Spiritual Turkey Crap

       This week, my Facebook memories were full of pictures and reflections on life in the early days of COVID shutdown.  There were photos of Rick and Linda’s earliest live-stream setup right there in the crossing.  There was a post from outside Kroger, waiting with 25 others for it to open at 7am so we could buy toilet paper.  My favorite was the whiteboard in the Conference Room with a 90-day plan to reopen and blow the doors off with brass at Pentecost.  Oh, March 2020 Steve, how naïve you were.  This year, unlike last March when these memories rolled through, I found myself feeling a little bit nostalgic for how life slowed down, frustrated with how long it has taken us to get beyond COVID’s disruptions, and hopeful for what the future might hold.  That hope is built upon our ongoing work to bring this parish back to its active and full life.

       Of course, starting back from a standstill takes a while, and it requires us to use muscles that we haven’t used in a long time.  Like getting back into exercise, we are slowing building, being very careful not to hurt ourselves.  For example, the Alleluia banner that will beautifully adorn the nave on Easter Day, still isn’t fully colored in.  We haven’t been stressing about that because people are back in the building most days, and we can get some help from adults who like to color.  Monday night, I got a text from Karen Crabtree as EfM was wrapping up.  Marker had bled through the paper and onto the conference table that was just refinished last year.  I think most of us know Karen well enough to know that she was feeling a little anxious about the mess.   She had checked several times to be sure that the markers weren’t bleeding through, and yet, it happened.  My response, from the comfort of my own living room, was more joyful, “It means our church is alive.  I’ll take messy tables every day of the week,” I wrote back.  Karen, in her wisdom, quickly responded, “Life is messy.”

       Gosh if that isn’t true.  Life, in all its shapes and forms, is messy.  From birth to death and everything in between, life is messy, and while there are several different lessons we could draw from our Gospel lesson this morning, this week, my take is that Jesus knows all too well just how messy life can be.  The lesson begins with a classic question of theodicy.  Why do bad things happen?  More specifically, why do bad things happen to good people?  The Galileans whom Pilate had killed were offering their sacrifices to God.  How could God not have spared their lives?  The eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell, why them?  In our context, I can’t help but think about the 475 families whose homes saw significant damage during the December tornado.  Were they somehow deserving of the heartache and headache while two blocks away, I had internet back the next morning?  Jesus won’t even entertain the question.  Focusing on what others did or didn’t do to deserve the hardships in their lives is futile, Jesus says.  His response is simply a call to repentance lest we too should die unprepared.  If life is as fragile as it seems given the stories of the Galileans killed by Pilate and the 18 crushed by the tower of Siloam, then we would do well to get to work producing the fruit of repentance: showing signs of a life committed to the Kingdom of God rather than self-preservation.

       In typical Jesus’ fashion, he makes his point by way of a parable about something in nature.  This time, it is a fig tree that after three years of growth, has yet to produce fruit.  The landowner, growing tired with a tree that is at least two harvests behind schedule, calls on the gardener to cut it down so that it no longer wastes the good soil in which it was planted.  The gardener, the one who has been tending to this particular tree for three years, knows its potential.  The gardener can see that it needs conditions that are just a little bit better than the other trees around it, and so they ask the landowner for a stay of execution.  Give it one more year.  I’ll dig around it, give it plenty of manure, and hopefully next season it will produce fruit.  The gardener put their money on dirt, manure, and sweat to bring about fullness of life – albeit messy, messy life – to that fig tree.

       I learned a lot about this kind of messy life back in 2008.  The grass in south Alabama is not like the beautiful, lush lawns we have up here.  Zoysia and Centipede might grow in the sandy soil, but they are rough, ugly, and hard to maintain.  So, when my parents moved down there, into a brand-new house with a freshly sodded lawn, my dad wanted to everything he could to maintain it.  He asked around at the Ace Hardware and learned that the best fertilizer he could use on the garbage grass in his yard was turkey manure.  Early in the growing season, so like February in south Alabama, dad spread a few bags of turkey poop on his lawn, watered it per the instructions, and waited for it to do its work.  What the helpful folks at Ace failed to mention was that no matter the season down there, the sun is really, really hot.  Do you know what turkey manure does when it is met by the really hot sun?  It stinks.  It stinks to high heaven.  It makes you want to sell your house and move a thousand miles away; it smells so bad.  While you didn’t want anything to do with that yard through most of the spring, it was as lush and as green as a builders’ grade centipede lawn could be.

Life is messy, and the things we use to bring about abundant life are even messier.  When Jesus uses this parable of a fig tree surrounded by manure, he is affirming the messiness of life and giving us permission to live into the mess.  Like our parish restarting after COVID shutdown, each of us have, in our own lives, gone through fits and starts in our discipleship.  Sometimes, fruit is being produced with ease, but often, our own spiritual lives need to be tended to with great care.  Sometimes, with just a little advice of the helpful folks at ACE, we can make these adjustments on our own.  At other times, like the fig tree, we need someone outside of ourselves to roll up their sleeves, offer their time and talent, and be unafraid to get dirty.

That second route is, I think, what congregations are here for.  We are here to support one another.  By we, I don’t just mean the clergy.  Nor do I mean just the staff.  Nor do I just mean those who are seen as leaders.  It is the job of all of us to support one another in the messiness of life; to pray for each other; and to encourage one another.  It’s messy, this caring for each other thing, but it is the gift of community.  Sometimes, marker will leak through.  Sometimes, the turkey manure might try to stink us out of relationship, but as good gardeners in God’s Kingdom, we are committed to sticking it out in the hopes of producing fruit that endures and becoming the beloved community that Jesus came to build.  Life is messy, but thankfully, we have help in each other to carry us through.  Amen.

The Body of Christ

I am a creature of habit, and so, every morning, I follow the same routine.  I wake up, put in my air pods, and listen to two podcasts while I sip my coffee.  First, I listen to A Morning at the Office, a Daily Office podcast sponsored by Forward Movement.  My prayers said and Bible lessons heard, I then tune into the ESPN Daily podcast.  Every weekday, Pablo Torre spends about 30 minutes sharing a story from the world of sports.  Sometimes, it is a very timely story.  Every Monday, for example, they reflect on the NFL weekend that has passed.  Other times, they are deeper dives into the minutiae of sport. This was the case on Thursday when ESPN Daily spent 36 minutes and 23 seconds telling the story of one of the most overlooked specialists in all of football, the long snapper.

