Bishop Hirschfeld's Address to the 215th Diocesan Convention

Convention Address

Saturday, November 4, 2017

By the Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld

Bishop, Episcopal Church of New Hampshire

From the Gospel of Matthew that we just heard:

“...and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

From the Acts of the Apostles (Chapter 17, verse 6-7)


             “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also...they are acting contrary to the deeds of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.”


Oh God, may the words of my mouth, and the mediations of our hearts, and our worship of you this morning, and the work of our hands in this world, be acceptable to you, and this I pray in the name of Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit whose mission is turning us upside down in order that we may be found turned up right in God’s eternal realm. AMEN

I want to begin with a story that some of you may have heard before.  It involves water. And soon we will share a meal together. And we seem to be following a God of countless surprises.  So we are doing what Christians do:  We show up (thank you all the hours you have taken to show up here for this Convention).  We tell stories.  We splash water. We share food. And, God surprises.

So, here’s a story which will take me, I hope you’ll see, back to the Sermon on the Mount.

About seven years ago my friend and I planned on continuing a tradition we had started some years previously.  On the day before Thanksgiving, he and I would get into our narrow single rowing shells and take the last rowing session of the year. Now, I’ve been rowing for more than 40 years, and I think I know what I’m doing.  But this day had its’ own surprise.  It was November, the temperature outside was in the upper 30s, the water temperature in upper 40s. It was not something I would encourage anyone to do. But we’ve always done this this way before and so we launched from the shore, our feet chilled because had to wade in. The local college had already removed the docks for the winter.  This would be a last, bracing row allowing us both to feel that the Thanksgiving Feast the next day would be deserved.  (Yes, my inner Calvinism is showing).

About a mile and half upstream, something happened.  I began to feel myself turn over, and at the last minute, I noticed that the gate of the oarlock on one side was not tied down.  I had forgotten to turn the little knob that held my oar in place, and it had just popped out.  There was nothing to keep me upright and, suddenly, I was upside down, my head underwater, under COLD water, and the hull of my shell above me. The shoes were affixed to the bottom of the shell were old lace up track shoes.  That meant that my feet and legs were tied to the boat, and I could not get easily released.  I was upside down, about to either drown, or go into shock. 

Somehow, needless to say, I managed to unlace myself and get free, brought to shore and warmth, though it took several days before I could feel my feet again.  It made for a special Thanksgiving, though I chose not to tell my mother what had happened until just this past summer when I told this story at the end of our River of Life Pilgrimage. Just let me break from the story here and say that soon after I told this story at the final Eucharist of the River Pilgrimage, before setting out for the last stretch of our trip to the sea, one of our guides, Mark Kutolowski, sitting in the stern of our canoe, decided to flip us over in a plunge that celebrated our having made possible a pilgrimage that safely allowed almost 100 pilgrims to participate in the journey of prayer, contemplation, community in Christ from the Canadian border of New Hampshire to Long Island Sound along the Connecticut River.  It was a journey into Christ, and showed us a new way to live in Christian community. Every three days, strangers became fellow pilgrims.  Steve Blackmer, Jo Brooks, our chief logistics officer and operational miracle worker, and our guides of water and spirit, Mark and Lisa Kutolowski, deserve thanks and praise for changing so many lives this summer by organizing the River of Life Pilgrimage.

But, back to the meaning of the story.  Here we are, this year, in a church which is of course, an upturned boat.  Look above.  There is the keel above us.  Imagine the gunwales along the side.  See the ribs that that provide the structure of our navis, the Latin word for a boat or a ship.  In fact, we are all sitting in what is called the Nave.  A fleet of these is called a navy, and our steering of these vessels, setting the course of these ships is called navigation. 

How are we navigating our course in this world?  God seems to say that unless we are upside down, unless we see our navigation as falling upward, to borrow the term of the spiritual writer Richard Rohr, we aren’t really following the way of Jesus. Unless we see ourselves rejoicing in being upside down, we should reconsider whether we are indeed participating at all in the Jesus movement.

I tell this story because we are tipping over, if we haven’t already.  This is the message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in which he says that the dominant ways of this world, and the ways of God as they are described on the Beatitudes, are inversed. 

The world does not reward the meek...they are losers.  Peacemakers?  We are told that they should waste their time.  The merciful, pathetic and weak.  Those who hunger and the thirst for righteousness? A joke, more losers. Those who mourn...get over it.  Thus, says the dominant culture.  But Jesus says all these are blessed, which means that they have favor in God’s eyes. God holds them with loving kindness. In Jesus, God overturns the economy of the world in the ministry, rejection, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As Julian of Norwich said, “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!”

The posture and position of Jesus, the Way of Jesus, is to learn how to fall over, to learn how to live an upside down life where our strength is known in our weakness, where our weakness is our strength, when change draws us to depend on the unchanging steadfast love of God in our relationships with others, even though they may look and sound and view the world differently than we do.

