Let us pray: O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I offer a word of thanksgiving to all of you who, in so many ways, have made my transition to come among you as your bishop so full of grace. Your hospitality and good care has been stellar. Your graciousness was apparent from the moment the interview process began and it has continued right up to the events of this convention. It is clear to me that you want us to prosper together as the Episcopal Church in this part of God’s vineyard. I am blessed to be here and am grateful for this opportunity and privilege to be your provisional bishop.
So let me tell you a bit of what I already see in the two months or so in your midst. In great measure I see the evidence of a deep deep faithfulness to our Lord, a commitment to being the best the Episcopal Church has to offer, a creative spirit that wants to engage one another in mission rooted in hopefulness, and an infectious energy that tells me that the Holy Spirit is alive among us.
You have done the very hard work of re-organization in order to be a diocese. That hard work has not been in vain. People beyond us have noticed and are noticing. At the September House of Bishops meeting, bishop after bishop came to me to offer words of thanksgiving for what is unfolding here in South Carolina. I have discovered that the Presiding Bishop has a deep affection for us and I know that we remain in his prayer and the prayers of many throughout the Church. I have shared with some of you that in the middle of the night during hurricane Matthew, 3:44 AM to be precise, I received a text from Bishop Curry that said, “+Skip, you are in the midst of the storm at this point I suspect. Just know I’m praying for you and the people of South Carolina. God be with you, my brother. +Michael.”
All of this raises for me the question of what we are to do now. Having done the hard work of re-organization, I see a people who do not merely want to passively wait for a court decision. We have urgent Gospel work to do. So it was at the October Diocesan Council meeting I offered the possibility that we begin to formulate a process whereby we develop a diocesan vision with goals and strategies that enable us to continue to move into the new future God is preparing for us. We would do so with a sense of coordination amongst the many groups and committees already serving us so well such as the Futures Committee, Stewardship and Development, Strategic Planning, the Episcopal Forum and Under One Roof. To my great delight I received a unanimous affirmation that now is the time to move forward in this endeavor.
Now, I want to be clear that I do not have some pre-conceived plan with which I have come and want to impose on you. Quite the opposite. I want to gather the people of our diocese together in conversation and discover the wisdom that is already among us, the wisdom of the body of Christ, and allow the Spirit to bubble up as she is manifested among us. My role as your bishop will be to continue to find ways to develop relationships, build bridges, and offer a clear center from which this work can have the greatest opportunity to be fruitful. My desire is to flatten hierarchy and to have what I might call a shared episcopate. It remains embodied in a particular person, me, but episcopacy, oversight, is a ministry of the entire body. God trusts you with this work. I trust you with this work.
So how to begin? I want to pose a question to all of you. It is a question I will ask often, directly and indirectly in the time God gives us together. It is a question posed by Psalm 137 to the Hebrew people in exile, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” The question suggests at least three things to me. First is the landscape in which we are to be singing. It is indeed strange. Second, it is not Skip Adams’ song we are to sing, or St. Swithen’s In-the-Field’s song, or that of any particular interest group. It is God’s song. Third, the question implies the need for a response on the part of God’s people.
The strange land. There are many strange lands beside our own, now and in history. We are not unique in this regard. Just as the exiled Hebrew people had to deal with this issue, so did the Church through the centuries and so will the Church yet to be born. A part of our unique strange land is the split and the pending law suit. No question. We know that reality. Yet I want to say that even though decisions made will have significant impact upon us, we must not allow the time of waiting or the pending results to be our defining narrative. We are more than that. You are God’s own people and seeing that awareness in you is one of the main reasons I said yes to what I believe was the Holy Spirit’s call to come here.
We live in the strange land of the 21st century in South Carolina, the USA and the world. We live amongst a generation of people who are greatly suspicious of institution and all the structures around it, including the Church. The day of ringing the steeple bell and the people automatically showing up is passing if not already over, even in the South according to the Pew Research Center. Add now to our strange land the post election confusion and fear expressed by many no matter one’s affiliation. There is our strange land of community anxiety and nervousness as preparations are made for two high profile trials as we seek to be a presence for peace and reconciliation even as we address the sin of racism straight on. We have the unknowns of a world rapidly shifting around us.
We do know, however, that people are spiritually hungry. The sale of spiritual books remains off the charts. Not interested so much in cerebral theological arguments, we see that people want an encounter with the sacred, the holy, with God. Folks want to be a part of something that matters. We live in the strange lands of technology, new medical possibilities, globalization and pluralism. I really knew I am in a strange land when I walked into a grocery store in clericals and a young customer looking for assistance came up to me and asked if I worked there.