NFL rosters are made up of 53 players, no more, no less.  If you are even a casual sports fan, you probably know a lot about key positions like quarterback, running back, place kickers, and even line backers, but on any given roster there are probably two dozen players that few know anything about.  Most of those players are on special teams and play only a handful of downs each game.  Least thought about, but perhaps most important of all is the long snapper, and so Dave Fleming, Senior Writer for ESPN the Magazine, decided to tell their story.  To do so, he enlisted Morgan Cox, the All-Pro long snapper for the Tennessee Titans to share about how he became a long snapper, his time at the University of Tennessee, his 13-year career in the NFL, and the intricacies of his chosen vocation; from how the balls used for kicking are sanded down, to how he tries to repeat the same motion every time, allowing the snap to enter the hands of the holder in 0.7 seconds, at a velocity of 35 miles per hour, with the ball rotating exactly three and a quarter times.

What I found most interesting is the story of a January 12, 2013, playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos.  Morgan was the long snapper for the Baltimore Ravens and played the game with the flu.  It was 13 degrees at kick-off and the game went into double overtime.  Because he was feeling so awful, Morgan spent most of the game sitting on a heated bench, next to a jet engine of a space heater, wearing a giant puffy cape.  Combine all that with a fever, and Morgan began to sweat.  When the moment of truth came, he threw off his cape only to realize the sweat on his arms was beginning to freeze.  With ice covering his arms, he bent over to snap the ball at a perfect 35 miles per hour, rotating three and one quarter times into the hands of the holder with the laces out, allowing Justin Tucker to kick a game-winning 47-yard field goal.  The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl that season, thanks, in part, to their frozen armed, flu-infected, long snapper, Morgan Cox.[1]

To crudely paraphrase Paul in First Corinthians, “Just as a football team is one and has many members, and all the members of the same team, though many, are one team, so it is with Christ Episcopal Church.  For in the one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body – Hilltoppers, Cardinals, or Wildcats; Republicans, Democrats, or others; students, employed, or retired – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”  Last Sunday, I preached on the giftedness of all of us and how those gifts are given not for individual glory, but for the building up of the Kingdom of Heaven.  This morning, as we prepare to gather for our Annual Meeting, I’m struck by the story of Morgan Cox and how every member of this community has something vital to offer.

Over the course of the last two years, being an active part of the Body of Christ has been difficult.  To overextend the football metaphor, for most of us, our time on the bench has caused our muscles to atrophy.  Once vibrant and active ministers find it hard to get back into the swing of things, and systems that picked up the slack are feeling the weight of more and more work with fewer and fewer helpers.  This isn’t to point fingers or to blame anyone, but simply to name the reality that the pandemic has fundamentally changed how we operate as the Body of Christ.  We have buried a lot of people over the last two years.  All of us are two years older, and there has been very little opportunity to integrate new members into our community.  Some have joined us, and I am beyond grateful for their presence, but in the coming months and years, a concerted effort to grow our congregation across all demographics – age, race, and family structure – must be developed.  Our evangelism, hospitality, and congregational development muscles will need some exercise to come back into shape.

Of course, not everyone is gifted in evangelism and hospitality.  Others are gifted in service, prayer, and acts of mercy.  Ministries of lay pastoral care, which have also languished in the pandemic, will require us to stretch these muscles.  Lay Eucharistic Ministers, Stephen Ministers, prayer shawls, and others will be needed to make sure those among us who are suffering remain connected to their community of faith and experience the compassionate love of God in their most difficult moments.  Outreach ministries like Room in the Inn, Churches United in Christ HELP Ministry, and Wednesday Community lunch also need gifted people in order to radiate God’s love to all.

As we look to the future of Faith Formation at Christ Church, I’m thankful to those who continue to share their gifts of teaching, wisdom, and leadership to ensure that God’s children from 3 to 103 continue to grow in faith and understanding.  We are blessed with a whole host of hungry learners and eager teachers.  There are also essential volunteers on the garden committee, working the front desk, and on the audio-visual team who use a whole host of gifts to make sure this place looks amazing, runs smoothly, and shares the Good News of God’s love far and wide.

In the story of Morgan Cox, I am reminded that no gift is insignificant.  Each of us plays an important role in the Body of Christ.  Each of us helps radiate the love of God to a world that desperately needs it.  Thank you for your willingness to share your gifts.  And get ready, because we’ll be asking you to step in all kinds of ways in 2022 and beyond.  May the Holy Spirit bless us all with gifts in abundance and the energy to share them for the common good and building up the Body of Christ.  Amen.

[1] “Longsnappers: The NFL’s Unsung Special Teams Artists” ESPN Daily Podcast, January 20, 2022

Ubuntu and the Body of Christ

       Lost amidst tornado relief and the Christmas holiday was the news that Anglicanism lost one of its brightest lights.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and architect of post-apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission died after a lengthy illness on December 26.  I had the distinct pleasure to hear Archbishop Tutu speak twice back in the mid-two thousands; once at Virginia Seminary and later when he preached the ordination of Nathan Baxter as the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania.  Desmond Tutu was not a large man, but his presence was imposing.  His voice was small.  His laughter was infectious.  And he spoke with the gravity of the very word of God.  You could sense the depth of his relationship with Jesus.  You knew you were in the presence of holiness.  

       One of the many gifts Archbishop Tutu has left the world is the proliferation of the Bantu concept of Ubuntu.  Ubutnu is the ancient African spiritual understanding that humanity was created to be one with our Creator, one another, and all of creation.[1] Roughly translated from Zulu, Ubuntu means “I am because we are.”  Archbishop Tutu believed that Ubuntu is the essence of being human.  “I can’t be a human being on my lonesome,” he once said, “I wouldn’t know how to speak as a human being; I wouldn’t know how to think as a human being; I wouldn’t know how to walk as a human being.  I have to learn from other human beings how to be human.  And so, Ubuntu says, ‘my humanity is tied up in yours.  I am only because you are.’  A person is a person only through other persons.”[2]  For Archbishop Tutu, this understanding of our interconnectedness was also essential to the Christian faith.

       I’ve carried Ubuntu with me for nearly two decades now, and while I don’t always live up to its ideal, I’m grateful for the role it plays in my own walk as a disciple of Jesus.  Even our own Book of Common Prayer unwittingly draws on Ubuntu when it describes the mission of the Church as restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.[3]  We were created to be in relationship with God and with one another, and sin happens when any relationship is broken.  Salvation comes when we live most fully into the understanding that “I am because we are” and that I am only fully human when I acknowledge the full humanity of others.

