The Great Rummage Sale

As my sabbatical draws to a close, I’m thankful to once again be preparing a sermon for Sunday.  Though I am out of the habit and am feeling quite rusty, there is something about being immersed in the study of Scripture that is soothing to my soul.  While I’m not particularly excited about the way in which the great Revised Common Lectionary divining rod has decided to reenter Mark’s Gospel after what felt like 100 weeks in John’s Bread of Life Discourse, it does serve as a great bridge for me from my last sermon through sabbatical time to everyday parish ministry.

My thesis, the proposal for which you can read here, takes a look at the ways in which The Episcopal Church might be well suited to meet the needs of a changing America.  This assumes that we can all agree that things are changing.  Having received some pushback from at least one professor who thinks that this time is no different than any other, I set my sights on the great Phyllis Tickle and her book, The Great Emergence.  Tickle cites the late bishop of Bethlehem (PA), Mark Dyer, in arguing that though our time is not unique, it is a rare moment of opportunity for the Church to engage in the hard work of a rummage sale.

“About every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace [1] that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.” [2]

In many ways, the Church today: be it Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and even non-denominational conservative evangelical; can be accused of the same thing.  Each expression of the Christian faith can be accused of worshiping its worship.  Each can be called to task for paying attention to their own desires over the dream of God.  Each can be accused of inviting God to bless their plans rather than fulfilling God’s plan for them.  Jesus’ message is as needed today as it was in the Synagogue 2,000 years ago.  We must move beyond our obsession with tradition in order to live more fully into the kingdom of God.  The work is not easy, there really is some awesome crap crammed in there, but the task of cleaning house, of seeking to follow God more closely, is certainly holy.


[1] The hard upper shell of a turtle, crustacean, or arachnid.
[2] The Great Emergence, 16.

True Religion?

This Sunday, as with every Proper 17 Sunday, we will pray that God might increase in us “true religion.”  Three years ago, when this collect happened to also join the lessons appointed for Proper 17 in Year B, I took the opportunity to preach on the subject of true religion with some help from my friend and professor, Diana Butler Bass, asking the question, “what is true religion?”

I’m pretty sure we aren’t praying for more expensive jeans

Three years later, I still find myself asking that question, especially in light of the lesson from James, which ends with these words that seem to capture the yin and the yang of religion, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Scholars are uncertain about the etymology of the word “religion.”  The more popular understanding says that it comes from the Latin, religare, which means to tie or to bind.  That is, true religion means to be bound to a way of life.  In the Christian expression, that means to follow the Way set forth by Jesus of Nazareth in his life, death, and resurrection.  Others, however, follow Cicero and suggest that religion comes from relegere, which means to read over again.  Again, from a Christian point of view, this means that true religion is found in the practices of Christianity: prayer, scripture reading, fasting, and even attendance in worship.

The word translated as religion in James is equally troublesome, however it probably carries a connotation that fits more with Cicero than with common understanding.  Robertson suggests it comes from thermoai, which means to mutter forms of prayer, and that the author is using it ironically.  True religion, then, isn’t merely showing up at Church, saying the right things, and going through the motions, but rather, true religion is following in the Way of Jesus.  This doesn’t preclude prayer, study, and regular church attendance, but it means sharing the fruit the grows from those practices: love, compassion, charity, and self-control being chief among them.

So this Sunday, as we pray that God might increase in us true religion, keep in mind what you are really praying for: the chance to listen for God’s will in prayer, Biblical study, and worship AND the opportunity to live out God’s will in acts of love and kindness throughout the week.  True religion is a 24/7 job that can only be done with God’s help.