It is our strange land of all the above and more into which we are being called to be faithful. Our scriptures and our tradition tell us that when we are singing the Lord’s song, there is always hope. Henri Nouwen tells us, “The deepest motivation for leading one another to the future is hope. Hope makes it possible to look beyond the fulfillment of urgent wishes and pressing desires and offers a vision beyond human suffering and even death. A Christian leader is a person of hope whose strength in the final analysis is based not on self-confidence derived from one’s personality, nor one specific expectation for the future, but on a promise given to that person.”
God’s song. It is precisely this promise that led Abraham and Sarah into unknown territory. It was this promise that enabled Moses to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery. It is this promise that enabled Jesus to go to the cross. It is God’s promise of abiding presence and all-embracing love that leads any person of faith to point to new life even in the face of corruption and death. There is light on the other side of darkness. We know it not because of mere optimism, but because of the event of Christ himself. God’s song is life out of death, that there is no place God is not, and that all are invited into the divine embrace for wholeness and strength and joy and hope and meaning. May we always sing that song boldly, robustly, in praise to God.
If the song is truly the Lord’s, we must remember we are not called here to be a success. That may sound odd to you. We are here to respond freely, gratefully, sacrificially to the gift already given to us in Jesus. We are called to build a future without attachment to results, and to be part of a walk in God not concerned primarily with bottom lines or upper limits. Our response needs to be one of gratitude, to hold lightly what we have done and what we have failed to do. Then, knowing that God already holds our future, we entrust that future to God.
Our response. Some years ago a woman who had previously achieved the feat of swimming across the English Channel attempted to swim from Catalina Island, off the coast of California, to Los Angeles. This is a journey of some 25 to 30 miles. On the way she encountered cold water, sharks, dehydration and significantly, dense fog. Only 400 yards from her destination she gave up her quest. She quit, 1200 feet from the goal! Why? She could not see the shore. The destination was not in sight, so she failed to complete the journey.
This is why we must now, together, turn to building a compelling, coordinated vision for The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Diocesan Council and I believe we are ready to do so. We need to be able to see our shore, our destination, and develop some strategic goals to get there. And may I say, this vision not only needs to be shared and owned among us, it also needs to be one that takes us out beyond our walls so that all who are not part of us will want to join us in a vision that seeks to participate with God as light and food as we engage the world. The place to engage our neighbor is in the neighbor-hood. Not only are we to “Seek and Serve Christ,” we are to be Christ for one another.
So we are going to be asking questions of ourselves and I would like to encourage you to be asking questions in your own faith communities like, “Why do we exist?” "What are the values we hold at our core that makes us who we are as a community of Christ?” “What needs to shift, how are we to adapt, what must be re-imagined in order to more clearly sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” “How will we resource congregations and develop leadership in order to be missionally prepared for the rest of the 21st century?” We must be willing to dream big, take some risks and even know that it is okay to fail. If we never fail, we are probably not dreaming big enough. This is where we live the cost of the cross of Jesus and find ourselves so deeply rooted in the love of God that we are free to imagine a renewed Church that God can ever more fully use for the work of the transformation of all creation.
Walter Wink has said that we are called to stand “foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling it to come, behaving as if it is on the way, sustained by elements that have come already, within and among us, in those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness, self-worship or when communities or even rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come among us. The world for one brief moment is transfigured. The beyond shines in our midst – on the way to the cross.”
Our Presiding Bishop loves to say, and I affirm his words with full vigor, that we have a loving, life-giving and liberating God. All of our faith communities and each individual Christian need to sing this song from the rooftops. It is God’s song. Each of our faith communities needs to be a missionary outpost of this song and embody Jesus’ call to be a missionary people. We are called to be one, a team in this endeavor, and it is a glorious calling given to us by God. As Episcopalians we have deep roots on which to draw that give us a vital voice for our times.
Trust that Christ is alive among us as we pray with rejoicing. Whatever our vision becomes, we want to live it with a renewed sense of wonder, joy and astonishment for the Good News of Jesus. In so doing, we want the table of God’s Church to be open to all as we reach out to give meaning and hope to one another and all God’s people. Please join me with your prayer and your commitment as we work together in this amazing venture. So good people of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, “How will we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Bishop Skip Adams