Sermon Notes for 4.19.15

Sometimes the hands of the people we love are as familiar to us as our own hands. I think of my mother’s hands – not long and slim and elegant, not delicate feminine hands, but strong and capable hands. I can think back to my childhood and remember those hands – holding my hand as we walked across the street, patiently showing me how to tie my shoes, carefully holding my small hand clutching a pencil, showing me how to make words on paper, testing my forehead to see if I had a fever, putting a Band-aid on a skinned knee, playing the piano, not expertly, but well enough to play carols while we decorated the Christmas tree. Or, more recently, making beautiful vestments for her daughter, the priest. From a thousand miles away I can picture my mother’s hands, in detail.

And maybe you’re like that, too, with the people you love. Maybe you remember the thrill, the first time you held hands with a person you came to love. Maybe you remember the moment your spouse first put your wedding ring on your finger. Maybe the first time you saw your newborn child, you held out your finger and watched her tiny hand clutch it tightly, and maybe it made you cry because that tiny child had a grip on life so determined and so strong. The hands of those we love are imprinted on our minds.

Perhaps this is why the resurrected Jesus says “Look at my hands and my feet. Touch me and see.” The familiar hands that healed and blessed, the familiar feet that walked for miles alongside his friends – these they know as well as their own hands and feet. Yet these familiar hands are also evidence of Jesus’ death, carrying the wounds of his terrifying crucifixion. But here he is, in the midst of his friends, and these familiar, wounded hands and feet become evidence not only of death, but also of resurrection.

Luke, our gospel writer, is very careful to make sure we understand that the resurrection of Jesus is outside all categories we can understand. Jesus has a physical body – you can touch him, and he can eat a piece of broiled fish, of all things. it’s not a completely new body, because it still carries the marks of Jesus’ life on earth: the wounds of his crucifixion are still there on his hands and feet. But it’s not a physical body like yours and mine: he can suddenly appear behind locked doors, he can walk for miles alongside two good friends who don’t recognize him until he does something characteristic, like break bread and bless it, and then he disappears from their sight. This is a category of life we can’t possibly understand.

We understand the category of living people, and Jesus does not fit into this category, because he has died – the scriptures are emphatic about this. His death on the cross was no fake – he was dead and laid in tomb, and many people saw it happen.

We understand category of dead people – but Jesus doesn’t fit here either. Dead people do not get up and walk around – the ancient Jews knew this well. Modern people sometimes think the disciples must have been simple country bumpkins who didn’t know about death, and that’s why they could make up this crazy story about resurrection. But let’s be clear – they were far more familiar with death than we are – they lived with it every day. Their children died young, their wives and sisters and mothers died in childbirth, their elderly parents lived in the same house with them, they watched people die gruesome deaths on public crosses. They didn’t have sterile hospital rooms and beautifully appointed mortuaries that mask the reality of death. When someone died, the whole family was there with them. They knew far more, far more personally, about death than we do. These folks understood category of dead people, and Jesus didn’t fit it.

We even understand the category of ghosts. We may not believe in it, but we can understand what ghosts are – spirits of those who have died, who somehow linger and sometimes communicate with the living world. But Luke is very clear that Jesus is not a ghost, or a disembodied spirit, the soul of Jesus living on after his body has died: you can’t touch a ghost; a ghost doesn’t eat broiled fish. Jesus is not a ghost.

And we can understand the category of memories, but Jesus is not a memory, a realization that even after death, life still goes on, and Jesus’ kind words will live on even if his body doesn’t. This resurrected Jesus does not fit that category either. In fact, Jesus does not fit any of our known categories: living, dead, ghost, memory – Jesus is something neither the disciples nor we have ever seen before.

Jesus is something new: he is resurrected. Which is something that shatters all our known categories, a phenomenon that establishes a whole new order of being, something that has to open our minds to new possibilities for each of us. In the resurrection of Jesus, God is doing something new and unexpected, establishing a whole new category. Luke wants to be absolutely certain we understand: this resurrected body of Jesus’ is completely continuous with Jesus’ life on earth, and yet the resurrected Jesus is a whole new order of creation, something that somehow describes what God intends for all of us to become, in our eternal life in God’s presence . We don’t need to fear death – what Jesus was in the resurrection is what we will become.

But I think there’s more to the gospel writers’ insistence on the tangible reality of the resurrected Jesus than that. When we think of Jesus’ resurrection, our temptation is to spiritualize it like the disciples who thought the resurrected Jesus was a ghost; to say, see, the life of the spirit is more important than life of the old, discarded body, to say that Christianity means life after death, and that’s what really counts. That’s what the slave owners of the American South tried to tell their slaves, that their suffering now, in this life, didn’t matter, because Jesus would take them to heaven someday. But those same slaves could read in the scriptures that the God who promised life after death was the same God who heard the cries of the slaves in Egypt, the cries of those who were groaning under oppression, and brought them out of slavery into freedom in the Promised Land.

When we think of the resurrection of Jesus as a completely “spiritual” thing, we run the risk of doing the same thing those slave owners did. We might be tempted to think that the conditions of this world don’t matter, that God intends to rescue us all from this earth anyway, and so it’s all right that people live in poverty, that people are hungry, that people suffer.

Yet if we are tempted to think that Jesus cares only about so-called spiritual things, things like prayer and meditation and life after death, Jesus calls us right back to physical reality, the reality that you and I live in, the touchable, visible, embodied reality of everyday life, with these words: Look at my hands and my feet, he says. Touch me and see.

If nothing else is clear from our scriptures, what must be clear is that God is involved in our world – in its messiness, in its physicalness, in the everyday reality of things we can touch and see and feel. Here and now is where God comes to us. And here and now is where God calls us to be witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection: witnesses in a way that makes that resurrection an observable, tangible reality in this world.

Jesus comes to us in simple, physical ways still today: the water of baptism, the bread and wine of holy communion. Yet St. John Chrysostom and several bishops of our church said, if you can see Christ’s body in the bread on the altar but you can’t see it in the beggar on the street, you haven’t seen him at all.

The wounds of Christ direct us to the wounds of the world, they call us to be witnesses of resurrection, they call us to be healers in this world.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the terrible bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and if you lived through that time, you can remember extraordinary stories of heroism in the midst of that disaster: people who risked their own lives to bring others out, people plunging into the burning rubble to save children in the day care center, doctors who labored for hours in a dark hole that was really too small for them, to amputate the leg of a woman trapped under debris, to get her out of a building that could have collapsed on her, and on them, at any moment, people putting their own hands to work in the service of others.

