Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Bringing Convention Home


In a few months, the General Convention office will publish a big, fat book that contains all of the actions that we took here in Utah. You could, I suppose, buy one and pour through it page by page in order to get a sense of what went on during these two weeks of Convention. (If there aren't support groups for people like that, there should be.) But even reading every line of the record of the 78th General Convention cannot convey the spirit behind each resolution and the tone of each debate. So much of what has happened here is bigger and more important than what will be put in print, and I hope that in the weeks and months ahead I can convey some of that to you.

 

Worship is one part of this experience that I hope to hold onto for a long time. In some ways, our daily gatherings for Eucharist are similar to those we celebrate together at St. John's―lessons, hymns, sermon, prayers, bread, and wine. In several other ways, however, they are radically different. How often does one of our clergy slip seamlessly from English to Spanish in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer? When was the last time we had Native American flute, drums, and dancing on Sunday morning? Our congregation likes to sing, but how often do we have the chance to gather with 1500 people in a massive, resonant auditorium and let the sounds of "Praise to the Lord" fill the whole space? Each day so far, my eyes have filled with tears at some point during our worship because I have found the experience of gathering with the fullness of our church to praise God emotionally overwhelming.

 

The diversity of our church could, perhaps, be hinted at in a demographic chart, but being at General Convention reminds me that our church is made up of lots of people who look and talk and think and worship and follow Jesus differently than I do. I celebrate the presence and leadership that people of color bring to this Convention. I enjoy hearing from people whose congregations are made up of non-English speakers. I marvel at the unique spirituality of indigenous people. I embrace the heartfelt testimony of individuals who have experienced discrimination because of their identity. At St. John's, our exposure to diversity is fairly limited, but our place within the whole Episcopal Church offers us countless opportunities to explore meaningful, transformative encounters with fellow Christians who are not just like us.

 

Although we are barely half way through our legislative work, we have already accomplished some remarkable things. The bishops have elected and the deputies have confirmed the election of the first African-American Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry of North Carolina. That moment was significant both as a "first" in history and as a sign that the leaders of the Episcopal Church share Bishop Curry's passion for the gospel―the good news of Jesus Christ for the world. Building on that momentum, we have approved a series of bold and far-reaching endeavors to help our church embrace evangelism and congregational development in the twenty-first century. Later this week, we will debate other resolutions that aim to restructure our church to help us encourage mission and ministry at the local level as we deemphasize hierarchical methods and focus more resources on what takes place in the parish and diocese. Still, despite all of the excitement and energy surrounding what is happening here in Utah, completing the work of General Convention depends upon us―you and me―picking up where Convention leaves off and bringing those initiatives back to Alabama.

 

Earlier this week, during debate on a resolution about prison reform, Deputy Lowell Grisham from Arkansas urged us to go back to our parishes and speak to others about that vote. The resolution we passed is an important one. It calls upon the leaders of the Episcopal Church to speak out against the "mass incarceration system," and it asks every congregation in our church to take up at least one specific initiative to combat the destructive consequences of our current criminal justice system. The resolution even lists fourteen ideas for such work. But then what? Yes, the final section of the resolution calls for each diocese to report back to the 79th General Convention about the "initiatives engaged at the congregational and diocesan levels," but, two and a half years from now, when someone from our diocese sends me an e-mail asking what we have done about prison reform, it will be too late. The burden of holding up that important work to our congregation falls to me and to you. We must remember it and take it on. Keep in mind, however, that this is only one of hundreds of important resolutions that we will pass. Who keeps up with them all? Hopefully, together, we all do.

 

In the weeks ahead, it will be tempting for us to focus only on the big, headline-grabbing stories from General Convention―the election of the new Presiding Bishop, the decisions surrounding same-sex marriage, and the outcome of the restructuring debate. I assure you, however, that the enormous bulk of our work is found not on the front page but between the lines. That is where we must turn if the work done here is to bear fruit. Do not stop at the beginning. Dig deeper. Look with me at the many, many things your Convention has done. Support prison reform in Alabama. Look for ways to combat racism in Decatur. Learn how you can share the good news of Jesus Christ with others in a digital age. Call your legislator and tell him or her what you and your church think about providing access to education to all children and youth regardless of immigration status. Whatever it is, however you do it, pick up the work of our church and make it part of the ministry we share back home. Do not restrict General Convention to something that happens way out in the desert. Make sure our church's work comes all the way home.

It Is Enough


In the House of Deputies, we have passed several important resolutions that do bold things like commit $3million to improve digital evangelism and set aside $1million for revitalization of congregations. So many of the resolutions that have passed with great emphasis and energy in our house have come with huge price tags. Where will this money come from? We don't know. We do know what happens if they aren't funded by the church. We know that without funds all of the energy and excitement and momentum expressed in these resolutions will fizzle out and die.

Or will they?

On Sunday, we will all be back in our churches (or at least somewhere other than General Convention). As the gospel appointed for that day, we will hear Mark 6:1-13. In those words, we will hear Jesus say a lot about evangelism that flies in the face of the logic of fear that seems to have taken hold on the legislative process.

As he sends out the disciples two by two, Jesus tells them to take nothing with them--no purse, no money, no bag, no change of clothes, no food, no nothing. Just go with what you have on your back. Pick up a good walking stick and go.

Imagine what it feels like to have an authority figure send you out to do important, amazing, challenging work but tell you that you can't make or take any preparations. How puzzling! How disconcerting! How confusing!

But there is a different logic to that sort of evangelism. It requires living day to day. It requires being highly sensitive to the community to which you have been sent. It requires you to let go of the outcome and focus on the process. I believe that that is what Jesus is saying to the Episcopal Church.

I wholeheartedly support these resolutions. I hope the church will fully fund them. Actually, I hope the church will rethink the way it funds programs and ministries and stop asking GC what we think should be funded and start asking GC what the priorities for the coming triennium will be. Then, Executive Council can fund whatever it thinks is best according to those priorities. But that's another post for another day. Back to the matter at hand... I do hope that these costly, bold, expansive, hopeful resolutions will pass both houses and be funded. But I don't think the church needs to doubt the possibility that lies ahead regardless of funding.

If we confuse the funding of these resolutions for the spirit and drive behind them, then we are guilty of perpetuating the lethargy that has crippled our church in the last few decades. We must support radical freedom by embracing the take-what-you've-got mentality of Jesus. Don't let budgets define our ministry. Trust that our ministry will define our budgets. Yes, advocate for funding, but don't worry about the outcome. The energy is there. It is the Spirit that motivates and propels us. Never doubt the one whom we are serving in this work. He is sending us out. He has given us the commission.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Unity of Spirit





Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


When we gather for worship on the morning after the election of the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry as the next Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and hear that this is the Collect for the Day, it will be difficult not to sense that God is doing something pretty spectacular in the life of the Episcopal Church. Jesus Christ himself is the cornerstone of our church. He is where it starts. And from there the church has been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets and, I would add, is still being built upon their successors. Their teaching, we pray, is the means by which we are joined together "in unity of spirit." Yesterday's election was an expression of that unity, and I am proud to be a part of a church that--in formal and informal ways--has identified Bishop Curry as the right bishop to serve in that capacity for the next nine years.

Weeks ago, I wrote in this blog that I would be voting against the confirmation no matter who was chosen. That was, as I hope I made clear, not based on the quality of any of the candidates. In fact, I still believe that any of the four faithful men who were candidates for the office would have done a wonderful job, and I would have been proud to call any of them my Presiding Bishop. I intended to vote no because of the process behind the decision. I will not rehash that entire argument here, but I want to stress that the process for selecting a PB is broken. Partly that has to do with the money and time we spent--over $200,000 and two years. Partly that has to do with the still unclear expectations our church is placing upon our PB--is he/she to be a visionary or an executive or a pastor or a president or all of those or none of those? Mainly, however, is has to do with the fact that no one other than bishops is entitled to vote.

