An Ironic Collect

Irony – a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, in which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works…

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…

In the grand scheme of things, it hasn’t been that long since we heard an excerpt from Jonah read on a Sunday morning. Portions of Jonah are only read twice in the three-year lectionary cycle, and the lessons overlap by a verse which reads “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

Back in the more Biblically literate times of the 1950s, hearing only a small portion of this story would elicit in the congregation’s mind the fuller context, but that can’t be assumed in 2021. While the preacher might chuckle at the irony of the Collect for Epiphany 3 being matched with a lesson that starts “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” not everyone will be in on the joke. Of course, maybe that gives us our entrance into the sermon. By helping our folks see how the prayer we pray on Epiphany 3 is basically one that says, “Give us grace, O Lord, not to be like Jonah,” we can help our people see two basic truths. First, that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness. And second, that even one of the Lord’s great prophets struggled to share the good news of God’s grace at times. In an era of virtual evangelism, these might be helpful lessons for members of our congregations who are seeking to discern how God might be calling them to be evangelists.

So, tell the whole story. Let them in on the joke. It’ll be a great way to open the conversation.

Living into our calling – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read it here.


Christ Episcopal Church is a community of Christ’s servants who seek to worship God with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, and radiate God’s love to all.  This is how we describe ourselves.  It is also who we believe God has called us to be in this time.  As many of you will recall, this mission statement was developed out of a series of community conversations in which more than one-hundred-fifty members of Christ Church turned out to reflect on the same three questions.  What keeps you coming back to Christ Church?  When have you experienced Christ Church at its best?  And, What additional programs or activities would you like to see added over the next three to five years to help us more fully share the love of God with each other, our community, and the world?  Your Vestry took the notes from these gatherings and in prayerful conversation, tried to discern what themes and images seemed to come to the fore.  Three areas of ministry came into focus: worship, discipleship, and outreach, and from there, our mission statement was born.

Mission Statement Slide

Now, mission statements are, more often than not, absolutely useless.  They get printed on letterhead and published on websites, and are never thought of again.  Many are made up simply of buzzwords and vague ideals, leaving them to be nothing more than drivel taking up space on a hard drive somewhere.  We didn’t want our mission statement to fall into the abyss, and so the vestry completed its retreat by setting three vision goals to help us more fully live into who we say we are and who we think God is calling us to be.  Each ministry area mentioned in the mission statement got a goal.  For worship, our goal is to explore opportunities to enhance our worship of God.  In discipleship, we hope to broaden participation in Christian formation.  In outreach, we want to reestablish the Outreach Ministry Team.  That was August.  It is safe to say that while I believe our mission statement continues to stay at the forefront of our minds, our work toward implementing these goals has been very slow going for a variety of reasons.

Earlier this week, I wrote a blogpost entitled “Motive, Means, and Opportunity.”  In it, I reflected on what I have learned from years of watching cop shows, which has, as you might imagine, made me something of an expert in criminal investigations.  With my keen eye, I never fail to have no clue who committed the crime, while Cassie usually has it figured out before the first commercial break.  One thing I have pieced together is that for an investigation to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt, the detectives must show motive, means, and opportunity.  Motive is, of course, the reason a crime was committed.  Means is the ability to do the crime.  Opportunity requires it be proved that the suspect was present at the scene during the time in which the crime was committed.

I found myself coming back to that post again and again this week, especially as I thought about today’s annual meeting, our Mission Statement, and the lessons appointed for this morning.  As I’ve thought more about it, I’ve become convinced that it isn’t just crimes that require motive, means, and opportunity, but everything we do comes down to these three things.  Take, for example, the story of Jonah.  This morning, we only hear a small piece of a larger story that is all about motive, means, and opportunity.  God first came to the great prophet near the city of Joppa.  God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, an Assyrian city, to declare God’s judgment upon them.  It seems reasonable to assume that Jonah had the means to perform this important task.  He was most likely already a trusted prophet of God.  He had shared difficult news of God’s judgment before.  And even if he wasn’t, in stories of faith like these, God’s grace ensures qualification.  Even if Jonah had never before spoken a word from God, simply in being called, Jonah was made qualified.

