Bishop Wright’s Address to the 111th Annual Council

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Our shared purpose in the Diocese of Atlanta, as agreed upon at Annual Council 2015 is: 

We challenge ourselves and the world to love like Jesus as we worship joyfully, serve compassionately and grow spiritually.

Nos desafiamos a nosotros mismos y al mundo para amar como Jesús: mientras adoramos con alegría, servimos con compasión, y crecemos espiritualmente.
 

Last year, we explored the first word in our purpose statement, “We.” We considered what “We” means and could mean as people convened by faith in Jesus of Nazareth, through the Episcopal Church in Middle and North Georgia. Using “We” as our theme last year was trying and yet providential, given the political climate last year and ever since. My prayer is that some new clarity and commitment to what it means to be a Christian community in the world, but not of the world, was gained. And, that maybe we might see that the church is a trans-political organization, in politics but beyond politics. When we say “We,” part of what we are saying is that our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God and that this vision of citizenship informs our citizenship in this world. So then, we are a "We” imagined, authored, guided and sustained by God in all of our glorious messiness. “Es bueno que Dios sea un genio paciente.” It’s a good thing that God is a patient genius.

This year, we return to our purpose statement for the theme of this Annual Council and beyond. You could say this year we have come to the heart of our purpose statement. What purpose does Jesus hold out for His followers?

“This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you." John 15:12

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” John 13:35

Love your enemies and do good to them….” Luke 6:35

These and countless quotables from Jesus give us a glimpse of the love Jesus taught and lived. The purpose He holds out for His friends/followers. And so, as His people, “We challenge ourselves… to love like Jesus.” “nos desafiamos a amar como Jesús.” As you know, the first part of our actual statement says, “We challenge ourselves and the world to love like Jesus….” But, before we challenge the world to love like Jesus, it seems right to challenge ourselves first. So here are a few thoughts.

Challenge is at the very heart of a life with God. Some folks prefer the word invitation rather than challenge, but invitation, to my ear, doesn’t adequately name or account for the sacrifice necessary to make one’s life even vaguely resemble Jesus’ life. We remember here that the symbol of our faith is the challenge represented by the Cross. Challenge speaks to the work of the piercing personal reflection necessary to acknowledge the ways in which our lips and our lives betray the words we pray. Challenge is what leads us to accept our shared responsibility for the world and the church as it is. Challenge better speaks to the daily worshipful exertion required to be neighbor-centered, when self-centered is the status quo. Why challenge ourselves to love like Jesus? Because our Love is not God’s love. Examples abound. The uncomfortable truth is many of us don’t love well. It’s not entirely our fault. We haven’t been loved well, and so we don’t love well. There are holes in how we love. The good news is at the center of this challenge is Jesus who yearns to teach us to how to love through a life lived.

Because of the quality of the love Jesus embodies and teaches and the love we have received at the hands of those who love Jesus, we desire to replicate Jesus’ love, not simply to venerate it. The love we experience in Jesus and His friends inspires, heals, humbles, compels, penetrates, buoys, changes, encourages, instructs and gently corrects us. A love whose height, depth, length, relevance, efficacy, and durability exceeds our expectations, confounds and compels us. Jesus’ love maps the convenient and sad boundaries we’ve inherited, established and regularly maintained. His love cajoles us out of our socially acceptable commitments to smallness, separateness, and superiority. And coaxes us away from euphemism, denial, and despair. Jesus’ love is courageous. Candid and still kind. Bold and not arrogant. His love teaches but doesn’t infantilize. Pioneers but values partnership. Is a ringing alarm for our selfish sleep. His love democratizes leadership and prioritizes just behavior over title, station, gender, pedigree, religious tradition, age or ethnicity. Jesus’ love has the capacity to embrace the bloody babies of Sutherland Springs, Texas, the broken man who murdered them, and the shoulder-shrugging policymakers equally! That we are being loved in this extravagant way right now, individually and as members of Jesus’ church, pleads to us to increase our capacity to love. Doesn’t it?

While there is no quid pro quo in God’s love, Jesus invites us to join Him as partners in His love enterprise. And so if you and I will accept this challenge we can face the question that is implicit in all that I have said so far: What if any, resistance or reluctance do we harbor to new or deeper expressions of Jesus’ love in our lives? To love like Jesus may be first to discover and name the impediment to His love within us.

While challenging ourselves to love like Jesus is a deeply personal journey, we remember it’s an individual challenge with institutional impact! The institution of the church cannot be more like Jesus than the individuals that comprise the institution aspire to be. Therefore, we challenge ourselves to love like Jesus because we want Jesus’ church to accurately reflect His message and nature.

"Nos desafiamos a amar como Jesús porque queremos que la iglesia de Jesús refleje con precisión Su mensaje y naturaleza.

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So then we challenge every community and system that bears His name in our diocese to better reflect His essence. What that means practically is we must look at every tradition and convention we have adopted as ministry groups, vestries, individual churches and clergy and ask ourselves and one another, does our current practice and reality square with what Jesus actually said? What He taught? How He loved? We are called to be and bear God’s incandescence in the world, and this is how we do it! We are hewn from a love shaped pattern, and we are not ourselves until we give love the space it demands in our lives, our families, our endeavors and our churches. If we have anything to say to the world about love, let it at least be, God has come near to us in the person of Jesus, and we in turn must draw nearer to the world.

How might we challenge ourselves to love like Jesus in the days and months ahead? Two words: be proximate. Individually and collectively. That was Bryan Stevenson’s challenge to us some months ago. And that is what God did two millennia ago and ever since. Draw near. To love like Jesus is to reject separateness in the forms of fear, indifference or contempt. To love like Jesus is to love how, what and those that Jesus loved and loves. Remember, “the precondition to contact is vulnerability.” Another way to say that is “For God so loved the world, God gave His Son.” If the church is unwilling to be this presence in the world, then let her die, and let us have a glorious funeral! But, I have to say, that there are enough spiritual adventurers in the Diocese of Atlanta that encourage me to believe that we are up for Jesus’ challenge to love! Yes, this is about spiritual maturity. And yes, this is about living into the purpose Jesus holds out for us. Because of the presence and assurance of this love we can boldly face every challenge understanding “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

With all that said, you might be asking, what do we do now? Where do we go from here? Good questions! If we’re going to love like Jesus, we’re going to have to tell our real stories. Be curious rather than defensive. Forget perfection. Try new things.  Acknowledge loss. Be more courageous. Reach deeper. Laugh from our bellies. Talk less. Sing louder. And trust God more. So there it is: “nos desafiamos a amar como Jesús.” We challenge ourselves to love like Jesus…

This is my sixth Annual Council as the bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta, and I remain encouraged!

Thanks be to God.