October 30 2022 Bishop’s sermon from ECMN convention
To all God’s Beloved in Minnesota. Grace to you and peace from God the maker and from our
Lord Jesus Christ.
Before I get into my actual address, I want you to invite you to take a just moment to
acknowledge the fact that this is the first time that our diocese has gathered together in
Convention since January 25th of 2020 in person. It has been a long and hard couple of years, and
I hope that, even though for many years forward we’re going to be processing the trauma and
harvesting the wisdom and taking stock of how we have changed, I hope one of the things that
has changed personally is that we never again take the gift of this for granted.
I’m going to start with a reading from the 11th chapter of the book of Genesis.
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the
east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another,
‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and
bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top
in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad
upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which
mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language;
and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be
impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will
not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face
of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there
the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad
over the face of all the earth.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found this story confusing, and honestly even a little
troubling. I mean, the premise seems like a good thing, right? Human beings have rallied around
a common cause, they have united across all their vast diversity, they’ve achieved something
great together. But then God swoops in like an angry toddler and knocks the blocks over,
scattering and confusing the builders, as if to neutralize some perceived threat to God’s
supremacy. It seems petty, and not at all the character of God that we imagine. What did the
builders do wrong? And what was the point of God’s punishment?
My understanding of this story totally shifted this summer when I read a brief commentary on it
by Rabbi Ari Lamm. There are a number of curious things about this story. In the first place,
while we are told at the beginning that the whole earth spoke the same language, the verses that
immediately precede it tell us exactly the opposite. The descendants of Noah near the end of
chapter 10 had been scattered across the earth, each speaking their own languages. So which is
it? It would seem that the plot has taken a sudden and unplanned turn in the space between two
Even more, the wording in Hebrew when they say ‘let us make bricks for ourselves’ is the exact
same phrasing that is used to describe the Israelites’ experience of slavery in the land of Egypt,
where they were forced to make bricks to build an empire of oppression. Those are the only two
places in the Bible where the phrase for ‘making bricks’ is used in exactly that way. So, that’s on
purpose. The editors of the book of Genesis want us to recall the story of slavery in Egypt when
we hear the people say ‘let us make bricks.’
It’s an awesome story. The layers go on and on. But the bottom line is that it turns out this is
fundamentally a story about how diversity is God’s design, and uniformity is human regression.
It’s Pharaoh who enforces a false uniformity by building; God insists that creation run wild with
And besides that, if you remember a few chapters back in Genesis, maybe you’ve heard that
story, when God created human beings, God doesn’t appoint them to be builders, but gardeners,
putting us in Eden to till and to keep. See, we don’t have to make a name for ourselves. We
already have a name, which is Beloved.
Our sin at Babel is that we traded our vocation as gardeners for the seduction of becoming
builders. God wasn’t trying to stop us. God was trying to save us, and to bring us back.
Two weeks ago, October 11, was exactly twenty years since the Friday evening when I was
ordained to the transitional diaconate in tiny little Trinity Church in Mission, South Dakota. I
only caught it, like you often do with these things, when I sat down to write my message for our
weekly e-mail newsletter and realized it was the feast of St. Philip the Deacon.
It hit me like a punch in the gut, honestly. That’s partly because milestones always remind us
that the thread of life spools out with such breathtaking speed, and we are given to the people
with whom we live, and work, and worship for such a preciously short time. But part of that was
because as I sat there reflecting on all those years, I was reminded again that the Episcopal
Church has been having essentially the exact same conversation for the entirety of the two
decades that I have served it as an ordained person. We are anxious about our decline, and we
wring our hands about what we’re going to do, or we bring in fancy speakers to give us some
great new plan, or we distract ourselves with petty arguments, pointing our fingers at one other.
How can we attract more members? What will we do with these treasured sacred buildings? We
have spent so much time frantically trying to rebuild some imagined tower of church, and I have
mostly gone along for that ride. I, many of you know this, I have even played a leading role in
some of the Episcopal Church’s denomination-wide attempts to do this! They have all failed.
And as I sat staring at a blank screen that afternoon, I was embarrassed by the anxious ways that
I have spent too much of the precious little time that I have.
Frankly, if there was a solution, we would have found it by now. The truth is, the tower we think
we used to be has been almost completely toppled by cultural, economic, and historical forces
that none of us caused and none of us can stop. But we are exhausted from trying. We have worn
ourselves out, believing the lie that we can make a name for ourselves again if we just make
My heart’s deepest hope is that, as a diocese, this convention can mark a turning point. Not
because we discover some grand new plan for rebuilding our beloved tower, but because this is
where we decide to set aside our ambition to be builders, and take up again our calling to be
From the perspective that I have as your bishop, I see three options for us. We can keep doing
most of the same things in most of the same ways we’ve done for so long, and that might not be
an entirely bad option. Along the way we can entertain ourselves with petty fights that we make
up or by passing the hot potato of blame around between the clergy, the lay leaders, the bishop,
the diocesan staff, or whoever else we can find to catch it and play the game for awhile. That’s a
choice. We can stay here, just play out the thread, and have a little dysfunctional fun along the
We could also, and this is probably a less likely option, we could also just retreat and give up.