Who among us have not experienced having their lives been turned upside down? A collapse of a marriage or relationship that you believed would be your stable ground?  A loss of a job? A diagnosis that turned your belief in the stability of your health in its head? A conflict, or a period of spiritual doubt or questioning that suddenly has you questioning everything? Who among us has not experienced their local parish begin to tip over? A political season that makes you question so much of what we believed to be unassailable, where your neighbors suddenly seem like strangers who we need to meet again as though for the first time.  All these experiences can be described in at least one of the Beatitudes, the list of those who are blessed according to Jesus.

I offer this upside down, falling upwards vision of the Kingdom as the lens by which we see what God is up to in our midst.  On the one hand, no one can deny that the mainline denominations, including the Episcopal Church, are experiencing a kind of turning over.  Our Average Sunday attendance, generally, not uniformly, is declining. Of more concern, perhaps, is the decline in the number of baptized members. We more and more find ourselves on the margins of our public discourse. 

Here’s an example, recently a strong majority of Bishops signed on to a letter urging our President and members of congress to repair the protections given to children of refugees and immigrants.  Our statement, printed in the New York Times, was grounded in solid biblical teaching for love of neighbor. We linked our advocacy for vulnerable refugees with the people if Israel, who themselves were sojourners in a foreign and oppressive land. As Christians, our collective memory of that experience tells us how they are to treat the stranger in our midst.

The response to this letter, was relative silence. That silence leads me to consider how things have shifted as our Church no longer enjoys the same prestige, privilege, and power that many of us remember.  Instead we are a voice on the fringe, in the wilderness. The idea that Christianity will be supported by the culture and that Christianity should support the powers of the world...all that is turned on its head, just as it did in the earliest days of the Jesus Movement when John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness on the banks of the Jordan.

For many this will be a cause for deep sadness, grief, resentment, and frustration. And I can sympathize for those who are experiencing this loss as a death.  For others, it is death most welcome, unleashing the power of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. I believe we are in the midst of a new reforming of the Church, allowing us to walk closer to Jesus.  We find ourselves closer and closer to the experience of the early days of the Church which found its purpose and joy in prayer, in love of neighbor, in reading and study of scripture, in baptizing, sharing the Body and Blood of the Risen Jesus and seeking Jesus in those who were most different from us: the poor, the naked, the hungry, the imprisoned, the rejected.  In those days they looked no so much at Average Sunday Attendance, but for Average Weekly Encounters with Jesus...AWE.  Just like when the first disciples heard Jesus preach a sermon on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee.  His words he flipped the world on its head. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Where do we see God each week? Each day? If we are not people expecting to see God every day, then God will certainly turn us over until we do. “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!”

Last week a goodly number, invited by Sandi Albom and Susan Ackley, came together for prayer and retreat at Grace Church, East Concord to speak about the spiritual power available to those who are in Recovery from Addiction from any substance or damaging habit.  Ask anyone grounded in recovery they will tell you the freedom and power that come from surrender to God, or whom they may call their Higher Power, and they may speak of falling upward.

Just ask the people of Holy Spirit, Plymouth, and St. Mark’s, Ashland, and the long difficult road they have been on as they have chosen to worship the Lord together and to seek ways of pursuing God’s mission among the faculty, students, staff of Plymouth State and among those who live in that region.  Selling a church building is no small or easy thing, and I pray that the pain of this change will give way to the energy of renewal in ministry, building bridges over the turbulent waters of the Pemigewasset River.

Ask the people of Epiphany, Newport, and St. Andrew’s, New London, who are building bridges and together undertaking a new venture in mission, inviting youth to sing and their families to worship in a newly renovated space in that stone church at the edge of the town green in Newport.

Ask the people of Union-St. Luke’s, Trinity, and Prince of Peace Lutheran Church who have just called a new rector to lead them into a new partnership with which God is doing a new thing in our midst, only imagined years ago.

I have experienced AWE when I think of the new amazing paths being forged by the saints along the northern reaches of the Connecticut River where St. Paul’s, Lancaster, St. Mark’s, Groveton, and St. Steven’s, Colebrook, have formed partnerships with the area schools for a summer camp experience and after-school programs, and have paved the way for a new partnership with Big Brothers-Big Sisters which that organization has long hoped for.  Worship is lively, inviting and extends beyond the walls of the church, and people are taking notice of a new life in the Episcopal Church in the North Country.  This has been just one example of how our tending the vine by extending our care to All Our Kids, including the children in the neighborhoods of our churches has bolstered our congregational vitality even as we stand with the most vulnerable in our midst.  I want to commend the Our Kids Commission, under the leadership of Ed Doyle and Tina Pickering, for its committed support of such partnerships that bring our care to the youth in New Hampshire: the Choir School of St. John’s, Portsmouth, the Community Music School of Claremont, the Theater program at Christ Church Exeter.

