Thursday, May 28, 2015

Reborn into Trinitarian Understanding

As I prepare to preach on Sunday, I find myself drawn in two distinct but complimentary directions. First, I feel a desire to preach a usual, regular, typical sermon, which, for me, means allowing all of the lessons to inform my preaching but focusing on one of the texts in the sermon itself. Although a second lesson occasionally gets a mention in my sermon, I rarely—if ever—attempt to preach on two of the texts. That usually leads to two sermons instead of one, and, as any parishioner can tell you, two half-baked sermons do not add up to one.

The second direction in which I feel pulled is to embrace the spirit of the Sunday. It’s Trinity Sunday, and, like other big liturgical moments such as Christmas or Easter or Pentecost or All Saints’, sometimes the focus of the day isn’t restricted to the lectionary choices but instead resides in the occasion itself. For example, one can easily preach a focused, Spirit-led Christmas Eve sermon without spending much (if any) time delivering exegesis of Luke 2. I sense that this week is bigger than Isaiah 6, Romans 8, or John 3—even though all of those are HUGE scriptural passages. And maybe that should be my clue: instead of one dominant lesson with two supporting players, this Sunday brings three center-stage-grabbing texts.

So how do you preach on Trinity Sunday? How do you navigate these three texts—each of which deserves a full sermon—without preaching three sermons that don’t really stitch together? I’m sticking with John 3—the story of Nicodemus’ nighttime encounter with Jesus—because that story seems to be an archetype for understanding the doctrine of the Trinity.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night because he is fascinated by Jesus’ signs of wonder—his ability to do things that no one could do unless God had sent him. But that’s where Nicodemus’ understand reaches its limit. Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ inquiry by inviting him to embrace a new birth—a spiritual reordering of his life—but the Jewish leader is stuck in the literal and wants to know how it is possible for an individual to be born a second time. In the back and forth that ensues, we see that Nicodemus is eager to understand but just can’t quite get past the limitations of the physical, material world he inhabits. Jesus is asking him to reach beyond what makes sense to him—“You must be born from above”—but Nicodemus can’t get there—“How can these things be?”

For Nicodemus, the answer comes not through study or reason but experience. Just as Jesus asks him to experience rebirth, Nicodemus’ ability to embrace Jesus’ teaching requires him to walk the road. In John 7, Nicodemus is seen defending Jesus in front of the Pharisees, and, by the end of the gospel account, Nicodemus is the one who cares for the body of Jesus when it is taken down from the cross. What got him there? It wasn’t spending time sitting in his room reading the scriptures and meditating on Jesus’ words. It was the transformation that happens through discipleship—the change in life and perspective that comes from having a relationship with Jesus.

We are asked to believe in one God who exists eternally in three persons. On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate something we cannot understand in our minds but can experience through our worship. In the end, I’m not going to say a lot about the Trinity—not because I’m trying to avoid it. If there’s any preacher out there who would enjoy a 45-minute lecture on Trinitarian doctrine, it’s me. But I know that won’t be helpful for our congregation. (You’re welcome.) Instead, I’m going to talk about a man who tried his best to understand what it means to be a part of God’s kingdom but couldn’t get there on his own. He needed rebirth—a total reboot—to get it. That’s the message for us on Trinity Sunday. We are drawn into the divine life not through intellectual pursuits or rationalizations but only when we are remade by God himself.

Just take a look at Sunday’s collect. You may want to read it twice to let it sink in.

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Making Sense of God on Our Knees

Just when we think we have it figured out, God surprises us in a big way.

When I read Luke 15, I’m sympathetic to the Pharisees and scribes who were unhappy that Jesus was keeping company with the tax collectors and sinners. It’s not right for a religious leader to hang out with notorious good-for-nothings! And, when I read Jesus’ reply to them—the parable of the Prodigal Son—I’m sympathetic to the older brother, whose disapproval of his father’s lavish forgiveness is illogical and unfair. What kind of out-of-his-mind father rewards that sort of ungrateful behavior?

But I suspect that my sympathies reveal something more than just my oldest-of-three-brothers identity or my ESTJ personality. I think there’s something basically human about expecting that someone should get what she deserves, and I see it all over the place.

Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Benjamin Franklin: if you lie down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas.

Karma: what goes around comes around.

That’s how we expect the world to work. That’s how we teach our children the world works. That’s how we run our businesses. That’s how we run our healthcare system. That’s how our judicial system works. That’s how everything works…except for God.

But how do we break free of the entrenched expectation that God works like that, too? How do we convince ourselves that God will welcome us back—that God will forgive us—that God can love us even though we are so totally unlovable? When something is so contrary to our expectations, the only way to learn it is by experience. And the good news is that God’s love doesn’t have to be understood in order to be enjoyed.

Consider the prodigal son, who came to his senses and decided to return to his father, beg forgiveness, submit to judgment, and work as a hired hand. The son came back expecting to reap what he had sown. He couldn’t anticipate what his father’s reaction would be because his father’s reaction didn’t make sense. But when he felt his father’s arms wrap around him, he knew what it meant to be loved and forgiven and restored by one whose love shattered all the expectations of life.

God is like that. God is always loving. God is always forgiving. But the world teaches us to expect the opposite. The reconciliation of those two contradictory principles is found on our knees—through repentance. Just as Rembrandt depicted the return of the prodigal son, one must throw himself down at the feet of the father and allow himself to be surprised by God’s grace. If it makes sense—if you think it’s fair—you’ve missed the point. God’s grace must always surprise us. It must shock us with its illogicality. It must disturb our sense of right and wrong. It must shake us loose from our grip on what we know is right. We can only encounter the inexplicable, unjustified love of God when there are no other options—when the only thing that can save us is a complete surprise.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Heresy Sunday

I see what they did there. This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, and each of the three lessons seems to accent a different person of the Trinity. Isaiah 6:1-8 is all about the prophet’s encounter with the God of Israel. Romans 8:12-17 is Paul’s urging to live by the Spirit. John 3:1-17 is Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, which underscores the importance of the Son as the means for salvation. Of course, that’s a heresy, but, too, so will most of the Trinity Sunday sermons that are preached this week.

There heresy isn’t choosing lessons that seem to focus on one person of the Trinity. The heresy is in me reading them as if the work of the persons is separate and distinct. We can talk about Father, Son, and Spirit, but we cannot assign different works to different persons. It’s a fundamental precept of our faith that all three are united in their work in the created order. You can’t divide it up. If you do, you end up with three gods instead of one. It works a little like this.

People enjoy saying that the Father created the world, the Son redeemed it, and the Spirit sanctifies it. In fact, preachers who want to sound egalitarian and hip replace the Trinitarian formula “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” with “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.” But that is like invoking the name of three separate gods. And, in case you forgot, we don’t have three separate gods.

We worship the one. As the collect prays this Sunday, somehow (with God’s help) we manage to believe in one God with three persons. God the Father creates. God the Son creates. God the Spirit creates. All three redeem. All three sanctify. The fancy Latin phrase for this doctrine is opera Trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt, which means “The operation of the Trinity on the outside is indivisible.” If you want to be a Christian, you must believe in one God who eternally exists in three persons. And that means we need to take another look at the lessons.

Instead of thinking about each lesson as a distinct featurette on a different person of the Trinity, consider how God in three persons is at work in all three. That’s tough, of course, and I’ll start by saying I’m not really sure how to squeeze the Son and Spirit into the lesson from Isaiah. Other than my professors, no one has ever accused my theology of being creative (and they didn’t mean it as a compliment). Maybe one could say that “the hem of his robe” and the voice with which God speaks represent a Trinitarian identity. Again, I’m not sure. But the NT texts are easier, right?