The Episcopal bishop of Oklahoma, Ed Konieczny, wrote to his diocese this week that when we think of those sad events, “let us not focus our attention on stories of anger, fear, or violence; but, rather, let us turn our attention to the stories of hope, love, and community that surround that day. Let us remember the immeasurably courageous rescuers who plunged into danger to save our neighbors. Let us remember the unified fortitude and kindness our capital city portrayed, reminding us all that we are truly stronger together than we are apart.”

I was touched this week to read that the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum is calling each Oklahoman this month in memory of the victims to do one act of service, one act of honor, and one act of kindness.  Which I think is a discipline all Christians could undertake – in memory of all those who suffer and fall victim to the evil of this world, and in witness through it all to the resurrection of Jesus that tells us that this world matters, its suffering matters, its physical realities of poverty and hunger matter.

We could all do one act of service – for instance, we could participate in our Habitat for Humanity build date on May 2, we could help provide Mother’s Day gifts for homeless women through our purse collection, we could help feed the hungry at the Santa Maria Food Bank, we could do any number of other acts of service to help those in need.

We could do one act of honor – something to remember someone we love, a hero we admire, or someone who is currently working to serve others – like, for instance, what my friends and I used to do in high school: bake cookies to take to the firefighters in the fire station down the street.

We could do one act of kindness – visit a friend who is lonely, take a vow to say only kind things about each other, work to build up and support each other, this whole season of resurrection.

Acts of service, honor, kindness: These are things that Christians do – because we are witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus, because we have felt the touch of his hands in our lives. Here I am, says Jesus. Touch and see.

The Mission of the Church-wide Structure

The Acts 8 Moment is asking: what is the mission of the church-wide structure? Maybe the fact that we call this thing by an unwieldy name like “the church-wide structure” is some sort of clue that we have no idea what this thing is or what it’s supposed to be doing.

Since I have been involved in ministry at the church-wide level, I have noted several things: first, that there is a lot of talk about “mission.” Second, that “mission” means different things to different people, who often talk at cross-purposes, because two people can use the same word to mean completely different things. And third, that we in the Episcopal Church really don’t know what our church-wide structure’s mission is, except that it has some “Marks,” as defined by the Anglican Communion. According to its website, the Five Marks of Mission are:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

The Book of Common Prayer, though, doesn’t talk about any Marks of Mission. Instead, it says the church’s mission is to reconcile all people to unity with God and each other in Christ – which, to me, is one of those mission statements that is so broad that it doesn’t give any direction at all.

So let’s look at what some of our leaders have said. The Chief Operating Officer of the DFMS, Bishop Stacy Sauls, recently said that he believes that “the church exists to do two things: to serve the poor and create servants of the poor.”

On the other hand, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently said this about the mission of the church: “First, the church exists to worship God in Jesus Christ. Second, the Church exists to make new disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything else is decoration. Some of it may be very necessary, useful, or wonderful decoration – but it’s decoration.”

I’m going to throw in my lot with Archbishop Welby here. I agree that worshiping God and making disciples of Jesus Christ are the primary missions of the church. Those committed disciples, nourished by Word and Sacrament, are the people who will serve the poor and accomplish all the other Marks of Mission. That’s the way the Great Commission is framed: Jesus tells the disciples to go and make more disciples, teaching them to obey Jesus’ commands, including the commands to serve the poor and to work toward reconciliation. The church must make disciples if it is going to accomplish anything else at all.

But Acts 8’s question wasn’t the mission of the church – the question was the mission of the church-wide structure. If we don’t know its mission, then we risk “mission creep” – letting it move into areas that are properly not its missions. This costs money and can be an unwelcome and inappropriate exercise of power. So we should know the church-wide structure’s missions. This is what I think they are:

  • To support dioceses and local congregations in doing the mission of the church; in other words, to support the work of making disciples and putting those disciples to work serving God’s people and accomplishing the other Marks of Mission.
  • To make decisions for the welfare of the whole church, including common prayer, clergy and leader discipline, ordination requirements, and so forth. (We do this decision-making in the Episcopal Church through our governance structures, which actually are fairly important structures supporting church-wide mission.)
  • To coordinate the church’s relationship with outside groups (including affiliate groups such as ecumenical and Anglican Communion partners, and relations with political entities), and to communicate about the church to the world. In this category belongs some work on Mark 4: transforming unjust structures does sometimes call for prominent church-wide voices to speak.
  • To provide Spirit-led, strategic leadership in order to inspire dioceses and local congregations to accomplish church mission.

DFMS can support the local church in making disciples in a number of ways. It can provide staff persons who bring people together to share resources, and provide expert support to dioceses and congregations. It can provide funding for strategically important ministries. Most importantly and transformatively, I believe, the church-wide structure can support local mission by doing the fourth thing on my list: providing Spirit-led, inspirational, strategic leadership.

This last item, inspirational leadership, is where I believe the church-wide structure has not done well over the past couple of decades. I am not pointing fingers at any particular leader; rather, I am pointing to the fact that the church has not seemed to be able to focus on any strategic initiatives that would reverse its decline and support the whole church in making disciples. We haven’t planted churches in nearly the number we need; we haven’t made it a priority to reach out to the rapidly growing Latino population; we haven’t focused on ministries with children, youth, and young adults. We have created big concepts like the “Decade of Evangelism,” and then haven’t done anything about them other than agree that they might be good ideas. Leadership takes more than pretty words; it takes strategic focus and action.

We can declare all we want to that numbers don’t mean anything and that all mainline denominations are declining and that our birthrate is lower than other churches’ and that the world is changing and that kids play soccer on Sunday mornings. Those are all fine excuses. None of these assertions changes the fact that our church has not focused in a strategic way on making new disciples. Spirit-led, inspired, strategic leadership could change that. Not by doing the work of making disciples – this happens at the local level, led by Christians who understand their local contexts and are willing to try risky and creative ideas – but by repeatedly, strategically, and inspirationally calling the church’s attention to the vital necessity of doing this risky work.

That’s what I’m missing from our denominational structure – inspirational leadership. Let’s hope the changes coming at the next Convention – from the “restructuring” process to the PB election – focus us on our mission of making disciples and inspire us to start taking serious, strategic steps to accomplish it.

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Addictions and the Church

Like you, I have prayed and agonized over the tragic Heather Cook situation. Like you, the night I heard about it, I lay awake, praying for the family of Tom Palermo, picturing what Heather Cook must be going through at that moment, wondering what I would do and feel if I had done what she did. Like you, I have watched in distress as more and more of the story has unfolded – what did her two diocesan bishops (Easton and Maryland) know and when did they know it, who knew about her prior DUI, how could such information have been kept from the electing convention, what should the Presiding Bishop have done and what in fact did she do, how could our church system have failed in selecting and supporting a leader at every step of the way, from the first DUI to the bishop search process to the pre-consecration dinner to whatever happened afterwards?