Several times--both here at Convention and back at home before we arrived--people asked me for whom I would vote. I honestly did not have an answer. I never thought of it that way. Why? Because I don't get to vote. None of the deputies does. Yes, the Joint Nominating Committee, consisting of all orders of ministry, presented to us an excellent slate of nominees, but OUR next Presiding Bishop is chosen only by bishops. As the office of the PB has grown in power and importance (from a simple presider in the House of Bishops to a primate and leader in our church), so too has the distance between bishops and the rest of the leadership of our church. Those things, of course, move in parallel. As the PB becomes more of a primate and the process to choose him/her does not adapt to involve everyone in the election, the gap between the decision makers in our church--bishops on one side of the divide and everyone else on the other--widens and widens and widens. For that reason--because our church desperately needs to be pulled back together--I intended to vote no on confirmation. But I didn't.

I proudly voted for the confirmation of Michael Curry because, over the past few weeks and especially during this Convention, it has become clear to me that Bishop Curry is the clear choice of the entire Convention and the entire Episcopal Church. A first-ballot election for PB is unheard of. (Ballots weren't publicized until 1997, and there hasn't been one since, and several bishops expressed no memory of it happening before that, either.) When the candidates spoke to the House of Deputies, the room was consumed by "amens" and head-nods and smiles and other tangible signs of hope and endorsement whenever Bishop Curry spoke. No, his answers weren't the best. Yes, the other candidates said some very important things. But Bishop Curry represents a choice that exceeds the words he said or the experiences on his resume. In my estimation, built upon observations and conversations with others, he represents our collective hope for the unity, revitalization, and Jesus-centered future of the Episcopal Church.

There is still much to discuss at this Convention. What will we decide on same-sex marriage? Will we recast the structures of this church to shift the balance of power? Will the political rangling over whose voice is the loudest at the table--the PB's, the PHoD's, the Executive Council's, the House of Bishops, the House of Deputies--rip us further apart? Will the lack of consensus on these critical issues threaten to plunge us into further division when we leave Utah without settling our disputes? Actually, the election of Bishop Curry, I think, changes all of that. Sure, any of that can happen. No, I have no idea how things will work out. But I have a deep-seeded hope in my soul, and I feel that hope in others, and I believe that the hope we have expressed so far at this convention will carry the day. I believe what we pray this morning--that the teaching of the apostles and prophets, when built upon the foundation of which Jesus Christ himself is the cornerstone, leads us to unity of spirit. This is a time for unity, and I believe that unity will prevail.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Hearing and Seeing


I've remarked a few times about my favorite thing at General Convention. Sometimes, I tell people my favorite part is seeing old friends. Sometimes, I tell people my favorite part is the instant collaboration among Episcopalians who have never met each other. Never do I tell people that my favorite part is the interminable amendment debates (despite being the genesis of two so far). Despite having several "favorite" parts of General Convention, my really really favorite part is the worship.

For starters, it's a beautiful thing to have 1000+ people worshipping in the same place at the same time. Some churches have that every single Sunday, but I don't. To hear 1000 voices singing, praying, praising, confessing, greeting, and celebrating together is a wonderful thing. And, more than that, the way we worship is spectacular.

Episcopalians in Alabama and Utah and Washington may not realize that the Episcopal Church comprises congregations and dioceses all over the world. I don't mean the "Anglican Communion," which has different churches ("provinces") all across the globe. I mean the Episcopal Church--with the same prayer book, same Presiding Bishop, and, of course, same General Convention. Because of that, right here in Utah, we have Episcopalians who speak several different languages, and that means our worship takes on a Pentecost-al feel.

Those of you who go to church as often as I do probably don't need to hold the prayer book during the service. We know what follows, "Lift up your heart." We have the Creed more or less memorized. The Confession is written on our hearts and minds just as clearly as on page 360. Because of that, I don't usually look at the liturgial text when I worship unless I am leading worship. I prefer to lose myself in the aural experience and concentrate on the spoken word.

But at General Convention, those spoken words are often in Spanish. I don't really speak Spanish. I know enough to recognize a few words, but I certainly cannot pick up on the theologically nuanced language of our worship. So, when someone is speaking or reading in Spanish, I have some choices. I can let my ears pick up one or two familiar words--enough to keep up but not really enough to participate. I can open up the digital worship guide and read along in English. Or I can watch the interpretation.

Another language used during worship at General Convention is American Sign Language. On the platform, along with those leading worship, are usually two interpreters. Faithfully, they listen to what is being said (English or Spanish) and, using ASL, gesture accordingly so that the hearing impaired can understand. I do not know ASL any better than I know Spanish, but there is something so beautiful about the way our interpreters render the spoken word that I am drawn into its dance in a non-verbal way.

Yesterday, Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies, preached in the service in which we remembered the life and witness of Isabel Florence Hapgood, who translated the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy into English. Gay spoke of translation--the importance and limitation of language conveying deep meaning. Using the analogy of a stuffed suitcase brought to General Convention, Gay reminded us that our understanding of God is never big enough to take it all in. As Gay spoke of that crammed-full suitcase, the interpreter next to her began cramming and stuffing and shoving things into an invisible bag right there on stage. Although not a mime, her gestures were plain and clear. The audience erupted in laughter. It was so perfectly, beautifully, absolutely clear to everyone in the room no matter what language she speaks.

I like words. I write a lot. I talk a lot. I listen a fair amount, too. But I often forget to "listen" for the silent but clear words that are and aren't being spoken. Rarely does the Spirit speak to us in English or Spanish or even ASL. But the Spirit is speaking. We cannot only listen with our ears. We must watch the faces of each other. We must look to the heavens. We must stare down at the earth. We must feel the Spirit's breath. Words cannot express the magnitude of what God is saying to us. Our posture must be one of reception.

We believe in the Word made Flesh--Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. That Word, which was "spoken" in the creation, has come to us. Yes, we can listen to what Jesus says to us, but we can also see who he is and watch what he does and train our gaze on his witness. If we are only listening for words, we may miss the Word who is with us.

Friday, June 26, 2015

All about Power


I grew up watching He-Man. (Actually, I liked She-Ra better. She was a more interesting character, though I lived in fear that my peers would find out.) He-Man spent most of his time bumbling around as a slacker-in-disguise named Adam. But, when a crisis came, he would grab his sword, point it to the sky, and declare, "By the power of Greyskull...I have the POWER!" And, as lightning struck his body, he was transformed into the super strong, totally awesome hero He-Man. I cannot begin to imagine the number of times I picked something up, pointed it to the sky, and repeated, "I have the POWER!" As a kid, that was the coolest thing I could think of--having all of that power.

Adults rarely point their smartphones or car keys or croziers toward the sky and declare it, but most of us still get the same rush of excitement when we claim power for ourselves. Power is what drives the human race--and I don't mean electricity. Power is the ability to do. It is the capacity for action. We all have it. Some of us are experts. Some of us are physically imposing. Some of us control resources. Some of us hold the respect of others. None of us is He-Man, but all of us crave power. We like being in control. (And, when we don't want to be in control, we like to have the power to declare that it's someone else's turn to be in charge.) There is no escaping it.

Sunday's sandwiched gospel lesson (Mark 5:21-43) is an exercise in power. All of the central characters are exploring power relationships. Jairus is described for us as a leader of the synagogue, which means he was accustomed to a position of power. He was wealthy. He was respected. He was religious. He had control. But then it all fell apart. His daughter was sick. She was dying. And he could do nothing. He was powerless to help her. He approached Jesus and "begged him repeatedly" to come and help her. He was at Jesus' mercy. He couldn't even speed the teacher along and had to wait as he dealt with another supplicant.

The woman with a hemmorage was powerless and had been for years. Although at one time she had enough money to spend on many physicians, she now sneaks around the crowd, not daring to speak to anyone. "If I just touch his cloak," she said to herself. When called out by Jesus after her healing, she approaches him with fear and trembling. She is at his mercy. And Jesus offers it. He declares her made well--saved, actually. She is called his daughter. Jesus gives her back what she had lost.

Who is in control? Who has the power to act? Is our power real or perceived? I have lots of power. Some of it I celebrate, while other parts I am ashamed of. I have the love and support of family and friends. I have a job with responsibilities--formal and informal. By the world's standards, I am rich. As a white man, I have the privilege of being in the dominant (there's a power word) culture and living in a world that, for the most part, gives me what I demand of it. Because of that, I struggle more than others to recognize that all of that power really means nothing in God's kingdom. In fact, as Sunday's lesson teaches us, all my power actually gets in the way of God's kingdom breaking into my life.