Closer to this neighborhood, the faithful of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Dunbarton, are returning to the mode of evangelism it practiced in its early days.  Morning prayer, led by trained lay person, with a schedule of clergy who celebrate the Eucharist 2-3 times a month allow this beautiful church to remain vibrant without living beyond its means.  Tomorrow, I will celebrate the new ministry of Concord Fire Chief Dan Andrus as Lay Pastoral Leader of that congregation.  That experiment may indeed become a model for some of our smaller congregations that are navigating the waters of ministry in a world that might otherwise just as soon see them roll over and disappear.  A new coat of paint in Dunbarton, a return to the original color scheme, seems to be an outward and visible sign of their original desire to show forth the love of God in that neighborhood. 

I see AWE inspiring average weekly encounters when I visited in Laundry Love out of Grace Church, Manchester. Initiated by Grace parishioner Brian Guimond, Laundry Love is about to celebrate two years of monthly engagement with their neighbors at Granite State Laundry. The concept is spreading through Episcopal churches across the country, fulfilling the church’s mission to get out and share Christ’s love in the community. Out of the familiar setting of the church building, into the neighborhood, getting to know the neighbors by name and by their stories-This is one way that the Jesus movement toward the Beloved Community looks looks like almost 4,000 pounds of laundry where they get to have contact with 100 households including many children.

The newly blessed and powerful solar panels of All Saint’s, Wolfeboro, were overshadowed in their light-producing power by the community discussions that All Saints’ co-sponsored with the Town Library, a local bookseller and the Congregational Church about our nation’s agonizing divisions around race, class, and religion. These must have been conversations that demanded the courage of being vulnerable about some uncomfortable truths of our society.  If we are falling, we are falling upward, opening ourselves to some difficult truthful discussions which is often the way that Jesus leads us toward the heavenly realm. 

God helped us do an amazing new thing in Tilton, where three years ago we closed a parish and began to wait in the Holy Spirit to guide us.  A dream that Jason Wells shared with us of establishing an intentional community of prayer, fellowship and volunteer service for young people seeking to discern God’s will in their lives. This dream has been realized as Laura Simoes and her team has opened the Assisi Program this fall. The newly renovated undercroft of Trinity Church, Tilton, is now the home of four dedicated women who pray, discern, study, and offer their gifts in different non-profit organizations in central and Southern New Hampshire. I would like to introduce our Assisi Fellows (Sandy, Bailey, Niambi, Anna) as I bid your ongoing prayers for them and their journey with us in witness to God’s love. Such apostles as these may indeed turn the world upside down. 

And speaking of being turned upside down, or at least experiencing some change, you’ve heard by now the news of the upcoming retirement in January of my Canon to the Ordinary, Hannah Anderson. Hannah’s wisdom, her dedicated and steadfast work to serve the clergy and people of the Church in New Hampshire, her care for all of us are unreplaceable.  I am so deeply grateful for her contemplative, and yet active, presence in times of difficult decisions and conversations, the light and the joy she brings to her work, and most of all, to her friendship.  Hannah, you have helped in manifold ways to help us navigate the course of falling upward in the deep trust that God will turn us aright. I hope you know the affection, admiration, and love of this diocese as you set forth with Bob on the journey of your ministry in retirement from our midst. 

And, I wish also to thank another friend and colleague whose ministry is unique, as far as I know, in the Episcopal Church.  Our Canon for Lay Leadership will become Canon for Lay Leadership Emerita after this year.  Judith Esmay has seen so many changes and upheavals and shifts, and yet has been very close to the happy navigations of so parishes. Judith knows by heart the Canons and Constitutions of the Episcopal Church and of the Diocese of New Hampshire. She has been a Vestry member, a Warden, a Deputy to the General Convention, a Trustee, Chair of a Search Committee for the Bishop of New Hampshire. She initiated the School for Vestries, which became the Institute for Lay Leadership, which set the stage for yet another iteration of education and formation for all the baptized. She has been for many years a mentor for Education for Ministry at St. Thomas, Hanover Judith is currently the President of the Standing Committee, of which, thankfully, she will remain. Judith Esmay has given this diocese such service since she and her beloved husband Bob arrived on the Hanover plain from New Jersey. I hope this Convention will express its deep gratitude and love for Judith, even though, thank Jesus, she will still wear the canon’s cassock which she herself sewed in honor and respect for the office she so capably occupied.

We continue to walk together, to set sail together, to row together, to navigate the troubled waters of our world, holding each other in the Spirit, knowing that in Christ, God will turn us where we ought to be.  This morning we will consider, and I pray enthusiastically, choose chose, to answer the call of our Presiding Bishop by entering the sacred journey toward becoming the Beloved Community. By doing so, we will embark on a pilgrimage with Jesus.  The road to reconciliation, whether its among races, classes, parishes, Christians, or those of other faiths, is long and often takes unexpected and even undesired turns. We know that is more tempting to fall into the false categories of division, hatred and suspicion that seem to be dominant voice of our anxious and troubled world.  Let it not be so for us, the Episcopal Branch or Vine of the Jesus Movement.  Jesus shows up in the wilderness of our relationships—“in the land of unlikeness” -- as a poet says. May the words of Jesus Sermon on the Mount be for us this morning an invitation the join God’s mission in creating Beloved Community for all God’s children.

You are the light of the world. 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. (Matthew 5:14-15)