Shrewdness at 815, The Missionary Society, and Unrighteous Mammon

As an Episcopalian, the past 24 hours have been interesting for me.  Now, to be clear, when I say “as and Episcopalian,” I don’t mean the faith that is between me and my Lord.  I don’t mean the community bonds that exist between me and my Episcopal congregation.  I don’t even mean the ties I have to my Bishop and the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, where, as a member of the clergy, my membership rests.  No, when I claim to be an Episcopalian, I do so with the fullness of its meaning in mind.  I am part of something bigger than me and my congregation.  I engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them.  I take my part in the councils of the Church.  I care about what happens at 815 2nd Avenue.

Over the last 24 hours, I’ve been reminded about how all of that solidifies just how strange I am.  As a colleague of mine quoted on Facebook yesterday, “scratch any American Christian and you’ll find Congregational blood.”  I’m trying to bleed Episcopal red, but the truth of the matter is that most of our members don’t give a rip about what happens beyond their parish bounds.  Hell, I’d say most clergy don’t care about it either.  They show up to Diocesan functions when Canon requires (and when they can’t find a viable excuse to violate Canon), but very few give much thought to what goes on outside of their congregations, let alone their diocese.

It was with all that floating around my brain that I stumbled across a post on Episcopal Cafe about a name change at the top of our Church, that apparently nobody noticed.  On July 25, 2013, Episcopal News Service published a story entitled, “COO Bishop Sauls announced innovative missionary program to connect Episcopal Church dioceses, staff.”  Mired deep in the article was what some are calling a re-branding, others a name change, and still others “a terrible idea” that the staff members of The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (the official corporate name of The Episcopal Church, despite the fact that it only gets used on checks and nobody, aside from me perhaps, really likes it) would refer to her henceforth as “The Missionary Society.”  I suppose in the same way that Ohio State alums call it “The Ohio State Univeristy,” or University of Miami alums call it “The U.”

What this renaming effort effectively amounts to is one more attempt, among several (see the sale of 815 and staff restructuring, for example), by Chief Operating Officer, The Right Reverend Stacy Sauls, at restructuring the Church on his own, with a strong nod, I believe to the House of Bishops, and by means of shrewdness and the mammon of unrighteousness.  This may seem to be too stark a commentary on the matter, but it seems to me that while the majority of the Church is acting like congregationalists, The Powers-That-Be are taking the money that we call “a gift to God” for use “in the ministry of the Church” and frittering it away on outdated systems of governance, management, and, in the case of the sale of 815 saga, the ridiculous idea that The Episcopal Church having a presence in mid-town Manhattan means anything to anyone outside of some staffers who make nice salaries because of cost of living and some Bishops who covet the Presiding Bishop’s apartment.  The 77th General Convention, along with several others, resoundingly voted in favor of a resolution stating that it was “the mind of the convention” that the headquarters of the DFMS or 815 or The Episcopal Church, or, God forgive me, The Missionary Society, should be relocated from 815 2nd Avenue in as financially prudent and expediently a way as possible.  Instead, Bishop Sauls has attempted to circumvent that system in a reported dated February 13, and The Executive Council sub-committee tasked with looking into it, will no doubt be over run by the UTO debacle, Church naming questions, and whatever the TREC folks have up their sleeves half-way into the triennium.  By the time the 78th General Convention rolls around, it’ll be another suggestion swept into the circular filing cabinet underneath the Presiding Bishop’s desk.  The Church will continue to waste money that our people have given to the glory of God for the ministry of the Church, and, unfortunately, nobody will care.

