The Bishop's Address to the 122nd Diocesan Convention

In last year’s Convention Address, I invited us to consider making Mary Magdalene the patron saint of our diocese. Many of you reacted favorably to that idea. Maybe we need a Convention Resolution to make that official.

Here was my reason for making that suggestion. Mary Magdalene deeply loves Jesus. We love Jesus. Early on that first day of the week after the death of Jesus, she does the loving thing. She goes to visit the dead body in the tomb but it is not there. Her response is to weep and to ask desperately where the dead body is. She needs to find that body! She asks the gardener who is really the Risen Jesus. She recognizes the Risen Jesus when he calls her by name. Then she embraces him in the garden. He won’t stay in the garden but what she receives in that garden gives her the courage, the Spirit to go and tell the other disciples. She becomes the Apostle to the Apostles.

Photo Credit: "noli me tangere, fresco" by Fra Angelico, circa 1395-1455. PUBLIC DOMAIN
Photo Credit: noli me tangere, fresco by Fra Angelico circa 1395-1455 PUBLIC DOMAIN

I think we can identify with Mary Magdalene. She loves Jesus and we love Jesus. She desperately wants to get the dead body back. How often do we long for that in our churches? Just give us the 1950’s back when all our churches were full? And if we can’t get that, at least give us 2019 back? Today in 2023, I invite us to reside for a while in the resurrection garden and hear Jesus call us by name.

Allow me a brief personal story that I told at my father’s funeral. I conveyed a story he told many times about me. It was when I was 12 years old and I was chosen from my baseball team to be on the All Star Team for Nassau County on Long Island. At the All Star game, my dad was sitting in the stands. When it was my turn to come to the plate, another spectator who must have been a coach on a team that played my team nudges my dad - not knowing he was my dad - and said “Watch this kid. He can really hit."

Bishop Doug (right side, standing) and his baseball team
Bishop Doug (right side, standing) and his baseball team

My dad told that story over and over again. But he always left out what happened next…I struck out on 3 pitches.

Yes, we have many challenges as a church in this time. Many of us have buildings that are far too large for what we need. Sunday schools are in decline. There aren’t enough priests and deacons. We don’t have enough volunteers. We feel like we are striking out. And we need to be reminded how good we are. We need to remember that we are called by name- by Jesus.

A friend recently sent me a prayer by St. Isaac of Stella, a Cistercian from the 12th Century:

“May the Son of God who is already formed in you grow in you—so that for you he will become immeasurable, and that in you he will become laughter, exultation, the fullness of joy which no one can take from you."

That is what Mary Magdalene receives in the Resurrection Garden. That is who we are in the Resurrection Garden.

The Bishop of Minnesota, Craig Loya, has some advice for us:

"I am convinced that what we need most in this moment is not better programs, or more money, or good marketing, or fuller pews. What the world and the church need most right now is more saints. What we need most is individuals and communities who are living with truly radical love, with a commitment to forgiveness and mercy in a world marked with scorn and contempt, who point to the liberating paradox of God's economics that we are fed by giving, we are saved by dying." - The Rt. Rev. Craig Loya

We are called by name in this garden. Are we ready to be saints? Not perfect people but people who try with all our hearts to live what Michael Curry constantly reminds us is the Way of Love.

We are blessed with numerous flourishing ministries in WMA. The ministry with veterans, Reconciliation House, the Church Without Walls, the Cathedral of the Beloved, so many food ministries, Laundry Love, Marie’s Mission, Lydia’s Closet, and on and on. And caring for God’s creation is more important than ever before as we face a climate crisis. I know everyone in this room is engaged in one or more of them. Thank you! Our theme of convention is Tending the Garden and you are doing that.

The truth is that the pandemic challenged us but did not defeat us. There are many stories of new life out there; including many a bishop does not see from a distance. And it’s also true that these seeds of new life are growing at different speeds. It’s not a race.

But across our diocese there are in fact these unmistakable signs that give us hope: God isn’t done with us yet.

