Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Clothing Christ's Naked Body


Just yesterday, someone and I had a conversation about today’s gospel lesson (Matt. 25:31-46). We were discussing how some people are kinder than others, and he quoted a verse from this passage: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.” He said to me, “I’ve always tried to do that because I think Jesus meant it.” He’s right; Jesus did.

I’ve been on a kingdom-coming focus for the last few months, so forgive me if I wander down that path again today. What did Jesus really call us to do? In this passage, he calls us to take care of those in need—the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned. When the righteous are met by the king at the gate to his kingdom, they are surprised to find that they had indeed done all of these things to the king himself. “When did we see you in need and minister to you?” they ask. The king replies, “When you did it to one of the members of my family, you did it to me.”

I like the way the NRSV translates this story by emphasizing “members of [the king’s] family” rather than the literal “brothers.” Usually, I can figure out when gender-specific language should be neutered, but this time I need a leg-up from the NRSV. We are called to minister to members of the king’s family. And, by stressing the family concept, it becomes clear to me that Jesus didn’t have in mind only those who were especially singled out as his neediest brothers and sisters but any who has need. We take care of members of our kingdom family because, in so doing, we are ministering to the king himself.

As a child, I always expected that someone I denied a cup of water would suddenly transform into an angry Jesus, who was disappointed at my unwillingness to help out. I think I had Hebrews 13:2 (entertaining angels unaware) confused with Matthew 25:40. But we are not called to clothe the naked because one of them might be Jesus himself. We are called to meet the needs of our community—our family—because we are the body of Christ. We are Christ’s presence here on earth, and, if we take that seriously, then ministering to those among us in need is what it means to attend our heavenly king.

If we take seriously the kingship of Christ and we take seriously our prayer that the will of the kingdom be brought to earth as in heaven, we must minister to the body of Christ in the same way that we would minister to Christ if bodily present among us. I’m not doing that because of some hyperbolic story Jesus tells about a king and his servants. I’m doing that because there is no distinction between those in need and Jesus himself. This isn’t an analogy. Jesus was serious about his instruction. He meant it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Agents of the Kingdom


Not long ago, a parishioner came into my office and asked, “When is this going to get any better?” Over the previous few months, he had faced a series of substantial setbacks. His were the kind of challenges that would make most of us wonder the same thing. As I listened to him describe one disappointment after another, I wanted desperately to be able to tell him that things were going to turn around any moment, but I knew that was unlikely. Sometimes we find ourselves in a funk that does not have a foreseeable end.

In those moments, which happen to me fairly often, my instincts are to pull the ejection handle and try to escape the real suffering by pointing to God’s promise of ultimate redemption, which waits for us beyond this earthly life. In other words, it is easier for me to encourage someone with the Christian teaching that suffering does not follow us beyond the grave than it is to sit with that person in this life of pain. But I have come to believe that that instinct is neither particularly helpful nor particularly Christian.

I am guilty of the modern heresy of believing that the kingdom of God is something that waits for us in “the next life.” In fact, I find it difficult to talk about the hope of the resurrection without using misleading phrases like that one—“the next life.” But our hope in Jesus Christ is not founded on an escape plan as if this life were something to be quickly and completely abandoned. We believe that this life is transformed, not evaded. In the prayer that Jesus taught us, we do not ask to be taken to that place in heaven where God’s will is done but that his will might be done “on earth as in heaven.” And that is where and how the kingdom comes.

In one of his most famous parables about God’s kingdom, Jesus tells a story of three servants who were given money to manage while their master had gone away (Matt. 25:14-30). One took the five talents that he was given and used them to make five more. Likewise, a second servant used his two talents to make two more. The third servant, however, was paralyzed by the fear that his master would punish him for any loss, so he dug a hole and hid his talent in the ground. When the master returned and discovered what had happened during his absence, he rewarded the first two servants but punished the third for his foolishness. The parable concludes with the master’s haunting words, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

This parable teaches us that the kingdom of God is something that we must participate in while we are still waiting for the master to return. God’s reign on earth is not only made manifest when Jesus returns at the last day. As disciples of Christ, we are called to help make the kingdom a reality in this life. We are called to be vessels by which God uses us to “build for the kingdom,” as N. T. Wright puts it in his book Simply Jesus. We cannot sit idly by and hope that, when the kingdom comes, things will get better. It is our job to be participants in God’s work of making this world the place where God’s will is done.

I sense that I am not alone in my heretical dreaming of the one-day, far-off kingdom. It is far easier for us to sit and wait and watch than to help make the kingdom come. That does not mean that we believe in a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” gospel. The grace of God reminds us that we are not responsible for saving ourselves. But as the church—the body of Christ—we are responsible for letting God use us to transform this world into a place where God’s will is done. When I hear someone speak of the sufferings of this life, I am supposed to respond by asking myself what God is calling me and the church to do to help all suffering end. Simply patting someone on the back and saying, “At least heaven is a place where there is no pain,” misses the point completely.

