Cost/Benefit Analysis

Last weekend, the Episcopal Church published its annual compilation of Parochial Report statistics. I used to pour over these numbers with great interest, but time doesn’t allow for that any more.  Thankfully God still makes seminarians like Ben Crosby from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale who has both time and energy to dig into such things.[1]  As expected, the decline continues.  The median Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) in an Episcopal congregation is 53 people, which is lower than the median ASA of our 8 am service.  There are now more congregations with an ASA under 10 than there are parishes with an ASA over 300.  My friend Tom Ferguson also noted that given that the Episcopal Church is 87% Anglo in a nation that is only 62% white and that our average age is 57, compared to an average age of about 37 in the US, the Episcopal Church is becoming less and less able to make the necessary changes to turn the tide around.[2]  As you might imagine, there is not a little bit of hand-wringing and anxiety among leaders in the Episcopal Church over numbers like this.  We might find some solace in the reality that almost every Christian denomination from the Southern Baptists to the Roman Catholics is experiencing statistically significant decline, but if our mission is, as our Prayer Book says, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” then we are clearly failing.[3]

Our Gospel lesson this morning begins by telling us that large crowds of people were travelling with Jesus.  Given the current rate of decline in the Episcopal Church, it would make sense to look to Jesus to see what he can teach us about church growth.  “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  OK, well, let’s look some more.  “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  Surely, there’s something we can use. “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Huh.  Well.  I’m not quite sure Jesus is the church growth guru for us.  It’s no wonder that by the time he arrives at the cross no one but his mom, his closest friend, and a few faithful women were left hanging around.

How do we reconcile these two conflicting forces?  If we learn from Jesus that it is about depth of commitment and not necessarily bigger numbers, but are also pretty certain that our mission calls us to reach out to all people, what are we supposed to do?  Where is the sweet spot between the church with a rock band and fog machine that is designed to appeal to everyone and the old Celtic tradition of wading neck deep into the freezing cold waters of the North Sea and reciting all 150 Psalms from memory?  I think the key to unlocking this puzzle comes in the example Jesus gives about building a tower.  “Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether there is enough to complete it? Otherwise, when the foundation has been laid and there isn’t enough to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule the builder.”

Following Jesus comes at a cost.  The Church is not called to be everything for everyone.  We are not here to make following Jesus easy, comfortable, or entertaining, but rather to offer an honest assessment of what life is like in the Kingdom of God.  As a Church, we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  As disciples of Jesus, we are called to make sacrifices of our time to attend worship; to offer our gifts and talents to the ongoing mission and ministry of God in the world; and to give of our financial resources for the building up of the Kingdom of God.  As a congregation of disciples, the Episcopal arm of the Body of Christ in Bowling Green, we are called to love our neighbors and our enemies; to visit the sick and the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to welcome the stranger.  None of this is easy.  All of it is risky.  Being the Church in the example of Jesus Christ comes at a real cost to us both personally and corporately.

Jesus wants us to know the costs before we start the journey so that we might not lose heart when the going gets tough.  All those who are willing to walk this path, the way of the cross, are invited to come along.  Thankfully, we know that this is not a journey we walk alone.  With the Holy Spirit as our guide, we walk with a community of disciples, arm-in-arm with the communion of saints who have gone before, eking ever closer to the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  The cost may be high, the model may not be a popular one, but the rewards for us and for the world God created are well worth it.  May God bless us with the resources and the stamina to walk with Jesus on the path to eternal life.  Amen.

[1] accessed 9/5/2019.

[2] accessed 9/5/2019.

[3] BCP, p. 855.

The Good Book Club


Beginning on Sunday, February 11th, Episcopalians around the globe will join with our Presiding Bishop in a journey through the Scriptures.  During the season of Lent, we will read the Gospel according to Luke.  Following that, we will read Luke’s second installment, the Acts of the Apostles during the Great 50 Days of Easter.  Various Episcopal organizations are taking part in the Good Book Club.  You can read more about who is offering what on the Resources page.  I will be joining the Club by engaging in the Acts 8 Movement’s weekly BLOGFORCE challenge.  Each week, the Acts 8 Movement will present a question on a particular theme or issue in the readings that may have implications for the church and society.  As such, during Lent and Easter, I will be dedicating one day of blogging to the Good Book Club.  I invite you, dear reader, to join in as well, as together, we read the Scriptures and grow in faith.