Like you, I have wished we could go back in time to 2010, when there was still time for Heather Cook to deal with her addiction. And possibly like you, I am completely unqualified to know what the church should have done, because I don’t have that much experience with addiction, beyond the basics I’ve picked up as a parish priest.

And yet, perhaps like you, I am the leader of a congregation, and perhaps like you, I may one day have an addicted employee, and will need to know what to do about it. So, as naïve and uninformed as I am, I realized that I needed to find out more – not about the Heather Cook situation, which I am not qualified to judge – but about our church system, and about how we should be dealing with people with addictions who can cause great harm to themselves and others, and to our church.

Anna Marion Howell has written a lovely reflection saying that Heather is a child of God, and in our Christian compassion, we should be loving her, not judging her. I couldn’t agree more. But I also think as Christians, our mission includes healing. Wouldn’t it have been more compassionate, though more difficult, to try to convince her to go into recovery before she killed a man, than to simply love her afterwards?

Convincing an addict to go into recovery, however, will almost certainly require “tough love.” One of my friends, an addict who has been in recovery for decades, says that we as Christians cannot possibly heal an addict. It is up to the addict to take responsibility for her own recovery. My friend writes: “What an employer, church or secular, must do is document behavior and, when well armed, give an option of the person entering treatment or termination. You can’t fix it. You are not responsible for it.  What you are responsible for is ensuring that those people that are supervised by you do their work and are not putting others or the institution at risk.”

So, let’s say you are the supervisor (bishop, rector, lay supervisor, etc.) of a bright, talented, enthusiastic employee who has great potential. But you suspect that the employee has an addiction problem – with alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, or any of a number of other addictions. What should you do about it?

I interviewed the Rev. John Christopher, a priest in the Diocese of Arizona who has been in recovery for many years, and who will soon become the diocesan recovery officer. I also interviewed a couple of others who prefer not to be named here, and I’ve used their insights as background information. I learned a lot from these conversations. Read on if you’re interested.

What trouble signs should you look for to determine whether someone has an addiction problem?

My recovering friends say to look for irresponsible behavior: coming in late, missing appointments, calling in sick frequently, unexcused absences. Look for relationship problems, financial problems, and other such concerns that should raise a red flag for an employer, whether the person is an addict or not. Keep an eye on the person who is always providing the wine, and who seems to think that alcohol is appropriate for any occasion (church business meetings; Sunday morning; etc.). Notice when someone consistently seems to grow anxious as cocktail hour approaches. Be aware that there are more addictions than just substance abuse – for instance, a huge pile of credit card debt could be a sign of a spending or gambling addiction.

John Christopher says:

If they already have a history of DUI, or they often leave early or come in late, that could mean a problem. If you smell anything, see odd behaviors, those could be indicators. I’m talking about more than just going out and getting drunk once; if these are persistent behaviors, it could mean they’re an addict. It’s not appropriate if you see them taking a drink at work from a bottle in their desk. The longer you drink, it starts to come through your pores, and you can smell it in their perspiration. As much as alcoholics and addicts think they’re fooling everyone, they’re really not. Always remember about a using addict: the further along they are in their addiction, the more that is their number one priority in life, no matter what they tell you. And their second priority is not getting caught. They will do whatever they have to do. Especially in our world, an actively using addict just puts up a wall between themselves and God. You’re lying to yourself, your family, your boss – you can’t be spiritual that way.

What should friends, supervisors, etc., do to convince an addict to get into recovery and to keep them accountable? How should people in authority deal with a person who is very talented and capable but who clearly has an addiction problem? 

My recovering friends say that these are issues we need to address with relentless honesty, demanding accountability. The compassionate thing to do is to hold an addict responsible for her recovery, because the consequences of not holding her accountable are much, much worse. It’s a difficult step to take – to call someone on an addiction problem – but dealing with difficult problems is one of the reasons we give authority to leaders. Supervisors can insist on a professional substance abuse evaluation, not just a general psychological evaluation, and they can insist on receiving assurance that the employee is following a recovery program. And if the employee won’t do the work of recovery, the employer can’t make him – the addict is responsible for his own recovery. But if he won’t do that work, the employer must terminate him, for the sake of the addict, who is not doing himself or the church any favors, and for the sake of the church.

John Christopher says:

We live in such a polite world in the Episcopal Church. We say, ‘I like her so much, maybe she’ll straighten out.’ No one wants to be the bad guy and blow the whistle. But we need to. The first thing, if they have not addressed it, the [supervisor] needs to say, ‘You have great potential; however, you have a progressive disease that can only get worse. We can’t afford to see that happen. The number one thing is your health. You have a terminal disease. If you are not going to do anything about it, we’ll have a different discussion.’

People in recovery have no problem with random drug tests or turning in attendance reports for meetings. At any AA meeting, someone will come to the leader and say, ‘I need you to sign my meeting report for the police, my probation officer, my employer.’ You should track whether they’re going to meetings. Their sponsor should be willing to comment without disclosing details: ‘We are continuing to meet and work on things,’ or ‘I haven’t seen him in three months.’ If the person is really in recovery they won’t complain. For me, the more people that know you’re in recovery, the more it’s a safe harbor for you. If the person seems to be doing really well it becomes a way of encouraging them, when they’re working a recovery program, living one day at a time based on their spiritual condition for that day. Most people truly in recovery have had a change in heart. If they’re truly working recovery, they’re not afraid to talk to just about anybody about it, unless they work for someone who would fire them. But they’ll share with plenty of other people.

Sobriety becomes the number one priority. It has to be – if you don’t have it, you’re going to lose everything anyway. As human beings, we need to first be concerned about the person’s welfare.

Compassion – for the addict and for those he or she could harm – compels us as Christians to hold our sisters and brothers accountable for their own recovery, even if it means unpleasant conversations and difficult accountability structures. If they refuse or relapse, they should not be allowed to take on or keep responsibility in the church, no matter how much we love them. Love means supporting them in their healing, not enabling their continued addiction.

If you were on a rector or bishop search committee, what kind of questions would you ask to determine whether there is an addiction problem?

My recovering friends say to ask directly about alcohol and drug history; ask whether dealing with substances has ever been a problem, and if so, what kind of recovery program they are working. How many steps have they worked? Do they have a sponsor? Are they a sponsor? How long have they been clean? These questions can be part of a whole conversation about spiritual disciplines. Ask their references for their observations about the person’s use of alcohol and drugs, boundary violations, money habits, etc. Make sure the person knows that you are going to follow up with their references about these questions. Pay attention to things that don’t ring true, or to areas where the person seems to be protesting too much. If a person has had a DUI, that’s an indication of extreme behavior, and the search committee needs to know how they are following up – have they had a substance abuse evaluation, did they check into a treatment center, etc.? If they are not willing to be public about their recovery, that should ring an alarm bell, because people in recovery usually are willing to talk about it – the recovery process is generally one of the defining spiritual crises of their life.