Monday, July 16, 2012

No More Bad Shepherds


It’s Good Shepherd Sunday all over again. This week, our lectionary seems designed to give preachers who messed up 4 Easter another chance. Actually, I prefer this week (Mark 6) over the other one (John 10) because these readings are more proactive and responsive to the needs of the desperate sheep (that's me).

When Jesus and his disciples reach the other side of the lake, they were met by a huge crowd of people needing help. Imagine a chaotic collection of poor, sick, and disabled individuals coming at you as you tried to escape for a few moments of rest. But when Jesus looked at them, he saw not an obstacle to his recovery but the heart of his mission: “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” These were his people, and he was their shepherd.

As Jeremiah points out, God had been angry with those who had been appointed to shepherd his people in the past. Rather than tend the needs of the flock, they had scattered, destroyed, and send them away. God’s people needed a good shepherd—one that cared more for the sheep than for himself (echoes of John 10 coming in here). God’s people were desperate for a leader and caretaker who would bring the lost sheep back into the fold, who would reestablish a sense of safety for the flock, and who would relieve the fears and anxieties of the sheep. That shepherd, of course, was Jesus, and we’re supposed to have that shepherd imagery in mind when we think of his messianic identity.

How often does God look down on us as a scattered, harassed people without a shepherd? Of course, we’ve already been given a shepherd and any “unshepherded” behaviors we exhibit are our own doing. In fact, I think that’s my focus for this week’s sermon. We have a shepherd; why aren’t we following him? We need to quit following the bad shepherds and look for one who will take care of us as only God can.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Disconnect

There is a sense here at General Convention that we are all ready to be done. And by, "done," I do mean, "cooked like a turkey." I had a teacher who would not let me say, "I'm done," without reminding me that turkeys are "done" while people are "finished." So, with a tip of my hat to her, I proclaim boldly that we are all nearly done.

Two or three separate times yesterday someone made a joke about whether we wanted to stay for a few more days. Those remarks were humorous yesterday, but today they might not get a laugh. We have been pushing at a whirlwind pace for almost two weeks, and, even though we have been diligent with our work, we still have 60 pieces of legislation to consider this morning. I hope we can stay on task. We all need the prayers our our church to make it through.

There is a process of disconnecting that has already begun. We had our last full deputation meeting last night, and the bishop thanked us for our service. Legislative committees met formally for the final time yesterday morning, and there were countless points of personal privilege, upon which member after member rose to say, "thank you," to this person or, "I am proud of our work," for this reason. The friendships that have been forged on the floor and in smaller gatherings will wrap up today as we all prepare to leave this Big Brother glass house and go back home. But, even though we are all preparing to say goodbye, we are not unplugging from General Convention completely.

Of the hundreds of resolutions that we considered and passed, most people around our church will remember two or three. Some of us who paid careful attention throughout this process will remember a dozen or so. But what happens to the 100+ that pass and then disappear? Most of them call upon us--the Episcopal Church--to do one thing or another. When we begin to implement the work of this Convention, will we remember all of the things we said we would do?

For example, yesterday we passed a resolution that calls upon every meeting of the church--whether at the parish, diocesan, or church-wide level--to begin with the agenda item, "How will what we are doing here today affect or include those living in poverty?" That means that in 2013 we are being asked to begin every vestry meeting by asking how our business affects and includes those living in poverty. On the surface, that is a silly thing to say. Digging in a little deeper, we discover that there could be real power in that practice--the kind of habitual work that might actually change the world.

But I am headed home. How many of these things will come with me?

I am proud of the work that this General Convention has done. We have moved beyond all of the "controversial" issues, but we still have 60 resolutions to go. It would be easy to disconnect right now and coast through the rest. And it would be easy for the church to disconnect from the "little" resolutions that do not get much attention. But that is where the work of the church happens. There are wonderful little things to be done today, and I hope and pray that they do not get lost as things wind down.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Songs and Silences


Although deputies sometimes grumble about being asked to sing, the joyful noise we make is impressive. Including the gallery and dais, we are a nearly 1000 voice chorus that lifts its song toward heaven. At this convention, we have sung a number of rounds—simple a capella tunes that overlap to produce wonderful chords that fill the cavernous convention hall. Yesterday, we sang a hymn that caused tingly goosebumps to make their way down my neck and arms.

