Bishop’s Convention Address: You are the light of the world

Bishop’s Convention Address: You are the light of the world

This is Bishop Scott Mayer’s Address to Convention, given as the sermon at the Opening Worship Service of Diocesan Convention, November 14, 2020. It also is the sermon for the Twenty-Four Sunday after Pentecost, November 14, 2020.


Fort Worth Convention Address 2020                                                 November 14

I would like to begin this morning by expressing my gratitude to Karen Calafat and the good people of St Luke’s in the Meadow for hosting this diocesan-wide event, and also for my staff for all the creative and innovative work at putting together this virtual convention – Janet Waggoner,  Michele King,  Adriana Cline,  Katie Sherrod,  and Steve Grenzow.

Words like “innovative,” and “adaptive,” and “fluid,” have seen increased usage during this unprecedented year of 2020;  I suspect you can think of other words, as well. I would like to thank and recognize the work of all of the communicators and IT experts throughout the diocese, as well as the clergy,  as you have forever impacted our way of life in the Church.

Within a month of discovering the seriousness of COVID-19,  you were conducting live-feed services over the internet – a way of worship which has expanded opportunities for more to participate, and likely a way that’s here to stay, even as we one day return to normalcy. You made events like Holy Week and Easter meaningful and even memorable – and ordinations, too. So, special thanks go to Katie and Steve, and all communicators.

I would like to thank, and express respect and admiration for our clergy. These last eight months have been challenging and demanding,  as clergy have strived to provide forms of worship,  exercise pastoral care, and lead congregations during this historic moment of grief, anxiety, and fear.

Typically, during a crisis human beings come together in person. And now we show our love for one another by distancing ourselves physically. It’s not natural. It’s not how we are created. We are not created to be isolated individuals;  we are created to be in communion as one human family. Loving one another by staying away from one another is not natural, and yet it is a sacrificial loving act in this particular moment.

Through the wonders of technology, the clergy have met together nearly once a week to exchange ideas, share experiences, and support one another. Together we discerned and produced guidelines for re-entry to worship, discussing everything from safety precautions to Eucharistic theology. And, we’ve discussed our role as clergy in leading during this highly fraught time of deep divisions in the culture.

You may remember that at last year’s diocesan convention,  inspired by Bishop Eugene Sutton’s address, we passed a resolution  calling for the establishment of a Diocesan Commission on Racial Justice and Reparations. This summer several clergy gathered regularly by Zoom to read and study about anti-racism.  I hope you have watched or will watch the video they have produced. We will hear from them later this afternoon with a report, as well as an invitation to join them in this work.  This is Gospel work.  So, take a moment in this virtual setting to express gratitude for the sacrificial service and leadership of our clergy.

Our former Provisional Bishop and current Assisting Bishop, Rayford High, has been honored by the establishment of an endowment by Tim and Sylvia Stevens.

Tim and Sylvia Stevens have established the Right Reverend Rayford B. High Jr. Endowment for Administrative Support for the Mission and Outreach Program.   Tim was the Chair of the Mission and Outreach Committee for about five years,  and he helped build the program into what it is today: a program which distributes grant funds, but also does much more, including helping congregations learn to write grants and letting people across the diocese and The Episcopal Church know about the amazing outreach our congregations are doing.

The proceeds from the endowment established by the Stevens will provide much-needed administrative support to help the Mission and Outreach Committee receive and process grant applications and maintain connections with grant recipients. From your respective virtual locations,  let’s show gratitude to Tim and Sylvia Stevens, and Rayford High.

Each year, I recognize those who have served in the leadership of our diocese, and are concluding their service in a particular role, or commission or committee. In addition to those I name,  there are many who agree to continue to serve. I am grateful for the work which keeps us moving forward in ministry together. Those who are concluding their work in various roles, commissions, and committees include:

  • Jon Back, chair of the Constitution and Canons Committee;
  • Andrew Johnson, member of the Constitution and Canons Committee;
  • Christopher Thomas, member of the Constitution and Canons Committee;
  • Allison Shapard, member of the Schools Commission;
  • Serin Stanford, member of the Schools Commission;
  • Donna Clopton, chair of the Mission and Outreach Committee;
  • Tom Foster, member of the Mission and Outreach Committee;
  • David Shockley, member of the Finance Committee.