Jesus has come to give me life--to give all of us abundant life. Who has the power? He has the power. But I must yield my power-hungry self to the power of his love. That yielding is called repentance. That love is called forgiveness.

At General Convention, we talk a lot about power--about the sins of racism and classism and sexism. As an institution, we have a history of power. We were a church dominated by white male tradition, and we used that to secure a place in the American landscape. But those power structures are changing. Like Jairus, we are discovering that we are powerless--we have been stripped of our control. The world isn't interested in listening to us talk about ourselves. The world wants to hear about Jesus--the one who came to give power to the powerless. Will we be powerless? Will we hold up our hands and prayer books and croziers and declare, "I have no power but Jesus?"

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Greatest Among You


When was the last time you overheard (or participated in) a childish argument over who was the best? From years ago, I recall knock-down, drag-out fights with cousins over whose dad was the strongest, the smartest, the richest. I remember disputes with friends over whose football team was better--a debate that had nothing to do with the team's current record and everything to do with the child's blind devotion. I shudder to think about how important having the best grade or getting the most recognition was for me as a grade-school student. So often our humanness is drawn out in comparisons.

My children already know the standard argument strategy that appeals to their peers. "But mom!" they cry, "Susan's mom lets her have it." Comparisons start very early, and they mean everything. What I hope my children don't realize is that they matter to grownups like me as well. When my child points out that her friend is being treated, rewarded, provided for better than what I am giving to my daughter, it gives me pause. I try to hide that from her, of course, or else life would soon become unbearable, but I certainly don't want to be the parent whose child is anywhere but the top.

I don't think it's an accident that the diciples show us the very same sort of debate and conflict over comparisons in their own relationships. In today's gospel lesson (Luke 22:24-30), we read that "a dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest." It's a silly thing for the disciples to argue over, of course. What do you mean "which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest?" Were they competing for Jesus' favor? Were they looking for preferential treatment in the kingdom as we read in some other gospel accounts? Did they want the nicer accommodation during their travels? Were they trying to avoid the unpleasant chores necessary for their common life? I don't really know exactly what they were arguing over, but I do know exactly what that sort of argument feels like. It's not quite as plain as "I'm better than you are," but it comes pretty close to that.

Jesus rebukes them for their vanity. He compares their striving to that of the Gentiles--those whose kings "lord it over them." But he goes further than that. "The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves," Jesus explained. "I am among you as one who serves." To those who know the whole gospel story, his words evoke images of washing the disciples' feet, of submitting himself to the authorities, of dying for their sakes. Jesus' life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection testify to a new expression of greatness--one that lauds humility and celebrates servanthood. It is the principle upon which the church is founded, but it's one that is hard to embrace.

At General Convention, I am surrounded by those who give of themselves for the sake of the others. Many of them are wearing red aprons--volunteers who are here for two weeks to help out with just about everything. They are pages, guides, runners, cleaners, hosts, servers, and drivers. Many of them have come from far away, paying their own expenses to serve at this Convention. There are others, too. There are janitors and cooks and security personnel. They staff the hotels, restaurants, and shops. There are alternates and spouses and legislative aides who are here to support others but rarely get credit for it. Deputies and bishops, too, are here to serve the church, but our service isn't particularly humble. We would do ourselves and our church well to observe the servanthood of those around us and attempt to follow their example.

All of us--from the proudest to the most humble--are called to go even further. Jesus didn't only kneel down and take the role of the servant by washing his disciples' feet. He gave up everything for them, and we must likewise give everything up, too. In the church, there can arise a competitive humility that undermines the principle of sacrifice. "Let me get that door for you," one deputy might say to another. "No, no," the other replies, "let me get that for you." And five minutes later both are still gesturing to each other insisting that the other deputy go first. It's a silly example, but there are plenty of more subtle instances of people showing off how humble they are. Unlike children, we are more likely to debate just how much we give to our ministries or how many challenges we have endured for the sake of the church. The only way to break through to genuine humility is to die with Jesus and let him put to death the pride within us.

When you're hanging on the cross, there isn't really much more you can give, is there? We must seek that place--not in mock service or pretend sacrifice but in real, substantial, nothing-left-to-give humility. We must allow the example of Jesus to guide us. We must center ourselves on his humility. We must ask God to grant us a servant's heart. We must beg him to take away all that we have so that we can have no more to give. As Jesus said to his disciples, that is what it means to eat and drink with him in the kingdom. Let it be so for us and for the whole church.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Opposites Attract


For the past week, I've been treking through the wilderness and National Parks of Utah and northern Arizona. My friend and colleague Craig Holmes and I put a lot of miles on our rental car. We went to some amazing places and did some astounding things. Over and over, I was reminded of the magnitude of creation. I was drawn deeper into the divine life as I experienced the limitless imagination of the creator. 

Although my companion and I spent nearly every minute of every day (sleeping and waking) with my companion, lots of that time was spent in slience. It is cliche, but, when we arrived at the Grand Canyon, we both climbed over one of the guard rails near the North Rim Lodge, scrambled out onto a deserted place on the rocks, and sat for twenty solid minutes--just staring out at the enormity of the canyon before us. Overwhelmed with a sense of my finitude and insignificance, I encountered the human condition in a way I had never felt. My limitedness, my brokenness, my fragility, my inconsequentiality were all immediately present as I looked out over the millions of years of process that lay before me. I couldn't speak. I didn't want to speak. Afterward, Craig expressed a mourning that he felt--a sadness that he had to leave but shouldn't leave and knew he would likely never be back in that place again. It was powerful. We didn't say a word,

Yesterday, I arrived in Salt Lake City (SLC) for the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and I have been surrounded by noise and words and faces ever since. I love the noises. I love spending time with people. My face lit up when I saw an old friend. I laughed with seminary buddies. I bowed my head with a nod of respect when I saw an old mentor. If nothing else, General Convention is an ongoing, 18-hours-a-day, thousands-of-people, always-something-to-talk-about, always-someone-to-talk-to festival. It's full of words. Our legislative committee has over 50 resolutions to consider. I'm reading more right now than I ever do. It is an extrovert's dream. I love everything about it, but part of me pines for the red hills and scrub grass of the Utah desert and, more substantially, for the silence that come with them. 

I am a talker by nature, but I love silence. I'm here to contribute to the mission of the church and the building up of God's kingdom in the words that I hear and speak but also in the silence I keep. I'm looking forward to early, quiet mornings. I'm looking forward to lonely, quiet nights. Yes, I miss my wife and family very dearly. I would love to share part of this experience with them. But, if they were here, I would also need to search for some silence. I need it--especially during these 11 days of innumerable words.

Be still and know that I am God, the Psalmist wrote. At the commissioning of legislative officers and aides, the Presiding Bishop reminded us that we are the body of Christ. We don't "do" the body of Christ. It's who we are. She expressed that the way we do our work is more important than the product of our labors. Although the work is important, of course, she's right. It doesn't matter how much or how little gets done if we're working for our own sakes. And how will we know whether we're doing the Lord's work or merely pursuing our own path? If we're quiet long enough to listen. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Saying Nothing


Sometimes Jesus says the most amazing things. And sometimes he amazes me by saying nothing at all. John 7:53-8:11 is one passage that contains both.

One day, while teaching in the temple, Jesus was approached by a group of scribes and Pharisees, who, John tells us, wanted to test Jesus. As the Contemporary English Version puts it, they brought with them “a woman who had been caught in bed with a man who wasn’t her husband,” an adulteress caught red-handed. Citing Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22, they said to Jesus, The Law of Moses commanded us to stone such women. What do you say we should do?” And the trap was set.

On the one hand, the law was clear. Someone caught in the act of adultery should be executed. There are not any loopholes through which an adulterer might escape. The “right” thing to do was plainly evident. On the other hand, however, stoning someone to death for a sexual transgression seems wildly disproportionate—even in the first century. Jesus, therefore, was being asked to choose sides in a moral dilemma with treacherous options: either break the Law of Moses or break the law of reason. Either way, his opponents would catch Jesus with his words. Either he would demonstrate remarkable cruelty, or he would publicly advocate ignoring the religious law. No matter what, Jesus would give a wrong answer.

