There’s that word again

As I mentioned several weeks ago, the word “church” rarely occurs in the Gospels.  The English word shows up five times, all in Matthew’s Gospel.  Twice (18:15 and 18:21) is is used to expand the gendered Greek word for brother to “member of the church.”  The other three occurrences (16:18 and twice in 18:17) are direct translations of the Greek word ekklesia, which generically meant an assembly or a gathering of people.  When I read this word in Matthew’s Gospel, my very faint Biblical criticism streak begins to show, and I wonder, if only for a moment, if these are really authentic words from Jesus or Matthew’s later attempt to wrap the teaching of Jesus around the institution that followed his resurrection and ascension.

My first stop down the rabbit hole of ekklesia in Matthew was Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed., which showed no textual controversy on the word in 16:18.  Next, I went to Ye Olde Anchor Bible Commentary on Matthew co-authored by W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann.  Albright was a polymath who was well versed in archaeology and German Biblical criticism, and began the project that has become the Anchor Bible Series, now 120 volumes strong.  Over his many years, his archaeological research led him to believe more and more of the scriptural story and rely less and less on historical critical reading of the Biblical narrative.  Knowing that, it makes sense that his volume on Matthew would argue, “It is hard to know what kind of thinking, other than confessional presupposition, justifies the tendency of some commentators to dismiss this verse as not authentic.  A Messiah without a Messianic Community would have been unthinkable to any Jew” (1971 ed., p. 195).  In the end, Albright and Mann suggest that ekklesia may be the Greek translation of “kenishta, which in the Syriac versions is used for both ekklesia and synagogue” (p. 196).

I warned you this was a rabbit hole.

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What does all this tell us?  Well, first of all, it is a reminder that Biblical study is worth it. There are words we find in the English translations of scripture that leave us scratching our heads, wondering how and why they say what they do.  It is worth the preachers time to do some digging, in order to come to better understand the meaning behind these words.  It is also a warning to be wary of bringing a desired outcome to one’s study.  I’d have bet a whole dollar that Matthew wedged the concept of church into his Gospel, but it seems that in the time of Jesus, the idea of an ongoing community of disciples wasn’t beyond reasonable thought.  Finally, it tells us that Peter’s confession and subsequent commissioning means something.  If Jesus really did think this thing would be perpetuated by a community, which it seems he did, then he needed to make plans for the future, and it was upon Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah that the institution would be built.

For those of us who continue to be a part of that ekklesia, this is the most important bit.  It isn’t about keeping buildings built or salaries paid or denominational shields protected, but all of this exists for one reason only, the same reason Matthew had in mind when he translated Jesus’ words into Greek, to empower a community of faithful disciples to go and proclaim that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

The Power of Baptism

John the Baptist, as has been well document, is a popular character in the Revised Common Lectionary.  So popular, in fact, that in Year A, we get to hear the same story about his encounter with Jesus two weeks in a row.  Last Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, gave us Matthew’s version.  This week, we get John the Evangelist’s take on the events.  Usually, I would begrudge this situation, and that will likely come as the week wears on and a sermon feels out of reach, but this morning, I’m still basking in the glow of the power of a baptism.

See, a funny thing happened on my way to my first service at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  As these things happen, the Senior Warden and I negotiated a start date that allowed me some time to move and settle, while not crushing either my savings account or the church’s willingness to wait for me.  The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord seemed appropriate, given that it too marked the beginning of something new.  Immediately, I decided that we would follow the rubric on 312 of the Book of Common Prayer and substitute the Renewal of Baptismal Vows for the Nicene Creed at both services.  Ah, but wait, there was a young child whose parents were desirous of baptism, and so it was scheduled at the 8 am service.  But wait again, the godparents were unavailable on the 8th, so we would wait.

At about 7:45 on Sunday morning, a godparent arrived, gift bag in hand, certain that the baptism was happening.  Roughly 5 minutes later, mom, dad, and baby arrived.  Grandparents were there too, but none of us really thought a baptism was happening.  It had been postponed.  Then, at 7:57, as the altar party gathered for prayer, one of the chalice bearers, who was facing the family, spoke up.  “They are putting a baptismal gown on that baby,” she said.  So guess what?  We baptized a baby at 8am.  Thanks to a great team of altar guild members, an awesome deacon, and others who were willing to simply go with the flow, we pulled off baptismal prep in 3 minutes.

