God Saves – Holy Name

       By now, WOVO’s North Pole Radio is already a distant memory.  Mariah Carey has once again been cryogenically frozen until next November, having made another $3 million in royalties for “All I Want for Christmas is You.”  I’m guessing for most, on this first morning of 2023, we’re ready to lay the Christmas festivities aside and focus on making 2023 a better year than 2022, or 2021, or 2020.  Come to think of it, the ‘20s have been a pretty rough decade so far.  Despite the understandable desire to move past Christmas, I’ve actually spent a lot of time of this week thinking about how each of us has our own soundtrack for Christmas.  For the first half of my life, back before streaming services and radio stations playing the same 33 Christmas songs for two months straight, there were two albums that played in my house indicating the Christmas season.  On the record player, we’d spin John Denver and the Muppets’ “A Christmas Together” and in the CD player was “A Christmas Portrait” by the Carpenters.  Since getting married, a third album has been added to the list, one that came from Cassie’s family, Amy Grant’s “A Christmas Album.”

       Track number four on “A Christmas Album” is a song called, “Emmanuel,” and leading up to this Feast of the Holy Name, it’s been stuck in my head all week.  The 80s synthesizer is pretty complex, but the lyrics are quite simple.

Emmanuel, Emmanuel

Wonderful, Counselor!

Lord of life, Lord of all;

He is the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Holy One!

Emmanuel, Emmanuel

Here we hear seven different names by which Jesus is known.  A quick Google search comes up with more than fifty names and titles for Jesus that are found in Scripture.  So, what’s the deal?  Why is this name thing so important?  Why does Paul, quoting an early hymn, make the bold claim that God gave Jesus “the name above all names”?

       For those of you who grew up with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the whole Feast of the Holy Name thing is probably still quite new.  Holy Name Day is a Major Feast in the Episcopal Church, but because it falls on January 1, it is rarely commemorated, unless, like this year, it falls on a Sunday.  Holy Name is new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, replacing the Feast of the Circumcision, though as a faithful Jewish couple, we know that Mary and Joseph would have both named their son and had him circumcised on the eighth day, as prescribed by the Torah.  When it came time to name the child, there was no question.  Both Mary and Joseph had been told by an angel that they should name him, Jesus.

       Well, not exactly Jesus.  It is probably more like Yehoshua in Hebrew, Iesous in Greek, Joshua or Jesus in English.  No matter how you pronounce it, the name means “God saves.”  It is a name, a title, and a mission statement all in one.  Jesus, in name and in life, was the savior of all.  Jesus, born to Mary, whose name means both “bitter” and “beloved” who was engaged to Joseph, which means “may God increase,” was born to fulfill the promises of God throughout history and to save all of humanity from the power of sin and death. God had repeatedly stepped into salvation history to save and deliver his people.  From the time of Noah, whose name means “rest,” God shows a track record of being unwilling to let humanity destroy itself in sinfulness and self-gratification.  On the ark, God saved a faithful remnant.  In Abraham, which means “Father of many nations,” God chose a nation through which all nations might come into God’s saving embrace.  Through Moses, “to draw out,” God delivered the Israelites from the bondage that came from Joseph’s brothers’ unfair dealings and subsequent self-serving Pharaohs.  The prophets, Isaiah “God is salvation” included, again and again called the people of Israel “Wrestles with God” to forsake their sins and be saved.  When it seemed clear that was not going to happen, God promised both punishment and redemption to God’s people.  There is never a point at which God is willing to give up on the hope of restoring humanity to right relationship, which brings God ultimately to the person of Jesus, Yehoshua, God saves.  Jesus was and is Emmanuel, the other title for their son which both Mary and Joseph received from God, which means “God with us,” and once Emmanuel came to be with us, God never left.

Sure, following the resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven.  For roughly two thousand years now, Jesus hasn’t been on earth, and yet, God continues to be with us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit keeps Emmanuel in the present, always here to show us the way to the Father, the how-tos of the Kingdom of God.  The Spirit, a lifetime of God with us, is a gift given to every one of us in our baptism.  With deference to the power of names in Scripture, the Church has long tied baptism and the gift of Emmanuel with naming.  For hundreds of years, a child was formally named at their baptismal ceremony.  Those who were baptized later in life often changed their name at baptism, giving up the pagan names of their youth for Christian names of discipleship.  Some of you may have a second middle name from a long ago Roman Catholic baptism for the very same reason. But baptism is for next week.

This week, our focus is on the Holy Name of Jesus, God saves, and the many different names by which our savior has been known through the centuries.  Over the course of Lectionary Year A, we’ll hear at least fourteen different names and titles from Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus, the Son of David, Emmanuel, the Messiah, Lord, Ruler, God’s own Son, the forgiver of sins, the servant of God, the Sower of good seed, the Son of Man, the Prophet, Rabbi, and King.  No matter what name we call Jesus, he is and always will be the one who saves, who brings us into right relationship with God and with one another. The one who invites into a new way of living, a life that is based on love of God and love of neighbor, a life that seeks to set the whole world free from bondage to sin, oppression, fear, and heartache.  The Prince of Peace, mighty God, holy one.  Emmanuel.  Yehoshua.  Iesous.  Jesus, the name above all names.  Amen.