So what did Jesus say in reply to their question? At first, nothing. Instead of answering them at all, he “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” But everyone was watching him! They waited for his reply. He was supposed to say something. He was supposed to pick sides. But he didn’t do it. Refusing to buy in to the urgency of this contrived situation, Jesus stooped down onto the ground and started to play with the dirt. Was he thinking of an answer, or was he disarming his opponents with a delay? The passage tells us that they kept asking for an answer, demanding a response, but Jesus took his time.

Finally, when he was ready, Jesus stood up and said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And then, as soon as he had finished speaking, he bent back over and began to write in the dirt again. As Jesus stayed there on the ground, the men were forced to confront his words. Rather than answer their question, Jesus had returned the moral dilemma back onto them. In the minutes of silence that followed, the religious leaders had time to examine their consciences. Were they guiltless? What about the man who was found in bed with them woman? Where was he? Why was the sentence of death not being imposed upon him as well? In their silent wonderings, they encountered the fallacy of their own predicament—that moments like this have a clear right answer.

We remember what happened next. All of the men, beginning with the oldest among them, went away one by one until only Jesus and the woman were left. Jesus stood up and said to the adulteress, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No, sir No one.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Sometimes we are presented with moral conundrums. Friends or coworkers or parishioners or patients ask us to help them solve an urgent problem. Usually, they are not trying to test us—at least not on purpose—but they come to us with an unfixable problem that needs fixing right away. I can’t stay married to him, but divorce would shatter our children. I’m pregnant but cannot have another child. I hate my job but don’t know what else to do. In that moment, we are supposed to give them an answer—the right answer. We are supposed to solve their dilemma. And what do we do? Do we embrace the urgency of their situation and charge in to the rescue? Do we jump into their sinking boat and try to paddle with them? Or do we listen and nod and acknowledge their circumstance without trying to fix it? Do we hand the dilemma right back to them, refusing to solve it but offering to support them regardless?
 
Jesus reminds us that silence is often our best answer. He shows us that even the Son of God did not come to earth in order to solve all of our problems. Our problems are ours, and their problems are theirs. Yes, we support one another in our journey, but usually the only one who can fix our circumstances is we. And, more times than not, the first step we should take in addressing them is to bend over and spend some time playing in the dirt—a quiet and contemplative practice that gives us enough space to confront the reality we face. When the urgencies of life demand our reaction, answers come when we give them enough space to settle on their own.

Monday, June 15, 2015

God's Questions


Starting tomorrow, I'll be out of the office for a while. First, I'm headed on a tour of the national parks and monuments of Utah and northern Arizona. Then, I'm headed to Salt Lake City for General Convention. The focus of this blog will shift from lectionary-based musings to General Convention analysis. But I can't leave without embracing this coming Sunday's Track 2 lesson from Job. It's too good to pass by.

In Job 38, God speaks to the suffering one and declares,
Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements--surely you know!

Boom! Snap! Oh no he didn't!

Of course, when God speaks, humanity listens. But, when God starts mocking our pride and self-importance, the whole earth shakes. Is there any more damning language for the twenty-first century?

Job is a heartbreaking story. You can isolate any number of its passages to portray a tender, loving tale of faith. It speaks of Job's faithfulness in the face of disaster. It tells of remarkable patience despite adversity. It encourages perseverance even when abandoned by everyone else. But is that the real message of Job?

If you read the whole book--and it's been a long time since I have--you reach three conclusions that are unfathomable to contemporary society:
  1. Bad things happen to good people.
  2. God is behind human suffering--whether as active agent or passive permitter.
  3. We don't get to know why.
Sunday's lesson is God's response to Job's interrogation. Job wants an answer. He demands an answer. He has been faithful. He has done everything expected of him. Why, God, have you let all of this happen to me? And what is God's answer?

Who do you think you are? Who the heck do you think you are?

Actually, on the other side of some heartwrenching, agonizing, and suffering, we hear these words as true and lasting hope. Yes, we must endure the pain of "Why, God?" but on the other side we are comforted with the answer, "Just because."

If you think that answer is harsh and insensitive, you should dive more fully into unjust suffering and see what other possible satisfying answers there are. Vengeance? Evil at work? Random chance? Good luck finding hope in any of those. The only hope we have is that God is bigger than anything that threatens us. Do we get to understand why stuff happens? Not in this life, and maybe not even in the next. But we do get to hold on to faith that God is with us in our suffering--not asleep, not absent, not powerless--but present and active. It doesn't make the pain go away--nothing can. But it does mean that we are not alone and that we have real hope.

You Can't Look Up the Kingdom


June 14, 2015 – The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
 
A few months ago, my mother and her two siblings—a brother and a sister—got together for a visit. Although the two daughters live in the same town, the son and his family live several hours away by car, and reunions like this don’t happen very often. When they do, I like to sit in the background and just listen. I don’t know if it’s because they didn’t have more than four channels on the television or if it’s because they were simply more adventurous than most kids or, more likely, if it’s just because they’re my family and, thus, more entertaining to me, but I think their stories are amazing. As children and teenagers, it seems that the three of them collected enough life-lessons for at least five people.

At this last get-together, they spent some time remembering all of the sayings that their father used when they were growing up—things like “don’t burn your bridges” and “a job worth doing is worth doing right.” They weren’t unique to him, of course, but they stand out as touchstones of their childhood. After a few minutes of recalling and sharing and erupting in laughter, my uncle brought up a phrase that I remember well from my own childhood but hadn’t ever used with my own children. In that moment, I realized that, if I didn’t pick it up and start using it in our household, it might be lost forever. Look it up. It’s a simple three-word saying that reminds me of hours spent flipping through the dictionary or the encyclopedia. “How do you spell ‘auspicious?’” Look it up. “What is photosynthesis?” Look it up. “What’s another word for angry?” Look it up.

In the twenty-first century, when most of us carry access to multiple dictionaries, encyclopedias, thesauri, and more in our pockets everywhere we go, the art of looking something up is dying. As an experiment, I began asking my daughter to “look it up” in the dictionary when she needed to know how to spell a word. But handing a seven-year-old Webster’s finest after giving her the first three letters of a word and waiting for her to find the right entry is exhausting. That takes forever! I don’t have time for that. It’s far easier and faster for me to pull out my cell phone and show her the answer. Plus, when will she ever need a dictionary? When will anyone in her generation not have an answer right at her fingertips? Many times every single day I use my phone to learn something new—the history of sausage, how to fix a leaky faucet, the difference between black and white rhinos, and how nuclear power works.

We are in a whole new age of knowledge. A vast deposit of information greater than any of us can fathom is available to anyone with a computer, tablet, or smart phone. Everything from the secrets of modern science to the wisdom of the ancient world is only a click away. Sure, you can drive a car without knowing how an internal combustion engine works. Yes, you can play golf without appreciating how your swingplane combines with the angle on the face of the club to produce a shot of a desired trajectory. And, of course, you can love your spouse or your children or your friends without knowing what neurochemical processes are behind the emotions you feel. But why would you want to?

Well, maybe because Jesus told you to.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a glimpse into God’s kingdom that flies in the face of the twenty-first century. Instead of explaining how the kingdom works, he does the exact opposite. He tells a story about the kingdom that seems to depend on us not knowing: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” Doesn’t Jesus know about putting a bean in a plastic cup and watching it sprout? Doesn’t he know that this parable is merely first-grade science? What does he mean that the farmer doesn’t know how the seed sprouts and grows? Anyone knows that. And, if he doesn’t, he can just look it up!

While it’s true that several of Jesus’ parables contain bad agricultural advice (e.g., letting wheat and weeds grow together), the point of this parable isn’t to show how not to be a farmer. Sure, you should probably stand more than an arm’s length away from a farmer when you ask him if there’s anything more to it than scattering some seed and sleeping night and day until harvest time, but don’t mistake the simplicity of this parable for unsophistication. Jesus isn’t swapping a steak dinner for Vienna Sausages. There is something to be said for approaching the kingdom of God without searching for an answer. There is real value in not knowing how it all works and, more importantly, in not needing to know. Sometimes in life, it’s best just to put down your cell phone (or text book), and let the power of the unknown overwhelm you.