For the purpose of this address I’m going to look at a few ministries where we have been surprised in the Garden. Where Jesus showed up in a new way. And they all happened in this past year.

St. John’s in Williamstown has long done outreach to their neighbor­­, ­­Williams College. Nathaniel Anderson has noticed something new. Some students who have no religious background will drop by his office and say, “so tell me about this Jesus guy.” It gives him enormous hope. Nathaniel says this:

"We've lamented the decline of the institutional church, and how we often get lumped in with more hurtful forms of Christianity. But here I've experienced the benefit that an entire generation is a clean slate and many are curious and interested in learning about the Christian Faith. Many of them find hope in the Gospel in a world so bereft of hope." - The Rev. Nathaniel Anderson

Some of our churches are engaging college students by bringing in comfort dogs. Others have invited students from high schools and colleges to work in their good news gardens.

Tim Crellin at St. Paul’s in Gardner tells this story: “We’ve begun an outreach to the migrant folks who are currently living at the Super 8 Motel in Gardner. We've been doing Laundry Love for a long time, and now we've been doing special sessions at the laundromat across the street from the motel. I started talking with one guy who spoke Spanish in addition to Creole and he said he wanted to learn English. We made a plan to meet at Friendly's for a tutoring session. He came with 4 friends. The next week we agreed to meet at the church and he came with 15 friends."

"We now have a great ESL program going. Some of the folks have come to our Sunday services. This week we're hosting a day when people will meet with attorneys to apply for their work papers. This feels like an important ministry because not everyone is happy that these folks are here, and we want to show that they are our neighbors." - The Rev. Tim Crellin

Mary D’Alessandro has served for many years now as our chaplain to the Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee. This year she has been joined by volunteers who lead Bible Study from St. David’s, Agawam, St. Andrew’s, Longmeadow, Grace, Amherst, All Saints, South Hadley, UCC and Lutheran pastors, and a Jewish Cantor. And when the incarcerated leave prison they receive a backpack filled with things they need from St. John’s in Ashfield and several other congregations who send LOVE in a Backpack. I’ve been encouraging us for a long time to work collaboratively and it is happening.

Heather Blais tells us about Bach's Lunch. “We received a diocesan grant to launch a series of mid-week concerts offered by professional musicians within the parish."

"Folks are encouraged to bring a packed lunch, enjoy some light refreshments and community, and take in the concerts. They have been well attended by folks from the wider community. Another way of sharing gifts within the parish and connecting with the wider community." - The Rev. Heather Blais

These are just a few examples of how the Resurrected Jesus is showing up in our Diocese.

In my first and second draft of this address I did not have a quote from a Bruce Springsteen song. And I was ok with that. But then a couple of weeks ago our Clergy Day presenter, Sophfronia Scott, ended with a Springsteen quote to encourage our clergy. I saw it as a sign from the Holy Spirit to do the same for all of you - our church leaders. It is from “Into the Fire” - a song on the album composed after 9/11. I think it is an invitation for you and me - church leaders - to be joyful, creative and dare I say with Bishop Loya, to be the saints we need:

A photo of the stage, taken at a Bruce Springsteen concert, by Bishop Fisher.
Photo credit: D.J. Fisher
"May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love."

It’s a big challenge. And I see it being met all over WMA.

We began with Mary Magdalene so let’s end with Mary Magdalene. Today we read John’s account of the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene is included in the telling of the Resurrection story in Mark, Matthew and Luke as well. She is with other women in those stories and in all of those accounts, they are told, “Do not be afraid.” May you and I hear that as well. Do Not be afraid. You are loved.

And Mary Magdalene heard Jesus preach many times. That means she would have heard Jesus’ most used phrase - he says it more than “love one another.” That phrase is “stay awake.” Grace is all around us and within us. Stay awake and see all the possibilities. Mary Magdalene did. And I think she is rooting for us to do the same.


NOTE: At the conclusion of Diocesan Convention, a Courtesy Resolution unanimously affirmed Mary Magdalene as our diocesan patron.

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