The music was lovely, but the sentiment behind it was the source of real amazement. Even before convention started, we have eagerly awaited a resolution dealing with the structure of the church. Our notebooks of pre-filed resolutions came with over a dozen copies of near-identical requests for a realignment of our church’s priorities to make our church the missionary body it claims to be. After much debate and careful planning, the Structure Committee presented C095—a substitute resolution that calls for the implementation of a task force with the job of exploring and suggesting sweeping changes. The resolution was not perfect—how would the task force be monitored? was the cost justified?—but there seemed to be majority support for it.

That resolution was the one thing we have been looking forward to as a whole convention. As one speaker put it, “Who would have guessed three years ago that the issue we care about most at this convention was structure?” The debate was respectful, and, when completed, the President of the House of Deputies called upon the Chaplain to offer prayer before the vote was cast. “All those in favor say aye.” The enormous space echoed with a thunderous affirmative. “All those opposed say no.” Pure silence. Not a sound. Not a single dissent. Our entire, gigantic, diverse body agreed on the single most important thing we faced. Our unanimity was overwhelming.

As we sang a hymn about God’s Spirit breathing new life into our church, the reality of what had happened sank in. Many seemed moved by what we had done. Smiles were on almost every face. We were a united house. And then we moved on to the next order of business.

We had arrived at the time certain set for debate on A049—the resolution that calls for the provisional use of a liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions. Conscious of the strange order of things, I tweeted, “Can’t have asked for better timing. 1st item being considered after unanimous vote on structure is same-sex blessings. #hopeforsamespirit.” Although I knew it would be a contentious debate and vote, I hoped and prayed that some Spirit of that which unites us would pervade our House even in our discord.

Again, the debate was respectful, but this time we heard people speak about the future of the church as if we were headed toward a cliff or about to “plunge into an abyss.” We became snarled in a long cascade of parliamentary procedure—motions to divide the question, suspend the rules, appeal the ruling of the chair, and vote by orders. After a blindingly fast thirty minutes of debate, we again prayed together and cast our votes. Because we voted electronically and by orders, the assumed result was not announced for a while. At some point, a deputy rose on a point of personal privilege to ask our House to refrain from celebrating the outcome out of respect for those who disagreed, and, when the vote was finally revealed—78% of lay deputies and 76% of clergy deputies voted in favor—we went into recess and walked out of the hall in an odd but respectful quiet.

I cannot overstate the contrast between those two moments—the jubilant song of our unanimous house and the silent procession of our respectful disagreement—which were placed almost back-to-back. That difference suggests to me that we understand what really matters. We recognize that our ability to participate in the life of the church together is why we have all come to Indianapolis for General Convention. Many deputies and on-lookers were thrilled at the outcome of the same-sex blessings vote, and a fair number were heart-broken. But all of us were more interested in holding together than pulling apart.

I do not know what the coming months will bring. There will be opportunities for reflection and dialogue about the church’s structure and about the blessing of same-sex unions. I hope, however, that we can maintain that sense of love and respect that we showed yesterday. I want to be a part of a church that cares more about what binds us together than what pulls us apart. I want to share in the life of a church that looks for ways to sing joyfully and not grumble rancorously. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Open Table, Open Font


Church is usually the last place that we want to find controversy. Although it would be a mistake to imagine that church is that comfortable place that always affirms what we think, our spiritual home is supposed to be a safe place that is built upon God’s indiscriminate love. Because of that, I have seen people leave their own congregation during a period of strife—not because they disagreed with the clergy or lay leadership but because remaining in a church that was caught up in controversy was too much to bear.

Usually conflict and strife wound the body of Christ. We are called by Jesus to stand together in love, and human nature often confuses disagreement with disrespect. Our conversations on sensitive topics sometimes melt down into arguments, and then arguments erupt into battles, and then the church we love is rent by controversy. But, as nature so often reminds us, struggle and strife can be life-giving. Occasionally, our passionately held disagreements actually add to the life of the church.

During my time at General Convention, most of the conversation has been far from controversial. In fact, on the dozens—perhaps hundreds—of resolutions, amendments, and procedural motions that we have considered, only one has been close enough to require an electronic tally of our votes. Yet I have seen one issue split us right down the middle, but that split has involved the most wonderful, beautiful debate I have ever witnessed in the church.

Should Holy Communion be open to unbaptized people? This might be the sort of controversy that only captures the attention of the sorts of people who would spend twelve days at a church conference, but I believe we should all take part in the conversation. If you have heard me invite people to the table, you have probably heard me say, “Holy Communion is open to all baptized Christians regardless of your denomination.” Compared with some traditions, that is a gracious invitation, but, for many who are gathered here and who worship throughout our church, it is not gracious enough.

Although this is not a good space to rehearse all the arguments for and against open table, suffice it to say that those who want open Communion feel that it can be an evangelistic tool of hospitality. By inviting individuals to receive the bread and wine become body and blood, we can invite them into a deeper relationship with God that they might otherwise miss were we to turn them away from the table. Those who speak in favor of baptism-first have two-thousand years of precedent on their side, and they usually cite ecumenical relationships and the universality of the sacraments when they make their case. But I believe there is something more important to consider.

