Address to delegates and clergy at the 43rd annual Diocesan Convention

“Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergy or lay people, they alone will shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon earth.”

Those words come from an 18th Century Anglican priest from England that was able to awake a dormant English church of the time with his preaching and his commitment to the Gospel.  His name was John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement within the Church of England. He and his brother Charles remained faithful Anglicans to their death.  He contended that the purpose of his preaching was to “spread scriptural holiness across England.”

Before his death he stated that his greatest fear was not that his movement will eventually cease to exist or one day dies from the earth. His greatest fear, he said, was that our people will become content to live without the fire, the power, the excitement, the supernatural element that makes us great.

As you probably know I am a convert to this wonderful church of ours from what at the time was called the Episcopal Methodist Church. What some people criticize of our Episcopal Church is precisely what attracted me to it.   I don’t know if you will agree with me but I believe that a convert tends to appreciate our Episcopal Church more than those who take it for granted because they were born in it.

Nevertheless I can say like Wesley said once: “I learned more about Christianity from my mother than from all the theologians of England.” I had the great fortune to grow up in a very committed Methodist family. From my teenage years I heard the call from God to serve him in the ordained ministry. But along the years many things happened along the way that discouraged me to continue being a Methodist.

I must confess that it was a new experience for me being part of this wonderful Episcopal Church. It takes some effort get used to the calisthenics of our Church with our kneeling, seating and standing up while holding the 1928 Prayer Book. I love the freedom of coming to our church and not leaving your brain at the door. But I learned quickly that it does take an effort to be an Episcopalian because other people that you don’t necessarily agree with also came in with their brain into our Church.  I began to wonder how in the world did they manage to get inside?

But you know what? Our diversity is our strength if we keep our eyes and mind in what unites us. Here in this Diocesan Convention we gather as one and regardless of our theological, social, ethnic or political differences we can sit together and proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord and what is more exciting is the fact that we can proclaim it in different languages and different accents.

Now, let me tell you that in this conversion process of becoming a true Anglican I had to deal with my very committed Methodist mother.

She respected my decision to become an Episcopalian but she never understood or accepted that we actually use wine during and after communion.  As one of the founders of the Cuban Temperance League, yes there was one but it didn’t get too far in a Rum loving Cuba, she believed that Christ converted wine into water because our Lord will never create anything that could intoxicate his people.

When I was ordained she used to share with her friends that her son was a pastor. I kept reminding her that I was a priest. When I became a bishop she was very proud and told all of her friends that her son was a bishop. I kept reminding her that in the Episcopal Church the bishops don’t have the power that a Methodist bishop has and that I was more like a District Superintendent.

It was during this process of getting used to be an Episcopal priest that I realized that there were a few things that we could have brought from that other church. One day my mother visited Holy Cross, Miami, my first parish, actually very near from here in 36 Street.

She came to church as usual with her Bible under her arm. As we walked by, I felt that she was the only one that carried a Bible. I remember turning to her and saying: “Mother in this church we don’t carry the Bible.”  After saying that I realized that it was a stupid thing to say. Well if you look around your churches on Sunday we still don’t carry our Bibles to church.  Perhaps at times we may carry our beautiful leather bound Prayer Books. But a Bible, no way. We don’t want to risk the idea that people may think that we are Baptists.

After the big debate on sexuality that took place in our church following the General Convention of 2003, I began to wonder if we have and continued raising  generations of Bible illiterates that believe that the Holy Scriptures are to be found in those flimsy leaflets that we insert in our bulletins with the lectionary readings of the day.

My hope for this Convention is that we will really be challenged to read and inwardly digest the Holy Scriptures of God. I saw a few years back the extent of our Bible illiteracy. People were swayed by some that had their pet Bible verses adapted to their point of view picking and choosing what was convenient to them.