Please join me in expressing gratitude to them.

In Memoriam

A number of faithful Episcopalians have died since our last gathering for convention, and we will read the names of those who served in diocesan-wide capacities later during this liturgy. Given it’s 2020,  most of us were unable to remember and celebrate our loved ones with a nave full of friends and relatives, and choirs and congregational singing, and celebrations of the Holy Eucharist, and homilies with some story-telling and eulogizing.

And that is a loss. Just as an aside,  my mother told me recently that her grandfather,  a devout Catholic,  died during the Spanish Flu in 1918. His burial was a graveside service due to the pandemic. He died 14 years before she was born, and yet she knew that. Obviously, that made an impression on the family.

I would like to take a moment to eulogize a few of our friends:

Richard Chowning.  Long time lay leader Richard Chowning died Friday, July 10, 2020.  Richard grew up in Fort Worth and graduated from Paschal High School.   He attended the University of Texas in Austin on a diving scholarship,  and was in the Air Force,  serving in combat in South East Asia.

Upon returning home, Richard became a career real estate broker and mediator.  He cared passionately about the growth and development of his congregation, the diocese,  and All Saints Episcopal School.

Richard filled many leadership roles at All Saints’, but most people knew him as the smiling usher greeting everyone on Sunday morning. He was a delegate from All Saints’ to several diocesan conventions. Richard’s greatest desire was for the diocese to grow into a healthy healing place for all – a place where there was room for love, grace, and courage as we sought to share the amazing message of God’s unceasing love for everyone.

He was funny,  outspoken, and always straight-forward. He had no hidden agendas. As his health began to deteriorate,  his plain-spokenness grew. He had no time to waste with beating around the bush.

Richard’s wife, Barbara Evans Chowning, continues to serve the diocese, and is a delegate to this convention.

Johnson Shannon.  The Rev. Johnson Shannon,  a priest of the diocese, died on April 20, 2020. Johnson was born July 30th, 1948 in Fort Worth. He was a graduate of North Side High School, where he began dating his wife, Mary Ellen (Hood).

After deciding to pursue a call to the priesthood that had tugged at him since serving as an acolyte at St Anne’s, he graduated from Nashota House Episcopal Seminary with an MDiv in 1998. Johnson served St. Alban’s in Arlington,  St. Mary’s in Hillsboro,  and Our Lady of the Lake in Laguna Park  before returning to Fort Worth as a pastoral associate at All Saints’, where he retired in 2013.

Johnson loved a good joke,  TCU football, and the Texas Rangers,  but he always remained faithful to his childhood love,  the Fort Worth Cats. His laugh often entered the room before he did, and he never turned down a good meal. Like his Irish forbears, he loved sharing and hearing a good story. He often described his shop class that he took at JP Elder Junior High,  as his most useful academic endeavor for it led to his life-long love of wood-working and tinkering with everything.

Henry Penner.  The Rev Henry Penner,  a deacon of our diocese, died on Friday, December 20th, 2019.  He served at St Martin-in-the-Fields in Keller since his ordination on November 2, 2012, at the 30th Diocesan Convention in Stephenville.  Bishop Wallis Ohl ordained him, with the newly elected Provisional Bishop Rayford High assisting.

Henry served on the Commission on Ministry, working with those discerning a call to ministry  and in deacon formation; in risk management, where he used his experience from a long career as an insurance producer and risk manager;  and with local service organizations to muster the resources of our congregations to address the needs of the world.

Henry was born in Fort Worth. He graduated from Texas Christian University in 1975 with a BA in English and Biology.  He was president and COO of Penner and Cheney,  the paint contracting firm founded by his father, for ten years before beginning his career in insurance. He retired in 2017.

He loved photography, plucking his banjo, building his train layout, flying model airplanes, collecting stamps, and hunting and shooting with his father and his brothers. He liked listening to jazz music with a scotch in hand and two or three books to read.

