Several years ago I was in my favorite grocery store in line to check out. Grocery shopping is one of my joys. I enjoy seeing all the items on the shelves. There is so much and I wonder how I might use a particular spice, meat, or vegetable in a dish or on the grill. Anyway, I was standing in-line ready to put my items on the conveyor belt when the African American man in front of me yelled out to a friend several check-out counters over by name. “Hey, Jack!” At first, I was a bit appalled that he would shout so loudly across rows of people checking out. I mean, everyone looked up and turned to see who was shouting. But, as I went through the ordeal of bagging, paying, and pushing my cart outside, I began to smile. Two thoughts came to me in that moment. First, I wished I could be that uninhibited. I wished I were not so uptight that I could yell out to someone I knew, just to say hello. But the sad truth is, I am. I’m an aging old man who is just not cool enough. The second observation was, what a gift it was for the man who had his name shouted loudly in the grocery store. What a joy to be noticed for no reason other than you were friends because being noticed is what we all want. In that moment the man named Jack was somebody, a person who was called out by a friend. I left the supermarket hoping one day I would be cool enough to yell someone’s name across the checkout lanes. To notice others is our call in ministry.
We are meeting today, once again, virtually. I wish it were not so, but COVID continues to be challenging and has made our gathering dangerous. One of the casualties of not meeting in person is the absence of seeing you, being able to shake your hand or give a hug of greeting. Another missed opportunity is seeing the Presiding Bishop in person. We have been planning for two years for his presence only to have to call him and say because of his popularity of packing pews, we simply could not risk having him in person. We would have created a super spreader event. He will, however, be with us live via zoom later in the convention. And for that, I am very grateful.
The theme for our gathering is The Great Banquet. When we were thinking about being together and the absence of last year’s presence, the great banquet seemed a possibility. To gather around the altar together, to feast upon the body of our Lord, and then find space to enjoy one another’s friendship for lunch, seemed so real, so necessary. It was a disappointment when we realized it wouldn’t happen the way we planned, but not all was lost. The image of a great banquet is as palpable today as it was when we dreamed of physical gathering, it’s just different.
In this period of COVID, we have been forced to learn new ways. For the past two years, we have had to rethink how we gather, work, play and vacation. Our church services have evolved from masks, gloves, six feet distancing, and no touching of any community surface. It was a frightening thought to wonder what might infect us to the point of catching COVID. The pressure on clergy to “do the right thing” has been at times overwhelming. My hat goes off to our priest. Masks vs. unmasks, parishioners have at times caused pain to one another. The Diocesan office receives phone calls asking, can we do this or that? Or a statement that says, “the Methodists are doing this, why can’t we? ” Juggling protocols that shift monthly is not easy but if we erred, it was on the side of safety. We wanted to find ways to keep the body together under these extreme circumstances. During these trying times, we learned a lot.
What we have learned is a different way to gather, to celebrate the presence of one another. We’ve become accustomed to viewing others on the screen of computers and phones. We see their laughter, hear what’s on their mind, and weep with them when they weep. Not all has been lost, just changed. And change is something we know how to do. But during this period, we have also been exposed, or rather COVID exposed the disparity between those who have and those who don’t. The poor and disenfranchised have borne the brunt of this disease. If you had resources you didn’t worry so much about losing your home or if you could put food on the table. If you didn’t, well, you worried about being kicked out of your apartment, or if you could feed your family. Jobs were vanishing at record speed. These are just a few questions that have been raised in the last two years. What is the church’s response?
When I first arrived in the diocese in 2010 we were remembering the 5th anniversary of Katrina. Nerves were still raw and the mention of a storm in the gulf created high anxiety. Since 2010, however, what we have learned about our resiliencies has been incredible. There have been several storms since Katrina and what we ascertained after each one has greatly impacted the recovery towards the next storm. Our community is robust, always willing to lend a helping hand to the most vulnerable. In the case of Ida, the most vulnerable were St. Andrew’s, Bayou duLarge. The church lost its roof, which allowed water to ruin everything inside. Now the congregation is tasked with rebuilding their church with very little resources. I am calling on all of our congregations to find ways to help the good people of the bayou. This is what we do when one member of the body is hurt. We must raise several hundred thousands of dollars so St. Andrew’s can rebuild and be to the community that they have been charged to be, a beacon of Christ’s love.
Another change that has been evolving beautifully has been the Commission for Racial Healing. Under the leadership of Liz Embler-Beazley the commission has been holding workshops in congregations, some virtually and some in person, to better understand what it means to be a people dedicated to the healing of wounds, listening to stories of judgments, and of white privilege. Building the beloved community is intentional work that we all share. It is our desire to love one another as Christ first loved us. Now is the time we began treating all of God’s creation the way God desires to treat us, with love and grace. We must remember that the great banquet is for everyone, everyone.