It is also clear that Jonah had the opportunity to preach the message God had given him.  As the story unfolds, we hear that, clearly, Jonah did not have another, more pressing matter, to attend to.  Jonah could have easily made his way to Nineveh to proclaim the message of God’s judgment upon that evil and violent city.  Jonah had the means and the opportunity to follow God’s call.  What Jonah lacked was motivation.  Immediately upon receiving the word from the Lord, Jonah made his way onto a boat sailing in the opposite direction.  Even with God providing the means and the opportunity, the very human part of following God’s call is the motive.  Jonah didn’t want to bother with Nineveh because he knew that God was compassionate, and that God would show mercy even upon a city that was the enemy of Israel.  So, Jonah fled.  God pursued Jonah; creating a massive storm that threatened to destroy the boat.  When the crew threw Jonah overboard, God appointed a fish to swallow and protect Jonah.  Three days later, Jonah was returned to dry land, and God once again called him to go to Nineveh to proclaim judgment.  Jonah relented, made the prophecy of God.  Just as Jonah had suspected, the people of Nineveh repented, and God forgave them their sins.  When Jonah finally put motive, means, and opportunity together, the will of God that all people might be restored to right relationship with God and one another came into being.

Everything we do requires motive, means, and opportunity, even our mission and vision here at Christ Church.  As of Thursday evening, with Becca’s ordination to the priesthood, and for the first time in several years, Christ Episcopal Church is fully equipped with means and opportunity.  We are fully staffed, more so than ever before in fact, with two priests, a deacon, and four lay employees.  Our 2018 budget of more than three-quarters of a million dollars is within seven-hundredths of one percent of being balanced.  Your willingness to offer your gifts of time and talent mean that we are well equipped to meet whatever challenges God might place before us.  We have the means.

In the late 1980s, the members of Christ Church made the decision to embrace fully what it meant to be a downtown church.  Being a downtown congregation, whether it is in Foley, Alabama, Chicago, Illinois, or Bowling Green, Kentucky means that the opportunities for ministry are endless.  Seven blocks in that direction is Dishman McGinnis Elementary School, where every child receives free breakfast and lunch, and dozens still wait on a list, hoping to be assigned a mentor.  Seven blocks the other way are hundreds of middle-class and upper-middle-class families whose lives are so busy, they can’t figure out how to eat dinner together or even begin to imagine finding time to come to church.  With Western’s Campus only few blocks away, we hear clearly a call to serve its students, faculty, and staff.  Across the street, many of our neighbors living in the Towers are barely hanging on to the first rung of the American Dream, while right next door, the homeless line up, waiting to warm up in the library when it opens this afternoon.  Opportunity abounds.

As we heard in Becca’s ordination service, priests are called to care alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.  We can’t do it alone.  Instead, I see my job as the Rector of Christ Church to be one of motivator, encourager, and cheerleader.  With great means and plenty of opportunity, the coming year will be one of growing motivation to live into our mission, to attain our goals, and, above all, to spread the Good News of God’s salvation for all people.  As I wrote in my annual report, “with a full staff, a healthy budget, and an empowered and excited membership, there is no telling what God might have in mind for us.”  I look forward to continuing the journey God has planned for us as we worship with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, and radiate God’s love to all in 2018.  May God bless us in this work.  Amen.

 

Answering the Call

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Father Thomas and me at my ordination

This post is nearly a decade in the making.  Truth be told, it is probably better suited on January 24th, when I will celebrate the 10th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, but given the bookends of today, it seems appropriate to move things up a week.  As I noted in Monday’s post, today two Colleges of Presbyters will gather.  First, in Mobile, Alabama, the clergy of the Central Gulf Coast will gather at the altar of All Saints’ Church to give thanks to God for the life and ministry of the Rev. Cn. Maurice Branscomb. Then, this evening, priests from around the church will join with those of us in the Diocese of Kentucky to lay hands on the Rev. Becca Kello as she is ordained to the sacred order of the priesthood.  All of that, coupled with the Collect for Epiphany 3 and my 10th on the horizon, I guess I can’t help but be a little nostalgic today.