John Christopher says:

Check the legality and make sure it can be asked. But I wouldn’t have a problem asking about their history with drinking and drugging. Ask their philosophy on it: how do you feel about it, how would you handle a parishioner you knew was causing problems all the time? I think in search committees it might be important to have someone in recovery, even if just for that part. They will pick up cues others don’t, they will pick up if the person has a skewed perspective, even language others wouldn’t use that a person in recovery would pick up on. Any really great addiction specialist can develop questions for a psychological evaluation, and you can get a good indicator.

What kind of organizational structures in the Episcopal Church would help in dealing with addiction issues?

fd790ad27424214fed48d70f1cf41343We may have a cultural issue as much as a structural issue. Our reputation as hard-drinking folks in many cases is well-earned, and it doesn’t make things easy for addicts who are trying to stay sober. We should all be evaluating whether using or serving alcohol at church events is appropriate, and what kind of jokes we should be telling about ourselves. If our jokes reinforce a self-image that could be destructive, maybe it’s time to stop telling them. As John Christopher says, “Remember too, it only takes one person to cause an incredible amount of liability; it only takes one person to wipe out a van full of kids.”

My recovering friends suggest that each bishop should know of a professional substance abuse counselor to whom the bishop and diocesan clergy can refer people who might have a problem. This counselor could operate through a kind of Employee Assistance Program, whom clergy and lay employees of the diocese could contact confidentially. John Christopher suggests that a diocesan recovery point person could also visit every church on a regular basis, offering education and support. He proposes that each diocese should have a person to call, who will keep confidentiality and meet with you. Someone could tell me what they observed, then my job is to confidentially go meet with that person and say, ‘There’s been a concern raised here.’ It puts them on notice, and some may say, ‘I just have to hide it better.’ In some cases if it’s bad enough then I might have to say, ‘If you’re not willing to talk, I have no choice but to tell the bishop about behaviors people have observed.’ We have to have a place like where they can go and it’s safe to ask for help for themselves, or report someone else. Then I go to them and say, ‘There’s an easy way and a hard way. If you admit you have a problem, I will work with you and be your advocate. Don’t wait till you get caught in a bad situation.’

Church-wide, we could have similar point people to call – perhaps a group of people located around the geographic breadth of the church. These people would work with bishops and church-wide employees on recovery issues – both for themselves, and advising them on how to deal with diocesan clergy and employees who might have addiction problems.

As John Christopher says, “You’re not responsible for your disease, but you are responsible for your recovery. You need a lot of people around you.”

This problem is real, and it extends far beyond Heather Cook. One of my recovering friends says, “Addiction almost killed me through ODing, totaling a couple of cars, and getting myself in some very dangerous situations. I am grateful that I never killed anyone. I know people who have, several. This is real life. Being ‘kind’ or assuming responsibility is not any supervisor’s job regardless of the work setting.”

I hope we can get better at this. I hope we can start having the tough conversations and insisting on accountability from our lay and ordained ministers. I hope and pray a situation like Heather Cook’s never happens again.

For the Victims of Addiction (BCP, p. 831)

Blessed Lord, you ministered to all who came to you: Look with compassion upon all who through addiction have lost their health and freedom. Restore to them the assurance of your unfailing mercy; remove from them the fears that beset them; strengthen them in the work of their recovery; and to those who care for them, give patient understanding and persevering love. Amen.

Do Not Go Gentle: The TREC Report, Part One

First things first – let’s give thanks for the work of the intrepid souls on TREC, who have labored long and hard to learn about the issues facing the church, and to figure out how to address them. I have been plenty critical of TREC’s work in the past, but I do appreciate their work and their love for this church. I even appreciate much of what they have recommended.

doctor_patientThe problem is – and this is a common problem in the church – that they are better at diagnosis than at treatment. They are absolutely spot-on with their recognition of some of the problems facing the church. And their prescription that we need to “Follow Jesus, into the neighborhood, traveling lightly” is truly inspiring.

Let’s take a look at the problems TREC is trying to address. Two research reports recently released by TEC’s Research guru Kirk Hadaway highlight the issues: Domestic Fast Facts 2009-2013 and  Episcopal Congregations Overview 2014.  Membership is falling, attendance is falling, the median attendance at an Episcopal congregation is 61. These are not sustainable numbers. At the same time, we are closing many churches and failing to plant new ones. According to data that Kirk Hadaway gave me, in 2012 we had a net loss of 69 congregations; that same year, there were only three new congregations (filing parochial reports) across all of TEC.   And if you look at the Episcopal Congregations Overview for 2014, the problem is thrown into stark relief when you see the racial/ethnic composition of TEC: 87% White non-Hispanic, 6% Black or African American, 3.6% Hispanic/Latino, 1.3% Asian/Pacific Islander, 0.9% Native American, 1.3% Multi-Racial. This in a country where Whites will soon be a minority and where Hispanic/Latinos will soon be more than 30% of the population. We Episcopalians are older than the American population, too. I don’t have to rehearse all this stuff – you can see for yourself, and probably already have.

Given the stunning situation of decline we find ourselves in, I guess our church has two choices: we can Go gentle into that good night (as Dylan Thomas would say), or we can Rage, rage, against the dying of the light. Me, I’m not ready to give up the ghost yet.

bedside-mannerjpgWhat worries me is TREC’s apparent prognosis. They don’t name it specifically in the report, but many of their recommendations seem to be aimed at providing palliative care for a patient that has entered a long, slow, inevitable decline. What do you do with a church that is dying? You make arrangements for clergy to find other ways to make a living, you think of non-church ways to use the buildings to keep them open a bit longer, you try to find ways to provide pensions for people who can’t actually make a living in the church, you try to get seminaries to educate people for less money with more practical skills they can use elsewhere, you ask dioceses to consolidate, you discourage parishes from spending down their endowments in hopes that some future generation will find more productive uses for the money. And maybe, in addition to all that, you find ways to make governance more efficient.

These are all good things to think about, and some of them are inevitable. But I’m a church planter, and I look at things differently. I think we should not be restructuring for decline. I think we should be restructuring for growth.

If we actually wanted to revive the church, we would be looking at ways, not to manage decline, but to spark new life. We would be prioritizing evangelism and planting new congregations of every kind. We would be proposing to create a school for church planters and for bicultural/bilingual missionaries. We would be urging and training bishops and Commissions on Ministry to approve for ordination, not the folks that they would like to see at their bedside when they breathe their last, but the folks that both inspire and alarm them with new, risky ideas for reaching new people. We would be encouraging congregations with buildings not just to provide them for community use (always a good thing), but also to use them to plant congregations that actually do reach new kinds of people in their neighborhoods with the good news of Christ, in culturally relevant ways. We would be looking at our church-wide budget (the lever that moves the church, as my friend Frank Logue says) to strip away deadweight that does not encourage these priorities, and putting our resources behind life-giving ministries instead. We would be saying, yes, there are buildings and congregations in declining areas that have no hope of revival, and we would be making tough decisions and considering how to use those assets (or the money we could get for them) to reach new people. We would develop leaders for and pour money into youth and campus ministries. We would believe that Christ is not through working in our church yet.

