Sermon Delivered by the Rt. Rev. Prince Singh, Bishop of Rochester, at the 2017 Diocesan Convention
Saturday, November 11, 2017
Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine
We gather this day with gratitude for Veterans who fought against forces opposed to community, dignity and democracy. Would all the veterans present please rise and receive our gratitude, prayers and respect?
I am grateful to Bishop Andy for inviting me to preach at this your 241st Convention Eucharist. Roja and I are delighted to be here. It is truly an honor to be part of the gathering of our mother Diocese. I learn a lot from your Bishops Alan and Mary and cherish their friendship. It certainly is a privilege to serve as Bishops in this Church. However, apart from the bling, I hope you realize that it is an intense calling; perhaps that’s why we drag a little and tend to move diagonally. You have good bishops and great spouses, in Margaret, Clara and Rebecca. They married well. I know, I did, too. Would you show some love to your bishops and their spouses?
I commend you for making this beautiful thing called church work. It works best when our governance works like it is meant to. Lay and clergy leaders make up governing bodies like Trustees, Standing Committee, Council, etc., to advise and work with the Diocesan, other Bishops, Canons and staff and help figure out ways to be the living body of Christ in the 21st century. Thank you for putting yourself out for discernment in things that have eternal consequence. A shout out to a few friends I serve with like Carla Burns (ECCAR), Jamie Callaway (CUAC), Richard Wit (RMM) and Sisters of John Baptist. I also want to give a shout out to Mr. Colin Howard, St. Mary’s, Castleton, Staten Island, who is here for his first convention. (Thanks to Melisa and Blake for their hospitality).
I bring you greetings from the Diocese of Rochester and her 47 congregations spread around 8 counties in that part of Western NY where we have already had our first snow! Over the past eight years, we have been laser focused on growing congregations in spiritual, numerical and missional ways. After slowing down the decline for several years, for the first time in decades, we registered positive numbers in our ASA (Average Sunday Attendance) last year. I would simply say it is because we have started reorienting: to the Jesus narrative, faith in Jesus and empowerment of all the baptized with clergy and laity intentionally working in teams. Call me again and I would be happy to tell you more about our experiment.
And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Start with Jesus: If we don’t start with Jesus of Nazareth we should not be surprised when we end with subjection to Mammon, pernicious violence or chronic dissent. For this reason, it is important to get our narratives of origin right. Like good and bad water, life, liturgy or ethics, if the origin is off the destination is destined to be off, too. If bitterness is what we sow, then that is what we will reap. This nation, for instance, has been in a continuous struggle with its identity because there is confusion about its narrative of origin. If the claimed narrative of origin is fraught with conquest, pillage, coercion and violence we should not be surprised at iterations of manifest destiny no matter how many generations try technical fixes. Therefore, it is so important to pay attention to our Baptismal and Confirmation liturgies. They have centrally placed renunciation of evil or wicked spiritual forces that rebel against God, and renewal of commitment to Jesus Christ together.
Let us not forget that Jesus was a refugee himself when his parents took him to Egypt, presumably without the appropriate papers, committing a “crime,” because they believed protecting their child from tyranny was more important than anything else. This country was founded by most everyone who came to these shores without much documentation to start a new life. Laws followed the original migrations. These laws, while important, are not beyond the laws of God that are and will always be beyond borders when it comes to the humane treatment of one another. To find a neighbor who has no papers is to find a friend who needs help with incorporation, not deportation. Tyranny is tyranny and whatever the color of your skin, fleeing from it is an act of agency. That is a big part of the origin story of American. Let us not forget.
When my neighbor’s dignity is at stake, it becomes my spiritual responsibility to correct that or keep trying. Regardless of faith and political affiliation, we can offer spiritual solidarity to the least of these members of our family. You know enough for now, you are enough forever, and love is all you need. So, start with Jesus!
Love like Jesus: Givers, embracers, care givers, visitors, and these faithful ones are changing the world. I realize I am preaching to the choir. Bishop Martin, whom we remember today, died on this day 1,620 years ago, as a staunch defender of the poor and the helpless. Our Presiding Bishop Michael famously said, “If it is not about love, it is not about God.” To embody love is to be curious, faithful and courageous. A lover is a person who has moved from consumer to generative giver. A lover is an agent. A lover transcends all that binds and holds us in restricting and irresponsible spaces of fear. A lover takes the spatial constraints of goodness and embodies, incarnates, reifies it. Where a lover stands is holy ground. Schools, churches, temples, mosques, Gurdwaras, and other holy places are like goodness “for here.” A lover is mobile and is like goodness “to go.”
Someone has said: “love is like an onion
You taste it with delight, but when it’s gone you wonder
Whatever made you bite.
Love is a funny thing just like a lizard
It curls up round your heart
And them jumps into your gizzard.
