Sermon for 4.17.16

Scriptures for today are here.

Long ago when Tom and I were first married at age 21, we lived in a tiny apartment in Houston. Our apartment was on the second floor and we had a lovely view out our bedroom window: we looked out on the parking lot, down below, and beyond the parking lot, a very busy, noisy freeway. One day there was a knock on our door (back in the days when people used to answer their doors and their phones, you might remember those days), and so we answered the door.

It was a person working for the campaign of a candidate for mayor. This was a candidate we had heard of, and generally felt positive about, though we paid very little attention to Houston politics. But since we liked the candidate, when the campaign worker asked if we would put a small sign supporting her in the window of our apartment so that people driving by on the freeway would see it, we said sure, why not. And we put the little sign there. And somehow the fact that we had a sign supporting this mayoral candidate made us stronger supporters. I remember voting for her, and following her career, and supporting her in her re-election campaign, and being disappointed when she retired.

Studies say this happens frequently – that if a person puts a sign in their yard supporting a particular candidate, having the sign strengthens their support. It’s an example of how our behavior influences our beliefs. We usually think that if you believe something, you will act accordingly. But studies show that often it’s the opposite – if you act like you believe something, you are much more likely to come to believe it. So, for instance, studies show that if you are wearing formal business attire, you think with higher-order abstract thinking than if you are dressed casually. Or, if you put on a doctor’s lab coat, you tend to be more attentive and analytical than if you are wearing a painter’s smock. Certainly our beliefs influence our behavior, but in a very subtle but important way, our behavior also affects our beliefs. In fact, our behavior and our beliefs reinforce each other.

Bernhard_Plockhorst_-_Good_ShephardThis came to mind for me as I was reading today’s gospel story. John Chapter 10 is known as the Good Shepherd Discourse because in it, Jesus says I am the Good Shepherd, and offers an extended meditation on what that means. We tend to think of this as a kindly, pastoral, comforting set of images. Jesus as the Good Shepherd goes in our minds with Psalm 23, a wonderful psalm of comfort and assurance that God will be with us throughout our lives, restoring our souls, leading us beside still waters, comforting us in the valley of shadow of death, promising us that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. And certainly this is part of what Jesus wants us to understand, when he calls himself the Good Shepherd – we can trust and depend on him. He will never lose a single one of his sheep. He will care for us and give us eternal, abundant life.

But John our gospel writer wants us to understand more than this, too. Because this gospel is set in context, it is part of an ongoing story. And the story we are joining mid-stream when we read this passage is that Jesus is in conflict with the leaders of the Temple. He has healed a blind man, and they are upset about it. They call in the blind man and quiz him sternly about what happened, who did it, whether he’s faking it and wasn’t really blind to begin with, and so on. And when he sticks to his story that Jesus healed him, they throw him out of the Temple. Jesus’ power threatens their power.

So when Jesus says I am the Good Shepherd, he is saying they are not good shepherds for God’s people. Which is a saying with lots of resonance in Jewish tradition, because the kings and leaders of Israel were supposed to be shepherds of the people, like King David, the original shepherd-king. And the prophet Ezekiel had railed against false and wicked shepherds, and predicted that God himself would gather and shepherd the people of Israel.

When Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd, he is equating himself with God. And he is also saying that they are not good shepherds. They have failed.

(A parenthetical note: please don’t read this as anti-Jewish. This is not a Jewish thing, it’s a human thing. Humans fail. And Jesus says the leaders of the Temple, like many humans, have failed, because they have made a priority of hanging onto their own power and have neglected to listen for the voice of God – so they can’t hear it when God is speaking.)

When they question Jesus, he responds: “you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”

In other words, they don’t believe in Jesus because they haven’t followed him. They haven’t behaved like they believe in him, so they don’t believe in him.

Many theologians have spent a lot of time and effort trying to unravel what this might mean for us. How do we come to follow Jesus and be his sheep? Don’t we believe first, then decide to follow him?

Maybe not – elsewhere in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” And indeed all the gospels show Jesus choosing people, seemingly at random, certainly not based on any particular gifts or talents, uneducated simple people, to come and follow him. Which is lovely – we don’t get chosen because we deserve it or because we are special – we get chosen because Jesus loves us. So far, so good.

But why do some people apparently get chosen to come and follow Jesus, to have our hearts and our behavior shaped by him, and others don’t? Why aren’t the Temple leaders his sheep? This is where theologians get tangled up.

Some, like John Calvin, have expressed God’s choice in terms of predestination – God knew before he created us which ones of us would be chosen for eternal life and which ones would be damned. This is the hideous, to me, idea, that God created some people on purpose to send them to hell and everlasting damnation.

Others, like Jacob Arminius, believed that each believer makes the choice to follow Jesus and enter into everlasting salvation. But this idea seems to ignore this idea that Jesus has chosen us, we haven’t chosen him, and it is by following him that we come to believe; by being in his presence, our hearts and minds are shaped by him.

Other theologians have abandoned the idea of choice altogether and have simply said that God chooses everyone. But what about free will and the option we have to ignore Jesus’ call? What about people whose actions are pure evil?

Here, for me, is where the idea that our behavior shapes our hearts, helps explain things. I believe that if we cultivate behaviors that ignore Jesus’ command to love, that we will develop habits of the heart that make it impossible for us to hear his voice when he asks us to come and follow him. Our behavior closes our hearts.

Brain research seems to support this idea – in infancy and childhood, and to a lesser extent throughout life, the neurons in our brains learn to connect with other neurons in increasingly complex patters as we learn to think. The pathways that we are most accustomed to thinking along are the ones that will develop they strongest connections – our thoughts truly shape our reality. This is why if we spend all our time thinking negative thoughts, denigrating others, assuming the worst about people, our brains will more and more tend to shape themselves along these habitual lines of thought. And our behavior will reflect it.

Even more, researchers find that the emotions of one person in a room can influence the emotions of all the others – so if we think in negative, critical, unappreciative ways, everyone around us will tend to feel the same way. Our negative thoughts and behaviors become like a virus that infects our world.

So perhaps the truth is that those who hear Jesus’ voice and are able to follow him, be his sheep, accept the promise of eternal and abundant life, are those who have shaped their thoughts and their reality in ways that allow them to hear the voice of love. They behave and speak with love, they cultivate the presence of God, and therefore when God speaks, they are able to listen and follow. And that in turn is how they come to believe in Jesus and have life in his name. Jesus calls us all – only some of us are able to hear.

So my question is, how do we cultivate behaviors and habits of the heart that allow us to be Jesus’ sheep, to hear his voice, to follow him? I think there are four in particular.

First, cultivate habits of kindness and generosity. The habits of behavior we cultivate shape our minds and our hearts. And a mind and a heart shaped by love, kindness, and generosity allows Jesus to speak words we can hear and follow. Long ago, in my business career, I faced a conflict with a co-worker that was affecting every part of how I felt about my job. Truth be told, it was probably as much my fault as it was my co-workers, but I didn’t see it that way. I was angry and frustrated all the time. Until one day I adopted the radical strategy of praying for her every day. Which is not an easy thing to do, with someone you don’t like very much. You can’t pray with words of hate – you have to find words that are acceptable both to you AND to God! You have to find a way to pray with love. Somehow I did – and within two days, our relationship had completely turned around.

You can’t pray for someone without loving them, whether you like htem or not. And love for others changes your life. And I believe it shapes your brain and heart, and makes way for you to hear Jesus’ voice.

Which leads to the second thing: Daily prayer. Praying 20 minutes a day makes a measurable difference in people’s lives – they are healthier, happier, calmer. Sometimes people think prayer doesn’t “work” – they didn’t feel God’s presence. But opening your mind and heart to speaking to God and listening for God’s voice in return means that you are in daily conversation to know God’s will. That’s how we learn to listen & follow J. If you don’t know how to pray, or need some additional resources, see our website – we have a great section on prayer.

The third thing is the practice of the Examen. It’s an ancient Christian practice that originated with St. Ignatius Loyola, of reviewing each day at the end of day: Where was God in my day? What am I grateful for? Where did I act in accordance with God’s will? What could I have done better? And praying about it – praying for blessing of the things done right, praying for forgiveness of things that can be done better, so that you end the day with a clean heart, and start the next day anew. Living the Examen means you are in conversation with God every day about the state of your heart and the actions you are choosing to take.

And the fourth thing: Regular Worship. Worship is when we gather as a community, but more than anything else it is our chance to glorify God. And in a liturgical church like ours, worship is where God does the work of caring for us. We do have sermons and so forth that interpret the word, but the majority of our worship time is spent letting God nourish us through Word and Sacrament. As we hear the word, as we pray about our world, as we let God feed us with bread and wine, we are allowing God to form us from the inside out, to restore our bodies and souls at the cellular level.

And as we are transformed by God, we learn to hear that voice: You are my sheep, I am your shepherd. Come and follow me.

Sermon for 3.13.16

Scriptures for today are Here.

Scientists tell us that our sense of smell – our olfactory nerve – leads to a different part of our brain than our other senses do. Our other senses lead to the parts of our brain that work things out rationally; our sense of smell leads to the part of our brain that processes memory, mood, and emotion – the oldest part of our brain.

The strong connection between smell and emotion probably explains why I can catch a whiff of Chanel No. 5 in a crowd and instantly be seven years old again, kissing my mother good night as she prepares to go out for the evening on a Saturday night with my father, wearing her nicest dress and her pearls. It explains why the smell of fresh bread means comfort and happiness for us. It explains why fresh cut grass can take us back to long hours spent running around outside in our childhood, covered with grass stains and dirt.

And you have to think that the smell of nard, the perfume in today’s gospel, has stronger associations than most others for the people of Jesus’ time. For one thing, it has a very strong odor – a priest friend of mine said three years ago, the last time this story appeared in lectionary, his rector had the bright idea to bring a jar of it into the sanctuary so the whole service smelled like nard. He says he thought he would never get that sticky-sweet smell out of his hair, clothes, and vestments. And three years later, you can still smell it at odd moments when the AC kicks on.

anointing stoneI smelled that smell in Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, on the anointing stone where supposedly Jesus’ body was laid out and anointed for burial (picture above). People still come to that spot and anoint the stone, weeping and praying and crying out their love for Jesus as they rub it with oil, so throughout the whole vast church, from the place of Jesus’ death to the tomb where he arose you can turn a corner and catch another whiff of the sweet scent of nard.

