Bishop Jennifer's 2020 Convention Sermon

Bishop Jennifer gave this sermon to the 183rd Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis on November 7, 2020.

Read the full text below:

Good afternoon Saints!

Things are a little different since we last gathered for the Convention of the Diocese of Indianapolis. My last words to you as we neared the end of convention last year were these:

“This is our moment—it is a Kairos 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.”

I could not have known a year ago that we would be hurled headlong into a global pandemic, racial and civic unrest, economic distress, and the closing of our worship spaces as we navigate continued life in quarantine, a community that’s dispersed, all while we ache for the things that nourish us from the inside out, as we ache for Eucharist, as we learn what it really means to be the church.

Our country has been and in and remains in a tumultuous moment as we sort out the direction of our collective future. May we never forget that while we are citizens of God’s realm, above all, we also live, move, and have our being in this one. Before going further, I want to be clear that whatever you were hoping for and working for in the results of our presidential election—our future was and is and always will be in God’s hands. Whatever the election results you were wanting, the work of reconciliation, justice-making, and setting right the world is always, always going to remain the mission and work of the church.

What we do and how we are in the world, what we are committed to in building the beloved community has always mattered and never more than now. There are chasms in our country, in our communities, and in our families that seem wider than the Grand Canyon and our work—as it has always been, is learning day by day how we can both be and bring the loving, liberating, and life giving spirit of Jesus to the world. That’s our work. Always. And Jesus makes clear that bringing the spirit of love and liberation that he’s talking about is not for the faint of heart. It is often uncomfortable, difficult, painful, and sometimes heartbreaking work. We have chosen to live not just for ourselves but for the one who died and rose for us. Which means that the life and fates of other people are always our concern. It is never just about any one of us—but all of us. Our country is in need of deep and sustained healing right now. Our neighborhoods and communities are in need of recovery and a renewal of hope. We have work to do, Saints. It has been said that the coronavirus and this global pandemic have amplified and accelerated so many things. That doesn’t mean it only amplifies and accelerates the bad. Let us take this tragedy and, with God’s help, amplify the marginalized and accelerate the development of the beloved community of justice and peace that is at the heart of God’s dream.

The stakes are high—always have been. In the gospel passage from Matthew we heard a few moments ago, Jesus sets up his disciples for the work of calling more disciples, and he brings us the same hard word. Because if you think we’ll have to give up something in the process of transforming the world, then you’re absolutely right. So Jesus names the truth of it:  He says whoever loves mother or daughter or father or son more than me is not worthy of me. How’s that for family values?

Families are complicated, aren’t they? Jesus, who grew up in an unconventional family, knows that family is complicated. He knows family dynamics are not easy. And in his day, he knew that family status was everything. And he knew that the call to follow his way would threaten the status quo—and that families would be divided. And risking alienation from one’s family had to be on the table because the gospel demanded more—the good news of the gospel as it turns out was better than family status. Holding on too tightly to family status might keep you from being able to hold on to the new community, the beloved community, the new family of friends, the family of intent that Jesus invited his followers into. So Jesus was clear. There is a cost, there is a price to following Jesus. We ought not let anything get in the way—not even family.

So, Beloved, let me gently remind us of what this moment demands. We are called to let nothing get in the way of our call to faithfully follow Jesus for the sake of reconciling the world. I’ve said before that the church as the body of Christ on the move in the world is going to be fine. We now know this in our bones as we continue to be church, not just do church, but as we continue to be church in a time of pandemic. And we may be loath to admit it, but we now know in our bones and in our hearts that the institutional church will not fare as well. And by institutional church I mean the buildings, the structures, the parochial reports that count only numbers in worship and not lives touched, changed and transformed by our ministries. We now know because we have lived it. We are living it now, and because we’ve lived it we know that if we are more worried about status, structures, and safety than saving the lives of people on our doorstep, we need to find another way. If we’re only worried about status, we’re not doing it right. The stakes are too high. The pandemic has amplified and accelerated that reality. But by God’s grace and a lot of hard work, you have shown what being church really means. You have continued to feed, clothe, and minister to the most vulnerable. You have figured out just enough technology to be dangerous as you continued to pray, learn, and build relationships on Zoom and FB and all the many ways we can show up online now. There may be more of us participating in small groups and Bible studies than ever before.