By the way, TREC agrees with me, I think. They said very similar things on page 4 of their report (along with a very kind shout-out to the Acts 8 Moment, a grassroots network of which I am a founder and board member). They seem to agree with what I am saying in concept, but in their concrete recommendations they revert to managing decline.

I wish TREC had focused instead on sparking new life. It’s almost Christmas. Let’s not talk about decline and death. Let’s talk about new birth, new life, and how Christ is continually coming into our world.

Next Post: A look at the specific recommendations.

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Sermon for 11.9.14

Lessons for today are here.

$(KGrHqJHJD!E8fYS9T9MBPLq31Wjhg~~60_35You’ve probably seen the bumper stickers: “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” Or: “In Case of Rapture, Car will be without Driver.” Or my personal favorite: “After the rapture, can I have your car?”

There’s lots of talk out there about the Rapture, the Second Coming of Christ. For instance, there’s the “Left Behind” series – 12 books based on a particular interpretation of Christian end-times prophecies. The series has sold millions of copies, and has recently spawned a high-budget movie starring Nicolas Cage. I will admit that I am not an authority on these books – I got about two chapters into the first one and found it so disturbing I had to stop reading. But from what I gathered, these books begin with the Rapture: people are caught up into heavens to meet returning Jesus – which is one interpretation of the Thessalonians reading this morning. All the good people vanish, leaving piles of clothes and personal effects behind. Planes crash, driverless cars cause chaos, the world is in flames. Only “saved” Christians are taken; sinners and people who are the wrong kind of Christians (such as many Roman Catholics, and I’m sure, many Episcopalians) are Left Behind.

left_behind_nicolas_cageThe rest of the series involves the tribulation, as a few people belatedly realize their mistake in not being saved before, and valiantly fight against the anti-Christ and his minions. Eventually, around the tenth book or so, Christ will return to earth and will start an absolute blood-bath of blowing up his enemies. One commentator calls this blood-bath the return of the “Christ-inator” (similar to the Terminator) and wonders how Christ went to heaven and got a complete personality transplant. I mean, is this the same Jesus who said we need to love God and love our neighbors? The Jesus who forgave his enemies from the cross?

But there it is: it’s one interpretation of what Christ’s return will look like, very popular among a certain set of American Christians (not a well-known interpretation outside the US). It is based on a particular interpretation of the end-times that is distinctly modern – it was not even thought up till the 19th century, and it is certainly not traditional Christian theology.

What is so disturbing about it all is the absolute gleefulness that Christians feel as they read about (or watch in movies) people who aren’t Christians – or who are different kind of Christians than they are – meeting death and destruction. And question becomes: would Jesus really do this to people he came to save?

parable-of-the-ten-bridesmaidsThe unfortunate thing is, if you read today’s gospel a certain way, it seems he might. In the parable we read today, ten bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom; five are wise and have plenty of oil, but the other five are foolish and, right when the bridegroom arrives, they discover they’ve run out of oil and have to go run off to find some. The bridegroom lets the wise ones in, and locks the door against the foolish ones. And when they come and pitifully start banging on the door, he refuses to let them in – I don’t know you, he says. Devastating.

If you’re of a “Left Behind” frame of mind, this story is really easy to fit into your scenario – the five wise ones have already been saved, the five foolish ones didn’t prepare by repenting and being saved, and oops! They’re left behind. It’s pretty cut and dried, rule-based, theology based on who’s in and who’s out. Problem is, Jesus really didn’t seem to operate like that. Jesus included everyone, especially the foolish ones, the ones no one expected God to like, the prostitutes and tax collectors. No one was left behind or left out by Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus says over and over that we are supposed to share what we have with others, not hoard it as these “wise” bridesmaids hoard their oil, refusing to share because there won’t be enough left for themselves. How is this a Christian way to act?

Preacher Anna Carter Florence did a small rewrite of parts of the Sermon on the Mount in light of this parable, that goes like this: (Matthew 6:19ff) “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, although to get there, you will need large oil reserves, so forget the first part of what I said; store up for yourselves oil on earth, so that you will have treasure in heaven.”

Or (Matthew 6:25ff) “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body what you will wear. Worry about your oil; that’s the main thing. Worry about whether you have enough for you, and forget about everyone else; they are not your problem.”

Or (Matthew 7:7ff) “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you, unless of course you’re late and the bridegroom answers, in which case, you might as well forget it.”

And so on. The point is, this is a very curious parable – it the light of the rest of the gospel, it makes no sense. This bridegroom who won’t let in a few foolish bridesmaids – is this the same person as the Jesus who said he was the Good Shepherd, who would leave 99 well-behaved sheep just to chase after one lost sheep? This bridegroom seems never to have heard of that Jesus. This story seems to be just about punishment for small missteps – like in “Left Behind.” Punishment that glories in the misfortunes of the ones who are left out of the party.

But I don’t think Jesus was the “Christ-inator” – the one who comes to punish his enemies. I think Christ was the Savior – the one who came not to condemn, but save world. (It says so in the first chapter of the Gospel of John). So let’s look a little more closely at the parable.

All ten bridesmaids were invited to the feast; all ten accepted the invitation. But the bridegroom was late in arriving, and all ten fell asleep. At this point, we need to note that Matthew’s gospel was written around 80 AD – 50 years after Jesus died – at a time when Christians were very concerned that the Second Coming of Christ hadn’t happened yet. The bridegroom being delayed would be a matter of high anxiety for them, especially in light of what was going on in their world. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, both Jews and Christians were driven into exile, both were being persecuted, and they were both trying to figure out if they were one religion or two, and were busy separating themselves from each other and excluding each other. These Christians of Matthew’s time, surrounded by all this anxiety, would have to be wondering how to act until Christ appears.

Back to the parable: then someone catches sight of the bridegroom, all ten bridesmaids wake up, but five of them get all anxious about a trivial detail – their lamps – and run off before he arrives, while he is only steps away. In essence, the bridegroom in in sight right there, but they decide that there is something more important than him to concentrate on. That’s why they are shut out – not by his choice, but by theirs – because when the bridegroom arrives, you need to be ready to greet him with joy. The arrival of the bridegroom – Jesus – needs to be the most important thing there is. Nothing else takes precedence.

