Loss and Possibility

October 09, 2013

Remarks given by Bishop Jeffrey D. Lee to The Episcopal Church House of Bishops
Nashville, September 24, 2013

Whenever I think about this topic of loss, or scarcity, or diminishment of some kind and the possibilities embedded in it for new life or renewal I can't help but remember a presentation I heard many years ago by Parker Palmer, an imaginative retelling of the story of the feeding of the 5000. I think about it often, especially in terms of the kind of ministry I now exercise in the church. In Parker's treatment of it, the story—particularly in Mark's version 'cause of all its juicy little details—the story is fundamentally about Jesus' capacity to reframe reality for his keystone cops disciples and the way he teaches them to exercise the same kind of leadership. It's a way of hearing the story that has become precious to me ... especially the longer I go on in this bishop business.

The disciples and Jesus have been slogging it out in the fields of ministry. Busy healing people and feeding folks and preaching good news to search committees and recalcitrant senior wardens. They gather around Jesus and he says to them, "Come on, let's get away for a while ... what you guys need is a CREDO conference." So off they go and of course, they violate the rules and bring their iPads and smartphones with them -- the work follows them right there to the comfy retreat center. Mark says, they stepped off the boat and lo and behold there was a crowd of people just waiting for them. Jesus does what Jesus always does -- he starts up the beach and right into teaching the forum and taking care of the people. You can just see his buddies rolling their eyes ... And trudging on into the fray with him.

Now, here's the thing. I think the disciples are kinda ticked off about this. I love these passive aggressive guys. They have been hard at it with Jesus, and I think all they wanted in the world just now was some time alone with him—they wanted his attention; they wanted to be fed. And what does Jesus do? Off he goes into the crowds. I think this because of what happens next in the story. It starts to get dark and the disciples come to Jesus and announce the fact and tell him, "You know, this is a deserted spot. It's getting late and this crowd must be hungry." Now the text gives no indication that anyone in the crowd actually announced that they were hungry, but the disciples (unable I believe to declare their own needs right up front) they decide the crowds must be hungry. "Send them away to go take care of that," they say. Jesus' little circle of disciples can't admit their own neediness and so they project it out onto all those "others." Hmm. Where have I seen that before? Where has that been me before?

Well, Jesus listens to them and then does what Jesus always does. He refuses to accept the projections, refuses to issue an executive order from the corner office or pull off some kind of quick fix. He tells them, "So, they're hungry, are they? You've identified the problem ... It's your problem. You give them something to eat." He gives the issue of what they've identified as the lack of something right back to them. And the disciples do what I always do: they whine. "But Jesus, look at this crowd. There isn't enough money in the budget to make a dent. We don't have enough, is what their response boils down to. Doesn't matter. The excuses just don't seem to phase Jesus. He tells them, "That's OK. Go and see what you do have."

The disciples roll their eyes again and off the go. They do what I always do: they don't try very hard. You mean to tell me that wading into a crowd like that, all they could come up with was a measly five baguettes and a couple of smoked whitefish (I'm from Michigan originally)? They bring it to Jesus and do what I always do. They fulfill their own prophecy. "See Jesus. We told you there wasn't enough."

And here's where it gets really interesting. It's enough, he says. Jesus gets very high church—and engages in a little community organizing. He tells the disciples to get the people to sit down in smaller groups, where, I imagine, they could see and interact with each other instead of just looking at him. Then he takes this paltry bit of food and in a big liturgical gesture (there was incense ... I know there was incense), he lifts it toward heaven and begins to sing theberekah,as though he means really to feed this convention with a sack lunch. I believe the crowd and his disciples must have been spell bound. And Parker Palmer says here's where the real miracle happens, where it always happens. Hearts were changed by Jesus' stunning conviction that God was quite able to feed the crowd with whatever was available. Hearts and hands were somehow opened by Jesus demonstrating his trust in the limitless abundance of God and they began to share. And not only was there enough, but like Cana, like healing after healing, like the widow's coin, like Jesus' treatment of those assumed to be outside acceptability, like the Resurrection itself and on to Pentecost, there is always ridiculously more than enough. Enough beyond imagining.

