The Ever-Changing Church

Things weren’t looking good for the Church as the sixth chapter of Acts begins.  Despite some early successes, including three thousand new members on Pentecost, public perception was that they were a tiny minority of fools, following a failed, fake Messiah, doomed to flounder for a few months before it all came crashing down.  On top of that, a series of intense internal squabbles threatened to split the Church.  Leaders who were picked based on their ability to teach and preach and inspire, suddenly found themselves having to learn how to administrate.  Factions were arguing constantly, and the leadership could no longer do it all on their own.  So, with some reluctance, they decided to open up the ranks, and seven new leaders were brought on board.  These men, called Deacons, were charged with the day-to-day operations of the ministry, while the rest continued to focus their attention on teaching and preaching.

As we are well aware here at Christ Church, a good Deacon is worth their weight in gold.  Seven good Deacons showed the potential to turn the Church around.  The word of God spread because it had hands and feet in the world.  The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly as people began to experience the love of God lived out in real life.  Things were blowing and going and everything looked great, until… Luke tells us that even many of the priests of Judaism were being converted by this newfound way of being the Church.  Converting the rank and file is one thing, but religious leaders don’t take too kindly to the poaching of clergy.  Stephen, one of the seven Deacons, was supremely gifted.  Like Deacon Kellie, Stephen’s skills went way beyond the primary role of Deacon as a servant minister.  Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit.  He was a gifted preacher.  He had a servant’s heart.  He even began to perform miracles.  His public persona became the focus of frustration for some of the Jewish leadership.

The story we heard this morning comes at the tail end of a long Passion Narrative for Stephen.  In many ways, his story follows what happened to Jesus.  A secret plot leads to the need for false witnesses to testify before the authorities.  Ultimately, the power of the crowd is used to convict Stephen and he is sentenced to death as a blasphemer and dragged out of the city to be killed. As he dies, Stephen, like Jesus, asks God to forgive those who killed him.[1]  Despite all manner of hardship, the prodigal love of God that was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth was still at work in the world, through disciples like Deacon Stephen, but things were about to get much, much worse.

The Lectionary ends at chapter seven, verse sixty, but the story of Stephen doesn’t really end until one verse later – chapter eight, verse one.  There, the story transitions based around a new character who will carry the narrative through the rest of the book.  “Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”  We heard Saul’s name in our assigned passage.  He was said to be a young man who was trusted to watch everyone’s overcoats as they stoned Stephen to death. Saul was a Pharisees’ Pharisee.  The son of a Pharisee, Saul was an up-and-coming leader in the Jewish faith, and after the message he heard in Stephen’s final sermon, he made it his duty to destroy the Christian faith.

Things weren’t looking good for the Church as the eighth chapter of Acts begins.  After their brief glimmer of hope was snuffed out by Stephen’s death, Saul successfully organized a massive persecution of the followers of Jesus.  Those who didn’t flee the city or deny their faith in Jesus, men and women alike, were dragged from their homes and thrown in prison for blasphemy.  The Apostles hid, not unlike they did after the death of Jesus, and the faithful fled to surrounding communities in Judea and Samaria.  There were only a handful of Christians left in Jerusalem, their membership was spread all throughout the land, and there was no Facebook Live to broadcast Sunday services.

What happened next is nothing short of a miracle.  The people who scattered took the story of Jesus with them.  As they travelled, they told about the power that God’s love and how Jesus had changed their lives.  They showed God’s love to strangers in their new communities by acts of compassion and service and by modeling the sharing of resources for the needs of the poor.  These people, who fled everything they knew for fear of their lives, took Jesus with them on the road, and lo and behold, the Church continued to grow.  When everything else fell apart around them, the faithful reinvented what it meant to the be the Church in order to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and the love of God with everyone they met.

As we continue to navigate this new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church could learn a lot from the experience of the early church during the sixth, seventh, and eighth chapters of Acts.  We aren’t being persecuted, but we aren’t able to meet together either.  Still, we have the chance to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Love of God with the world by staying healthy and hopeful at home.  Our clergy might be focused on how to preach and teach in this new climate, but so many of you have found ways to step up and serve your neighbors generously, by ordering meals for the Salvation Army and BRASS, by dropping off fresh baked bread, helping out with grocery shopping, sending cards and letters, and making phone calls.