Jesus isn’t trying to give his hearers a realistic picture of farming. Parables are never just a restatement of the obvious. He’s using a startling story about a sower to teach us something about the kingdom. And what stands out in this little portrayal? Despite not doing much—just sowing and sleeping—and not knowing much—indeed befuddled by the growth of his own crops—the farmer is ready in an instant to go in with his sickle and harvest the grain as soon as it is ripe. Undeterred by his unknowingness, the sower heads into the field at once when the time is right. If nothing else, this parable is about unreserved, unrestrained, unqualified action for the sake of the kingdom.

Sometimes you can’t afford to wait until you understand something fully before seizing it with both hands. In our church, we talk a lot about knowing and understanding. We offer several bible studies, and stress that tough questions lead to a deeper faith. But there’s a danger in believing that the kingdom of God is something only to be understood and not to be embraced. Our faith is not about sitting on the sideline and making insightful observations about the nature of God and his will for our lives. Being a Christian is about living in the kingdom. It’s about action. It’s about doing. It’s about picking up the sickle and heading into the field when the grain is ripe even though you don’t really know how the grain got there. If you refuse to enter the kingdom of God until you understand exactly how God is working in your life and in the world around you, the kingdom might just pass you by.

We live in an age of look before you leap—of know before you commit. We inhabit a world in which almost any knowledge we desire is only as far away as our pocket. But the kingdom of God isn’t waiting for us to figure it out. It’s waiting for us to get up and do something about it. Jesus is telling us that the time is now. Don’t wait. Don’t think. Just do.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Son of Encouragement


As we read in Acts 11, Barnabas grew into fruitful ministry. He was a missionary on his own as well as a companion of Saul/Paul. During a time of great persecution, when the Christian evangelists were only preaching to Jews for fear of arrest and imprisonment by the Romans, Barnabas was sent to preach and encourage a group of Hellenists (Greek converts to Judaism). Barnabas was the one who went and found Saul and brought him to Antioch, where they preached for more than a year and also where the term "Christian" was first used.
But I'm more interested in the beginning of his ministry. I've always heard of Barnabas as a "Son of Encouragement," and I've heard people label particularly positive, encouraging people as "a Barnabas." Back in Acts 4, as we read in today's lesson from the Daily Office, we hear that Barnabas wasn't always so named. Originally he was Joseph, but his name was changed to Barnabas because of his personality. He sold his land and brought the money to the apostles, committing all of his property to the shared cause of the church. And, it seems, he also brought his spirit of encouragement with him.

Encouragement is a gift. Some people have it. Others struggle with it. It's related to optimism, but it's the seeing of a half-full glass in someone else. Encouragement is a beautiful gift to share. Individuals who want others to feel the joy of doing something well or right find opportunities to share an encouraging word with them. They help others stay focused to persevere even in the face of setback.

There are encouragers in my parish, in my family, and in my other social networks. And they are good at what they do. And I am thankful for them. One of my prayers is that I would be a Barnabas--that I would care less about my own joy and more about the success of others. Let their joy be my joy. It's more fun to celebrate with someone else. It's more fun to be a Barnabas.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Learning a New Lesson


Have you ever read a bible story and, when finished, said to yourself, “Wait a minute! That’s not right. Surely that’s not the way the story goes!” Today’s parable from Luke 19—the Parable of the Ten Minas—left my head spinning this morning.

The beauty of biblical interpretation and reapplication is taking a familiar story and stretching it in a way that, while still grounded in the original text, tells us something new. Preachers do it all the time. That’s what preaching is. But, when that act of retrieval and reinterpretation is done by one of the biblical authors, something neat happens. We get to see in scripture itself a reinterpretation of scripture. Usually, that happens when Paul or Jesus quote an Old Testament passage and put it into a new context (e.g. Romans 4:7-8 as a reinterpretation of Psalm 32:1-2). Sometimes, though, one gospel writer retells a particular story in a new way in order to emphasize a new theme (e.g. John’s appropriation of Jesus’ anointing, which is by an anonymous woman in the synoptic tradition—by a repentant sinner in Luke but by a devoted disciple in Matthew and Mark—to Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, in his own version).

Today’s story, though, is startling in its reappropriation. Luke takes the same story behind the parable of the talents in Matthew and makes it the parable of the minas, but the currency (one year’s wages vs. three months’ wages) isn’t the only difference. In fact, that’s a minor issue. It’s the rest that shocks us.

Luke tells of a nobleman who went off into a foreign land to receive a kingdom. But he also tells us that this man was hated by the residents of his land who did not want him ruling over them. When the nobleman returns, the part that immediately follows is familiar—the one who made 10 minas is rewarded greatly, and the one who made 5 minas is rewarded in kind, but the one who hid the minas is punished. But then things get even stranger.

When the king takes the mina away from the one who wasted it and gives it to the one who already had 10, there is an objection from the others: “Lord, he already has ten!” That objection is implied in Matthew’s account, but Luke gives it voice. But, if you thought that was an expression of God’s strange righteousness—“to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away”—then the train comes off the rails when the king declares, “But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them-- bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.”

Bloodthirsty. Hated. Vengeful. Greedy. Powerful. Manipulative. Is that how you would describe God?

The problem (and beauty) of this passage is that it frees this familiar parable from a restricted understanding that may arise when we read Matthew’s more tame version. It’s an instinct to read a parable and think of the “master” or “king” as God, but parables aren’t always allegory—in fact, they rarely are. Instead, they are strange stories designed to teach us something. But what in the world can this disturbing parable teach us?

It’s not a story about how God works. And it’s not a prediction of what God’s kingdom will be like. Instead, it’s a response to those who, Luke tells us, “supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” In other words, it’s a corrective. It’s a way of Jesus saying, “So, you think the kingdom is coming right away? You think you know what you’re getting into? Well, then, this story is for you. What do you think about that?”

As the gospel makes clear through the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the kingdom is coming and is now here, but, as becomes painfully obvious in the succeeding generations, the advent of God’s kingdom isn’t the triumphant celebration many of God’s people expected it to be. Instead, it’s a different urgency—a turning upside of the ways of the world that isn’t forceful or domineering but small and obscure. And what should our response to that coming of the kingdom be? As the parable of the minas teaches, total devotion.

We take what we have been given and do what we can with it. The world doesn’t see what we see. The world can’t recognize what we understand about the kingdom. Still, though, we are called to action. The consequences of inaction are dire. The consequences of opposition are dire—not because God is a tyrant who will slaughter in his presence all who oppose him. That’s allegorizing a parable that isn’t an allegory. Don’t try to make everything line up. Just let the parable speak. Take the mina and use it to make it grow. Take what is given and devote it to the kingdom. Don’t worry about making sense of everything else. Don’t worry about what others seem to say. Just take what you’re given and use it…because the kingdom is coming, and it demands our full investment.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Trees within a Forest


Every day, Christians are being killed simply because they are Christians. In places like Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Egypt, and Pakistan, men and women and children are being slaughtered by religious extremists. Their homes and businesses are being destroyed. Their churches are being burned. Those who survive are being forced to flee their homes. Thousands—if not millions—live imprisoned by fear. As members of the Body of Christ, we are supposed to share their pain, but I must confess that their circumstance is so far removed from my comfortable life in the Bible Belt that I cannot internalize even an ounce of their agony. But I want to. I need to.

Last week, at Province IV Synod, which is a gathering of General Convention deputies and bishops from this part of the Episcopal Church, the deputation from Alabama proposed a simple resolution calling upon the church to condemn these heinous acts of violence and to remember these martyrs in a day of prayer. As a group, we sat together for twenty minutes and roughly pieced together the language of this resolution. After that, a smaller group of us spent a few hours polishing it up and preparing to distribute it to the rest of the Synod. On Friday morning, one of our deputies moved its adoption and spoke in its favor, passionately reminding us of the ongoing suffering and urging us to do something about it. And then the legislative process took over.

