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St. Thomas' Episcopal Church
315 Lindsey Street • Reidsville, N.C.

Bishop's Pastoral Address
190th Annual Convention


The Pastoral Address of the Right Reverend Michael B. Curry
Delivered January 26, 2006 at the 190th Annual Convention
of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina 


  Turning The World Upside Down

I

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

There is, in the 17th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, a rather remarkable description of the social impact of the earliest disciples of Jesus. Paul, Silas, Timothy and a small community of Christians have been witnessing in the city of Thessalonica. Their presence caused one bystander to say of them: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’”i

Those words describe the nature of discipleship in the Acts of the Apostles: “People who have been turning the world upside down.” In the 1st Century when the world was right-side-up, walls of separation, as the epistle to the Ephesians calls them, institutionalized and legitimized separation, division and some hostility between Jew and Gentile, between slave and free, between male and female, between people of varying tribes and types. But according the 2nd chapter of Acts, on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit of God tore down those walls. People from all countries and tribes and types together heard the wonderful deeds of God.ii

In the 10th chapter, the Spirit breaks down the walls when Peter realizes that God does not make distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, but that anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.”iii And in the 15th chapter of the book, the first Ecumenical Council of the Church, opened the doors of the church, if you will, to all of God’s children who would seek and follow Jesus. That bystander was right. These people are turning the world upside down!

In the 1st Century, when the world was right-side-up, the “haves” had and the “haves not” had not. But Acts suggests that those who followed Jesus modeled a new way of being human in community. Acts 2 and Acts 4 say that they shared all that they had that, as Acts 4:32 says, “there was not a needy person among them.” iv

When things were right-side-up, a man who was born lame and disabled was condemned to live his life begging alms just to stay alive. But when the Apostles Peter and John saw him begging for silver and gold, Peter said to him, “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give unto you, in the Name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” And he did. These people are turning the world upside down.

I keep daily journal notes of things I need to do, as well as reflections, thoughts and quotations. For years I have written in the front of each journal the following quote from the late Margaret Mead, noted anthropologist and loyal Episcopalian: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

In many respects, those first disciples spoken of in our text from Acts would have been recognized by Mead as just such a thoughtful, committed group whose witness of faith did indeed change the world. But this was not a sociological expedition. In this story Luke points us to the deeper dimension of their discipleship.

Those first disciples of Jesus turned the world upside down because Jesus of Nazareth had turned their world upside down. They became instruments of God’s transformation because they themselves were being formed and transformed as followers of Jesus. Because Jesus had made a difference in their world, they made a difference in the world.

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

 

II 

On December 1, 1955, when the Montgomery bus boycott began, Dr. King, E. D. Nixon, Ralph Abernathy and others involved in leadership were intent on changing the law and culture of Jim Crow. The bus boycott was a non-violent means to do so, but the primary intent was changing the law and custom. The non-violence was the method to accomplish that.

In February of 1956 Bayard Rustin, a Quaker, and later, the Rev. Glenn Smiley, a Methodist minister, went to Montgomery, Alabama on behalf of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. They went as advisors to the Montgomery Improvement Association and Dr. King, its young president.

They arrived at a critical time for the bus boycott in Montgomery. The level of violence and danger in the situation was escalating dramatically. Nightriders terrorized the streets. Homes of leaders of the protest had been bombed, including Dr. King’s. He and others were receiving constant death threats and warnings.

The late Fr. Robert DuBois, dear friend of my father and his roommate in seminary, was serving the small African American Episcopal church there. He was nearly beaten to death by some opposed to the boycott. It was a situation fraught with danger and filled with terror.

While Rustin and Smiley had been sent to assist with matters of administration and organization, they were primarily there as two people who understood the philosophical, theological, methodological requirements of non-violent social change.

It was Rustin, together with the Rev. Smalley, who challenged Dr. King with a question: Is nonviolence for you just a tactic or is it a way of life? As a tactic, it might change some laws. As a way of life, it could change hearts and the life of America. But they also warned King that following this course could cost him his life.v

It was out of these conversations, reflection and the experience of the boycott that King made a conscious commitment to embrace the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth about nonviolent witness— as found in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere— and to integrate them with the method of Satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi. vi

That commitment turned his world upside down as well as the worlds of many others whose names are not so well known. And the record will show that their non-violent way did turn America upside down. We have as a nation many miles to go before we sleep, but we are a different and better nation and people because of it. vii

I want to suggest that the first disciples of Jesus made a difference because the way of Jesus, the way of the Gospel, the way of God became not a tactic, but a way of life and that way turned their world upside down.