Nard is a smell that lasts a long time, and it’s a smell that for the people of Jesus’ time would mean love and it would mean death. It was the spice used to anoint dead bodies for burial, family members saving up for years to buy a jar of oil that was worth a year’s wages or more, but was an important part of their family inheritance, lovingly passing it down over generations to anoint each member of the family as they died.

So for Mary of Bethany, Jesus’ friend in the gospel today, the smell of nard would have reminded her of her parents and her grandparents – her feelings of deep love for them and the feeling of anguished loss at their deaths. And it would have forcefully brought home to her a more recent memory – the death of her brother Lazarus, and his awakening to life again.

You remember the story – Lazarus and Mary and Martha were good friends of Jesus. Lazarus becomes ill, Mary and Martha send word to Jesus to come quickly. But Jesus lingers where he is, and finally arrives at Lazarus’ tomb four days after Lazarus died. Martha declares her faith in Jesus with an edge of blame: “If you had been here my brother would not have died!” – and Jesus makes one of the most startling statements in the gospels. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

And he proceeds to prove it, with what is in the gospel of John the most astounding of his seven signs (remember that Jesus’ miracles in John are not just miracles, but signs that point to a deeper reality about who he is and what God is doing through him). In this climactic sign, Jesus stands before Lazarus’ tomb and commands the people to roll away the stone. Martha, the practical one, protests because Lazarus has been dead 4 days, and already there is a stench. And surely that stench of the tomb is one of the most primitive and awful of the smells our brains know, surely it is the one that ties us most closely to emotions of grief and loss.

But Jesus persists, and as the stone is rolled away, shouts “Lazarus! Come forth!” And the dead man emerges, blinking in the sunlight, still wrapped in his grave clothes, still smelling of the mingled smells of the tomb and the sweet-spicy nard. And Jesus commands, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Let him go free from the tomb, free from the fear of death, free to live in full knowledge that God’s love is stronger than death, God’s love calls us out of the tomb, God’s love calls us out of all grave clothes that bind us – God’s love calls us into eternity. God’s love unbinds us, and lets us go.

But the powers of the world don’t like to believe that God’s love can overcome death, because their most powerful tool is death. And hearing of Lazarus’ new life, the rulers in Jerusalem decide that Jesus has to be stopped. They will show who is in charge of death. And Jesus must die.

So Jesus wisely goes away for a while. But now it is time for Passover. And Jesus comes back to Bethany, a small town in the hills above Jerusalem, from where you can look down into the city and see the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. And the night before Palm Sunday, when he plans to go riding on a donkey down the hill into the city, his friends give a dinner for him, knowing, through their laughs and awkward silences, pretty much what has to be coming next for their beloved rabbi.

Lazarus, his friend, is sitting next to him, leaning against him at dinner, possibly with the mingled scents of the tomb and the nard still on him. And Mary goes into the back room, gets their family inheritance, the spice that is worth maybe $25,000 in our terms. And she does something that seems to make no sense at all: she breaks the earthen clay jar of sweet oil, and pours it out on Jesus.

Not only does she extravagantly waste her family’s inheritance. She breaks lots of rules at the same time she breaks this earthen jar. She anoints his feet, something you don’t do for living people – only for dead ones. She loosens her hair, something an honorable woman doesn’t do in front of men. She touches Jesus, something an unmarried woman doesn’t do to man she isn’t related to. And she fills the house with the smell of love, love that follows a person to the grave, love that survives death, love that will always remember.

By breaking open her family’s inheritance, its provision for all future deaths, Mary is saying that death has no more power over her and her family, she is showing her faith that she will have no more need to anoint anyone for death. And she is preparing Jesus for the tomb, the day before he willingly goes riding toward it.

In this one act, Mary marks Jesus as a member of her family. She pours out a love so strong, so intense, that it is not bound by any customs or practices of her time. She prepares him for an ordeal that will overwhelm him with terrible physical sensations. And this act of love makes a difference to him: we know because just a few days later, at his last supper with his disciples, Jesus will copy Mary’s act of love – as she knelt and washed his feet with oil, and wiped them with her hair, he will kneel and wash his disciples’ feet, and wipe them with his garment. Mirroring her pure act of love with his own, and commanding us to do the same. Her love for Jesus becoming his love for his disciples becoming our love for the world, the love of God and the love of human beings all intermingled and overflowing.

And surely, in the middle of his ordeal on the cross, the sweet smell of nard will stay with him; surely, through his whole time on the cross, as he endures what he has to endure, he will from time to time catch a sudden smell of Mary’s gift, remind him somewhere deep inside, in the oldest part of his brain, that even after he has been betrayed and denied and abandoned, that he is deeply loved.

And so Mary has prepared Jesus for his death and for his burial. She has recognized that no matter what comes, love is stronger than death. And she has poured out her love for God’s Son.

The question is, what is our love worth to God? Wouldn’t you think God would be right there agreeing with Judas that a better use for such an expensive gift would be to sell it and give the money to the poor? Shouldn’t our gifts be practical, useful? The thing is that we are commanded to love God and love our neighbor. When Jesus says, the poor you will always have with you, he is not saying not to serve the poor – in fact he’s quoting from Deuteronomy, that explicitly says because you will always have the poor with you, you should always serve them.

But Jesus knows that loving your neighbor comes from a deeper source. It comes from loving God. And we pragmatic Americans, like Judas, may want to see measurable results from loving God – we may want to see effectiveness. But it seems that God doesn’t measure love in terms of effectiveness. God’s love for us, after all, is extravagant, overflowing, like a broken jar of oil costing a year’s income.

Christian theology says that God’s love overflowed into creation and caused all things to come to be. And God’s love overflowed into Jesus, who came into the world as the Son of God, whose love was poured out for us, whose body like ours was bound together from the elements of the universe, an earthen jar of clay, but was broken on the cross, so that his love could spill out – a love that was stronger than death, a love that would not stay locked in a tomb, a love that overflows to everlasting life.

And what this story tells us is that God’s love is not only poured out for us, God actually hungers for our love in return – our overflowing, extravagant love. That God loves us with an intensity so passionate that God’s Son would rather die than be separated from us, and that God yearns for us to love him in the same extravagant way Jesus loves us.

With the same kind of intensity that Paul showed in the epistle reading – crying out passionately, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

That’s the love God wants from us. A love that is nurtured by worship and reading the stories of God. A love that is strengthened by spending time with Jesus in daily prayer and in simple conversation about the events of our lives and our world, and by spending time with him in the sacraments and in the people he loves. A love that overflows from us into the people around us, so we can’t help telling them about Christ’s love.

A love that is the most important thing in our lives, so that our love too is extravagant and overflowing, carrying with it the sweet smell of God’s love, a smell that seeps into our hair and clothes and pores, and every now and then brings us scent of love that will never wear off, love that overcomes death and the grave and carries us to everlasting life.

Sermon for 2.21.16

Scriptures for this Sunday are here.

Listen to this sermon here:

In the Episcopal calendar of saints last week, we remembered Janani Luwum. Born in Uganda in 1922, he was a lifelong Anglican, educated in England. He returned to Uganda and rose to become archbishop of Uganda in 1974. It was a position where he could either collude with the dictator Idi Amin, or risk his life by opposing his brutal regime. He chose the second course, becoming a leading critic of excesses of regime. In 1976, when government troops attacked and ransacked a university, Luwum chaired a group of religious leaders that wrote a memo of protest.

In 1977, Luwum and other leaders were summoned to the presidential palace and accused of treason. The other leaders were asked to leave, but Luwum was told to remain behind. As his companions left, Luwum told them, “They are going to kill me. I am not afraid.” He was never seen alive again, and the next day his family told he was killed in a car crash. At his funeral, his body still missing, the crowd chanted, “He is not here! He is risen!” Several weeks later, his body was finally released to his family. They opened the casket and saw that he was riddled with bullets.

According to witnesses, he was probably personally shot by Idi Amin. He’s one of the most celebrated 20th century Anglican martyrs, with his statue at Westminster Abbey among the martyrs of the church.

As I listened to his story last Wednesday in evening prayer, I was struck with not only the courage he displayed in opposing the regime, but the incredible contrast his life poses with mine, and with most of ours. For us, being Christian requires no particular courage. It may even score us points in being more upstanding, better connected in society than others – after all, political candidates in US score big points for being Christians. Because Christians are dominant in the US, it’s easy for us to have lukewarm faith, to take no chances, to treat our faith as incidental to our lives, something to fit in after we’ve done everything else that is important to us. We can take Jesus for granted, we can assume he will be there to comfort us when we are in trouble, we can live our life taking no risks for the gospel. The life of a martyr, who lives with courage, who subjects himself to persecution and death for the sake of Jesus and the ones Jesus loves, is almost startling to us. We know long-ago Christians risked everything for their faith. It’s much easier to forget that Christians are still doing these things today. And even easier to forget that Jesus still calls us to risky, courageous living for the sake of our faith.

Take a look at the gospel today for an example of risky courage. It’s an odd little story, full of foxes and hens and little chicks being gathered up under mama’s wings. But it’s also a story of courage and daring. So often today we see love as an easy, pleasant, feel-good thing. But love for Jesus is not a simple sentimental emotion, a way of looking kind and nice to his neighbors, a way of fitting in and being socially acceptable, which is what love too often means for Americans, with our romantic movies and Valentines.

Love for Jesus isn’t about Valentines and chocolates – love for Jesus is risky, it’s dangerous, it is courageous, it’s frightening, it requires him to be vulnerable.

We could easily see this little hen Jesus compares himself to as a sweet, domestic, affectionate little creature – and that’s true, but it’s not complete. Because this motherly little hen is using her body to shield her chicks from the fox Herod, who is a stand-in for all the corrupt powers of the world that oppress people. Bishop NT Wright points to a well-known farmyard image: of a barnyard after a fire, with a blackened hen dead in the fire, with her wings spread out, still sheltering a brood of living chicks, protected by her body. The motherly love of that hen takes form of sacrificing herself to save her children.