Paul urges his readers in Rome to live by the Spirit. It is the Spirit that enables us to cry, “Abba! Father!” as a way of identifying God in the same way that his Son did. The Spirit is our guarantee that we are joint heirs with Christ as children of God—all three persons working together with the same purpose. Likewise, in Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus, the invitation is to be reborn by water and Spirit. We enter God’s kingdom and enjoy the presence of the Father through our rebirth into the Spirit so that we may be lifted up just as the Son of Man is lifted up. Again, all three persons at work as an expression of the unified divine will.

So, dear preachers out there, don’t be heretics. And don’t preach three different sermons—one is enough. Pick a text and preach on it. Let the worship we do this day be our Trinitarian sermon. Sing St. Patrick’s Breastplate. Pray the collect. Use the tongue-twisting preface. Invoke the name of God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But don’t try to analogize the mystery of the Holy Trinity. It always results in heresy. And don’t try to preach the fullness of Trinitarian doctrine in a sermon. There’s a reason it took the Church over 400 years to find ways of speaking coherently about the Trinity, and you can’t fit that into a sermon. We are Trinitarian in our worship and in our belief—both of which are built upon the acceptance of mystery. Don’t over say it. Let God say it instead.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Three-Day Weekend?

Everyone loves a holiday weekend--even me, despite the lower attendance at church. I prefer a huge liturgical celebration like Easter or All Saints', but I do love being able to spend Monday with my family. It's restorative. It's fun. It's...normal. Still, though, something is missing.

Take a moment and consider all the three-day weekends that "normal" people get to experience: Memorial Day, Labor Day, MLK, Jr., Day. Also, remember that when a fixed holidays falls on a Saturday or Sunday it is transferred to a Friday or Monday, making for a three-day weekend. For some, thanksgiving is a bonus four-day weekend if Friday is also granted off or taken as a vacation day. There's something magical about three days in a row away from the office. You know that feeling of waking up on Saturday and realizing you have yet another day to recover and relax? Sometimes three-day weekends seem to stretch on forever.

When school is out for a Friday or a Monday (or sometimes even both!), parents can head out of town and make the four or five hour drive to a destination not worth reaching with only a two-night break from the grind. New possibilities arise not only on the road but also at home. Lingering projects are tackled and accomplished with time to spare. There is no substitute for the perspective that is gained when one has three uninterrupted days away.

But what about people who work on Sunday--not just some Sundays but every Sunday? What happens to their three-day weekends? What happens to their families? When do they get to go out of town?

As someone who works in the church and has Sunday-morning responsibilities, I don't get three-day weekends very often. In fact, unless I'm on vacation (a different thing entirely), I only get one a year--Thanksgiving (or the rare time when a fixed holiday falls on a Thursday--like New Years' 2015). That isn't just true for clergy like me. It's true for youth directors and children's ministers. It's true for nursery workers and sextons and organists and choir directors. And, yes, I know that there are lots of other jobs that require weekend work. I'm grateful to doctors and nurses and police personnel and air traffic controllers and all the other jobs that are needed seven days a week, but most if not all of them--help me know the exceptions--get to spread their weekend work around. People who work for the church, however, work every...single...Sunday.

Don't get me wrong: I love my job. I wouldn't trade it for anything. My family appreciates it, too. There are unique benefits to being a clergy family, and we try to take advantage of all of them. We have the love and support of a congregation and a diocese. We have colleagues and friends all over the country. I probably could have pursued any number of satisfying, lucrative, fulfilling careers that are full of three-day weekends, but I didn't, and I wouldn't want to. I get plenty of time off. Our congregation encourages me to spend more time at home with my family. I love my job--even when I have to explain to my family that we need to head back into town on Saturday night because I have to work the next day.

Think of ways you can support your church-worker and her or his family. If you're a teacher, you can help their kids cover their assignments when they take an "unexcused" absence on a Thursday so their family can go out of town. If you're a member of a vestry, you can encourage your clergyperson to take a Thursday off once a quarter. Support your clergyperson's sabbatical by budgeting for supply coverage and accumulating enough funds to grant three months of study-leave every seven years. And always keep in mind that for some of us Sundays are work days.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Back to the Gospel

In recent weeks, the lessons from Acts have been so good that I have stopped paying careful enough attention to the gospel lesson. For the last two weeks, I preached on circumcision in Acts 10 and casting lots in Acts 1. I'm not preaching this week, but, again, as I've read the lessons for this Sunday, I find myself drawn so clearly to the "text of the day"--the story of Pentecost in Acts 2--that I almost skip over the gospel completely. That's a mistake, and, even if you're preparing to preach on Acts 2, I encourage you to take a moment to reread the passage from John and let it sink into your soul. It might not be an exciting text from which to preach, but it's powerful words from Jesus worth remembering.

I think I could preach a whole sermon on "Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you."

In my teaching and preaching, when I refer to the building excitement that surrounded Jesus' earthly ministry, I often label it as "the Jesus Movement." That term, of course, is not from me. I'm borrowing it from lots of people who used it before I showed up. I like that term. It reminds me that the work Jesus was doing, while deeply rooted in the Judaism of his day, was distinct. But on Pentecost, when I read Jesus' assessment of his departure--"it is to your advantage that I go away"--I realize that our faith isn't simply a Jesus movement.

Lots of movements are person-centered. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Think of George Washington and John Adams and the other revolutionaries whose names we were taught in school. Think of Desmond Tutu and Pope Francis and Billy Graham. The comparison isn't perfect, of course. All of those figures were or are a part of something bigger and would eschew identification as the center of a movement, but each one had his own set of devotees. And those of them who have died or retired or disappeared from the public scene have seen their followers move on to other leaders. But that isn't how the movement Jesus initiated ended up. His followers didn't continue the spirit of his work by attaching themselves to another leader. They continued the exact same movement with the exact same devotion by following (and worshipping) the exact same God whose Spirit came down at Pentecost.

Although Jesus has ascended into heaven, our faith isn't adequately described as remaining in the post-Jesus era. The gift of the Holy Spirit isn't an afterthought--a way of carrying on the movement under new leadership. The Advocate is God himself as Spirit that lives and burns and leads God's followers. That's why Jesus can encourage his disciples to look forward to Pentecost without holding sorrow in their hearts. This isn't second-best. This isn't a babysitter or a pedagogue. It's the real deal, same deal. Our church is woefully shallow in its eschatology--in part because we're still acting like those first disciples. We think Jesus' departure is the end of an era. If the Christian faith were merely a Jesus Movement, that might be the case. But it's not. Our faith is more than a Jesus Movement. It's a God Movement, and Jesus and the Spirit are both at the center of it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Tongues, Tongues, and Other Gifts

Yesterday, in his post “Tongues of Fire,” Steve Pankey introduced me to a new word: “xenoglossy,” which means the act of speaking or writing in a language unknown to the speaker/writer. For example, if this blog suddenly switched into Croatian (without the help of Google Translator), it would be evidence of xenoglossy. Because I don’t know the first thing about Croatian, my sudden ability to communicate in it would be a gift from beyond—presumably a work of the Spirit.