The Deacon Henry Penner Education Fund has been established by Rhonda Penner and their extended family. Henry delighted in his calling as a deacon, and countless people were blessed by his ministry. In everything he did,  Henry sought to lift up others and bring out the best in them.

Contributions to this fund will be used to help with education expenses for aspiring vocational deacons, and to help with continuing education expenses for deacons currently serving in the Church and the world.  Those who wish to contribute to the Deacon Henry Penner Education Fund can do so through the “Online Giving” button on the diocesan website, or by sending a check to the diocesan office.

Sam Hulsey.  The Rt. Rev. Sam B. Hulsey was born on Valentine’s Day (of course) in 1932, and he died on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6th, 2020.  He was baptized and confirmed at St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Fort Worth.  As a priest, he served congregations in the Dioceses of Dallas, Northwest Texas,  and Tennessee. He was called to serve as the Bishop of Northwest Texas in 1980, and served in that capacity until 1997.

Sam was a truly remarkable bishop who led Northwest Texas to accomplish much both within and beyond the diocese. His ability to remember names – and not only your name,  but everyone in your extended family and your dog – and to write personal handwritten notes on motel stationery was nothing less than legendary.  He was truly interested in your life, and that’s one way he showed it. His refusal to use email, social media, or answer his cell phone was equally legendary.

Sam was a pastor at heart. It’s true that he had a prophetic side, and occasionally he referenced himself as the “left reverend,” rather than as the Right Reverend. He was always striving to learn, and he was always teaching;  even to the end he was teaching us how to live and die. It was his pastoral impulse which made him a mentor, spiritual director, and coach to many.

There are lots of stories to tell. I’m going to take the liberty to tell one now. On January 11th this year,  Sam preached the homily for the burial of Deacon Henry Penner at St Martin-in-the-Fields.  Sam opened the sermon by telling us of his long connection to the congregation, and to the Penner family dating back decades in west Fort Worth. He gave thanks to God for Henry and his life and ministry, and asked God’s blessing on all who mourn.

And then Sam told the unsuspecting crowd (and there was a crowd; this was before we knew about COVID) that he (Sam) was a brand new patient in hospice with incurable cancer. Everyone knew he was battling cancer  but this was news,  and people were shocked.

So, being the pastor who would anticipate our response – and striving to take care of US – he offered some comic relief about his first encounter with his “new hospice bath girl.” On his first morning as a hospice patient he received a call from someone who said:  “Mr. Hulsey,  this is Terri.  I’m your bath girl.”

Sam then told the crowd that he wanted everyone as witnesses, just in case I (as bishop) received any reports about Sam and his bath girl. It brought the house down when he looked at me and whispered into the mic that he was looking forward to it, and he would give me a report.

After the comic relief, what Sam preached was not unlike Jesus at the Last Supper.  At the Last Supper, Jesus tells us his “last words” so to speak. He has gathered his closest followers. It’s the night before he will die, and he knows it. So, he says and does the things that are most important – not things on the periphery – but things like sharing bread and wine – “Do this in remembrance of me” – and washing feet, as one who serves, and commanding us to love one another.

Sam ties the event of this burial office to the Table, the Altar, where we share in the Body and Blood of Christ. He reminds us that Deacon Henry is participating with us in this Sacred Meal with all the saints; that this is not the end, for God will heal the broken body. He connects it all to the Communion of Saints, and how reality does not end.

Of course, Sam is going to interject the occasional editorial in the celebration of his Last Supper.  Someone, upon recently hearing that Sam was going to be in hospice,  told him:  “Now you’re going to be with Jesus.” He replied: “Now, excuse me.  Jesus is everywhere. I’m already with Jesus.”

And then, given that this service was for a deacon, Sam moved to servant-hood.  Deacons are icons of servant-hood – windows into what it means to be a servant.

They are not our designated servants ordained to serve on our behalf. Rather, they lead the Church to an interiority, a posture, an identity of serving both within and beyond the Church.

So Sam remarked on his 23 years after serving as a diocesan bishop,  which led to a pastoral role with a lot of other retired people. And he said, “I’ve discovered there are a lot of restless, lonely old people. And many of them have learned that playing bridge and golf aren’t going to get it.” And if they want to find fulfillment and meaning, they’ve got to find a way to serve.