Jesus might be inviting all of us to his table, but sitting down and taking part in the Eucharistic banquet requires new birth. As Jesus said to Nicodemus who came to him at night, “In order to enter the kingdom of heaven you must be born again” (John 3:3). When we gather at the Lord’s table, we do so to participate in a foretaste of that which we envision in the fullness of time—God’s heavenly feast. Anyone and everyone is welcomed into that kingdom, but taking part in God’s reign requires a change within us. If we think that participating in the kingdom does not ask anything of us, we have given up on conversion itself, and doing so means that we have cheapened grace to the point of worthlessness.

Saying “No!” to someone who asks to receive the bread and wine but who is not baptized could be a terrible example of the church allowing its rules to get in the way of God’s love, but I am not ready to give up on the importance of baptism-first. Because of that, you may begin hearing me say something different on Sunday mornings: “Holy Communion is open to all baptized Christians…and if you are not baptized but want to become a part of the body of Christ please speak with me after the service. Holy baptism is open to all.”

We can find room for hospitality in our worship, but it might involve reenvisioning what it means to gather together in the name of the Lord. Is our Sunday-morning experience primarily for the already-initiated, or do we want our worship to be a time to invite newcomers into a relationship with Jesus Christ? Those of us who believe that Communion is about participating in God’s kingdom might need to rethink its place in the church if we realize that most of us—baptized or not—are approaching the table out of habit. Perhaps an emphasis on an open font that then leads to an open table enables all of us to rediscover what it really means to participate in the Eucharistic feast.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Nice Lunch


In addition to the two basic parts of General Convention—legislative committees and plenary sessions in each house—there are many, many opportunities for meetings and gatherings that happen on the side. Some of these are quasi-official like a seminary dinner and others are purely casual like three friends getting together for a drink one evening. Sometimes they are carefully planned, but often they just happen with no planning whatsoever. Yesterday, I went to a beautifully orchestrated lunch that delivered much more than food.

There is a group within the Episcopal Church and wider Anglican Communion called the Chicago Consultation. Their mission is to “[support] the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion.” Right away, that should tell you that there was an agenda for our meeting, but, given our church’s highly publicized debates over human sexuality, that description, which is taken from the Consultation’s website, probably suggests a gathering that involved a heavy-handed and highly political presentation. It did not.

Instead, we gathered around tables for a meal and heard stories from the rector and some parishioners at St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas. And they were just that—stories. No one asked me to support any resolutions. No one claimed that a particular direction is right for the church. No one wanted to know whether I was on his side. The Consultation simply wanted to present some stories about how an individual congregation has become a church that welcomes and includes people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The stories we heard were powerful examples of grace and love. Although I admit that it isn’t unusual for me to tear up in a sentimental setting, I found myself repeatedly wiping my eyes during our meeting. That wasn’t because the individual’s tales were particularly heart-warming, though they were. I was emotionally hooked by the experience because it was one of overwhelming, life-changing, genuine-resurrection grace.

One of the people who told their stories is a transgendered man who now lives in Michigan. Born female, he reached a point in his life when the conflict between his biological sex and his psychosocial gender became too much to bear. Once an angry, wounded young woman, his outer appearance and inner identity are now united as a healthy, happy man. After he and his mother spoke, the rector, Lowell Grisham, talked about what it meant for their church family to welcome him as a part of their congregation. And that’s what really got me—imagining a church that really was a “safe place” for someone who needed it.

There’s a lot more, I’m sure, to the issue of gender identity than I am qualified to write about. And I’m positive they could have said a lot more about it at our lunch. But that wasn’t the point. They simply wanted us to hear a story of how a parish has claimed an identity as a “safe place” that, as all the participants from St. Paul’s put it, doesn’t judge those who walk in the door. When I let myself imagine what it must feel like to walk into a church that welcomes someone who feels so discounted in many other areas of society, I cried.

The rector reflected that he watched the now transgendered individual change before his eyes from someone with a bent-over posture of fear into an upright, self-confident child of God. Although he didn’t make the reference explicitly, I immediately thought of Jesus’ encounter with the bent-over woman in Luke 13. In the story, Jesus calls to the middle of a synagogue a woman who had been literally bent over by the weight of demonic oppression, and he sets her free, enabling the woman to stand up for the first time in eighteen years. As a church family that shows love and grace to someone who doesn’t find it in many other places, that congregation enabled that man to stand up straight and be set free.