In that post, Steve takes time to distinguish between the speaking in tongues we encounter this Sunday in the Pentecost moment of Acts 2 and the more common though still pretty strange version of speaking in tongues that some Christians practice as an ongoing spiritual exercise. That version of speaking in tongues, known as “glossolalia,” is the Spirit-given ability to speak “in the tongues of angels,” which is to say in a “language” that no one other than God and the angels and, in some very rare circumstances, someone else in the room who has the Spirit-given gift of interpretation can understand. In other words, it’s a holy babbling that to most of us sounds nonsensical. Pentecost, Steve reminds us, is about the former—the good news of Jesus Christ being spoken in languages that transcend any national or ethnic barrier. That’s right, of course, but I want to push the envelope just a little bit further and say that it’s also about the latter, too.

Steve acknowledges that he “grew up going to a fairly charismatic Episcopal Church,” and I, too, should mention that I went to an Anglican (in the true Church-of-England sense of that word not in the schismatic sense) seminary that, by Episcopal Church standards, was remarkably charismatic. Individuals regularly prayed or sang in tongues at the weekly seminary Communion service. In fact, at one infamous service, the presider even encouraged individuals in the congregation to pray or sing in tongues during the Sanctus. That moment, whilst beautiful and Spiritually strange, caused some controversy among those in the community who took the Articles of Religion and its prohibition on such speaking in tongues in public worship seriously.

But I was drawn deeply to the Spirit-filled prayer life of our college. I had a prayer partner who prayed every morning before dawn in a language I could not understand, and I earnestly desired that gift. I wanted to pray with him…like him. I begged that God would give me the gift of speaking in tongues. And I prayed for the gift of interpretation. I practiced moving my tongue and lips in ways that made sounds that made no sense to me, but there was no breath of the Spirit in my babbling. Instead, all I got was a dream in which I did actually speak in tongues, but it was more like the traditional Muslim prayers on a small rug with my head touching the ground. In other words, I was disappointed.

The process of seeking a gift and not receiving it, however, left an imprint on my spiritual identity. In that time, I learned to appreciate that spiritual gifts are just that—gifts—things that come from somewhere and someone else. They do not come from within. I do not have them on my own. They are granted (or not) by the Spirit. Pentecost is recognition that God’s powerful work in the world is not a human invention. It is a gift from above.

In the ancient tradition of our church, we recognize that the apostles received the Holy Spirit, which came down from heaven like “divided tongues, as of fire.” Bishops are the successors of the apostles, and they wear their funny pointy little hats called “mitres” to remind us of those tongues of fire. And originally (and still in the Orthodox tradition) bishops were the only ones in the church who baptized others. They had been given a share of the Spirit at their ordination as bishops—their link with the apostles—and they were the ones who doled out shares of that Spirit through baptism. In the Western Church, we’ve changed that pattern and let anyone baptize but only allow presbyters (aka “elders” or “priests”) to chrismate the baptized with an oil that must be consecrated by the bishop. That’s a loose connection to the former process, but the tie is still important. Baptism is the means by which we receive a share of that same Spirit that came down at Pentecost.

I want to encourage the church to seek the gifts of the Spirit, which were given at Pentecost and are still given through baptism. Maybe that means xenoglossy or glossolalia, but it probably means something else. What spiritual gifts are we given? I don’t mean talents or skills—what we’re good at. What external power has been bestowed upon us? What is our spiritual giftedness? May it be just as powerful and dramatic as the original Pentecost that we celebrate this Sunday.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Good Advice, Bad Advice

Yesterday, in a bible study on Jesus' interactions with women, I remarked that Jesus doesn't always give good advice. We were studying his visit to the home of Mary and Martha in Luke 10, in which he says to the distracted hostess, "Only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better portion." We allowed ourselves to imagine what would happen if all the hosts and hostesses in the world neglected their entertaining duties in order to sit and dote on their guests. That's not very good advice for a hostess--maybe for a disciple (and that's the point of the story) but not for someone whose job it is to welcome guests into her home.

I likened Jesus' instruction to his words about letting weeds grow up with the wheat. That's bad advice if you're a farmer. If you're in the kingdom business, that makes sense, but, if you're a farmer, you'd rather get rid of the weeds as soon as possible. Jesus, it seems, was full of bad practical advice. Neither farmers nor hostesses go to Jesus for advice, and, if you're looking for a sentimental saying for Mothers' Day, he's not much help either.

But today's lesson in the Daily Office from the beginning of Luke 10 shows that Jesus does give remarkable, positive, practical advice to missionaries:
Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.'
I read that and thought, "What perfect advice!" That's how you spread good news. You travel light. You move from town to town but not from house to house. You accept whatever is before you. You offer your peace to everyone but let them worry about whether that peace is granted or just passes them by. You do the healing work of the gospel and proclaim the news of the kingdom's arrival whether they're happy to hear it or not. It's simple, straightforward, kingdom-focused work.

But, again, if you're not in the kingdom business, that's terrible advice. Who goes out unprepared--not even with a change of clothes? Who knocks on doors looking for support without already doing some demographic research? Who doesn't settle up front on what fees will be expected for the services performed? None of that makes sense if you're starting a business venture, but it makes perfect sense if you're working for the kingdom.

We are citizens of God's kingdom. Jesus asks us to give up our lives for the sake of that kingdom, and he never hides the fact that the work of the kingdom is strange, challenging work. It doesn't make sense because the priorities of the kingdom are different just as the rewards of the kingdom are different. If we spend our lives doing things that make sense by the standards of the world, we're missing kingdom opportunities. If we're living for the kingdom, we'll find ourselves on the edge of sense, turning heads with our peculiar approach to life.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A New Economic Pentecost

I find that business travel is fun for about three days. After that, I’m ready to be back home. Have you ever felt that special kind of boredom that sets in when you’ve already explored every inch of the hotel room, every channel on the television, every piece of cardio equipment in the hotel gym but still have four more nights? If so, I bet you’ve seen that little slice of Pentecost in the first few pages of the Gideon bible in the drawer beneath the telephone.

I’ve always been fascinated with the dozen or so translations of John 3:16 that are included in the hotel bible, you know, just in case the next business traveler only reads Kemak. For starters, I’ve looked at the images on the page—markings I cannot even begin to distinguish—and wondered how they represent a text I know so well. I’ve also debated in my mind whether John 3:16 is the best verse to have translated in this miniscule representation of Pentecost. Why not Exodus 20:2? Matthew 28:19? 1 John 1:9? Hebrews 12:12? And so on. And I’ve also wondered what it feels like to be in a place where you know very little of the language and open that hotel bible and see at least one sentence in a familiar script and language.

Pentecost, of course, is that moment when the Holy Spirit alights upon the apostles, who are then able to carry the good news of Jesus Christ to all nations, beginning with those gathered in Jerusalem for the festival (a different sort of Pentecost). The text we read in church this Sunday (Acts 2:1-21) is full of drama, but I still think it fails to convey just how chaotic and wonderful and confusing yet clear that day was. In a powerful moment directed by God, barriers of language seem to dissolve away. Nothing can stand in the way of the gospel’ proclamation to all nations.

But are languages still the biggest barrier we face in spreading the good news to all peoples? Does this Pentecost from 2000 years ago still represent to the modern world what it meant to those apostles and the crowd gathered there? It isn’t personal or efficient or always accurate or reliably available, but Google can translate most of what I say it to just about any other language. Is the most substantial obstacle to the kingdom of God spreading throughout the world still linguistic? Surely there’s another way we need the Holy Spirit to break through.