The Episcopal Church’s Budget is a Dim Bulb

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

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

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


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

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

Be Ready – a sermon

The audio of today’s sermon did not get recorded, however, you can still read today’s sermon.

I want to begin this morning by taking a moment to brag on your deputation to Diocesan Convention.  The folks from Christ Church were among the most diligent in the whole diocese.  If it was on the schedule, they were there.  They put up with a Rector who had never been through a Convention in Kentucky before and so didn’t have special plans for cocktails or a fancy dinner in the hoity toity Crescent Hill neighborhood.  They were thoughtful, discussed things well among themselves, and are engaged in the work of the Diocese.  You should be proud of Deacon Kellie, Sharon Valk, Billy Adams, Belinda Palmer, Jan Funk, and Hamp Moore.  You can even be proud of our Parish Administrator, Heath Harper, who used his continuing education time to attend the Convention.  Your Rector, on the other hand, well, I really was on my best behavior, except I do have the unfortunate tendency to get hangry.  For those who maybe don’t know what hangry means, it is a combination of hungry and angry, and is what happens when a lack of food makes you grumpy.  I am most prone to becoming hangry when I make bad choices, like I did yesterday morning.

After a rough night’s sleep, breakfast felt like it came very early.  Even so, I made good decisions.  I ate a bagel, some fruit, and had a decent cup of coffee.  Noonday Prayers and the lunch break, though close to five hours away, seemed easily doable.  As a group, we attended the hearing on the budget, which ended 20 minutes early, thanks be to God, and we prepared for the morning business session.  As everyone got ready, two different groups of people came by each table and dropped off candy.  Yesterday, the tempter looked like the Rector of Grace Church, Paducah and a nice woman in a red apron with handfuls of Fun Size candies and Hershey Miniatures.  It didn’t take long before I unwrapped my first Krackle bar.  Having grown up 40 minutes from Hershey, Pennsylvania, those miniatures are a real weakness for me.  Naturally, I quickly opened another.  Later, I ate a Milky Way and a two-pack of Starbursts: pink and orange.  Boy were they good.  As the morning wore on, however, the sugar rush that followed those several small pieces of candy wore off, and by the time 11:30 came around, I was crashing back to earth and in desperate need of some lunch.

The poor soul who unwittingly, and thankfully, unknowingly caught the full brunt of my hanger was the good man who re-presented the budget to us for adoption.  He was doing a decent job, taking the 40 minute presentation he had given at 8am and turning it into a 20 minute rehearsal of the 2018 budget, but because I had heard it all before and, more so, because of the negative effects of a sugar crash, I spent most of those twenty-one minutes vacillating between checking my watch and rolling my eyes.  As he finished, at 12:01, I calculated that with 99 deputies in attendance, we had spent close to 35 man-hours listening to a report we were all supposed to have heard three hours earlier.  “How long, O Lord, how long!?!  How long must I wait for lunch?”

Yesterday, I was a foolish bridesmaid.  I had failed to prepare for what I should have known to be inevitable.  Diocesan Conventions always run behind.  There are always redundant reports.  There are never not silly questions.  But I had no extra oil for my lamp, and so, in that moment, I found myself outside of the joy of the bridegroom, looking for a way in.  Like the foolish bridesmaids, I was frustrated, more by my own lack of preparation than by the inevitableness of the situation.

This parable that Jesus tells is a glimpse into the end of time.  He tells it, not just randomly, but after some prompting from his disciples.  It is late in the day on Tuesday in what we call Holy Week.  Jesus has spent the day arguing with the Temple leadership.  They’ve questioned his authority and sought to catch him in verbal traps.  Jesus, for his part, has not backed down. He’s told parables about their destruction. He has called them hypocrites, and wept over what Jerusalem has become.  It has been a really long, really tense day when Jesus and his disciples finally leave the Temple to return to Bethany.  Hoping for some innocuous conversation to pass the time, a few of them begin to discuss architecture.  They note how majestic the Temple is, and Jesus, still on edge tells them that soon “not one stone will be left upon another.”  Matthew indicates that the rest of the trip was silent.  Safely back on the Mount of Olives, the disciples mustered up enough courage to engage Jesus again, this time asking him to expand on the warning of destruction.