As we reached the point in the service when the baptism happens, I took baby Ryder into my arms, and something powerful happened.  There wasn’t a dove descending from heaven.  No voice spoke from above.  Instead, as I held that unfamiliar child in the middle of an unfamiliar space, I saw the face of Jesus.  Just like John the Baptist in our Gospel lesson for Sunday, I realized that God shows up in unexpected places and at unexpected times.  It was, as I told friends later, glorious and hectic and maddening and all the stuff the church is supposed to be, and it was so because God arrived, in the person of a little baby, and invited us to show him hospitality.  Thanks be to God for a wonderful start, even if it was a little harried, and for the opportunity to see Christ in the face of one of his most precious children.

Neglecting to Get Together

It seems that church attendance has always been a dicey issue.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, in his admonitions on kingdom living as a community of faith, reminds his audience that they should “not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.”  This should come as good news to 21st century church leaders who feels disheartened by changing habits of church attendance.  Well, maybe not good news, but certainly it is comforting to know that the struggle is real and has been ongoing since the very beginning.

There has been an increasing trend over the past decade or so in which the definition of “regular church attendance” has changed from roughly 3 times a month to maybe once every 3 weeks.  While there are increasing numbers of people who have left church all together, the reality is that some of the decrease in Average Sunday Attendance simply comes members attending church less frequently.  It seems neglecting to get together has become the habit of more than some.

Church canons have little impact these days.  Unfortunately, they are routinely ignored by clergy and laity alike, but I wonder what would happen if we started to take Canon I.17.3 seriously?  In that Canon, the term Communicant in Good Standing is defined as “All communicants of this Church who for the previous year have been faithful in corporate worship, unless for good cause prevented, and have been faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God, are to be considered communicants in good standing.”

What if “good cause” was the only thing that prevented us from attending church?  What if those who are committed to the life and ministry of their local congregation (as many of the once every three week crowd really are) returned to the habit of regular attendance at worship?  There is power in getting together to worship God.  That’s why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews recommends it.  That’s why our Canons define “good standing” that way.  When we gather together to worship God, to sing praises, to hear the word proclaimed, to offer prayers, and to break bread, we are changed – each of us individually as well as all of us corporately.  And every time we are changed more into the likeness of Christ, the world is changed more into the likeness of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Church attendance habits matter because the Kingdom of God matters.  Let’s not neglect to get together.

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

What is a Congregation? An #Acts8 BLOGFORCE Challenge

I’m a day late and a dollar short in answering this week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge, but since it is the first of a three-part series, I figure I should go ahead and write this post in order to be ready for what is to come.  This week’s question is What is the mission of the congregation?  A follow up question is added to raise the level of difficulty: How should it be structured to serve its mission?  Here goes.

I can’t answer “What is the mission of the congregation?” without first thinking about the mission of my congregation.  Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foley, Alabama is part of God’s mission, as the Catechism says, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP, 855).  We do that in a very particular way because Christianity, especially Anglican Christianity, is very much an incarnational religion.  Our work is specific to the particularities of who we are and where we are.  Building on the more generic mission statement of the Church, Saint Paul’s makes this claim:

Saint Paul’s is a ministering community: reaching up in worship; reaching in to serve; reaching out in love; to the glory of Jesus Christ.

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Pill packing for the Diocesan DR Medical Mission Trip is a verb.

The mission of the congregation is to be a verb: actively participating in God’s mission in the world.  So it is that Saint Paul’s is a ministering community.  Ministering is a verb, it is something we do, specifically, we “attend to the needs of others.” In order to attend to the needs of others, we actively seek out those who have needs.  Before we do so, however, we first find our strength and our hope in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We worship: in word, song, bread and wine, we find ourselves tied in with the mission of God throughout the generations in order to find unity with God.  We are nourished at the table, through fellowship, discipleship, and by being cared for, genuinely loved, by others in our community in order to find unity with one another.  Then, and only then, are we properly equipped to reach beyond our walls to love and serve the wider world.