The time has come for us to wake up and either decide to disband the Church in the name of congregationalism or to BE The Episcopal Church and live into what it means to be an international Church of Jesus Christ.  If we really don’t care about being a part of the Church catholic, then let’s quit pretending, quit funneling money up the pyramid scheme of the Church, and go about local ministry.  But if we are serious about being The Episcopal Church, then let’s call our leaders to task when they attempt to ignore or worse, actively circumvent the mind of the Church.  Let’s hold them accountable for the proper use of our resources.  Let’s make sure that we are poised to serve the Kingdom as true missionaries of the Gospel for the 21st Century.  I am an Episcopalian, and I’m proud of that fact.  I hope some of you are too.  Let’s use our own shrewdness and the mammon of unrighteousness entrusted to our care to change the Church to meet the road ahead.

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My Dream for the Church at #Acts8

I’m sure I’ve shared this video on this blog before, but as I reflect on the lessons for Sunday, I’m enamoured with the idea that this Sunday is an Acts 8 Sunday, even if the New Testament lesson isn’t from Acts at all.

My dream for the Church, as you hopefully saw, was a Church that is not ashamed to proclaim Jesus.  (Seriously, if you haven’t watched this video, do it now.)  This is still my dream for the Church, and it is one that I think falls in line with both my sermon from a few weeks ago on True Religion and works especially well for this Sunday’s Gospel lesson.

Standing in the midst of Philip’s Caesartown, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter wastes no time.  He is prepared to give an account of the hope that is in him.  He is ready, willing and able to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, even if he hasn’t a lick of a clue what that really means.  Peter is not ashamed to proclaim Jesus.

Of course, proclaiming Jesus in word is one thing.  The rest of Sunday’s story is about how that word become action – how we move from students to followers – and it involves nothing less than denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. It means losing our lives for the sake of the Gospel.  It means giving up our luxuries so that everyone might come within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace.  It means personal morality with corporate consequences.

It also means, and here’s the kicker for Acts 8, corporate morality with personal consequences.  What does it mean for The Episcopal Church to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah?  How do we act in light of that good news?  How do we structure ourselves?  Govern ourselves?  Budget ourselves?   How do we communicate?  How do we share?  How do we grow?

If, as the original creed says, Jesus Christ is Lord, where do we go from here?

It all comes down to choices #Acts8

One of the great blessings of my time at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) was the chance to engage in spiritual direction.  As a part of the student fees or tuition or some such thing, VTS was able to provide students with a wide variety of Spiritual Director options, free of charge.  While my first year Spiritual Director was a total flop, I found a great match for years 2 and 3 in Kathy Staudt.  Kathy was great at helping me “find God in the midst” of all sorts of woes from an emergency appendectomy and my mother’s mysterious illness, to GOEs and the search for a first call.  One moment that is particularly vivid in my memory had us sitting in some random office on the second floor of Sparrow Hall as Kathy said to me, “Steve, I think you are a prophet to the Church.”  #humblebrag  That was a moment that was both freeing and frightening at the very same time.

A quick perusal of Scripture will show you that the life of a prophet is often painful.  Either the powers-that-be make your life hard (see John the Baptist) or God does (see Hosea).  In the five-plus years since Kathy uttered these words, I’ve had my fair share of both.  I’m slowly becoming known around the Diocese as the man with the poisoned pen.  A letter from me often comes with biting critique, but it always comes out of  a love for the Church and a passion for the Gospel.

Simply put, I have high expectations of the Church.  She should be led with wisdom.  She should be imbued with grace.  She should do all things to the honor and glory of her Triune God.  Anything short of that, and the Church and her agencies, missions, parishes, and members aren’t living into the fullness of their call to a holy life.

As I read the lesson appointed for Sunday, the Old Testament lesson from Joshua stood out to me as a reminder to make wise choices.  Joshua, as a prophet, speaks on behalf of God, “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

Too often, the Church, the Denomination, the Province, the Diocese, the Parish, the Vestry, the Member, and/or the Clergy decides to serve some other god.  In The Episcopal Church, we have chosen variously the gods of social issues, budgets, buildings, staffers, programs, structures, fear, and money, among several others, as the focus of our attention and service.  We have, quite frankly, made bad choices.