Jesus knows perfectly well that’s exactly what will be required of him. He knows the people in power want to kill him. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, where he will die. And he’s determined to do exactly that, for love. When helpful Pharisees try to warn him off confronting the powers in Jerusalem, the seat of power in his country, because Herod wants to kill him, Jesus responds not with fear of the painful death he knows is awaiting him, but with tenderness for the very people who are putting him in danger. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he laments. “The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Indeed, many prophets have been ill-treated in Jerusalem, as the Bible tells us. And we should not make the mistake of interpreting this lament as anti-Jewish or an indictment of Jerusalem alone, because Jesus and all the disciples were Jewish. What Jesus is talking about here is the universal human tendency for the powerful to protect themselves at the expense of others, to do anything, including murder, to shore up their strength. He is speaking in the role of the prophet. Prophets are those who, as the Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Comforting the afflicted is what Jesus is doing with his healing ministry “today and tomorrow” – that is, on an everyday basis. But on the third day, he finishes his work, moving to Jerusalem, the seat of power, to afflict the comfortable – and the powerful people in Jerusalem, like in any society, will not respond well to being afflicted – they will kill him.

But his death will have a purpose: his reference to the “third day” makes it clear. His death will open the way to eternal life; it will defeat the power of evil and death; and it will show us the ultimate way of self-giving love.

Love is more than a cozy, comfortable emotion. Jesus’ love for his city Jerusalem, and for any city or community or nation where people struggle for power and control, takes the form of courageous tenderness that puts himself at risk, where he interjects himself into places of danger out of love. And his willingness to risk himself will mean salvation for those he loves.

Christian love means that we might lose everything, but it means that we, and the world, might gain everything too. The world is better for the witness of Jawani Luwum, who gave everything for love; and the world has salvation because Jesus was willing to spread his wings over us and protect us – which is courageous, daring, risk-taking, self-giving love.

So how, in our comfortable world where we are at no risk of being persecuted for our faith, are we to exercise such daring, courageous, self-giving love? Interestingly, the social work researcher Brene Brown has done a lot of work on this question. If you’ve seen her famous TED talk, you know that she became interested in how people live what she called “whole-hearted lives.” She’s Episcopalian and got the term from our confession – we have not loved you with our whole heart.

She discovered that people who experience joy in life weren’t different from others because they had fewer problems, or more money, or better health, or a more comfortable upbringing, or more education, or anything else. What they had was the courage to risk being vulnerable. Because love is inherently risky. Any connection with another human being, she found, requires us to open up and let that other person see us as we really are – which means that in order to love, we have to forget about being perfect, we have to dare to be vulnerable.

True human love and care for another person requires accepting who we are and allowing other people to accept that too. And who we are is imperfect struggling people. And the people who were willing to be vulnerable, she found, were the ones who knew how to love, who lived with conviction, who committed themselves to others. She points out that we so often see “courage” as a sort of iron shell, where a person has no vulnerability at all. When in fact “courage” is a willingness to give your heart to something even though it will almost certainly hurt. As I discovered when my first child was born, the choice to become a parent is a choice to let part of your heart go walking around outside your body from then on.

Any love is like that. Any love requires vulnerability. Any love is risky. Any love takes courage. But love – risky, dangerous, courageous love – lets us live wholehearted lives.

I think in that truth is the key to the Christian life. Because the truth at the heart of our faith is that we are imperfect people. We make mistakes, we ask for forgiveness, we know we cannot save ourselves, we allow God to save us.

We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.

In our recognition of who we truly are, in our admission before God and before others that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, we gain the ability to live with courage. To open ourselves to connection with God, to let God’s love live in us. To share that love with others.

Because courageous martyrdom like Janani Luwum’s is not the only kind. In the church those who have died for their faith are “red martyrs”.

But there’s another kind – “white martyrs.” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said this week that white martyrs are those whose lives are so utterly dedicated to Christ, whose life is so surrendered, that they speak of Christ in everything they do or say. Which is where I think we comfortable, religiously free Americans can give real witness to our faith, can live with courage and love for this world. Because our society may be perfectly happy for us to call ourselves Christian, that may even score us some points, but for us to live like Christ, to witness to him in everything we do or say, to have the courage to speak our faith and speak out our love and care for this world and take action to make that love real; to challenge those who hurt others, to oppose the powers of poverty, crime, racism, oppression, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable: these things take courage. The courage to risk our reputation for our love. But that kind of courage is worth it.

Because in our life and in our death, in our love and in our courage, like Jesus, we glorify God. And that is the goal of the Christian life.


Sermon for 1.17.16

Scriptures for today are here.

What’s the difference between change and transformation? A writer named Lenn Milam talks about this. A change happened recently in the town he lives in – a new stop sign was put up at an intersection he drives through on a regular basis. That’s the kind of change that requires you to adopt different habits, right? Only one day he sort of rolled through the new stop sign, seeing no reason to change his old habits. And immediately, of course, he heard a siren behind him. He got a ticket for running the stop sign, but more important, he got a lecture from the police officer about why the stop sign was there, about how many accidents there had been at this intersection, about people the officer had personally seen hurt there because of their own or other drivers’ carelessness. And it caused a change in heart – a realization that rolling through this intersection as he had been doing for years could have terrible consequences. And it was that change in heart, not the stop sign, that led him to change his behavior from then on. The stop sign was a change – the new understanding was a transformation.

Business writers talk about this: change happens when management creates a new rule that people are supposed to follow. Transformation happens when employees work together to discover what changes would be best for the company’s mission. Change is imposed from the outside – all of us undergo change. We get older, our health changes, our jobs change, our relationships change, children grow up and move away – changes are things from the outside that we have to adjust to. But transformation comes from the inside – transformation is a shift of fundamental beliefs and priorities.

And transformation that comes from the inside, versus change that is imposed from the outside, is far more likely to produce lasting differences in the way people behave. The writer Flora Slosson Wuellner says in her bookTransformation: Our Fear, Our Longing, “Transformation involves much more than mere adaptation to outer manipulation. Transformation implies new being, new creation rather than change.”

Change happens to all of us. But transformation is our choice. Transformation happens inside us because of an epiphany – a revelation. A person getting a ticket for rolling through a stop sign changes his behavior because he has an epiphany that someone could get hurt, and it might even be him.

In the Bible, people have epiphanies when they look at Jesus and realize new truths about him. In the church, we are celebrating the season of Epiphany now. During Epiphany, we read one story after another of how Jesus was revealed to the world, and how people were transformed as result. Epiphanies bring transformation. And transformation happens because at the deep, interior, cellular level, people change their beliefs and priorities, and at our best, transformed, enlightened people can inspire whole communities, even nations to new ways of being.

It is clear from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the end that he came to bring about transformation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in John’s gospel. John is an artist, and nothing he writes is accidental or meaningless. So when today’s gospel begins, “On the third day,” we are supposed to sit up and pay attention. In the arc of the story that’s happening, John is talking about the third day after Jesus first called his disciples to follow him. But in the wider story that John is telling, we know first of all that the “third day” was the day when Jesus rose from the dead, the day of new creation.

And looking back to the beginning of John’s gospel, we see parallels between John and Genesis, the very first book of the Bible, with the creation story, the original story of transformation, when all things came to be. John opens his gospel with the words, In the Beginning, just like Genesis. In John’s first chapter, he tells us that Jesus was right there in Genesis, with God from the very beginning of creation, that Jesus WAS the very Word God spoke to make creation come into being: Let there be light.

And that first chapter of Genesis goes on to tell us, poetically, what happened after the beginning: the seven days of creation and what God did on each day. (Parenthetically – the creation story in Genesis is not intended to be a scientific treatise; it’s intended to be a theological one – not a conflict with science.) Back to Genesis – on the third day of creation, it says, God separated the land from the seas, and planted seeds that brought forth plants and trees. So, on the third day of creation, the land begins to flower and blossom.

Which is exactly what John says is happening at this wedding at Cana on the third day as water is not just changed, but transformed, to wine. Jesus has come into the world to bring transformation, new creation. In this miracle of turning water into wine, God’s new creation in Jesus is beginning to flower and blossom.


Jesus was here.

Now of course this miracle gives rise to many jokes: invite Jesus to your next party! He’ll bring the wine! Changing water into wine can seem trivial, a little parlor-trick miracle, and for years I thought it was. I couldn’t understand why Jesus would waste his time on a silly miracle like this. But there are important things happening here, beyond the memory of creation.

First, the fact that it happened at a wedding. Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding tells us that not only does God bless and transform human love and human relationships as holy and sacred. It also points to God’s eternal covenant with people of Israel and all God’s people, often described in Old Testament (like the lesson from Isaiah today) as a covenant of love and commitment so deep that it is like a marriage. God is so in love with us, so committed to us, that God will never let us go.

And specifically changing water into wine points to another image for the people of Israel that is often used in Bible: God’s people as God’s holy vineyard, that God planted and tends and wants to bear fruit, just as the earth began to bear fruit on the third day of creation. We are planted here as God’s holy people to bear the fruit of love in the world.

And when Jesus starts with ordinary, plain water, it’s the same water that is the most abundant element on earth, the same water that composes 70% of our bodies, the same water we are baptized in, the same water that brings us to new birth as part of the family of God. But when he takes that water that represents us, the people of God, and transforms it at the deepest cellular level into wine – it becomes a new creation. It represents the love of God, it represents the vineyard of God bearing fruit.

And as we know, it also represents the very blood of Jesus that we share in Communion, the blood of Christ that becomes a part of our own bodies when we worship together. Looking forward in the gospel of John, it tells us when Jesus dies, a soldier pierces his side with a spear and blood and water runs out. John doesn’t want us to miss this detail – He writes with emphasis: “He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.” In other words, he’s saying, I know this is incredible, but it’s the truth. I saw it, I saw blood and water come out together.

The blood and water mixed together at Jesus’ death are like the people of God being mixed in and transformed into the wine of the kingdom of God – the good wine, the wine we celebrate with, the wine that is so abundant that it’s equal to nearly 1,000 bottles, the wine that is better than any wine anyone has tasted before, the wine that is served at the eternal wedding banquet of heavenly court. The wine that represents our eternal destiny as people of God, and the wine that represents our calling to transformation into the wine of kingdom now.

Jesus wants to transform us at deepest cellular level, into very body of Christ, still bringing transformation into this world today. Because as Christian people, we are called not only to interior transformation that assures us of a place in that eternal banquet. We are also called to work for the transformation, re-creation of this world.