The follow-up question is a difficult one because every context is different.  The structure that suits a congregation of 500 wouldn’t match well for a Mission of 30 or a parish of 3,000. Again, taking my congregation as an example, for 50 years, Saint Paul’s has been a Pastoral Size congregation.  Add to that a long string of only male priests, and you have a strong “Father knows best” mentality at work, even though, historically, it has been strong lay leadership that founded, built, and sustained this place through lean years up through the second World War and some pretty crummy priests in the 1960s and 70s.  We are attempting to reignite lay leadership in this place, but it isn’t easy.  It isn’t easy for the clergy to give up control and it isn’t easy for the laity to work muscles that have been at ease for a while.  Ideally, the structure is relatively horizontal: with clergy and lay leadership working together to facilitate mission activities like worship, discipleship, fellowship, and outreach, but as we all well know, there are plenty of ways to make sure that ministry happens on the local level.

Stay tuned for posts pondering the Diocese and the Churchwide structure, and be sure to join the Acts 8 TweetChat, Monday, February 9th at 8pm, Central.

Origin Story – An Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge

This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge is seeking out the stories of how you came to be a Christian and an Episcopalian.  The fun, or perhaps quirky, twist being that the 120 word abstract should sound like a superhero origin story.  You can find out more by clicking the link at the bottom of this post.  Without any further ado, I offer you my origin story.

I was a senior in High School and it was Young Life Banquet time.  My YL leader, Flecth, had asked several of us to share our testimonies at the tables of some of YL Lancaster’s biggest donors.  I remember feeling some strange mixture of trepidation and relief as I prepared my story.  I was terrified because my story of how God found me is pretty boring.  I was relieved because I didn’t have to tell my friends’ parents and my parents’ friends about the day I woke up in the middle of a corn field with a needle sticking out of my arm and saw Jesus standing in front of me.  I feel a similar strange mixture today.

I grew up as the quintessential first child.  To this day, I am a ruler follower ad nauseam.  When I was 16, I spent three weeks in Germany with my high school German class.  There is no legal drinking age in Germany, but I still only drank once while I was there, and I still feel guilty about it.  The Church and the moral life to which she calls us has been a part of me for as long as I can remember.  After the youth group at Saint Thomas crashed and burned as I entered into high school, I spent several years bouncing between the CMA church’s youth group and Young Life.  I remember pulling my Saturn over on Manheim Pike one Friday morning to write down the date and time I had invited Jesus into my life, but the truth is, he had always been there.

My entrance into The Episcopal Church happened when I was three years old.  My dad had been transferred from R.R. Donnelly’s home base in Chicago, IL to a brand new plant built to produce TV Guides in scenic Lancaster, PA.  As the story goes, the Realtor my parents used to find a new house was a saintly woman named Jeanne Ritter.  After selling them the perfect house for a family with two small children, Jeanne said something like, “I go to Saint Thomas’ Episcopal Church.  You should try it out.”  They tried it out, and it stuck.

Though I attended an Episcopal Church with my family from early on, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be an Episcopalian, to be imbued with the rhythm of life and the words of the Book of Common Prayer really until I entered the discernment process.  It was there that I learned what all those words I could say by heart: from the opening acclamation to the dismissal; really meant.  I guess that’s why I have such a passion for liturgics, Church history, and general church-nerdery these days.  I want everyone to know how these words that seem rote to the outside observer can be living, active, and offer so much more than the rules and guilt that are so often associated with Christianity.

My origin story doesn’t have superhero qualities to it, but I’ve come to realize that that’s OK.  God enters our lives in all sorts of different ways, but most often, it is by way of a simple invitation.  Thanks be to God.

Well Done Good and Faithful Servant

As the Virginia Theological Seminary Class of 2007 departed campus to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, the Very Reverend Martha J. Horne, Dean and President of VTS also transitioned into a new phase of life called retirement.  She was the obvious choice for our commencement speaker, and in the back of the Lettie Pate Whitehead Auditorium (now Interim Chapel) there hung a sign that read “Well done good and faithful servant” in thanksgiving for her many years of devotion to VTS, the Church, and most importantly, the saving love of Jesus Christ.

Blessed Martha

                     Blessed Martha

Having served as Student Body President that final year, I got to know Dean Horne a little bit, and quickly came to realize that she is probably not the type of person one would expect to serve as Dean and President of the largest seminary in the Anglican Communion.  Unlike her successor, Dean Markham, Dean Horne is a highly introverted person, soft spoken, and unostentatiously genteel.  She didn’t command a room, but she was most certainly in charge because she utilized the gifts and talents with which God has blessed her to lead VTS with wisdom and love through the tumultuous days of the early 21st century.  The sign which hung at our graduation spoke to her service and to the Gospel witness that God desires that we use the gifts he has entrusted to our care.