All (Saints) Means All

In 1845, the first year that Christ Episcopal Church could send a report to the Annual Convention of the Diocese of Kentucky, the Reverend C.C. Townsend, missionary to Bowling Green, reflected upon the significant work that the parish had undertaken in its first year of existence. Townsend wrote to the Bishop and Deputies gathered in Louisville that “Regular services have been performed in Bowling Green, and at two important points in the country, and the Holy Communion administered the 4th Sunday of each month. A Sunday School commenced one year ago has increased to 40 scholars and 6 teachers, and an interesting Bible class is instructed in the country. The good friends of the church have furnished us with an adequate supply of books.” He finished his description of the fledgling ministry in Warren County with these words, “An effort on behalf of the servants has been regularly sustained for a year with encouraging results. The Prayer Book enables them also to worship God, and
they are taught the way of salvation from His Holy Word.”
In his recently updated history of Christ Church, David Lee follows these words with an editorial comment that they are “likely a delicate reference to the approximately 4,000 members of the enslaved community in Bowling Green and Warren County.” Like many communities in the agriculturally rich southeast, slavery was a significant part of the economy in antebellum Warren County. By 1860, the Federal Census counted 5,318 enslaved Black people in Warren County, meaning a full 30% of the total population was enslaved. Of those more than five thousand men, women, and children, approximately 183 were enslaved by families belonging to Christ Episcopal Church. Despite strong pro-Union leanings among the membership of Christ Church, with nearly 75% of the congregation leaving town when the Southern army entered, the reality is that like the rest of Bowling Green, Christ Church was made up of a significant number of pro-slavery or anti-Black members. It is not a stretch, more than 160 years later, to say unequivocally that Christ Episcopal Church is the direct beneficiary of the system of chattel slavery and the subjugation of Black people who were made in the image of God yet were not granted their full humanity. They weren’t even given names when listed in the 1860 census.
“Some of them have left behind a name,” writes Ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus, “so that others might declare their praise. But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly [people], whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten…” I’ve heard these words on All Saints’ Sundays for most of my life, but since learning of these 183 souls it has taken on new meaning for me.
Prior to now, when I thought of those who died as though they never existed, I imagined all the people who don’t have names on plaques or nameplates. Those dedicated but quiet members who made sure the coffee was made, or the pre-k Sunday school class had a teacher. The kind of disciple who makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every Wednesday for our community lunch or puts together fidget blankets for those living with dementia. Healthy congregations, like Christ Church, are full of members who go about the work of loving their neighbors, never seeking a reward other than the good feeling that comes with knowing you’ve shared the love of God with someone you may never even meet.
What I had never considered are all the people who aren’t or can’t be members of a congregation who also contribute to its mission and ministry. I have started to think about the Recyclops driver who helps keep our bulletins from going into the landfill or the team from NewCon that descends upon this building every
Thursday to make sure it is clean and welcoming for all who enter. More and more, I find myself thinking about the employees at the Bistro or Just Love Coffee who serve so many of us brunch on Sunday mornings and the myriad maintenance people who make sure the elevators run properly, the HVAC system functions most of the time, and the hot water is hot, and the cold water is cold. Then I go even deeper, as I think about the Black man who came to the Christmas Eve service in 1954 and, at least according to Vestry minutes, was treated in a way that brought pride to the heart of one Vestry member. And now, almost daily, I think about the 183, most of whom remain nameless to us, whose labor helped secure the future of Christ Episcopal Church even though they could never even consider becoming members.
In all of this, All Saints’ Day has taken on new meaning for me. I have always been clear that the only Biblical benchmark for sainthood is being a disciple of Jesus, but I’m beginning to wonder
if even that is too narrow a definition. What if on this All Saints’ Day we include all those who might want to follow Jesus but have been told they can’t? Or those who live so close to the margins that three jobs leave no time for a community of faith? Or those who died as though they never existed because the dominant culture told them they shouldn’t exist? What if on this All Saints’ Day, All really meant All?
In his Revelation, John of Patmos was given a glimpse of the heavenly banquet. There he saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every tribe and people and language who in their great diversity had in common that their robes were washed clean in the blood of the lamb. On this All Saints’ Day, I invite you to begin to look at the world with the eyes of John of Patmos and the heart of Ben Sira. See in all your neighbors the image of God. Pay attention not just to those famous men who get glory and power, but to those who live on the margins of society, as
though they never existed. Remember all the saints, and maybe especially those 183 whose names are known to God alone, whose lives and labor have brought this congregation to where we are today, a community of saints who seek to worship God with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, and radiate God’s love to all. Amen.

Baptized and Set Free

       This week, on the calendar of saints in The Episcopal Church, we remembered St. Alban.  Alban is the first British Christian that we know by name.  While we do not know when Alban was born or even when we died, we know the story of how he died quite well.  It is believed that Alban was a Roman soldier stationed about 20 miles northeast of London.  A persecution of Christians broke out across the Roman Empire sometime during the early to mid-third century, making its way from the Continent to the British Islands.  One day, a Christian priest found himself at the door of a Roman Solider named Alban, desperate for safe lodging.  No one knows why Alban welcomed the priest into his house, but this priest made an impact on Alban.  After several days of watching the priest pray and give thanks, Alban was moved by his faith and became a Christian.