“When will this be?  What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?”  What follows is two chapters of Jesus teaching about the coming apocalypse.  False prophets, persecutions, and the desolating sacrilege will precede the coming of the Son of Man with power and great glory, but, Jesus warns them, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24.36).  Yet even as no one knows when it will happen, Jesus is clear in his warning, “be ready, for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Mt 24.44).  It is in response to that warning that Jesus tells this parable as part of a series of parables about what it looks like to be ready.

This parable is unique to Matthew’s Gospel, which was written for a unique community, fifty or sixty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The first generation of disciples were almost all dead, and this raised some real questions in the Church.  As we heard in the lesson from First Thessalonians, written thirty years before Matthew’s Gospel, there was already some long-standing concern about why Jesus had not yet returned.  The common expectation among the first Christians was that Jesus would be coming back tomorrow, if not sooner.  They had kept vigilant, but after twenty years of waiting, they were nervous they had somehow missed out.  Thirty more years later, you can imagine that Matthew’s community was beginning to think that maybe Jesus would never come back.  Knowing Jesus, however, they should have expected this.  The delay of the bridegroom was inevitable.

Jesus was always making his disciples wait.  As they traveled, he would constantly stop to talk with some beggar on the side of the road.  When he would heal someone, the whole nearby village might show up looking for help.  When Jesus saw an opportunity to stop and teach about the kingdom of God, he would do it.  Given their experience, the Disciples had every reason to expect that Jesus’ return would be delayed.  Matthew’s community, having heard the stories over and over again, should have had every reason to believe that Jesus wouldn’t be coming back tomorrow.  And yet, like I was yesterday, they got anxious.  Waiting is hard.  Sisters and brothers in Jesus were dying.  They didn’t know what to do with that.  Two thousand years later, he has still not returned.  I’m not sure we know what to do with that.

As much as parables often have deep meanings woven within the details, I think the lesson we learn from this parable is quite simple.  Be ready.  The bridegroom has been and will be delayed, but the work of the Kingdom will go on.  We had better be prepared to wait for as long as it takes.  Friends will die in the Lord.  People will be hard to deal with.  Conventions will test your patience.  Life will happen.  In the meantime, we must be sure to pack some extra oil: spending extra time in prayer, being immersed in the Scriptures each day, and engaging in work of loving service.  Don’t make the mistake I made yesterday morning.  Don’t fill up on empty calories that will quickly flame out and leave you hangry, but rather, be about the Gospel work of filling your lives with good lamp oil, for the Son of Man is coming, but at an unexpected hour.  Amen.

The New TEC Website is an Unpleasing Front Door

outside church in color

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the red doors of an Episcopal Church served as its initial point of entry. Americans lived, by and large, in the neighborhoods of their youth. Churches served those neighborhoods and new members came either from Episcopal parents or the rare new family that came to town. There was brand loyalty back then, so if you did find yourself in a new place, you found the red doors at 10am on Sunday, and you went in. Over time, the front door has had different iterations. As Americans became more mobile and technology advanced, the point of entry moved away from the red doors to the Yellow Pages, newspaper ads, and the occasional place mat at the local diner. Today, without question the first point of contact for someone looking for an Episcopal church is its webpage.  Whether a simple WordPress site, a Facebook page, or an elaborate web presence, the vast majority of visitors to your church will find you because of a Google search and subsequent review of your website.

Recently, The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States unveiled a new front door.  Design decisions are always a matter of taste, so I won’t waste much of your time discussing them, other than to say that the bar was so low after the Dreary Stained Glass Window era that anything would be an improvement.  That’s not to say I like the choices they’ve made, but simply that they aren’t resolutely awful.   The new website is very mobile friendly, and since more than 50% of internet users access the web via mobile device, this is a very good thing.  It has a nice modern look, with good photography and clean lines.  Overall, it is very pleasing to the eye, and I applaud the Communications Department for that.  And, for what its worth, the giant drop down menus are a neat throw back to when the under construction gif was a thing.