Flesh and Blood and Backpacks

In Baldwin County, where I live, school starts on August 17th.  As good Episcopalians, dedicated to reaching out to our community while meeting the needs of those already in our midst, Saint Paul’s in Foley will offer its annual Blessing of the Backpacks and Lesson Plans this Sunday, the 16th.  TKT will celebrate the Eucharist from an altar made of 40 cases of paper.  Children, teachers, staff members, and volunteers alike will be prayed over, asking God’s blessing and protection over another year.  Thankfully, the children will be out of the nave at Follow the Word as TKT reads the next piece of what seems to be a never-ending Bread of Life Discourse, this week featuring 10 mentions of “flesh” and “blood”!

This portion of John’s Gospel appointed for Sunday is one of those pieces of scripture that is dealing with more than one issue.  The question of the Jews, “how can he give us his flesh to eat?” is also a key question in the Roman world which John is trying to help his community navigate.  One of the chief complaints against Christians in the earliest days was that they were cannibals, and this flesh and blood soliloquy from Jesus was chief among their examples.

What seems like a terrible match – flesh and blood and backpacks – is actually a marriage made in heaven, however.  The action of blessing backpacks and lesson plans is a continuation of the incarnational ministry of Jesus that instituted a Eucharistic feast of bread and wine; body and blood.  As Christians, we are called to follow the example of Emmanuel, God taking on flesh and blood to dwell among us.  We are called to enter into our neighborhoods and reach out in real and tangible ways to meet the needs of those around us.  We are called to bless backpacks and lesson plans just as we are called to eat of Christ’s flesh and blood in the Eucharistic feast.  Both are about eternal life that is ongoing, even right here and right now.

Anger isn’t sin, but supressing it can be.

I got my feelings hurt yesterday.  As I laid in bed, I stewed and stewed and stewed to the point of almost boiling over.  In the rare case that something like this happens, my usual response is to get out of bed, sit down in front of my computer and write an email to the person who upset me.  I don’t send it, at least not for twelve hours, and usually the act of getting the thoughts out of my head, down my arm, through my fingers, and into an email is enough to help me let go of my anger.  Last night, I chose a different path, mostly because my laptop was packed away and I was too lazy to set it up.  I just kept laying there until it occurred to me that I should pray.  What a novel idea for a priest in the Church!

I prayed for the people who hurt me.  I prayed for our relationships.  I prayed for our future together.  I prayed that I might be forgiven for my wrongs and that I might be able to forgiven them theirs.  I was still hurt when it was all over, and I think that’s OK.  I didn’t feel quite as bad, didn’t feel quite as ugly, didn’t feel quite as angry.  And while I did write that email this morning, it was from a much better place, and I most likely won’t send it.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians goes against the cult of nice that pervades the modern Church by suggesting that it is OK to be angry… for a little while.  Lately, we’ve become so obsessed with not hurting anyone’s feelings, we’ve turned their natural reaction when we do, anger, into a sin.  We’ve said that trying to be nice counts more than your feelings in response to our failure, and that is a) not Biblical and b) impossible to sustain as long as people are involved in community.

It is OK to get angry when someone hurts you.  It is not OK for that anger to lead you to sin, and yes, I think passive aggressive behavior might be the leading sin in the Church today.  It is not OK to let that anger linger and ultimately be defined by it.  We need to relearn the virtue of anger, how to work through it, how to pray through it, and how to forgive.  As long as the Church continues to assert, passive aggressively (of course), that anger is a sinful emotion we will teach people to suppress it, stuff it deep down inside which allows it to fester, to build, and to control our lives.

So go ahead and get angry, but do not sin.  Get angry and then follow Jesus’ advice by praying for your enemies.  Get angry and pray for forgiveness your own failings.  And no matter what, follow Paul’s advice and don’t let the sun go down on your anger.  Work through it right then and right there.  You’ll feel better in morning, I guarantee it.

