As you know, we are working through the book of Exodus as a diocese. For many of us, myself included, this exploration is opening up the Bible in new ways, and helping us to see how the church’s mission arises out of the biblical story. We’re always being pushed and led by the Holy Spirit into a new place, and the ground we must cover in-between sometimes seems inviting and hopeful, and sometimes alien and dangerous. That’s why the sign of God’s oversight of Israel’s escape from Egypt is so ambiguous. The cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night stand between Israel and the Egyptians as the Israelites make their escape. But this cloud and fire also prevents the Israelites from turning back.
As we learn from Exodus, the children of Israel were often tempted to return to slavery in Egypt. God would not let them do so, and they were angry about it. Maybe we’re in the same fix. We want a church more ready to bring Christ to a changing world, and we want to be free of unnecessary entanglements in the past. To that end, we feel the Holy Spirit drawing us forward and pushing us from behind. But this goes hand in hand with painful change. Many of the fundamental assumptions we grew up with (especially if we are older) are being called into question. Fewer and fewer priests are full-time, and many young adults discerning a vocation to the priesthood assume and aspire to a bi-vocational ministry. More young adults are discerning a vocation to the diaconate, which reflects a growing acknowledgment of the power and dignity of servant ministry.
Again, more and more congregations are recognizing that church growth is not necessarily the measure of health or success. Success is about fulfilling God’s purpose for the church, which is to be the body of Christ serving the communities in which it finds itself. Genuine service and trustworthy partnerships may well attract new members, but if service is merely a means to increase membership, the result will be decline. As Jesus said, those who want to save their lives must lose them. That saying is especially applicable to congregations today. To surrender our fixation on large numbers in the pews may seem like death, but in fact it is the door to new life, as we recover the ancient understanding of the parish as the physical area for which a particular community of Christians is responsible.
And that brings us to what is perhaps the most important shift in how we imagine church. As deacons remind us constantly, every baptized person is a minister of Christ. We are all called to serve our neighbor in his name. This means more than recognizing the extent to which our daily interactions with other people matter, although that is important. It means claiming our authority as ministers to initiate and pursue ministries without seeking permission. We are all authorized to extend the kingdom of God, however the Holy Spirit moves us to do so.
This is the wilderness we now find ourselves in as a church and as a diocese. We may yearn to go back to the (real or imaginary) time when our naves were packed, our spiritual needs met by cadres of professional clergy, and church attendance was enough to assure us respectability in the public square. To trade that in for deep engagement with other faith communities, local government, local schools, literal neighbors, and the poor, homeless and undocumented in our midst is for many of us a startling shift from church as refuge from the world. But we cannot go back. The demand of the Holy Spirit and the historical situation in which we stand (itself in God’s hands) is the pillar of cloud and fire standing between us and the past.
As an Oregonian, I can’t help but say that the wilderness, although sometimes treacherous, is full of promise and beauty. That assumption was reinforced by my recent time in Alaska with the House of Bishops. The wild earth God has given us is also a place full of nourishment, companionship and promise. The book of Exodus confirms this. When the people complained to Moses about a lack of water, and blamed him for leading them out of Egypt, he struck a rock and water gushed out. The rabbinical tradition suggests that the flow of water was so great and so sustained that it took boats to get from one place to another after that (Midrash Rabbah, Numbers (Chukkath) XIX. 26) What is that tradition getting at? The ancient rabbis are reminding us that the wilderness is also a place of unexpected abundance.
I have every hope that the wilderness journey we are in is bursting with abundance. We cannot control it, but we can certainly navigate it, by the grace of God. May this diocesan convention be an occasion for renewed trust in the kingdom promise, flowing toward us here and now.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal serves as Bishop of Southern Ohio. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.