Ah, the good old days

My main issue with the new Episcopal Church website is that for our front door to the world, there is very little about it that makes me certain that my denomination is a Christian Church rather than the newest gym in town.  Yes, there is the ubiquitous reference to the Jesus Movement, the Presiding Bishop’s ongoing refrain, but beyond that, what do we see that proves us to be a Christian denomination that lives out its theology by way of common prayer?  This Sunday, in the Collect for Proper 19, we will acknowledge before God that without God, nothing we do is pleasing to God.  It seems to me, that by and large, this new front door is rather unpleasing.

A quick scroll down the page brings us to an opportunity to give money toward hurricane relief, which is good and necessary, but not any different than the websites of the United Way, CNN, or even Coca-Cola.  Moving further down the page, we come to the section titled “New to the Church?  Here’s what we value.”  In case you don’t believe what I’m going to write next, here’s a screen shot.

Screenshot 2017-09-13 08.28.02

There are three enormous flaws in this section.

First and foremost, there is an amazing lack of Jesus in our list of values.  In fact, if you look closely, you won’t see the name of our Lord anywhere in our values.  The Episcopal Church is indeed a spiritual home, but it is a spiritual home because we believe that Jesus invites us to be members of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Evangelism is a priority, but not in the “preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words,” kind of way.  Evangelism, at least according to our Presiding Bishop, is actually telling people about Jesus, about the difference following Jesus makes in our lives, and then inviting other to become disciples.  We are committed to things like racial reconciliation and environmental stewardship because of our faith in Christ.  Our faith in Jesus is what sets us apart from the Rotary or Bowling Green Women’s Club.  Our faith in Jesus should be our core value, and without it, we are lost.

The second flaw comes immediately below the heading.  There we find something that looks a lot like a mission statement for the Episcopal Church.  You’ll note that Jesus is not a part of our mission, at least according to this particular statement.  I pay pretty close attention to what’s happening in the wider church, and like the ill fated scheme to re-brand ourselves as The Missionary Society, this new mission statement caught me by surprise.  I’ve seen no press release through ENS.  I’ve not noticed the Presiding Bishop mentioning it in any video or publication.  I’ve not read about its approval at an Executive Council meeting.  Instead, it seems that whoever was assigned the role of revamping the website took it upon themselves to describe the Episcopal Church as “a spiritual home free of judgment and inclusive to all,” and who ever approved its launch didn’t spend a whole lot of time poring over the copy.

2017-09-12 20.27.26

Despite what you may have read between the lines in my post on Monday, I am firmly believe that judgment has a place in the church.  Paul’s admonition that we ought not pass judgment upon our brothers and sisters doesn’t mean that the church should be a judgment free zone.  Instead, Paul argues that we should avoid casting judgement upon one another, only because we all stand in judgment under Christ. The Church, on behalf of and because of Jesus, must be clear in her judgment of sin, both individual and corporate.  Our Prayer Book, modeling nearly two centuries of baptismal practice, makes us live this out by requiring three renunciations of evil from baptismal candidates.  I know that our Presiding Bishop believes in judgment.  He has preached on the evils of racism, xenophobia, and fear-mongering.  He is willing to offer a prophetic voice (a term I use intentionally, and rarely) to call the Church and individual Christians into action against the powers and principalities which threaten to corrupt us.  The Episcopal Church is not Planet Fitness.  There must be judgment here.

My last main issue with the section on our values is the ever-growing list of priorities.  Following General Convention, it was clear that two things would occupy our attention during the triennium: Racial Reconciliation and Evangelism.  I was on the floor of Convention for every day of legislation.  I remember the budget amendment that brought an extra $2.8 million dollars for evangelism.  I remember making unequivocal statements against the evils of racism be it by flying the Confederate Flag or committing violence in Emanuel AME Church, and calling for study and prayer that would develop into “Becoming Beloved Community.”  At some point in the last two years, Environmental Stewardship was added to create the kind of three-legged stool of priorities that Anglicans adore.  I’m honestly not sure how this happened, but I know it didn’t come out of General Convention as a budget or thematic priority.  Environmental Stewardship is important, which is why no one has really balked at its ex nihilo addition to the priority list, but like so many other things in the church, it would have been nice if someone had talked about it.

