The work of discernment – a sermon

Easter Seven is a weird, in-between, sort of time.  Long gone are the stories of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and the other disciples.  We’ve run through a few Sunday’s worth of Jesus teaching his disciples while seemingly trying to use the word “abide” as many times as possible.  In our Gospel lesson, every Easter Seven, we hear a portion of Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples during the Last Supper.  Somehow, we’ve circled all the way back around to that upper room on Maundy Thursday.  I guess it makes sense.  This is day three of the awkward in-between time.  On Thursday, forty days after he was resurrected from the dead, Jesus took his disciples to the Mount of Olives, just outside the city walls, commanded them to not leave Jerusalem until the Spirit came, and then ascended into heaven before their eyes.  As they stood there, staring into the sky, two men, dressed in white, appeared and sent the disciples back to the upper room to pray and wait.

Our Acts lesson tells the story of that prayerful waiting.  For ten days, 120 of Jesus’ closest disciples, both male and female, spent their time intentionally praying for the Spirit and the future of the Way.  In the course of that time of prayer, Peter realized that the number eleven just wouldn’t do.  There were many disciples, but Jesus had set aside twelve as apostles, those who were explicitly sent to go and preach and teach and heal.  One of the twelve had failed to live into that calling.  We all know the story of Judas.  He betrayed Jesus and succumb to his own guilt.  His choices left a void in the group.  Twelve was the number of the tribes of Israel.  For a group of Jewish disciples seeking to restore the wholeness of God’s mercy in Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth, twelve was a nice, clean number.  Eleven wasn’t so nice a number, and so they put their heads together, still in prayer, and discerned two qualified candidates to replace Judas.  Two men who had been with Jesus since his baptism by John in the Jordan, a higher standard than most of the others could muster.  Two men who could share the responsibility of being “witnesses to the resurrection.”

In the end, the decision came down to the three-named Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus and Matthias.  They cast lots, an ancient custom for discerning the will of God, and it fell, conveniently, on the guy with one only name.  Matthias would be number twelve.  He would take his place among the inner circle.  He would be looked at as a leader in the community.  And, with that, just like his co-candidate, Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus, we never hear Matthias’ name again.  In fact, the only thing that the church seems to have held onto from this story is a New Testament scriptural warrant for casting lots.

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I know that the drawing names versus election conversation has a long history here at Christ Church.  I am aware that there were serious pastoral considerations at the time the move away from elections was made, and that there is still some anxiety about the move back to elections.  I’m certain that the age-old adage, “if you reach for the canons to win a debate, you’ve already lost” is absolutely true.  I’m also very familiar with how hard it can be to put yourself out there for an election.  Yet even with all of this, I’m apt to agree with my friend Evan Garner who suggested earlier this week that, ultimately, what method we use to choose leaders in the church doesn’t matter, so long as we’ve done our prayer homework, and that maybe faithful elections are just another way of casting lots, if we trust in the power of the Holy Spirit as our advocate and guide.[1]

Despite the scriptural tradition of Acts 1, it didn’t take the early church long to determine that the ancient practice of casting lots wasn’t the only way to make decisions.  History shows that by the third century, election was the preferred method for choosing bishops in the church.  Saint Cyprian, who died in 258, believed that it was through the election process that the Holy Spirit worked to keep unworthy candidates from rising to episcopal office.  In the Church of England, from the very beginning of the modern Vestry in 1598, those have been elected positions.[2]  In the United States, the Episcopal Church, whose governance structure was built by some of the same people who were building the civil government, democratic elections at every level of the church have been the norm since the Revolution.

We have elections to thank for our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry and for our Bishop, Terry White.  Even my coming to Christ Church wasn’t the result of casting lots or drawing names, but the intentional process of discernment that ultimately led to a vote.  Not that any of these wonderful things might not have happened if names were drawn from a hat, but I’m not sure that the final way we choose a name is what matters, instead it is about the process of prayer that leads up to it.

The first time I stood for election was for my high school Senior Class President.  I ran an elaborately childish campaign based on popular culture.  At the time, Saturday Night Live had a recurring bit called “deep thoughts by Jack Handy,” and so I created posters based on some of those pithy quotes.  The one I can remember most clearly read, “Sometimes I wish Steve Pankey was dead.  Oh wait, not dead, Senior Class President.”  They were kind of funny, and they got me a lot of attention, but I still lost the election.  It hurt to lose, but I learned a lot about myself in the process.  And twenty years later, I’m sure glad I don’t have to plan a reunion from seven hundred miles away.