Today, I have in mind all of those bishops, priests, and deacons who have had an impact on my ministry.  I’m reminded of Bishops like Creighton, Duncan, Kendrick, White, and Brewer; Priests like Bill, Cindy, Albert, and Keith; and Deacons like Patrick and Kellie.  My prayers are especially drawn to those who have entered into the joy of their master: Bishop Mark, Father Thomas (pictured above), Deacon John, Father B, Norm, and Mark come immediately to mind, but there are others.  I continue to hold in prayer those who are discerning calls to ordained ministry: John, Billy, and Ken.  As I think back on a decade of ordained ministry, I can’t help but recall how intense an experience it is to follow that call; how the Tempter always seems to be around the next corner, how the process is infuriating and deeply powerful, and how, in the end, it all makes sense.  I often still hear the voices of my lay discernment committee at St. Thomas, internship committee at St. John’s, and my field ed committee at St. James’, and I give thanks, daily, for the opportunity to develop an understanding of what call really feels like deep in my bones.

It would be easy to get lost in the idea of call exclusively as it pertains to ordained ministry, but that would betray the meaning of the Collect, and the reality that the ministers of Christ’s Church are, first and foremost, the laity.  Sure, we talk about call most often when it comes to ordination, but that is our failure, not God’s.  The truth of the matter is that every follower of Jesus is called.  Called to proclaim the Good News. Called to share in the restoration of all relationships.  Called to vocation.  You see, call isn’t just about the servanthood of a deacon or being pastor, priest, and teacher or, for a few poor souls, being made one with the apostles, but it is about being a bearer of the Kingdom of God no matter where one lives and moves and has their being.  Call is about being a witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ as a doctor, lawyer, grocery store clerk, small business owner, student, stay at home parent, or retiree.  Call is about sharing the love of God within one’s unique sphere of influence.  Call is about allowing the light of Christ to shine through us, so that the God’s good dream for creation can be seen.  Call is about each of us taking our part in the making Jesus Christ known.  If you are feeling a call, be it to ordination or to a deeper lay ministry, talk to someone.  You local clergy, having some experience with call, would love to walk that road with you.  In the meantime, here is one more prayer for all of us who are called to the service of our Lord, lay and ordained, alike.

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before you for all members of your holy Church, that in the vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Motive, Means, and Opportunity

Like many of you, I have watched my fair share of cop shows, which has made me something of an expert on the topic of criminal investigations.  With my keen eye for detail, I never fail to have no clue who committed the crime du jour.  My wife, on the other hand, seems to know what’s what before the first commercial break.  Anyway, despite my inability to actually piece the clues together, I have learned a lot from these made-for-tv dramas that help me in everyday life.  Or, at least, I tell myself that to convince myself that Law and Order reruns aren’t a total waste of time.

One thing I have learned is that in order to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect actually committed the crime in question, the police must show motive, means, and opportunity.  Motive is the reason the crime was committed.  As Lieutenant Provenza of the LAPD’s Major Crimes division would say, “It’s always the husband,” because spouses always have the most motivation.

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It’s always the spouse.

A crime always has a reason, even if that reason is random violence.  So finding the motivation for the crime will help determine the suspect.  Next, the police must show that the suspect had the means or the ability to commit the crime.  This means that the 98 pound teenager maybe didn’t strangle his 250 pound neighbor or the woman with no hands couldn’t have shot the sheriff.  Finally, they must determine the opportunity to commit the crime.  Here’s where everyone’s favorite cop show word, alibi, comes into play.  If the suspect can’t be placed at the scene of the crime while it was being committed, they police have failed to answer the challenge of reasonable doubt.

What does this have to do with the Lectionary readings for Sunday?  I’m glad you asked.  For the second week in a row, we have texts that are dealing with evangelism.  Our Collect asks God to give us the grace necessary to answer the call and proclaim the Good News to all people.  If we take this prayer seriously, then means and opportunity are both covered right there.  That is, if we believe in the power of prayer, by praying for this grace, God has already bestowed it upon us.  Those to whom we are to go and the words we are to us are already available to us.  What is missing, in my experience, is the motive.