Someone stood up and moved an amendment that would add language in support of people who are persecuted for other reasons like race, gender, and sexual orientation. Then, people took turns arguing over that proposal—whether it was important to expand the resolution or whether doing so would water down its power. Finally, a vote was taken, and the amendment was defeated. Then, another person stood up and proposed a different amendment—one to clarify the language that specified those whom we were supporting. It was an attempt to strengthen our connection with the Christian community by not merely condemning violence against all people of faith. As before, a debate ensued, and, again, a vote was taken, and this amendment passed. Then, a third person proposed an amendment to change the date for the day of prayer that we had suggested for these martyrs from November 2, which is the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, to Good Friday. The Synod went back and forth on whether the new date was better than the original one, and, when the vote was taken, the original remained intact.

Others still remained unhappy with the original date, however, so a fourth amendment was proposed—one that would remove the particular designation for the day of prayer and leave it undefined, presumably to be chosen by a different group at a different point in the legislative process. Again, we went around and around, completely immersed in a legislative quagmire, until finally someone stood at the microphone and told us that he would be embarrassed if someone from Iraq were here to see the way we were debating this resolution. He was right. What were we thinking? How could we be so callous? Can anyone within the church really debate the merits of a proposal that condemns violence against Christians and proposes a day to remember the victims in prayer?

If you hoped the answer would be no, you would be sadly mistaken because, as soon as he was done speaking, we went right back to it. The debate continued. That prophetic deputy’s words were not far from our minds, though, and we wrapped things up fairly quickly. The resolution, as amended twice, passed with only one “no” vote, and I’m not sure whether that person was paying attention when he said “no.” After thirty minutes of frustrated haggling, we did the right thing.

As long as the church has been in existence, we have used some form of a legislative process to make decisions. For ancient evidence of that, read Acts 15 and the story of the Jerusalem Council, where, after much debate, the first leaders of the church outlined expectations for Gentile converts to Christianity. That we need a political process to determine God’s will reminds me of a deep truth about the church: even when it considers heavenly ideas, the church remains a human institution. Sometimes we make bad decisions. Sometimes we make good decisions. Often, we make decent decisions in a terribly unchristian way. We argue with each other. Our ego taints our judgment. We focus on winners and losers and lose sight of our interconnectedness as Christ’s body. Still, this is how we work.

Individual parishes use vestries to conduct the business of the church. Parishes are grouped together as dioceses, where larger decisions are made. Dioceses comprise synods and also the whole Episcopal Church, which uses a triennial gathering to conducts its business. Is it important work? Most of the time. Do we mistake procedure for purpose? Often. Could we carry out this work in another way? Certainly. Would that way be free of the lugubrious legislative realities we now experience? Not for long.

I look forward to General Convention. I look forward to seeing that the resolution we passed at Province IV Synod will be considered by the whole General Convention. In a strange way, I look forward to the legislative process—even though we often lose sight of the forest for sake of the trees. This is how our church works. This is one mechanism through which God works. Please pray for me and for others taking part. Pray that we are led by God’s Spirit to seek what is true and right and godly. Pray that we don’t get too bogged down in the process. Pray that we remember that all of our efforts are in the service of God and his kingdom.

The work of the 78th General Convention, which will be held in Salt Lake City, begins on June 23 and lasts through July 3.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Botanical Gnomic


A friend of mine in seminary introduced me to the term "botanical gnomic" as a literary and pedagogical device that Jesus used to convey a general truth using agricultural terms. Similar to the gnomic present, which uses present tense to describe something that happened in the past, this technique is popular in the gospel accounts. When I sat down to write my Jesus & Christology final, I found a way to use this esoteric term to comment on a particular biblical passage. Proud of my use of the term, I quickly informed my colleague of what I had done. He blushed, laughed sheepishly, and informed me that he had made it up. It wasn't real at all. He was just pulling my leg. And I had used it as if it were a real, actual, matter-of-fact thing. I was furious.

Well, last Sunday, I donned a green stole for the first Sunday in a long time, but this week will be the real first Sunday of Ordinary Time as we get to our first botanical gnomic text--Mark 4:26-34 and its two parables about the growing kingdom. There will be more to come this summer, for sure, but I smile a satisfied smirk this week as I think about my friend and how I ended up earning a higher grade than he did on that final. (He trounced me on all the rest, but I was vindicated in at least one.)

"The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how." What a wonderful text! The kingdom happens. It just happens. Don't pull out the biology books. Don't go back to ninth-grade science. Just let it be. Let the beautiful mystery of a child's bean plant in a cup be the way you perceive the kingdom.

It just grows. All the farmer really needs to know is 1) scatter the seed, 2) wait, 3) harvest. Of course, that's not good agronomy. We've got several farmers in this parish, and I'll hear a lot from them if I preach a sermon on "farming is simple--you just plant, wait, and harvest." I won't do that, but I'll probably come close. And why? Because kingdom parables are not supposed to explain everything. They're just one narrow way of looking at a big and beautiful thing.

The kingdom of God is a lot more complicated than that. It takes lots of effort. "What about the watering? What about the weeds? What about the fertilizer?" All of those are good questions, and, in an allegory about the kingdom, I bet you could use them to describe prayer and temptation and regular church attendance, but that totally blows up the beauty of this parable. So DON'T DO IT!

He scatters the seed and sleeps and rises, night and day, and you know what? The seeds sprout, and he doesn't know how. He doesn't need to know how. He doesn't want to know how. Just tell him when the harvest is ripe, and he'll go in after it.

Isn't that a nice image of the kingdom? Isn't it nice to think of God as a child might? Let your imagination run with it, but don't worry if you don't know "the answers." Sometimes the wondering is the best part.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Whose Side Are You On?


June 7, 2015 – The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
 
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Sometimes, when we’re watching television or a movie together, my kids want to know who the bad guy is. In their shows, it’s usually pretty clear. Villains have names like the Wicked Witch or Cruella de Vil. They wear scary, evil-looking masks, or they cackle wildly to let their juvenile audiences know whose side they are on. But how do you explain to a kid whether the Hulk is good or bad? What about Wolverine? And, God forbid you watch any of these shows with your children, but what about Hannibal Lector or Frank Underwood or Walter White? The same is true in real life, too. Sometimes people are on our side even when they’re allegiances are suspect. Consider, for example, the politics of the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring. The last five years have basically turned the old phrase on its head and demonstrated that, if you’re not against us, you’re with us. 

Actually, more often than not, it’s convenient to straddle the moral fence. In business, people who always say “yes” to their boss are seen as pushovers who get taken advantage of by their coworkers. The same is true in friendships. I don’t want to be too nice—then everyone will ask me to help him move. And, for most of us, the same is true of our faith. God forbid anyone mistake us for an ├╝ber-Christian. No one likes a Goody Two-Shoes—even in the Bible Belt. We’re not zealots; we’re Episcopalians! If anyone is going to let religion stand in the way of decorum and good manners, it is not we. But today’s gospel leaves no room for the middle road of polite society if polite society interferes with God’s kingdom.

Like many bible stories, this passage from Mark includes some good guys and some bad guys. The good guys are Jesus and his disciples. They’re so busy preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing those who are sick and casing out the demons of those who are possessed that they don’t even have time to eat. And there are also the bad guys—the scribes, the religious authorities who don’t like what Jesus and his disciples are doing. In Mark 2, Jesus heals a paralytic lowered down through a roof by his friends, but first he declares that that man’s sins are forgiven—blasphemy in the ears of the scribes. He calls Levi, the tax collector, to be his disciple and spends time eating dinner with sinners like him—unthinkable in the minds of the Pharisees. Jesus encourages his disciples not to fast even when it is time to fast. He lets them pluck heads of grain on Sabbath even though it is forbidden. Finally, in a dramatic Sabbath showdown with the authorities, Jesus heals the withered hand of a man in a synagogue, and, from that moment on, the Jewish leaders sought to have Jesus arrested and killed.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that they were trying to stir up trouble as Jesus’ popularity soared. “This man has Beelzebul!” they cried out. “It is by the power of Satan that he casts out Satan. He is no holy man! Have you seen how he breaks the Law of Moses and lets his disciples run wild? His power doesn’t come from above. It comes from Satan himself!” You don’t need to be a biblical scholar to know who the good guys and the bad guys are in this story. Even a casual reader of scripture knows that the gospel tells of the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day.