We need to grow into the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. In our last 77th General Convention of 2012 it was commanded, not suggested or encouraged but commanded that all Dioceses, Parishes and Mission undertake the task of reading the whole Bible in 2013. You will hear more about this with our guest speaker that will present us with that challenge.

Another thing that I have learned is that I should have brought from the Methodist Church their commitment to tithing.

Allow me to tell you another story from my past experience. It happened while I was a priest in New Orleans, Louisiana. I had left Southeast Florida and moved to the Diocese of Louisiana mainly because I could not feed my family with what I was being paid at the time.

I still say that we are not a very generous Diocese with our clergy in comparison with other dioceses. Actually forgive me to say that we are a cheap diocese and if we continue this way we will never be able to attract good and efficient clergy. But that is another matter for another day.

I went to Louisiana and took the challenge of planting a new Hispanic congregation in New Orleans and Houma, Louisiana.

It was during that time that I met Luis Moreno and invited him to our church. At the time he was attending a Methodist church just a few blocks from where Grace Church was on Canal Street.

I was impressed because he was very generous in his offerings. A year passed and I noticed that his contribution to the church had dwindled quite a bit. My first thought was that he had lost his job or was facing some family problems. When I approached him and asked him what was going on he said everything was fine, actually he had gotten a promotion and a raise.

When I told him that I had noticed that his offering to the church had dwindled quite a bit he told me that in the Methodist Church he was reminded often of the need to tithe and to support the work of the church. Then he said to me: “Father, you only have preached once about stewardship, I think it was in September or October of last year, but  I have not heard anything since then about our commitment and need to support the church. I thought that well, maybe you actually didn’t need my money so much.” Believe me my friends, after that I lost any qualms about preaching and insisting on the importance of stewardship.

Our Diocese has many active commissions and committees but not an active stewardship committee. I have asked Mr. Chris Metzger from St. Joseph, Boynton Beach and Fr. Albert Cutie from the Church of the Resurrection in Miami to help carry on the task of helping  our diocese in promoting stewardship. I am calling upon you to offer your help in this important task.

Well, enough about the Methodists and my mother. Let me share with you some very good news. We have received the report from the National Church that keeps the records on the 106 domestic dioceses of the Episcopal Church and they reported that the Diocese of Southeast Florida was the only one showing growth in the State of Florida and was part of 27 dioceses that were showing growth in this country.

Yes, we are growing in a very diverse demographic setting and beyond all predictions and odds, we are indeed growing. The National Church has us growing by 1.8% from 2010 to 2011 but our own more accurate figures place the growth at 2.6% for all congregations and by 4.3% for the congregations that are part of the Nehemiah process. Thank you to all of you who participate in the Nehemiah process.

Why are we growing? Before I answer let me tell you another story. As I get older I find myself enjoying more and more telling stories, so abide by me.

I don’t know if any of you have seen my picture when I first became the Bishop of Honduras. Not only did I have lots of hair but also I was a slim good looking bishop! The photograph shows a beautiful red cope, although I never like the myter they gave me because it was one of those low myter and not the more impressive taller myters.

The cope was made of thick wool but it was a gift of the clergy of my diocese so I used quite a bit. Until one day I was called to do a confirmation in an area that Honduran peasants had invaded because the land was abandoned and not being cultivated as the law requires. Actually in a good Latin American tradition some shooting back and forth took place between the original owners of the abandoned land and the co-op of peasants that now resided in the land. Many of them had come down from the mountains and were Episcopalians and they influenced their group to become Episcopalians.

I got a couple of phone calls probably from the owners threatening to shoot me if I went ahead with the confirmation. They didn’t want a church there at all that could help to legitimize that group of peasants.

I took my chances and you can see by the fact that I am standing here that those right wingers had a bad aim. The day of the confirmation came and they placed my chair underneath this huge Ceiba tree and when the confirmation service arrived a long, long line was formed. While I was confirming it began to rain, but rain like it does in the tropics. Before the rain people were kneeling in the dirt to be confirmed.