Maybe it’s cultural. Maybe it’s intellectual or philosophical. Maybe it’s economic. Maybe it’s political. But how do we need to translate the news of God’s kingdom so that it can take root in the hearts of all people? Perhaps we should first ask what is the greatest separation between us.

I can’t say for sure, but Acts 2 seems to present a moment in which language as the greatest obvious barrier between peoples is broken down. There are other barriers, of course, like the economic stratification addressed in Acts 4 or the religious separation tackled in Acts 10. But this great opening up of the world at Pentecost is about language. What is the equivalent in contemporary society? From my perspective, the greatest thing separating people from each other in the 21st century is money. But what does an economic Pentecost look like?

Is that what liberation theology is all about? Maybe, but I think there’s more to it than that. Liberation theology is a way of emphasizing salvation not merely through the forgiveness of sins but also in the setting free of the poor and oppressed from their unholy circumstance. But I want a Pentecost to go further than that. What would it mean for rich and poor, developed and developing, well-educated and illiterate, opportunistic and oppressed, to “hear” the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that tears all of those barriers down?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

God Chooses You

May 17, 2015 –The 7th Sunday of Easter, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
We have reached a new developmental stage in the Garner household. We are now fully immersed in the realm of the “What if?” What if you didn’t marry Mommy? What if you hadn’t become a nurse? What if we still lived in Montgomery? At first, the what-if questions are entertaining in their possibility. It’s fun to let a child explore the hypotheticals of life—to recognize that things didn’t have to be this way or, at least, to recognize that there is a reason that things are the way they are. But, after a while, what if questions getting annoying. What if Auburn and the St. Louis Cardinals played each other in baseball—whom would you cheer against? What if a tyrannosaurus rex came crashing down the street and stepped right on our house? What if the only thing we had to eat was ice cream? Although we still allow our children to dream out loud about how else things could be, we’ve stopped answering questions about hypotheticals that have absolutely no bearing on reality.

But the truth is that I’m not sure that things could be any other way. While it’s fun and perhaps valuable to reflect on how we got to where we are, I don’t think there’s any point in agonizing over how things could be different. In fact, I’m starting to think that part of what it means to be a person of faith is to accept that, no matter what, where we are is God’s gift to us. That might seem old-fashioned or even fatalistic, but it’s the kind of faith our church was built upon.

Consider, for example, the problem of Judas. One of the first challenges that the Christian movement faced was what to do about the one who betrayed Jesus. Jesus’ followers were convinced that their master was the Son of God—that his life, death, and resurrection were all an expression of God’s salvific plan for the world—but outsiders weren’t so sure. They couldn’t imagine following a messiah who had picked a traitor to be one of his closest friends. “Shouldn’t God’s holy prophet have been a better judge of character than that?” they might have wondered to themselves. But Peter and the other apostles didn’t see it that way. “Friends,” Peter said, standing up in front of the fellowship of the believers, “the scripture had to be fulfilled.” In other words, this was part of God’s plan. It had to be this way—even if it didn’t completely make sense.

But faith isn’t just throwing up your hands at life and saying that there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s more than that. Faith means believing so fully in God’s unfailing love and God’s unconquerable power that we learn to trust that, no matter what, God will provide for us—even in those moments when we can’t see God at work in our lives.

When it came time to pick a new apostle to take Judas’ place, the fellowship of believers put forward two individuals—men who had been with them for the whole journey from the time of Jesus’ baptism all the way through his death and resurrection and ascension. The two whom they identified as worthy of that holy calling were Joseph Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. And how did they decide which one was right for the job? They cast lots. They drew straws. The rolled the dice. They said a prayer and let God decide.

But how in the world is that supposed to work? Does that mean God reaches all the way down from heaven to be sure that the right man is chosen for the job? Does God make sure that the dice fall in favor of the holier candidate—that Matthias gets the sort straw? Now, if you think God cares what roll comes up on the dice, you shouldn’t be here in church. You should be down in Biloxi. (They have Episcopal Churches there, too.) But, at the same time, if you believe that God has no interest in the outcome of human affairs, you shouldn’t be here either. This isn’t a social club. We’re here because we believe that God has a plan for the world and that we are a part of that plan. That much, I believe, is a given. The part that is up to us—the hard part—is making sense of how that plan is unfolding around us and learning to trust that God is in control even when it seems like he isn’t.

What if Joseph Barsabbas had been chosen instead? Would anyone have noticed? Would he have done a bad job? Would the Holy Spirit have failed to show up at Pentecost because the lot fell on the undeserving candidate? Would the Christian movement have sputtered out before it really even got started? Does it matter than neither of these two men is ever mentioned again in the bible?

What does it mean to trust that God will take care of us no matter what? People get frustrated when they come to me looking for advice and all I do is shrug my shoulders and say, “What do you think you should do?” For some reason, they don’t seem to think that “let’s flip a coin” is good pastoral advice. But I mean that—not because I believe that God will alter the way a coin flips through the air to be sure that it lands on tails—or is it heads?—but because I believe that God will always take care of us—no matter what decisions we make.

As Christians, we must believe that God’s love is bigger than the choices we make. Otherwise, life would be unbearable. Imagine the paralysis that would set in even before we got out of bed in the morning if we believed that God’s love and blessing depended upon us making all the right choices. Choice, my friends, isn’t an illusion, but the consequences of our choices are. Instead of worrying about whether you’re making the right choices for your life, try devoting that emotional and intellectual energy to the possibility that God will take care of you no matter what choices you make. Discover first-hand what it means to believe that God is in control of your life instead of you. Discover the freedom that comes from knowing that there is no decision you can make that will set yourself outside of God’s loving plan for your life and for the world.

That’s why we baptize little babies like Lou Lou. As sweet as she is today and as beautiful and innocent as she seems to us now, we all know that someday she will make some bad choices—even some terrible choices. But you know what? We still baptize her into the body of Christ because, as Christians, we believe with every fiber of our being that God chooses her and all of us regardless of the choices we make. God’s love doesn’t depend on our choices. Our lives depend on God’s love. He has chosen us to be his children, and that is the only choice that ever matters.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ascension Day: Message of Hope

Today is Ascension Day, but what does that even mean? Luke is the only person to detail the ascension of Jesus in his gospel account, and he finds it important enough to make it the hinge between his two volumes—Luke and Acts. Both books recall the moment of Jesus’ ascension into heaven—one as a conclusion and one as a beginning—and it almost feels as if the ascension is the birth of the new Christian era (as opposed to Pentecost, which is still ten days away). But why? Other than the disappearance of Jesus—the only logical explanation for how his earthly ministry ends (imagine Shane riding off into the sunset)—what is ascension all about?

More than anything, it’s a story of hope. Theologically speaking, it’s the conclusion of Jesus’ salvific acts—his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension all go together as a collective redemptive event—but to us it’s more than that. It means the story goes on. It means the work of the incarnate one is not over. It means that Jesus’ reign continues. It means that all of us—in every place and in every time—have access to his redemptive power. And it means that we have something to look forward to—both his return and our own ascension into the clouds.

In the church, there’s a tradition of processing out of the service with banners and torches to commemorate this joyful event, and apparently there’s an English custom of carrying a lion banner at the front of the procession and a dragon banner at the back to underscore how Jesus’ ascension is an expression of his victory over Satan. We don’t have a dragon banner, but we will process outside and let go of balloons, and stare up into the sky and, depending on how much wind is blowing, perhaps watch them disappear into the clouds. And that is symbolic of our hope—the hope that this day represents—the hope that God has given us in his son, Jesus Christ—a hope that goes on forever and never dies.