Sealed for the Day of Redemption

If you’ve hung around this blog for even a short period of time, you probably know by now that I am an unabashed church nerd.  I love our liturgy and I love to study liturgy.  I love our history and I love to study history.  I’m not big on vestments, but I love to know the theology and history behind them.  In The Episcopal Church, there is one service that stands above all the others when it comes to church nerdery at its finest, the Ordination of a Bishop.  Here in the Central Gulf Coast, we had the opportunity to celebrate just such a service a few weeks ago, as we welcomed our Fourth Bishop, the Right Reverend Russell Kendrick.  For all the pomp and circumstance that went on during the more than two-and-a-half hour service, the piece that I find most intriguing happened hours earlier and for the most part, went totally unnoticed until the official pictures were posted today.

Photo by Cindy McCrory of Blue Room Photgraphy.

The Signing and Sealing of the Ordination Certificate is, for me, one of the coolest parts of an episcopal ordination.  It signifies that new bishop’s place in something much larger than the particular diocese two which they have been called.  The wax seals, made with the ring of each bishop in attendance, shows that the new bishop is part of a bigger church, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that encompasses every denomination and every Christian since the disciples stood, staring slack-jawed at the bottom of Jesus’ feet on Ascension Day.

It also signifies the seal that every disciple of Jesus wears upon their forehead, the seal that Paul speaks on in his letter to the Ephesians that we will hear read on Sunday.  We who have been baptized are sealed by and with the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption.  We are marked as belonging to the tribe of Christ, the family of God.  We wear upon our foreheads the sign and symbol of the redeemed, the same seal worn by Peter, Paul and Priscilla; Augustine, Francis, and Teresa; William Reed Huntington, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The seals on Bishop Russell’s ordination certificate should remind each of us of the seal we wear upon our foreheads, the seal that sets us apart as sinners restored and disciples of Jesus Christ.  The seals should remind us of our place in the Church catholic throughout the generations.  The seals should remind us of the work to which each of us has been called, reconciling the human beings to God and to each other through the love of God, the mercy of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
The Book of Common Prayer, page 308

Taste and See

One must carry quite a few life skills in their quiver in order to make it through discernment, seminary, and ordination in The Episcopal Church.  You’ve got to be smart.  You’ve got to have deep, deep, deep faith in the God who has called you.  You’ve got to be skilled in the art of listening.  Perhaps more than anything else, you’ve got have a sense of humor.  Without the ability to laugh at yourself and the absurdities of the Church, seminary is likely to suck out of you every bit of joy, leaving a grumpy, life sapping, shell of human being where a talented priest might have been.  Part of my plan for surviving seminary was surrounding myself with smart, faithful, and funny people; many of whom graduated in the class ahead of me in 2006.

Towards the end of their time at VTS, the members of the class of 2006 began to discuss their class gift. Among the nominees was a soft-serve ice cream machine for the refectory that played a midi of “Taste and See” as it dispensed frozen goodness.

As I sit in the Hardman Conference Room at Beckwith Camp and Retreat Center procrastinating the second half of my thesis and reading the lessons appointed for Sunday, I can’t help but stop at the end of Psalm 34, chuckle and remember fondly the good times that seminary afforded me.  I also can’t help but give thanks for the many ways in which God is made manifest in our lives.

The Pslamist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” but we need not stop there.  We can hear the goodness of the Lord, as Paul tells us, in words that are meant to build up and encourage.  We can feel the goodness of the Lord in a handshake or a hug at the Passing of the Peace as we are each reminded that being a Christian means being a part of a community, family, the Body of Christ.  We can smell the goodness of the Lord in the simmering of spaghetti sauce cooked for homeless guests staying on campus with Family Promise.

The Lord shows himself to be good in many and varied ways, and often through the work he has called each of us to do.  Today I’m grateful for the reminder to take time each day to taste and see, hear and feel and smell the goodness of the Lord in and through the good people who God has placed around me.