Paul recognized this very early on, exhorting the Church in Corinth to live as if Christ was coming back tomorrow.  Two thousand years later, it can be hard to muster up the motivation to share the Good News.  If Jesus hasn’t come back yet, what’s the rush?  If I’m not going to die tomorrow, why risk it?  If those to whom I am called to share the Gospel seem long for this world, why hurry?  When it comes to evangelism, what really seems to be lacking is motive, and yet, what better motivation is there than having the Good News of God’s saving love to share?  Why hold back when there are people who are living without the knowledge of that love?  Why tarry when you can invite another to come into the joy of God’s grace?

The Call to Follow

Why preach?  I don’t mean this existentially, although there are some who would ask this question that way.  Why, in a world that is increasingly skeptical of “experts” do preachers think they have the right to stand before their congregations and tell them anything?  That’s not the question I want to ask.  As a preacher, you’d assume that I am fairly well convinced of the power of the homiletical craft.  Rather, as one who preaches, I have to regularly ask myself, why?  Why is this sermon worth hearing?  Why this text?  Why these words?  More often than not, the why question comes down to asking myself, “what is the goal of the sermon?”

For many these days, the goal of a sermon is to offer a practical lesson from Scripture that is applicable for our lives.  This is a good goal, by and large.  Sermons that get stuck in the past – historical lessons on what was happening in the context in which Jesus lived – can be interesting, but won’t get much traction over time.  It is helpful to bring the story forward and to help our people and ourselves understand what this particular bit of holy writ has to do with life in 21st century America.  The downside, of course, is that we tend to over emphasize ourselves in the text.  Eisegesis and vapid moralization aren’t all that far away when the goal of the sermon is to make the text offer some lesson for our congregation today.

These questions and concerns came to mind this morning as I read the short Gospel passage appointed for this week.  It is the familiar story of Jesus calling Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John from their family fishing boats to become “fishers of people.”  My initial reaction was to think about what was happening in the hearts and minds of the four newest Disciples that would allow them to drop everything and follow Jesus.  I wondered about the reactions of their families.  I worried for their livelihoods.  I pondered what it might take for each of us to respond immediately when Jesus says, “Follow me.”  While I think these are all worthwhile questions and would make for a decent sermon on the text, I found myself wanting something more.

fishers_of_men

It can’t just be about me.  The goal of the sermon ought not just be about giving the congregation something they can hold on to or motivating them to change their lives in some way.  Rather than another sermon admonishing them to drop everything and follow Jesus (which isn’t really a thing for 21st century Christians), what if the sermon focused instead on the call to follow in and of itself?  What if, instead of focusing on the response, the sermon looked deeply into the one who does the calling?  Isn’t that what grace is all about?  Not about how I can get myself over the hump to follow Jesus, but how by God’s grace, Jesus brings me into the kingdom.

The text doesn’t give us much to work with, but I think there is something there.  The one who is preaching that the Kingdom of God has come near beckons.  The one who is called the Son of God calls us by name.  The one who is the Good News invites us to share in it.  There is more to dig into here, and time will tell if I can find a sermon that doesn’t devolve into “will you follow Jesus?” but for today, I’m adjusting the goal of my sermon; not to motivate us to follow, for that is God’s job, but rather, to focus on a deepening relationship with the one who calls.

On Following a Leader

A Monday holiday, a post on Tuesday, a Wednesday in the car, means a meager week here at Draughting Theology.  I’m sorry for that because the texts this week are good.  They are short and sweet and packed with preaching material.  My Rector is pondering Jonah, which I find exciting; it a great story worth being unpacked from time to time.  To make matters worse, we don’t read Scripture in a vacuum, which is why I can’t be a member of the sola scriptura party.  The way I read the Bible is influenced by my life, by the life of my Parish, and by what is happening in the wider world.  I’m also not preaching this Sunday, so my thoughts are less about what I might say to my congregation and a much more general interpretation.