This week, in honor of the Martin Luther King holiday, I watched the movie “Selma” again. It reminded me that it was precisely Dr. King’s faith in Jesus that called him to work for the transformation of the nation. And it was his faith in the tradition of non-violent resistance that he saw in Jesus’ ministry that inspired others in the country to be transformed. Having laws that assured people of the right to vote wasn’t enough as long as other human beings could be endlessly inventive about how to deny them those rights. But watching peaceful people being attacked on TV transformed the hearts of a nation, and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Martin Luther King is one example of how our faith in Jesus and the deep interior, cellular-level transformation he brings can help us to start bearing fruit in the world: planting further seeds of God’s kingdom, transforming the world with God’s love. Not that that work is complete because some victories have been won. We know that racial barriers, for instance, in this country still exist. The work of dismantling racism, injustice, poverty in this world continues.

But it is our calling as people who have accepted the love of Christ, who have been baptized into his body, and who have been transformed into the wine of the eternal wedding banquet, to continue to work for the transformation of the world, so that all of God’s beloved people can flourish.

An Epiphany, like the one we remember today, is a revelation of God’s love. And in the epiphany of Jesus turning ordinary water into the wine of the kingdom, we are invited to share in that miracle. We are invited to the wedding at Cana, along with Jesus and his disciples. We are invited to sense the good wine, to see it, smell it, taste it.

And we are invited not only to observe that good wine, but to become it. To let it transform us from the inside out – through worship and prayer, Bible study and service, giving and sharing the good news of Christ. Transforming lives with the love of Jesus Christ.


Sermon for Nov. 22, 2015

In 1919, in the aftermath of World War One, Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote perhaps his most famous poem, “The Second Coming.” The first stanza goes like this:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

In the second stanza, he expresses his theme in Christian words: “Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” But in the third stanza, it becomes clear that he’s not talking about Jesus’ second coming, the one we describe in our creeds, as he ends with: “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

In his poem, Yeats seemed to express all the fear and anxiety of the modern world, a world in which frightening, anarchical violence spins out of control. It’s an understandable feeling in the wake of the first world war, with its senseless slaughter and endless trench warfare. And it anticipated the horrors of the 20th century that were yet to come, horrors that were unimaginably worse than the world had seen before.

And we, here, in the 21st century, could repeat those words all over again: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” What words could better describe a world wracked by terror? After all, our new millennium started with 9/11, and we seem to reel from one act of senseless violence after another, as students are in danger in schools, ordinary people are in danger in movie theaters, and just this month a new anxiety has gripped us, with terror attacks in Beirut, in Nigeria, in Mali, in Jerusalem, and perhaps hitting closer to home for many of us, in Paris. It’s a city where some of us have traveled, and where my own daughter spent a summer studying a couple of years ago – so I was struck with grief when I learned that an American college student had died in the attacks.

The attack in Paris horrifies me because I can imagine myself enjoying a concert or dinner in a café, and having my life suddenly, irrevocably torn apart. Even closer to home, as a mother of one daughter who is a college student, and one daughter who is a teacher in middle school, the shootings in schools terrify me because I can imagine one of my children being there. “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” – an apt description of a world wracked by terror.

The thing with terrorism is, it doesn’t have real strategic importance – what do terrorists really gain by killing civilians in Paris or Mali, what do lone gunmen gain by shooting up elementary schools and colleges? Nothing, really. St. Augustine way back in the 4th century wrote that one of the major characteristics of evil is that it IS senseless, pure destruction. In his Confessions, he tells a boyhood story of running around with a gang of boys and stealing pears from an orchard, taking one bite of each pear, and throwing the rest away. It was a senseless act of destruction because the boys who stole the pears didn’t even eat them.

In the case of terrorism, there is no strategic purpose, no sense or meaning to the violence and destruction except the fear that comes over the rest of the population – people like you and me who can imagine themselves in the same situation, and grow afraid. That’s why it’s called terror, after all – its main purpose is to inspire fear.

So here’s the question that we have to address as Christians in times like these: What does our faith have to say to us in a time of terror? How are we to live and believe? Well, the first thing to remember is that one of the most often repeated phrases in all of Scripture is: Be not afraid. I did a quick computer search that showed that some variation of this phrase appears in the Bible at least 78 times. God says it to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph; Moses says it to the people of Israel getting ready to escape from Egypt; the prophets say it numerous times to a people fearful of conquest; the angel Gabriel says it to both Mary and Joseph as he is preparing them for Jesus’ birth; Jesus says it to his disciples when he calls them to come follow him, and Jesus says it to them again when he is preparing to die: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

In a very real sense, we could say that God called Israel as a people, and Jesus came to humans as the Son of Man and Son of God, on purpose so that we should not fear – not fear evil, not fear death, not fear any powers that might overcome and harm us. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We are not subjects to fear.

Or, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Fear changes us, fear makes us close in upon ourselves, fear prevents us from acting in accordance with our values, fear separates us from each other and convinces us that we can rely upon no one but ourselves. And Jesus has come to release us from the power of fear and power of death.

Jesus shows us in the gospel today what it means to live without fear. Today is Christ the King Sunday, when we recognize the coming Kingdom of God, but we choose an odd gospel to honor a king – the gospel where the king is sentenced to death. Jesus stands before Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate thinks Jesus is the one on trial, but Jesus puts Pilate and the kingdoms of this world on trial instead.

Knowing that Pilate has the power of state terror behind him, knowing that Pilate can torture him and have him killed, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, and that his kingship brings him into the world to witness to the truth. In the face of lies, power struggles, and violence used as instruments of political ends of the Roman Empire, the one thing Jesus has to proclaim is the truth that there is a different kingdom. And those who belong to the truth, he says, listen to his voice. The next line of the story is not in the lectionary today, but Pilate simply sneers, “What is truth?” Those who belong to the kingdom of lies can hardly believe that truth exists.

But it does exist, in Jesus and in Jesus’ kingdom. And truth stands against all the lies told by the evil powerful ones in this world. Truth stands against all the false kingdoms of the world. Truth stands against the senselessness of evil. Truth stands against violence and death. And the truth, soon after this scene, will be sentenced to die on the cross, in another senseless, and ironic, act of evil and terror. That’s what the cross was: an act of violence, sponsored by the Roman state, meant to strike fear in hearts of Jews who might fight back against the power of Rome.

And it was a very effective tool of terror – except in the case of Jesus. Because Jesus died, and yet was raised from the dead. Fear and death and the rulers of this world had no power over him. In Jesus, truth triumphs over lies, and life triumphs over death, and we have been invited into a new kingdom in which true justice – not the justice of Pilate – reigns supreme. And in Jesus, we await a Second Coming that is not like the Second Coming Yeats saw – some rough beast, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born – but the Second Coming of Christ’s Kingdom: the Kingdom we pray for each Sunday, where God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.

For Christians, the challenge before us is how to live as followers of Christ in the meantime. As followers of Christ, we are asked to make Christ’s story our own story. So how do we live as citizens of Christ’s kingdom, tellers of Christ’s story, when Christ’s kingdom has not yet fully come?

In a sense, we Christians stand with one foot in each kingdom: one foot in the kingdom of this world, and one foot in the coming kingdom of Christ. In the kingdom of this world, I am not a pacifist: I believe that the good must stand up against evil: forces of law and order and justice must rise up against the senselessness of evil, defend the powerless, protect the refugee, bring the guilty to justice. And the powers of good do sometimes prevail; but as soon as one Nazi Germany is defeated, another evil arises. The fight against evil is a constant one.

For us regular people, who don’t have decision-making power in this world, I think the most important thing for us to do is to have confidence in God, so we don’t become subject to the fear that closes us in on ourselves; to hold onto our values to love God and love our neighbor, because that’s what Jesus has given us to do.

Because as Christians, we know the truth that is beyond all lies: that evil cannot ultimately win. That’s the lesson of the cross. God is more powerful than evil, life is more powerful than death. And the final defeat of evil and terror will come in that day we pray for, when Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end.

The ultimate temptation for us in a time of terror is to lose our faith and believe that evil will win the day. But if we believe that, we forget that the only power terrorists have is the power of fear and death. And against the power of fear and death, we can hold up the power of the life-giving cross. The cross that lets death triumph, and yet rises beyond death to bring life. The cross that is most powerful expression of love this world has ever seen. The cross that is the ultimate throne of the ultimate king of the promised kingdom of God.

A kingdom in which the Holy Spirit renews the face of the earth. A kingdom in which God wipes away every tear. A kingdom in which love triumphs, and hate will no longer exist. A kingdom that will bring all people together to serve the God of love. A kingdom in which there is no fear, no terror, no sighing, no grieving, but only life everlasting.

And in that hope that rises above despair, we take our stand for the Lord of love, Christ our King. Amen.

Sermon for October 4, 2015

Scriptures for today are Here

You know the movie – it could be any movie. It could be Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. It could be “When Harry Met Sally” or the Jane Austen knockoff teen romance “Clueless.” It could be any movie romantic comedy. They all end the same way. After one problem, miscommunication, and misunderstanding after another, the lovers discover that they like one another after all. They resolve their differences. They talk out their troubles. Their hearts fill with love. The closing music swells. And in a beautiful montage, at a wedding or on New Year’s Eve or at the high school prom, they dance in each other’s arms.

And we know, even if the closing line doesn’t appear in beautiful cursive script on the ending screen, that the ending is, “They Lived Happily Ever After.” It’s all very satisfying.

I think that quite possibly, what is so satisfying about that standard ending is that no one in history has ever actually lived happily ever after like that. Every single person who has ever gotten married has discovered what I often tell new couples who are preparing for marriage: the marriage ceremony is not the end of the story – it’s the beginning. The marriage begins a long life of ups and downs, life in good times and bad. Which is why, in The Episcopal Church, we promise to marry for better for worse. Because real life is not a fairy tale, and none of us will sail through life feeling the whole time like we’re Cinderella and the Prince dancing at the ball at a quarter to midnight. Life is just not that easy.

Which is what makes today’s gospel so relevant, and possibly so startling, to so many of us today. We’ve all had relationships, and most of us have had relationships that failed. And in many ways, we can look at our human relationships – not just our marriages, but also our other family relationships and our friendships and our relationships within our workplaces and our schools and our Christian communities – as laboratories for life. As practice for what it means to be a Christian. As the best way we humans have to discover and explore what it means to love God and love our neighbors. If we want to learn how to love, God gives us plenty of chances, starting with the people closest to us and moving out from there.

But it’s not easy. Love is never easy. There are those Cinderella and the Prince moments, but there are also those for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health moments. And Christian life is a matter of figuring out how to love – not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard. After all, that’s how Jesus loved us.