What is your hope? What do you hope for? You are invited to take a balloon and, on the card that is attached to it, write a message of hope. And that’s the question for tonight’s TonTap discussion: if you could give a stranger one message of hope, what would it be?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Rogation Days: Time for Prayer

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

On Monday, I posted a half-hearted status about Rogation Days on Facebook. In it, I made up a to do list for these rogation days that included finding a farmer whose crop I could bless, staging a procession throughout the parish, and scheduling a Eucharist with the Great Litany. My friend Jack Alvey, sensing that I was joking, called me out as if I didn't really appreciate the work that farmers and fieldhands do. That couldn't be further from the truth. I do know some farmers--several who call our church home. There are plenty of fields for me to bless. But Rogation Days and "beating the bands" and saying the Great Litany and parading around in fields to ask God's blessing on the harvest all seem a bit antiquated to me. Granted, I love antiquated things. In so many ways, I am myself antiquated. But the post was written because I didn't know how many people took Rogation Days seriously. Judging by the responses, lots of people do.

And I celebrate that. In fact, I celebrated that fact at our Wednesday Eucharist, which included the Great Litany. We didn't do the full-on procession because several members of our midweek congregation are mobility impaired, but we did "walk about the parish" in our imaginations. And we prayed for our community and for our farmers and for all of those who work the land so that we can eat. (Happy, Jack?)

In fact, all of this has been rolling around in my mind, and then I read the lessons for the Daily Office today--specifically James 5:13-18 and Luke 12:22-31--and I thought, "I HAVE to do a Rogation liturgy. These lessons demand it!

As James concludes his letter to the twelve tribes in dispersion, he urges them to pray:
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
 Pray, pray, pray. And then pray some more. I started wondering about prayer, and I considered the recipients of this letter, and I thought, "I wonder what it was like to be an early Christian--whether Greek or Jew--and suddenly realize that all the apparatus of one's faith (temple worship, sacrifice, etc.) had been supplanted by faith in Jesus Christ. How does one express that faith? What's the currency of Christianity? We do share the Communion meal together, but that remembrance of Christ's one, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice is not the same sort of sacrificial, expiatory encounter as these readers had become accustomed to. No wonder they were discouraged! Imagine if all the mechanics of our worship disappeared--if all the churches burned down or there was suddenly a massive shortage of fish-food wafers and cheap port wine! What would we do? We'd find a new place to gather, and we'd pray together.

That's the point. And that's the point of Rogation days. We gather together to pray--not because we expect our words to "work magic" on the fields or homes in our parish. Despite what the Great Litany or the Rogation traditions suggest, God isn't up in heaven waiting on us to utter the right incantation before he will bestow his blessings upon us. He loves us and will provide for us. But how will we know that?

The currency of our relationship with God is prayer. We pray together to remember that God loves us, to remember that the earth's bounty is his gift for us, and to remember that we are bound to one another through joys and hardships as God's people. That sounds like a pretty good reason to put on a violet stole, parade around the neighborhood, and pray the Great Litany together.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Empathy or Compassion

This post is also the cover article from this week's newsletter from St. John's in Decatur, AL. To read the rest of the newsletter and see what's happening in our parish, click here.

When your car runs out of gas and you are stranded on the side of the highway, whom would you rather meet—a motorist with an extra gallon of gas or another driver with an empty tank whose car sputters to a stop next to yours?

Over the last seventy-five years, a lot has changed, but few things have undergone as complete a reversal as the language we use to describe God. Instead of worshipping the “bulwark never failing,” which Martin Luther described in the 1529 hymn “A Mighty Fortress,” we hold hands with a God who “weeps with us who weep and mourn,” as identified by Thomas Troeger in his 1996 hymn that bears that line as its title. Admittedly, all language used to describe God is bound by the limits of human approximation, and no poem or hymn or verse could ever comprehend that which is, by definition, infinite and incomprehensible. Still, though, the words we use to image the divine have enough power to change our understanding of who God is, which suggests the need for linguistic intentionality.

How would you attempt to describe the God of your life and faith? Do you search for a God who feels your pain and weeps with you, or do you seek a God who is impervious to the storms of life and reigns above the chaos below? Throughout the millennia, God’s people have used contrasting and sometimes contradictory words to articulate their hope for salvation. For example, intimacy with God is portrayed in Isaiah 41:13—“For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you.’” Yet God’s detached sovereignty is described just a few chapters later in Isaiah 45:1—“I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” Which is correct? Does God stoop down to comfort us in our moment of need, or does he look down from on high as one who rules even over the challenge we face? Well, it depends. Which one gives you hope?

Occasionally, we find ourselves standing on life’s most severe precipice, staring out into a never-ending darkness. Sometimes we reach that place as individuals who suffer indescribable pain. Other times we reach that place as an entire community that is devastated by a shared loss. Whether speaking to parent who has lost a child or a population that has been shaken by an earthquake, what words are the right ones to say? What are God’s words spoken into the pain of that moment? Surely no one can claim to have the answers, nor can anyone offer a prescription that will eliminate the loss, yet our faith unwaveringly declares that God is with us in that tragedy. As children of God, our suffering is not empty. There is always hope. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ are an everlasting testimony to God’s never-failing love and his persistent presence even in moments of unspeakable disaster.

Personally, I cling to a God who is present in but not affected by the chaos of my life. I need an unmovable, unshakable rock upon which to build my faith and my hope. To me, a God who experiences the suffering I endure is unable to promise me any real salvation—for how can one who is himself subjected to the pains of life guarantee everlasting freedom from that pain? That is why I choose not to describe God as “compassionate” because etymologically the word compassion implies that one suffers with another. Instead, I prefer to describe God as “empathetic.” The word “empathy” is a relatively recent linguistic innovation that implies the ability to feel a circumstance from the perspective of another but does not necessitate a shared suffering. The Incarnation, therefore, is at its core an expression of empathy. It is the means by which God unites his nature to our nature in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus suffered because we suffer, and, through the union of those two natures, God, who does not suffer, promises an end to all suffering.

Sometimes, though, we need more than a shoulder on which to cry. Sometimes we need someone to share our tears so that our tears will not fall alone. For some the greatest comfort and hope is expressed through a belief that God suffers alongside us. In that way, the cross of Christ is described as the perfect example of God’s suffering. That might not make sense to me, but I willingly admit that theology—the language we use to describe God—does not always make sense. Either way—regardless of the words you use to say it—embrace a understanding of God who is with you in your moments of pain and who has the power to transform them into moments of joy. You are not alone. God is with you and always will be.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Holiness of Confident Waiting

There are many different kinds of waiting. There's confident waiting--I know that the sun will rise tomorrow. There's expectantly hopeful waiting--I think I did pretty well on that test. There's expectantly discouraged waiting--I haven't seen the biopsy results yet, but I know it isn't going to be good. There's unending waiting--Someday all things will be made right. There's desperate waiting--If I don't find a bathroom soon, we'll all be in trouble. There's doubtful waiting--I don't think I'll ever find a soul mate. There's aimless waiting--I'm just sitting here waiting for I-don't-know-what. And there are many more examples, too.