Regardless of my political leanings on issues of human sexuality or gender identity, I feel called by God to be the kind of priest and pastor who says to anyone who walks through the door, “This is a safe place. Stand up straight. You are loved by God, and we love you, too.” Everyone needs a safe place. Perhaps there is a suggested political response to a gathering like yesterday’s lunch, but, for now, I choose to leave it behind because I don’t want to cloud the waters on what was an otherwise crystal clear presentation. I want to be a part of a church family that welcomes and loves people. I want to be in the resurrection business. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Attention!


Mortal, stand up! So says the Spirit to Ezekiel in today’s OT Lesson (Ezekiel 2:1-5). It’s God calling the prophet into his service. As Ezekiel describes the experience, the Spirit itself lifted him up onto his feet—as if the words the Spirit spoke were physically compelling. Quite literally, at the sound of them, the prophet couldn’t sit still. He had to get up and do something.

That seems to me how the Spirit is working at General Convention. Given how much we are sitting—far more than I sit in a usual week—that might seem strange. And given how long we spent as the House of Deputies trying to figure out whether the amendment to the amendment was a substitute that, once approved, led us to the main motion or whether debate on the original amendment was still on the floor (say what?), this might seem to onlookers like a Spiritually dead place. I’ve never heard anyone call parliamentary procedure a gift of the Spirit. But in so many other, far more important ways, the Spirit is stirring us, lifting us off our feet to acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Yesterday’s sermon was incredible. That it was preached in a service that featured steel drums and dancing nuns (see facebook video) suggested that we had been transported from an Episcopal church into another dimension of God’s kingdom. Some of our legislative work again suggested that a movement for substantial change in the way we do church. Although it seems certain to be defeated in the House of Bishops, our house passed a resolution that would allow the Presiding Bishop to retain her or his role as a diocesan bishop—a practice that was abandoned over 40 years ago when our church structure became less flat and more top-down. But the movement of the Spirit among us is most palpable in places I wouldn’t have guessed.

Walking down the sunbaked street from one meeting to another in conversation with a bishop from Western New York. Riding in an elevator for the third time in one day with a deputy from Kansas. Talking at the bar with a bishop from Maryland while we wait on our to go lunch orders. Shaking hands with a priest from Georgia who knows someone who knows someone I love. Hearing the distinct lilt of the ECW delegates from the Virgin Islands sitting behind me in worship as they sing “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place.” Seeing a fascinated group of six-year-olds who are at the hotel for a birthday party rather than the Convention and hearing them ask, “Why are all these people here?”

The Spirit stirred up—disturbed—Ezekiel as God called him to action. God’s call was so firm that he was physically set on his path by the one who called him. That same Spirit moves in us. It has called us to this place. It has convened us here. And I sense that we all share the same call. We are not here to get our way. We are not here to argue or claim passionately the things that matter to us. We are here to be here with the whole church. And walking through the corridors and sharing elevator rides with people I have never seen before yet share an identity with is a powerful, stirring-up experience. Some moments are more sedentary than others, but it is impossible to be at General Convention and not feel the Spirit lifting us up in unision.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

For Sale


A few days ago, one of my colleagues here at General Convention told me a story from early in his ministry. He said that a rector with whom he worked preferred to recite the Eucharistic prayer from memory, which means that the whole prayer associated with Communion was said with no open book on the table. “The first time it happened, it scared me,” my friend recalled. I bet.

There are some parts of the service that I have fairly well committed to memory—not the whole Eucharistic prayer but little snippets that we say over and over ever week. One of my favorites is the Summary of the Law, which is recited by the presider at a Rite I service: “…this is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it…” We all know it pretty well—not just those of us who say it on Sunday. I love Jesus’ summary, which is found in today’s gospel lesson (Matt. 22:23-40), because it cuts through all the stuff and gets right down to it. What does all the law say—all the stuff that we might get tangled up in? Love God and love your neighbor. Period.

Yesterday at General Convention something amazing happened. The House of Deputies passed a resolution calling on the Episcopal Church to sell its headquarters at 815 2nd Avenue in New York. I’m told that people have been talking about this for a long time. I’m told that our net expense over a triennium for the Episcopal Center after rental income is factored in is over $11 million. I’m told that this step will enable the Episcopal Church to spend less money on administration and more money on mission. But I don’t think any of these tales really get to the heart of the matter.

For many, the Episcopal Center has come to represent the bureaucracy of our church. Often, when someone wants to talk about our church’s administration, they say, “815” to encapsulate it. Using the street address for the building is insider slang for the whole organization. Selling the headquarters, therefore, has less to do with saving money than it does with redefining how we do church.

Do we have a plan for the future? No, not really. Where will the necessary staff and meeting space move to? No one knows. Last night in our deputation meeting, our bishop asked us what sort of plan the resolution had in mind. “It doesn’t,” was our reply, “which is a problem,” the bishop continued. Maybe, but I don’t think this is about planning. That kind of thing will get worked out. What happened yesterday and, hopefully, will happen more fully when the bishops concur on the resolution was a “Summary-of-the-Law” kind of moment. Let’s cut through all the stuff and say what really needs to be said.