Love is swell
It’s so enticing
It’s orange jell
It’s strawberry icing.
It’s chocolate moose
It’s roasted goose
It’s ham on rye
It’s banana pie.
Love’s all good things without a question.
In other words, it’s indigestion.”
When love is narcissistic and self-indulgent, it is like indigestion. It is unfortunate that so much of the clamoring philosophy today is “how great I art!” Most of life’s realities will teach you to be cautious, withdrawn and fearful, not curious, faithful and courageous. Jesus teaches us that perfect love removes fear and opens us to trust. I like Simon Sinek’s definition of love. “Love is giving someone the power to destroy us and trusting they won’t use it.” Love provides a way to connect the temporal, where every human being, regardless of Faith or no-Faith, has the capacity to create a new future. When you love, you create what does not exist until that moment. David Brooks in his book The Social Animal, articulates the infant’s cry to the mother, “I am not here, touch me, even with your finger, so I can know I am here.” Love shows you up for the joy you are and didn’t even know it. Love happens in an encounter, a look, a smile, a touch, an acknowledgement, a humane policy, a resistance to evil, an equitable system, a selfless culture, a generous hospitality, and just a loving glance. Everyone has the capacity to love. You are made to be a lover. Mission is a crucible that enables the web of mutuality to bear loving fruit everywhere in Central Tanganyika and in a local food pantry.
Of course, as with all things that matter, to love is not easy. There is sacrifice and suffering. There is a cost. It is said that Mother Teresa was being interviewed while she was carrying a child with leprosy. The reporter said to her, “Mother, how do you do it? I would not do it for a million dollars.” Mother looked at her with a twinkle in her kind eyes and said, “neither would I, my dear. Neither would I.” The motivation to love is priceless and costly. When you love, you can count on being hurt, betrayed and even abused. When you love, you will be taken advantage of, sometimes scourged, and almost always considered weak. When you love, you may find yourself wandering into places of self-doubt, hearing voices of the naysayers, and always forgiving all kinds of people. When it comes to loving, we want to keep at it to crack the nut. You never know how long it would take. When I was a child, my mother would give me the chore of cracking open a coconut. The flesh would be for making curry and the water was just the most refreshing drink in the hot and humid climate. The art of breaking a coconut is to stick it many times. You never knew which stick would crack it open, and when you sensed it was about to crack you carefully worked to save the water. So, keep cracking the nut of evangelism, mission, social justice. What we don’t crack, we can leave to the next generation.
Through it all, I hope you will remember: You know enough for now, you are enough forever, and love is all you need. So, start with Jesus, and love like Jesus.
Finally, Move with Jesus:
He moved from “I am light” to “you are light”; “I am beloved” to “you are beloved”; “I am worthy” to “you are worthy”; “I matter” to “you matter”; “I thirst” to “I was thirty and you gave me a drink”
This is the ministry of reconciliation to which Jesus invites us. While it is not a popular way of being, it is a way of pursuing joy in Christ with those on the margins of life. For four formative years of my ministry as a clergy in the Church of South India I served among Dalits, formerly referred to as “untouchables” in south India. Most everything I have learned about being a person, priest and a follower of Jesus, I learned from these simple saints of God. I commend your India Network for their engagement with Dalit communities in India. Your resolutions are all about strangers on the margins. I admire Brother Gideon and his witness, and now brother Jeffrey. In this saffron/orange age, various shades of nationalism are misunderstood for loyalty, and minorities of every kind are made vulnerable. Dalit Christians are more vulnerable in India today than they have been in recent history. Caste discrimination has everything to do with superiority based on skin color, class, education, and more. “Dalit Christian” is not just an identity of a person or people, it is also an act of resistance that protests the hegemony of thought that some are made superior to others.
Dalit conversion is first an act of protest before it is an act of following Jesus; a renunciation of the evil of caste and the extreme loyalty to follow the liberating Christ at all cost. Your role in this solidarity is more significant than you will ever know. I remember standing in a crowd video tapping a dance at Dalit celebration of Babasahib Ambedkar’s birthday. A young man tapped my elbow and asked me who I was and what I was doing. I told him I was in the US, working for Dalit Human Rights, he said he was a Community Organizer working with Dalits at the grassroots. Then he said something I will never forget. He said, “I feel a little safer because of you.” The weight of those words and the implications continue to motivate me. Your impact in ministry here and around the world is much more than you can imagine. So, thank you saints of New York Diocese! You know enough for now, you are enough forever, and the love of God is all you need.
I urge you to move with a curious faith that Jesus is already present in our neighborhoods!
I urge you to move with humility and confidence in the Jesus narrative that God is with us!
I urge you to move joyfully as empowered disciples of Christ, and stand with those who are dehumanized! Will you start with Jesus? Will you love like Jesus? Will you move with Jesus? Bwana Asifiwe; praise be to God! Amen.