As Christians, we do a lot of waiting. We wait for Jesus to return. We wait for the consummation of God's promises. We join with all of creation to "wait with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God" (Rom. 8:19). During Advent, we wait to celebrate Christmas. During Lent, we wait to celebrate Easter. During July, we wait for people to get back from the beach. During December, we wait for people to turn in their pledge cards. And, this Sunday, we will join the disciples in waiting for the already-ascended Jesus to send down the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

The collect for this Sunday says it best:
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before
On Thursday--forty days into the Easter season--we will celebrate Jesus' ascension into heaven, but it will be ten more days before the Spirit comes down on Pentecost. In between, we have one strange Sunday when the disciples wait for what comes next. But the manner of their waiting says a lot about their faith.

The first order of business after Jesus departed was to elect a successor for Judas. Yes, I know there's important symbolism in having the twelve disciples, who represent the twelve tribes of Israel, be reconstituted before Pentecost, but I'm more interested in the election itself as evidence of a peculiar sort of waiting. Other than the important symbolism, why did they need to find a new disciple? What does that say about the manner in which they waited for Jesus' return?

For several years--even decades--after Jesus' ascension, the church waited eagerly and expectantly for his return. "Any day now," they said to one another, and Paul's early letters (e.g. 1 Thessalonians) confirm this attitude of short-term focus. I think Peter and the other disciples expected Jesus to return any day. At any moment, he would appear in the clouds and all that was longed for would be fulfilled. But that didn't stop them from choosing Matthias.

Even though the wait was expected to be short term, Peter and the other disciples knew that the waiting wasn't merely an empty waiting. There was work to be done. (2000 years later, there's still work to be done.) The good news needed sharing. People needed to know about Jesus. If Jesus picked twelve people to carry his message to the ends of the earth, then they needed a twelfth person to take up that work alongside them--even if it was only temporary.

And consider how Matthias was elected--by lottery. "Lord, you know everyone's heart," Peter prayed, "Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship." And the drew straws, trusting that God's will would be done. Think about that--they were so confident that God's will would unfold around them that they let a silly thing like drawing straws be the determining factor...which is to say that they knew nothing could stand in the way of God's will being done.

What an amazing attitude toward waiting! Jesus had left them, but they knew that God was still in control. They didn't expect to wait very long, but they knew the time for action was at hand. They were confident. They were expectant. They were hopeful. And they were also certain that God would guide them as they waited.

What sort of waiting is that? It's Christian waiting. We recognize that this is a time of waiting, and we expect fulfillment any moment, but we refuse to waste even a moment because we know that there is work to be done while we wait. And we trust that, even in the waiting itself, God's will is made manifest. It isn't just the end of the waiting that reveals God's will. It is being revealed every moment of every day. The waiting is just as holy as the completion. That belief is what sustains us as we wait.

We Don't Have Rules For That

May 10, 2015 –The 6th Sunday of Easter, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Summer is almost here, and that means that it’s time to get ready for camp. I remember how special I felt the first time I went to summer camp. My mother ironed labels onto all of my clothes—every shirt, every pair of shorts, every sock, every pair of underwear all had my name on it. And my mother let me use the same laundry bag that she had used when she was a camper. The label with her maiden name was still sown into the bag, and she ironed my name right underneath hers. I had a footlocker into which we stuffed all of my rolled-up clothes. I bought cowboy boots so that I could take horseback lessons. I packed envelopes and stamps so that I could write my family and friends. I was ready. Everything was cool—except for one thing.

The night before we left, my mother came into my bedroom and said that there was something that we needed to talk about. I could tell that this was serious, and her demeanor made me nervous. In the super-awkward conversation that followed, my mother explained to me that, when I was in the shower, I might notice that other boys were different from me. In a short lecture that must have been even more uncomfortable for her than for me, she told me about circumcision. Now, I want you to think about how that conversation must have gone—the words and phrases someone would use to explain to an eight-year-old what circumcision is. It is impossible, I think, for that to leave a child with fewer questions than answers. And I got to camp feeling exactly as you would expect me to—terrified of the shower.

The only thing I could think about was whether they would make us line up in two separate lines so that the circumcised and uncircumcised kids wouldn’t have to shower together. They didn’t, of course. I don’t know if anyone else’s mom had that conversation with him—probably not—but, if so, none of them seemed nervous about it. I, on the other hand, was consumed by fear. Every night for two weeks, I walked into the shower, stood as close to the wall as I could, stared straight ahead, washed my hair and body as quickly as possible, turned off the water, wrapped a towel around my waist, and ran back to my cabin without delay. All I knew was that this mysterious discrimination of the foreskin had the power to separate me from the other kids, and I didn’t want to find out if I was different—if I was weird—if I was left out.

For those two weeks, nothing mattered more to me than circumcision, but, still, I cannot even begin to fathom what circumcision meant to Peter and the first Christians. To them, as faithful Jews, it meant everything. It was an inseparable part of their spiritual identity. To belong to God meant being circumcised; it was as simple as that. Long before the temple was built in Jerusalem, long before God gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, long before God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt, God told Abraham that every male who belonged to God would be circumcised. When God chose Abraham and his descendants to be his people and promised always to be their God, God demanded that they ratify that covenant in the act of circumcision. Even if you were not ethnically Jewish, if you wanted a relationship with the God of Abraham and you were male, you must be circumcised—no exceptions.

But then, one day, all of that changed. According to Acts 10, God appeared to a Roman centurion named Cornelius and told him to send for a Jew named Simon Peter. And, at the same time, God appeared to that faithful Jew and told him to go with the Gentiles who were about to knock on his door. And, when they got together, the most amazing thing happened. Peter began to tell them about Jesus of Nazareth, whom the authorities “put to death by hanging him on a tree,” but whom “God raised on the third day” (Acts 10:39-40). And, while he was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon them all, and they began to speak in tongues and extoll God. And Peter and the other circumcised believers just stood there with their mouths hanging open. They were astounded because God had poured his Spirit even upon those Gentiles. In that moment, caught up in the power of the Spirit, Peter asked, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And, sure enough, that afternoon those uncircumcised, unclean, unacceptable, Gentile outsiders were made a part of the body of Christ.

In this one encounter, everything that Peter and his companions knew about religion was blown right out of the water. Consider, for a moment, the total reversal that this event represented. These Gentiles heard the good news and, upon believing it, were given a full, unadulterated share of God’s Spirit. There weren’t baptized first. They weren’t circumcised first. In other words, they weren’t converted first. Instead, God grabbed them right where they were—still on the outside looking in—and brought them into the very center of what he was doing in the world. They didn’t have to do anything. They didn’t need to undergo any ritual. In other words, there was no rule or procedure for this. It just happened, and the leaders of the Christian movement were left to try and figure out what to do about it. Peter’s question said it all: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” If circumcision didn’t matter anymore, what did?

Is it possible that sometimes religion stands in the way of faith? Can it be that all the stuff we do up here, all these garments, all these liturgies, all these ins and outs of religion fail to express what really matters? Could God be working in powerful, Spirit-filled ways that the church hasn’t figured out yet? Are we behind the curve on what God is doing in the world around us? You bet we are.