We are a diocese of some 48,850 baptized members in 123 congregations, 7 campus ministries and 4 institutions, with 190 active and 150 retired clergy. What might happen if the world of those 48,000 Episcopalians were turned upside down by the Gospel of Jesus Christ? What might happen in Rocky Mount and Hamlet? What might happen in Charlotte and Salisbury? In Statesville and Winston Salem? In Reidsville and Durham and on and on and on? North Carolina would be turned upside down. And maybe the world.

Turning the world upside down is what this Mission Action Plan is really addressing. How do we together, as an Episcopal community of faith, as a diocese, foster an environment in which our worlds are turned upside down by the Good News of Jesus in order that we might participate in God’s mission of turning the world upside down, transforming it from the nightmare to the dream. How do we make disciples who make a difference?

This Mission Action Plan, adopted by Council for 2006, is based on the yearlong work of the Mission Implementation Team, ably chaired by the Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, vicar of the Church of the Advocate, Carrboro. I thank God; and on your behalf, I want to thank the Mission Implementation Team for this incredible labor of love.

I suspect that most of you have seen and reviewed the MAP. There will be a forum on it following this session. There will be a presentation from Council tomorrow. My purpose is not to present the details here.

My purpose here is to challenge you to see how the details and the particulars of the plan point us toward something far more critical and significant. The particulars of the plan guide our first steps in the journey of our transformation into a community of those who follow Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, passionately committed to turning the world upside down for the cause of the kingdom of God’s love.

Our journey, if I may borrow from Elizabeth O’Connor, is not just an outward one of good work and action, it is also an inward one of deepened relationship with God and each other in Christ. The nature of the journey to which we are called is echoed in the words of the song, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

This June coming I will begin my 7th year as your bishop. I have been blessed in my ministry as deacon, priest and now bishop, but never more blessed than to serve as a bishop. To be sure there have been challenges in the past few years, and there will be challenges ahead. But we follow a Lord who carried a blood stained cross and who rose from the dead. So with Maya Angelou I can truly say, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.” I love what I do and thank you for that continuing gift to be your bishop.

I have, after consultation with the Standing Committee, decided to go on Sabbatical in 2007, probably from mid-May through mid-September. Sabbatical time is something that we strongly recommend and encourage for all of our clergy and fulltime lay professionals. A sabbatical is a way to rest, re-connect with family, reflect, renew and re-engage ministry in healthy ways. It is an act of stewardship, to care and nurture the self in order to be better able to care and nurture others in healthy, wholesome, Christ-like ways.

I have been thinking about this sabbatical in the terms just described. But as I have really considered what we are talking about in this Mission Action Plan, it is beginning to dawn on me that I have my plans and God has God’s.

I don’t know for sure, but maybe God’s trying to tell me something.

I’m not easily given to silence and stillness. When I go on retreat the Lord has to really work with me— I’m a busy little disciple! I remember the first time I went on a silent retreat, I thought I would lose my mind, until I let go, and discovered that there is something significant in silence; something we can’t control or manipulate. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that it is only out of the silence that God’s Word can be heard.

It occurs to me that maybe I’m going on sabbatical not only to rest and reconnect, reflect and renew, but maybe also to be still enough to hear the silence; to be still and let the Spirit do the talking; to be still and know that God is God. Maybe this sabbatical is about my allowing space for God to transform and renew me. “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me. “’These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’”

 

III

I want to ask you to do something. The focus of this Convention is Global Mission, captured in the theme, “A Missionary Diocese in A Global Society.” One of the action steps called for in the Mission Action Plan is that the Bishop identify and introduce an outreach focus on which we as a diocese can work together.

In that light I am asking us at this Convention to participate in the Millennium Development Goals as an act of discipleship and as a step in turning this world upside down, transforming it from the nightmare it often is into the dream of God it was intended to be.

Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Leon Spencer, Dean of the School of Ministry, we are blessed to have the Reverend Canon John Peterson, former Secretary General of the Anglican Consultative Council, to help us in this undertaking. He will address us tomorrow and Saturday.

You will be hearing more about Global Mission and the Millennium Development Goals as the Convention unfolds. Simply put, the Millennium Goals are intended to galvanize the world community in a commitment to dramatically reduce poverty, hunger, disease, lack of education, and to work to create a sustainable environment. The member nations of the United Nations have been asked to set aside 0.7% for international development work in support of these goals. At the General Conventions of 2000 and 2003 the Episcopal Church endorsed and re-affirmed our commitment to them.