       Eventually, word that the priest was holed up at Alban’s home made its way to the prince in the area and a detachment of soldiers was sent to arrest him.  Quickly, Alban hid the priest, took the priest’s clothing, and presented himself instead.  Alban was taken before a judge who was standing at an altar making sacrifices to pagan gods.  The judge turned around and asked Alban, “What is your family and race?”  Alban replied, “How does my family concern you?  If you wish to know the truth about my religion, know that I am a Christian and am ready to do a Christian’s duty.”  “I demand to know your name,” insisted the judge, “Tell me at once.”  “My parents named me Alban,” he answered, “and I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.”

       The judge was enraged by Alban’s confident faith and, having figured out that he wasn’t the priest they had been looking for, sentenced him to the full torture and execution that the priest would have received.  He was scourged and, when he still wouldn’t renounce his faith, sent to be beheaded.  According to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Alban was led to his death by several executioners.  They came to the river Ver, which was too fast flowing to cross on foot, and the bridge was clogged up and made impassable by a mob of townspeople.  Alban, wishing to “do his Christian duty” and be martyred, raised his eyes to heaven and the river dried up, so that they could cross over on dry land.  The first executioner was so astonished by this miracle, that he threw down his sword and asked to be executed instead of or alongside Alban.  While the other executioners figured out what to do next, Alban went 500 paces up a gentle hill, covered in thousands of beautiful wildflowers, and awaited his fate.  He became thirsty and asked God to provide him a drink, which caused a spring to erupt from beneath his feet, and after he drank, he was beheaded alongside his first executioner.  In less than a week, Alban went from a pledged persecutor of the Christian faith to the first Christian martyr in Britain.  It is clear from Bede’s recounting of Alban’s story that he had fully been set free in Christ, and feared nothing, not even death, for the cause of Jesus Christ.

       I tell you this story, not because I think any one of us are going to be called to martyrdom anytime soon, but because I think it is the epitome of what Saint Paul was writing about in our lesson from Galatians this morning.  We who follow Jesus have been set free, not so that we could fall back into bondage to fear and sin and death, but so that we might use that freedom in Christ as an empowering force to work for the betterment of our world in the pursuit of loving our neighbor as ourselves.  This morning, we will welcome into that freedom little Zara Veletanlic through her baptism into Christ’s Body, the Church.  In so doing, on behalf of this congregation and the Church universal, I will pray that she experiences the fullness of her freedom in Jesus with an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage of Saint Alban to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.

       It is important for us not just to pray this prayer on behalf of Zara, but to remember that this is a prayer for all baptized Christians.  While in sermons on baptismal Sundays, I often focus on the Baptismal Covenant as our calling to ministry, with this lesson from Galatians in our lectionary for today, with Alban on my mind, and with the growing sense of fear in our nation around gun violence, inequitable access to healthcare, and the threat of the loss of basic civil rights for some of our most vulnerable citizens, I’m convinced that this prayer for the courage of Alban is more important than ever.  In baptism, we have been set free in Christ Jesus to love our neighbors unconditionally, just as Christ loves us.  This means following the example of Blessed Alban in caring for the poor, the outcast, and the afraid, no matter the cost.  It means speaking out on behalf of those who are forced back into the yoke of slavery to fear because of who they have been made to be in the image of God.  It means, as Mother Becca reminds us in the blessing she so often uses, that we make no peace with oppression – in our community, our state, our nation, or in the wider world.

       How do you do that in a world so defined by fear and self-preservation?  Jump with me, if you will, to the end of the Galatians lesson for this morning.  After Zara is baptized with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I will anoint her with oil, and declare, on behalf of God, that she is sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.  In so doing, we believe that Zara receives the Holy Spirit who will lead her as an advocate and guide for the rest of her days.  That same Holy Spirit, Paul tells us, is exemplified in the life every disciple by producing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Simply put, when we are living into the post-baptismal prayer, living into the freedom that comes from Christ, the fruit of the Spirit are present in our lives.  When those fruit are not, it is most likely that we have fallen back into the yoke of slavery to sin, fear, or corruption.  What fear has you in bondage, holding you back from loving your neighbor as yourself?  What is keeping you from embracing the courage of Saint Alban to follow Jesus no matter the cost?  In baptism, we have all been set free in Christ.  Be careful, dear friends, not to fall back into slavery to fear, but be led by the Spirit into hope, joy, and love.  Amen.

Strapping into the Trinity

Several years ago, Cassie and I joined her family on a vacation to Cocoa Beach, Florida.  At the time, her dad was considering buying and building an aerobatic biplane kit from a company that happened to be located twenty minutes south of our condo.  So, one morning Doug and I made the trip south to see the factory and take a tour.  It was a really cool couple of hours.  The owner of the factory took us around to learn all ABOUT the aircraft.  We saw the first ever prototype, and the CNC Machine that cut out the thousands upon thousands of struts, ribs, and connecting pieces that make up the kit.  We saw planes in various stages of construction and learned all ABOUT what made that aerobatic biplane special.  We learned ABOUT the engine that is made for a plane three or four times as heavy.  We learned ABOUT the wings, which unlike a regular plane wing that is curved only on the top to provide lift, is curved on both top and bottom so that the plane doesn’t care whether you are flying it right-side up or upside down.  I left that two-hour tour knowing a whole lot ABOUT this biplane.