Throughout human history, God has always worked in ways that surprise us. God chose a childless geriatric herdsman to become the father of a great nation. God selected a ragtag, homeless tribe to be his chosen people. God became incarnate in a Galilean carpenter who ran afoul of the political and religious leaders of his day and was executed on the cross before being raised from the dead in order to set us free from the bondage of sin. God used a persecuting zealot to build up the church. What is God doing today? What will God do next?
Whatever it is, you can be sure that we’ll struggle to recognize it and will resist it until God hits us over the head and leaves us standing there, with our mouths hanging open, wondering, again, what God will do next. That’s because we aren’t on the outside looking in anymore. We are the inside. We, the church, have rules for what is and is not allowed, and we like to think that we get to decide what is right and wrong and who is in and out. But thanks be to God that he is always blowing our expectations away and, despite our intransigence, working in ways that surpass even our imagination. As Peter learned on the day when God shared his Spirit even with the uncircumcised Gentiles, it isn’t our job to prevent God from doing the unfathomable. It is our job to recognize that with God anything—absolutely anything—is possible.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The PB Election is Rigged

Several friends have chimed in on the upcoming election of the Presiding Bishop (PB). I’m especially fond of Scott Gunn’s post, which not only provides some analysis of the process but also some opinions on what sort of PB our church needs. He wrote that post before the slate of nominees was released. The nominees were chosen by the Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop after almost three years of work. You can read about the nominees here.

This post isn’t about picking favorites. It’s about the process. I won’t go into why one nominee is better than the others. You may have seen that, on the day the nominees were released, I named Ian Douglas as the candidate I thought most likely to win, but that isn’t necessarily an indication of who I think would be the best candidate. It’s just my guess of which candidate the bishops will elect.

And that’s the focus of this post. The next PB will be elected by the House of Bishops and only by the House of Bishops. [As an aside, you may not know the Episcopal Church’s highest decision-making body is the General Convention, which, like the United States, is a bicameral legislature split between the House of Bishops (all bishops in the Episcopal Church) and the House of Deputies (four lay and four ordained deacons or priests from each dioceses).] After the bishops have made their choice for PB, that decision will be brought to the House of Deputies for and up or down confirmation. And to me that’s a process that makes perfect sense if the PB is just that—a presider over the House of Bishops. But our PB is much more than that, and that’s why the process desperately needs to be changed.

Here’s a question for the typical pewsitter: what does the PB mean to you? We pray for her by name every Sunday. We certainly don’t pray by name for the president of the House of Deputies. (But we all should! Please, pray for Gay Jennings and her ministry and work in the church!) If we’ve been paying attention over the last 9 years, we know that the PB meets with all the other PB-equivalents from across the Anglican Communion to discuss issues that affect us all. If we’ve been to the ordination of a bishop lately, we probably noticed that the PB was there since her office includes the role of chief-consecrator at all bishops’ ordinations. If we are from a part of the church that has been embroiled in controversy, there’s a good chance that we realize that the PB plays a distinct role in the disciplinary process for bishops. If we follow any church news outlets like Episcopal News Service or Episcopal CafĂ©, we know that the PB often speaks on behalf of the church.

Here are some of the roles of the PB that most of us probably don’t think of. She is the CEO of the business side of the church, known as the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS). She’s in charge of all of the staff who work to carry out the operations of the DFMS. Although she has the support of her staff and Executive Council and lots of other groups, the PB is in charge of the day-to-day running of the church. She’s also the bishop for all the other bishops, which means she is their pastor, encourager, and accountability partner.

Although it’s not necessarily part of the job description, the PB is also expected to be the visionary leader for the Episcopal Church. Much is changing in our Christian context. The Episcopal Church is working hard to be a part of those changes, and we are trying to change from within. What will that mean for us? How will we get it done? What is important? What needs to be left behind? All of those difficult (impossible?) questions are in the fore of what the church is doing, and we need a PB to guide us through that.

But what sort of person can possibly do that? And how should that person be chosen?

For starters, we need to decide whether one person can accomplish all that the church is asking the PB to do. Personally, I doubt it. When I have participated in the election of a diocesan bishop, I have assumed that the right candidate will do a little bit of everything but primarily focus in particular areas that are strong needs in our diocese. I trust that the elected bishop will surround him/herself with others who can do the rest of the job. But our canons haven’t figured out how to split out those roles. The TREC report offers some suggestions on this (particularly changes to the size and role of Executive Council), but I don’t think they’ve fully addressed the problem. I’d like to see some canonical changes that empower the Executive Council and the presiding officers to select a COO for the church—someone other than the PB who is in charge of running DFMS.

If we do, however, decide that our PB should be everything it is now, we need to fix the way the PB is chosen. I applaud the Nominating Committee for their work. That combination of bishops and deputies has worked together (one presumes) to publish a list of four nominees—any of whom could be our next PB. But, excepting the possibilities of a nomination from the floor of General Convention, that’s where the input from anyone other than a bishop stops. But the PB isn’t just for the bishops. The PB is my PB, too. And it’s yours as well. He or she presides not only over the House of Bishops when it meets. I pray for that person by name every day. I am invested in our PB as our primate. But no one other than bishops gets to make that choice. No wonder the PB’s role has become a confused tangle of impossible jobs. When we only allow bishops to choose the PB, we’ve set that office up for ineffectiveness. The election itself isn’t the only problem, of course, but it is emblematic of a deeper divide. We have a PB whose office is built upon a church structure that isn’t applicable anymore. The election is just a symptom of that. But fixing the problem starts with fixing the election.

We are a democratic church. That’s why we have two houses. That’s why they are supposed to meet separately. (I’ll write about my feelings about the proposal of a unicameral body later.) Lay people, deacons, priests, and bishops are all important in our church. Our primate needs to be a reflection of that. We need to find a way for all orders in the church to elect our primate—not just confirm an election with an up or down vote. Until we fix the problem, my inclination is to vote against the confirmation—no matter who or how qualified that person is. I am not sure about that, and the process of being at General Convention and gaining some insights from others in the church often changes my perspective, so I’m open to change, but, for now, it feels right to approach this election with the recognition that it’s broken and that my vote should reflect that brokenness.

Should the bishops be allowed to choose their own presiding officer? Of course they should. Should they be the only ones who elect the primate, CEO, prophet, and spokesperson for the church? Absolutely not. We must either split those roles or invite the whole church to be a part of the election by including the House of Deputies in the vote. Once we let the whole church have a real stake in the election, we invite the possibility of transformation—real structural change that can make our church something more than a legislative, bureaucratic quagmire.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Let Your Light Shine

“No one lights a lamp and hides it under a jar or puts it under a bed” (from Luke 8:16-25). That’s right. That makes sense. No one would do that. No one would turn on a flashlight and then stick it in a drawer. So why then, Jesus asks us, do we hide our own light from the rest of the world?

How old were you when you first learned the importance of fitting in—of not sticking out? I have specific memories from my childhood of other kids pointing out that my shoes were not the same brand as theirs, that I wasn’t athletic enough to play on their team, that my love of learning and the ease with which I picked up new concepts more closely identified me with the teacher than with my peers. I knew what it meant to be different and what it felt like to want to fit in. I hid my grades from the other kids, sometimes getting things wrong just to have something in common with others. I faked injury or illness or disinterest on the playground to avoid the pain of being picked last for the kickball team. I came home and pleaded with my mother to buy me name-brand shoes and clothes so that no one would laugh at me. From early on in my childhood, I knew what it meant to try to be like the other kids.

