Bishop Jennifer’s Convention Sermon

Bishop Jennifer gave this sermon to the 182nd Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis on November 16, 2019.

Read the full text below:

Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.”

Good morning Saints!

As we come to the end of our third convention together, the end of the 182nd convention of our diocese, there are so, so many things I want to say to you. And don’t worry—I won’t say them all! But beloved, I must start with this: you are beautiful. Day by day and week by week I see how much you love Jesus, how much you love one another and how much you are leaning in to our mission to be beacons of Christ for the transformation of the world. Beloved, I see you being brave—half a shade, a full shade braver to love all people as we chip away at dismantling racist structures. I know these are anxious times. I know it is easy to fear the future. But we have so much to celebrate and rejoice in that I can’t help but believe that our best days are ahead of us and God is walking step by step with us into that future.

The story in Mark’s gospel of Bartimaeus, the blind man Jesus encountered on the side of the road, is a compelling one for this time in our journey together as a diocese. As Mark tells it, Jesus, his disciples, and many others are traveling to Jerusalem. And just before they encounter Bartimaeus, Jesus has taken the twelve aside to tell them he will be condemned, put to death and that he will rise again. So James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask Jesus for a favor. And Jesus asks them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And as you may remember, they ask for positions of privilege—to be granted a seat on his right and his left in his glory—which, Jesus reminds them, is not for him to grant and that he has come not to be served but to serve and to give his life for many. When they reach Jericho and find Bartimaeus crying out for pity, Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” His simple request to be able see again is granted and not only that, but because of his faith he is made well—whole again.

As I travel across the diocese, visiting congregations, meeting with leaders, baptizing, confirming, ordaining, eating, I listen for what you are asking Jesus to do for you. Over and over again what I hear is a desire for our churches to be made well and whole. I hear the desire to be able to serve our communities in ways that are truly transformative. I hear you asking Jesus to help others see what you see and love what you love about your congregations. And I hear you asking for Jesus to remove the stumbling blocks that keep you and those you love from flourishing. I hear you.

Part of the response to what I hear you asking is found in the myriad new initiatives and programs that we’ve spent the last two days of this convention learning about and celebrating. If you’re thinking—there’s a lot going on, yes, there is. If you’re wondering, how can we possibly do all of this—don’t worry, you don’t have to, and can’t do it all. If you’re wondering which one of these programs and initiatives is going to save our congregation, let me answer that for you: none of them. It is our faith in Jesus and his power to transform our hearts and lives that will save us. So what are we doing all of this for?

What we’re doing with all of the new initiatives and programs you’re hearing about is freeing up our energy and resources to participate in the mission to which you are being called. We are called to know and learn more deeply what it means to be beacons of Jesus Christ in this day and age. We are called to know and learn more deeply what it means to offer generous invitations and provide welcome with lavish hospitality. We are called to know and learn more deeply what it means to work tirelessly for the sake of the vulnerable and to help the world remember those whom we might otherwise forget; to amplify the voices that the world wants to silence and bring into the fore-front, those the world wants to make invisible. And we are called to learn over and over again that the ministry we share with Christ is about showing up and connecting with others who share our values and passion for the flourishing of God’s people no matter what their race, gender expression, sexuality, class, or physical ability. And by God’s grace we are called to grow as a community of practice in the ways of leading well, of dismantling white supremacy, of being formed more deeply into the mind and likeness of Christ. That is a tall order with more than enough to keep already busy people busy forever.

This isn’t about being over-busy. As your bishop, my staff, diocesan leaders, and I want to build our capacity to offer bold witness and radical welcome in new and creative ways. That’s why we are: restructuring our governance to structure ourselves in neighborhoods, building a community of practice through the College for Congregational Development, Pathways to Vitality, Faithful Innovations Learning Initiative, and Evangelism with Integrity. Not every congregation needs to participate in every single thing, but I believe every one of our congregations has the possibility to be what God dreams for us—to be healthy, vibrant, welcoming, with a bold and effective witness to the way of love.

And I truly mean every one of our faith communities. I’m hopeful for our campus ministries. We will welcome the Rev. Shannon Ferguson Kelly from the churchwide office for young adult and campus ministry to be with us in March as we explore ways to make our presence and witness on university and college campuses more vibrant. We are grateful for the ministry of Linda Johnson as she retires and look forward to the collaborative mission possibilities that await as we seek new clergy leadership at both Indiana University Canterbury and Trinity, Bloomington.