So what’s going on in this gospel about marriage and divorce? The first thing to understand is that the folks who come to Jesus and ask this question are not really interested in Jesus’ views on marriage. They don’t really believe he is an authority on this or any issue. Instead, they want him to take sides on a controversial issue, which is, how do you interpret Scripture (which for them mean the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures)? Whatever he says about this controversial issue, he will make enemies.

In this case, the question they are really asking is this: Is the Bible a rule book that you have to interpret absolutely literally and follow word for word, like a set of legal regulations? And if so, how do you justify some of the unjust and difficult results that will occur? Or is the Bible something that allows room for broader interpretation? And if so, how do you justify departing from the letter of the law?

In the case of divorce, if you interpret the Bible as a word-for-word, literal rule book, then the rule is clear in Deuteronomy 24:1: a man can divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever, if he finds anything “objectionable” about her, or for no reason at all. But under Jewish law, she doesn’t have a corresponding way to divorce her husband; for example, she has no way to escape from an abusive marriage. And given the economic and social climate of Jesus’ time, a woman who was divorced by her husband had no right to any property, no right to alimony, no future rights to her children – they are the property of their father, and he can prohibit her from seeing them if he wants to. And if her parents won’t take her back, then she is out on the street with no way to support herself except begging or prostitution. In such a situation, divorce is a terrible injustice, and everyone knows it.

The other school of thought was that divorce was allowed only for adultery (this departs from the letter of the law of Scripture, and therefore this is the liberal view). The liberal view in this case is also the merciful view – it protects the weak, it ensures that women will not be thrown out on the street. But if you take the liberal view, you can be accused of not honoring the scriptures.

So watch how Jesus avoids the trap. The Pharisees ask about divorce and Jesus instead talks about marriage. He puts the narrow scripture of Deuteronomy 24:1, which allows men to divorce their wives for any reason at all, into conversation with the broader scope of Scripture as the record of God’s love for humankind. In a conflict in interpretation between one narrow scripture and a broader view of all scripture, Jesus gives more weight to the broader scripture. The way Jesus reads it, scripture is far more than a narrow book of laws and regulations; scripture is a narrative of God’s true, lived relationship with people who are continually imperfect, continually falling short of the ideal for which God has created them.

Jesus explains the ideal of God’s hope for human marriage by talking about God’s hope for humans in creation: God created world, called it “good” in Genesis Chapter 1. Yet God immediately recognized in Genesis Chapter 2 that there was something not good: “it is not good for the human being (Adam) to be alone” – and God created a partner for Adam (Eve). The Biblical story of creation recognizes that human beings are made to live in relationship with each other and with God, which in marriage means a faithful, monogamous, lifelong commitment. Yet the fact is that that ideal did not persist for long given the realities of how humans relate to each other – polygamy and divorce were common by the time of the Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs.

Jesus understands this reality, and says the reason for the law allowing divorce in Deuteronomy is hardness of heart – human sin – and the result was, in practice, that divorce was an injustice perpetrated against the weak (women) by the powerful (their husbands). Jesus speaks against this injustice by appealing to the broader purposes of God: respect, equality, love that honors the other above oneself, a marriage covenant that means a lifetime commitment.

So given that background, we need to understand in our own time, how Scripture applies. In our time: divorce is all too common – look at celebrities who don’t take the marriage commitment seriously when they make it, who seem to change partners as often as they change clothes. Who act like any romance is a movie romantic comedy – full of infatuation and warm glowing feelings. But in real life, that warm glow of romance is often followed by confrontation with the daily reality of sharing your life with someone else, and sometimes that means that strong romantic feelings, feelings of infatuation may begin to fade. If we’re not careful, we can read that loss of feeling as a loss of true love. When the fact is, as I tell new couples that daily routine of living with each other is when you really have the opportunity to learn to love.

Which begs the question: what is love, really? The Christian answer is that love is not a feeling but an action, a series of actions and decisions that you make, day in, and day out. To grow in full humanness, human beings must grow in relationship. Learning to love another person, over a long period of time, with the opportunity to experience each other’s flaws, to be in conflict and to reconcile, to compromise and to learn to put the other’s welfare before our own – for many of us, whether this challenge comes in marriage or some other relationship, this is the most difficult challenge we’ll ever face. Yet, with all its difficulties, if we figure out how to do it, the love we experience with another human being is the closest experience many of us will ever have with the kind of love God offers us.

Understanding more about what love is helps us understand marriage. Christian marriage is a covenant, not a contract. A person enters into a contract for his or her own benefit, and a contract is null and void if one provision is not met. And if marriage were a contract, it would mean that when we lose that pleasant infatuated feeling, we might as well leave – because we’re not getting what we want. From a legal sense, our society sees marriage as a contract.

But from a Christian standpoint, marriage is not a contract but a covenant. A covenant is unconditional, entered for the other’s benefit rather than our own. In a covenant, we commit to love the other more than we love ourselves. We commit to depend on each other, to make ourselves vulnerable with each other, to open our hearts to each other in trust and love. A covenant relationship requires us to ask: is this relationship fulfilling God’s purpose for us as human beings?

That question is why the Episcopal Church has decided to allow divorce and remarriage. There are some relationships that fall into patterns of abuse or addiction or mistreatment or simple human failure, and we humans can’t rescue them. One broad theme of scripture is there is always room for forgiveness and grace. God’s love for us and desire for us to flourish is why we recognize divorce and allow remarriage in the Episcopal Church; there is always forgiveness, there is always new life, there is always the hope of learning and growing.

In the case of divorce: is forgiveness available? Of course – this is the good news that Jesus brings to us. Is new life, new hope, new beginning possible? Yes, God can bring joy and hope out of despair and failure (after all, that’s one message of the cross!). We rejoice in the healing that remarriage after divorce can bring.

And a third question: is love a gift from God? Of course it is. But it’s not a gift you simply receive. It’s a gift you also give, from your heart, for the benefit of the other person, not for yourself. Because, after all, that’s the way Jesus loved us. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Sermon for Sept. 27, 2015

Scriptures for today are Here

In an article in the NY Times a few years ago, Zev Chafetz, who calls himself a Jewish agnostic, goes on a tour to learn how to pray, or at least to observe how others pray. He visits a giant church, the Brooklyn Tabernacle, which has a 250-voice gospel choir and what the pastor calls the biggest weekday prayer service in America. People call in prayer requests that are handed out to members of the congregation, and in small groups they pray for the people who requested the prayers. Zev receives a card for Pete and Angela, who are struggling with financial problems. In his small group, he explains that he doesn’t pray, and asks someone else to do it. But then he feels bad for Pete and Angela, who requested prayers in good faith. He tells his group he’s thinking good thoughts about them, and pronounces the words of a Hebrew blessing he remembers from his childhood. He goes home not much wiser about prayer, but feeling better because he did his duty.

He continues his investigation by going to an Anglican spiritual director, who listens kindly as he tells of his spiritual journey (or lack of it), then tells him that in future sessions they will explore what is meaningful to him. He goes to a Reform Jewish synagogue, where the rabbi laments the quality of prayers in a congregation where many people live too much in their heads, not their hearts (something that some Episcopalians share!). The rabbi explains that there are really only four basic prayers: Gimme, thanks, oops, and wow! And to learn to pray, you should start with Thanks!

Chafetz visits with Catholics, who explain classic Christian spiritual exercises. He visits an interfaith prayer service with leaders from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism to various kinds of Christians, all praying together in their own way.

And then, on Easter morning, he visits a small Pentecostal congregation in West Virginia, where before the service, seeing a stranger, the kids crowd around him, and begin to talk about prayer. One explains that she prayed for her grandmother when she broke her leg, and her grandmother is getting better; one tells how she prayed for her sister’s asthma, and her sister was healed, a third tells about the whole congregation praying for a boy who was burned, and the boy was recovering.

As it turned out, this was Zev’s favorite lesson in prayer of all his visits. He writes: “I liked being in this one. Especially the kids. They didn’t need … prayer techniques, or the high-tech mantras of the Brooklyn Tabernacle. Their prayers weren’t Rabbi Gellman’s suburban Jewish prayers of Thanks! offered to whom it may concern. They didn’t pray to de-center their egos or find transcendence or to set off on a lifelong therapeutic spiritual journey. They prayed to a God with whom they were on a first-name basis, and they believed their prayers gave them power, which they used on behalf of their asthmatic sisters and infirm grandparents and a kid they knew with burns on his body. Sitting in church on Easter morning, I realized that I was probably never going to become a praying man. But if, by some miracle, I ever do, I hope my prayers will be like the prayers of the kids I met at the Love church in Berkeley Springs. Straight-up Gimme! on behalf of people who really need the help.”

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective, says James in the Epistle today. James is a strange epistle: light on theology, heavy on living a Christian life. Some people think James is too heavy on works righteousness: that is, on arguing that our behavior as Christians is more important than our faith in Jesus. But I think if you read James closely, you see that James assumes that Jesus has already saved us, and how we act now is our response to being saved.

We just sang one of my favorite hymns: “Come thou fount of every blessing.” It’s written by an individual crying out to God; it’s a prayer for blessing. As we sing, we recognize our own weaknesses, and God’s ability to overcome them: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” We know as we sing, that faulty, imperfect people that we are, God is able to forgive us, welcome us into his kingdom, and help us grow as new people.

James in the epistle today talks about the same thing: the sinner being brought back from wandering. First Jesus embraces us, brings us into the fold, and then everything we do after that is in response to that gift: our life becomes an extended prayer of “Thanks.”

We’ve been reading James’ letter over past few weeks in worship, and we’ve heard James talking about how people in church behave toward each other. He has talked about how Christian faith needs to be lived out in a Christian way of life; he has criticized the rich, the hypocrites; he has gone to great lengths to explain the damage that people can do to each other by unkind talk, calling the tongue a blaze that can set church on fire, a destructive fire instead of the fire of the Holy Spirit that is supposed to set us ablaze. He has criticized conflict and said flatly that faith without works is dead. His concern has been for Christian community, that we live out our faith in communities that reflect the love that God has given us as a free gift in Christ.

And today he comes to the point: all that we do is lived in the shelter of God’s grace, and therefore every Christian action is truly prayer, because prayer is Christian life, and Christian life is prayer. We live in the presence of God. So praying is the primary action that the Christian community does together, not only in formal prayer addressed to God, but in the words we speak to each other, which are also a form of prayer, for good or ill, and in the ways we reach out to each other with acts of healing, forgiveness and grace.