But that’s not really the interesting part of this passage, is it? That isn’t the part that catches our ears. What do we want to know about? What part grabs your attention? It’s Jesus’ family, isn’t it? What about them? What part do they play in the story?

The way Jesus treats them is startling, isn’t it? “Jesus!” the crowd calls to him. “Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside, looking for you. Don’t you want to go and see them?” “What family are you talking about?” Jesus replied. “Here, these people who are here with me now, these are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God—they are my family.”

Blood might be thicker than water, but it still doesn’t count for anything in the kingdom of God. Consider for a moment how much more important family was back then. In that culture, in that context, families stayed together no matter what. Since Joseph is not mentioned after Jesus’ childhood, Jesus’ mother—the one who risked everything to bring God’s Son into the world—would have depended upon her son to support her in her widowhood. And, as a dutiful, faithful man, he owed it to her and to his faith to take care of her. Their relationship was all she had, but, to Jesus, it seems to mean nothing. “Who is my mother?” he asks. “Here is my mother. Here are my brothers. Those people out there? I don’t know who you’re talking about. The only relationships that matter are those that are built for the kingdom of God.”

But, as shocking and unsettling as that is, I think this passage is even sharper than that. Notice what it was that brought Jesus’ family out to look for him. “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” They were worried about him. Jesus was acting crazy. He was so passionate in his preaching—so zealous in his ministry—that he refused to stop even to eat. And some of the people thought he might have lost his mind. “Go out and get him,” they said to his family. “He will listen to you. He’s a good man and a good preacher, but the sun is hot, and he’s tired, and he’s starting to say some crazy things. It would be better if you went out and brought him back inside.” So that’s what they went out to do—to save Jesus from himself. But whose side were they really on? Looking at those who sat around him, Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers—those who do the will of God—not those people out there. If they will not stand in support of God’s kingdom, I will have nothing to do with them.”

Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters meant well, but meaning well isn’t good enough for God’s kingdom. Jesus says some pretty radical things—like “love your enemies” and “give everything you have to the poor” and “turn the other cheek” and “if you want to save your life, you must lose it” and “I came not to save the righteous but to rescue the lost.” Teachings like those made the religious authorities uncomfortable, and, if those things make you uncomfortable, too, that’s a good thing. They’re supposed to. It means you’re getting it. It means you’re hearing the sharp, unsettling message of the gospel. But, if you’re so uncomfortable with Jesus’ radical political, social, and economic description of God’s kingdom that you’d rather him go inside for a while and give you a break, you cannot be a part of him or his family. You’re either with him, or you’re against him. If you’re not all in, don’t bother. If you can’t commit to the kingdom with everything you have, you might as well skip it altogether. Meaning well doesn’t cut it. Only those who do the will of God can be a part of the kingdom family.

In our culture, it’s easy to be a Christian…on the outside. Wear a cross necklace. Show up in church every once in a while. Talk to your friends about the latest devotional you read. Hang religious art in your house. Put the “Keep Christ in Christmas” bumper magnet on your car. And find a convenient time in mixed company to complain about how our nation has lost its Christian identity. But is any of that what Jesus means by doing the will of God, or is that the kind of well-meaning that actually stands in the way of the kingdom? Being a Christian is not like going to Morrison’s Cafeteria. You can’t just take what you want and leave the rest behind. It’s all or nothing.
 
So whose side are you on? Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters?” Those who do the will of God—that’s who. And what does it mean to do the will of God? To let nothing stand in the way of God’s love. To let God’s love be the most important thing in your life—more than your job, more than your friends, more than your family, more than your church, even more than your life itself. Easy enough, right? The good news is that you already have everything you need to do it because God has already loved you in that way. His love for you is full and total and complete, and his love is all you need. All you have to do is get out of the way and let that love take over.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Wrapping Up Provinve IV


My time here at Kanuga for Province IV Synod has been so productive that I feel like I need to write four different blog posts to update myself on what will happen at General Convention. I feel so much more clearly the attitudes behind the different proposals and resolutions. Of course, that's only one corner of the church--the southeastern continental corner--and I cannot yet know what the spirit of General Convention will feel like, but I think a lot has been accomplished as we prepare to head to Utah. Here are my updated thoughts.

Marriage. Wow. I thought I knew how the conversation about the Marriage Taskforce and their work would go, but I was dead wrong. I assumed that the proposals--although substantial and, in many ways, controversial--would sail through without any real threat. After our conversation last night, I do not feel that way anymore. Sure, the odds are in favor of the Episcopal Church redefining the marriage canons, but the issues raised by bishops and deputes make me feel that there's still a whole lot still to talk about. In short, it felt like there were two strong, deeply held positions expressed. First, there are those who believe that, after doing good work on same-sex blessings, our church is ready to expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex partners and feels that this is an issue of justice. Second, there are those who believe that the work done on same-sex blessings is separate and distinct from the work needed on the sacrament of marriage and who feel that, because our church has no real, clear theology of marriage, we should not begin to tinker with our understanding of the sacrament. Throw on top of that a real, genuine constitutional crisis--in our polity our BCP, which is understood to be part of our constitution, trumps the canons, and, following the presumed passage of these canonical changes, the definition of marriage in the BCP and in the canons would be in direct conflict--and you've got a very interesting, very uncertain conversation ahead. Strap in. Of course, for the first time, the rest of the country seems already to have figured this issues out, which means that, whatever our decision is, it may only get a collective shrug from those outside the church.

Budget. I am again overwhelmed at the good, clear, transparent work done by Executive Council on the budget. They have handed off the task of adopting a budget to General Convention and the whole church with clarity and ease. (Does anyone remember that there were TWO different draft budgets by the time we got to General Convention last time???) Despite their focused and, at times, prophetic work, the old battles over lines in the budget showed themselves again here at Province IV. Several people got up to ask about their own important ministry, notably our church's support of historically black colleges and universities. That's only one area, but it was clear to me that we're in for the same sort of sardine-can-style hearing room, in which hundreds of people come to plead with PB&F for a slice of the pie. In effect, all the hope for restructuring and simplification and streamlining seems to stall when it's time to talk about the area each of us holds most dear. "Of course THAT should be included in the budget. It's really important!" Well, I hope that the movement away from stuck line items and towards a granting process, which is increased in this draft budget, will hold sway on General Convention. This budget is, indeed, a move in the right direction. I hope it doesn't get bogged down by the sausage-making machine that is General Convention.

Restructuring. As I tweeted yesterday, the explanation of the nine proposed resolutions given to us by TREC are incredible. Unicameral General Convention? Restructure the CCABs, eliminating all but two? Redefine the roles of the presiding officers? Allow the Presiding Bishop to be chosen by both houses? Reduce the membership in the House of Deputies by 25%? Those are ground-shifting changes. As Bishop Curry remarked yesterday, the church asked TREC to propose some big things, and it did. We wanted TREC to let us see what a reimagined church could look like, and they did. I want to write another, separate post on why restructuring will not "save" the church and why we shouldn't be focused on saving the church anyway, but that will need to wait. For now, my big question is, what happens when these big proposals fail? Will we still be able to hold on to that bold spirit of reform that pervaded the last convention when the specific suggestions--like a unicameral house--go over like a steel-plated balloon?

Look, friends. The last thing the bishops of our church want is to have to sit in the chaos of the House of Deputies. There are over 800 of us. Why would the 200 bishops, who enjoy round-table discussion with colleagues from across the church, want to be a part of the bizarre moderated bloodshed that is perceived to be the senior house? No, it's not really that bad. Yes, I love being in the House of Deputies. But the proposal for a unicameral house isn't going anywhere. So then what? What happens when some (or all) of these proposals hit roadblocks? The movement to reimagine our church is too important to let it die at this General Convention. We need reform. We need big reform. And we can't let our church's overwhelming desire for reimagination fizzle out because of some setbacks. We need to make sure that the outcome of this General Convention is continued work toward a reimagined future--even if we can't see exactly what it is yet.