Ubuntu might run up against our modern, western, self-reliance and rugged American individualism, but it is not without scriptural merit.  One could argue that the entire text of First Corinthians is Paul helping the Church in Corinth see that following Jesus means respecting the dignity of all your neighbors, whether they are rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, wise or foolish.  In the lesson we heard read this morning, we hear Paul addressing the issue of spiritual gifts.  Context tells us that some were puffing themselves up because of the gifts they had while treating others as less than because of their gifts.  Paul is quick to remind the Corinthians that the only gift that really matters is the ability to say, “Jesus is Lord,” and even that comes not from our own ability, but from the Holy Spirit.

Beyond that, Paul says, whatever other gifts one might receive weren’t given because of some sort of merit or special blessing, but rather they are given, in all their glorious diversity, for the “common good.”  That’s how most mid-twentieth century English Bibles translate sympheron here in verse seven, but elsewhere in Scripture it is translated as “bringing together” (Acts 19:19) or “beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23).  The “common good” isn’t just for one congregation, diocese, or denomination.  The “common good” that all our giftedness is meant to work toward is Ubuntu, the coming together of all of humanity with God, each other, and creation.

Take, for example, the experience of Bowling Green since December 11th.  In the immediate aftermath, the gifts of a large organization like Living Hope Baptist Church were needed to coordinate the very urgent need to remove trees, pile up debris, and distribute critical supplies.  In the days the followed, needs shifted, and the gift of nationwide connections in denominations like the Disciples of Christ and the Presbyterian Church USA brought in volunteers to spell local folks who had their own grief to contend with.  Now, as FEMA trucks roll through the community from dawn ‘til dusk, our connections and the ability to raise funds from around the country are needed to help fill the gaps and lift up those who might fall through the cracks.  Each community of faith has individual members who are gifted.  Each community of faith also has its own level of giftedness.  Together, we have worked for the benefit of a community in pain and grief.

Even so, the “common good” isn’t only for one community dealing with two years of pandemic and four winter tornados in less than two weeks.  The common good to which God calls us all is for all of creation.  The common good toward which we are invited to work alongside God is ultimately the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  It is a place where relationships are no longer broken by selfish ambition.  It is a place where every human being is treated with the respect they deserve; rich and poor alike share in the abundance of God’s created order; and the earth itself is seen as a gift from God worthy of care.  The “common good” is the place where Jesus Christ is, as we prayed for in today’s Collect, “known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth,” not out of fear of some everlasting damnation, but because the radiance of Christ’s glory is seen in disciples of Jesus using their wildly diverse gifts for the building up of all of humanity.

In baptism, every Christian receives gifts from the Holy Spirit that are meant to be shared far and wide.  As Christian educator Debie Thomas wrote this week, “My ability to teach, preach, serve, love, pray, sing, hope, trust, write, nurture, or heal is not given to me for my personal [enjoyment.]  It is given solely for the common edification, growth, and blessing of the church.  To hoard a spiritual gift is to desecrate it.  To practice a Lone Ranger Christianity is to fundamentally misunderstand and distort the purpose of God’s generosity.  I receive for the sake of others.  Which is to say, God apportions spiritual gifts based on the needs of the community as a whole — not on my “personal” needs.  My gifts carry you, and your gifts carry me.  It is God’s intention that we rely on each other.  That we need each other.”[4]

Each of us is a human only because of other humans.  Each of us is a Christian only because of other Christians.  Each of us has gifts to help build up humanity and the Body of Christ only because of the richness of God’s grace and God’s deep desire to see all of creation reconciled to one another.  May God give us the ability to see in one another, the glorious diversity of our gifts.  May God give us the eyes to see in ourselves the gifts we have to share.  And may God bless us with a spirit of Ubuntu and bring us to the “common good” of all of creation through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] “Ubuntu: A Brief Description” The Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wg49mvZ2V5U

[2] “Ubuntu: The Essence of Being Human” The Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=44xbZ8MN1uk

[3] BCP, 854.

[4] “Many Gifts, One Spirit” by Debie Thomas (emphasis, original) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/3292-many-gifts-one-spirit

Lost and Listening

       Back in the 90s, when I was still a baby-faced young adult, I worked part-time as a youth minister for St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA.  At that time, indoor rock climbing was just becoming a thing, and a few of my students were all about it.  We decided one Saturday to head to Reading, PA, about 45 minutes down the road, to spend the afternoon in a rock-climbing gym up there.  It being the 90s, smart phones and GPS weren’t available, so I went online and printed out directions on MapQuest.  Maybe you remember those bad old days when your directions couldn’t automatically recalculate.  They were not good times.  We proceeded to get epically lost.  After an hour of driving around Reading, which isn’t really that big of a town, we finally found ourselves back on the right road.  Looking at the numbers on the buildings, we weren’t that far from where we hoped to go, until, as we passed through an intersection, the name of road changed.

       Realizing that we were lost again and that there would be no rock climbing this day, I slammed my fists against the steering wheel and yelled, “Awwww BLEEP,” at the top of my lungs, forgetting entirely who else was in the car with me.  The bleep was another, strong word, and the kids laughed at my lack of personal censorship.  We stopped and got ice cream and had some great conversations about how our mentors and the adults in our lives are real people, who, like everybody else, fall short of the glory of God sometimes.  It turned out to be a great afternoon, and the Druce brothers still know that they can call me anytime they need support because, most likely, I’ve been right where they are.

       God shows up just when we need it, no matter where we are or what is going on around us.  That’s the lesson I learned that delightfully frustrating Saturday afternoon in Reading, PA.  I believe Luke is trying to get across that same lesson in the opening verses of chapter three that we heard this morning.  He begins by setting the scene with a list of powerful men who were the political and religious leaders over Israel.  It was the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate was the Roman Governor of Judea, and Herod, Philip, and Lysanias were figure-head tetrarchs over the land.  Annas and Caiaphas held the role of Chief Priest.  It was either 28 or 29 CE and a man named John, whose lineage was priestly on both sides of his family, had eschewed all claims he had to power and privilege and was in the wilderness, dressed in camel hair, subsiding on locusts and wild honey.