As the friends and relatives of the children Zev Chafetz talked to at the small church in West Virginia were healed and given the love of the Christian community through prayer, so all of us are brought together through praying together. So we pray for each other, we anoint each other for healing, we confess our sins, we give thanks and sing songs of praise together, and all these are prayer.

And in praying, we recognize two things about God: God is transcendent and mysterious, larger than we can understand or imagine; a mystery to be experienced but not explained. But God is also as close to us as our own breath, God is intimately involved in human affairs, and God is vitally interested in us, in listening to us and speaking to us, and God can truly make a difference in our lives.

Like in the gospel today, where Jesus uses exaggerated language (don’t try this at home! He doesn’t mean it literally!) to make the point that we should turn away from criticizing other Christians and instead look inside ourselves and work to remove whatever separates us from God, we pray for healing, forgiveness and grace because we believe that God can take action in our world. We believe that our faith and our longing for God is a prayer that God will answer with presence and love.

But this is a mystery too: why is it that God knows our needs before we ask, and yet the asking is important? Why is it that God loves us before we know about God’s love, and yet the prayer for healing is necessary?

The prayer of faith will save the sick, says James – but how, and why? After all, we’ve all known many people who received heartfelt prayers for healing, and yet were not cured of their diseases.

I believe that prayer is effective because it opens our hearts and minds to a reality that is beyond the material world; it brings us into a place where the spirituality that is a true and important part of us – and yet an easily ignored and often neglected part – can become integrated with our physical being. And so our prayer to God, for ourselves and for others, helps heal our spirits even when our bodies are not cured. Curing is not the same as healing. Healing can mean restoring relationships, it can mean assuring someone of God’s presence and love, it can mean giving peace and a holy end. I believe when we pray, God always answers in some way. Prayer makes a difference, in individual lives and the life of the community.

When I was studying to become a priest, I worked for a summer as a chaplain in a hospital. One day, I was called to the ICU, and found there a scene of incredible drama. A man who was addicted to methamphetamines had been injecting drugs directly into his carotid artery. He developed an abscess, which burst while he was being prepped for surgery, and a tech who just happened to be standing by put his finger in the dike and saved his life. When I got there, the man was crying out for God, asking for a Catholic priest to give him last rites. I couldn’t do that, but I could pray with him, and I did.

And over next few weeks, as he recovered physically – a medical miracle in itself – I learned his story, heard how his drug habit had separated him from his family and everything he had once worked and hoped for, had left him completely alone and bereft – and I began praying with him. And I watched as little by little, he was healed – he left his addiction behind, he restored relationships with his family. It was a miracle that wouldn’t have happened without God’s grace.

I can look at that situation and ask, why would God pour healing grace and a miracle cure on this man, who had wasted so much of his life? I don’t know. What I do know is that God loved this man, as God loves us all – and that prayer over a long period of time saved him and restored him to Christian life. Which is what the Christian community is for. We are here to help each other. We are here to pray for each other. We are here to build each other up. We pray, we sing, we confess our sins, we anoint the sick, we share a holy feast together. All of these things bring us together in the body of Christ. Because all of our life together is prayer, spoken and lived in the presence of God.

Sermon for 9.6.15

Scriptures for today are here.

Just this week was the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. Three years after the storm, in 2008, I went to New Orleans for some church conference or other. One of the offerings of the conference was a bus tour of the neighborhoods that had been ruined by the storm.

-12ece5ef083f04dfSo I joined the bus tour, and rode slowly through these neighborhoods, where you could still see water lines on the outside of houses that showed how high the water had risen. On most of the houses were spray-painted markings, and guides explained the markings to us. Rescuers would go into a house and spray-paint a big “X” on the houses, and in each quadrant they would write markings that told other people who had been there, when they had been there, and what they had found – how many people and animals, dead or alive. Through the windows, we stared, fascinated, at those x-codes that told snippets of the stories of what had happened in each house.

And then, as our bus approached the Lower Ninth Ward, it stopped and a young African-American man got on. The Lower Ninth Ward, of course, was below sea level, and as is the case in so many places, the least desirable real estate is where the poorest people live. So the Lower Ninth Ward was overwhelmingly African-American, and very poor.

But this young man who got on the bus grew up there, and for him it was a community, a neighborhood. He told us how he had grown up, how he had known every person on his street, from the children he played with to the women who kept an eye on them from their kitchen windows and front porches, and scolded them if their play got too rowdy.

By the time of Katrina, he had moved to another part of the city to go to school. But he came home the night before the storm to try to convince his mother to leave. She refused, she insisted on staying with her house to protect it, so he went back to his apartment. And as he left, he walked down the street where he grew up, toward the corner where he would catch the bus to take him away. And as he walked he said hello to people: young people he had played with as children; women who helped raise him, who he called “Auntie;” the elderly gentleman across the street who taught him how to change the oil in his first car; the pastor’s wife on the corner who taught him in Sunday school and directed him in the church choir – all out on their front porches, all waving at him and saying hello, and goodbye, to a friend.

And it was only a week later, as he was grieving the death of his mother, that it hit him that every single person he talked to that afternoon was gone.

He couldn’t tell the story without weeping for the people he had lost, for the community he had lost, and we couldn’t listen without weeping too.

Because although we are all very different people, the human heart is universal.

And part of what struck me, an educated, comfortable, white person staring out of a bus window three years later at an incomprehensible scene of not disaster, but desolation, emptiness – blocks and blocks of empty yards with weeds and concrete foundations, the houses that had been built on them simply gone – was that although the hurricane itself was a natural disaster, the human suffering that followed was an economic and social disaster. It was made worse by the barriers that arise between human beings as a result of history and race and money, and some of those barriers are truly life-threatening to the poor.

And I knew that surely God’s heart broke just as this young man’s did, surely God wants to see dangerous, heartbreaking barriers that separate people and keep them in desperate situations, fall, so we all can live in security and safety.

God’s love for the human race, and God’s hope for barriers to fall and for all people to live and thrive, is woven throughout the scriptures. Over and over, God tells us to care for the poor, to care for the widows and orphans, to love those who are different from ourselves. Our Proverbs lesson and James lesson both say we are to help the poor. And James says flatly, Faith without works is dead – you can’t just believe – you have to act. In other words, if our faith is alive, our love for others will be alive, and we will reach out in compassion to others because our God loves them.

And then our gospel lesson today presents us with a startling story of Jesus being confronted by an outsider, responding the way his society expects him to – maintaining barriers of class and nationality – and being brought up short by a woman who helps him discover his true mission.

So what is it Jesus does here that is so startling? He calls a woman a “dog.” He goes to a foreign country – if it’s not clear from the story, Tyre is outside Israel, in what is now south Lebanon, on the shore of the Mediterranean. So you can imagine Jesus wanting a little rest and recreation at the beach, and going there secretly to rest. But his presence doesn’t stay a secret: a non-Jewish woman, a Syrian woman, comes to him, desperate because her daughter is terribly ill, and what mother wouldn’t do the same?

Jesus looks at this suffering woman and says, you don’t take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs – basically saying Jews are the children, Gentiles are dogs, and Gentiles don’t deserve what he has to offer. (And remember, most of us in this room are Gentiles – that’s us he’s talking about.)

In other words, though Jesus was both human and divine, his human side was brought up to respect the barriers that divide people, and those barriers are strong, so strong that even the Son of God has a moment when he seems subject to them.

The woman persists, and he changes his mind, and heals the child. But the problem for us is – how could Jesus have said this? The perfectly nice, all-knowing, compassionate Jesus we know and love? I have read and heard lots of commentaries that say Jesus didn’t mean it. Lots of people say, oh, Jesus was just testing the woman’s faith, and she passed. Others say, oh, Jesus was actually testing the disciples’ faith to see if they would give the right answer, and when they failed, he turned to the woman who said the right thing. Maybe – I guess it’s possible – but our story doesn’t say that’s what happened. That doesn’t seem to be what Mark is saying. I think we should take this story at face value, realize that it is difficult, and wrestle with it as it is – and when we do, new things appear.

First of all, the reason we have a problem with this story is, we think Jesus should have known all the time that Gentiles like us were included in his mission. But what’s wrong with Jesus not knowing this from the beginning? What’s wrong with Jesus having a human veil that partially concealed God’s will from him? What’s wrong with Jesus learning over time, through prayer and interaction with the world, what his true mission was, just like we have to do? What’s wrong with him being able to open his ears, listen to what someone new was telling him, across an age-old human barrier, and learning from it? Learning from it something so momentous that it changes his whole mission?

We see in this story Jesus himself, his human side, being trapped by all the same barriers we humans are trapped by, assuming that someone different should be shunned – and then we see those barriers between human beings falling, as Jesus realizes his mission is not just to people like him, but to the whole world. Mark seems to show this moment very clearly as a turning point for Jesus. Where before, Mark shows him only healing and preaching to Jews, afterwards we see Jesus opening up his mission to all kinds of people.

So what’s wrong with seeing this story as Mark saw it, that this was a turning point for Jesus, that one lowly, suffering, desperate, foreign woman could come to him and open his ears and his eyes to a whole new aspect of God’s plan?

I love it that Jesus listened to this woman and changed his mind. Because you know what that means? It means that God listens to you and me too. It means that God hears us when we pray. It means that God is in true relationship with us, and that we matter to God. It means that we are not puppets who perform a little drama that God has scripted in advance, and God just sits back to enjoy the play. It means that God respects us, listens to us, and is willing to truly respond to us.

Jesus opened his ears, listened to a woman, and changed his mission.

And if we have any doubt about whether that’s what Mark wants us to understand, I think the next story seals the deal: Jesus opens the ears of a deaf man and that man begins to speak clearly.

This is a story about listening. This is a story about understanding. This is a story about transformation and mission. If Jesus can open his ears and listen, then so can we. We can listen to each other across barriers of race and class and wealth, we can listen to each other across barriers of political disagreement.

And we can learn that God loves the least of those in this world, that God aches for every struggling single mother and every person who doesn’t have enough food or education or a place to live and every Syrian refugee we see in heartbreaking photographs.

Because although we are all very different people, the human heart is universal. And God loves us, each one of us – and God calls us to reach out in love.

As I rode in that bus that hot day in 2008, looking at scenes of emptiness that used to be the Lower Ninth Ward, the bus pulled up to one of the few buildings left standing. It was a brick building that used to be a Walgreen’s, and unlike the wooden houses around it, it survived the storm. And because Walgreen’s didn’t see any hope for business in that empty neighborhood, the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana bought it and opened a church there.