Which leads me to ask: how are we preparing for the bridegroom’s coming? If the people of Matthew’s time were concerned because Jesus had been gone for 50 years, well, for us, he’s been gone for 2,000 years – and it sure is easy to get distracted and begin to believe that trivial details of our lives are more important than he is.

So how do we prepare for the fact that Christ is real, and that someday we will meet him? I’m not talking about something as simple as whether we’ve been saved, whether we consider ourselves Christian, whether we think there is such a thing as the Rapture, whether in case of rapture our car will be driverless! I want to know, is our spiritual health, is our love of God and our neighbor the most important thing in our lives? Are our lamps lit, are our eyes open to see Christ in action and join him wherever he is?

If not, what has become more important? What distracts us from God? What takes our attention off the things that really matter and redirects it to things that don’t? Like foolish bridesmaids who run off to take care of one last detail when the bridegroom is in sight and the wedding is about to begin?

This world has many distractions – busy schedules and worries about money, and family quarrels, and work that absorbs all our time and energy, and politics and entertainment and the internet – and it’s easy to neglect our spiritual lives. We have so many choices that it’s hard to put them in order. Should I pray, or do Facebook? Should I go to church, or clean my house? Should I take my kids to Sunday school, or should they go to soccer? Should I give money for God’s mission, or should I let someone else take care of it? Should I do an act of service for someone, or should I go to work?

We have so many priorities in our lives, yet all of them, potentially, are distractions from the bridegroom. Like the five foolish bridesmaids, we are in danger of spending way more time on anxiety over details than on concentrating on things of ultimate importance. While the things of ultimate importance are neglected, like daily prayer, like worship, like asking God for guidance, like doing intentional acts of service. Like opening our eyes to the God of the universe who loves us and wants to remake us into the glorious people we were created to be.

So many of us have settled for way too little in life, when God wants to give us everything. The cares of this world have deceived us and beckoned us. So we pour ourselves into them, we stress ourselves out, we forget to nourish ourselves spiritually, we don’t keep our lamps lit, we close our eyes and miss the presence of Christ, the bridegroom, right here. We forget who we are.

Who we are is children of God, made in the image of God, created to be in communion with God through Christ. And Christ is coming. Christ is always coming.

Christ is coming to this church, in this holy communion. He will be here any minute now. Indeed, he is already here, where two or three are gathered.

Jesus says to wait, with eyes wide open.

To wait with longing for the thing that is most important.

The bridegroom is coming, and indeed, he is almost here. Alleluia.

The TREC Webcast: More Questions than Answers

More questions than answers! That’s what I have after TREC’s (the Taskforce to Re-imagine the Church’s) webcast last week. Maybe that’s appropriate, because it is clear that restructuring work will continue long after this triennium is over. Some initial observations:

  • The setting, in a place of worship, and Bishop Michael Curry’s opening sermon, reminded us that church is really about following Jesus.  The structures we create to do this just help us organize ourselves to follow him more closely.  Let’s hope we all keep our focus on Jesus, no matter how much we disagree on structure.
  • The presentations were engaging, inspiring, and passionate –Michael Curry, Dwight Zscheile, and Miguelina Howell were all terrific. It was a delight to hear them speak. They show great insight into the large issues facing the Church, and I am very pleased to see evangelism prominently recognized in our church as a top priority. The webcast was much better when the conversation turned to evangelism than on any other topic.
  • The TREC members did far more speaking than listening – thanks to Scott Gunn and Crusty Old Dean for timing it at TREC 2:00:37, everyone else 17:31. I found myself frustrated because the format allowed me only to ask questions, and not express opinions. Do they really want to hear the thoughts of others, or do they simply want to share their own wisdom? Of course, we are assured that they are reading all our blogs, so maybe they are hearing some opinions.
  • Direct questions were not answered. Especially in the first part of the program, TREC showed a distressing tendency to answer specific questions with platitudes.
  • Some questions were treated dismissively. My question was: Is TREC planning to address the way we spend money and what our staff should be doing? The second half of my question (about staff) was ignored entirely. The first half, money, was labeled a “detail.” One member opined that it was important to have the data in front of you when you talk about how we spend money, because if you do, you will know that lots of our money is spent on mission. Actually, I chair Executive Council’s budget committee, have the data at my fingertips, and am deeply familiar with how we spend our money. Please don’t assume your listeners are ignorant.

Another TREC member said that the DFMS’ spending habits are insignificant in the scheme of re-imagining, because they are only 2% of the church’s total resources. Let me just say that (a) I have no idea where this statistic comes from, (b) whether it is true or not is really not important. The fact is that DFMS’ budget is over $112 million this triennium. Of that amount, $77 million comes directly from the dioceses.

Seventy-seven million dollars is not a “detail.”

Another TREC member said that our church-wide structures are not impeding local mission. I have to disagree: this is not necessarily true (nor is it necessarily false). If our church-wide structures are absorbing $77 million of our local resources, and that money is not being well spent, then indeed they are impeding local mission by redirecting local resources to other uses. Figuring out how to spend money effectively is a huge mission issue.

  • After much lofty discussion of the big issues facing the church, correctly diagnosed and inspiringly described, TREC zeroed in on a few very focused questions, such as the staff reporting structure, ignoring many others of greater importance, including the money-and-staff question I asked. Evan Garner tweeted: “I’m genuinely discouraged if members of TREC think their work is to define an organizational chart for 815 staff.” I’m with you, Evan.
  • And by the way, as a member of Executive Council, I find myself exceedingly puzzled that TREC apparently interviewed the PB, President of the House of Deputies, and 815 staff in detail, but as far as I know, did not extend the same courtesy to any members of Executive Council. Perhaps their suggestion that Council’s significance should be reduced while the PB’s is increased is traceable to this up-front decision to limit the perspectives they heard. Did they start this work already believing that Council’s experience is unimportant?

I will talk more about the balance of power later, but let me first address what I think TREC should have been doing, and what it has actually begun to make strides toward achieving.

The Mission of DFMS

I have paid a whole lot of careful attention over the last three years to how the church-wide structure of The Episcopal Church (let’s call it DFMS, short for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society) spends its money. (Yep, the data are at my fingertips!) Just so we are clear, the decision about what our staff should be doing is intimately related to the money question: over one-half of our budget is spent on staff salaries and benefits, and we spend additional money on staff office, travel, and operating expenses.

I think for any organization, decisions on how to spend money should be based on much larger, prior decisions about mission. In DFMS’ case, what can we do church-wide that local dioceses and parishes cannot do?

As chair of the budget committee, I was hoping that Executive Council would begin its term by having discussions about the mission of DFMS, and beginning to identify church-wide priorities. This did not happen. One of my frustrations with my church-wide work, in fact, has been a lack of high-level discussions of mission. We are groping in the dark. Yes, we have Five Marks of Mission, but they are rather vague and not necessarily good guides for church-wide mission. For instance: care for creation is one of the Five Marks, but is this a mission that is appropriately undertaken at the church-wide level?

