The Church’s Earthly Things

It has been more than a dozen years ago now, but I remember it quite vividly even today.  It was late fall in my final year of seminary and the diocesan deployment officer came to town.  At my seminary, there were six of us from the same diocese getting ready to graduate.  I was the youngest by at least 20 years.  I was the only person not already drawing a pension from somewhere else or independently wealthy from some other means.  This meant, that while all of us would have liked full-time employment in the church, I was the only person who couldn’t live without it.  The deployment officer got the rest of the guys started on their profiles (we were all dudes), and then he said to me, “Steve, you’re young [he didn’t add white, straight, and married, but I heard it] and you probably plan to be a bishop or cathedral dean someday, so here’s how your career should go.”  He then told me how I would lily pad my way to “success” in the church.

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As he spoke, my heart began to pitter-patter, my head began to swell, and my competitiveness began to engage.  “Yes! Of course I want all of these things,” I thought to myself.  It was in that moment that Mrs. Sekel’s voice rang through my head.  Mrs. Sekel is the mother of my childhood best friend.  She’d known me since I was six or seven years old, and she served on my congregational discernment committee.  At one point in the process, we were talking about what it meant to become a priest at such an early age, and how my life goals were going to have to change.  As a business administration major in college, my stated goal, awful as it may have been, was to crush fingers on the corporate ladder, and Mrs. Sekel, who was often quiet, but always discerning, asked me, “Steve, isn’t the church just a smaller latter to climb?”  Her words exploded again in my mind as I listened to the deployment officer’s motivational speech, and I realized that I was going to have to be very careful in discerning call in my vocation and not career advancement in my job.

In his letter to the Colossian Church, Paul implores the Christians there to “put to death whatever in them is earthly.”  It is advice that is well heard by every succeeding generation of believers.  It is advice that is well heard by the Church as well.  It isn’t just in the hearts of individuals that earthly things live, but they are alive and well in the systems that we human beings create.  Clergy who are working on a career arc rather than focused on where God is calling them and the all-too-easily laughed off notion that “the Holy Spirit never calls someone to a smaller church or less money” is emblematic of larger systemic sins that are at play.  Racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia, among others, are systemic issues in the Church because the earthly things of bigotry, fear, and anger live in the hearts of her members, her leaders, and her clergy.  We have, as Paul notes, held parts of ourselves back from the new creation that God has inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Changing these systemic sins begins by repentance in our own lives.  We change the Church and change the world only when we are willing to allow God to change us, every part of us, by first putting to death everything that is in us that is earthly.

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Free of Charge?

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It being the last day of the month, payday has arrived for the employees of Christ Episcopal Church.  I enjoy payday.  I suppose most people do.  There is, if only for a moment, infinite hope on payday.  “Imagine what I can do with this money,” I think to myself, before I sit down and pay the bills.  “Wow, that went fast,” is usually my next thought.

There is a certain irony in being a clergy person reading Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 on payday.  As the lesson opens up, Paul talks about his motivation for preaching the Gospel.  His story is about as profound as any.  It is clear that the man who was once a persecutor of the Gospel would have never decided on his own to follow Jesus.  No, for Paul, as for all of us, it is a calling.  The prodding of the Holy Spirit, a deep relationship with Jesus, and a yearning for the Kingdom of God have brought him to the place where he is willing to travel the known world and risk his life to proclaim the Good News.

His reward for faithfully following the call of God?  Well, I’ll let Paul tell us, “that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.”

Free of charge…

I am well paid.  Some days, I think I am too well paid, though my bank account does not reflect that thought, and if you tell my Vestry, I’ll say you are lying.  In more than a decade of being paid while working as a minister of the Gospel, I, like many of my sisters and brothers, have had to work out an understanding of what that means, and how it jives with these words from Paul to the Corinthians.  Others have worked out other understandings, and many pastors out there still follow Paul’s mode and work as 21st century tent makers.  What I have found helpful is the careful use of language.  If you are skeptical of organized religion, you might call it semantics, which I also understand.