On this weekday, church volunteers were setting up toys and books and shelves and rugs for a children’s after-school program. They were providing children with a safe place to stay while their parents tried to rebuild their lives – giving them food and water and the assurance they were cared for. And person after person in the city told me that the only people who were truly helping were the churches – where official programs failed, Christian people were coming in, rebuilding, caring for children, and making a difference.

And that, I think, is the meaning of our gospel today. That God doesn’t see, doesn’t want to see, our barriers of race and class and wealth. That our call is to open our ears, to listen to each other, to love each other, to reach out to others in compassion, to make a difference in this world.

Because although we are different, the human heart is universal, and God loves us all.

Sermon for 8.23.15

Scriptures for today are here.

Victor Frankl was a prominent Jewish psychiatrist in Vienna – but in 1942, he was arrested, along with most of his family, and sent to a concentration camp. The rest of his family died, but Frankl survived, and in 9 days in 1946, he wrote a book that the Library of Congress in 1991 called one of the 10 most influential books in America: Man’s Search for Meaning. In the book, Frankl wrote about his experiences in the camps and his work counseling other prisoners there.

Frankl concluded that the difference between those who lived and those who died in the camps didn’t have so much to do with their physical condition or the things they suffered: it had to do with whether they had meaning in their lives. Those who believed their lives had meaning and purpose were far more able to bear suffering, had a far greater will to live, than those who didn’t. He told about two people he had counseled in the camps, who in the miserable conditions were both considering suicide. Neither saw much reason to live, because like everyone would be there, they were deeply unhappy.

But Frankl helped them both to see that they had something to live for, a deeper meaning to their lives than what they were suffering right then. One was a scientist and wanted to finish a series of books to help the cause of science. One had a child who had escaped and was living in another country, and wanted to find him after the war. “In both cases,” Frankl wrote, ‘it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in future was expected of them.” Both of those men – and presumably all the prisoners – were deeply unhappy, yet for those who found meaning, there was a reason to live. They survived.

An article in the Atlantic in 2013 talked about this idea of happiness versus meaning. Six out of 10 Americans say they are happy, but 4 out of 10 say they haven’t found a satisfying life purpose. A major psychological study explored this difference. Happiness arises when you are well fed, maybe you are sitting in a comfortable chair, you’re watching a good movie, you have no complaints. Your immediate physical needs are met. Animals can be happy just as much as humans can. So happiness comes from external factors – it’s associated with getting what you want, receiving, taking.

But having meaning and purpose in life, the study found, is associated with giving. And what humans can have that animals don’t have is meaning. The study said: “Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression.”

And ironically, just pursuit of happiness, just spending one’s life making sure you get what you want, makes people in the long-term lead a less happy, less satisfied life. According to the study: “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

For instance, parents of small children aren’t as happy as those without – they get less sleep, they don’t get to eat what they like all the time, they don’t get to go out as much, they have their attention diverted from what they want to be reading or watching or doing to what is good for their kids – endlessly reading Goodnight Moon, for instance. I wonder how many hours I’ve spent reading that book – bored to tears by the book itself, but it was worth it, because to those kids snuggled up in their pajamas, the lesson it taught was not just the book. It was the lesson that I love them, a lesson of infinite value.

And parents of small children unsurprisingly report that despite the inconvenience, they see the children they are pouring themselves into as a big part of their life’s meaning. Raising children is an exercise in giving, not taking.

The study participants in general said they got meaning from sacrificing on behalf of others and being a part of a group. Martin Seligman, one of authors, wrote that in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”

People who have great meaning in life will actively seek out challenges that will bring short-term decreases in happiness – for instance, going on mission trips even though you might be uncomfortable. Having meaning in life brings us joy, as opposed to happiness. Joy means a deep satisfaction that can arise even in the most difficult circumstances. Joy means a person in a concentration camp, or in a hospital, or suffering grief from the death of a loved one, or without enough money to live comfortably, or sacrificing her own comfort for the good of others, has a real sense that her life is worth living, or that he is giving himself to something important.

This difference between meaning and happiness, I think, helps explain what is going on in today’s gospel. Today we finally come to end of Bread of Life story that we’ve been reading for 5 weeks. Remember how it started – Jesus fed 5,000 people with a few loaves and fish. He satisfied their physical needs, he made them happy.

But it turns out that giving happiness is not the reason he has fed them. It turns out that Jesus wants to give them a deeper meaning and purpose: called eternal life, that starts now and goes to eternity. And that that deeper meaning and purpose will involve sacrifice, it will demand giving of themselves, it will require them to open their minds to uncomfortable truths.

Jesus talks about the bread he gives the people as being “bread from heaven,” like manna in the wilderness. Giving manna to feed the people of Israel as they were escaping from slavery in Egypt was not just God’s way of giving happiness, meeting their immediate physical needs. It was God’s way of giving meaning – leading them to freedom. They had to learn to trust God.

But nevertheless, they grumbled, they complained, they failed to trust. They kept yearning for their old lives in slavery, where they weren’t free, but they knew where their next meal was coming from and where they would sleep each night. God didn’t listen to their complaints, but kept on leading them to freedom instead – which is much bigger than happiness.

In the gospel today we find something similar happening. The people around Jesus hear the teaching about Jesus being bread from heaven, they hear him say to eat his flesh and drink his blood. They hear him demand that they begin to live with his essence as part of their very selves, part of the blood running in their veins. They hear him asking them to abide with him, to take him in as a very part of their lives, flesh and blood, body and soul, in a bond of love that can’t be broken. They hear him offering them meaning and purpose – in this life and to eternal life.

And they want to run back to the simple, the predictable, the known. They have the same basic problem the Israelites had – they don’t trust God. When Jesus says to “believe” – he doesn’t mean believe with your head, adopt a set of beliefs, but believe with your heart. It’s like saying to someone, “I believe in you” – you’re not saying I believe you exist, but rather: I believe in what you are doing, I put my trust in you. The kind of belief Jesus wants from us is an “I believe in you “ belief – a willingness to put our hearts on the line, follow where Jesus leads, no matter how difficult or unlikely his words and his promises seem.

Believing in Jesus means doing things that bring meaning to life – sacrificing yourself, giving to others, devoting yourself to a cause that’s bigger than you. It means I believe in you, Jesus, I put my trust in you, or as Peter says, Where else would we go? I am going to follow wherever you lead because you have the words of eternal life. You have the words of love that bring meaning and purpose to my life.

So where is Jesus going to lead us? Well, Jesus sometimes leads in some difficult directions. Jesus isn’t easy to follow. Jesus will sometimes lead us into unjust situations and call on us to change them. Jesus will say astonishing things like, Forgive others as you have been forgiven. Love your enemies. Don’t judge other people, because you might be judged too. Whatever you have done to the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Take up your cross and follow me.

Jesus might give us a mission and ministry that could transform lives. Following Jesus might be difficult. But it could also be amazing, it could be fulfilling, it could change us, from the inside out, and it could change the world.

Which brings us back to Victor Frankl and the search for meaning versus the pursuit of happiness. Where is it that you find meaning in your life? Many of us might say in our family, or our work. But something brought you here this morning – even though you had other options. Maybe something said, God, just give me one more hour of sleep, maybe you wanted to linger over breakfast and the paper, maybe it was hard getting the kids dressed and in the car. But you left behind short-term happiness, and came here in search of meaning.

(Not that you won’t find happiness here! Maybe you’ll hear some beautiful music, maybe you’ll hear an interesting sermon – or maybe not – maybe you’ll see people you enjoy.)

But at heart, I believe that the reason people are part of Christ’s church is because as human beings, we need a deeper meaning and purpose in our lives.

So perhaps you came here wondering how Jesus would feed you today, body and soul; perhaps you came hoping that your children would learn the great truth that Jesus loves them, that lesson of infinite value; perhaps you came looking for whatever healing God might bring; perhaps you came seeking a word Christ might speak into your life; perhaps you came listening for a call from the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps you come here because every now and then, there’s a moment when the blazing presence of God is gloriously apparent, and then it fades, but it brings inexplicable tears to your eyes because you have fleetingly touched the divine. And when that happens, when you hear that call or experience that presence or feel that healing or know that Jesus truly, deeply loves you, and abides in you, then you have the deepest, most meaningful, most true thing to believe in, in the world.

That God, our Christ, our beloved Jesus, has the words of eternal life. And in him, we find our life’s truest meaning and purpose.

Episcopal Resurrection and the 78th General Convention

IMG_1740“We are one together, yo, yo, yo,” we sang in the House of Deputies. Our chaplain, the Rev. Lester Mackenzie of Los Angeles, taught us this chant as part of our prayers, and at times, the song would break out spontaneously.

For me, nothing could describe better the feeling I had throughout this Convention. With a few exceptions, our discussions were courteous and thoughtful, with care given for those who disagreed. We made momentous decisions, on marriage equality, church structure, and evangelism initiatives. We elected a new Presiding Bishop who will be an amazing, inspiring Chief Evangelism Officer for our church. And for my group of friends who worked together on Episcopal Resurrection (friends who first came together around the Acts 8 Moment), the whole experience brought us closer together in friendship and united us in our dedication to God’s mission in the church. We are one together, yo, yo, yo!

For me, the whole experience of Convention was intertwined with my personal experience of Episcopal Resurrection and Acts 8 – a group of folks that I spent this Convention planning, strategizing, and socializing with.

Episcopal Resurrection

Back in April, six friends and I got together in Columbus, Ohio, and talked about what we believed the church needed to accomplish at this Convention. That meeting resulted in A Memorial to the Church, a kind of open letter that launched publicly on Ascension Day. We called on Convention to engage deeply in prayer and discernment about where the church is called to go, to fund evangelism initiatives extravagantly, and to release our hold on old structures and conflicts that do not serve the church well. We invited anyone who was inspired by the Memorial to sign on, and about 500 people did, including 33 bishops.

I believe the Memorial, and the discussion and excitement it generated, helped to set a tone for this Convention. This is the third Convention I have attended as a deputy, and in contrast to the other two, I saw far more focus on Jesus’ call to proclaim the good news this time, and far less focus on conflict.

ER folks

Some of our Episcopal Resurrection friends. though we’re missing a few.