The same goes for Inclusivity, which is apparently the fourth wall in the now also Anglican-friendly quadrilateral of priorities.  Again, I’m not going to argue against inclusivity, but I don’t actually believe the Episcopal Church to be “inclusive for all.”  I would argue that the story we have told ourselves for too long – the story of our political power as the church of the elite – precludes access to many who would see themselves as something other than a privileged, upper-middle class, white person.  I have also personally witnessed the exclusion of people who have prayerfully considered any number of political and theological issues and come down somewhere other than the platform of the Democratic Party.  Yes, love will win, as the website borrowed from Rob Bell, but let’s not pretend that love has already won, and that Episcopalians have perfected loving our neighbors as ourselves.

The Episcopal Church has much to offer the world.  We have an important voice in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that can be heard just a little bit differently than other interpretations of it.  I believe this to be true such that I wrote my DMin thesis about it.  I wish, however, that we would be more careful in how we define ourselves.  Rather than focusing so hard on not being like some other group that we see as judgmental or exclusive, let’s focus on what we have to offer to the honor and glory of God.  We must not be ashamed to be disciples of Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and rose again to save us from our sin, and who will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Let’s make sure our front door is an adequate and appropriate representation of who we are, never forgetting that without God, nothing we have to offer, not even a website, will be pleasing to the Lord.

True Hospitality – a sermon

You can hear this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.

I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons Episcopalians are so hesitant to engage in evangelism isn’t the fear of hearing “no,” but rather the fear of hearing “yes.”  I know that has been true for me at times.  I’m always on edge when I know a friend is coming to church.  “Will they feel welcomed?”  “Can they find a parking space?”  “Will they know which door to enter?”  I’ve been thinking a lot about this as recently we welcomed Mark Richard as a Ministry Intern, and today we welcome our new Associate Rector and Chaplain to WKU, the Reverend Becca Kello.  Will they see the church as the loving and beloved place that I do, or will they instead notice the stained concrete near Moore Hall, the weirdly hidden in plain sight coffee pots in Surface Hall, or, as Mark already has, that the State Street doors are inaccessible 97% of the time?  (That’s the actual percentage – I did the math.) It can be nerve wracking to welcome a friend into one’s church, which is why I’ve spent a good chunk of time during my first six months here talking about evangelism, but thinking about hospitality.


There are more church hospitality gurus out there than K-Cup options at Kroger, but one thing they agree on is that you have very little time to make a first impression on a guest.  Usually, within 10 minutes after the service has ended, a visitor has already decided if they will ever return.  You might not have noticed it, but during our three-Sunday journey with Jesus as he commissioned the twelve to preach the Good News on his behalf, we have heard Jesus lay the foundation for quick first impressions in the church, though the context is, admittedly, a bit different.  Two weeks ago, as Jesus began this teaching, he told the disciples that as they enter a house, they should offer greetings, and “if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.”  Jesus didn’t invite his disciples to be patient or to give a place a second chance at making a first impression, but rather, he was clear that they would know in an instant whether the Spirit was present and a place was ready to welcome a stranger.

In this morning’s lesson, Jesus circles back around to the topic of hospitality, and although he is speaking to those who will be welcomed, as we hear it today, Jesus offers a lesson on hospitality for Episcopalians who repeatedly affirm that we will seek and serve Christ in every person, especially those who walk through our doors.  God sends every guest that we receive.  Our task, if we are taking Jesus’ words seriously this morning, is to realize that when we welcome a guest, we welcome Jesus, and when we welcome Jesus, we welcome God into our midst.  This isn’t always easy.  I get that.  Sometimes guests look and smell more like Jesus the first century Galilean than we would like.  Sometimes guests have different ideas than we do.  Sometimes, they might even sit in the pew that your family has sat in for the last fifty years.  Every guest we welcome will change us, and to be truly hospitable is to be willing to allow that change to happen.

Truth be told, the Church has been struggling with how to welcome strangers since the very beginning.  Outlined in Acts chapter fifteen, the First Council of Jerusalem was called because the Apostles couldn’t agree on how to welcome Gentiles into the faith.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds his audience of the fundamental call of the church to welcome guests, admonishing them to “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”  Even those whose lives are dedicated to hospitality can find it difficult. One of my favorite church stories, one that you will tired of hearing someday, comes from Kathleen Norris’ spiritual memoir, Dakota.  Norris reflects on the tradition of hospitality that has been a part of monastic life for hundreds of years, noting that a wayward traveler has always been able to find safety, rest, and a meal with the monks who welcomed them as they would welcome Jesus into their dwelling.  Yet even in the monastery, true hospitality can be difficult to maintain.  Norris recalls a story of an older monk talking to a younger monk about the challenge of welcoming every guest as he would welcome Jesus at the gate: “I have finally learned to accept people as they are,” the older monk says. “Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is that you again?’”

