Bishop’s Address of 2017

Bishop Scott Anson Benhase gave the following address to convention at the Eucharist on Friday, November 10, 2017, at The Patterson in Valdosta, Georgia.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.- Matthew 5:13-14

To my mind, there’s nothing better on a late summer day than slicing up a freshly-picked, ripe tomato, sprinkling salt all over it, and then savoring each bite as the tomato’s juice dribbles down my chin. Adding the salt makes it special. It just wouldn’t taste as good without it. But I can’t imagine just eating plain salt all by itself. Salt is best used to bring out the flavor in food. It enhances and adds zest to the food we eat.

Likewise, it’s hard to imagine pure, unfiltered light. No one in their right mind stares into a bright light, especially during an eclipse like we just had. Although, some not in their right mind, did just that. Light, like salt, enhances and reveals other things, such as beauty and color. Both salt and light then direct us to other things.

Jesus tells us we’re called to be salt and light to the world.

Our mission as the church then is to make God’s grace visible in a world where it’s not the norm to see it. As Psalm 34 calls us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” As salt and light for Christ, we flavorfully reveal his grace to those who are lonely, lost, and left out by the world.

Such a mission is exhausting at times. We can end up feeling like Don Quixote tilting at windmills if we’re not grounded in something deeper, more eternal than simply the desire to serve those who are lonely, lost, and left out.

That’s why we must ground ourselves in the worship of God. It’s not in caring for the lonely, the lost, and the left out that we come to know we need to worship God. It’s the other way around. It’s through our worship of God that we discover we can do nothing other than humbly minister to those hurting in this world.

As Evelyn Underhill wrote:

One’s first duty is adoration, and one’s second duty is awe and only one’s third duty is service. We observe then that two of the three things for which our souls were made are matters of attitude, of relation: adoration and awe. Unless these two are right, the last of the triad, service, won’t be right. Unless the whole of your life is a movement of praise and adoration, unless it is instinct with awe, the work which the life produces won’t be much good.

Underhill is correct. Adoration and awe must precede service. But such adoration and awe, can’t be all we offer because of one unmistakable truth: The Gospel of Jesus. The adoration and awe of our worship cannot lead us to become as Johnny Cash sang: “so heavenly-minded, we’re no earthly good” If so, we become, as St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, nothing but a “noisy gong” or a “clanging cymbal.”

Our worship of God compels us to love our neighbors. And the most loving way we do that is to share with them the amazing news that God loves them right where they are and just the way they are – no exceptions. God doesn’t love them after they “clean up their act,” whatever that means. No, God loves them just as they are, even if they never engage in various self-improvement projects suggested by others.

So, evangelism is the most important way we love our neighbors. It’s sharing with them the Good News that through Jesus and his cross, God is loving us all the way into eternity. Nothing will affect the rest of their lives more than that truth.

During this Convention, Carrie Headington has already helped us learn some basic skills for how to invite people into that grace-filled relationship with God. And we’ll learn even more tomorrow. Carrie has helped us with the “Invite” part of “Invite, Welcome, & Connect.” As churches in this Diocese, this can’t be at the bottom of our priority list. It must be at the top, for everything else we do flows from the sharing of the Good News of Jesus.

What happens when it finally washes over a person that they’re totally loved, forgiven, and accepted by God? We have biblical evidence of just that. His name is Zacchaeus. Y’all remember him. He was the grifter that ripped off his own people through a sweet deal he had with the Roman occupation forces. He was like a “Mafia Don” squeezing money out of even the poorest widow.

When Jesus loved and forgave him right where he was and just the way he was, Zacchaeus joyously declared he’d return four-fold all he had defrauded from his people and he’d give half of his wealth to the poor. That’s the kind of reaction that happens to people when it finally sinks into their souls that God loves them no matter what.

And that’s why our evangelism, sharing the Good News of God’s unearned love and grace, and our stewardship are really two sides of the same theological coin. Once God’s grace-filled love has sunk into our souls, we can do nothing other than give generously from what we have.
Our Diocesan ministry around stewardship through Project Resource and our ongoing ministry using Invite, Welcome, & Connect are then really one in the same ministry. They’re about all of us together as the church responding joyously and generously to God’s unearned grace.

God has given us the grace and courage to live into such a life together. I see signs all around the Diocese that many of us are embracing this joy and generosity. And yet, there are still some in their congregations who’d rather spend time blaming others for why they can’t live into such a life. As your Bishop, I must admit there’s little I can do to help those congregations other than to prepare someday to say the Burial Office over them. They have convinced themselves that they’re powerless over their situation. I hear them complain about not having enough money, or enough time, or enough people to do anything.

While I recognize the challenges we all face in living together courageously and gracefully, such complaints don’t make any sense to me.
About not having enough money, I simply ask: “How much does it cost to love your neighbor as yourself? What’s that price tag for that?”

About not having enough time, I ask: “Don’t we always seem to find the time for what we see as important?”

And about not having enough people, I ask: “Isn’t evangelism just sharing in word and deed with another person just how much God loves us? It just takes one person who’s willing to do share that with another person.”

God has given us in this Diocese all we truly need. Sure, like you, I’d love to have more money, and more time, and more people, but we have what we have. To paraphrase the immortal John Prine in his song, Dear Abby, “we are what we are and we ain’t what we ain’t.

So, let’s rejoice that God has already given us far more than we can ask for or even imagine.

Let’s rejoice that young adults at Georgia Southern, Valdosta State, and at Columba House in Savannah and Augusta are hearing from us that God loves them completely no matter what their current GPA is.

Let’s rejoice that homeless persons in Savannah have a worshipping community where they are their own musicians, lectors, and Eucharistic Ministers.

Let’s rejoice that we’re partnering with our Lutheran sisters and brothers, not just at St. Patrick’s Albany, but also now in planting a new church in Grovetown.

Let’s rejoice that we’re training and equipping clergy who are talented and smart and willing to go into new and different places with the Good News of Jesus.

Let’s rejoice that all across this Diocese the hungry are fed, the broken-hearted are consoled, and the poor have good news shared with them.

You’ll recall that when the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus asking on behalf of their imprisoned leader if Jesus were the real deal, Jesus didn’t just say “yes.” He answered them by saying: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11)

So, Jesus is not Lord and Savior because we say so. He is who he is because of what we’re seeing and hearing all around us. From Augusta to Valdosta, from Kingsland to Cordele, the hungry are being fed, the broken-hearted are being consoled, and all kinds of people are having the Good News shared with them.

Brian McLaren in his book The Secret Message of Jesus tells a story about his friend Tony Campolo who was having coffee in a donut shop late one night. While there, he overheard a prostitute who was taking a break between tricks say that the next day was her birthday and that she had never had a birthday party in her whole life.

So, after talking it over with the shop owner and some regular patrons, the next night Tony came back with a cake, candles, and decorations and they all threw a surprise birthday party for the woman. She was deeply moved by this and so were others in the donut shop.

The shop owner, who had figured out that Tony was a pastor of a church, asked him what kind of church he came from. Tony told him: “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” A bystander overheard him and said. “”No, you don’t.” There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it.”

My hunch is that there’d be a lot of people who would flock to join a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning. And I want to be bishop of a church that does just that. You and I can be that church.

Now wouldn’t that be salty and shine some light on things?