Bishop’s Address of 2016

The Right Reverend Scott Anson Benhase, Bishop of Georgia

In my obviously biased opinion, one of our greatest living public theologians is singer-songwriter John Prine. His music captures the human condition honestly and sometimes with a profound sense of humor.

One of his songs that’s not at all humorous is entitled Bruised Orange. The chorus goes like this:

You can gaze out the window get mad and get madder,
Throw your hands in the air, and say “What does it matter?”
But it don’t do no good to get angry, so help me I know.
For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter.
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
Wrapped up in a trap of your very own chain of sorrows.

You and I live in a time of great anger and bitterness where many people have “become their own prisoners.” With Smartphones in hand they send out words and images that reflect that anger and bitterness. You and I may not do that, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we sometimes have those same feelings. We’re tempted to defy St Paul’s admonition in our Epistle lesson and not “restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness,” but rather we can behave in a spirit of anger and self-righteousness.

It’s oh so tempting, is it not? It’s almost become a Kantian Categorical Imperative in our culture to run roughshod over one another taking great pains to point out how awful the other is. And, it’s about to get much, much worse. And it might not get better for a long, long time. We should prepare ourselves now for that reality.

God won’t be discovered in what we’d like to believe about ourselves and the world around us. God is actually present more fully in the death of our delusions about ourselves and the world. For God is no stranger to the fearful, the broken-hearted, the abandoned, the worried, the hypocritical, or the oppressed. The God we worship, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, isn’t a God we voted for. Rather, this God is a God who voted for us on the cross of Jesus.

Yet, we’re still tempted to see God as the former and not the latter, which we must confess is narcissistic. St. Paul warns us about that temptation and calls us rather to “bear one another’s burdens.”

In a coarse culture about to get coarser, what if we became a church known for our gentleness? What if we became a church known for bearing the burdens of our neighbors? What if the only thing people in Georgia knew about The Episcopal Church was that we were a people known for extending the grace of Jesus to all? What if we became infamous for our scandalous compassion and mercy to our fellow sinners? In a culture hell-bent on blaming, shaming, and naming everyone else’s faults, we’d become a counter-cultural beacon of grace.

In the bloodiest year of our nation’s Civil War, Frederick William Faber wrote these lyrics known as the hymn, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy:

For the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind
and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.

Faber was as insightful about the human condition as John Prine. We tend to think that the human mind is just like God’s; that God shares the prejudices and mean-spiritedness of human beings. But God’s love is broader than what we can ever hope for or even imagine. And if we believe the Gospel of Jesus, then God’s heart is indeed “most wonderfully kind.”

Can we take God simply at God’s word, as Faber implores? When we don’t, then we become functional atheists where we give assent to God’s Grace for the world “God so loves,” but we actually live our lives as if we’re not part of a divinely coherent story of redemption in Jesus. The Bible is clear: the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ isn’t stumped by the sins of the world. To prove that, the crucified Jesus rose from the dead and made grace the operational reality for creation.

Through such Grace, we learn that the world isn’t a meaningless place. It’s God’s world full of love. That doesn’t mean the world is perfect. We know better. It’s full of sinners like you and me. But it does mean that the human story is rooted in and underwritten by God’s grace. It shouldn’t surprise us then that the most recurring words of Jesus are: “Don’t be afraid.” And we should be even less surprised to recall that Jesus’ last words from the cross were: “Forgive them.”

Our congregations are called to be outposts of such amazing grace; islands of mercy in the growing polluted sea of our culture; where people don’t have accusing fingers pointed at them as they enter, rather they have grace-filled arms opened wide to welcome them home. I believe with all my heart that’s the vocation to which God has called all the congregations of our Diocese. And it’s why we have focused our Capital Campaign, not on building buildings or creating endowments, but on building our capacity to lead, and grow, and share the grace of Jesus Christ.

During this convention, you’ve seen and heard the stories of how Campaign funds have strengthened leaders, grown the capacity of our congregations, and shared the love and grace of Jesus with others. There will be others you’ll hear from and see tomorrow morning. As the Clergy and Lay Leaders of this Diocese: we of all people know how crucial it is for our work that this Campaign meets or even exceeds our goal. To date, we’ve raised over $1.8 million and we need to get to $3 million if we’re to secure the resources to continue this vital work. We can do that if we all pull together and ask all of us to be generous.

During my nearly seven years as your bishop, I’ve tried to remind myself regularly that I’m the Tenth Bishop of Georgia. There was a Ninth and there’ll be an Eleventh. I’m just the steward of this holy office for the time being. Bishops come and bishops go. Such perspective brings a necessary humility. Some part of God’s Kingdom will come a bit closer because of my ministry as bishop. Some will remain far in the distance. I’ll occasionally succeed in being the bishop God has called me to be and at other times I’ll fail miserably to live into that calling.

It does no good for any of us to be fixated on what our legacy might be. If there’s a story of my life or your life, we who trust radically in the unmerited Grace of God in Jesus, then it’s at best a story that’s but a footnote to that one, great and true story we love to tell. As the old Gospel hymn states, “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”

The amazing Broadway musical, Hamilton, is the story of the life of one of America’s Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton. The musical ends with a mournful, chilling song that asks this question: “Who gets to tell your story?” And the song ends with these haunting lyrics:
But when you’re gone, Who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?

50 years ago, at the 1966 Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, a great saint of this Diocese, Bishop Albert Rhett Stuart, our Sixth Bishop, spoke these words:

“Is the church to be a refuge from the world or to transform the world? Is the Church to maintain the status quo or to protest evil in this culture? Is the Church to provide a chaplaincy for its members or to serve all? Is the Church to provide a stained glass sanctuary before a carved reredos for white people or is it to be a place of prayer for all God’s people? The Church is not a religious club organized for pious sentimentality or personal status. The Church is a divine organism created by the Lord for the redemption of humankind.”

The questions he asked 50 years ago should make us all wake up. Given the current context of our culture, Bishop Stuart’s words could’ve just as easily been written about our present time and delivered today. The Church is indeed a “divine organism created by the Lord for the redemption of all humankind,” Black, White, or Brown, Male and Female, Gay and Straight, and yes, Republicans and Democrats! So who will tell our story 50 years from now? What will people then say about the Diocese of Georgia in the year 2016? What will be the story they tell about us?

While we don’t have control of our legacy as the leaders of the Diocese, we do have control over how we act now in following Jesus by extending his grace to our neighbors.

I do hope when future diocesan leaders tell the story of the Diocese of Georgia 50 years from now, they’ll look back on us gathered here this night and say that even though we faced enormous challenges around us, we did not shrink back from what was before us. We planted the banner of God’s unmerited grace in the ground and said here’s where we stand because all other ground is sinking sand.

That’s the story I hope they’ll tell. There’s still time to make that our story.