Lastly, a word about provincial synods. I heard yesterday that Provinces IV and IX are the only ones who have meaningful, fruitful ministry at the provincial level. I can attest that the work being done here is good, valuable, important work. We are fuller and better because of this gathering. I don't know about other corners of the church, but I hope provinces and their role in the governance of the church continues--perhaps with some reimagination of their own. Someone reported that it would cost each of our dioceses an extra $500 to keep the work of Province IV going if funding is cut from the churchwide budget. I support that--enough to volunteer to pay the $500 from Alabama to make it happen. I hope others in Province IV--and throughout the Episcopal Church--will also look for a way to have meaningful shared ministry at the provincial level.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Back to the Garden


Stories that were written to convey truths that need no particular historicity—like the story of the Fall in Genesis 3—are fascinating. Their collective, communal authors seize onto deep, universal characteristics of the human condition, and they tease them out until they stand all by themselves as if independent characters in the story. The choices they make might at first seem isolated or curious, but, as sure as the centuries that have shaped the tale, the reader digs deeper and finds a solid point of connection, undeniable trough time. The emotional longings that human beings experience countless times as one generation succeeds another are portrayed a story that everyone can claim as her own.

Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were naked. Even though clothing is a fundamentally human invention, we still yearn for days when we can run around in the back yard stark naked. As adults, nakedness represents the potential for transgression, but, as children, it is the clothing of the innocent. Nudist colonies and clothing-optional cruises play on this deep-seeded desire to go “back to the garden,” as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young put it.
 

 
Before the Fall, Adam and Eve walked with the Lord in the cool of the evening breeze. Fear separates us from God, and fear is the primal consequence of sin—of human nature. Sin is that which distorts our lives from their true reality. That God would walk with his people should surely be a reason never to fear, yet God’s presence itself became something from which to hide. A physical separation follows the emotional distance. We cannot draw near to God when we are afraid, and our sin is manifest as fear. Or perhaps our fear is manifest as sin. They are inseparable.

Before the fall, Adam and Eve did not have any reason to feel shame. As the serpent beguiled Eve, how can it be a bad idea to seek wisdom? Wouldn’t one want to know the difference between good and evil? Should we pursue that? The distorted pursuit of virtue is the root of sin. We love, but our love’s object becomes our own selves. We eat and drink, but we do so until our bodies become distended. We prepare for the future, but we confuse our priorities and our hoarding becomes the root of scarcity. Once experienced, the knowledge of good and evil cannot be undone.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Cycle Begins


I leave this morning for Province IV Synod at Kanuga, which means that it's time for this blog to begin to feature posts related to General Convention. Of course, these aren't the first. I've posted on things like the election of the Presiding Bishop and the proposed reforms in the TREC report. This, however, begins that cycle of General Convention posts in earnest. I'll still post on the lessons for Sunday, on the Daily Office, and on other church issues, but, between now and July 4, this blog will even more filled with church geekery than usual.

A few months ago, a clergyman from our diocese asked me what the "big issues" at this year's General Convention would be. By that, he didn't mean controversial issues, he meant the sort of issues that would have an impact in his parish. After some thought, I identified four issues. For now, they still seem like the big issues, but my time at Province IV Synod will give me a better idea.

First, the election of the PB. Although, as I've written, the bulk of that decision belongs only to the House of Bishops, this is a decision that will have substantial implications throughout the Episcopal Church--from the Church Center in New York to the smallest parish in rural Alabama. We pray for this person by name every Sunday. Although not an archbishop, the PB often speaks for the whole church. Whomever the bishops elect and deputies confirm will make a big difference in our church.

Second, the marriage canons. The Taskforce on Marriage released its report, including some substantial changes to the way we define marriage. Among other streamlining moves, the big change is to remove the language about one man and one woman from the canons. For many in the Episcopal Church, this feels like an inevitable change. Many states allow same-sex marriage, and, despite contradicting the canons, many bishops already allow it in their dioceses. So what's the big deal? It's a huge deal, especially in places like Alabama, where same-sex blessings are permitted but same-sex marriage is not--a canonical distinction our bishop maintains.

Third, the spirit of reform. At the last meeting of the General Convention, we were caught up a moment for change. We unanimously passed the resolution to appoint a task force to work on restructuring the church. This time, we have the TREC proposals to consider as well as other proposals from groups like the Acts 8 movement and from individual deputies. What will this mean for the local church? Immediately, probably not much, but, as those reforms take hold and reshape our church at the highest levels, those changes filter down and make a difference. I believe these will be the real focus of this General Convention, but I think the impact on local parishes will be delayed.

Fourth, the budget. This year's approach to the budget has a very different feel. **After a very helpful and much appreciated phone call from Gay Jennings, I've learned I need to change the way I describe the updated budgeting process in this blog. The process itself isn't completely different. No, we weren't starting from scratch at General Convention. But this year, unlike before, there has been a clear and transparent process beginning all the way back with Executive Council's work. They asked for input all along the way, so it feels like the whole church has been involved in the budgeting process instead of springing the draft budget upon the whole church relatively close to Convention. So, as we approach Salt Lake City, I sense that we've all had a chance to shape the budget from the front end instead of only getting a voice in those chaotic PB&F hearings. (Thanks, Susan Snook, Gay Jennings, and the other ExCon members who worked so hard on this.) Plus, the content has changed, too. In this draft budget, there's a shift away from institutional priorities and toward local priorities. That's seen in a large budget for starting new ministries and in a scheduled reduction of the diocesan apportionments. In short, the amount each diocese will be asked to contribute will be reduced over the next triennium, which means each diocese will, in theory, have more money to do local ministry.

There will be more, of course. There will be surprises. General Convention takes on a life of its own, and it will take me a while to figure out what's going on. I'm thankful to be going back for a second time as a deputy, and I look forward to sharing some of my experience here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

But Now What?


This Sunday begins the summer kerfuffle known as "Track 1 or Track 2?" We are a Track 2 parish. That might change someday, but not yet. I like gospel-related OT texts. Even if the preacher is not going to talk about the OT lesson, I like it when it hangs together with the other lessons. Plus, how many parishioners are here every single week during the summer to truly appreciate the continuous track through the OT that is Track 1? At the last General Convention, I voted against allowing parishes to go back to the old BCP lectionary--not because I don't like the old lectionary (why do you think we use Track 2?) but because I think all of us in the Episcopal Church should be focusing on the same lessons every week. Now that we're in the season of bifurcated OT lessons, half of the blog posts out there are on texts or hymns that we won't be using. (And God knows I need all the help I can get!)

If you're in a Track 2 parish, here's what you'll hear on Sunday:
The man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself."
Of course, it's the story of the reckoning after the Fall in the Garden of Eden. It's a great passage about passing the buck as Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. We all know how the story ends--with Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden--but we won't hear that this Sunday. Instead, the story just sort of stops after God curses the serpent.

Using the rubrics in the BCP. I could ask that the lesson be lengthened to include God's curse on Eve and all women and upon Adam and all men, but I kind of like leaving it unfinished. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. God punishes the serpent. And then what?

Not long ago, my middle child did something wholly inappropriate and potentially dangerous in a grocery store. I called him over to me, and I made him stand right next to me. He knew he was in trouble, but I didn't yell or correct him in that moment. Instead, we walked briskly out to the car, and be buckled into his seat. But, as soon as the car doors were shut, I let him know exactly what I thought about it. He melted on the spot. It was as if he knew he should be in trouble but then seemed to escape the trouble only to find that it caught up with him again. That's how I feel this Sunday.

There's something human about passing the buck and thinking we've escaped, but, even though it's not in Sunday's lesson, we all know that it catches up with us in the end. Yes, my wife is 33 weeks pregnant, and, no, I'm not going to remind her that all this pain and discomfort is Eve's fault. But we know those consequences catch up with us. I'm not planning on preaching from silence--building a sermon around what isn't being read--but I think leaving the lesson unfinished--maybe with a long pause before the Psalm--says something important about the human condition.