Good morning, delegates, visitors, and colleagues. Thank you for your presence and participation in this unusual diocesan convention. We owe an exceptional debt of gratitude to Eva Cole, Bill Powel, Jessica Rocha, and Beth Bergstrom for their heroic work in designing and implementing the format, technology, and logistics necessary to convene in this way. While I long to be with you in person, I am grateful that we are able to gather in this virtual format and I appreciate your patience and forbearance as we do the work of this Diocesan Convention in a manner that is new to all of us. In order to accomplish our canonical responsibilities, we have streamlined our agenda today, and I will attempt to do the same in this address.
It is hardly necessary to identify for you the principal challenges we have faced since we gathered in convention last November. The real and unyielding presence of the coronavirus pandemic, racial inequity and injustice, and the extreme social divisions of this deeply polarizing election cycle confront us daily. Amidst the commonplace challenges that life always presents, these realities, along with the devastating consequences of global climate change, have resulted in financial, emotional, spiritual, health, and vocational uncertainty and insecurity for millions of people. In the face of them, many are feeling helpless, wearied by the relentlessness of the struggle and the persistently discouraging news. In response to each of these challenges, the question for us as Christians is “Where do we go from here?”
As the COVID-19 pandemic surges, reaching new highs daily in almost every category of measure (diagnoses, hospital admissions, availability of tests, lack of ICU beds, and deaths) we are confronted with difficult decisions about limiting the possibility of exposure and not putting one another’s safety in jeopardy. This week 62,000 people in the United States were in hospitals with COVID-19. Every congregation represented here today includes communicants or their family members whose health and security have been compromised or are at risk. It is increasingly difficult to find definitive metrics to inform our decision-making. The color of one’s county – yellow, orange, red, or purple – appears to provide some assistance, until we recognize that communicants may well live, work, and worship in different counties. Epidemiologists and infectious disease physicians, on the other hand, are very clear: if we don’t take extreme measures now, we will face extreme consequences in the weeks and months to come.
It is very possible that we will again need to suspend in-person gathering, save perhaps for food and clothing ministries. A number of our congregations have already done so. Both the Diocese of Rochester (NY) and the Diocese of Maryland have suspended in-person worship for the next few weeks, and I am certain that others will follow. To love one another means to keep them safe. Our choices matter, and I am conscious of how carefully those decisions are being made in all of our congregations. It is impossible to discern now how we will be able to celebrate the Nativity, but in preparation, the Cathedral and Bishop’s Staffs are planning diocesan-wide online services for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, to be available to all congregations and communicants. More information on those will be coming shortly.
Racism and racial justice
The pandemic of systemic racism in our history and our current, common life is for some too easy to overlook and for others impossible to miss. None of us much likes recognizing that, as part of a system in which race determines access to opportunity, essential resources, education, and justice, we are, by definition, race-ist. In and of itself, it is not a judgment; it is simply a fact. What we choose to do about it is a judgment. If we were to think of racism in wellness terms, we might say that we need to own it before we can heal and be healed of it. Like a range of other conditions, denying it does not remove it. Once we accept it, we can begin to recover, to mend and amend our lives, to be reconciled and reconcilers.
To that end, the Diocesan Council has undertaken an intentional antiracism strategy in its own leadership development, including required antiracism training and ongoing education and reflection, with a year-long agenda and strategy to assist other committees, commissions, and congregations of the Diocese in doing the same. Like a number of congregations and extra-parochial groups, the Bishop’s Staff is beginning the Sacred Ground curriculum, a film- and readings-based dialogue series provided by The Episcopal Church as part of Becoming Beloved Community. The Commission on Racial Understanding has adapted its antiracism training for online participation, as well as it has collaborated with the Bellwether staff to make in-person trainings COVID safe. Just last weekend there were two trainings at Bellwether, one for adults and one for youth.