Since Council has not been able to have discussions on mission, let me try to address the question personally. What is the mission of DFMS?

Dwight Zscheile’s presentation about the mission of the church was terrific. Derek Olsen has a great summary of what he said (as well as the rest of the webcast).  Dwight’s statements about church mission are all true for every local congregation.

But I think the more relevant question for TREC is: what is the mission, not of the local church, but of the church-wide structure?  TREC has been attempting to answer this question by describing the Four Cs: Convener, Connector, Capability Builder, Catalyst. But as Crusty Old Dean points out, these terms are rather vague and undefined. Let’s try to answer them more specifically.

What is the mission of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society?

I think it is:

To support Episcopalians in doing Christ’s work in the world, including:

  1. Fostering collaboration, building networks, and bringing people together for shared support and learning opportunities, to support the mission of local congregations and dioceses. (Connector, Convener, Capability Builder)
  1. Carrying out strategic initiatives for the benefit of the church that can be done best at the church-wide level, as decided by our representative governing structures. (Catalyst)
  1. Making decisions about matters that affect the whole church, including liturgy, ordination requirements, disciplinary proceedings for clergy, etc. (Catalyst, Convener)
  1. Serving as the church’s bridge to the outside world, including collaborating with partners in mission (the Anglican Communion and ecumenical partners), communications and marketing, and speaking in a prophetic voice on matters of public policy. (Catalyst, Connector)
  1. Administering responsibly assets entrusted to the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. (TREC’s four Cs did not address this function.)

You may disagree, or think I’ve left something out. If so, let me know!

I believe that:

  • All of our activities at a church-wide level, including staffing and budget, need to be carefully re-designed to meet these mission priorities and to exclude activities that don’t fit them.
  • The second item, carrying out strategic initiatives, needs to be carefully limited to a few major activities each triennium that will support the development of the church, based on a high-level strategic visioning process.
  • We need a ground-up redesign of our staff structure and our staff’s job descriptions to make sure they are designed to meet these mission priorities.
  • We need to begin taking very intentional steps to reduce the amount of money DFMS absorbs from local mission, moving from a bureaucratic, hierarchical model toward a much more networked and supportive model. (TREC agrees with this language, but ironically moves in the opposite direction in their recommendations for authority structures.)

I wish that TREC had addressed these issues. I hope that General Convention, a new Presiding Bishop and the next Executive Council will take a hard look at them.

Authority and Governance

TREC members were vague in the webcast about which direction they were moving on authority, though their September 2014 letter to the church proclaimed that almost all power should be vested in the Presiding Bishop. In the webcast, some members insisted that the issue was not yet decided, while some appeared very defensive and tried to support this model against significant opposition. These differences probably reflect real differences among members of TREC.

I have previously critiqued this idea of vesting all power in the PB. First, because it’s pretty much the same as what we have now, and our system is currently not particularly effective. (Hence: TREC.) Second, because it ignores our long history of balancing the powers of all orders of ministry. Third, because the Presiding Bishop has very little accountability to the rest of the church once elected. It is easy for the PB and staff (on one hand) and Council (on the other) to get isolated into silos that don’t work well together.

TREC previously considered a “General Secretary” model, where a separately appointed or elected official would manage staff. One TREC member told me that the concern with this model is that it sets up two separate power structures and visions. Another friend mentioned that some people misunderstood this model as indicating that the staff would begin reporting to the Secretary of Convention. Neither of these is what I am looking for.

I think the solution is actually rather simple.  DFMS is a very large non-profit organization with a very large budget and staff.  Treat it like one.  Appoint an Executive Director, someone experienced in finance and personnel management, to lead that staff and manage that budget. Have the Executive Director report to the board, with the Presiding Bishop as chair of the board. This structure gets everyone on the same team, pointing in the same direction with the same vision and priorities. This is the way normal non-profits operate. It is a widely understood and effective model.

TREC seems very concerned that staff members feel like they have multiple bosses. I find this puzzling, because no Council members I know believe that they supervise staff: it’s quite clear that staff report only to the Chief Operating Officer, who reports only to the PB. If there is some misunderstanding or problem here, it could already have been handled by the PB and COO. They could simply explain the staff reporting structure to both Council and staff, and create a process by which requests for staff time are channeled through the COO’s (or Executive Director’s) office. Mischief managed (as Fred and George Weasley would say). We didn’t need TREC working for three years to fix this problem.

Where the Real Reform Will Come

I give TREC members a lot of credit for hard work and great insights about the direction the church needs to be moving in mission and ministry. Their list of issues the church needs to be addressing in coming years (church planting, seminarian debt, leadership development, etc.) is right on target. If nothing else, TREC’s “bully pulpit” will highlight these important challenges we need to face.

I don’t think that TREC’s legislative proposals will fare as well. I think the big decisions ahead of us, which we will address via our regular governance structures, will really determine the future of the church:

  • Who will be our next Presiding Bishop, and what will her/his vision be?
  • Will that PB be able to lead Council and staff in a way that gets us all working on the same team and focusing on the vital challenges before the church?
  • What are we going to do with our money? Will we lower the diocesan asking to 15%, or to some other number? Will we restructure our staff to meet new mission challenges? All “restructuring” since I’ve been paying attention to church-wide affairs has happened through unhealthy budget processes responding too late to financial crises. Will we manage to do it this time in a better, more mission-focused way?
  • What are we going to do about the building at 815 2nd Avenue, New York, a symbol of bureaucratic hierarchy? Will we hold onto this real estate, or adopt a new model of church-wide support center?

These issues are not in TREC’s hands – they are in the hands of the House of Bishops, Executive Council, and General Convention. I’m eager to see how they have worked out a year from now. Whether TREC is the agent of change or not, change is coming to the church. And that’s a good (and joyful) thing.

Sermon Notes for 10.5.14

The scriptures for today are here.  I am preaching on Philippians 3:4b-14.

Years ago, when we lived in Texas, long before we had children, my husband Tom and I used to take a vacation each year, right after Christmas, to Big Bend National Park. The park is on the far southwestern edge of Texas, where the border with Mexico makes an elbow shape. That border is formed by the Rio Grande River, which is deep and wide there.

santa-elena-canyon-big-bendOne day we took a hike right along the banks of the Rio Grande. At this place the river carves a deep channel through a mountain, so you can hike along the US side next to the river and walk deeper and deeper into a canyon formed by the mountain walls rising on both sides of the river. To get to the canyon, you walk across a tiny little stream, three feet wide, just deep enough to splash water two inches high on your hiking boots, that runs from way high up in the mountains down into the Rio Grande half a mile away.