This year we have initiated DEI. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion is a term used as a way to better understand the shifting landscape of the world. We are a diverse world, made up of many different languages, races, sexual orientations, and different points of view. We are learning that even though we may say we are a diverse organization, not all people have had an equal voice. DEI is a way to uncover the many ways we suppress voices that are different from our own. We truly believe the Episcopal Church is open to all, and all means all. Every individual, no matter how different they are from us, have a voice and a place to call home. Through DEI, tools are learned which help us listen to stories that are at times hard to hear. But, in order to acknowledge the dignity of our neighbor, we must listen to broken hearts, deep wounds, and fear of being the person God created each of us to be. I am grateful for the leadership of our two Diocesan schools for taking this step in helping students learn the uniqueness of our world and ways we can change our too often negatively learned behaviors.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Francis Gaudet’s handing over to the Diocese of Louisiana her ministry to educate young African Americans. The $75,000.00 dollars that were originally given have grown into a seven-figure endowment. Those funds continue in her legacy to educate young black children. Over $200,000.00 dollars are given for grants and scholarships each year. This is just one small way in which our diocese supports the work of DEI.
While I am grateful for those in leadership positions who are making spaces for honest conversations, we still have much work to do. I often speak of resources our diocese has, and it is true. We need to tap the resources to help discover ways each parish can begin to look at the true needs of their community and find ways to use their resources. We have people who are strong financial leaders. We have individuals who know something about the law and can use their knowledge in helping someone being evicted from their apartment. What about our realtors? Can you help put together a plan for low-income housing, or find homes that young couples can afford? What about the Sunday school rooms that haven’t been used in years in your church? Can they be used in ways that help with after-school child care? These are questions of equity that can be explored. We need people like David Warrington who has helped several churches revision their resources to do wonderful things. Who knows where these discussions may lead. There is so much learning to be explored.
Another learning from this year has been environmental care. Wow! What a year. Just in the U.S., we have had volcano eruptions, fires, destructive winds, rain that turned simple ditches into torrential rivers sweeping everything in its path away from it mooring. This doesn’t even cover the pollution these events bring nor the pollution you and I are responsible for creating. Deacon Joey Clavijo continues to lead new ways for us to rediscover God’s creation and awaken us to the ways we are called to care for it. Under his leadership of our commission, our Diocese has been chosen to take part in a pilot program initiated by World Resources Institute. Partnering with WRI will help guide us in identifying areas in our Diocese where we can make a difference in restoring and healing the damage we have caused by neglect.
When Jesus told his disciples if they wanted to follow him, he said they must first deny themselves and pick up their cross and follow. It is one thing to say we believe in caring for God’s creation. It’s another thing to actually participate in it. What Deacon Clavijo and his commission are doing is developing ways we can get our hands dirty so to speak, and follow. Restoration and reconciliation are gifts we can pass down to generations to come and indeed, this is our calling.
We are still in the midst of an epidemic, but as we have learned life goes on. This coming year you will elect a new Bishop to lead you. General Convention will gather in Baltimore to do the work of the Episcopal Church and bishops around the world will gather at Lambeth Palace to do the work of the Anglican Communion. Here in our diocese, the needs of the poor have not gone away. Violence in our streets continues and the chasm between political parties, the rich and the poor, has never been so wide. If the world needs anything, it needs to hear a word of hope, a vision of God’s grace that is for the whole world and that is the work you and I are called to do. We are called to be reconcilers, beacons of hope. This is the hard work that we share.
In a devotion penned by Thomas Merton titled Always Beginning Again, he writes:
It is not complicated to lead the spiritual life. But it is difficult. We are blind and subject to a thousand illusions. We must expect to be making mistakes all the time. We must be content to fail repeatedly and to begin again to try to deny ourselves for the love of God.
“It is when we are angry at our own mistakes that we tend most of all to deny ourselves for love of ourselves. We want to shake off the hateful thing that has humbled us. In our rush to escape the humiliation of our mistakes, we run headfirst into the opposite error, seeking comfort and compensation. And so we spend our lives running back and forth from one attachment to another.
The thing to do, when you have made a mistake, is not to give up doing what you were doing and start something altogether new, but to start over again with the thing you began badly and try for the love of God, to do it well.”
Merton’s words are words that challenge us as well as give us hope in right action.
I want to close with an old apocryphal story that some of you might have heard. The time is just a few months since the death of Jesus. Inside a home, there is a long table and the disciples are seated on both sides. Candles dimly light the room, but enough to see the sumptuous food lay in front of them. As you look closely, you can see the faces of the disciples. They are sitting silently, eyes gazing upon the food and one another. After a while, a shadow is seen through a window by one of the disciples. Peter notices the eye movement of the disciple and gets up and goes to the door and opens it. Outside is a man in a dark cloak with a hood covering most of the man’s head. Peter’s eyes strain and then he recognizes the man and says in a soft but joyful tone, “Judas, is that you? Where have you been? We have been waiting all this time for you. Come in and sit with us and eat.” It was a great banquet.
1 Peter reminds us of our calling. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.