They forgot to bring a kneeler so they put down on the dirt a towel. It passed through my mind that maybe I should postpone the confirmation because of the heavy rain but I saw their eagerness to be confirmed. After a while they were not kneeling in the dirt anymore but in a puddle of water that had formed. I was totally drenched as well as all the persons there.

Finally after more than 200 men, women and teenagers were confirmed I tried to get up to do a prayer and I realized that I could not get up. The cope had absorbed all of that water and mud and everything else that chickens and pigs had contributed. My cope was as heavy as lead. A couple of seminarians that were with me helped me to get up and I could not even walk because of the weight but I kept on my cope.

The Diocese of Honduras grew and grew because we were willing to go anywhere and preach the Gospel without ceasing.

We are growing in Southeast Florida because a lot of lay and clergy leaders have teamed up to give their very best to the ministry of Christ at great personal sacrifice. I believe that their pain was tempered by their unwavering desire to serve the Lord.

In such a diverse culture like ours and the many challenges we have faced we should not be growing. It is a challenging time and just too challenging to move into a new culture and grown in numbers. But you know what I discovered long time ago: With God all is possible.

I think also that one of the driving forces for growth is that we have encouraged our church leaders to be innovative and creative. Just recently the Palm Beach Post published a report of our growth and gave examples from St Joseph, Boynton Beach; St. Paul’s, Delray Beach and Holy Redeemer, Lake Worth and their ability to reach out to all in all places without exception.

The Book of Acts has 28 chapters but we are writing the 29th chapter through the tremendous struggle that has required painful sacrifices.

Talking about sacrifices let me mention our clergy spouses and their families. They are in many cases the unpaid assistants of our churches and they are exposed to criticism in some cases. That is why our Diocese has a Spouse Association and Clergy Spouses Committee that has served to strengthen the bonds of affection and support among the spouses. I will ask that we applaud their committent to the Gospel of Christ and their work and love to support the clergy of our diocese.

Let me tell you about a very special challenge that we face. In a little while, we will walk across the street to our beloved Trinity Cathedral for the Convention Eucharist. For those of you who have not been to our Cathedral for a while, you may be shocked when you see it.

Last Spring when we gathered for the Acolyte Festival, a row of palm trees was placed in front of the sanctuary to shield the congregation from the dirt and the rubble which were around the high altar.

Since that time, a new concrete chancel floor has been laid, supported in part by the rock from the many churches around the diocese that the youth brought with them, to be reminded that this is also their Cathedral. You will see that the stained glass has been removed and is now being repaired; the electrical conduit and outlets are being installed for safety and better lighting; and the floor around the chancel is being carefully restored by artisans and craftsmen. Our Cathedral has become like a story from the Pillars of the Earth.

As you know, all of this is being done to bring the Cathedral into compliance with current codes to enable recertification by the City of Miami, who by the way donated one million dollars for our work.

This daunting project has been undertaken to preserve this ministry center for our Diocese. Not only does the Cathedral serve us liturgically whenever we gather as a diocesan family, it stands as a beacon of what the Episcopal Church represents in all of Southeast Florida: a place of healing, inclusion, compassion and challenge, a place where the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed.

But such a monumental endeavor is not inexpensive. Construction cost alone will be 7 million dollars. But I am happy to say that through the efforts of many people nearly 5 million dollars has already been raised.

We are more than half-way done!!!

Today I am announcing a Comprehensive Campaign for our Cathedral of $8.5 million dollars, in order to complete the project, and establish an endowment for ongoing maintenance and support. Never again we are going to let our Cathedral rot away for lack of funds or energy.

I hope that when the restoration will be finished next summer, all the bills will be paid as well. But we need your help. We all need to be part of this rebuilding, and I invite you to join me in making a commitment to the mission and ministry of our Diocese by supporting this effort. I hope that you will visit the Trinity Cathedral in the exhibit hall and consider joining me in making your pledge today. I invite Dean McCaleb  to come up here and receive from me, the first pledge to complete the Pillars of the Earth in Miami.