Our church needs to change. We must change and begin to grow both in faith and in number or else we will die. Will selling 815 make that happen? I don’t know. Not on its own. But it says to the whole church and to the world that we can’t do church the way we always have. In today’s gospel lesson, the Pharisee comes to Jesus to test him by asking a dubious question: “Which law is the greatest?” Jesus’ answer, which many of us have committed to memory, captures the bigger picture. Loving God and loving each other is what the law asks of us. Calling on the church to sell its corporate headquarters signifies a greater movement within our church. Ministry is what is important. The details will fall into place. But for now just remember what matters. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Close Encounters of the Episcopal Kind


Our diocese had its elections for General Convention deputies in February 2011. That was almost 18 months ago. I’ve had a long time to get ready for this. And I remember discovering shortly after being elected that a good friend of mine, Steve Pankey, had been elected to serve as a deputy from the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. For a year and a half, I have been excited about being here in Indianapolis with someone I respect and whose company I really enjoy.

Then, about two months ago, at Province IV Synod at Kanuga, I ran into Lonnie Lacy, another friend from seminary who has been elected to serve as a deputy from the Diocese of Georgia. I was sitting in a rocking chair when he walked past, and I jumped up and exclaimed, “Lonnie! I didn’t know you were going to be here.” So, for the past month, I have looked forward to serving alongside him as well.

Yesterday, walking from the exhibition hall to the House of Deputies, I passed by Melody Shobe, yet another friend from seminary. You know how this goes. I didn’t know…I was excited. The same can be said for Luther, Holly, Sandy, Thack, Linda, Sharon, and many, many more. There are a lot of people here, yet I’m reminded how very, very wonderfully small our church is.

As I think about the craziness of General Convention, I am reminded by all of these wonderful encounters that this is all about relationship. Perhaps the greatest gift we are given in these ten or so days is community. I have seen people I knew would be here, people I didn’t know would be here, and people I didn’t even know until two days ago. And today I’ll meet some more people I didn’t know before. As Christians, we are one body. As Paul writes in today’s lesson from Romans, we are joint heirs with Christ. That means we are linked at a deeper level than we might possibly imagine. We dwell together in the Lord. And it’s a whole lot easier for me to appreciate that when I’m singing hymns in a room of 1000+ people, who have come together to proclaim that Jesus is Lord.

What will tomorrow bring? Whom might I discover? How will God use this occasion, this encounter, to build up the body of Christ?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Not Looking for a Fight


I could not have imagined a better day at General Convention than yesterday, yet I fully expect them to get even better.

The highlight of my day was the Evangelism legislative committee meeting. It was a fairly small gathering—a committee of twenty-five or so plus twenty to thirty spectators. They started their work at 8am with orientation matters, but by 10am they were ready to hold their first “public hearing” on some resolutions.

Essentially, there were three resolutions being considered: A070, A073, and C002. All of the committees are being encouraged to consider resolutions with budget implications early because convention is shorter this time. Honestly, even though the content of those resolutions is important, what was more important was how they were handled. Each was presented earnestly and enthusiastically. Individuals in the gallery gave supportive testimony. And then the committee asked really tough questions about how they would work and whether they were the most efficient use of resources.

I rose to speak against C002—not because it was controversial but because I think there’s a better way to spend $760k. And even though everyone in the room seemed behind C002, my comments were received eagerly by everyone in the committee. They asked me some fabulous follow-up questions, and we spent some time really asking each other what was best for the Church and for God’s work in the world.

There were other moments like that, too, throughout the day. Some weren’t quite as open and life-giving, but most were. Instead of controversy and animosity, there’s a spirit of collaboration and exploration in the air. The Convention really seems interested in getting to the heart of what God wants us to do. I can’t imagine a better attitude for us as deputies to have. We won’t always agree, and there will be heated, controversial topics to discuss. But it seems that we’re not looking for a fight. We’re looking for the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Independence Day

Today doesn't feel much like a holiday. I'm not with my family. I doubt I'll eat any barbecue. I'm likely to wear a tie today, and I'm certainly going to work. But today IS a holiday, and I mean that in the fullness of the word.

Several people asked me, "Why the heck is General Convention happening over July 4?" To save money on convention fees. To give all of the people who normally work during the 10+ days that we are here at least one day they don't have to take as "vacation." Or maybe it's another reason completely. I don't know, but I do know that today is the perfect day for us to be at General Convention.