At the bottom of this post, I’ll give a summary of how Episcopal Resurrection’s resolutions did in Convention. Most of them passed, some with enthusiastic support. I think is safe to say that Episcopal Resurrection had a measurable effect on Convention this year. To me, that fact goes to show that our polity in the Episcopal Church truly is democratic. A determined minority of folks who capture others’ attention and imagination can influence the course of the church. We had no church-wide funding (we paid ourselves for our plane tickets to Columbus, our advertising on social media, our buttons and cards, and our meeting rooms for our two gatherings at Convention). We had no official authorization to do the work we did. But we were deputies to Convention, we made proposals, and we made a difference.

There were many inspiring moments at this Convention for me. The election of +Michael Curry as our new Presiding Bishop (and he is going to be a great PB!), his closing sermon, the moment we passed the church planting initiative and the other resolutions I worked with others to draft, the tears of joy shed by many when the marriage equality resolutions passed, and many more moments inspired me.

But of all the amazing moments of this Convention, my favorite, stunning moment was when the budget amendment passed that allowed additional funds for church planting and Latino/Hispanic ministries.

Let’s be clear – this budget amendment did not make some folks happy, including some folks on PB&F. I like and admire the members of PB&F, with whom I worked as the leader of Council’s budget process. But without apology, I will say that I believe that the most vital, essential, strategic move our church can make at this moment in our history is to plant new churches, including among Latinos. We have to do this, and we have to do it now. For too long, our church has been timid, acting as though we believe that we don’t have any particular good news to share. It’s time to break out of that kind of conservatism. It’s time to take a risk for the gospel. It’s time to plant new churches.

Our Episcopal Resurrection group was ecstatic when D005, our church planting resolution, passed both houses. The House of Bishops actually burst into applause when the initiative passed there. But later that same day, we heard that PB&F’s budget proposal (which would be presented in a joint session the next day, and voted on the day after) would have no additional funding for church planting beyond what was in Executive Council’s budget, nor any additional funding for Latino/Hispanic ministries – an area closely allied with church planting, in our view. Immediately, we began to consider what we could do to remedy this neglect of the very areas of ministry that we believed could lead our church into a new era of growth and vitality.

Very soon, we came up with the idea of proposing an amendment to the budget, to be funded by an additional 0.5% draw on the church’s endowment. (The endowment has earned over 8% for a number of years, and we have drawn only 5% per year.) Now, we had all been to Conventions before, and we knew that amendments to PB&F’s budget proposals NEVER pass. NEVER. This proposed budget amendment was a “futile and stupid gesture,” in the immortal words of John Belushi in Animal House. But if a futile and stupid gesture would bring attention to this vital area of ministry, we were willing to do it.

So we started planning, the day before PB&F’s budget came up for a vote. Frank Logue, who served on PB&F, came up with the idea of funding D005 and A086 with an additional 0.5% draw on the endowment, and drafted the proposed amendment. The rest of us carefully planned how we would get to the microphones and propose, and then speak to, the amendment. On the day of the budget debate, many of our group queued in to propose or speak to the amendment. Frank was the first to get to the mike, and proposed the amendment. I was the third speaker, and had the honor of supporting it on the floor. The amendment passed the House of Deputies by a wide margin. Our group sat in amazed disbelief – for the first time in memory, a budget amendment had passed. And that budget amendment was to fund evangelism: church planting and Latino/Hispanic ministries. We were in awe. A new day had come to the church.

Later that same day, folks who were able to attend the budget debate in the House of Bishops kept those of us who were waiting in the House of Deputies informed about what was going on. After several speakers urged fiscal conservatism, bishop after bishop spoke in favor of our proposal. Bishop Hahn of Lexington was reported to have said, “I’d rather not be part of a church with a growing endowment and declining membership.” That sentiment carried the day in the House of Bishops, and our Episcopal Resurrection group rejoiced as texts from the observers there let us know that the amended budget had passed.

As an Executive Council member, and for the past triennium as a member of its Finances for Mission committee, I do have sympathy for those who want to be careful with our resources. And I do have hope that we can find ways to fund the evangelism initiatives without drawing as much from the endowment earnings as we voted to do at Convention. But I have to agree with Bishop Hahn – a growing endowment means little if we aren’t doing the mission Jesus calls us to do. And that mission means going out, doing the scary thing, taking a risk to reach new people and new populations. That mission means evangelism and church planting – and I am grateful to be part of a church that decided to take a risk for the sake of the gospel.

We are one together, yo, yo, yo!

By the way: by all means leave a comment. However, basically the moment I press “publish” on this post, I am leaving for China for a long-anticipated family vacation, and won’t have access to my blog to approve comments till I return. If your comment doesn’t appear for a while, that’s why. 

Footnote: How did the Episcopal Resurrection Proposals Do? Here’s a summary of how our proposals ended up. I think it’s safe to say that Episcopal Resurrection changed the conversation at Convention in a number of ways – around evangelism, and around the structure conversation.

The Memorial: Was commended to Convention, and all bishops and deputies were urged to share it with their communities and congregations, in resolution A179. I believe the Memorial had an effect far beyond A179, however; it helped set the tone for a Convention that would vote to include evangelism initiatives in the budget.

We also drafted nine resolutions for Convention, and signed on to a tenth. Here is the scorecard on how our resolutions did. (Note: you can see our original proposals here, and you can see the final proposals that were passed here.)

ER resolutions

D005: Creating a Capacity to Plant Churches: This is a very bold and strategic initiative, not only to provide grants for church planting, but also to train church planting leaders, including lay and ordained leaders for Latino/Hispanic church plants. This initiative passed with enthusiastic support in both houses – the House of Bishops reportedly broke into applause when it passed. It was NOT funded in PB&F’s proposed budget, but with some legislative work, our Episcopal Resurrection group managed to propose and get passed a $2.8 million addition to the budget that will help fund D005 and also A086, a resolution on Latino/Hispanic ministries. In addition, the Development Office is asked to raise money for this initiative.

D009: Revitalization of Congregations: This resolution also passed both houses with wide support, but it received no funding. However, the resolution still calls on the Development Office to raise money to fund this initiative, so it may yet see the light of day.

B009: Conducting an Online Digital Evangelism Test: This resolution passed with wide support, especially on The Twitters. It also received significant funding. Watch for the Episcopal Church to start developing a much stronger social media presence, including ways to connect with people who are searching online for answers to life’s questions, and helping connect them with local communities of faith.

D007: Permit Dioceses to Explore Shared Ministry and Collaboration: Passed. This resolution loosens up the requirements for dioceses to have separate Commissions on Ministry so that they can explore ways of sharing resources. Our original resolution allowed a diocesan bishop to reside outside his/her diocese if the bishop living in another diocese where he/she also serves, but this provision was struck.

D003: Amend Article V of the Constitution: Passed. This is the first reading of a constitutional amendment, which must be approved at two consecutive General Conventions to become effective. This provision allows two dioceses to merge when one is without a diocesan bishop – the precise time that may be most attractive for a merger.

D004: Create a Task Force to Study Episcopal Elections: Passed. Apparently there was some anxiety in some places about whether this task force would impose church-approved candidates on dioceses. That was certainly not our intent. While the hope for more diversity in the House of Bishops was the part of this resolution that received the most attention, we also hoped that a set of best practices would be created that would be electronically available, to help bishop search processes become more transparent. The next question is whether the funding allocated to this task force by Executive Council (out of Convention’s total budget for CCABs) will be adequate to the task.

D008: Amend Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution: Passed. This is the first reading of a constitutional change. If passed on the second reading, it would allow the two houses of General Convention to hold joint sessions and deliberate and vote together. While TREC proposed an immediate move to a unicameral Convention, this intermediate step allows us more flexibility to experiment with joint sessions and see how we like them.

D013: Budget Process for the Episcopal Church: Passed with some significant modifications. Our proposal clarified the budget process so the canons conform to actual practice (we haven’t actually followed our canons on the budget in years). We made the diocesan “asking” into a mandatory assessment, with waivers to be granted by Executive Council for dioceses that cannot pay the full amount; this provision becomes effective in 2019. Thank God for this change, which I believe will contribute greatly to the spiritual health of the church, as all dioceses participate equally in paying their fair share. My hope is that the assessment could even fall below 15% as this provision takes effect.

The most significant change to our original resolution was that we proposed that the President of the House of Deputies should receive a salary, a proposal that seemed self-evident to us since it is a full-time, unpaid position. Keeping it as an unpaid position means that only independently wealthy or retired people can serve, and as the Bible says, the laborer deserves her/his pay.

However, this provision caused significant controversy in the House of Bishops, which reportedly complained about the increasing scope of the PHoD position (apparently without irony, given the corresponding increasing scope of the Presiding Bishop position). This sniping at the PHoD by the bishops seemed petty and mean-spirited to many deputies. The people in the purple shirts would not dream of working for no pay – why would they demand it of others? In the end, after significant work by a conference committee (the first since 1997), the two houses compromised on this issue by agreeing to form a task force to explore issues of leadership and compensation for the PHoD. The whole conflict seemed indicative of the deep divide that has opened between bishops and deputies over the last several years. I hope that over the next three years, reconciliation will come, and  the full scope of the PHoD’s position will be recognized and honored. And I certainly hope that we can build trust and work together productively – after all, in God’s kingdom, we are all on the same team.

D010: Clarify Officers of the Episcopal Church: Discharged, but some provisions from this proposal were folded into A004, which clarified the roles of the Presiding Officers, Executive Council, and staff. One of Episcopal Resurrection’s contributions to A004 was to propose the position of Chief Legal Officer. Resolution A004 was the subject of some intense debate and compromise, but in the end, it passed both houses.

D011: Eliminate Provinces: Substitute resolution passed. Our original resolution, which would have eliminated provinces altogether, was re-written to establish a task force to study provinces and report back to the next General Convention with ideas for what might take their place if they were eliminated. On the Governance & Structure committee, on which I served, testimony on the provinces resolution clearly fell along age lines. Older folks testified to the meaningful contributions of provinces and the networks they support; younger folks wondered why networks should be organized geographically and involve required governance structures, when electronic communications make organizing along interest lines much easier. As I listened to the testimony, it became evident to me that though the time for eliminating provinces may not be now, that time is coming. And the networks we form in the future will be right for that time, just as the Provinces were the right networks for their time.

Overall Episcopal Resurrection scorecard: 6 resolutions passed essentially unchanged; 2 resolutions passed with modifications; one resolution discharged, but with significant provisions combined into another resolution; one resolution caused intense conversation and was referred to a study committee. One Memorial changed the conversation around the church. A pretty good record, overall.