2013 Convention Address

Below is the full text of the 2013 Diocesan Convention Address by Bishop Robert O’Neill.
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The Feast of Francis of Assisi
“For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”

Tonight as we begin this 126th Annual Convention of the Diocese of Colorado we are also observing the feast of Francis of Assisi who I am coming to believe may be the one saint who has the most to say to the Church today.

In the event you don’t know it, here’s the story. Francis lived in the hillside town of Assisi in the early thirteenth century. He was the son of a wealthy silk merchant. He was educated. He was, most likely, well travelled. He had position and prestige and is said to have participated in the lifestyle that other young men of his rank and social standing enjoyed at that time. But something, it also appears, simply wasn’t right. Whether it was a perceived emptiness in the material abundance with which he was surrounded, whether it was the great disparity between rich and poor, whether it was the superficiality in his circle of relationship, or whether it was his experience of violence and death as both a soldier and prisoner of war, is not clear. But this much is certain: as much as Francis tried to conform to the conventional paths that were open to him as a young man, something within him was simple unsettled and unsatisfied.

Tradition has it that while he was in church on the feast of Saint Matthias, Francis heard these words from scripture—the same words spoken by Jesus to the disciples when Jesus first sent them out for the first time. You know these words. You have heard them before. Jesus sends out his disciples to share with him in the proclamation of God’s kingdom saying simply: “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” (Luke 9:3) These words are clear and direct, and as we all know they are deeply challenging. But when Francis heard them on that particular occasion some seven centuries ago, it would seem that something shifted—something in that moment connected deeply within his heart; there was some essential truth about himself in those words that Francis recognized, some level of denial or self-deception evaporated—and Francis, as the story goes, leapt to his feet and exclaimed, “This…this…is what I want.” There was something about this way—this way of surrender, this way of relinquishment, this way of self-offering, of self-emptying, of moving freely and nimbly, of giving oneself away in love—that Francis understood to be indisputably and essentially Christ-like, unquestionably the heart of Jesus, and he recognized in them not something he needed but as something for which his heart was longed, a way, the way that was the greatest expression of his own humanity.

It is said that as he prayed before the crucifix in the rundown church of San Damiano, Jesus spoke to him from the cross, calling him by name and saying simply, “Rebuild my church.” And with that, as the story goes, Francis gave away his possessions. He renounced his inheritance. He assumed the garb of a beggar, living like Jesus in solidarity with the poor, caring for lepers, and preaching the gospel to anyone who would listen.

In the world of the medieval Church and within the imperial structures of the Holy Roman Empire this gesture, this lifestyle, this movement was, to say the least, countercultural. In Franco Zefirelli’s 1972 film, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” the young Francis can be seen recovering from a fever, balancing precariously on the rooftop as he reaches out enthralled by the sight of a sparrow. He can be seen hurling rich fabrics—silks and damasks—out of the windows of his father’s warehouse into the hands of the masses on the streets below. And as he finally leaves the confines of Assisi’s walls, Francis can be seen standing stark naked, hands outstretched, framed by the city gate, moving from darkness into light. If those images make you uncomfortable, they probably should. It is not entirely clear in Zefirrelli’s film whether Francis’ conversion is the result of inspiration or insanity (and that is frequently the case with conversion). And in his novel about Francis, Nikos Kazantzkis, puts only one word in the great saint’s mouth. Just one word. “Love.” That’s it. “Love.” Francis walks along streets and stands in squares, teaching about the kingdom of God, proclaiming the good news of Jesus to anyone who will listen, but saying only one thing over and over again, “Love. Love. Love.” And the response? People are either angered or irritated or resentful or confused, and they say only one thing over and over and over, again and again, “What is this new madness?”

Paul writes that this way of self-emptying, this way of surrender, this way of the cross appears as complete foolishness to the world. When will we understand that our heart’s deepest desire, which is both our true humanity and our divine nature, is this: to spend itself, freely, generously, completely in love?

Francis, as you know, lived in a time of great cultural upheaval and change—not the least of which had to do with the deeply enmeshed politics of the church and state, the power struggles between the two, and the consequent by-product of massive indifference to the suffering of the poor. As a result, Francis’ unique embodiment of the Christian faith—his deep commitment to silence and prayer; his absolute devotion to Jesus; his passionate embrace of others’ suffering; his simplicity of life, refusing to be trapped by possessions; his relentless focus not on institutional maintenance but on the work of God’s kingdom, here and now—has come to be seen as a type of reform or renewal for the Church from within. Like Jesus speaking to Peter at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, Francis’ life is a call to set out into the deep.’

Although our specific circumstances are different, we too live in a time in which seismic shifts have already occurred around us. During this convention you will hear about different aspects of this from our keynote speakers. On one level, the story is about the decline of cultural Christianity—that the physical, mental, emotional, habitual structures that we know and identify with as the Church in America were conceived and built in another era, born of a different culture and society, designed to embody Christian faith and life in a world that was vastly different than ours. On the other hand, this same story is a story of divine opportunity—the opportunity for us to ask the great Pentecost question about what this means, about what God is stirring up among us, about how the holy spirit might in fact be calling forth within us a kind of newly courageous, prayerfully creative, spiritually imaginative manifestation of the faith. Listen, we are being called, as God’s people, to dream dreams and to take risks and to embrace new and imaginative ways to proclaim the gospel to a world that is hungering for the good news of love.