The next day, we headed to the airport where their professional test pilot was going to give my father-in-law a test flight in their trainer.  I watched them from the ground, and after he was done, Doug told me all ABOUT the aileron rolls, barrel rolls, flips, and tricks they had done.  And then, something very unexpected happened, the pilot asked if I might like to go up.  I thought for about 2 milliseconds and said “yes.”  As he helped me put the five-point harness on, the test pilot said something to me that I will never forget, “if anything goes wrong, this is your ripcord, pull it.”  I quickly realized that it didn’t matter how much I knew ABOUT this particular aircraft because I was going to get to know it, intimately.

And boy howdy did I get to know that airplane.  We spun and flipped and spiraled so much that morning that it scrambled my equilibrium for a couple of years.

There is a tendency on Trinity Sunday to do a lot of talking ABOUT the doctrine and dogma of the Trinity.  Sermons ABOUT how the various points of doctrine were ironed out to make the Nicene Creed will be prevalent.  Various ways of thinking ABOUT our Triune God will be explored, and heresies will abound.  God will be described as water: ice, liquid, and steam; God as star: light, heat, and radiation; God as modes: creator, redeemer, sanctifier.  There is, without a doubt, a whole lot of talk going on this morning helping people know more ABOUT the Triune God that we, as Christians, profess to follow, and that is a good thing, but all the many ways we can concoct to talk ABOUT God will leave us feeling a little empty.  Quite frankly, we could talk ABOUT, write ABOUT, and read ABOUT God for the rest of our days and still not cover all that there is to cover.  More importantly, even if we could know everything there is to know ABOUT God, it still pales in comparison to knowing God.  And so, I believe that Trinity Sunday is celebrated each year, not to help us come to know and understand more ABOUT God, but instead, to call us into a deeper relationship with the Triune God who meets us and makes themself known to us, as Father, the one who creates, as Son, the one who redeems, and as Holy Spirit, the one who guides, protects, and sanctifies.  So, the question this morning is not, how much do you know ABOUT God, but simply do you know God?

I think this is what Jesus is getting at with his disciples in our Gospel lesson for this morning.  We’re back in the upper room on the night before Jesus died.  He has already had dinner with them – broken bread and shared the cup.  He has already washed their feet.  Judas has already left the room, and Jesus has already given them the new commandment, that they love one another.  At this point in Jesus’ long farewell to his disciples, he has told them everything ABOUT what is coming next, but, he says, there is more, and you can’t bear it yet.  At some point, it becomes impossible to continue to learn more ABOUT something, and you just have to experience it.  For the disciples, the next 72 hours are going to be a whirlwind of heartache, fear, confusion, and hope, and no matter how many times Jesus describes for them his death and resurrection, until they see it for themselves, or, for Thomas, until he touches Jesus’ wounds and puts his hand in his side, they just won’t be able to comprehend it.

Some two-thousand years later, we’re on the other side of the disciple’s conundrum.  They hadn’t experienced death and resurrection yet, so they couldn’t bear it.  We’re so far removed from Jesus’ time and place, that we can barely bear it ourselves, and so, we rely on the Holy Spirit, whom we met in great detail last week on the Day of Pentecost, to lead us into all truth.  It is through the guiding of the Spirit that we can experience the things about God which we simply cannot learn through sermons, Bible studies, and theology books.  It is through the Spirit of truth that we come to know the love of God, rather than ABOUT the love of God.  It is also through the Spirit of truth that we are able to share, not just ABOUT the love of God, but to help others experience the abundant love of God in a world that desperately needs it.

I spent Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning with Bishop White and Canon Coultas as we toured the tornado’s path and met with community leaders.  I’ve talked with them dozens of times since December 11th, but until they were able to see it firsthand, they only knew ABOUT the devastation, now they have experienced it.  They were also able to experience in real-life terms, the amazing work being done by Habitat for Humanity, HOTEL INC, city leadership, the Long Term Recovery Group, and Christ Episcopal Church to help build hope on our community.  In those ten hours we spent together, they saw the love of God as it has been lived out over and over again in our community since the storm.  As they got ready to leave, they shared with me just how much they appreciate seeing God at work here, knowing that it is our faith in the Triune God of love that sustains us for this long and difficult work.

On Trinity Sunday, we are invited to strap into the aerobatic biplane that is the life of faith, to trust that the parachute will catch us should we need it, and to follow the Spirit out into the world to help others experience the love, grace, and mercy of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  May the Spirit of truth lead you into all truth, giving you grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and to know, experience, and share the wonderful works of God.  Amen.

Leadership, ABD

I’ve heard it said that anyone who led well in 2020 earned a PhD in leadership. Recently, however, I’ve come to understand that we’re all actually sitting ABD – all but dissertation. The Delta variant, then, is when your second reader writes to say that the argument in page 88 could be bolstered if you read some obscure 500 page book. Delta Plus is when you realize that your footnotes are correct by the Chicago Manual of Style volume 8, but they published volume 9 while you weren’t looking.  Leadership is hard. Leadership in a pandemic is hard and requires constant vigilance and updating. It seems many are content with ABD and are letting the suggestions of their readers go unanswered while enjoying drinks with those who would say, “don’t worry about that crap.”