We walked across the little stream, into the canyon, and deeper and deeper into the wild, beautiful channel cut by the river over thousands of years. As we were walking we heard a little thunder, way far off, but it was sunny where we were, so we paid it no attention. Then, as late afternoon came, we finally turned and headed back.

And then we came to little stream. Only, there was no little stream any more. That thunder we had heard way far off was rain, up in the mountains. And the rain had turned that tiny little stream into a giant rushing river. We stood at the edge of it, watched the dirty, churning, turbulent water rushing by, thought about camping out for the night – but we had no food, no blankets, no flashlights, no shelter, no one knew where we were. So we thought – hey, we’re young, we’re 25 years old, what could happen to us? And we waded into the river. Which was a very big, very dumb mistake.

As we walked in, the river quickly rose up to our chests – and it was moving fast. You couldn’t keep your footing in water like that. Water, I had never been afraid of – I had been a swimmer all my life. I knew how to control myself in water. But this water was something new and frightening. This water was a power I had never felt before – a power that was far stronger than my willpower or my training. It swept me off my feet more than once – I couldn’t grab for Tom, he was having just as much trouble as I was, hauling himself across the river.

This is the time when, no matter your personal beliefs, you need to pray. I discovered the best I could do was “God, help!” And somehow, God helped. For a few minutes, as I struggled across that rushing water, I was truly afraid that one or both of us wouldn’t make it. But step by step, with the water pushing us steadily downstream toward the Rio Grande, we hauled ourselves across the water and pulled ourselves, soaking wet, out on the other side. And we looked at each other, astonished and shaken, with new respect fort a force of nature seeming so benign and friendly, like water, yet so strong that it could sweep us out of control.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s exactly how the apostle Paul felt when he met Jesus. Paul had plenty of experience with God, with religion, with knowing how to act as God commanded in the Ten Commandments and other 603 laws. He tells us about it in the reading from Philippians today. The context of this reading is, there are teachers who have come to the Christians in Philippi and tried to convince them that in order to be true followers of Christ, they must live as true Jews: circumcised and following all 613 commandments of Jewish law. Paul is very clear that living as Jews is a good and right thing for Jews, but not for Christians, especially Christians who were born as Gentiles. For Christians, Paul says that marking our bodies as members of God’s people and following intricate rules that set us apart is not what is required, because these things rely on our own personal skills in being holy.

If personal holiness were enough, Paul says, he would have been a champion at holiness (Paul is never particularly humble). “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh,” he writes, “I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

In other words, Paul had a PhD in holiness: he studied at the feet of one of the most famous rabbis of his era, Gamaliel, a rabbi so famous that he is still studied and revered today. Paul had plenty of training in how to be holy: he had all the credentials; he had developed his religious muscles through years of careful obedience to the law. But he discovered that personal religious training was not enough, because learning the skills of religious holiness means relying on personal power. And he discovered that personal power was nothing compared to the awe-inspiring, irresistible power of God.

One day, as he traveled to Damascus to find and persecute members of the upstart sect of Christ-followers who insisted Jesus was raised from the dead, the divine force of God overtook him and swept him away; he was confronted face to face by the living Christ; he was struck blind by power of Spirit and was led, groping and shaken, to Damascus, where a loving group of Christians nursed him back to health and taught him the truth of the living God. He was blind, but he learned to see. And his whole life changed by the amazing grace of God.

All that training, all that background, all that personal skill in holiness he had developed over a lifetime of exercising careful religious muscles, he learned to count as nothing, as rubbish, as he says today. He learned that his own righteousness wasn’t what mattered: what mattered was Christ. He yearns, “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.” In thanksgiving for gift of God’s holiness, he presses on; he travels around the known world, risking his life and his health and his possessions to tell others the good news of salvation and lead others into relationship with living God.

To Paul, the awe-inspiring, uncontrollable, overwhelming power of the living Christ required him to give up everything he had learned on his own, to let go of personal power, and give himself up to the rushing river of God’s holiness. And it is probably because of Paul and the transcendent gift of salvation he received, and his determination to press on, that you and I have heard of Christ and have the chance to stand in awe of that same holiness today.

And oh, how we need that gift of holiness that comes to us from the living Christ. We live in a culture that glorifies personal achievement: that pushes all of us to work more, try harder, push ourselves beyond our limits, be the best. And while I’m all in favor of learning and working and achieving, there are times when all of us find that our whole identity gets caught up in what we can do under our own power – and we forget about who we actually are. Who we are is children of God, members of the living Christ, people who regularly, through no fault and no deserving of our own, stand in the presence of the awe-inspiring God of all creation.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection,” says Paul, “not that I have already achieved this goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”   In Christ Jesus, God has made all of us God’s own; in Christ Jesus, God has reached out to us and grabbed onto us for dear life- for our own dear lives. And in Christ Jesus, we stand regularly in the rushing river of God’s holiness, whether we let ourselves get swept up in it or not.

If we’re lucky, sometimes, just sometimes, if we open up our hearts, we can detect the presence of that holiness. I spent most of my life relying on my own power, until the signs of God’s presence and overwhelming power and holiness in my life became unmistakable. It has happened at odd moments: at the altar rail, on a hard day, when a priest stopped in the middle of handing out the Bread of Life in order to give me a blessing, because she saw I needed it. At the baptism of a child, when all of us there suddenly, separately became aware that we were standing in the presence of saints and angels. In an ordinary worship service, when for just a moment, everything around me changed and I saw the people around me glowing with heavenly light.

The truth is that we stand right here in the presence of divine holiness today. It’s easy to ignore, to simply keep our minds on the small streams of own thoughts. But occasionally, if we open our hearts, we can be swept away by the power of God’s presence. The Eastern Orthodox say that the divine liturgy, the celebration of holy communion, goes on at all times and all places, with all the angels of heaven eternally singing with joy: Holy, holy, holy. And when we come here to church, celebrate communion, we simply join in. We sing that same song too, in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, to our own tune, but when we sing it we join in with saints and angels who are singing that song to all the tunes that have ever been composed by the universe.

For brief moments of our lives, as we worship, we can open our minds to the deeper reality of holiness that we usually ignore, a deeper reality that surrounds us all the time. That deeper reality is the reality of Christ’s resurrection, the truth that God has raised him from the dead and therefore we are raised to eternal life. And that means that we have entered resurrection life already: the living Christ is here with us; and every now and then, if we open our hearts, we can let that overwhelming power and beauty and transcendence sweep us away. Living not under our own power, not according to our own achievements, but in the secure knowledge that we are borne on the rising tide of God’s love. Safely held, for all time, by the power of Christ’s resurrection – the prize we have already gained as our own, through our baptism into Jesus Christ our Lord.