Twice in a matter of weeks, the early church fundamentally changed how it did business, and the Gospel flourished.  As we come to the realization that this marathon is going to last a lot longer than any of us wants, the Church writ large, and Christ Church specifically, is going to have to take on a spirit of adaptation, of listening for the Holy Spirit, and of evangelistic zeal for the building up of the Kingdom of God.  Even when we can re-open our building, the ways in which we worship God, learn and grow, and radiate God’s love are going to look vastly different than they did on March 12th.  Our task, as we settle in for the long haul, is to discern as a community how God is calling us to be the Church in the world during and beyond these unprecedented times.

None of us has the answers quite yet, but we do have models to look to as we think and pray and dream.  We have the story of Stephen, the work of the diaconate, and the spread of the Gospel in the diaspora, among many others to remind us that even in hardship, uncertainty, and fear, the Church’s mission to restore all people to right relationship with God and with each other will not fail.  The Son of Man continues to stand at the right hand of God, which means that evil, fear, and folly can never win.  Things haven’t looked good for the Church before, but God who is faithful will show us the way to the truth of eternal life.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4456

The Gamaliel Test

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In the fifth chapter of Acts, as the disciples of Jesus are really beginning to pick up some momentum, the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem gathers for a meeting.  The agenda is their growing concern with a small sect of Jews who have begun to follow the Way of a disgraced Rabbi named Jesus.  Their first response was to arrest the leadership of the Way on charges of heresy.  So, they put the apostles in jail, and overnight, and angel came, freeing them and commissioning them to proclaim the Gospel.  Next, the leaders decided to confront the apostles face-to-face.  “We told you not to preach Jesus anymore,” they said.  “We must obey God,” the apostles replied. Finally, fully frustrated and enraged, the council was ready to just put them all to death when a Pharisee named Gamaliel spoke up and said, among other things, “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

This wisdom has become known as the Gamaliel test.  It is a temperance move to avoid rushing to conclusions about the ongoing revelation of God in the world.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t much used by the Christian Church in the first four centuries as Christians became fond of declaring others heretics and putting whole sub-sects of people to death, but it is a test worth using as we who think we have a full grasp on what God is up to are almost universally wrong.  God is always unveiling something new for us to come to understand.  I cannot claim to live a faultless life in this regard, as I’ve been happy to jump up and down and shake my fist at innovations like Enriching our Worship and the growing trend of communion without baptism. It would behoove us all to practice patience and to use the Gamaliel test as our standard.

Title and 330 word introduction to the contrary, this post isn’t really about Gamaliel, however, as he wasn’t the first to utilize spiritual waiting as a tool for discernment.  In the first half of our Gospel lesson for Sunday, Jesus provides for his disciples an example of the same principle.  While we stare down the barrel of 984 more Sundays after Pentecost, Sunday’s lesson hits about the mid-point of Luke as a post-Transfiguration Jesus “sets his face for Jerusalem.”  As a result of this new revelation of his ministry, old patterns of behavior were going to change.  No longer would Jesus and the disciples be taking long, meandering walks from place to place.  Now, Jesus was on a mission.  So, when they pass through a Samaritan city that would not welcome them, the disciples are ready to rain down holy hell on those poor Samaritans.  Jesus, in his wisdom, however, knows that it is God’s desire that the press on.

Rushing to judgment.  Assuming that my understanding of God is the only right answer.  Seeking violence and destruction.  These are not the ways of those who follow the Prince of Peace.  Instead, with Jesus as our guide and Gamaliel as an example, we ought to practice patience, to pray, listen, and discern, and to seek our place in God’s ongoing revelation in the world.

How to choose?