A high school class election might not be the best example, but I can look back on the lessons I learned in every election and be grateful.  Thankfully, over the years, I’ve won more elections than I’ve lost, and each time, I know that I’ve grown a bit.  This is especially true in the elections I’ve been a part of in the church.  As I’ve considered whether to allow my name to be entered into nomination, I’ve had to do some intentional discernment work.  Am I gifted in the areas that are required?  Do I have the time and energy to commit to this work?  Is God calling me to give up something else in order to fill this role?  Are there people with whom I need to work to make this election, win or lose, something that can be upbuilding for the church?

In that upper room, during the ten days between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there was a lot of active discernment happening.  The disciples were praying for wisdom while listening for God’s plan for the future of the fledgling church.  They were, no doubt, asking questions about who would lead them, who would be called to serve, and how the physical needs of the community might be met.  As they prayed and listened, some clarity came.  Before anything else, they needed a twelfth person to be called Apostle.  With that, their prayer become focused around who might be called, and they discerned that it was Matthias.  Truth be told, the church probably would have been just fine had Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus’ lot been the winner because, in the end, it isn’t about who or how the person is ultimately selected, but about the work of prayer and discernment that goes into it.

We’re a long way out from electing another set of vestry members, but I think a lesson we can take away from the Acts reading is that we shouldn’t wait until the week before the annual meeting to begin the process of discernment.  Instead, we are called to constantly be in discernment for ourselves and our church, listening for God’s call to serve in all kinds of ways, from Sunday School teacher or Wednesday lunch volunteer to welcoming guests on Sunday morning or serving on the Vestry.  Pray for discernment.  Pray for your vestry and our ministry leaders.  Pray for the Church.  In doing this work of discernment, we can be certain that, by the time the next annual meeting comes around, every candidate is qualified, and that win, lose, or draw, the leadership of Christ Church Bowling Green rests securely in hands of God.  Amen.

[1] http://evandgarner.blogspot.com/2018/05/deciding-by-lots.html

[2] Prichard, Robert, History of the Episcopal Church, 9.

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The Episcopal Church’s Budget is a Dim Bulb

There was a movement afoot in the Episcopal Church.  For the first time in my recollection, people were genuinely excited about the E word: Evangelism.  We had a Presiding Bishop who was comfortable talking about Jesus.  A groundswell of support saw a $2.8 million budget amendment to fund evangelism, especially in the growing and heretofore under-served Latino population.  There were revivals planned.  A new Canon for Evangelism and Racial Reconciliation was hired.  One of the best church planting minds in the church came on board to serve as the Staff Officer for Church Planting Infrastructure.  It was looking like we might finally be living into the prayer we pray every Second Sunday after Epiphany, and taking our responsibility, having been “illumined by Word and Sacrament” to “shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.”

Things were looking good, until the Executive Council met from October 18-21, 2017, and all the hope and good will came crashing to the ground.  The working budget for the next triennium (2019-2021) shows a 41% cut in evangelism spending.  This cut includes a full 1/3 cut in spending for new congregations from $3 million to $2 million and a cut in total Latino/Hispanic ministry spending of more than 45% from $1,219,400 to $558,000.  Meanwhile, as has been noted by several very learned practitioners, including church planter, Susan Snook, mission re-developer, Everett Lees, and Forward Movement Executive Director and discipleship guru, Scott Gunn, investment in the administrative side of things, has increased by close to $4 million in the Presiding Bishop’s office (a roughly 47% increase) and $5.25 million in Governance (nearly 38%).  All that, and there is still $40 million set aside to pay for operations, finance, and legal fees!

In the support document for the budget, the Executive Council’s Joint Standing Committee on Finances for Mission (FFM) indicated that this budget has been built to reflect the Presiding Bishop’s vision for The Jesus Movement.  They explicitly state that evangelism, racial reconciliation & justice, and environmental stewardship are the priorities of this movement, and yet, these priority areas make up only 10.1% of the overall budget.  The only real priority in this budget is the governance, finance, legal, and operations of the Episcopal Church.  Of course, we should have known this, since these four items make up the cornerstone of the Episcopal Church’s strategy.