During our regional convocations, you have heard me speak about the trajectory that we find ourselves on in the life of this diocese—a trajectory that by the grace of God reflects growth. Our self-understanding as a missional people is taking root and expanding among us as lay and clergy leaders are being raised up and supported. Acts of generosity, the practice of living generously—financially, emotionally, spiritually—are evident. Many are reaching out hands on through the ministries of our Jubilee Centers, and in other ways, to those who suffer. With the establishment of Colorado Episcopal Service Corps and our first community of young adult interns, we have taken a significant step with young adults. With the establishment of a Development Office in the Office of the Bishop, we now have in place the infrastructure that we need to secure the financial resources that will take us to the next level in our commitment to evangelize with youth and young adults, particularly through the ministry of our Center at Cathedral Ridge. These are the strategic areas of focus in our diocesan life that were identified and announced two years ago, and we are by the grace of God on our way.

So I wonder, what is essential to continuing this trajectory?

If you ask me, it is about formation—embracing those practices by which we ourselves enter into that deep center of life to which Jesus invites us. What if, for all the talk about the changing culture and the changing church, our priority is not so much about reconfiguring, repackaging, remarketing the exterior circumstances of our ecclesial life but is instead about embracing that far more narrow way of entering deeply into our inner life in order to discover even more fully and powerfully for ourselves the realities and contours and energetic dynamics of our life in the spirit? What if the real cultural shift needing to take place among us is actually within the culture of our hearts?

Formation. Formation. Formation. Substantive resources. Accessible and available opportunities. Regular and consistent invitations. Consistent practice. In every community across this diocese.

If we seriously intend to proclaim the gospel, to do the work of evangelism that we are called to do, we cannot assume that those we wish to invite into a life of discipleship have even the most rudimentary religious vocabulary or knowledge of faith—any faith for that matter. If we seriously believe that we, as God’s people, are to offer this world a more transcendent vision of itself—a vision of human beings being fully human, fully alive, as Francis himself would say “instruments of God’s peace,” those in whom and through whom divine life flows—we must recognize that we ourselves have nothing of substance to offer unless we ourselves are willing to enter deeply, courageously, into our own life in the spirit, into that intimate and ongoing union with the living God that is our inheritance.

Our work as pastoral leaders is to raise the bar—not so much learning about God, but learning to live in intimacy with God. Our work is to open up within our communities the most basic components of the Christian faith and life—to insure that all of us are being formed in our knowledge and understanding of scripture, to expand and deepen our life of prayer, to create safe, honest, communities of authentic spiritual friendship in which we can all look fearlessly and honestly at ourselves and reflect together on the ways in which divine grace is intersecting with and transforming all the sharp, jagged, and untidy edges of our lives. This kind of work is, I believe, foundational to growing in every strategic area of focus that we have identified in our common life and ministry in Colorado.

So here’s where we are.

We are three years now into the operation of the Center at Cathedral Ridge. It is already proving to be a great resource for ministry across our diocesan life. Over fifty retreat and conference groups have been served on site this year. Some four hundred children, youth, and young adults participated in a variety of recreational and formational activities there this summer. This center is a key resource for our spiritual formation at all age levels across the diocese, and it is more. It is not just to be ours, it is to be ours to share. The Center at Cathedral Ridge is for those young people who have never darkened the door of our churches. They are not only of a different generation, but of a different culture, with a different worldview, who possess a different kind of energy and passion that we need to receive in order to call us out of our own indifference and listlessness. These young people are not willing to settle for the inertia of the familiar either in the world or in the Church. With them we can discover and experience together a deeply authentic experience of the Spirit and we can be challenged to engage substantively, actively, in the very real life and death issues of our world. With the hiring of our new Director of Development, Betsy Gerdeman, and the establishment of a Development Office for the diocese, we are poised to take the next step to expand this ministry, and when called upon I ask you to respond generously.

There’s another step we need to take too. We need to re-vision, re-shape, and re-form the Office of Faith Formation in the Office of the Bishop. I want your help in re-thinking and re-tooling this ministry among us, and I call upon this convention to establish a “Faith Formation Visioning Team” to work with me over the next several months. The task? Not to design program that would tax already limited congregational resources, but instead to identify how we can more effectively, more creatively, more imaginatively tap into the collective talent and wisdom that is already among us, and work collaboratively and collegially, outside of our disparate silos, to create meaningful communities of learning and formation and practice that would be accessible and available to anyone in any congregation or community in this diocese.

Finally, I would like to challenge every vestry and bishop’s committee to undertake a small exercise in self assessment. Three questions: (1) what are you doing or do you need to do, as a vestry or bishop’s committee, to be formed more deeply as spiritual leaders? (2) what one or two things might you undertake as spiritual leaders to strengthen the formational life of your congregation? and (3) what resources or support would be most helpful to you to expand the formational life of your community? This is simply an invitation to move more deeply and intentionally as pastoral leaders into intimacy with Jesus—crucified, died, and risen—the very heart of life.

Which brings me back to the compelling and challenging figure of Francis. We know Saint Francis mostly as a benign figure, a piece of statuary, hand outstretched feeding the birds. And yet his entire life was far more than that. “Take nothing with you,” he heard Jesus say. “Build my church,” he was told by the love of his life. And he gave himself over—radical surrender, complete self-emptying, abandoning himself in love, to love, for love. We in the Church like to take Francis and place him in the corner of our gardens, half buried by the rhododendrons, where he can stand silently as we admire him from a safe distance. But if we are willing to take the risk, I suspect that we can hear his voice speaking into our hearts, “Set out into the deep waters of life.”

—Amen.