In addition, the Commission on Racial Understanding is seeking, by legislative action of this Convention, to broaden its focus and structure, as reflected in a concurrent name change to the Commission on Racial Justice. The rationale is explained in the Convention Handbook. The intention is one of incarnating the conviction that adressing systemic racism is, in Micah’s words, the first of the three things God requires of us: to do justice. You know the passage: “He has showed you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
The election cycle
As we make our way through the second week following an historic presidential election, the reality of our deeply divided nation is evident from network newscasts to casual conversations. The polarization of the electorate is expressed in claims and counterclaims of voter fraud, illegal ballots, and voter suppression by ballot counting, as well as in protests across the country whose consequences include COVID transmission, vandalism, and gun violence. As Christians, we do not condone violence in any form. And in situations like this, we recognize that violent acts by destructive individuals do not define an entire movement. It is as inaccurate to define Black Lives Matters by the unacceptable actions of a small minority of agitators as it is to define MAGA by the Proud Boys. We must hold each other accountable for our actions and perspectives, but not by demonizing the movement writ large and painting with a broad brush. We do it as Jesus so often did, in one-to-one conversations and by asking “What is important to you and how did you get to this place?” not “What the heck is wrong with you and why don’t you go somewhere else?” And we must each take responsibility for finding non-violent ways to make public witness and structuring peaceful processes for the resolution of our differences. The polarization we are all a part of is not right. But when the response from either position is “They are not right,” we are only adding to the division.
As I described at last year’s Convention, “The cost of democracy, like the cost of Christian discipleship, is humility, generosity, and personal sacrifice. It is not being right and getting our way; it is belonging to God and to one another, and being so genuinely connected that together we can find solutions that serve beyond our individual capacity to imagine.”
The Good News
There is no question, however, that this is hard work. Yet, empowered by God’s own spirit of holiness, we are surely up to it. In the face of these challenges, we do not despair. We are not without hope. This week’s medical news about COVID vaccines and treatment provides encouragement and optimism. And for you and me, our hope is in Jesus. There is good news to proclaim, both by word and example, good news to proclaim in what we say and in what we do. That good news is Jesus.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is not that the faithful are going to heaven sometime in the sweet by-and-by. That may be. But the Good News of Jesus Christ is that, with God’s help, you and I can bring heaven to earth today. The Good News of Jesus Christ is not that we are saved from something, it is that we are saved for something: saved for redemption and reconciliation; for restitution and reparation; for feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, bringing justice to the oppressed, showering the lonely with companionship, assuring the guilty of forgiveness, offering healing to the injured. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we are rescued from our own fear or shame or pride or self-interest and freed, by humility and the surrender of our own will, to lift up the downtrodden and bring the arrogant back down to earth.
This is good news, indeed, but not always welcome news, because it will inevitably change us. Living the Good News of Jesus will require and cause us to change, in one way or another - in ways we may recognize already and in ways God will need to illuminate for us. That is what the beautiful collect from the burial office means by “go[ing] from strength to strength in the life of perfect service.” The transformation, indeed the conversion that God intends for us is “now and forever,” today and throughout eternity, but today for sure.
In both Evening Prayer and the service of Compline, we implore Jesus to “tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, [and] shield the joyous.” Our prayer is in vain if we simply turn out the light and leave it to Jesus to do our bidding, for, of course, we are his hands and feet and heart – the very body of Christ – and the answer to our prayer has everything to do with sacrifice – our willingness to surrender our will to God’s. “Thy will be done.” Are we willing to do the work of bringing heaven to earth with our own sacrifice? Surely, if we are created in God’s image, we must be willing to do God’s work.
And Jesus was clear about God’s work and how to accomplish it. While not easy, it is quite simple:
Love one another.
Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.
Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you.
Not when and where it suits me, but now and here, always. Not only with whom I choose, but with whoever is here now. There is nothing in Jesus’s words about convenience, nor is there in the Baptismal Covenant. We do the work of God at God’s convenience.
In short, the vocation to be Christian is contextual. It is lived within the context of the present moment and place. When Isaiah heard God ask, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” he did not reply, “I’ll be over there. Send me there.” Nor did he respond, “Next week I’ll be here. Send me then.” Rather, he said, “Here am I.” Here am I, God, in the midst of this situation that you care about. Send me now to do your work.
Whether we are willing to do the work of God is, in the end, a matter of choice for each of us, our own choice. When, where, and with whom, however, is God’s choice. May our work as the Diocese of Ohio, in this Convention and always, reflect faithful and sacrificial choices, and echo resoundingly the commitment of Isaiah: Here we are, God. Send us.
The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio