calendar November 19, 2008 in Bishop messages

2008 Convocation Address


"This is the way; walk in it"
Bishop Claire Burkat
Convocation address — Nov. 18, 2008

We are at a crossroads of seismic proportion.  Our current national and world situation seems to fit Charles Dickens’ famous line:  It’s the best of times and the worst of times.

First, the bad news.  President-Elect Obama will inherit the worst national and international challenges this country has seen in seventy years:

  • The lingering and very expensive war in Iraq, threats in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, not to mention the Middle East.
  • The almost complete meltdown of the economy and financial system as we have known it.
  • The mortgage crisis, and the unemployment rate reaching 6.5% this week with experts predicting 8%, 10% or higher.
  • The disintegration of trust in and respect for American leadership.

In many ways we are waking up from decades of delusion and denial, which could easily slide us into despair.

Are you depressed yet?  No? Well, how about:

  • An educational system in peril, with a great disparity in quality and in basic safety in our neighborhood schools, as evidenced by the enormous drop out rate and the lack of affordable education for most middle class families, and huge barriers for the poor and working class.
  • The urgency of immigration reform and the need for an overhaul of the health care system.
  • The desperate worldwide imperative to save the environment and find alternative energy resources before it’s too late.
  • The impending collapse of Ford and General Motors. Detroit, where our dear partners in the Southeastern Michigan Synod minister, is already suffering such economic distress that is hard to imagine the families who are suffering there being able to afford to walk away from their homes and move to another part of the country to start over, even if they wanted to.

It is the worst of times and, yes, also the best of times.

The prophet Isaiah said it:  Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." Then you will defile your silver-covered idols and your gold-plated images. You will scatter them like filthy rags; you will say to them, "Away with you!"    (Isaiah 30:20-22)

We are at the intersection of a seismic shift, incomprehensible to anyone but God.  We need to start looking for our Teacher, for Christ to show us the way saying: This is the way; walk in it.  Now is the time to shift to the next understanding and new insight, which is undeniably before us.

Let’s start with those filthy rags.  In regard to the financial excesses that led to the current crisis, maybe some of us were greedy, and some of us were naive, and some of us were just immature. I believe the vast majority of us were oblivious, in denial and perhaps even anesthetized by material possessions, responsibilities, stress, family issues or work pressures.  People are now being forced out of complacency and oblivion, and are tumbling into fear and uncertainty. For many, denial has turned to despair.

The historic result of the recent presidential election was exhilarating, and yet exhilaration never comes without a wave of fear.  If you don’t believe it, in the weeks since the election the number of guns sold increased dramatically. Is this fear of losing 2nd Amendment rights, or something far more sinister?  On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart said this is like the worst Dr Seuss rhyme ever:  "Did he buy a gun to shoot a deer?  Or buy a gun out of fear?"

The theme for this year’s convocation, Called to Extraordinary Leadership, was chosen by the convocation team before any of us realized this appeal would be more than a gathering theme, but an imperative for our church and for our communities.

What can we as leaders do in these difficult times?  Where can we turn?  How shall we lead?

St Paul writes:  I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.  (Ephesians 4:1)

In the face of uncertainty and fear all people need to be reminded of who they are, and whose they are. They need community around them for both comfort and challenge. They need know they belong to a larger purpose.  In the midst of this we as church leaders need to be reminded of our call, and supported in our serving.  We need hope and courage and strength and discipline.

Let’s first look at the financial challenges and opportunity.

My brothers and I would make fun of my father, of how cheap – some would say frugal – he was.  A child of the Great Depression, he left school in ninth grade to help support his mother.

My dad was the cook in our family.  My mother grew up in an orphanage during the Great Depression, and consequently she couldn’t cook to save her life.  My father, on the other hand, was the original foodie.  Unlike my mother, who ate an institutional meal every day, my father went hungry many nights.  

Every evening for as long as I can remember my father would put supper on the table and say, "Do you kids know how much this would cost in a restaurant?"  Of course, we didn’t because we never went to a restaurant!  How mortified I was as a child when he would make us stand in line at Great Eastern Mills (an early forerunner of warehouse stores) and make each one of us hold a chicken, because there was a one-to-a-customer sale.

Many of us, not all, remember lean and hard times.  I paid every nickel of my college tuition by waitressing.  I remember eating mayonnaise sandwiches in seminary because money was so tight.  Now I am beginning to sound like my father!

For many of us who grew up with the legacy of the Depression, hard times were personal, family problems to be dealt with privately.  Our current economic crisis is unprecedented in scope and in how public it is.  People are cutting back, anxious about jobs, health coverage, retirement accounts and their children’s education, and they are talking about it (and the media is reporting their cutbacks endlessly).  The end of our materialistic psychosis has ushered in a new age of honesty and reality.  Many people are sharing their true situations, a kind of reverse boasting, unleashing tales of poor and arrogant investments, or irresponsible purchases.

As a result people are forced to get real.  "I am seeing a shift away from glitz," said a restaurant designer.  "Luxury is becoming a dirty word."

It’s like the end of a poker game.  People are starting to acknowledge they have a weak hand and declare "I’m out."  They’re seeing the other players say, "I’m out, too."  With these cards, there’s no more bluffing.

When people lose their jobs, the simple things they took for granted — like gas in their cars, a freezer full of food, a college education, health care coverage — suddenly become very valuable. And so do other greater values: Community. Love. Conversation. Trust, faith and hope.

It’s like you are minding our own business, working on your computer, when it suddenly goes dead, crashes. The dreaded blue screen appears.  You reboot; no good.  You panic!  Your writing, your checkbook, your photos are gone.  So you take the computer to the tech gal who tells you it needs to be wiped clean, and all the programs need to be reinstalled.

This is not bad news, this is good news!

Yes, it would have been wonderful if we had appreciated and taken care of our possessions, backed up carefully as we went along.  But when it happens to millions of people, across the nation and the world, at the same time, it changes everything.
We are all getting a chance to reinstall the very essentials of the life God wants for us. This crisis is an opportunity to clean out the cobwebs in our hearts, and toss all the clutter and stuff and values that were smothering and choking us.

In the midst of our loss and confusion, the prophet Isaiah consoles us with hope, with a blessing, not a curse:  Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him. Truly, O people in Zion, inhabitants of Jerusalem, you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you. (Isaiah 30:18-19)

So how do we faithfully determine what is of value?  What will we keep?  What must be tossed?

First, as church leaders we can begin by taking an inventory of our own lives and spending habits.  Examine your checkbook, and you will see your priorities.  Start with yourself.  (I am doing this myself.)

Engage a friend or confidant, or if you are a couple, meet with another couple whom you trust to sit down and look over your budget to help you objectively cut back — like the popular financial guru Suze Orman does when she says, "You are denied, Girlfriend!" 

Next, one of the best things you can do for your congregation is to arrange for competent and faithful financial advisors to set up daylong workshops to help people address their personal credit crises. This has to be more than a financial planning seminar, it needs to be a safe and trustworthy time in which people can examine their past directions and chart a new course, more like a 12-step meeting than a workshop.  This is no time for shaming and blaming.  People need help, and if they don’t get the help they need, where do you think your congregation’s finances will be in year or two? 

But please – please — as you are considering the congregation’s budget and your own monthly spending, I beg you: Do not forget the poor!  Cut back on everything else possible before cutting your charitable giving.  When the dominoes are falling, the poor and marginalized, the children and elderly, the sick and infirm get hurt the worst. I read in the paper that even the ASPCA is hurting.  Families who have lost their homes are forced to abandon their pets, and now the shelters are in danger of closing.

(As part of our own faithful stewardship the Synod and Seminary are delaying the construction project for the new Synod office. Instead we will be moving into temporary space offered by the Seminary as together we assess the financial landscape.)

Now let’s look at the racial challenges and opportunity.

I can hardly add to what already is being said and written about the most exciting election in the history of our nation.  Even those who did not vote for President-Elect Obama are acknowledging the significance of the nations’ choice for president.

After 232 years of racial disparity, an African American man is moving to a house that was built by slaves.  After centuries of slavery and discrimination — not to mention the years of discouragement, Jim Crow laws, and racist groups like the KKK that intimidated the Black electorate — we can honestly say with Bob Dylan: "The times they are a-changing."

We listen for the voice of one, who the Lord sends to tell us: This is the way; walk in it.

On election night President-Elect Obama dismissed the fireworks, thanked his opponents, and asked us all to rise to our most extraordinary calling as Americans.  He urged us to "resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long."  This is good news for sure.

Privilege and power has been regularized.  The highest, most powerful office in the world (not just this country) has been earned by a man who defied the odds and redefined the struggle as well as embodied the principles of the United States of America. 

An African American man and an African American woman who were not born to wealth and privilege but were both raised with integrity and courage and hope are saying: This is the way; walk in it.

This is not just good news for people of color.  It is long-awaited healing for Black and White, for Asian and Latino.  It is remarkable that so many white people, young people and first time voters all over this country voted for a Black man raised by a single mother!  His character and intelligence, his integrity and vision far out weighed his skin color in this race.

This is an opportunity for interracial healing as well as global modeling of the greatest of our American principles, that all people are created equal and should have the same opportunity and civil rights.

Now it needs to be said, let us not forget the gay community, which still continues to hurt and to be hurt by discrimination and scapegoating.  Yet I believe there is hope and there is a future before us brighter than all the glitz we have been worshipping for too long.

There is an old Persian proverb that describes the opportunity before us as Americans, and as Christians:  The darker the sky, the brighter the stars will shine.  

Our God is calling us, indeed begging us to lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.  We truly are all in this together.

Last I want to look at the congregational challenges and opportunities. 

Two weeks ago I attended a breakfast for religious leaders hosted by Mayor Nutter.  He was outlining the challenges facing the city, and that was before the financial shortfall for the city got worse.  One of the leaders in attendance asked him, "What can churches do?  How can we as religious leaders support your leadership and help this city?"

His answer was immediate and compelling; just two words:  Education and safety.

"This is the infrastructure of a just society," the mayor said.

Every congregation in this Synod can be a blessing in every neighborhood.  Discern what God is asking of your congregation and DO IT!

  • Children need safe places after school, where they can be welcomed, perhaps given a snack, get help with homework and have some good fun. We can do this!
  • There is a huge outcry about the closing of some Philadelphia libraries. This is not just about books, its about having safe places for the elderly and the young to go. We can help with this!
  • In these difficult times people need English as a Second Language classes, parenting workshops, welfare-to-work coaching. We can help!

Mayor Nutter praised the church community for hosting, supporting and publicizing the wildly successful gun drop-off program.  Goods for Guns make the neighborhoods safer by surrendering unwanted guns in exchange for $100 Shop Rite gift certificates. Hundreds of guns were taken off the streets.  The churches did this!

Our churches serve these and many needs in our neighborhoods, and we can do more.

Listen again to the Prophet Isaiah:  "Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it."

We need leadership with different attitude and tone.  It is time for collaboration, cooperation and imagination!

This is the way; walk in it!