       Whether you live in first century Palestine or twenty-first century America, if I asked you where the word of God would arrive, 99 times out of 100, you would answer, “in the Temple.”  The word of God has long been associated with the religious powers-that-be.  That’s why we have them.  They hear and interpret the word of God and then bring it to the people in a way that they can understand.  That was the system in place in 28 CE.  The people went to the Temple to fulfill their religious obligations and people like Annas, Caiaphas, and John’s father, Zechariah, received their gifts, proclaimed the word of God, and offered God’s forgiveness.  The last place we would expect God’s word to show up was in the wilderness, what with all its barrenness and foreboding.  Earlier in his Gospel, Luke tells us that the wilderness was John’s home.[1]  He’d been there for years, praying, growing, and deepening his relationship with God.  After years and years in the wilderness, the word of God came to him right where he was.

       The word that came to John was the same word that had come to the prophet Isaiah during the Babylonian exile, God is going to rescue God’s people.  Not only that, but God is going to make it so that salvation is available to everyone, no matter what.  There will be no more desolate valleys, all will be filled in.  The haughtiness of the mountains will be humbled.  Every path will be made straight.  Even the rough patches will be made smooth.  No matter where you live.  No matter your socio-economic status.  No matter whether you can walk with ease, shuffle along, or require a wheelchair.  There will be no obstacles between you or me or anyone else and the kingdom of God.  That’s some pretty good news, and it kind of makes sense that it would arrive as a word to someone like John who found his home about as far away from the seats of powers in his world.  Creating obstacles is precisely what the powerful do to maintain control.  The harder life is, the further away God seems, the more difficult God’s grace is to access, the more intermediaries are required.  This word of universal ease of access to God couldn’t possibly come to the Chief Priests in the Temple.  It could, I suppose, but it would probably fall on deaf ears.

       This idea of God’s word of hope coming in the heart of the wilderness, to the least and the lost, spoke to me this week.  Not because Christ Church is the least.  We are well resourced and connected closely to the power structures in our community.  Rather, what struck me is how the whole world has spent the better part of the last 20 months living in the wilderness.  Many of us have been disconnected from the communities that sustain us.  Whether it is our community of faith, work colleagues, classmates, extended family, and friends, the vast majority of us spent quite a bit of time separated from the people who make us who we are. Some of us remain disconnected even today.  Many were isolated from the vocations that we love.  For nine weeks, millions of people weren’t allowed to go to work as barbers, dental hygienists, or personal trainers.  For much longer than that, many of us “worked from home,” kind of doing our jobs, but not really, and definitely not in a way that was fulfilling.  Everything we knew about the world we lived in changed back in March of 2020, and we’ve spent the last 20 months wandering around the metaphorical wilderness, not sure what was next.

       What if, instead of seeing these last 20 months as a burden, we spent this next phase of late-stage pandemic life listening for a word of God that comes to find us in the wilderness?  What if we spent this next season looking for the ways in which we, as the body of Christ at Christ Episcopal Church, are being called to the work of filling in some valleys, humbling some mountains, and making the salvation of God accessible to all of humanity?  What if we took being lost in wilderness as an opportunity to meet some new people, to hear their stories, and to show the world that, flawed as we all are, together, we can make a difference?  Getting lost turned out to be exactly what God needed me to be in Reading that day.  In the wilderness is precisely where John the Baptist needed to be to hear the word of God.  What if in this extended wilderness experience, God is calling us to work, to change, and to grow?  If only we would have ears to listen.  Listen, can you hear the word of God calling you?  Listen.  Amen.

[1] Luke 1:80

Just the Beginning

       I still find it nearly impossible to believe.  If I hadn’t lived it, I wouldn’t think it real, but we went from March 8th, 2020 until April 18th, 2021 with our church building closed.  That’s fifty-seven consecutive Sundays!  That’s a dozen funerals.  A handful of weddings.  Several baptisms.  Two Easters.  One Christmas.  All gone.  As we returned to in-person worship, slowly, strategically, carefully, one theme that I heard above all others was just how good it was to be back in this space.  The people, no doubt, played a big role in that, but so did this sacred building.  Its beauty.  Its grandeur.  Its memories.  Sure, we learned over more than a year that we can be the Church without the use of our building, but we sure as heck prefer having it available.  Having this experience still lingering in our rearview mirror makes this morning’s gospel lesson feel like a “way too soon” kind of moment.

The Second Temple had only recently been doubled in size and totally refurbished under the direction of Herod the Great.  Stones in the foundation were as big as 40 feet long, 12 feet high, and 18 feet wide.  37.5-foot-tall Corinthian pillars, each cut from a single piece of marble adorned the massive front porch, and the exterior walls were lined with gold.  By any human measure, this sacred building was a site to behold.  When the unnamed disciple, upon seeing the sheer immensity of the Temple, responds with awe, I don’t necessarily want Jesus to predict its utter collapse.  Buzz-kill Jesus isn’t my favorite experience of Jesus if I’m being honest.  I would prefer Jesus join in the wonder.  Maybe he puts his arm around his friend’s shoulder and says, “I know, isn’t it amazing what human beings can do when they join God in building up the Kingdom of Heaven!?!”  But, that’s not what happens here, and context helps us understand the reasons.

       In Mark’s Gospel, chapter eleven marks the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life.  After healing Blind Bartimaeus, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a colt as the crowd laid palm branches on the ground and shouted, “Hosanna in the highest.”  The next few days were marked by growing tensions between Jesus and the religious powers-that-be, which culminated in the lesson we would have heard last week if it weren’t for All Saints’ Sunday.  There, at the tail end of Mark 12, Jesus warned his disciples “Beware of the scribes.”  Then, as they watched the comings and goings of the Temple and its treasury, Jesus pointed out a widow who put her last two coins into the offering.  This woman, Jesus said, gave all that she had to keep this system afloat, when there were many, many others who give without sacrifice and take without a second thought.

       Jesus was clearly over the Temple system and those who benefited from it.  His care is for the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, and all those who truly rely on God for their daily bread.  His frustration lay squarely upon those who use that trust to line their own pockets.  His anger is palpable as he and his disciples leave the Temple for the last time.  “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings,” one of his disciples remarked.  “You see them?” Jesus spit back at him, “Not one of stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  In fifty or so years, this prophecy would come true.  Rome utterly destroyed Jerusalem in response to a Jewish revolt in 72 CE, but I don’t think Jesus only had a literal destruction of the building on his mind in that moment.  I think Jesus was predicting a larger shift in which those in power would be upended, and those on whose backs the Temple and its system had been built, would inherit the Kingdom of God.