We live in a world in which money must be offered in exchange for goods and services.  Over the years, clergy have been paid in various ways from currency to eggs, bread, meat, and wine, but now-a-days, we have to be paid in what former NFL wide receiver, Randy Moss calls “straight cash homie.”  Despite Paul’s own tendency to go without pay, he acknowledges the fact that even church leaders should be paid in 1 Timothy 5:17-18.  Where the challenge lies, I think, is divorcing pay from work done or tasks accomplished.  This is why I prefer to call the money paid to ordained clergy a stipend rather than a salary.

I am not paid by Christ Church to preach a good sermon or to visit someone in the hospital or to plan a decent liturgy.  I am paid by Christ Church so that I don’t have to work somewhere else while trying to follow God’s call to make disciples, preach the Gospel, and care for souls.  The difference is nuanced, and I get that, but I think it is important.  In line with Paul, I believe that clergy are not paid as a reward for preaching the Gospel.  Instead, we are paid in order to have the freedom to fulfill our obligation to preach the Gospel.  Either way, I’m glad its payday.

Priests Behaving Badly – A Wednesday Double Shot

I hate doing weddings.  There, I’ve said it.  I’m a better burying priest than I am a marrying priest; the family has an excuse for their behavior at a funeral.  That being said, I’ve done all sorts of weddings: on the beach, in the mountains, in someone’s living room, and occasionally even in the church.  At almost every wedding, there has been a photographer or videographer, and I always make it a point to talk with them ahead of the service to make sure our expectations are in line with one another.

Mostly, I’m a laid back guy, but there are some limits to what even I’ll allow happen during a wedding, especially a wedding in the church.  At a few outdoor weddings, I’ve allowed the photographer a little more latitude, usually at the bride’s mother’s request, and on most of those occasions, everybody has regretted it, as the photographer stood in line of sight, snapping and flashing all the way through.  One way or another, however, the expectations have always been clear before the ceremony began.

I think that is what makes this video that went viral last week so uncomfortable.  It seems as though expectations were either not well articulated causing this mid-ceremony exchange takes place.

Click here to watch.

Most of the feedback coming from this story going viral has been negative toward The Rev. Ed Erb, and he probably deserves much of the blame. His response to the ABC News crew doesn’t help his cause, but I’m here to tell you that he’s not the only one at fault here.

As I watched the ABC News video, a couple things struck me.  First, it is fairly obvious that the bride and groom are not members of Father Erb’s parish.  Their body language prior to the meltdown as well as the interview with ABC News both lead me to believe that he was a hired gun for this wedding.  My first reaction is, if this isn’t a solemn religious ceremony for you, why’d you hire the guy with the collar?  There isn’t room here for my tirade on the tenuous role priests play on behalf of the state in wedding ceremonies and wedding ceremonies alone, so suffice it to say, being the hired gun at a wedding is about the hardest thing a priest can be asked to do.  Secondly, the ceremony is outdoors and Father Erb isn’t wearing any vestments.  This leads me to assume that the wedding was intentionally informal.  If that is the case, then part of that informality is probably a videographer traipsing around all willy-nilly, but again, it all depends on what was agreed upon beforehand.  It seems as though Father Erb could have made his expectations more clear, but for a seasoned wedding photographer “don’t be in the aisle” should be clear enough to not be standing directly behind the priest snapping the shutter like an AK-47 in the midst of the service.

Ultimately, what makes this story go viral is that it is a priest who is behaving badly.  There is nothing America loves more than building someone up in order to tear them down.  For hundreds of years, priests have been placed on a pedestal, next to Jesus himself, and expected to act as such.  To our discredit, we’ve lapped up the praise and tried to pretend that we don’t stink, but let me be the first to tell you, priests are human too.  We have bad days.  We get irritated.  Sometimes, we even lash out.  If that sounds too much like a normal person, it is because we are normal people.  Clearly something crawled up Father Erb’s craw.  Clearly, some expectation, spoken, inferred, or unspoken, was trampled upon.  Clearly, etiquette dictates one not act like that when officiating a wedding – hired gun or not.  BUT.  But sometimes this happens.

POOR DECISIONS

And in this age of cell phone cameras, Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram, clergy need to expect to take some heat for behaving badly, even when we think we’re in the right.