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This Sunday’s Collect and Gospel lesson are centered on sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.  We pray that we might have the grace to go forth and shine the light of Jesus Christ in all the world, and we hear the story of Jesus calling Philip to follow him.  In turn, we hear about Philip finding Nathaniel and inviting him to come and see.  Unfortunately, the current 2019-2021 budget of the Episcopal Church would have us turn inward and hide our light under a bushel basket.  The Episcopal Church’s draft budget is, at best, a dim bulb.  As with all things in Christ, there is hope!  There is still time to make a difference.  Prior to January 10th, you can make your feelings known to FFM and the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget, and Finance (PB&F) by way of their survey.  Let them know that evangelism is important.  Make sure they hear that ministry to our Latino/Hispanic sisters and brothers is a vital part of our ministry. Help them to see that calling something a ministry priority means funding it extravagantly.  Ask the question, “What is our chief cornerstone: our administrative structures or Christ Jesus our Lord?”  As we saw on the floor of the 78th General Convention, the people can make a difference.  You can make a difference.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Some People!?!

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“Some people are saying…”

These words happen everywhere.  When things are good and when times are tough, it matters not.  No matter the circumstance, they are the four words every pastor hates to hear.  “Some people are saying…”  First and foremost, this is a clear indicator that what will follow will be a complaint of indeterminate validity and seriousness.  Let’s also be clear that “some people” always includes that person telling you, and more often than not (read 75% or more of the time) it only includes the person who has brought this “issue” to your attention.  There is no winning a “some people are saying” conversation. The pseudo-anonymity creates an immediate barrier to conversation.  Unless your pastor knows who those “some people” are, their context, their history, and what is happening in their lives, she has no way of knowing where this complain is coming from.  “Some people” always means that what “they” want is right and everything else is wrong.  Whether “some people” are talking about music, preaching, Christian education, or what donuts are served at coffee hour, the fact that they hide behind a wall of uncertainty is an immediate sign that nuance and negotiation are off the table.

I bring this up because Jesus seems to invite the “some people” response in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks, and the “some people” begin to speak.  “Elijah.”  “John the Baptist.”  “Jeremiah.”  “One of the prophets.”  Like it is in the parish, these responses seem to betray what is happening in the heart of the spokesperson.  There is, to be sure, no real clarity about who Jesus is at this point.

Until.

Until Jesus changes the question by asking, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter steps out from behind the protection of anonymity and declares, right there on the doorstep of “Philip’s Caesartown” that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Peter strips away all pretense, all fear, and declares with full awareness of the political ramifications that Jesus is the true Anointed One, and that Caesar can’t be the son of God because Jesus is.

When we move beyond “some people” and get to taking responsibility for ourselves and our faith, God will do remarkable things and, as it was for Peter, God will open our eyes to see that which is obscured by the rood screen of mistrust, fear, and anonymity.  In truth, what “some people” say doesn’t matter, instead, what really matters is, “what do you say?”

The First Committee Meeting

As I’ve mentioned before, in the real life version of Draughting Theology, we’ve been studying the future of the Church.  We spent most of last fall coming to grips with how the Church has changed over the last 50 years, with a keen eye on the rising Nones.  This winter/spring, we’re turning our attention to the future, wondering what the Church will look like 10, 25, 50, or more years from now.  One common theme, both in our reading and our conversations has been the discomfort people have with “the politics of the Church.”  Committee meetings, bishops, mid-level judicatories, national church offices, and conventions seem to have as much negative impact on the regular church goer as “hypocrites” do on the de-/un-churched.

As one of those rare church-nerd-types who finds a lot of joy in the political process of the Church, I have a hard time with this.  I mean, I sort of get it, nobody likes their church leaders squabbling over parliamentary procedure.  Nobody wants their bishop/presbytery/conference coming lording power and control over them.  Nobody likes it when a vestry/session/council holds back the ministry of everyday members.  But each of those are examples of Church Politics gone bad, but they are thrown around every time somebody says, “the Church shouldn’t be political.”  But that, of course, is impossible.  As soon as a group of like minded people organize, they become a body politic.  They have to organize themselves in some way in order for decisions to be made and money to be collected and spent.  It is impossible to have a church without having politics.

Which leads me to the Gospel lesson for Sunday, the great story of the Transfiguration.  Jesus and three of his disciples head of a high mountain for the first ever church committee meeting.  As they ponder who will preside at the proceedings, Jesus is transfigured before them, obviously garnering the necessary votes needed to be elected Chair, but it is Peter who offers the first motion for their consideration.  “Jesus, WHERAS, it is good for us to be here, therefore,  BE IT RESOLVED that we build three dwellings here: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  His resolution ultimately fails, but it reminds me that even at the beginning, even as Jesus was still walking the face of the earth, the Church was nothing more than a group of human beings trying their hardest to make it all work.  Two-thousand years later, the meetings might look different, they might cost a lot more, they might be run by the 11th edition of Robert’s Rules of Order, but in the end, all that church politics is, is a bunch of human beings trying their hardest to do what’s best for the Church.