       What follows is what is often called “Mark’s Little Apocalypse.”  Literally translated, an apocalypse is an uncovering or revelation.  We catch a glimpse of Jesus’ revelation of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God this morning when Peter, James, John, and Andrew try to pin him down on when exactly this destruction is going to take place.  Rather than focusing on their question, Jesus responds by turning their attention away from the building and toward the signs that will precede the unveiling of God’s reign on earth as it is heaven.  “Beware,” Jesus says, echoing what he’d just told them inside the Temple, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come and say, ‘I am he.’”  “I am he” is very intentional language on Jesus’ part.  In Greek, he says “Ego eimi,” the Greek equivalent of the name that God gave to Moses back in Exodus.  In Hebrew, it is a name so sacred that faithful Jews won’t say it out loud, and when Jesus uses it, he does so very intentionally.  He is warning his disciples that some will come and claim to be God or God’s Messiah or the Second Coming of Christ.  They will use language that sounds legit.  They will quote scripture.  They will, like the Temple system already at work, prey on the religious devotion and trust of the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  They will use so-called signs like wars, earthquakes, famines, or pandemics to try to convince the world that they are the only ones who can save.  They will line their pockets with the copper coins of those they claim to care about but seek only the enrichment of themselves and their cronies.  Beware, beware, beware.

       Between the destruction of the Temple and the promise that a series of lying, cheating, no-good, would-be Messiahs are coming, things feel pretty dire at this point in our Gospel lesson.  I found myself asking Mother Becca’s go-to preaching question quite often this week, “Where is the good news?”  Where, amid all these words of warning, is the tear in the curtain that will allow the full unveiling of the Kingdom of God to take place?  The answer came to me by way of a three-year-old commentary in the archives at WorkingPreacher.org, written by the Reverend Doctor Samuel Cruz.  His commentary boldly claims that “in the midst of this apparent chaos and destruction, Jesus brings a word of hope: ‘This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.’”[1]  I wrote a note in the margins that said, “Just the beginning? How is that a word of hope?”  Then, I realized something.  Jesus doesn’t say the coming chaos and destruction are the beginning of the death throes.  No, he says they are the beginning of the birth pangs.

       I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but birth is painful, chaotic, and messy.  In the end, however, is new life.  New life brings with it love like one has never known before and joy beyond all measure.  New life brings with it the promise of hope.  For the people of first century Israel, the hope of new life – out from under the oppressive thumb of Rome and the repressive expectations of the Temple system – sounded like good news indeed.  After twenty months of pandemic birth pangs, I know that I’m ready for some new life.  I’m ready to cast my lot with Jesus who maybe isn’t the buzzkill I initially thought he was.  I’m ready for new ways to use our building for expanding the Kingdom of Heaven.  I’m ready for new ways to use our financial resources for reaching out into our community.  I’m ready for new ways to engage our baptismal covenant, to love our neighbors, and to change the world.  Unveilings, birth pangs, resurrection – none of this comes easy, but hope, joy, and love are absolutely worth the effort.  Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-mark-131-8-4

Called to Serve

       Several weeks ago, I preached a sermon about how the disciples, and we, routinely miss the point of what Jesus came to do.  You might not remember the sermon, that’s ok, but you might recall the concept of Face Palm Jesus that I introduced during it.  It’s the idea that Jesus often looks upon how people who carry the title Christian profoundly and, often, proudly, completely miss the whole point of it all.  In the case of the disciples in Mark chapters 8, 9, and 10, the recurring theme that elicits Face Palm Jesus is his three Passion Predictions.

Once in each chapter, Jesus clearly tells his disciples what is to come.  “The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”  Jesus leaves no room for ambiguity in what this trip to Jerusalem would bring, and yet, each time he tells this to his disciples, they fail to hear it.  The first time, Peter took him aside and rebuked him, “God forbid it, Jesus, we won’t let this happen.”  The second time, Mark tells us that the twelve didn’t understand what he was talking about, were too afraid to ask him, and so instead, they began to argue with one another about which one of them was the greatest.  The third time leads us to our lesson for this morning.

       Jesus has just finished once again telling the twelve that he would be betrayed, mocked, beaten, killed, and rise again when James and John run up beside him and say, “Teacher, would you mind giving us whatever we want?”  What strikes me here is that Jesus doesn’t go straight to the face palm, which would certainly be in order, but rather he engages them where they are.  “What is it you want me to do for you?” he replies.  “Oh, you know, just to sit at your right hand and at your left in glory.  No big deal.”  *Face Palm* Quickly, the other ten got fired up as well, and the whole group was right back to arguing over which one of them was the greatest.  *Double Face Palm*

       “Look,” Jesus says, exasperated, “the leaders of this world lord over their followers and the greatest among them are nothing more than tyrants, but that isn’t the way it is in God’s Kingdom.  Those who want to be great,” he goes on to say, “must be your servant.  The one who wishes to be first should be a slave to all.”  For Jesus, this isn’t purely theoretical teaching; every part of his life, death, and resurrection are the example of what true greatness looks like.  It is the Messianic Mission Statement in Mark’s Gospel.  The crux of who Jesus is and what he came to do.  “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

       It is so easy to fall into the same trap as James and John.  The world in which we live rewards those who seek power, privilege, and prestige.  As I think I remember hearing in another sermon recently, the self-help section of Barnes and Noble carries hundreds of books on leadership, but not a single one on being a follower. Certainly no one is making any money publishing books on servitude.  The fights on social media and in the news throughout this pandemic have been about these very same questions.  Misinformation aside, the struggle, even among Christians, has been about where do “my rights” end and the good of the whole begin?  We have seen, firsthand, what kind of damage is wrought when we seek after only our own self interests.  Instead of assuming that our Jesus card gives us permission to do whatever we want, today’s Gospel lesson, and in fact the entirety of Mark’s Gospel, invites us to consider how we can follow the example of Jesus in seeking not to be served but to serve.

       For Jesus, this life of service took him all the way to the cross and an excruciating death.  Of the twelve to which he spoke these words, one bailed out and became the one who betrayed him, ten were killed for their faith, and one, John’s, end is pretty uncertain.  Two thousand years later, it is highly, highly unlikely that the life of Christian service to which we are called will put us in harm’s way, but it isn’t impossible.  Our calendar of saints, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, is filled with names of people who lived as recently as the Civil Rights Movement whose faith in Jesus and love of neighbor put them at odds with the powers that be such that they were killed for their faith: Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Janani Luwum, just to name a few.  Others, like Francis Perkins, Anne Braden, and William Wilberforce put their livelihoods at risk for the sake of the Gospel.  And, lest we forget, the Martyrs of Memphis lost their lives serving their neighbors during a Yellow Fever epidemic.  Through the course of the last two thousand years, Christians of all races, genders, and backgrounds have chosen to follow the example of sacrificial service that our Lord named as his mission in this morning’s Gospel lesson, and as the next generation of Jesus’ disciples, we are invited to follow him in the same way.