Independence Day is a quintessentially Episcopalian Holiday. For starters, it's a feast day with its own collect and lessons. And, yes, I know that there are lots of people in our church who are not citizens of the United States. Yes, I get twitchy when people call our church headquarters "the national church" even though we're definitely international. But whether "American" or Honduran or anything else, those of us who call the Episcopal Church home have reason to celebrate Independence Day.

Although we are not an established church, we have a history as the church of the establishment. If you didn't pick up on that in American History class, take a look at our church structure. We have bishops (executives), but we hold their power in check through other institutions (clergy & laity). We have a bicameral legislature that meets as a House of Deputies and a House of Bishops. Any resolutions must pass both houses in identical form. In many ways, the way we do church is distinctly American.

At the same time, though, we hold our faith in tension with our identity as patriots. As today's gospel lesson (Matt. 5:43-48) suggests, we are called to love our enemy and those who hate/persecute us. On a day of history, that reminds me of all the times our nation has failed to do that. One of our resolutions we will consider at General Convention is calling on our country to stop demonizing terrorists. It's not all that great, but it say something about our church's relationship with our country. We are called to bring the message of Christ to our country and to the world. And, when our nation is not living up to the standards by which the kingdom of God has been founded, it is our calling to speak out. Of all the churches, even though we are smaller in number, we have a powerful, distinctly American voice to speak on the national political scene.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Straight Shot

I leave this morning for General Convention in Indianapolis. From Decatur, it's a straight shot up I-65, and I'm guessing it will take me between six and seven hours. I did some high-level travel calculus to determine that my total travel time from my door to the convention center would be less if I drove than if I flew, so I'm setting off on the road. And the best part is that I get to share the ride with Susan Sloan, a clergy deputy from St. Stephen's, Huntsville.

Thanks to Eisenhower, my trip to Convention should be fairly easy. If I point my car in the right direction, I'm almost certain to hit it eventually. But, once I get there, things are a little less straight forward. I've never been to General Convention, and everyone who has keeps telling me that I have no idea what I'm getting into. I have a hard time believing that--since I feel like I can imagine what it might be like--but I am taking their word for it. I don't know what it will be like, but I expect that it will be exhausting, encouraging, frustrating, and fun.

The one thing that is sticking in my mind as I prepare to leave is that, for the first time in my life, how I vote on an issue will matter to people. On important issues, when votes are called by orders, my name and vote will be recorded for anyone to see. How I vote shouldn't matter to people as much as it probably will. I'm honestly trying to figure out where the Spirit is leading me and our church. The conversation, debate, prayer, and discernment that go into each decision make them far more complex than "Garner, Yes" or "Garner, No." As I join the bazillion other deputies and onlookers at Convention, the route I will take to get to a decision will be anything but straightforward, and I hope I'm up for the task.


This blog and the Twitter/Facebook links to it will be one way that I attempt to communicate how I perceive that things are going in Indianapolis. Some of my posts will simply be reflections. Others will focus on how I'm navigating an issue. For those who know me and who are wanting to hear a little bit of what's happening at General Convention, stay tuned. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Sunday Sermon - 5 Pent., Proper 8B (07/02/12)


July 1, 2012 – The 5th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8B

© 2012 Evan D. Garner

A long time ago, in my first church job as an outreach assistant, my boss warned me, “We can’t fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent.” That sounded like a weighty theological statement—something I should understand and agree with—so I nodded my head as if I knew what she was talking about. I don’t know why her phrase has stuck with me so long. Maybe it’s because I have spent the last decade trying to figure it out. Or maybe it’s because her insight has been proven right over and over again in my ministry. But, for whatever reason, I often find myself revisiting those words: “We can’t fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent.”

That line echoed in my mind one Friday morning years later as I paced around our Montgomery house, holding our family’s phone to my ear. On the other end of the line was a man who called me with a tragic story. “I’m an Episcopalian from Wisconsin, and I need some help,” his story began. He told me about being stranded in Montgomery, separated from his wife and children. Predictably, his car had run out of gas, and he needed my help to get home. I was still young and na├»vely patient back then, so I let him go on for over five minutes before I gave him the tough news: I don’t accept outreach requests when I’m not in the office.

Because I leave my cell phone number on my office voice mail message, I get lots of calls for financial assistance on my cell phone. Usually, when I tell someone who needs help that I won’t discuss their situation until I’m back in the office, they apologize for their intrusion and politely end the conversation, willing to wait patiently until I am in a position to return their call. On this Friday morning, however, that was not the case.

For starters, this man had somehow gotten my home number, which suggested to me that he was abnormally persistent. I tried to explain why I insist on handling those requests from the office—because otherwise my phone would never stop ringing—but he didn’t want to hear it. The conversation stretched on from five minutes to ten to fifteen. Finally, when he threatened to call my bishop and initiate an ecclesiastical disciplinary procedure because of my refusal to help, I laughed out loud. “Go right ahead,” I chuckled. “Here’s his phone number. In fact, if I had his cell phone number, I’d gladly give it to you because I have no doubt that my bishop will think even more highly of me after he hears that I spent a quarter of an hour on the phone with you.”