To welcome a stranger as we would welcome Jesus is a hard standard to live up to.  Every congregation struggles with it to some degree.  I know that in the search process that brought me here, Christ Church did some work coming to terms with the reality that this wasn’t as hospitable a community as you thought you were.  Like many Episcopal congregations, y’all tended to be more friendly than welcoming.  That is to say, you were really good at making sure each other felt welcomed on Sunday, but often, a newcomer ended up as nothing more than a blip on the radar as she passed by the closed conversation circles in Surface Hall and slipped out the back door.  The good news is that you’ve taken it to heart and your Hospitality Team is hard at work looking for ways to help the entire Christ Church community be more welcoming.

One of the fundamental questions we have to ask in this process is “what does hospitality look like?”  Specifically, how does hospitality differ from simply being friendly?  While it may seem like Jesus doesn’t give us much to work with in this morning’s lesson, he shares a basic feature of true hospitality when he tells the twelve that “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple– truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”  Offering hospitality doesn’t mean a grand buffet every Sunday, though I do hope we’ll have an honest to goodness coffee hour after the 10 o’clock service someday soon.  Hospitality doesn’t require a Starbucks, a glitzy Welcome Center with a credit card reader for first time givers, or even highly trained volunteers.  The key aspect of hospitality that Jesus highlights in our lesson this morning is the ability and the willingness to notice the other.

I cannot offer a cup of cold water to someone if they remain invisible.  To know that a person is in need of water, coffee, or a simple handshake requires first and foremost that I see them.  Seeing them not as an interloper, a pew stealer, or simply as a passerby, but as a human being, made in the image of God, who deserves to experience God’s love in this place.  Being hospitable means having our eyes open and our heads on a swivel to see the family searching for the nursery, the man wondering where the closest restroom is, or the woman unsure of which door to use to enter the church.  Being hospitable means recognizing the person in the next pew who can’t figure out why we speak the King’s English at 8 o’clock, or why there is an S in front of the next hymn at 10, or where to kneel at the communion rail.  Being hospitable means that before you catch up with that good friend after church, you spend three minutes seeking out and talking to someone you have never met before.

Being hospitable means seeing the other, discerning their need, and, in the model of Jesus, showing compassion by doing something to alleviate that need.  It doesn’t require heroics, but rather, hospitality is about inviting the other to experience fully the little things that make church a comfortable place for so many of us.  In so doing, we invite our guests to experience the love of God, the grace of Jesus, and the refreshment of the Holy Spirit.  And maybe, just maybe, if we are all doing our part to make Christ Church a welcoming community, we will be more inclined to invite a friend to join us, knowing that when they walk in, they will be welcomed as an honored guest, even as Jesus Christ himself.  Amen.

What kind of King?

In the midst of everything else that is changing in my life: a new church in a new town and all that goes with that, this month I also received news that my favorite magazine, Mental Floss, is ending its print run.  With that in mind, I have been savoring the final print edition; reading the articles with great care.  One that is particularly interesting, that I will try to link to when it becomes available is the story of the powerful role of dance in the monarchy of Louis XIV.


Image from Wikipedia

Despite becoming king at age 4, Louis XIV was a strong ruler.  He clamped down on the central authority of monarchy that he believed was given by God.  One way of holding down the ruling class was to bring them all to Versailles where they were forced to learn intricate dance routines to be offered at the King’s whim.  Even his official portrait hid his rotund upper body behind heavy clothing while featuring his dancer’s legs in a pair of high heels to accentuate his calves.  To say Louis XIV was a different sort of king is an understatement.