       Since the start of the pandemic, however, ministries of service have been hard to navigate.  Prior to the vaccine, many of us weren’t comfortable in face-to-face interactions with strangers.  In those early days, it was the generosity of so many of you that allowed Christ Church to continue to radiate God’s love by investing funds in organizations that were able to do the work.  Since last summer, Churches United in Christ HELP Ministry and MEALS INC have been up and running, and I am so very grateful to the volunteers who have been able to serve.  More recently, the Wednesday Community Lunch restarted, and more than a dozen disciples show up each week to meet our neighbors, feed the hungry, and care for the marginalized.  I cannot express how proud I am of this community of faith for its willingness to step out in faith to follow in Christ’s mission of loving service.

       As we look to the future, and God-willing, a return to less dire COVID numbers, two more opportunities for service are close at hand.  This morning, our faithful Godly Play Teachers are back in their classrooms, masked, vacc’ed, and ready to engage the children of Christ Church in the story of God’s never-failing love for the created world.  As we commission them, along with Miliska and Ken who are leading the Conversations with Scripture class, we will pray God’s blessing upon them and their work, that they might be protected and strengthened, as well as grow in their faith.  New this year, as you might have read in my Window article, is the Stephen Ministry.  These lay ministers will serve members of our community by providing pastoral care to those who have experienced some sort of difficulty such as illness, job loss, or a death in the family.  If you are watching this sermon at home, you can learn more about Stephen Ministry in a video that will play after the service.  Here in the pews, check it out in Surface Hall.

       Every ministry of service requires sacrifice.  Some are huge and life changing.  Others are small and just a slight inconvenience.  All are important.  I pray that as things continue to slowly creep back, each of you will find a way to follow in the example of Jesus in loving service.  As I said a few weeks ago, each day, we have the opportunity to focus anew on following Christ, listening for the calling of Jesus in our lives, and seeking the Kingdom of God so that one day, the whole world might be at peace.  That, dear friends, is the point of it all, and very good news indeed.  Amen.

Adventures in Missing the Point

       On one of my bookshelves is a book written by two of my theological heroes, Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren, entitled, “Adventures in Missing the Point.”  It is a point/counter-point book about all the ways that the church has missed out on what Jesus is actually inviting us to experience.  Whether it is arguments over sexuality, the worship wars, or guerilla evangelism, McLaren and Campolo are sure that all of us, in one way or another, have totally missed the point.

       We aren’t alone in that.  In fact, we’re in some really good company.  You may have noticed that over the past few weeks, our Gospel lessons have been hitting on the theme of disciples who missed the point again and again and again.   The entire ninth chapter of Mark is one story of apostolic tomfoolery after another.  It opens with Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray.  Right before their eyes, Jesus was transfigured and joined by Moses and Elijah.  Peter, terrified and unsure what to do or say, totally missed the point, and blurts out, “Rabbi, let’s build some houses for you guys.”

       As the four of them rejoin the other eight, they find a commotion brewing.  The scribes and the eight disciples were engaged in argument.  It seems a man had a son who had an evil spirit that had tormented him relentlessly, and he brought him to the disciples to cast out the demon, but they were unable to help.  The Scribes noticed their failure and had seized the opportunity to question their authority.  Embarrassed, the disciples lost their religion and fought back.  Eventually, Jesus was able cast out the demon, and when the disciples asked why they couldn’t do it, he replied, “This kind can come out only through prayer and fasting.”  That had to have stung.

       From there, they travelled through Galilee to Capernaum.  In last week’s Gospel, we heard the story that took place along the way.  For a second time, Jesus predicted his death and resurrection.  The disciples were confused, but afraid to ask him what he meant.  Rather than try to learn from their rabbi, they began to argue amongst themselves over which one of them was the greatest, and when Jesus asked them about it, they were ashamed and kept silent.  “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” he told them, and then he invited a young child to join him.  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

       Our lesson this morning begins immediately after those words.  Poor impetuous Peter gets a break on this one, as it is John who gets to miss the point and say the dumb thing.  “Ok Jesus, but how far does that hospitality go?  The other day, we saw this guy casting out demons in your name!  He doesn’t follow us.  Dude hadn’t paid his dues, so we tried to tell him to stop.  That was Kosher, right?”

At the entrance to the Oklahoma City National Memorial stands a statue of Jesus.  It was given by the members of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, whose fellowship hall was destroyed in the blast that took out the Murrah Federal Building. The statue is called “And Jesus Wept” and it features a larger-than-life Jesus, standing with his left hand beating his breast and his right hand up to his face.  It is a beautiful testimony to the presence of Christ in the midst of deep darkness, but the internet has made it famous for another reason. 

Face Palm Jesus is a popular meme used whenever Christians very publicly miss the point.  When Pat Robertson says Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for same sex marriage – Face Palm Jesus.   When Roman Catholic Bishops start threatening to remove communion from politicians – Face Palm Jesus.  When Episcopalians make the “wherever two or three are gathered there’s a fifth” joke – Face Palm Jesus.

When John says, “He wasn’t following us, so we tried to stop him.”  Face Palm Jesus.  Jesus responds by turning John’s whole premise on its ear, “Whoever is not against us,” and it should be noted that by this point in Jesus’ ministry there were A LOT of people who were against him, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  He turns their attention back to the child, whom he is still holding in his arms, and tries, yet again, to help the disciples understand.  Stumbling blocks are bad.  If you put a stumbling block in front of someone else who is trying to have faith, it’d be better to have a three-thousand-pound rock tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea.  Judging the faith or intentions of others is a serious offense in Jesus’ eyes.  It isn’t for us to develop a series of tests to determine who is in and who is out, but rather, Jesus says, we should take stock of ourselves.

If your hand is pointed in judgment at your neighbor, cut it off.  If your foot has you tripping up other believers, cut is off.  If your eye is only good for seeing the faults of another, pluck it out.   It is better to enter the Kingdom of God maimed, lame, and looking like a pirate than to end up in hell under the false pretense of being perfect.  The point of being a disciple of Jesus isn’t to show others where they are wrong, but to find the things in our own lives that keep us from entering fully in the life of joy that God dreams for each of us and all of God’s creation.