As the deadline for application to the Task Force for Restructuring the Church nears (apply here), I can’t help but wonder, “Which god will this Task Force serve?”  It is my hope that they will choose the path of Joshua and serve the LORD, but I also know that they will need help getting there.

That is where the rest of us come in.  If we will choose to serve the Lord, then we will also choose to pray for our leaders.  Pray that they might make wise choices.  Pray that they might look to the Scriptures for direction.  Pray that they would be cloaked in prayer.  And pray that they might “put away the gods that their ancestors served.”  In the coming weeks, Frank Logue and I will be developing an Acts 8 prayer cycle that will certainly include the membership of the Task Force.  If you have specific requests for that prayer chain: local Acts 8 groups, Diocesan restructuring work, persons of influence, etc. please don’t hesitate to pass them along.

Death, Resurrection, Acts 8, and #GC77

I didn’t have a chance to blog yesterday for several reasons, not least of which was that yesterday I handed in the final paper of my first summer as a Doctor of Ministry student at The School of Theology at The University of the South.  The assignment for this paper in Dr. Chapman’s “Types of Anglican Theology” course was to “put the insights of one of the historical figures or movements we have studied into conversation with a contemporary concern.”  If the topic is approved, my DMin thesis will be a study of William Augustus Muhlenberg and William Reed Huntington as an historical starting place for the ongoing conversations around an emerging Christianity for the 21st century (see Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass and Tony Jones, among many others).

I decided to write a micro thesis for this paper, taking Huntington’s 1870 book of essays, The Church-Idea, and comparing it to Diana Butler Bass’ most recent book, Christianity after Religion, looking at the theme of death and resurrection, especially as it played out around The 77th General Convention.  What struck me in my study was that even the most faithful Christians fear death.  We hold tightly onto dying bodies for as long as physically possible, instead of embracing the model of our Savior who dead and was raised.

“I tell you for certain that a grain of wheat that falls on the ground will never be more than one grain unless it dies. But if it dies, it will produce lots of wheat. If you love your life, you will lose it. If you give it up in this world, you will be given eternal life.” (John 12:24-25, CEV)

The paper is available for download, here, but if you aren’t into 12 pages of block quotes, I’ll give you the conclusion.

As we have seen, when the Church finds herself in the throes of death, her leaders are often called to find the first principles. In the eighth chapter of Acts, the fleeing disciples preached the word. In 1870, William Reed Huntington sought to create A Quadrilateral. In 2012, Diana Butler Bass wrote of practicing the art of imitating Jesus. At the 77th General Convention, a group of leaders gathered to say, in this moment of perceived death, we will seek resurrection. We will not let fear motivate us, but rather will seek the Spirit. We will not be ashamed of the Gospel, but rather will seek the share the Word of God with a world desperate to be loved.

The eighth chapter of Acts gives us the example of Philip who, in the hostile environment of Samria, under fear of persecution “told the people about he Messiah.i” He performed miracles, cast out demons, and healed the lame. “There was great joy in that city,ii” Luke tells us, and this author hopes that you are convinced that even in our time of great hardship, of fear, of transition, and, in some ways, of death, here too, through the power of the Risen Lord, with humility and elasticity, with practice and a sense of humor, there can once again be great joy in The Episcopal Church. Our hope finds all its meaning in the resurrection and is based “in the certainty that ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’iii

iActs 8:5 (NRSV)

iiActs 8:8 (NRSV)

iiiThe Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 507.

No Sleep ‘Til…

If you of my generation, then this title has this running through your head.  You’re welcome.

The Lectionary, as I’ve said countless times before, does some very strange things with the Bible.  Two weeks ago, Jesus sent out the Disciples, two by two, with nothing but the clothes on their back.  Last week, we had the snapshot story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom at the hands of Herod, Herodias and Salome.  This Sunday, we hear tell of the Disciples return and two trip across the Sea of Galilee (we skip the feeding of the 5,000 so that we can get John’s(!) version of it next Sunday).