In a recent British movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” the Indian innkeeper Sony struggles to convince his guests from England that “Everything will be all right in the end. If it is not yet right, then it is not the end.” This dearly beloved is what the Bible is talking about. It was best articulated by Julian of Norwich when she said: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

I think that this is also timely with our Convention theme because in the grand picture, all of humankind is seeking the ultimate ‘right’ and we all go through the ups and downs of partial satisfaction and grave disappointments of incompleteness. But, these are OK because it’s not yet the end. There are 3 more years until the end of my episcopacy and I want for you and me to work as hard as possible to reach that right to make our diocese not only one among the 27 but the first of them all.

In this diocese we began this year, looking and reaching forward to discover our future. Our future is not here so it not must be the end. As we looked forward, in our discovery process we discovered hopes and dreams, opportunities and also threats as well as thrills and apprehensions.  But you know what? They all are okay because it’s not yet the end and believe me there is much to do.

Tomorrow you will take part of the process of Discovering our Future. This is a unique process that will have engaged most of the members of our diocese by the time it is completed in 2013. It is an 18 month project led by the Rev. Charles Fulton, III who has been serving as our consultant now for several years. You will also meet tomorrow John Roberto to help us go through a new process that many of you have not encountered before called Scenario Planning. It’s a new and effective way to explore the future and prepare ourselves for any eventually, good, or bad or mediocre form that may be out there waiting for us in the future.

Please abide with us as we look at the future in many different ways that it may be played. I believe that we can conquer the future because the key part of our future is the superb lay and clergy leadership that we have. This praying, sanctifying, passionate and compassionate leadership opens the door to a very bright future for our diocese.

On a very different note let me remind you that our General Convention approved resolution A049 concerning “The Witness and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant” which is a service of blessing for same-sex couples who are in a lifelong, faithful monogamous, committed relationships. In precisely one month from today, on December 2 which is the First Sunday of Advent and the beginning of the liturgical year this rite can be used for those who want to celebrate this blessing. Please note that we are not referring to a marriage but a blessing of couples of the same gender who live in a faithful monogamous committed relationships. Also please know that now clergy or lay person will be obligated to celebrate this rite.

But let me reiterate that as long as I am the Diocesan Bishop of Southeast Florida our mission will be to make known to all people the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ including all, excluding None.

Before I end I want to thank all of you for your prayers and support while I dealt with a detached retina. This past Tuesday I went to Bascom Palmer Eye Institute and Dr. Smiddy the most wonderful Retina Specialist confirmed that my healing was complete. Thank you God and thank you for your prayers for healing.

My daughter Erika is now in a process of healing and will be operated on November 29 in another wonderful hospital, the Cleveland Clinic. After almost a year of suffering in many hospitals and under many doctors the good folks of Cleveland Clinic were able to diagnose her and they are treating her to full recovery. I tell you if you have a problem head for the Cleveland Clinic.

I also would like to thank you for your prayer for my wife Diana earlier this year. I give praise to God for her recovery from a thyroid tumor and thank God it was benign. As you can imagine this year has been one of those years where we have been in and out of the Body Shop for repairs but thankfully we are doing much better now.

To that end, I want for us to remember the pain and destruction along the passage of Hurricane Sandy. Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba has suffered the destruction along its path and of course we have seen the pain and suffering of our people in the Northeast with the devastation of such magnitude. I invite our churches to take a special collection and send it to either the Episcopal Relief and Development or to Food for the Poor to be able to provide the assistance that is needed.

Now one last thing I have to say. Next Tuesday we are going to vote. I will not tell you how to vote but I hope that you will consider voting to save Big Bird from extinction.

May God bless and keep and may give us the strength and the wisdom to carry the task that we have been given.

Amen.

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