       Cut off your hand?  Pluck out your eye?  By now, you’re probably asking yourselves, “Where’s the Good News?”  As always, Jesus has some for us, “Everyone will be salted with fire.”  Doesn’t sound that good, does it?  But I assure you, it is.  The promise of Jesus, for all of those who follow him, is that when we focus on our own sin, repent, and seek forgiveness, the fire of the Holy Spirit will burn off all our impurities and bring us closer to Christ.  What is keeping you from experiencing the fullness of God’s love and grace?  What needs to be thrown into the unquenchable fire?  For John, it was envy.  For Peter, it was pride. For me, it’s a whole lot of things.  What is it for you?  The grace of Christ is sufficient for us all, and each day, we have the opportunity to focus anew on following Christ, listening for the calling of Jesus in our lives and to seeking the Kingdom of God so that one day, the whole world might be at peace.  That, dear friends, is the point of it all, and very good news indeed.  Amen.


       Cassie and I have joked over the years that we might have two of the most guilt-inducing careers in the world.  When people find out that Cass is a dental hygienist, they immediately begin with their excuses for not going to the dentist as often as they should, or they laugh uncomfortably while they explain they should probably floss more often, or they quickly turn the subject around and ask how she could possibly look inside people’s disgusting mouths all day, every day.  When they find out that I’m an Episcopal priest, they immediately begin with their excuses for not going to church as often as they should, or they laugh uncomfortably while they explain how they find God in the woods and are spiritual but not religious, or they quickly turn the subject around and ask how I could possibly listen to people’s problems all day, every day or how I could possibly think of something to preach about.  On occasion, we’ve dreamed of other answers we might give to avoid the awkwardness of it all.  In Alabama, we lived very close to a large outlet mall, and we determined that the career least likely to produce any follow up questions was assistant manager at the Corningware store.

       It isn’t that I am ashamed of what I do.  I love being a priest.  I love walking with people through moments of joy.  I even find that walking with folks through sorrow to be peaceful.  I might be ashamed of the guilt my vocation produces in so many people.  I am certainly ashamed of what others have done to make being a Christian be associated with hate or being a priest be associated with abuse, but I’m certainly not ashamed to be a follower of Jesus who is called to ordained ministry.  Still, this morning’s Gospel lesson brings me to pause.  “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  “Those who are ashamed of me and my words… of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed.”  These words make the collar feel tighter than the COVID-19 quarantine pounds ever could.

       How often does my desire to be liked belie my faith in Jesus Christ?  How often do I act as if I’m ashamed of the teachings of Jesus in the way I treat my neighbor?  How often do I lament the cross of Christ, preferring instead to put myself first?  When Jesus first spoke these words to Peter and the other disciples, it was in relation to what was to come.  There had been plenty of revolutionary faith leaders, so-called Messiahs, who had come and gone before him.  Their trajectory looked a whole like Jesus’s. They appeared in the wilderness with a new kind of teaching.  They amassed a crowd of followers.  Their popularity threatened the powers-that-be, and in some cases, their violent actions incited riots, and so they were killed, often left to die hanging on a cross for their transgressions.  Peter and the rest couldn’t stand the thought of Jesus ending up in the same predicament.  He had to be different.  They had staked their own lives on that.

       Jesus is crystal clear, however, that he too will die at the hands of the powers-that-be.  It is, quite simply, what the system of power and privilege does to those who challenge it.  Jesus goes beyond that, however, to let them know that unlike all those so-called Messiahs who had come before him, his story wouldn’t end there, and that after three days, he will rise again.  The cross that he will bear is the cross of the powerful, but it is in Christ’s willingness to become weak, that he will bring about the redemption of the world.  That, Jesus tells his disciples, is nothing to be ashamed of.

       Two thousand years later, the scandal of a crucified Messiah is long gone.  We don’t have the memory of a dozen other messianic figures hung on crosses, never to be heard from again.  Yet, as 21st century American Christians, our shame still rests in the apparent weakness of it all.  For nearly all of Christian history, the Rabbi who died on a cross because he took on the cause of the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed has been used by those in power to subjugate the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  The shame of the Church has been the shame of Peter, that God might deign to become weak in order to save the weak.  The Church has long preferred a strong Messiah who will align us with power, affirm our wealth, and cast down those who would challenge the status quo.

       Jesus is crystal clear, however, that if the Church is ashamed of his teaching, then he will be ashamed us.  The cross of Christ that we are asked to carry is to put God first and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  It is to care for the marginalized, to respect the dignity of every human being, and to seek fullness of life for all of God’s creation.  Whether you are a dental hygienist, the assistant manager at a Corningware outlet, or an Episcopal Priest, the call to discipleship is all the same, deny yourself, take up the cross of love, and follow in the Way of Jesus.  It may never lead to power and privilege, in fact, it probably shouldn’t, but it will lead to the Kingdom of God, a better existence here on earth, and, ultimately, thanks to the Cross of Christ, the joy of eternal life.  Amen.

More True Religion

       A new Vicar began her ministry in a small, rural parish on bright Sunday morning.  The hymns were glorious, and she preached a wonderful sermon.  During communion, there were so many people that they almost ran out of bread and wine, but the Lord provides, and all were fed from the bounties of Christ’s grace.  She went home exhausted, but excited for what the future held.  The next morning, she headed to the office where she was met by an older parishioner who was clearly troubled.  “What’s the matter?” the Vicar asked.  “Well, I’m afraid you didn’t do communion right yesterday,” the parishioner responded, “It just didn’t feel like church.”  “Oh?” she replied, “It wasn’t right?  How so?”  “Well, before each pass down the altar rail, our old Vicar would always stop and pray for every person kneeling at the rail to receive.  It was so good to know our priest cared for us and prayed for us each by name.  It just felt like you rushed through it, like you didn’t care.”  An accusation like this would shake any good priest to their core, and the young Vicar took it quite seriously.  She decided to call her predecessor to see what she could learn about his habit of prayer for the congregation.  He was an older gentleman, whose mobility issues had finally caused him to retire.  She explained the situation to him, and he laughed as he replied, “I wasn’t praying.  I stopped each time to touch the radiator.  I had to discharge static electricity, so I didn’t shock the daylights out of the first person at the rail.”