The living, breathing, body of Jesus’ followers continues to rise up. We keep rising up. Perhaps what we are learning is that the less than helpful trappings of the institutional church really must be set aside for the sake of Jesus and the Jesus Movement. In other words, and you’ve heard it before, we can’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, and the coronavirus and the racial reckoning we’re experiencing once again in this country have shown us what we are capable of. We can change. It turns out that the church can actually—on a dime if it needs to—change. But imagine with me what we could be if we continued to grow in our bravery—just a half shade braver—to be the church God needs us so much right now. In so many ways you have been clear in expressing to me that there are two important tasks before us as a diocese: creating and sustaining healthy congregations that are clear about their mission and ministries, and deepening the work of transforming systems of injustice, particularly systemic racism.

Though we have quickly adapted and adjusted to life in Coronatide, there WILL be a time post-pandemic, and in post-pandemic life, and it is inevitable that the church will be different on the other side, because the world will be different. We can be carried away by the currents of epidemiology and history and see where that takes us, or we can begin to chart a course, to chart our course to choose how we as church will be disciples in a transformed world. Earlier this year, I gathered a task force of clergy and laity to pray, brainstorm, and report to me and the Executive Council on what a diocesan mission strategy might look like if it were built on the foundation of our mission pillars: being beacons of Jesus Christ, offering generous invitation and welcome, standing with the marginalized and transforming systems of injustice, connecting with our neighbors and developing lay and clergy leaders for the church of today and tomorrow. Those are the pillars. That’s our foundation. The task force went to work contemplating a series of questions prompted by that mission.

They pondered how we as a diocese might continue to meet new people, offer God’s invitation and welcome, and make new disciples, particularly in light of the cultural and economic shifts accelerated by COVID-19.

The task force offered that we could re-establish, clarify, and strengthen the Mission Strategy Group already present in our canons. And because pandemic-related economic realities meant hitting pause on the congregational grants we were preparing to launch this year, we are now in a position to re-evaluate, and move forward with more clarity about how those grants can support innovative ministry in all of our congregations.

With our renewed diocesan commitment to building and supporting networks, the task force discussed how our diocese might incentivize and promote collaborations among congregations and ministries and within our neighborhoods, knowing that shared ministry is the way of the future.

Shared ministry is not just the way of the future—it is the foundation of the church. Ideas such as shared clergy, trained and equipped lay leadership, collaborative mission and outreach and deep and ongoing faith formation are not new. But sharing ministry this way isn’t our usual default. It’s not our norm. The task force began to imagine a diocese where no congregation stands alone and where collaboration is our norm, not our last resort. They imagined hubs and satellites enabling Episcopal presence in new and vibrant ways, drawing on shared resources and energy. Can you imagine what that might be like for us?

The task force didn’t evade and avoid the hard stuff, the painful questions either. As your bishop I’ve always said that I don’t believe in closing churches (we cannot close the people of God), but we may have to close buildings and reimagine what having an Episcopal presence might look like when the traditional model of a full-time priest, full-time clergy and oversize building infrastructure is no longer sustainable or faithful. The task force wrestled with how we discern when it is time for a faithful but unsustainable congregation to end their current ways of gathering, say goodbye well, and then open themselves for Resurrection and new life? I know from experience that too often we ask these questions too late, and I wonder about what might be possible if we brought the vulnerability and pain we experience during these difficult discernments to our diocesan community and held each other as we wrestled with that. What would it be like if we understood ourselves to be walking together in these times so that no congregation stands alone, especially when their ministry is tenuous.