Reading that story on the cusp of the Feast of Christ the King has me wondering what sort of king we want Jesus to be.  Some might be searching for an iron-fisted monarch, which is in keeping with the expectations hurled upon him in the crucifixion narrative we have for Sunday.  “Save yourself,” they cry out, as if the sole job of a king is to look out for his own self interests.  Jesus is clear, however, that his reign is not self serving, it is not violent, it is not worried about centralizing power.  Instead, the King we find in Jesus, especially in the Gospel assigned for Year C, is a king who prays for his enemies, has concern for those who persecute him, willingly gives himself up to death for the greater good, and lives out the self-giving love of God to his final breath.

Like the irony of a ballet dancing strong armed king, Jesus’ power comes not through might, but from love.  His reign is based in love, compassion, and forgiveness, and he invites those who would be his subjects to live after his model.  There are many Christians in this world who have a hard time accepting this sort of King Jesus, which is why I think it is of utmost importance that we members of the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement get out there and share the story.  Tell of the King who came to reign with love.  Tell of Jesus whose gospel is forgiveness.  Tell of the monarch who welcomed the marginalized even in the hour of his death.  This version of Christ the King is the monarch that this world so desperately needs, and it is our duty to share him with the world.

My Elevator Pitch for The Episcopal Church

This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE challenge is to write an elevator pitch for The Episcopal Church. As you can see from the original post, this challenge is open to everyone.  I encourage you to try to write your own, and if you don’t have a blog on which to post it, I’d be happy to share yours here at Draughting Theology.  After entirely too much thought on these 250 words, here is my elevator pitch.

I’m an Episcopalian because I think the Good News of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ can be found in The Episcopal Church. In the waning moments of his life, Jesus prayed for his disciples and for everyone who would come to faith through them. His prayer was as simple as it was impossible, “that they may all be one” (John 17:20-21). It is in that prayer that Episcopalians find our mission. “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP, 855). Our seeking after unity does not mean that we mindlessly follow unanimity. Instead, the depth of the Episcopal tradition affirms that while we might disagree, even vehemently, over issues of faith and morality, we are committed to the unity that comes from joining together in the common prayer of our faith. I love The Episcopal Church because of its commitment to diversity within the unity that comes from Christ. Our Prayer Book defines the rules of our corporate worship, but within those rubrics is amazing latitude for local expression and interpretation. Our Baptismal Covenant, the promises to which every Christian baptized in The Episcopal Church commits, with God’s help, invites us to seek unity beyond the walls of the church building, encouraging us to use our particular gifts of the Holy Spirit to strive for “justice and peace” as we “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and “respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP, 305).



We Dream of a Diocese – Final Report

In February of 2012, the 41st Annual Convention of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast (CGC) passed, albeit begrudgingly, a resolution encouraging the 77th General Convention of The Episcopal Church to create a Task Force charged with restructuring the Church.  This resolution was combined with scores of others to create what became known as Resolution C095, “Structural Reform,” and passed unanimously in both houses.  That group, now known as the Task Force for Re-imaging The Episcopal Church, continues its work (you can read about their most recent meeting here).

Following on the heels of C095, the 42nd Annual Convention of the CGC was invited to pass a similar resolution committing, as a Diocese, “to a season of reform, restructure, and reawakening,” which it did, again, unanimously.  For the past eight months, I have had the pleasure to serve on the committee with some amazing people who have a heart for the Gospel and for the Church.  We’ve listened for the Spirit, to each other, to our shared history, and to the Church in seeking to present a plan to help the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast more fully live into its mission of “sharing Christ crucified and God’s reconciling love through effective ministry, leadership, stewardship and communication.”

As of this morning’s edition of The Coastline, our Diocesan E-Newsletter, our final has been made public.  While the broader Church will find nothing in it that is earth shattering, the structural changes proposed by our group are significant changes for a Diocese that is barely into its fifth decade of existence.  Below you will find the Executive Summary of our work, which is well and good, but the meat of our material and our rationale behind the recommendations are in the first five pages of our full report, which can be downloaded from the Diocesan Website.

I bid your prayers over the next three months as we prepare for the 43rd Annual Convention.  These recommendations will bring about both excitement and anxiety, joy and struggle, and as a Diocese in the early stages of a search for our next Bishop, it is our hope that our work will not bring about divisiveness, but help us come together around some common goals, a shared vision, and a desire to once again be The Episcopal Church in the Central Gulf Coast.