Most weeks, the lesson of choice for preaching is fairly obvious.  It is my preference to preach from the Gospel on most occasions, but by the time we reach the 7th Sunday of Easter, it can become challenging to tie the lesson in with the season.  We’ve long since run out of resurrection encounters, especially when they hold fast to this “1 Synoptic + John” mindset in the three-year lectionary cycle.  We’ve been back in Holy Week, at the Last Supper, no less, for three weeks now.  It is post-Ascension in the calendar, so we could tell one of those stories, but I guess that’s not as interesting to the RCL Cartel as a run-on sentence from John 17.

As I look at the other options for this Sunday, there’s the really interesting story from Acts (a staple in Eastertide) of Paul’s temper-tantrum putting him in jail and God providing a way out.  From Revelation, we have a smattering on selected verses from the book’s final chapter.  If one had been doing a series on John’s great vision, I suppose that could be a helpful bookend.  On a short preaching week, with an Ascension Day Eucharist and wedding sermon staring at me as well, I find myself really struggling with which lesson to dive into for preaching this week.

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In one of my preaching courses, Dr. Brosend taught us to ask the homiletical question, “What does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion?”  When the preaching process is easy.  When the Gospel lesson is narrative.  When the application is obvious.  This question is fairly easy to answer, but on weeks like Easter 7C, when the lectionary seems to be conspiring against the preacher, the process takes a lot more time.  I can’t just pull resources from my trusted sites on textweek.com and begin the percolating process.  Instead, this week, amidst of the busyness of the many other demands that come with a stipend and full-time employment in the priestly vocation, I’ll be listening more carefully for what the Spirit wants the people of God to hear.

Dear reader, how do you choose?  When the text isn’t obvious and the message isn’t clear, how do you discern what to preach?  I’ll be praying for you as you do your homework.  I invite you to pray for me as well.

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.

Humanity’s Utter Depravity

Despite the protestations of my Anglo-Catholic sisters and brothers, I am very comfortable calling Anglicanism a Protestant denomination.  It may not have been true in 1549, but by the time Thomas Cranmer published the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, he had spent entirely too much time with Martin Bucer, and the Protestant Reformation of Continental Europe had made its way across the English Channel.  Thankfully, however, Cranmer’s affinity for Eastern Orthodoxy, his coming of age under the rule of Henry VIII’s strongly Roman Catholic thumb, and the tumultuous nature of the monarchy in 1550s England from Protestant Edward to Roman Catholic Mary to Settlement-minded Elizabeth, kept the worst of the Continental influences, like Calvin and Zwingli, from taking Anglicanism beyond being Protestant and becoming fully Reformed.

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My language in the previous paragraph betrays the fact that I am grateful for our avoidance of some of the excesses of Continental Protestantism, I do realize that there are times that Anglicans find their theology lacking some fullness because of it.  One such example came to mind to me this morning as I considered the second half of Peter’s Confession which we will hear read on Sunday.  Last week, Peter declared Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  This week, just seconds after that declaration, Peter’s mind has already been drawn away from things heavenly and become focused on human things.  There might not be a better example of humanity’s utter depravity, a topic Episcopalians avoid like the plague, than Peter’s immediate about face in this moment.

As faithful Christians, we strive to follow the will of God.  We engage in prayer, we read the Bible, we interact with other disciples, all in the hopes of discerning God’s will for ourselves and for the world God has created.  Like Peter, we have moments when we nestle into the bosom of God, and there we find revelation.  The mind of God is slowing revealed to us, again and again, as we return to the Father.  Again, like Peter, it seems we almost immediately slip away again.  We get prideful about how our own work brought us to deeper understanding.  We get nervous that God might call us to do something we don’t want to do.  We get envious of those who seem to hear God more clearly.  No matter how it happens, it seems that the utter depravity of humankind is distinctly highlighted the closer we get to the heart of God.

It seems to me that we should name this condition.  It is in ignoring it or being afraid of it, that we give our proclivity toward sin its power.  Instead of avoiding the reality of our sinfulness, what Calvin called our “total depravity,” we should see it, name it, and welcome God’s help in moving beyond it.  While Episcopalians ever get comfortable with our total depravity?  I doubt it.  Reformed Christians, we are not.  However, the more we do come to terms with our sinfulness, the more we are able to lean into God’s grace by taking up our cross, laying down our depraved lives, and following Jesus.

