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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

A Double Word of Warning for #GC78

Yesterday was, by and large, a great day for The Episcopal Church.  The House of Deputies accomplished quite a bit of business, including passing all 5 Episcopal Resurrection resolutions that came our way: D003, Amend Article V of the Constitution; D004, Task Force to Study Episcopal Elections; D005 Creating a Capacity to Plant Churches; D009, Revitalization of Congregations; and B009/D019, Conducting an Online Evangelism Test.  By an overwhelming majority, we said that we wanted our Church to be about evangelism, making disciples, and sending apostles.  Thanks to Deputy Melody Shobe from Rhode Island, we stopped short of replacing our Calendar of Saints, though we did make some changes to the criteria for inclusion on such a calendar a bit wider than I would like.  Still, it was by and a large a good day except for one very uncomfortable moment of snark and back biting.

Simon Cowell would have been proud, but I don’t think Jesus was.

An amendment was made to a resolution calling on the Development Office of The Episcopal Church to focus its fundraising on evangelism.  Deputy Van Brunt suggested that we not be so bold as to “direct” that office but rather to invite it to “consider” the opportunity.  Things got ugly when another Deputy, whose name I can’t recall, made a 2 minute long speech that was full of passive aggression, snark, and vitriol.  This was followed by a Deputy who poked fun at the previous Deputy’s speech and “considerable humor, but I wish to speak to the merits of this amendment.”  It was a side time to be in the Church, when a young women rose with a Point of Order and asked the President of the House of Deputies to call on the Chaplain to pray about “how we are speaking to each other.”

In today’s Daily Office Lectionary as well as Track 2 for Proper 9, Year B, we are assigned Psalm 123, which includes these words, “Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy, * for we have had more than enough of contempt…”  The days are getting long.  The topic of conversation will only get more controversial: structure comes today, as does substance abuse issue, and same-sex marriage will be before us tomorrow; and the words of the Pslamist from 123:4 should be on our lips repeatedly over the next few days.  It comes to us as a double warning today, an invitation to think before we speak; an opportunity to give up contempt, passive aggression, and bitterness and to embrace the call of Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Or, if the case requires it, the words of Psalm 123:4 might be a call to follow the command of Jesus an love our enemy.

Episcopalians as Apostles – Sharing the Good News #GC78

I did it.  I went to the Program, Budget, and Finance (PB&F) meeting and I testified.  I engaged in the very system I hate, so that I might call the Church outward and upward toward evangelism.

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As I finished my brief testimony, there were shouts of “Amen!” and applause.  It is the mind of this Church to move beyond the either/or mentality that says if we talk about Jesus we can’t talk about social justice and instead embrace the reality that talking about Jesus brings with it changed hearts and minds and moves us toward a more just society.

Today in the House of Deputies, we have a chance to turn the mind of the Church into concrete action.  We are scheduled to take on four resolutions, B009 – Digital Evangelism; D005 – Church Planting; D009 – Revitalization of Congregations; and A012 – Mission Enterprise Zones which combined, call the Church to put its money and energy into spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.  These resolutions come with a big price tag, $11.7m over three years, but the reality is that even at nearly 10% of the triennial budget, this is just a drop in the bucket.  We must embrace evangelism, not in order to save the Church, but in order to fulfill the commandment of Jesus to “Go!” and to live more fully into our identity as his followers, disciples, and apostles.

In the Gospel lesson for Sunday, Jesus sends the 12 out two-by-two.  Mark tells that they followed his directions and “went out and proclaimed that all should repent.”  Those who had been disciples became apostles, that is “one who is sent,” by following the command of Jesus to go into the neighborhood, traveling lightly, to share the Good News.  The Episcopal Church has a similar opportunity.  We are being called to go, to share the Good News, and to change the world to the honor and glory of God.  It is time for the Church to stand up and re-commit itself to evangelism, not just by passing resolutions that make us feel good and not merely by throwing money at it, but by each member becoming an Apostle: taking seriously Jesus’ call to “Go and make disciples.”

Excelling in Generosity at #GC78

Today is the Big Day, the one we’ve all been waiting and praying for.  No, not the Presiding Bishop election, though that is a big event.  No, not the House of Deputies 230th Anniversary party, though that will be full of delicious vanity M&Ms.  No, not the first four hour legislative session, though that’ll make your rear end fall asleep.  Today is the Big Day because today is the Program, Budget & Finance (PB&F) Committee’s hearing on expenses.  The day when Deputies, Bishops, and registered guests wait in line for hours to take their part in an awful theology of stewardship and scarcity.

I took part in the event that makes Jesus weep three years ago.