Sir, give us this bread always

Over the weekend, I had the honor of serving as one of the Eucharistic Ministers for the Episcopal Ordination of J. Russell Kendrick, IV Bishop of the Central Gulf Coast.  I was partnered with a new priest in our diocese, who thankfully has a sense of humor similar to mine.  When faced with the question of who would distribute the bread and who would have the cup we used the only reasonable means to settle the issue: rock, paper, scissors.  I won, and chose to distribute the bread.  Being on sabbatical means that this was the first time I’ve distributed bread since the end of May.  I was a chalice bearer a couple of times while at Sewanee and once while at General Convention, but for the first time in my seven and a half years as a priest, I’ve gone more than three weeks without having the pleasure of sharing the broken body of our Lord with my fellow hungry souls.

Photo by Robbie Runderson

The logistics weren’t perfect, which meant there were several distractions (running out of bread not least among them), but there was, as always, a deep sense of connection and call as I took part in communing part of the crowd of nearly 1,500 who had come to celebrate, to offer thanks and praise, and to be fed by Word and Sacrament.  Together, we joined with generation after generation of disciples who have come to ask of Jesus, “give us this bread always.”

As we will hear repeatedly over the next several weeks, Jesus is the bread of life.  Those who are hungry for righteousness, justice, compassion, healing, and love will find their fill in the Eucharistic Feast.  The Bread of Life is broken and shared that the whole world might receive their fill now and always.  I miss my table ministry, and am excited to return to share the family meal with the good people at Saint Paul’s and our new bishop on August 9th.  I’m grateful for the chance to share the feast with so many on Sunday, and I look forward to many years of taking my part in sharing the bread of life with a hungry world.

Perplexing words we like to hear

As the calendar flipped over from June to July, the internet in my hotel room at General Convention quit working.  I’d been fighting with it for days, and ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the effort for a 256k connection that 16 year-old Steve on a dial-up modem in an AOL chat room would have scoffed at.  So I’ve been remiss in keeping up with my duties here at Draughting Theology as of late.  I apologize to my regular readers for my failure to maintain my usual pace, but I hope to get back in the habit again.

I missed blogging about several things at General Convention during my internet blackout, but what I feel saddest about was not getting to tell you how excited I am about the election of the Rt. Rev’d Michael Curry as the 27th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church.  In his Vision Statement (see page 11), Bishop Curry wrote these words about the future of our beloved Church:

At a deep level I am suggesting a church-wide spiritual revival of the Christian faith in the Episcopal way of being disciples of Jesus. While not the only player in this, I believe a significant role of the Presiding Bishop is to provide leadership, inspiration and encouragement for that revival. Obviously the Presiding Bishop has CEO (Chief Executive Officer) responsibilities that must be exercised clearly, collaboratively and effectively. But in this mission moment of the church’s life, the primary role of the Presiding Bishop must be CEO in another sense: Chief Evangelism Officer, to encourage, inspire and support us all to claim the calling of the Jesus movement.

In his first public sermon following his election, at the Closing Eucharist of the 78th General Convention, he preached a sermon based firmly on this vision.

We are all a part of the Jesus Movement, called to go and make disciples, and we are going to hear that call again and again and again over the next nine years.  At an event like General Convention, it is easy to get swept up in the energy of it all.  We cheer and applaud when Bishop Curry calls the impromptu mega-church to Go, but the reality that for most of us, the call to evangelism is downright scary work.  The words of Bishop Curry feel easy because he fervently believes them, he lives them, and he offers them in a medium that makes us feel like we can live them too, but as with any prophet, the words of Bishop Curry are perplexing, even if we like to hear them.  They are, in many ways, like the words of John the Baptist, whose arrest and death we hear about in Sunday’s Gospel lesson. They push us out of our comfort zone.  They invite us to see the world differently.  More importantly, they invite us to see ourselves differently.

As General Convention fades into the past and we prepare for the seating of the Presiding Bishop-elect on November 1, 2015, it is my prayer that a we will, over the next nine years, move beyond being enamored with the medium of Bishop Curry’s message and fall deeply in love with its content.  I pray that we will allow his words to perplex us, challenge us, and propel us into the world as evangelists; heralds of the Gospel; bringers of the Good News.  May we have the grace to follow our Chief Evangelist and Go!

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.

IMG_0022

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.