Making all things new

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I know what you are thinking.  The whole butterfly metaphor for new lift is so cliche’ and rife with the possibility of heresy.  I totally get that initial reaction.  I probably would have had it too had FBC not received this live butterfly garden kit for her seventh birthday.  The cool thing about this insectarium in a box is that it doesn’t come with freeze dried butterflies (I’m not sure how you’d make them travel-worthy).  Instead, it comes with baby caterpillars.  You get to watch them gain nutrition from the biological sludge in the bottom of their cup and grow into their full stature.  Most recently, they’ve moved from larva to pupa, each one forming a chrysalis which is now ready for the terrifying-to-me move from the safety of their plastic cup to the new world of their butterfly garden.  Watching the wonder in my two girls as they notice each change along the way has given new meaning to the word from the one sitting on the throne in John’s Revelation:

“See, I am making all things new.”

Even before the chrysalises had formed, every morning my daughters could see that something new was happening in that tiny plastic cup.  As I think about the promise of God in John’s Revelation, I can’t help but realized that I have stopped being able to see the world with the same sort of wonder.  I don’t wake up looking for the new things God is doing in the world, but if I believe the Scriptures, and take seriously the words Jesus taught me to pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” then every day, little by little, God must be doing something new in the world.  Perhaps I should add to my prayers that God might “open my eyes to see his hand at work in the world about me.”

What about you, dear reader?  Are you able to see the new things that God is doing in your world?  Where is God calling you to meet him?  What blessing has God prepared for you that maybe you just can’t recognize yet?  Where is the spring of the water of life bursting forth in your little corner of the Kingdom?  Last week, I prayed that our ears might be open to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.  Today, my prayer is that our eyes might be open to see with joy and wonder the new thing God is doing in our midst.

Eldad and Medad

I’m nearly, almost, sort of, thinking about getting ready for another summer session in the Advanced Degree Program at The School of Theology at Sewanee: The University of the South.  This year, I’ll be taking classes from two visiting professors: The Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner from Duke will be co-teaching a class on preaching the feast days with The Rev. Dr. William Brosend and The Rev. Dr. Louis Weil, retired from Church Divinity School of the Pacific who will be teaching a liturgics class on ordination and the Eucharist.

In my reading last night, came the topic of what is absolutely required for a valid ordination with further discussion on the whole Apostolic Succession dealio.  Over and over again in these readings, it is suggested that for ordination, the laying on of hands with prayer is the sole requirement of a proper ordination.  As one who fought against the ritual of anointing my hands at my priestly ordination (while ultimately finding it very moving), this makes sense to me.  Before the clericalization of the Middle Ages and the direct associate of the priesthood with the Eucharist, it was the practice of the Church that the laying of hands was “a sign of the Spirit invoked in blessing, dedication, or absolution” (Sthulman, p. 23).

This is all well and good, or as an Anglophile might say “meet and right,” until we reach further back on the Day of Pentecost and hear the story of God setting apart the 70 elders to assist Moses with the leadership of the Hebrews in the wilderness.  The way the story reads, it can be assumed that as the Lord took some of the spirit away from Moses, something like hands were laid upon the 68 who came out to the tent of meeting, but then there is the curious case of Eldad and Medad, two elders who stayed behind.  It seems as though the spirit just sort of plopped down upon them out of thin air.  I’m sure the liturgical scholars of Moses’ day were pulling their beards out trying to come up with an appropriate response, but it is Moses that gets the best and final word.

“Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets!”

Hands laid or not, the Spirit blows where she will and rests upon any with whom God has found favor.  Sometimes, it is neat and tidy and fits in the Diocesan discernment process.  Sometimes, it is like a mighty rushing wind and fits nobody’s time table whatsoever.  I love the story of Eldad and Medad because I love that God works how God works whether the liturgical scholars agree or not.