John 6 provides an interesting study in long term leadership. The chapter opens with the crowd following Jesus numbering in the thousands. They’d seen him perform healings. They’d heard him challenge the religious powers-that-be. They were intrigued and wanted to know more, so they followed him out of town and into the wilderness. Suddenly, it was dinner time and the crowd of 5,000 men (plus women and children) were hungry.  With five small loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus fed the crowd because sometimes, leadership is meeting the immediate needs of people to keep them safe. The next day, however, when the crowd tracks Jesus down again hoping for more signs (and more fish sandwiches), Jesus begins to teach them some of the more difficult lessons of discipleship – I am the bread of life, my flesh is food indeed, you cannot come to the Father unless you are called – you get the idea. The chapter that began with swollen crowds ends with so many turning back that Jesus begins to wonder if even the 12 will leave him.

True leadership is not about being popular.  It doesn’t kowtow to the loudest voices. Nor does it hope to soothe the feels of the misinformed. Most of the time, leadership requires political savvy to bring as many people alongside as possible, but sometimes leaders have to damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead toward what is right, no matter the consequences to their ego, re-election campaign, or pocketbook. To be quite honest, being a leader means risking being unpopular and, as is evidenced by Jesus, occasionally losing some folks along the way.

Now, I’m not suggesting that I’ve done everything right as a leader since March of 2020. There have been plenty of times I’ve moved too slowly, waited too long, or been indecisive.  But, as I watch school and government leaders, abdicate their leadership roles, content to stay ABD, while major corporations, whose goal is only profit, somehow stumble onto what is right by mandating vaccinations, I can’t help but throw up my hands and ask, “what the actual f*ck is happening?” None of us signed up for leading in a pandemic, but all of us who are leaders signed up to make hard choices, whether we knew it or not. Hard choices might be unpopular with a loud-mouthed minority who can be a pain in the neck, but when they are scientifically proven to save lives, well then, mask up and require the jab because if you think you’re tired of leading now, just wait until epsilon, zeta, eta, and theta come calling.

Let’s not settle for ABD. Pick up that book your second reader suggested. Fix those footnotes. Do the hard thing because only when we all lead for the good of all of humanity will we see this thing end and finally get that PhD in leadership we’ve all been promised.

One Year

Most people remember Wednesday, March 11, 2020 because it was the day that Rudy Gobert, star center of the Utah Jazz, tested positive for COVID-19 and the NBA suspended its season indefinitely. I remember it as the day, one year ago this morning, that Andy Beshear, the Governor of Kentucky, recommended that churches consider not holding services the following Sunday. At 11am, I met with our Christian Education Director to talk about whether or not we should hold our Wednesday Lenten program that evening. At 1pm, our Director of Music and I decided to suspend choir rehearsals. At 2pm, our audio/visual volunteer was in my office with a plan to live stream Sunday services.

March 11, 2020 was probably the most stressful day I’ve had at work. It was a day of hastily scheduled meetings, uncertainty, and difficult decisions, but it was also a day of great clarity. In the email I wrote to the congregation that day, time stamped at 3:07pm, I concluded with these words, “This will give us the time and space we need to make wise decisions for the health of our most vulnerable members while balancing our Christian call to be beacons of hope in our community.” The dual petitions for wise decisions and beacons of hope, has been my prayer, in one form or another, for a year now.

Of course, March 11, 2020 Steve had no idea what was coming. On March 16, we held our last in-person staff meeting. On the white board in the Conference Room, we drew up a calendar so that we could all visualize what was coming. I took a picture of it and posted it to Instagram with this caption.

“Maybe the 90 day window was overkill…” We were so naive. That calendar is still there, untouched now for almost 365 days. Nowhere in my mind was the possibility that on March 11, 2021, I’d spend five minutes frantically looking for SBC’s mask, trying to make sure she was on time to the eighth day of full capacity in-person school since March 16, 2020. Nowhere in my mind was the possibility that we would still holding online only services and planning for a second pandemic Holy Week. Nowhere in my mind was the possibility of 520,000 dead Americans, an estimated 100,000,000 infected, and yet, 25% of adults in Kentucky, including myself, at least half vaccinated.

It has been a long year. There has been so much to mourn, so much to worry about, and so many plans altered and scrapped. As one priest I know said recently, “we’ve all gotten PhDs in leadership this year.” And while it is still far from over, as I look back on the year that has past, I can’t help but find things to be thankful for. I’m thankful that, by and large, my family, friends, and flock have remained healthy. I’m thankful for partners in ministry who have prayed with and for me as we’ve made unpopular decisions and who have pivoted, sometimes as a moment’s notice. I’m thankful for Governor Beshear, Bishop White, and Superintendent Fields as they’ve modeled leadership that has balanced wise decision making and hope for a better tomorrow. Most of all, I’m thankful for a trampoline in our backyard.

It has been a long year. Give yourself space to grieve, space for gratitude, and space for rest. As I said on Sunday, normal can’t be our goal for post-pandemic life, but if we keep our prayers focused on wisdom and hope, what comes next can be a world that is more just, more loving, and more peaceful than the one we left behind.

2021 – Peace be with You

The following is my report to the People of Christ Episcopal Church at our Annual Meeting, held January 17, 2021.