That can be done in any number of ways, but primarily, he says, we need to bear light. We need to be “light bearers.” So, drawing from Bishop Hulsey, the theme for this convention is taken from Jesus:  “You are the light of the world.”

Bearers of Light

Light. The author and theologian, Herbert O’Driscoll, says: “Light is the predominant symbol in the expression of the Christian faith. The New Testament is full of it, beginning in the Gospels themselves. Light blazes in the heavens at the Lord’s birth, and emanates from him at his transfiguration. Shining figures appear at his ascension. He himself says that he is Light, that he has come that humanity may have light.”

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”  Notice what Jesus does NOT say. He does not say, “You should be, or you ought to be, the light of the world.” He does not say, “You are called to be the light of the world.” He does not implore us to be like light.

He says, “You ARE the light of the world.” You “are” – the word “are” derived from the verb “to be,” as in “I am,” “She is,” “You are.” It’s your essence. The theological word for this is “ontological” – having to do with the nature of being, becoming, or existence. You are light at the core of your being.

If we wonder about that, we can turn to John’s Gospel. We know from John’s Gospel that Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” John the Baptist will say (referencing Jesus), “he is the true light.”

The Prologue to John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone,  was coming into the world.”

From the beginning, according to John’s Gospel, the Word, the Christ, the Light,  Divine Presence was embedded in all things. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” You ARE the light of the world; it’s embedded.

I suspect many of you are familiar with Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk and theologian. Rohr observes that most of the world religions claim something like this: “Everything that exists in material form is the offspring of some Primal Source, which originally existed only as Spirit. This Infinite Primal Source  somehow poured itself into finite, visible forms,  creating everything from rocks to water, plants, organisms, animals, and human beings – everything we see with our eyes.”

He says that this first self-disclosure of God into physical creation was actually the FIRST incarnation, long before the personal, second Incarnation that Christians believe happened with Jesus. “To put this idea in Franciscan language, creation is the FIRST Bible, and it existed for 13.7 billion years before the second Bible was written.”

So, the Incarnation is not only “God becoming Jesus.” It is a much broader event.  Long before Jesus’s personal incarnation, Christ was imbedded in all things. This is what we call an “Incarnational Theology” – a worldview which sees the presence of the divine in everything and everyone.

This is not a new 21st century innovative idea. It is not “new age.” The Early Theologians of the Church – in their writings – insist on claiming the presence of the Divine in every human heart.

In the second century, a great influential theologian, Justin Martyr, sees “Christ the Logos” as the “Cosmic Sower” who plants seeds – who plants “seeds of truth”  in the hearts of all human persons – without exception.

Centuries later (in the 20th century), Thomas Merton writes the following in his book “Guilty Bystander”: “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin …,  a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God … .  “…It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of the sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. …I have no program for this seeing. It is only a given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”

So we are created in the image of God  (a fundamental starting point in Genesis) and it is our calling to grow in God’s likeness. Image and likeness. Created in the image of God. Deep within the heart the Divine Spark lives. And yet it’s true, obviously, that each heart is greatly distorted by sin, and is covered with layers and layers of fear and deception (and we could make a long list), and our calling is to grow in God’s likeness. Obviously, we are not “grown.”

But according to Merton there remains within us this “innermost, secret, uncontaminated chamber of the heart …where the winds of evil spirits do not blow.” And this is “the locus of God’s indwelling.”

So while it’s true that the “Word was made flesh” 2000 years ago in a manger, and it’s true that Christ is the full revelation of God, and Jesus is the ultimate outward, visible sign of God’s grace and love, an incarnational theology insists that the Divine Presence, Light, can be found in every human heart.

As the Anglican John Knox says (and this was written before we made our language inclusive), “Man was made in the image of God and will not be allowed to fail in the end to realize his true nature and destiny. Divinity is not merely above him and around him; it is also within him – indeed, it is the very essence of his inmost self.”

You ARE the light of the world. And then Jesus says: “A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp  puts it under the bushel basket,  but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

This is not a moment in history to keep the light under the bushel basket.