Each of us has been given gifts and talents.  Some are our birthright, others come through the Holy Spirit in baptism, and still others are bestowed in our hour of need.  To squander those gifts out of fear and/or laziness is as egregious a sin as any other.  As disciples of Jesus, we are called upon to use our many and diverse gifts to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  This means that we don’t make excuses for our gaps in other areas, but instead we trust in God to surround us with the right people to complete the mission.  Virginia Seminary had outgoing and gregarious leaders during the Martha Horne administration, it had prophetic voices, it had the occasional clanging cymbal, and it had Dean Horne as the non-anxious presence, steady at the helm.  The sign the hung at our graduation ceremony was for Dean Horne, but it really was for all of us.  It is only in community that our talents are used to their fullest potential, that the Kingdom can come near, and that we can all hear the words of the Master.

“Well done, good and faithful servants.”

Suicide, Sin, and Modern Tribalism

It has been a couple of years now since a man pulled his car diagonally across the busiest intersection in south Baldwin County at AL-59 and US-98, got out, took a seat on top of the trunk, and, in broad day light, shot himself in the head.  Traffic was backed up for hours as locals tried to figure out what had happened to shut down the road.  Rumors swirled, but all we heard was that an incident had occurred which required the intersection to be closed for several hours.  Ultimately, the final say on the matter was “The media does not report on suicides.”  This is still, by and large, the case.  The media does not report on suicides, unless it is the death of a major figure in politics or entertainment.

There was a time, a very long time, in the not too distant past, in which the Church (I use a capital “C” very intentionally here) condemned suicide as an unpardonable sin.  The theology, such as it was, behind it stated that because suicide is a blatant violation of the Sixth Commandment (Thou shalt not kill) and is therefore a sin and because the sinner cannot ask for forgiveness after the sin was committed, then one who commits suicide died as an unrepentant sinner and was therefore condemned to hell for eternity.  Let’s be clear about something, this is a terrible and damaging theology.  Nevertheless, it was the prevailing understanding of suicide in the the Church for about 1,960 years (+/-).

The questions surrounding how we handle suicide as a culture have come under the bright light of the news media in the past few days as we’ve collectively mourned the loss of comedic legend, Robin Williams.  From the international back lash surround Shepherd Smith’s suggestion that Williams was a “coward” to a local op ed piece on the unpardonable sin, Williams death has opened up a long overdue conversation about depression, addiction, and suicide.  Thankfully, the Church has walked alongside advancements in psychology and physiology over the past half century, and, at least on this matter, we don’t sound like barbaric cave men spouting ignorance in the name of Jesus.  We can now say that depression can kill just like cancer can, and respond with compassion and grace rather than condemnation and law.

What I’ve found most interesting over the last 48 hours however, is how Social Media has created something of a neo-tribalism that gets exacerbated in the aftermath of large scale life events.  I think it has been largely unintentional, but watching as groups have worked hard to address the grave issues behind Williams’ death, celebrate his life, and drive traffic to their websites has been intriguing for me.  Whether it is the TODAY Show sharing clips of all of his visits to their set or the local Top-40 station inviting me to check out something they’ve shared on their Facebook Page or the scores of Episcopalians sharing Robin Williams’ Top 10 Reasons to be an Episcopalian

or the San Francisco Giants holding a moment of silence for one of their greatest fans, there has been a rush to have Robin Williams included among at least one of almost every tribal grouping you can imagine: church, sports team, local radio stations, even morning “news” shows.  Heck, even this blog post can be looked as with suspicion.  Am I writing this with entirely pure intentions?  Probably not.

What is really interesting isn’t searching out the motivations behind all of the internet traffic that Robin Williams’ death has caused, but how we have so drastically changed the way suicide is viewed, and rightfully so.  60, 100, 1,000 years ago, Williams’ name would have been shunned from society.  There would have been a rush by groups he was associated with to remove themselves from the shadow that his suicide would have cast on the culture.  Today, as we know more about depression, as more of us have experienced it, as we’ve become more open to removing the stigma of mental illness, we are able to actually learn something from what is really a national tragedy.  That a man who brought so much joy was paralyzed by such deep pain boggles the mind, but it helps to remind us that depression doesn’t look like what we think it should, and to be on guard, watching for signs of depression and suicidal thoughts.  People still want Robin Williams to be included among their tribe.  They want all of him: manic stand-up comedian, gifted actor, hilarious talk show guest, and yes, even depressed and cash strapped mega-star.  We want him to be included among us because now, more than ever, we’re able to say, “none of us is perfect, we’ve all got demons, we all struggle from time to time, and we’re all in this together.”  I rejoice that we’ve come so far.  Anything to find some good in the midst of such a sad story.