In this case, it’s easy for me to look back and confirm that it was right for me not to help him. I doubt that his need was genuine—plus, his demeanor suggested that, even if it were, making him wait was a good choice. But what about those moments when a sweet, humble child of God calls me at 7:00 on a Friday night with a real need—like a family who is about to be turned out onto the street by a landlord who hasn’t been paid? Do I drop everything and help right away, or do I politely tell a weeping mother that she will have to wait until Monday morning? Maybe I’m just anesthetizing my guilt, but in those moments I cling to my boss’ words: “We cannot fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent.”

In today’s lesson from Mark, we get two stories that have been sandwiched into one tale of urgency. First, Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, throws himself at Jesus’ feet and begs him to come and heal his critically ill daughter. Then, on the way to Jairus’ house, Jesus is interrupted by a woman who has had a hemorrhage for twelve years. Boldly yet secretively, the woman slinks her way through the crowd and touches Jesus’ clothes. Instantly, he feels the healing power go out from him. So he stops and asks, “Who touched me?” After a brief search, the woman comes forward and confesses, which gives Jesus the chance to teach the crowd a lesson on faithfulness. But, by the time he sends the woman on her way, it is too late. Jairus’ daughter is dead. “Why trouble the teacher any further?” his associates ask. The moment for healing has come and gone. Now, the only thing to do is mourn the girl’s death and prepare her body for burial.

Jairus doesn’t strike me as the kind of man who had to wait very often. A leader of the synagogue, he was a prominent member of his community. He was respected by his peers and had assumed a place of prestige and power among them. That’s why it is remarkable to me that he came to Jesus and fell down at his feet, begging for his help. For a member of the religious elite, that was an unusual display of humility, which bordered on worship. That Jairus would come to Jesus openly and seek his assistance was a surprising display of faith, which might be why Jesus stopped what he was doing and set off toward the leader’s house.

But, on the way, something happened. A woman intervened, and, whether he did it on purpose or simply got distracted by the situation, Jesus stopped and put Jairus and his family on hold. He forced them to wait while he attended to the needs of this anonymous woman. Not even given a name, she lived by definition on the margins of society. Her hemorrhage had made her unclean, which means that for twelve long years she had lived as an outsider. She couldn’t share a meal with anyone else. She wasn’t allowed to come to the synagogue. For twelve years, her illness had put her life on hold, but, now, while Jesus paused to engage this lost daughter of Israel, her needs forced Jairus to wait.

And, while Jairus watched as precious minutes slipped past, the unthinkable happened. His daughter died before Jesus reached her. The thing he feared most had come to pass. That faith, which he had had at the beginning of the story, vanished with the news of his daughter’s death. But, of course, that isn’t how the story ends. Jesus looked at the leader of the synagogue and said, “Do not fear; only believe.” And, even though it was laughable to those who had gathered outside Jairus’ house, Jesus walked in and aroused the dead girl as if she were only sleeping. Although he had been forced to wait—even past the point of no return—Jairus received from Jesus what he needed: the gift of his resuscitated daughter.

When people in the midst of a crisis are forced to wait, their faith often turns to fear—especially those of us who aren’t used to waiting. We get what we want and what we need with relative speed and ease. Although we might have to wait a few months to get an appointment with a doctor, almost none of us knows what it feels like to wait twelve years for an answer. In this story, we are Jairus. And, like him, when we suddenly find ourselves in a life-threatening crunch and are forced to wait it out, our confidence evaporates, leaving us as a quivering lump of fear.

But our fear is not the end of the story. We might be unable to see how the story will play out, but, as people of faith who believe in a God who loves us even beyond our own death, we know that God will take care of us in the end. We may not know how or when, but we believe that God loves us and will never forsake us. When we fall victim to the tyranny of our own urgency, we allow out short-sightedness to strip us of our faith and replace it with fear. But what Jesus says to Jairus he says to us: “Do not fear; only believe.”

We cannot allow a moment of crisis to displace our faith in God. Just because we can’t see how they will end doesn’t mean that we should allow our challenges to overwhelm us. No, what we want or pray for doesn’t always come true. Sometimes, God’s salvation only comes after this part of our story is over. But, whether it comes in this life or on the other side of the grave, we know that God’s love will win. For us, who aren’t often forced to wait, the kind of faith that persists through delay doesn’t come easily. It’s something we have to work at. But that’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We walk behind him on the path that leads through death to resurrection. Even though we can’t see beyond this moment, we know that God’s promises wait for us. Amen.