If you’ve heard me say this once, you’ve heard me say it a dozen times.  The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.  I believe in that mission with all my heart.  Seeking unity has been an overarching principle in my ministry since the very beginning. Bringing reconciliation to our sinful world is at the heart of every sermon that I preach.  Consensus building is how I choose to lead.  For the entirety of my ministry, however, disunity has defined the world in which we live.  In our nation, forces of evil have been stoking the fires of division since at least 2001.  In The Episcopal Church, those same forces of evil have been trying to rend us asunder since at least 2003.  I’ve seen, on too many occasions, faithful, thoughtful, considerate siblings in Christ choose to walk away from unity for any number of reasons, and I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that God’s Spirit is grieved every single time.  The painful and sometimes violent discord we have experienced over the last ten months is nothing new, but rather, the next logical steps in the Devil’s desire to sow division and destroy the Kingdom of God. 

Fundamentally, as a part of the Image of God within us, I believe we all desire to work toward unity.  It is core principle of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Shalom – peace, wholeness, unity – is said to be the foundation upon which the Torah is built.  After his resurrection, in John’s Gospel, Jesus appeared to his disciples in the upper room, he breathed the Holy Spirit upon them and said, “Peace be with you.”  The Greek word translated as peace is Eirene, which is built on the root word meaning “to join” or “to be united.”  Unity may be at the center of who we are as human beings, but it is hard, and because it is hard, we often try find ways to make it easier.   When we “agree to disagree,” we cheapen unity.  Unity that says, “I’m ok, you’re ok,” is not unity at all.  True unity names evil when it exits, it calls out sin when it is apparent, and it invites all of us to take stock of the role each of us plays in causing division in our households, in our church, in our community, and in the wider world.  True unity is not possible without accountability, confession, truth-telling, and repentance.

The Catechism goes on to say that the Church pursues its mission of restoring unity as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.  In our corner of the Church, Christ Episcopal seeks to restore unity by way of worshipping God with joy and wonder, learning and growing together, and radiating God’s love to all.  In my written report for this Annual Meeting, I noted that I had long hoped to use John 20:21 as a theme for this year.  Sent in Love would have been a great rallying cry for 2021, but the ongoing pandemic makes that difficult.  Rather than lament this, today, I find myself grateful for it.  Over the past ten days, I’ve come to realize that by focusing on the second half of Jesus’ commission, I missed the more basic call, Peace be with you.  Shalom.  Eirene.  Wholeness.  Unity.  This is our mission.  This is the work to which we are all called.

We, as individual Christians, as members of Christ Episcopal Church, and as citizens of the United States, have an opportunity, in the face of a pandemic that has exacerbated the forces that separate us, a racial reckoning that has highlighted our historic division, and an election cycle designed to profit off of pushing Americans further to the extremes, to model a turn toward unity. I believe that we are called in this moment to repent from the echo chambers of intentionally divisive social media and news networks that profit off our disunity, and to turn toward God’s dream of shalom.

In conjunction with our 2021 theme, Peace be with you, today I invite every member of Christ Episcopal Church to take part in The Episcopal Church’s newest campaign in pursuit of restoring unity, “From Many, One.”  Formally launching tomorrow, on the day our nation sets aside to remember the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “From Many, One” is a process for listening and sharing across the many differences that would seek to separate us.  Echoing the Latin phrase on the seal of the United States of America – E Pluribus Unum – and following in the footsteps of Jesus, the spiritual practices of conversations across differences laid out in “From Many, One” can help to knit us all into a diverse, more perfect union.[1]  In his invitation to this practice, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry affirms that “Conversation with others across difference is not just a nice thing to do.  It is a spiritual practice of love in action.”[2]

More details about the ways in which Christ Church will facilitate these conversations are forthcoming, but you don’t have to wait for formal plans to begin to engage in “From Many, One.”  All you have to do is to pick up the phone and talk to someone.  “From Many, One” is a series of intentional, one-on-one conversations based on four questions:

  • What do you love?
  • What have you lost?
  • Where does it hurt?
  • What do you dream?

What do you love?  What do you value?  What will you struggle to protect?  So much of human action and thinking is driven not by hate or anger but by the urge to protect what we love. By asking and sharing our answers to “what do you love,” each of us has a chance to name and to hear what matters most to us and why. It’s harder to argue when we start from what we love.

What have you lost?  What keeps you up at night?  What do you miss?  People across the spectrum understand the experience of loss: the loss of money, jobs, status, national identity, cultural identity, a sense of security, a sense that they matter, etc. By asking and sharing our answers to “what have you lost,” we become curious about what each of us has lost, what we’re grieving, and perhaps what we’re trying hard to get back.

Where does it hurt?  How have you been wounded by life?  What makes you angry? Regardless of our race, gender, age, ballot choice, earnings, or location, we all know what it is to hurt. By asking and sharing our answers to “where does it hurt,” we become curious about how each of us has been wounded by life, by others, and by social forces, instead of assuming “others” are fine and only I or my group is hurting. We offer up our experiences and learn to offer one another compassion.

What do you dream?  What do you hope for the future – for yourself, your family, our community, and our nation?  We all dream of a better world, as we imagine it from our own personal perspective, but we don’t get to hear or share that vision very often. Instead, people often assume that their own ideal picture of life, community, and society is shared by everyone or that certain others can’t possibly want the same kind of future they do. By asking “what do you dream,” we become open to hear and share each other’s dreams for our families, communities, society, and ourselves.[3]

I am under no illusion that simply by talking to one another, we will fix the divisions that exist in our society.  I am convinced, however, that every time we hear the story of another, we move one step closer to unity and that in understanding where another is coming from, we are able to begin the process of reconciliation.  In so doing, we roundly reject the forces of evil that would tear us apart and instead embrace our calling in Christ to a ministry of reconciliation by reaching out to our neighbors and saying “Peace be with you.