This is just a snippet of what was presented to Executive Council to help us chart a new way forward for the health of our diocese. I’m quite proud of the work this group has done, and I look forward to the continued dreaming and executing of a diocesan mission strategy that can really energize all of us. We will form a new Committee on Mission Strategy to continue this work in collaboration with Executive Council. Neighborhoods of the diocese will make significant contributions to shaping our strategy for mission and ministry across our diocese. Are there parts of this dreaming that scares me? Just a little. I’ll be honest. But what scares me more is the thought of not changing anything. That keeps me up at night.

In the last few months we have also reconstituted a Diocesan Team for Racial Healing and Reconciliation. This group is tasked with coordinating regular trainings for dismantling systemic racism, supporting and connecting congregations with a variety of initiatives to do this work. We have also asked them to adapt the Covenant to Root Out Racism, developed out of the Diocese of Missouri, to see how we might take that on right here for our own work. The resolutions that we’ll consider this afternoon at this convention that are sponsored by our chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians chapter offer substantive and clear direction for our ongoing work in learning our history, wrestling the ongoing legacy of white supremacy in Indiana and our country at large, and will work always to rebuild the beloved community God dreams for us. That’s the work. We all have a share of this work to do. We all have work to do in dismantling these systems; we all have much to learn. We all have much that we need to be transformed by. We all need to be healed.

As we noted earlier, the pandemic is an accelerator and amplifier. It accelerates and amplifies class stratification and poverty, and it accelerates and amplifies racial division. The truth is, the coronavirus layered on top of the preexisting condition of systemic racism and anti-blackness in this country has laid bare truths we can no longer deny—namely, living with systemic racism is killing us. Literally.

You may remember that fourth grade is when social studies classes focus on state history. I went to the library a week ago. Helping my son navigate the central library stacks to find books on the Tippecanoe Battlefield monument is how I came to know that it was in 1851 when the state constitution was approved that Article XIII prohibiting black people from coming into Indiana, settling in Indiana or being employed in Indiana was made real. Those prohibitions wouldn’t be repealed until 30 years later in 1881. Our first 43 years as a missionary diocese and then as the Diocese of Indiana was spent with those exclusions in place. The next 60 years would see the height of sundown town activity. This is what systemic racism and white supremacy look like when it is baked into the constitution and laws. Individual desires for racial integration and full inclusion mean little if you can actually be arrested for giving a job to a black person. That’s why we have to talk about not just what we feel and what we want to do with our own selves and our hearts, but we have to look at the system.

The second bishop of our diocese, Bishop Upfold worked faithfully to tend and serve our growing diocese in those days. While he was a supporter of the Union army our diocesan history admits that he, like others of his time, opposed emancipation and prevented clergy from speaking out against slavery and racism. Yet, it was during his tenure that the state’s population grew, and the Diocese of Indiana continued its missionary expansion, all the while excluding African Americans. When we as a diocese wonder why “we are so white,” as the bishop profile asked four years ago, it will be the history books, recorded oral histories and truth telling that will help us with the answer. Learning and understanding that history is part of the work of healing and justice—it is a conversation that we must have to be well and whole.

We are called to be bold in these days. We can all be just a half shade braver in this essential work. And for the record and history books please understand, clergy and laity alike—I urge you to speak out against racism, show up, stand up, speak out—may we never allow our silence to compound our complicity.

I don’t have to tell you that 2020 is not the year we had hoped for—but it is the year we have been given. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, “God isn’t finished with us yet.” We have seen the difference it makes when we are forced to let go of the vestments, and the buildings, and the trappings of imperial church as we cultivate a deeper faith lived on the margins of power and privilege. In the devastations of this pandemic we are centering our lives around what matters most. Like you, I look forward to post-pandemic times when it will be safe to gather again and see one another face to face. But until then, I pray that we would continue to be present to the people, the challenges and the opportunities that are in front of us right now, because the church that is rising up in the Diocese of Indianapolis during 2020 is actually the church I want to be in. Right now. Let us not fear the future, and may nothing get in the way of us becoming the church God needs us to be. Amen.