In April of 2009 I attended the reorganizing synod of the then Diocese of Quincy. I wanted to be there because I thought it was the right thing for me to do. I felt bound to go for a number of reasons, but mostly just to show support for people who remained faithful followers of Christ and wanted to continue to follow Jesus as members of this church. I've known some members of that diocese for a long time, there are clergy and lay persons in the Diocese of Chicago with roots in that part of the state and ongoing connections with people there on both sides of the pain and disruption of the split. It was an inspiring event. There was never a lot of institutional "there" there in the Diocese of Quincy, and with just a handful of congregations banding together to continue the work of the diocese, it would have been easy for the synod to decide right then and there that scarcity and loss were too great a force to resist. Truth be told, I wasn't so sure that maybe that would have been the most reasonable decision for them to make. In fact, I was kind of dreading showing up at this gathering, more than a little self-conscious about swooping in from the big diocese to the north (Chicago, ya know, with all the background political noise that comes with it) and generating who knows what kind of responses from folks in the Diocese of Quincy who were still reeling, not just from the official fracturing of their former diocese but all the wrangling and ill will that had preceded it. In Chicago we hadn't really been much involved at all with the changes in Quincy with the exception of prayer and a little loaves-and-fishes gift of some vestments and vessels some of our clergy had put together to help out a couple of congregations who'd been turned out of their church buildings. Who does this Bishop of Chicago dude think he is, showing up now?

When I walked into the hall at St. Paul's in Peoria, almost the first conversation I had made me think I was right about my misgivings. Somebody walked up to me and said, "Well, are you here to pick up a few stray parishes?" I assured him I was not, but that I just wanted folks to know they were not alone.

I settled into the back of room, quietly observing how few people were left, asking myself how in the world they thought they could make a go of it, wondering what might be asked of us in Chicago, of me if it ever came to that. I started a little conversation with God that went something like this: "You know, I've already got enough on my plate, please let showing up be enough sign of support."

And there it was. There I was, smack dab in the middle of that little circle of disciples not believing there could be enough -- of me, of them, of us. Too caught up in my own self-absorption, too preoccupied with my own visitation schedule and budget issues and staffing challenges to see what was about to happen in front of my eyes. And what was happening was not unrelated to what happened with those loaves and fish. What happened was leadership like Jesus taught us. I saw Bishops Katharine [Jefferts Schori] and John [Buchanan] daring to believe and gathering people around the conviction that God was quite able to make something abundant out of this little bit of churchy stuff. I saw all kinds of people—some confidently, some tentatively, some still grieving—but all acting in faith to offer whatever they could muster to allow the work and witness of the Diocese of Quincy to continue.

And I was hooked. All of a sudden I was in one of those small groups on the green grass, moved by the faith of such leadership and such followership to be willing to pull out my hunk of cheese or figs or whatever I could. It was the beginning of my willingness to go way beyond just showing up. What happened on that day, the trust that God can feed so many with so little continues to animate me—I hear about it all the time from people who are now members of the Diocese of Chicago. People told to get out of the church where their families have worshiped for generations, now finding vibrant new ministries as they meet in the home of the priest who serves them. A new mission planted by self-described remnant groups from two former, historic congregations, meeting in rented space and now not at all sure they ever want to return to those lovely buildings even if it becomes possible. The testimony of the first formal representatives of the former Diocese of Quincy at our diocesan convention last November reducing to tears several stalwart Chicago Episcopalians as the vote was taken—without dissent ... let me say that again, without a single dissenting voice or vote—evoking sustained, abundant applause for their faith and reliance on God's grace.

Friends, bad things happen when we cannot be clear about our needs, when we refuse to let Jesus and one another know what our honest fears and deepest desires really are. When we forget that we are beggars. People suffer when instead we project all our own stuff out onto some imagined them. Liberals or conservatives, troublesome clergy, national church leaders, standing committees, staff, spouses, you name it. When we allow theological notions—however venerable or historic—when we allow certainty about our positions or convictions to trump the messy, living relationships God has given us in baptism—then we land in a peculiar kind of scarcity that seems very far away from Jesus' trust in God's extravagant goodness.

There is unimaginably more than enough. That's what I am learning from the people of God in our newest deanery of Peoria. They're teaching me to be a better bishop. And way better than that, they're teaching me to be a more faithful disciple.