[1] https://episcopalchurch.org/files/en_-_from_many_one_guide.pdf page 1.

[2] ibid.

[3] These four paragraphs outlining the questions are copied from ibid, page 2.

The Spirit?

I think I can understand how the Ephesians felt when Paul asked, “Have you been baptized in the Holy Spirit?” That gut sinking feeling that goes with feeling out of the loop or unable to keep the conversation going is one of the worst, in my opinion. This is a silly example, but one that I’ve experienced more than once recently. I have a friend who has really enjoyed the Disney+ series The Mandalorian. A month or so ago, he asked me about it, excited to talk about the season finale, but I hadn’t seen it. We were talking last week, and, still excited, he asked me about it again. I still haven’t watched it.

It stinks to not be able to share in someone else’s excitement. My friend can’t simply lay hands on me and impart two seasons’ worth of content in my brain, but Paul was able to pray for the Ephesians and God willingly poured the Holy Spirit upon them with power and might. All it took was a willingness to experience the joy of God and Paul’s willingness to share the gift he had received.

I wonder if the general shyness Episcopalians have around evangelism is in part due to our limited comfort with the Holy Spirit. As a Church that was focused in the Apostles Creed for most of our existence, we’ve had very little liturgical pedagogy in the Spirit. This underdeveloped understanding of the Spirit has, for too long, robbed us of the joy of the the Spirit’s gifts and the desire to share them with others. Rather than living lives imbued with the Fruit of the Spirit like patience, kindness, humility, and self-control, we take to Twitter to rip one another’s pandemic liturgical choices and puff up our own liturgy and enlightened theology.

Perhaps this Sunday, as we recall the Baptism of our Lord, we should pray for some of that Spirit that descended upon Jesus at the Jordan and upon the Ephesians when Paul laid hands upon them. God is always willing to share the Spirit with us, and we should be ready to do the same.

The Ever-Changing Church

Things weren’t looking good for the Church as the sixth chapter of Acts begins.  Despite some early successes, including three thousand new members on Pentecost, public perception was that they were a tiny minority of fools, following a failed, fake Messiah, doomed to flounder for a few months before it all came crashing down.  On top of that, a series of intense internal squabbles threatened to split the Church.  Leaders who were picked based on their ability to teach and preach and inspire, suddenly found themselves having to learn how to administrate.  Factions were arguing constantly, and the leadership could no longer do it all on their own.  So, with some reluctance, they decided to open up the ranks, and seven new leaders were brought on board.  These men, called Deacons, were charged with the day-to-day operations of the ministry, while the rest continued to focus their attention on teaching and preaching.

As we are well aware here at Christ Church, a good Deacon is worth their weight in gold.  Seven good Deacons showed the potential to turn the Church around.  The word of God spread because it had hands and feet in the world.  The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly as people began to experience the love of God lived out in real life.  Things were blowing and going and everything looked great, until… Luke tells us that even many of the priests of Judaism were being converted by this newfound way of being the Church.  Converting the rank and file is one thing, but religious leaders don’t take too kindly to the poaching of clergy.  Stephen, one of the seven Deacons, was supremely gifted.  Like Deacon Kellie, Stephen’s skills went way beyond the primary role of Deacon as a servant minister.  Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit.  He was a gifted preacher.  He had a servant’s heart.  He even began to perform miracles.  His public persona became the focus of frustration for some of the Jewish leadership.

The story we heard this morning comes at the tail end of a long Passion Narrative for Stephen.  In many ways, his story follows what happened to Jesus.  A secret plot leads to the need for false witnesses to testify before the authorities.  Ultimately, the power of the crowd is used to convict Stephen and he is sentenced to death as a blasphemer and dragged out of the city to be killed. As he dies, Stephen, like Jesus, asks God to forgive those who killed him.[1]  Despite all manner of hardship, the prodigal love of God that was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth was still at work in the world, through disciples like Deacon Stephen, but things were about to get much, much worse.

The Lectionary ends at chapter seven, verse sixty, but the story of Stephen doesn’t really end until one verse later – chapter eight, verse one.  There, the story transitions based around a new character who will carry the narrative through the rest of the book.  “Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”  We heard Saul’s name in our assigned passage.  He was said to be a young man who was trusted to watch everyone’s overcoats as they stoned Stephen to death. Saul was a Pharisees’ Pharisee.  The son of a Pharisee, Saul was an up-and-coming leader in the Jewish faith, and after the message he heard in Stephen’s final sermon, he made it his duty to destroy the Christian faith.

Things weren’t looking good for the Church as the eighth chapter of Acts begins.  After their brief glimmer of hope was snuffed out by Stephen’s death, Saul successfully organized a massive persecution of the followers of Jesus.  Those who didn’t flee the city or deny their faith in Jesus, men and women alike, were dragged from their homes and thrown in prison for blasphemy.  The Apostles hid, not unlike they did after the death of Jesus, and the faithful fled to surrounding communities in Judea and Samaria.  There were only a handful of Christians left in Jerusalem, their membership was spread all throughout the land, and there was no Facebook Live to broadcast Sunday services.