But it goes deeper than that. Now, as a parent, I feel this strange mixture of wanting my child to be the fastest and smartest kid in school but, at the same time, not wanting him or her to stand out too much. “Don’t brag,” I quickly say to my children when they start talking about their own accomplishments. “It isn’t nice to talk about how great you are.” That’s just polite behavior. We learn it from our parents and from experience. No one like spending time with another person who goes on and on about how great he or she is. Modesty is prized. Humility is celebrated. Arrogance—and I know a thing or two about arrogance—is criticized and shunned. So, again, we learn from an early age not to celebrate our successes, not to showcase our gifts and talents, not to let our light shine.

But Jesus wasn’t encouraging his disciples to brag about their faith, and he certainly isn’t asking us to stand up and tell the world how much better we are than they. But he is telling us to let the light of Christ, which burns in our hearts, shine visibly to others. He’s telling us to stick out because of our faith. He’s telling us to allow our identity as the ones God has redeemed and renewed be a beacon to others. And what does that look like here and now?

I sense that we are entering a new age in our history in which the distinctiveness of Christianity is not welcomed by our culture. No, none of is likely to be killed for letting our light shine the way that the disciples risked death by standing up for Christ. But we do take risks for letting the gospel reign in our public lives. And I absolutely, positively don’t think that Jesus wants us to take a bullhorn and stand on a street corner and warn passersby that they must repent or perish. No, that’s isn’t letting Christ’s light shine; that’s confusing the spark of God’s love with the fires of fear and intimidation and self-righteousness.

I’m talking about the hard, unpopular, sacrificial message of the gospel. What does the gospel say about taking care of the poor? What does it say about rich people entering God’s kingdom? What did Jesus teach about giving food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty? What role does violence have in God’s kingdom? How many times are we supposed to forgive? What are we called to do when someone strikes us or begs from us or compels us to walk with him? What does it say about prioritizing family over doing God’s will? What does it say about divorce? What does it say about a hand or a foot or an eye that causes us to sin?
Nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed. If the light of Christ is shining in your heart, then it can and will and must shine outwardly in your life. Pick up your cross and follow him—not just quietly in your heart but publicly in your daily life. Stand up for the gospel. Let the shape of your life reflect the shape of your faith—the shape of the gospel. The mother and brothers of Jesus are those who hear God’s word AND do it. By that definition, are you a part of Christ’s family?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Significant Words

Sunday's gospel lesson (John 15:9-17) is full of significant words and concepts, each of which deserves its own sermon. One can't (or certainly shouldn't) preach on them all. So, in preparation for Sunday, think about these words. Think about what they mean to you. Imagine what they might have meant to Jesus and to his disciples. Trust that there is an opportunity for the deepening of our faith at the points where they overlap and where they depart.

What does love look like? What does it feel like? Yes, it is patient and kind, but it is more than that. The love of which Jesus speaks is the kind of love that enables someone to lay down his life for another. Love is giving. Love is yielding. Love seeks the benefit of the other rather than the self. It does not insist on its own way. God is love. Love unites the Father and Son and Spirit. Love binds us to God and to one another.

What does it mean to abide--to dwell, to linger, to bathe--in love? We are asked to soak ourselves, drench ourselves, in Jesus' love. That is where we begin. That is where we remain. To abide is more than a home to which we return at the end of the day just as love is more than a baseline for our operations. We are grounded in that love. Our life draws its source from that love. It is our substrate. It is the material from which we spring. It is that from which we can never be separated.

Thou shalt not... Do this or else... Let us kneel together for the Decalogue and responses, which begin on page 317 in the Book of Common Prayer. Commandments are the dictates from on high. They are the rules, the laws, the unbreakable boundaries. But this one is different. This is Jesus' commandment--that we love one another as he has loved us. To keep that commandment is to abide in his love. Those who keep that commandment are named by Jesus as his friends. This commandment is given so that we may love one another.

Are you happy or joyful? What's the difference? Does God want you to be happy or joyful? What's the difference? Joy evokes in my heart a sense of satisfaction that happiness doesn't always bring. Happiness is fleeting while joy persists. Happiness can be defeated by the storms of life, but nothing can shake us from the joy God bestows in our hearts. God, let your people sing with joy even in moments of desperate unhappiness.

Social media has changed the meaning of friend. Well, maybe not changed it but diluted it. Still, friend feels like such a twentieth-century word--a fashionable, post-WWII invention. Of course, friendship is as old as humanity, and it meant as much--probably more--to Jesus than to us. What does it mean to call Jesus your friend? What does it mean for Jesus to call you his friend?

This time of year it's strawberries. Soon it will be blackberries and then watermelon. It's apples, too, but those are good all year long. What does it mean to bear fruit? What does it mean to be fruitful? Jesus has set us apart to bear fruit--lasting fruit, fruit for the kingdom. Fruit has a season. Fruit is to be picked. Fruit is beautiful to behold and delightful on the tongue. What about us? Is that what kind of fruit we are?

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Uncontainable Spirit

Every once in a while, all of the readings fall into place. For me, it’s a good feeling to start Monday morning by reading the lessons for the upcoming Sunday and feel a clear connection between them. The danger, though, is in plowing ahead through the week without listening for how the Spirit might be convincing me otherwise. But, for now, I hear a single voice calling out from the lectionary, and I want to explore it here with the hope that my ability to hear that voice will be refined over the coming days.

In these first moments of sermon prep, I’m drawn deeply to Acts 10:44-48. It’s a short, epiphanic moment that brings clarity to Peter and others. For starters, go read the rest of Acts 10. It’s one of the most exciting, powerful, theologically significant passages in scripture—perhaps even in all of literature. It’s the story of the Holy Spirit connecting Jewish-minded Peter with the God-loving Gentile Cornelius through parallel visions. Once connected, Peter, on behalf of the whole church, discovers that God is working in unexpected ways—ways that transcend ethno-religious boundaries. The authors of the lectionary, however, have distilled all of that story down to a simple moment of clarity: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

That’s a powerful question, and it’s one that reaches out into the present day with as much power as it held in the first century. Baptism is our symbol of full inclusion into the life of the church. It’s how we say to someone and to the world, “You belong to God.” Peter and his contemporaries wrestled with the question of what it takes to belong to the Jesus movement. Baptism is the culmination of that belongingness. Surely there are steps to take before the ritual inclusion is expressed. What about conversion to Judaism? What about keeping kosher? What about circumcision? Shouldn’t all of those things happen first—before someone can become a true disciple of Jesus? But God didn’t wait, did he? The power of the Holy Spirit had already fallen upon these Gentiles. The evidence is plain. It doesn’t matter what the rulebook says. It doesn’t matter whether it makes sense. If God has demonstrated his inclusion of these Gentiles, who can even hesitate to administer baptism? No one, of course.

This passage is the confrontation of human expectations with God’s power. In the church, we are supposed to be vehicles or vessels for God’s power. Too often, however, I’m afraid we act as dispensers or regulators of the uncontainable power of God. I’m sorry, madam, but we have policies and procedures for things like that. But who can stand in the way of God? No one, of course. So shouldn’t we get out of the way and celebrate it?

As the collect for Sunday states, God has “prepared for those who love [him] such good things as surpass our understanding.” We start with that premise. As people of God, we begin in that place that acknowledges that God’s power cannot be contained. As Christians, it isn’t our job to portion out God’s power and blessing. It is our duty to recognize it, draw attention to it, promote it, and confirm it. God isn’t waiting on us to develop a protocol, and he isn’t holding back his Spirit because our old institutions haven’t adapted yet. God is working in our lives, in the church, and in the world in bold and powerful ways. If the church doesn’t embrace those ways, then others will. And the true church is the one that is filled with God’s Spirit.