We as a diocese passed a resolution committing ourselves to the Millennium Goals in 2004. In the 2005 Mission and Ministry budget of the Diocese, 0.7% was allocated for International Development. The same is true in our Mission and Ministry budget for 2006.

I am now asking each of our congregations to do the same. And I am urging us as individuals to do the same in our personal giving and commitments.

Toward this end, I want to commend to you a practical resource. It is a book on practical discipleship. The title is What Can One Person Do? Faith to Heal a Broken World. Copies of the book will soon be available from our bookstore.

It was the title of this book that captured me. What Can One Person Do? It is easy enough for us to be so overwhelmed by the enormity of the needs and the problems that we simply give up. But we are not condemned to a perpetual purgatory of the way things always are or have always been. Things can be changed! In the reality of the Spirit of the living God, our discipleship can make a difference!

This past summer, The Rt. Rev. Robert O’Neil, Bishop of Colorado, The Rev. Benjamin Musoke-Lubega of the Trinity Grants Program, and I were privileged to represent our Presiding Bishop and our Church at the enthronement of The Most Reverend Bernard Ntahoturi, 3rd Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Burundi in east Africa.

Until December of 2004, Burundi had been mired in a decade of Civil War. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 people were killed in the war. Some estimates suggest that as many as 500,000 refugees are still living in nearby Tanzania, the Congo and elsewhere. Since the signing of the United Nations peace accords that ended the fighting, Burundi has been working to rebuild from the rubble of war.

The enthronement of the new Archbishop was seen as a sign of hope. We were received as brothers in Christ and invited to process with the bishops from Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, the Congo and elsewhere. The procession commenced from the diocesan office building, which quite literally stood as a lone survivor amidst the rubble of buildings and lives destroyed by years of warfare and bloodshed.

As we left the diocesan office, crossing the street in procession into the soccer stadium where the enthronement was to take place, we sang “The Church’s One Foundation Is Jesus Christ Her Lord,” to the tune of “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.”

At one point in the procession, I turned around to take a picture of the diocesan office building. While it stood only a few stories, its image was a striking symbol of that world. Around the building was the rubble of war and destruction. Around us were soldiers of the various rebel factions that used to fight one another and now together make up the army of Burundi. And on the top of the building was its name, “Peace House.” That building was a real sign of hope, a symbol that the nightmare can be transformed into the dream of God.

I asked one of our hosts about the history of the building. He responded that “Peace House” had been built with funds raised by the United Thank Offering of the Episcopal Church Women of the Episcopal Church. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

My friends, that is our mission as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. To share in God’s work of turning the world up-side-down, transforming and transfiguring it from the nightmare it can be into the dream God destines it to be. Maybe the words of Julia Ward Howe says it best:

In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea.
With a glory in his bosom, That transfigures you and me;
As he died to make us holy, Let us live to set all free,
While God is marching on.
Glory! Glory, hallelujah! God’s truth is marching on!


Endnotes:

i Acts 17: 6-7. This description is all the more remarkable given that Luke is writing a kind of apologia for Christianity to a Roman of some standing name Theophilus (see the introductions in Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-5). His intention is to refute false rumors about and to establish the credibility of the Jesus movement. Such a challenge to the authority of the emperor, as suggested by this text, is hardly a way to win credibility. While it may be argued that this description is on the lips of an opponent to the Jesus movement it is never refuted by Paul or any other character in Luke-Acts, including Paul’s speeches before Felix, King Agrippa and Festus in Acts 22, 23, 24. Further the principle of loyalty to Jesus as the power above all powers, a commitment transcending all earthly customs and convictions, is clearly a part of the Jesus movement. “When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us. But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.’” (Acts 5:27-30)

ii Acts 2: 8-11

iii Acts 10: 34

iv See both Acts 2:43-47 and Acts 4:34-35

v For a detailed narrative of these critical conversations that contributed to King’s eventual embrace of nonviolence as a way of life see: Stewart Burns, To The Mountaintop: Martin Luther King’s Mission to Save America 1955-1968 (San Francisco: Harper, 2004), pgs. 81-94; Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63(New York: Touchstone Books, 1988), chapter 5; David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross (New York: Harper Collins, 1986), chapter 1; James M. Washington, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: Harper, 1986), pg. 5, 31, 82.

vi For Gandhi Satyagraha meant truth force or soul force (satya – truth, soul and agraha – force)

vii Martin Luther King, Strength To Love, ” Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” (New York: Harper and Row, 1963) “The experience of Montgomery did more to clarify my thinking on the question of nonviolence than all of the books that I had read. As the days unfolded I became more and more convinced of the power of non-violence. Living through the actual experience of the protest, non-violence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life.”


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