Since I can barely remember what I preached two weeks ago, I’m pretty sure that most of the folks in the pews will have no recollection that two weeks ago, Jesus sent his disciples off on an adventure.  So, when the return to tell Jesus “all they had done and taught,” it makes no sense to us.  The story is further complicated by various location changes… but I digress.

What I’ve noticed this morning, which took me down this lectionary road, is that when the disciples return from preaching, teaching, baptizing(?), and healing, Jesus see that they are TIRED and calls them to REST.  “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  Rest is important.  Jesus sought deserted places for rest and refreshment.  Jesus taught his disciples to do the same.  He also sent them off two by two, which seems to indicate that team ministry is to be preferred, but that’s for a different post.

I’m contemplating rest today because I’m slowly being consumed by stress.  I did it to myself, but that doesn’t make it any easier.  On June 10th, we left for Sewanee for 3 weeks, during which I was assigned 30 pages worth of papers to write.  I’ve handed in 5.  15 are due on August 1.  10 more on August 15.  I returned from Sewanee for 65 hours and headed out the door to General Conventions where 12-16 hour days were the norm.  I’m back home now and work and family commitments have me wondering if I’ll ever get these papers done.

I’m thinking that Jesus is calling me to rest.  The sort of rest he took in the back of the boat on the storm raged sea.  Rest that can only be given from the Father.  Rest that is found even in the midst of chaos.  There may be “No Sleep ‘Til” August 15th, but at least I know that I can find rest in the Lord.

Let’s not rebuild the wall of hostility #GC77

As I reflect on my experience in Indianapolis for The 77th General Convention, I’m struck again and again by how generous we were to one another.  Bonnie Anderson, then President of the House of Deputies actually said, “Thank you for your witness” to a group of about 100 deputies who stood in support of the descenting statement made by the Dean of the Cathedral in Dallas.  Nine years ago, that doesn’t happen.

In Sunday’s lesson from Ephesians, Paul writes of the work of Jesus to break down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.  For Paul, the deep division rests between Jews and Gentiles.  For us, that divison is called liberal and conservative.  Over the course of the last decade, The Episcopal Church, thankfully, has allowed Jesus to do his work of tearing down walls of hostility.  It was a privlege to watch.

In the days that followed General Convention, two opinion pieces, one in the Wall Street Journal and one in the New York Times, have attempted to build those walls back up.  They have written half-truths sprinkled with inflamatory rhetoric, and, in many ways, Episcopalians of all stripes have taken the bait.  We’ve gotten defensive.  We’ve honed our snark.  We’ve begun to define ourselves around social issues instead of the Gospel.

We are in the process of rebuilding the walls that Jesus has long since torn down.

Let’s not go there.  Let’s draw on the hard experience of being together, and not fall back into the old model of anonymous comments and blind rage.  Instead, how about we embrace our disagreement, talk openly with one another, listen carefully, and, above all else, love.  We did it in real life, let’s keep it up online.

Ya’know, for the sake of the gospel and all.

To What End Does #GC77 Gather?

It has been a long 9 days.  We’re tired.  We’re flooded with legislation.  We’ve still got some tricky work on the Denominational Health Plan, Lay Pensions, Constitutional changes to make structural reform possible, among other items.  As we slog through legislative session from 8am until 6:30pm, with a break for lunch and worship, I can’t help but wonder, “to what end does #GC77 gather?”

Of the 844 Deputies on the floor this morning, you’d probably get 844 different answers to this question.  I won’t attempt to speak on behalf of the house, but will offer you my thoughts.

The 77th General Convention of The Episcopal Church gathers to glorify God.  Whether we agree with what happened here or not.  Whether or not we think General Convention is of merit or not.  Whether or not we even know what is happening in Indy.  We gather, first and foremost, to the glory of God.  I say this with confidence based on the lesson from Ephesians appointed for Sunday.

Ephesians 1:3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

To summarize, “we set our hope on Christ, so that we might live for the praise of his glory.”