I’m especially hopeful for our smaller-membership congregations. We won’t be importing outside “experts” to lead the Small Church Summit we will hold next September. As I see what is possible for vibrant, growing, sustainable ministry in some of our smallest congregations, I’m convinced that you all have much to learn from one another and I’m eager to bring the best practices of our thriving, smaller churches to the forefront.

We’ve spent the past year reinvigorating the deacon formation program and refining and clarifying our ordination process as we pray for an increase in diaconal and priestly vocations. And though we have had a lot of transition in our transitions staff position, let me be clear that it is my desire to have the best, most effective person serving in that role and working with Canon Kristin White. It is a priority to strengthen our ability to support congregations in transition. Stay tuned for more news on that front in coming weeks.

All the while we are growing in our mission, we must address a few of the things that will get in our way if we aren’t intentional about addressing them—money and race. You must realize how much you amaze me over and over again with your desire to ask the hard questions and do the challenging work of addressing matters related to money and race.

Our diocese is incredibly blessed by resources that help us to do mission in ways that might not otherwise be possible. When we instituted the Bishop’s Appeal this year, it was with a desire to deepen diocesan engagement in funding ministries that we deeply care about. You’ve shown incredible generosity in supporting our mission partners in Haiti and Brasilia and SouthEast Mexico. Your support in completing the Waynick Welcome Center at Waycross and the anonymous gift that is launching a special fund for campus ministry has been extraordinary. Meanwhile, our commitment to supporting local ministries around our diocese continues to be strong, which is why I will be asking our Executive Council to spend 2020 revisioning how we can revitalize and strengthen Episcopal Fund for Human Needs. As our officer for resource development John Gedrick leaves our staff to become priest-in-charge at St. James, Vincennes, know that a small task group will be formed to help us to continue to grow in this area.

There is also much I could say about the diocesan restructuring of cash-aid to congregations. Beloved, I know this change is especially hard and anxiety producing for many of us. But I believe that God desires a future for the Episcopal Church in central and southern Indiana—one that is sustainable in every sense of the word. We will walk together as we move toward the grant program that will allow any congregation in the diocese to access funds for mission. And we will learn to be church in ways that assure our presence for the long-haul. I believe we are up to the task before us and I believe we will be stronger for the effort.

Finally, a word about race. The work of dismantling racism and white supremacy is not a program or initiative. This work is central to our faithful discipleship. The sin of racism limits our bold witness and radical welcome and so we must be intentional and relentless in recognizing the ways it shows up in us as we work to transform the systems that sustain it. Dismantling the structures that support systemic racism means developing a new identity for ourselves—an identity as a people committed to understanding that all our systems, institutions, and outcomes—even our church and its systems—emanate from the racial hierarchy on which the United States was built. To claim God’s promise of freedom and new life in Christ, to walk alongside our neighbors, we must claim a new identity that is not captive to systemic racism and the ways that it divides us from one another. So let us continue to support and coach one another in growing braver as we confront systemic racism. I’m grateful that Good Samaritan, Brownsburg has invited all of the rest of us on the Civil Rights pilgrimage from Memphis to Birmingham next March. We will continue to learn together how to make a witness that truly expands our embrace of neighbor.

This is a lot, I know. Jesus is inviting us to be well and whole and transformed and he would have known well the words of the prophet Zechariah that we heard earlier, “But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, says the Lord of hosts. For there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things.” The work that we’re doing to participate in God’s mission is opening up possibilities—for us, for the people in our communities, for all the people of God in our region.

Back in January at a service at Christ Church Cathedral, after hearing Dr. Catherine Meeks preach—Dr. Meeks is the director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Justice who inspired this year’s convention theme— my dear friend Canon Carrie Schofield-Broadbent whispered something to me that I continue to mull over—she asked, “Wouldn’t be something if 20 or 30 years from now we were to look back on this moment in time as the beginning of the glory days?”

We don’t know how long Bartimaeus was waiting by the side of the road waiting for Jesus to come by and ask what he wanted. As we prepare to leave this convention, know that Jesus has come near. This is our moment, Beloved, let us not fear the future. As we go forth from this place at least a half shade braver, may our faith indeed, make us well. Amen.

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