And please, if you find yourself having thoughts of suicide, know that there is help available and things really can be better.  Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Being Called Out of the Boat

Over at the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Seminary, Scott Hoezee, Director of the Center, suggests that the well-worn story of Jesus walking on water should be read less as a literal event and more as a real-life parable of the Kingdom of God.  This isn’t, I don’t think, intended to start a Jesus Seminar style debate on the historicity of the story, but instead to open our eyes to a new way of reading the text.

The standard read, one that I have used in the past, is summed up in the title of a book by John Ortberg, “If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat.”  The assumption there is that Peter’s initial action is to be emulated, he stepped out of the boat, but his doubt caused him to sink.  Good disciples, therefore, will have a stronger faith and will walk on water right alongside Jesus.  This fails, I think, because of Peter’s attitude before he got out of the boat.  “Lord, if it is you,” Peter says, “then call me out to join you.”  Peter doesn’t walk on water because of his faith, but rather because of his doubt.

Parabolically speaking, however, Jesus’ word to the doubting Peter is his word to each and every one of us, “come.”  From the earliest of days, one of the images used to describe the Church is that of a boat.  As time went by, our architecture began to mimic this imagery and churches were built to look like upside-down ships and the large area where the congregation gathers took on the name “nave” which comes from the Latin “navis” which means ship.

“Saint-Sulpice, Nave, Paris 20140515 1” by DXR / Daniel Vorndran – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

While Peter’s testing of Jesus is not to be emulated, the reality is that every day in the life of faith is an experience of getting out of the ship.  We might return to the nave on Sunday and/or Wednesday and/or every day of the week, but we don’t get to stay there.  Just as Jesus compelled his disciples to get on the boat and go on ahead of him, we are called to leave the ship and join Jesus out in the chaos of life.  Sometimes, the waters are calm.  Often, the waves are swirling and wind is howling.  It is more than likely that we will begin to sink on a regular basis.  But Jesus is there, hand out stretched, saying “Be not afraid, I AM.”

An Interesting Qualifying Statement

Another Sunday in Lent, another loooooong Gospel lesson from John that will tempt the preacher to ramble all over the place in an attempt to catch the myriad themes inherent in the story.  While I’m dealing with my visceral reaction to the way the disciples treat the man born blind (MBB) as if he’s just a theological prop to be debated and dissected, I’m choosing to write instead about an interesting qualifying statement made by Jesus.

“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (Jn 9.5)

You’ll recall from the Prologue to John’s Gospel, a text Episcopalians hear read every First Sunday after Christmas, that one of the key components of Jesus’ identity in John is that of light.  In that great cosmic poem, Jesus is described as “life and light” (1.4-5) and “the true light which enlightens everyone” (1.9).  Later, as Jesus continues to be challenged by the Pharisees, he claims for himself the role of light bearer, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (8.12).  Yet here we are, merely a chapter later, it seems like Jesus is claiming that his light can be extinguished.

As we round the halfway point in Lent, having now passed through the awful right of passage known as “Daylight Saving Time” and now on the other side of the vernal equinox, the season seems to be all about growing light, while our feelings will be all about growing darkness as we head toward the noon hour on Good Friday when darkness fell over the whole earth.  So, which is it?  Light or dark?

Truth be told, by now I’ve done what the disciples did to the MBB.  I’ve created a theological straw man to prove a preconceived point.  See, Jesus will die on Good Friday.  It will get dark.  Very dark, but darkness and death will not have the final word.  The light of the world will shine through the resurrected Jesus, and continues to shine through his Body, the Church, even to this day.  Jesus may be ascended to the right hand of the Father, but he hasn’t left the world, he is still very much with us and in us, and his light continues to provide hope in the midst of darkness that threatens us from all sides.  The qualifying statement of Jesus is only a qualifying statement if we don’t believe in the continuity of his message and the holiness of his Church.  If we do believe these things, then the ramifications are clear, as members of Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, we are the light of the world.

Now, to figure out how to be light.  Thankfully, Jesus told us about that just a few weeks ago.