungry, and what it is like to have a clothing drop-off box. We have programs in the church in Arkansas focused on those very things. What I want us to do is consciously focus on how we can better welcome the stranger. We are so comfortable in how we have always done things that it is often hard to see the stranger in our midst, and especially to see the face of Jesus in that stranger who shows up on our doorsteps on Sunday morning.

It is an issue of basic hospitality. We people in this part of the country are usually pretty good at hospitality in our own homes. I remember that whenever anyone came to my parents’ house, the first thing my mom did was start cooking. And if she knew beforehand that they were coming, she cleaned like crazy. Well, truth be known, she cleaned like crazy every week just in case someone might walk in the house. I hope we can exhibit that same sense of hospitality to the strangers who come into our churches. They are looking for meaning in their lives, they are looking for peace after great upheavals in their own hearts, they are looking for a chance to pass on to their children a better way to live, they are looking to be fed on so many levels. They are trying to find other people on the same journey toward God. The way we treat them determines whether or not they will find those things in our midst. If we treat them like Jesus, the odds are that they will. Thus, what we are doing through hospitality is nothing less than holy.

Today I introduce to you a small yet powerful tool called Top Ten Ways to Welcome the Stranger. It is a tool through which we can discover new insights on how to welcome people into our midst. It is centered around the worship experience, which is what the Episcopal Church is known for, and, as I was thinking one day, it is also so closely connected to what we already know how to do, those hospitable actions in our homes of cleaning the house and cooking a meal when someone arrives on our doorstep.

What the Top Ten does is give us ten specific tools that will “form” our welcome to the stranger. Let’s take a look at them.

We have:

Get Ready- know who we are.

Spread the Word – telling who and where we are.

Improve Your Curb Appeal – Clean up the house.

Take time to prepare – Be calm so we can concentrate on others.

Focus on the worshiper – Figure out what the visitor needs.

Make connections – Help the newcomer feel at home.

Include youth and children – If we want younger people, value them.

Offer transformative worship – We are in the presence of God.

Celebrate together after church – Smile, even laugh, and be friendly.

Follow up – Never forget the stranger after a visit.

These tools are a departure point for discussions in each congregation, small or large, wealthy or struggling financially, conservative or liberal. It does not take huge financial resources to be a congregation that focuses on welcoming the stranger. It primarily takes openness to letting God work through us.

Today we are going to take time in smaller sessions for you to talk with people who are already living out the Top Ten in their congregations, how they do everything from getting their church buildings ready to following up after a visitor has been with them. These people are constantly searching for new ways to welcome the stranger and new ways to be hospitable. Their congregations are becoming livelier and healthier as a result. In your Convention Guide you will find a complete Top Ten list and room to take notes about implementing the Top Ten. Later today you will get some postcards to give to the leadership in your congregation to encourage them to go online and take the Top Ten audit, which will allow you to evaluate how effectively your congregation is welcoming the stranger. You will get some posters to put on your walls to remind you of this very important calling. There will also be Top Ten booklets included so you can start the discussion with others.

If you are like me, you hate it when someone catches you flat-footed with a question that you cannot answer, especially about church, so the beginning of this important work is to learn something about our message and The Episcopal Church.

The first step is to get ready. Even though Episcopalians are the most highly educated people of all Christian traditions in this country, I have a feeling that we Episcopalians feel dumb about our faith. That perception (and perhaps the truth behind some of it) needs to change if we are to have an answer when people ask us why they should be a part of this great and ancient Anglican Christian tradition.

Our message is as important now as it was 2000 years ago. I like to boil it down to this: We believe in resurrection. God’s love trumps all. Our story is that divine love conquers even death itself, death being the greatest prison we all face. In a world in which people are being held in place by a variety of captivities, as in being told that God does not love them, whether because of race or class or education or sex or financial status or age or job failures or broken marriages, we have contrasting good news. From the first Easter Day, people began to see the resurrected Christ in the most surprising of people, and we continue to do so in one another.

Our worship tradition has deep roots We have a Book of Common Prayer that we love so much we have been willing to fight over it for centuries. The Prayer Book represents something we have to offer that so many other churches do not: a 1900 year old liturgical tradition of a community at prayer that knows the power of bread and wine shared in the Eucharist. Writers such as Phyllis Tickle remind us that this generation is begging for honest and time-tested worship. You might be amazed at the number of religious groups that are now using some form of our Prayer Book in their worship. We have the genuine article to offer that so many other churches do not. We can offer the best worship in the entire Christian tradition.

Next, what sets us apart from so many other religious groups is that we have made a conscious decision to respect the dignity of every human being. It comes from wanting to see Jesus in the world around us. We have done it through social outreach, as when we go into prisons and staff soup kitchens and stand up for justice in society, and we have done it through treating others as our equals when we have opened our doors to whomever it is that God is sending our way. You don’t see that everywhere in this world.

Next, we engage Holy Scripture honestly; we don’t merely quote it. We take questions about Scripture, Tradition, and Reason seriously. For example, there is a long history in this church of setting science and religion down side by side for real conversation. And you know that this culture needs such conversations. Examples of honest engagement pop up here in Arkansas with our own Institute for Theological Studies in Little Rock and with the thoughtful work done by the clergy in our various congregations. When we take those questions seriously, we often find ourselves changed. How many other churches are willing to take that risk?

I encourage you to take some time to become more familiar with who we are so that you will be ready when people ask you why they might need to come to our church. Our Top Ten booklet suggests a short book entitled A People Called Episcopalians as a place to begin, available, I might add, for $6 in hard copy or $3.67 in the Kindle e-book version. (That last comment was not an ad for Amazon, but it was a reminder we have to meet people where they are and make use of every technology that we have been given.) This book, or one like it, might just be what we need to pass out to our own members as we get ready to welcome a new generation of people who are searching for an authentic Christian community. Find a way to talk about our faith so that we will start to become excited about what we have to offer.

I know that it is in bad form to talk about others, and I usually try not to during Sunday sermons. After all, it is a big enough job to talk about our own need for conversion before we even get into the shortcomings of other people. But I have to share something that happened to me this past summer in another state, because I want us to keep in mind that we can always improve on our hospitality. In complete anonymity I went to an Episcopal Church while on vacation. The front door was locked at two minutes prior to the beginning of the service. No usher greeted me when I finally did get in. There was no order of service. The lights in the sanctuary were not turned on. The priest could not remember which Sunday after Pentecost it was. He could not initially find the bread and wine for Communion. There was no invitation to coffee hour. It was all such a bad experience that I wanted out as soon as possible, but you know what? I could not get out because the front door was locked when I tried to get out the door.

Those folk did not grasp the importance of hospitality, did not understand how to welcome the stranger into their midst. I know for a fact from the many visits that I have made in the church in Arkansas that we are not like that. Hospitality abounds in this state. I want to make certain that we are all conscious of it, that we start thinking about our actions in ways that we have not previously done, in order that we begin to see the face of Jesus in every person who comes in our door and treat that person with the honor due Christ’s own self. If we do so, we are going to start seeing something miraculous happening. We are going to become the church that will cause others to ask why they can’t be more like us. We are going to become the church that people want to be in because this is where some of their deepest longings are being addressed. We will become what God is calling us to be.