We could walk away and fly the white flag and give up. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but
who would blame us if it did?
But what I want to wonder about today is, I wonder if, instead of white-knuckled grasping or
indignant surrender, we could just stay here, but let go. Not give up, but let go of those heavy
bricks in our hands, and just play in the dirt together for awhile, waiting to see what God might
grow when we aren’t keeping God at arm’s length with all our building.
Minnesota, can this be a point where we stop, at least for a season, worrying about how to build,
and return to the practice of gardening God’s church for God’s world?
So what if we do? Just pretend that we say yes to that question for a minute. What might it look
like for us to try to do that? There are three things I want to invite us to consider together about
what it might look like for us to return to our vocation as gardeners.
1) First, what if spend some time not doing much else but tending to the root system? Nothing
can grow tall or wide, or bear any fruit at all, until it has first grown deep. Two years ago we
identified four diocesan priorities: discipleship, justice, faithful innovation, and congregational
vitality. Discipleship is without question the keystone priority. That’s the only way that God will
use us to grow the deep and thick root system that can produce the fruits of justice, innovation,
and vitality. What I want to invite us all into today is to spend at least the next year focusing
almost exclusively on discipleship, that is, participating fully in God’s life by intentionally
apprenticing ourselves, moment by moment, to Jesus. Focusing on those simple practices of
daily prayer, dwelling in scripture, sharing our lives in real ways with each other, and coming
alongside the poor and marginalized. I’m asking you to commit to this yourself and to invite
everyone in your faith community to be part of a small discipleship group in the next year that is
committed to doing this with other people. There’s a new resource some of you have seen from
the Episcopal Church that’s called “Centered,” which is really nothing more than a simple way
for us to gather in small discipleship groups to support and share with one another as we tend to
our root system. I hope, and I really mean this, I hope that every Minnesota Episcopalian will
become part of one of these small gatherings this year. You don’t have to use Centered but it’s
simple, it’s easy to use, and it’s all people need to join up with three, or four, or five other
Can we gather ourselves into small communities to deepen our roots together?
2) What if we re-learned together how to consciously and intentionally let God lead in our lives
and in our ministries? You’ve often heard me say this before and I am not the only one who says
it and I didn’t make it up, but in the Episcopal Church, as much as I love us, we often operate as
if we are functional atheists. We are so good at talking about God as if God is a wonderful and
interesting and great idea, but it is less often that we talk about God as if we expect God to show
up and do something in our lives and in our ministries. Gardeners can’t force anything to grow.
Gardeners can only cultivate the conditions that allow life to flourish. It’s nature, and God, doing
their thing that gives the growth.
I will stand here at my first in-person convention and admit to you without shame or fear that I
do not know how to save or fix the church. And you don’t either. But the good news is that
saving and fixing the church, turns out, it’s not my job, and it’s not your job. The church is
God’s job. Our job is to stand out in the fields and let God use us in whatever way God will to
cultivate the fruits of love, of hope, of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of peace, of joy. We can
bring whatever tools we can afford along with us, and we can do our best to care for those tools
together, but whether, how, and where the fruit sprouts and ripens is not anything you or I can
control, so we may as well relieve ourselves of the burden of trying to make or repair so many
more bricks. If God is who we and the scriptures claim God is, I mean, just go with that for a
minute, if God is who we really claim God to be, then honestly God is going to be about the
project of healing the world with love whether the Episcopal church is on board or not, and no
matter how small, large, wealthy or poor we might happen to be along the way.
Can we lay down the burden of thinking it’s our job to force fruit to grow, and learn to simply
recognize, and follow, where God is already leading?
3) Can we help God cultivate a diverse church ecology?
This is why I started with that story. Diversity is God’s design. The drive for uniformity is part of
how we distort the ways we are made in God’s image. That’s not just true for language, nation,
race, tribe, and culture, though it’s certainly true for all of that. It’s also true for the way the
church expresses and organizes itself. It’s strange that for the past hundred or so years, give or
take a few hundred years, we have essentially had one mental picture of what it means to be a
local community of disciples. You can all recite it: you have a building, you have a priest, people
come to the building for an hour on Sunday for Eucharist, and you offer programs and services
that people either want or they don’t. While there is a lot about that model without question that
is important and lifegiving, and it’s not totally going anywhere anytime soon, it tends to focus
more on the question of how do we get people to show up for our stuff rather than on how we are
helping people to show up looking and acting like Jesus in the world. And the other thing I’m
scratching my head about is that we’ve somehow along the way adopted the mindset that bigger
is better. But small communities are where we can really share our lives together. Small
communities are where we can help each other become apprentices of Jesus more fully. That
drive for every church to follow the same model, and for churches to be big, is Pharaoh pushing
us to make bricks and build Babel.
