Homily from the 74th Diocesan Convention.
Yesterday, I found myself praying and discerning what it is the Spirit is saying to God’s Church today. I think one of the things the Spirit is saying to the Church is that we need to be flexible! I also think the Spirit is saying to the Church that we need to be together. That we need each other. That we are bound to one another by the love, mercy, and grace of Jesus Christ. And it is for that reason that we decided to rearrange our agenda for today so that we could begin in worship and prayer together, so that we could gather together at this table, not for solace only, but for strength, not for pardon only, but for renewal. The Spirit is saying to the Church that we need each other.
And so, allow me to simply share my heart with you this morning. Yesterday, as I prayed about the work we would be doing today, I was drawn to the words of Prophet Jeremiah, when he says, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.” This image of being rooted and grounded is one that is used often in the Bible to describe the security and stability and peace that come when we are intimately connected to and immersed in the presence and power and love of God. The Apostle Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians, prays for the church, the whole people of God, that we might be “rooted and established in love.” And again, in the Letter to the Colossians, we are called upon to be “rooted and built up in Christ himself.”
But, if we’re honest, over the past few years, it feels like so much has been uprooted all around us. We are living in an age that is characterized by instability, injustice, and insecurity. It has felt like the very ground beneath our feet has shifted. And it’s been exhausting. We’re tired. We’re frustrated. We’re worn down. And so, I don’t know about you, but I am longing to be like Jeremiah’s tree; planted by the river, sending out its roots, established, grounded, and secure in God’s love. But I know one thing for sure. I can’t do it alone. The Spirit is saying to the Church that we need each other now more than ever.
So, what does it look like for us as a community, as the church, to send out our roots, to be rooted and established in love? To help us answer that question, I would invite you to imagine that you are standing at the base of the mighty Redwood tree. The tree towers above you, reaching heights of up to 350 feet, taller than a 35-story building. But below the ground upon which you are standing is a root system that extends only about 6-10 feet. For a long time, people wondered how these massive trees could be supported by such shallow roots. But then it was discovered that the root systems of the mighty Redwoods extend horizontally over one hundred feet and the root system of one tree is inextricably intertwined with the root systems of the other trees, which creates a massive interconnected, underground structure that supports the weight of these equally massive trees. You see, the mighty Redwoods can’t survive alone. They need one another. They support one another. They share water and nutrients. They quite literally hold each other up.
My friends, to face the challenges that lie ahead, we need that kind of interconnection and interdependence. Our strength is found in our need for one another. Our spiritual nourishment is found in our mutual love for one another. Our unity is found in the interrelationship we share as those called to be rooted and grounded in Jesus.
Ultimately, this is about our witness in the world. And let me tell you, the world is watching. I discovered this first-hand about six weeks after my consecration as a bishop, I was driving to my hotel after speaking at one of our congregations and I decided to stop at Publix to grab a few snacks. After gathering my random selection of items, I was quickly making my way down the frozen food aisle toward the self-checkout lane right in front of me when a man driving one of those electric scooter carts pulled up and blocked my path. He stared for a moment at my purple shirt and pectoral cross, and then proceeded to ask, “Are you something religious?” Feeling quite sure of myself, I said, “Why yes, I am. I’m actually a brand-new bishop.” He was not impressed. He said, “Good to meet you, Bishop. My name’s Frank. So, tell me, just what brand of bishop are you?” I said, “Well, I am one of the bishops of the Episcopal Church here in southwest Florida.” At which point, the man dropped his head, let out a deep sigh, and said, “The Episcopal Church is dying.” At first, I was taken aback, not expecting an existential crisis in the middle of the frozen pizza aisle of Publix. But after that initial shock, I began to feel a bit defensive. And I said, “Well, I just came from a congregation where over 150 men were gathered to talk about how they can be better disciples of Jesus. Last Sunday, I visited one of our church plants that is growing and vibrant and full of the Spirit. And just a few weeks before that, I spent with a congregation that is feeding over 2,000 people a day in response to the tremendous need caused by Hurricane Ian. So, I think there’s a lot of life left in the Episcopal Church.” Frank said, “I hope you’re right, Bishop. I’ve been a church consultant for 35 years. I hope you’re right.” Before allowing me safe passage, Frank had one more question. He said, “You know, I’ve only really attended non-traditional, non-denominational churches, but I’d like to find a church with a nice pipe organ and a really good choir. Do you have any recommendations?” And I thought to myself, “Have I got recommendations!” After suggesting a few churches that he might visit, we said our goodbyes and I finally make my way to the self-checkout line.
I have continued to ponder that encounter with Frank, and as I reflect on that moment, two related desires rise up within me. The first desire is to prove Frank wrong! The second desire is that one day Frank will make his way to the Episcopal Church in Southwest Florida. And when he does, more than a pretty building, a nice pipe organ, or a good choir - I pray that Frank will find communities of faith that are deeply in love with Jesus. Communities that are rooted and grounded in that same love. Communities that, like the mighty redwoods, are characterized by interconnection, interdependence, and mutual love for one another. I hope that the Diocese of Southwest Florida will be the living, breathing, embodied answer to the prayer of Jesus, “That they all may be one.” Because that is who we are. One Body. Empowered by One Spirit. Called to proclaim One Faith. To the glory and praise of One Lord, Jesus Christ. One God and Father of us all. Alleluia! Amen!