What happened next is nothing short of a miracle.  The people who scattered took the story of Jesus with them.  As they travelled, they told about the power that God’s love and how Jesus had changed their lives.  They showed God’s love to strangers in their new communities by acts of compassion and service and by modeling the sharing of resources for the needs of the poor.  These people, who fled everything they knew for fear of their lives, took Jesus with them on the road, and lo and behold, the Church continued to grow.  When everything else fell apart around them, the faithful reinvented what it meant to the be the Church in order to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and the love of God with everyone they met.

As we continue to navigate this new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church could learn a lot from the experience of the early church during the sixth, seventh, and eighth chapters of Acts.  We aren’t being persecuted, but we aren’t able to meet together either.  Still, we have the chance to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Love of God with the world by staying healthy and hopeful at home.  Our clergy might be focused on how to preach and teach in this new climate, but so many of you have found ways to step up and serve your neighbors generously, by ordering meals for the Salvation Army and BRASS, by dropping off fresh baked bread, helping out with grocery shopping, sending cards and letters, and making phone calls.

Twice in a matter of weeks, the early church fundamentally changed how it did business, and the Gospel flourished.  As we come to the realization that this marathon is going to last a lot longer than any of us wants, the Church writ large, and Christ Church specifically, is going to have to take on a spirit of adaptation, of listening for the Holy Spirit, and of evangelistic zeal for the building up of the Kingdom of God.  Even when we can re-open our building, the ways in which we worship God, learn and grow, and radiate God’s love are going to look vastly different than they did on March 12th.  Our task, as we settle in for the long haul, is to discern as a community how God is calling us to be the Church in the world during and beyond these unprecedented times.

None of us has the answers quite yet, but we do have models to look to as we think and pray and dream.  We have the story of Stephen, the work of the diaconate, and the spread of the Gospel in the diaspora, among many others to remind us that even in hardship, uncertainty, and fear, the Church’s mission to restore all people to right relationship with God and with each other will not fail.  The Son of Man continues to stand at the right hand of God, which means that evil, fear, and folly can never win.  Things haven’t looked good for the Church before, but God who is faithful will show us the way to the truth of eternal life.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4456

Don’t Worry? – a mid-week reflection

Today, the Church remembers Catherine of Siena, who died on this date in the year 1380.

Let us pray.

Everlasting God, you so kindled the flame of holy love in the heart of blessed Catherine of Siena, as she meditated on the passion of your Son our Savior, that she devoted her life to the poor and the sick, and to the peace and unity of the Church: Grant that we also may share in the mystery of Christ’s death, and rejoice in the revelation of his glory; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Gospel lesson appointed for today is select verses from Luke chapter twelve.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

Whether it is coming from Bobby McFerrin or Jesus of Nazareth, “Don’t worry, be happy” is easier said than done.  In what feels like the 10th year of Coronatide, I found myself getting viscerally angry at Jesus for these “words of comfort” to his disciples.  As usual, Biblical texts taken out of context can be detrimental to your health.  What seems like simple platitudes from our Lord are actually part of a much larger teaching by Jesus on the dangers of following him long-term.  See, a crowd of many thousands had started to follow Jesus.  The crowd was so large that, in order to hear him teach, they had begun to press in so close that some were being trampled.  As Jesus looked at the crowd, he realized that many of them were there for the wrong reasons – thinking they had hitched their wagons to the next King of Israel and looking forward to a life on easy street.

The first time Jesus tells his disciples, and by extension the crowd, not to worry, he does so in the context of dying for their faith.  “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.  But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell.”  After the parable of the rich fool, who after a bountiful harvest built bigger barns rather than sharing his largesse and died that very night, Jesus continues with this series of warnings not to worry about earthly things, but rather, to remain focused on the greater things of the Kingdom of God.

Catherine of Siena was born in 1347 as the twenty-third or twenty-fourth child of her mother, Lapa and father, Giacomo.  One of a set of twins, Catherine’s sister, Giovanna died shortly after birth.  In all, her parents lost just under half of their 25 children at a young age.  Catherine’s first few years were spent under the fear of the black plague that killed upwards of 200 million people in Europe between 1347 and 1353.  As the plague came to an end, Catherine and a brother went to visit one of their married older sisters, and on the way home, at the age of five or six, she had a vision of Jesus seated in heaven with Peter, Paul, and John.  By the age of seven, she vowed to give her life to God.  For the majority of her life, Catherine lived under her own strict rule of life.  As a third order nun, she did not live in the monastery with her sisters, but remained at her family home.  Rather than enjoy the comforts of her family’s relatively well-to-do lifestyle, she was constantly giving away all of her food and clothing.  Her only meal most days was the bread and wine of the Eucharist.  Amidst all of this, she also found herself in the middle of not one, but two controversies involving competing Popes.

If anyone had reason to be prone to worry, Catherine of Siena did, and yet, she always chose the harder path.  Whether it was becoming a nurse so that she could treat lepers or nearly being assassinated in a riot after the death of her friend, Pope Gregory the eleventh, Catherine set her hope on Christ, and found reason to have faith.

Maybe Jesus has a point.  We have very little to do with the rain or sun or the yield of the harvest.  Ours is not to worry about how much toilet paper gets produced in a week, but only to give thanks when the Kroger shelves are stocked and to share of our abundance when we come across a 24 pack in all its glory.