Fat Steve took part in the Event-that-makes-Jesus- weep three years ago.

The Apostle Paul writes to the Church in Corinth imploring them to excel in generosity by giving out of their abundance.  The Episcopal Church has abundant resources, however the vast majority of them are in the wallets of our members.  Despite the inroads made by groups like TENS and the Alabama Plan, the reality is that most Episcopal priests and the congregations they serve have succumb to popular pressure and avoid talking about money like the plague.  Coupled with the fact that our young leaders are members of a third generation of an un-churched, de-churched trend, this means that even those who care deeply about the Church, her ministry, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, don’t have any clue what it means to excel in generosity.  They’ve got no concept that the tithe is the biblical minimum for giving to the building of the Kingdom.

This means that by the time money trickles to the top, there is less and less money to do bigger and bigger things, which leaves us standing in line to beg for the scarce resources, afraid that our favorite thing won’t get funded.  A theology of scarcity is a terrible theology.  It has developed, in part, due to pressures from the wider culture, but the real reason tonight’s PB&F hearing will make Jesus and not a small number of deputies cry is that we’ve gotten here because of a lack of leadership.

Paul encourages the Corinthians to give generously to the needs of others.  He lays before them a vision of what it means to be a member of the body of Christ and asks them to live into it.  He offers them a compelling reason to be generous.  Instead of casting a vision for the Church, our leadership has, over the last, well as long as I’ve been in the Church, allowed 1,000 competing voices to create their own vision to the end that no one knows in which direction the Church is headed and instead we walk in one giant circle every three years.

The time has come for a compelling vision.  The time has come for a Presiding Bishop who will confidently lead us toward that vision.  The time has come for us to fund that vision boldly; to stop competing for line items, but rather to give generously to the glory of God, no matter how it impacts the bottom line of our pet project.  Let’s excel in generosity this triennium, and the rest will take care of itself.

Our faith will make us well #GC78

Median ASA

According to the Report of the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, between 2001 and 2013, the Average Sunday Attendance of the average Episcopal Church has fallen from 80 to 61, a 24% decline in twelve years.  Twelve years?  Where have I heard that number before?

“Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.” Mark 5:25

It may seem crude and crass to compare the state of the Episcopal Church with the struggle of the hemorrhagic woman, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an apt comparison.  Over the course of twelve years, thanks to our very public internal struggles over human sexuality, a growing culture of unaffiliated nones, and, as the State of the Church Report says, “The advanced — and still advancing — age of the Church’s membership, combined with a low birth rate, means that the Church loses the equivalent of one diocese per year through deaths over births” The Episcopal Church has, on the whole, been hemorrhaging members for a dozen years.

The hemorrhagic woman lives on the margins, she is destitute, she is desperate for healing and so she does the only thing she can think of, she reaches out to touch Jesus.  In the midst of such a large crowd, all she can manage to do is get a finger on the hem of his robe, and immediately her bleeding stopped.  Jesus turns to her, realizing what she has done, and says these most powerful words, “Your faith has made you well.”

How I long to hear those words from Jesus for my beloved Episcopal Church.  The Living Church published an article yesterday entitled, “Jesus for Presiding Bishop,” in which they argue that the “walk-about” with the Presiding Bishop Nominees showed that The Episcopal Church is ready to return to and outward and visible faith in Jesus.  It isn’t so much that we haven’t had faith in Jesus all along, but more that we’ve been so preoccupied elsewhere that we’ve nearly forgotten about it, which is, to my mind, the true source of our decline.

Our faith can make us well, but we must be willing to put our faith in nothing less than the saving love of God through Jesus Christ.  Doing so will change our lives individually and our culture corporately.  We need not be afraid of the name of Jesus, but in his name, be willing to be healed, and through his name, be willing to be saved, and using his name, be willing to share the Good News.  I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to reach the hem of his garment and find our bleeding stopped.  Won’t you join with me in praying for the renewal of the Church?

The Foundation of #GC78

The Collect for Proper 8B could not be more appropriate as the 78th General Convention *finally* gets underway today.

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

As deputies and bishops gather to do the work of the Church, to speak prophetically to the culture, to shape our vision for the future, and to restructure for mission, we do so not in a vacuum, but upon a foundation that is more than two thousand years old.  To switch metaphors slightly, our goal, it would seem, would be to tap into the deep roots established by the Spirit on Pentecost as we seek to align ourselves with the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed so boldly that it cost him his life.