I’m going to say something crazy now. We often assume, I think, that our future as a diocese will
involve fewer congregations. We imagine that we’ll have fewer congregations than we do today.
And when we think that, we assume that our work right now is just to turn it and just to downsize
appropriately. But what if that’s not true? What if our future looks like more faith communities
than we have now, but they are mostly much smaller? What if God is urging us in this season to
form gatherings of five to ten people who meet in living rooms, or the beauty of the outdoors,
who pray, this will shock you, while they are fishing or backpacking together, or after Sunday
morning soccer games or whatever? What if we form small groups who till justice by listening to
and feeding their neighbors, or by facilitating community conversations about race? What if
fifteen or twenty or so of those small groups joined up with one of our larger, traditional
communities once a month for a Eucharist and story slam about all the things they’re seeing God
doing in their lives and in the world? What if we followed hundreds of seedling, crazy ideas for
how we can connect the gospel of love with a world starving for it that evidently isn’t finding it
in a lot of our traditional spaces? What if we just followed that, hdld it lightly, and see what God
In the coming months, Canon Blair Pogue is going to begin gathering some groups to try to do
just that. She’s going to begin gathering a group of us to begin playing with what that might
look like. How might we gently help God shift the landscape and the center of gravity in the
diocese to what is small, and joining God in the world?
I don’t know if any of that will “work” at all, and I don’t know what will happen, but we can
totally do it! It’s a real option for us on our buffet of options in this moment.
That’s my invitation: tending our root system as disciples, so that we can let God lead us, I mean
really lead us, and then join God in cultivating a wildly diverse ecology. We can’t control what
will happen. But we can till the soil, we can water it, weed it, and see what God might do.
I believe that God is not done with this church, and I know my own sinfulness well enough to
know there’s no way that God is done with me. And if a wild revival of the small like I’m
describing seems hard to believe, then you are welcome to join me the next time I visit
Emmanuel in Alexandria, and see the way they have gardened a food shelf for forty years that
now feeds a whole Minnesota county. After we tour the food shelf you can join us as four
generations joyfully pose for a picture with Big Ole. You are welcome to stand next to me in
front of the bulletin board at Holy Trinity in International Falls and see all the photos and news
clippings of the way they rally their entire town to fill every crack they can see with God’s
abundant love. You can come sit with me on a Friday evening in Chatfield, and listen to that
group talk about how they are listening deeply to their neighbors, literally going around and
knocking on the doors to get to know the stories of what God is doing around their church
building. And after the conversation just for fun we can drive along the Root River over to
Rushford, and if you have any doubts about God’s goodness or power, I promise you that seeing
the Driftless in October will knock all of those out entirely. And if you don’t want to hang out
with me, that’s fine. You can follow Padre Neptali of a weekend as he surfs from Qunceañera to
Quinceañera, to a Saturday night and then Sunday morning liturgy for three generations of
immigrant families who know that God is real and alive and good. You can join the folks at Holy
Trinity in Saint Paul for a Sunday morning that every time feels like being wrapped in a warm
blanket of love on a cold Minnesota day. And if you don’t want to go that far, you can walk
down the street and sit in the courtyard at Calvary Church and look across the street as the fullest
imaginable spectrum of human beings walk in and out of that clinic all day long, all of them
seeking healing like the crowds pushing in to touch Jesus.
If you want to talk about the privilege that bishops have, that is it! I get to see all of that, all the
time, every single day. I want so badly for you to see it, too. To come up in the plane with me
and look over this beautiful diocese at 30,000 feet or at least to ride along next to me in the
This is a moment for us to decide, Minnesota. Are we going to keep trying to be builders, or can
we take up gardening again? I can’t answer for you, but I’m going to do my best to say yes to
God’s invitation to set down the brick building, and re-learn how to garden. I really hope you
will join me, and say yes to this invitation, too. The world can be such a lonely desert, parched
with suffering, injustice, and sorrow. And the God that I know and meet in all of you every day
longs to reforest that world, not with more towers that impress, but with fruit that nourishes, with
love and justice and joy. We don’t know what will happen. We don’t know what the future might
hold. But let’s use what tiny little time we to dig into God’s soil, to help the whole world see and
know what unimaginably good things God, and God alone, can bring forth.
Submitted to you on this the twenty-eighth day of October, in the city of Rochester, the center
for the world’s healing. I am your deeply grateful companion on the way,
The Right Reverend Craig W. Loya