       This anecdote, or one like it, has been shared in seminary liturgy classes for decades.  It is an important reminder that human beings, especially those of us who take our faith seriously, make meaning out of all kinds of things, even things that maybe weren’t intended to have meaning.  This story comes to mind every summer when Proper 17 rolls around.  In the Collect of the Day we pray that God might increase in us “true religion.”  I’m reminded that religion is a powerful word, filled with all kinds of meaning, and that even though all of us might call ourselves Episcopalians, each of us has our own understanding of what our religion truly is.  Every one of us has developed our own system of religious actions, those things that are important to our life of faith.  For some, church isn’t church without music.  For others, they can’t imagine church without communion.  There are even a few of you who wish we used incense every Sunday.  I know you’re out there.  The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to rethink our religious habits and to adapt them based on what we think is and isn’t safe.  Beyond the intensity of the last 17 months, the reality is that all of us are constantly updating our understanding of our own religion based on the circumstances of our lives, whether it is raising children, a job that requires work on Sunday, or our taste in music.  Heck, even the word religion itself has changed meaning considerably over the years.

       Its use in this week’s Collect is emblematic of that shift.  The first written edition of this prayer is found the Gelasian Sacramentary, a prayer book compiled around the year 750.  Some form of this prayer has been in use for almost thirteen hundred years!  When it was first written, the prayer simply asked that God might increase religion in us, but during the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer, decided that he needed to be clearer about what kind of religion we were praying for.  Rather than the bad religious practices of the Roman Church, Cranmer thought we ought to pray for the true religion that he was in the process of creating.  This change can be seen as an early step in a long evolution for the word religion away from what it had meant in 750, which religious scholar William Cantwell Smith defines as “faith as the lived experience of love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, and trust; a way of life; … or… a particular way of seeing and feeling the world.”[1]  Since the Reformation and the rise of modernity, religion has become a more cerebral exercise.  At its most extreme, religious practice has the danger of becoming nothing more than seeking some kind of pure theological ideology.  Today, when we pray for an increase in true religion, it can feel more like we’re praying for our particular set of ideas to be better than those of the Baptists or Presbyterians, when, in truth, when this prayer was written, it was a prayer asking God to increase in each of us an awe for creation, wonderous and joyful worship, and trust in the God who calls us to see and feel the world in a particular way.

       That particular way of seeing and feeling the world is summed up nicely in all three of our lessons this morning.  In Deuteronomy, the whole premise of the book is that wandering Hebrews were nearing the Promised Land as Moses was nearing the end of his life.  Before they entered the land, Moses had one last chance to impart all the wisdom he had received from God.  He’ll spend the next twenty-six chapters reminding them of how God hoped they’d live their lives, but before he started, his advice was simple.  Remember.  Remember that the Lord calls you to a particular way of living in this world.  Remember that you didn’t get here all on your own, but that the Lord has brought you to this place.  Remember to teach this to your children, lest they forget.  As disciples of Jesus, we may not be called to live by the full law of Deuteronomy, but in the exchange between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus reminds us that no matter how we live out our religion, we’re called to do it not so that our actions might be seen by others, not to puff ourselves up, and not to burden those around us, but rather, everything we do should be a response to the love that God has shown us.

       It can be hard to know how we should live out our faith; hard to know exactly how it is that God would like us to see and feel the world around us, but thankfully, we have James.  The Letter of James never minces words.  It is a series of admonitions to disciples and church leaders alike on how the life of faith might be lived out day to day.  The Bible is rarely as clear as it is in James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  Our primary call as disciples of Jesus is to care for the needs of the world and to keep ourselves away from sin.  In the long run, it doesn’t really matter if you genuflect or not, if you like Bach or not, if you watch church in your pajamas or dress in your finest and get here by 8.  No, the true religion to which we are all called is, once again, summed up in this way – show your love of God by putting God’s will first, and show your love of neighbor by caring for their needs.  That’s a true religion I think we can all get behind, and one that I will gladly pray for more and more of.  Increase in us true religion, o Lord, for the honor of your name.  Amen.

[1] Quoted in Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 97

Leadership, ABD

I’ve heard it said that anyone who led well in 2020 earned a PhD in leadership. Recently, however, I’ve come to understand that we’re all actually sitting ABD – all but dissertation. The Delta variant, then, is when your second reader writes to say that the argument in page 88 could be bolstered if you read some obscure 500 page book. Delta Plus is when you realize that your footnotes are correct by the Chicago Manual of Style volume 8, but they published volume 9 while you weren’t looking.  Leadership is hard. Leadership in a pandemic is hard and requires constant vigilance and updating. It seems many are content with ABD and are letting the suggestions of their readers go unanswered while enjoying drinks with those who would say, “don’t worry about that crap.”

John 6 provides an interesting study in long term leadership. The chapter opens with the crowd following Jesus numbering in the thousands. They’d seen him perform healings. They’d heard him challenge the religious powers-that-be. They were intrigued and wanted to know more, so they followed him out of town and into the wilderness. Suddenly, it was dinner time and the crowd of 5,000 men (plus women and children) were hungry.  With five small loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus fed the crowd because sometimes, leadership is meeting the immediate needs of people to keep them safe. The next day, however, when the crowd tracks Jesus down again hoping for more signs (and more fish sandwiches), Jesus begins to teach them some of the more difficult lessons of discipleship – I am the bread of life, my flesh is food indeed, you cannot come to the Father unless you are called – you get the idea. The chapter that began with swollen crowds ends with so many turning back that Jesus begins to wonder if even the 12 will leave him.

True leadership is not about being popular.  It doesn’t kowtow to the loudest voices. Nor does it hope to soothe the feels of the misinformed. Most of the time, leadership requires political savvy to bring as many people alongside as possible, but sometimes leaders have to damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead toward what is right, no matter the consequences to their ego, re-election campaign, or pocketbook. To be quite honest, being a leader means risking being unpopular and, as is evidenced by Jesus, occasionally losing some folks along the way.

Now, I’m not suggesting that I’ve done everything right as a leader since March of 2020. There have been plenty of times I’ve moved too slowly, waited too long, or been indecisive.  But, as I watch school and government leaders, abdicate their leadership roles, content to stay ABD, while major corporations, whose goal is only profit, somehow stumble onto what is right by mandating vaccinations, I can’t help but throw up my hands and ask, “what the actual f*ck is happening?” None of us signed up for leading in a pandemic, but all of us who are leaders signed up to make hard choices, whether we knew it or not. Hard choices might be unpopular with a loud-mouthed minority who can be a pain in the neck, but when they are scientifically proven to save lives, well then, mask up and require the jab because if you think you’re tired of leading now, just wait until epsilon, zeta, eta, and theta come calling.

Let’s not settle for ABD. Pick up that book your second reader suggested. Fix those footnotes. Do the hard thing because only when we all lead for the good of all of humanity will we see this thing end and finally get that PhD in leadership we’ve all been promised.