It is only by tapping into that deep foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone, that we can have any hope of finding the will of God for ourselves, for our congregations, dioceses, and, as is the task here in Salt Lake City, finding the will of God for The Episcopal Church.  The schedule is hectic, but time for prayer is built in all over the place, the President of the House of Deputies, the Rev. Gay Jennings, has already noted that she will always honor a call to prayer in our house, and the Acts 8 Moment is offering a service of Evening Prayer at 9:15 this evening.  As we begin in earnest, we must remember to pray, to tap into the foundational love of God as we seek to do his work in the Church for the world.

A Large Crowd Followed – Evangelism at #GC78

My friend Adam Trambley wrote a piece for the House of Deputy News website entitled, “A church ‘resolved to grow.'”  In his article, he argues that the 78th General Convention is all about church growth, and I am apt to believe him.  Though I would add that I think we are actually coming at it from the backside.  This General Convention might actually be about the Church wanting to stop shrinking rather than the Church actually wanting to grow, and until we repent of that scarcity thinking, we are doomed to shrink our way into oblivion.

As I re-read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday, having just finished Adam’s article, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the large crowd that followed Jesus.  This wasn’t a new crowd, a group of would-be followers had been running from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other for a few days, trying to keep up with Jesus as he sailed back and forth looking for a quiet place.  It wasn’t a new crowd, but it certainly was growing.  It wasn’t growing because the disciples fretted about decline or because they passed sweeping structural changes to the Kingdom of God or because Jesus lowered his standards of entrance.

The crowd grew because people told the story of Jesus.  Immediately preceding the story of Jairus and the woman with the issue of blood, we hear the story of a demoniac possessed by a legion of demons.  After Jesus sets him free from his bondage, the man begged Jesus, “Please, let me come with you!”  And do you know what Jesus said?  Of course you do, you smart reader you.  Jesus said, “no.”  He didn’t need or want that man to circumnavigate the shores of the Sea of Galilee, but rather Jesus wanted the man to go home and tell his friends.

Go and Tell.  The key to church growth is evangelism, and evangelism has only three steps.

  1. Experience the saving love of God through Jesus Christ.
  2. Go find someone you know.
  3. Tell them about that experience.

General Convention can’t legislate evangelism, though I think resolutions D005, D009, and D019 can facilitate our learning to be better evangelists.  Instead, it is up to us to figure out if the story of Jesus is worth telling and then to tell it.  Evangelism has only three steps, but that third one is a doozy.  I get that.  It can be scary to talk with family and friends about Jesus.  What if I can’t answer their questions?  What if they get annoyed?  What if they reject Jesus, or worse, me?  Inherent in evangelism is a certain level of risk, and not until the joy that comes from the first step can outweigh the fear in step three will we be motivated to tell people the Good News.  So my prayer for today, for General Convention, and for the Church is simply this, that we might experience the love of God in such overwhelming ways that we can’t help but tell everybody we know the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Distractions at #GC78

Today is Ready Day at the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church.  The last of the Bishops and Deputies are flying in to Salt Lake City, registration begins in a few hours, the exhibits open at 9, and legislative committee meetings start this evening, all in preparation for the Big Event.  Tomorrow is orientation, more committee meetings, and the PB Nominees will take part in their very own Dog and Pony Show.  It all leads up to Wednesday’s opening Eucharist and the opening gavel bang.

Every person attending General Convention has their own idea of what it should focus on.  Some think Marriage Equality is the most important thing we’ll do here, others argue that an honest conversation about the Church’s relationship with alcohol is most needed, while still others will say that their own particular social justice issue is most pressing: drones, fracking, women’s issues, you names, we’ve got a resolution dealing with it.  Me?  I think the most important thing we could do at the 78th General Convention is live into the principles laid out in the Memorial to the Church, but I would think that, since I helped write it.

What I’m afraid of, however, is what happens in Sunday’s Gospel lesson: Distractions!

Jesus is on his way to help save a you girl, the daughter of Jairus, a leader in the Synagogue, who was close to death.  As he made his way through the crowded streets, a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years realized it was her chance to be healed by this miracle worker.  It isn’t that her issue wasn’t important, it most certainly was, it was that it caused such a distraction that ultimately, Jairus’ daughter died while Jesus was dealing with something else.

The Good News in this story is that Jesus can bring the little girl back to life.  My concern is that we’ll get so bogged down in the minutiae, that the distractions will keep us from doing the work we have come here to do: that competing voices will create such a cacophony that we won’t be able to hear ourselves think.  Sure, we’ll deal with important issues, no matter what, but will we deal with what is most pressing, most urgent, most able to allow us to leave here having begun the work of adaptive change for the building of the Kingdom?  I hope so, and that is my prayer on Ready Day at GC78.