That being said, here’s where I am.  Last night, at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Daphne, AL, I attended the third and final Walkabout sessions for the four finalists for the 4th Bishop of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast.  Over the course of about three hours, I had the chance to hear from The Rev. Cn. Dan Smith, The Very Rev. Ed O’Connor, The Rev. Russell Kendrick, and The Rev. Chuck Treadwell as they attempted to cast a vision for the future of our diocese all while tap dancing around hot button issues and trying to put as good a face forward as possible.  Obviously, each of them is already a proven leader in their ministry context, otherwise they wouldn’t be a finalist in our search, but last night, along with Jesus’ calling of four disciples by use of two words, got me thinking about what it means to follow a leader.

Jesus said to them, “Follow me” and the damnedest thing happened, they dropped everything and followed him.  What was it about Jesus that led them to follow?  Was there already a relationship established between them?  Had they heard of his teaching and healing ministry? Or was there just that “je ne sais quoi” about him?

During the Walkabout last night, one of the four candidates led me to write this in my notes, “The room is silent as he speaks.  Authority seems to rest on him.”  Some people just have it.  When they speak, people follow.  Their authority is earned, sometimes even in a brief encounter, for many different reasons, but when a real leader is in your midst, everyone knows it.  Some react positively; they drop everything and follow her.  Others react negatively; they push back against him because they are jealous or because they don’t like the direction they are being led or they… whatever.  Either way, leadership is acknowledged and accepted or rejected.  As my diocese completes its discernment toward an election on February 21st, my prayer is that we will find a leader, empowered by the Holy Spirit, who will invite us to follow him like Jesus invited Andrew, Simon, James and John; an invitation to be co-workers in the Kingdom to the glory of God.

Almighty God, giver of every good gift: Look graciously on your Church, and so guide the minds of those who shall choose a bishop for this Diocese that we may receive a faithful pastor, who will care for your people and equip us for our ministries, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 818)

credite evangelio

The Season after the Epiphany is all about how Jesus is revealed to the world.  After all, that’s what the word Epiphany means: a manifestation of a divine being or a moment of sudden realization.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we hear how Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John suddenly came to follow the Jesus, the Son of God, having realized something amazing in him from only a few words.  The Old Testament lesson, though not about Jesus, is about a whole city coming to realize the error of their ways.  Those are both powerful stories that will make for good sermons, and I’ll deal with them as the week goes on, but today I was struck by the Psalm and the lesson from 1 Corinthians.  Both seem to be about what happens after an Epiphany, that is, the hard work of ongoing faith.

The title of this post is “credite evangelio” which is the Vulgate (Latin) translation of the end of Jesus’ proclamation in Mark 1:15.  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Credite evangelio, believe the good news.  That’s the second step.  First we realize that Jesus is who he says he is, and then we get about the work of believing.  The problem is, we’ve all but ruined that word over that past 400 years or so.  These days, belief is often equated with intellectual assent.  To say, “I believe in God” means that I’ve done the math, and despite a few doubts in my work, I’m reasonably empirically convinced that God exists.  That’s not what it mean when Jesus said it.

Credo, the Latin word with gets translated as “believe” wasn’t about intellectual assent, but rather, it was about trusting in another person.  Diana Butler Bass, in her book Christianity After Religion puts it this way:

“To believe” in Latin (the shaping language for much of Western theological thought) is opinor, opinari, meaning “opinion,” which was not typically a religious word. Instead, Latin used credo, “I set my heart upon” or “I give my loyalty to,” as the word to describe religious “believing,” that is, “faith.” In medieval English, the concept of credo was translated as “believe,” meaning roughly the same thing as its German cousin belieben, “to prize, treasure, or hold dear,” which comes from the root word Liebe, “love.” Thus, in early English, to “believe” was to “belove” something or someone as an act or trust or loyalty. Belief was not an intellectual opinion. (p. 117)

As we realize what God has done for us in Jesus of Nazareth, we are then compelled to hold dear that gift.  In this sense, when we say, “I believe in God” it means more like “I give my heart over to God, and trust his will for my life.”  Or, more to the words of Jesus this Sunday, when I believe the good news (credite evangelio), I treasure the news that the Kingdom of God has come in the person of Jesus Christ and take my place in its upkeep.