\The investor and philanthropist, Warren Buffet, says that “when the tide goes out, you can see who is swimming naked.” I suspect he’s talking about the stock market, and what happens when it crashes. But in early 2020 as COVID-19 rolled in, the tide rolled out and much in this country was exposed.

It’s true that the light shines through the gloom,  and we have witnessed amazing actions of sacrificial love during the pandemic; but, there is no denying that much has been exposed. I could make a long list, but you know it already. You’re living it. You know the deep divisions, the anger, the fear.

I’m mindful of one of our former Presidents of the United States who had a vision for our country. Maybe his vision came from his time under the Big Sky of Midland, Texas; maybe he knew the quote from Thomas Merton.

He challenged our country to be better – to be a “kinder and gentler” people, and to be “a thousand points of light.” He imagined us as a nation of communities, “a brilliant diversity spread like stars,  like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky”: President George HW Bush, a faithful Episcopalian – and a Texan.

Our Peculiar light

I want to say something about our particular, peculiar light as Episcopalians – as Anglicans – beginning with our theological understanding of the Incarnation.

It’s been said that each of the great Christian traditions (Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Anglicanism)  tends to emphasize a particular theological understanding. To the Eastern Orthodox, Easter is most emphasized. To the Roman Catholics, the sacrifice of Christ (the Passion) is most emphasized. To the Anglicans, it’s the Incarnation.

To be clear, none of the great traditions is saying it’s just the Passion, or just the Resurrection, or just the Incarnation that matters. We are talking about the lens through which we tend to look.

Our Anglican charism, our spiritual gift, is seeing the light in everything and everyone – even those whose light seems to be especially well covered. We know the light is there. And classic Anglican spiritual direction is inclined to draw out the light – to let light shine. We are not as inclined to drive out the bad, as we are inclined to appeal to the good, the true, the beautiful.  As John says: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.” That might be a helpful perspective right now – all the way around.

Second. Anglican Moral Theology – our way of doing ethics – has at its heart “character formation.” In the various tough ethical questions we face, including the tough challenges with no good answer,  we don’t so much ask, “what are we supposed to do?” We ask, “Who are we called to be?” That is a pretty good question right now.

Third. We have a history of striving for the middle way, not as a compromise,  but rather through broad, comprehensive thought. I quoted from Father Jack Danforth last year, and I’ll quote him again this year. The former Senator of Missouri says:  “We are the middle way. We reject extremes. We do not insist on doctrinal purity.  We allow a variety of beliefs in our common prayer. We welcome all to our altars.  We boast of being inclusive. Our breadth is our strength, not our weakness.” The world needs more of that.

Fourth and finally, five years ago we called someone to serve as Presiding Bishop who declares boldly that “if it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” He reminds us how everything – everything in the Bible, everything in the Creeds, everything hangs on the Great Commandment to love God and love our neighbor.

Love. He’s not talking about affection, as wonderful as that is. He’s talking about sacrificial love:  undeserved forgiveness, unmerited grace,  unconditional love; the kind of love which can crack open the tomb, crack open the layers and layers, the outer shell, and liberate the light.

Bishop Curry spoke recently to the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church,  and I had occasion to read what he said. As always, it was a sermon, and he chose a biblical text. I was surprised to see that he chose the exact text, the exact theme, we have for this diocesan convention.  He told us something I did not know, and I would like to share it. He said:

“I think often of my slave ancestors for whom darkness was a way of life. Imagine. I can’t even imagine being taken and separated from my children and my family. I mean, being taken away from everybody that made Michael, Michael. I can’t imagine being carted off to someplace I never knew, packed in the holds of ships with other people, also captives, who spoke different languages; we couldn’t even understand each other.”

“I can’t imagine being taken to new lands, and feeling like a motherless child a long, long way from home. That feels about as dark as it can get. And yet, those who were made captives are the ones who taught us to sing, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”

Bishop Curry concludes: “And if they could do it, we can do it.”

You are the light of the world. We are the light of the world. We did not do one thing to earn or deserve it. By God’s grace, we just are. So with gratitude, and humility, and courage, and in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being, let’s let our light shine. Amen.