Executive Summary of Action Items for the 43rd Annual Convention The Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast

We Dream of a DioceseThe recommendations from the Committee are based on feedback received from our Diocesan Survey as well as historical study and conversation across the wider Church and can be grouped in two general categories. Category I includes recommendations requiring Canonical changes. Category II contains those recommendations that suggest changes to existing Diocesan policies. In addition to a full summary of our work and the rationale for the items themselves, the full report includes a complete red line edition of the Canons to facilitate a thorough review.

I. Diocesan Constitution and Canons
1. Establishment of five Regions in the Diocese for the purposes of mutual ministry support, fellowship, voting representation, and increased opportunities for participation in governance. Each Region will be led by a Regional Convener, appointed by the Bishop for a three-year term.
2. Establishment of a Diocesan Council to oversee ministry, program, and budgetary planning, to serve as the legislative arbiter of the will of Annual Convention when that body is not in session, and provide direction to the various agencies, departments, and commissions.
3. Define the duties of the Standing Committee in accordance with those set forth in the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church and realign other Diocesan agencies, departments, and commissions accordingly.
4. Clarify the use of electronic voting (telephone, internet, etc.).
5. Clarify the eligibility of retired or disabled clergy to serve as General Convention Deputies.
6. Provide, where possible, for parishes to have one additional Annual Convention delegate, provided the delegate is 16-25 years old.

II. Diocesan Policies
1. The recognition of the existing Best Practices for business affairs as prescribed by The Episcopal Church and the application at all levels of the Diocese, including the recommendation for the development of a similar protocol for human resources.
2. A recommendation assigning priorities in the ordination process and the subsequent deployment of ordinands from this Diocese.
3. Recommendations for a mutual ministry review and compensation guidelines for the Episcopacy and subsequent recommendations for all clergy.
4. Recommendations regarding the regularization of Vocational Deacons within the Province. Recommendations pertaining to the opportunities available to all such Deacons to obtain pension and health insurance benefits.
5. A proposal to expand Annual Convention voting rights to non-canonically resident clergy serving congregations in this Diocese.
6. A request to the Finance Commission to recommend the establishment of an Annual Reserve.
7. A recommendation that the appropriate Diocesan entities construct a process to encourage all congregations to achieve parish status.
8. The recognition of the need for a formal planning and evaluation mechanism as currently described in the Five Year Plan but suggesting a Three Year model as more practical,
9. A recommendation that the Diocese review the frequency and character of the Annual Convention.

The Key to Endurance – A Sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.

Y’know, it really is a miracle that we are here at all this morning.  Of course there is the miracle and gift of life itself, which is a topic very much worth pondering, but that’s not really what I’m thinking about.  I’m thinking more about how it is that the Church exists at all, let alone four-hundred-ninety-eight members at Saint Paul’s[1] or eighteen-thousand members of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast[2] or one-point-nine-million members of The Episcopal Church[3] or two-point-two billion Christians[4] in forty-one-thousand different denominations around the globe.[5]  Christianity was founded by a rag-tag group of disciples whose leader, Jesus of Nazareth, was betrayed by one of his closest associates, arrested by his own people, and killed as a traitor by one of the largest empires in world history.  Thirty years after Jesus died, there were maybe four thousand Christians in all of the Roman Empire when in the year 64 a fire broke out in Rome that burned for six days.[6]  Rumors swirled that the Emperor, Nero, had ordered the fire be set and in an attempt to deflect attention from himself, Nero blamed Christians for setting it.  Quickly, a persecution swept through Rome that many scholars believe is how both Peter and Paul ended up martyred.  Christians were an easy target because they were a very small sect and because they were viewed by proper Romans as having a “hatred of humankind,” their leader was killed as a traitor to Rome, and their chief activity of worship was believed to be ritual cannibalism: eating the body and blood of their dead leader.  It really is a miracle that the Church survived at all.  Our presence here this morning is the result of more than two-thousand years of Christians who have endured amidst all sorts of hardship.

Our ability to endure goes back even further than the time of Jesus.  This morning’s Old Testament Lesson and the Canticle both come from the book of the prophet Isaiah, a book that tells the story of more than two hundred years of endurance.  The First Song of Isaiah is attributed to Isaiah himself, who lived some seven-hundred years before Jesus and was a prophet to several Kings of Judah in a time that saw the Assyrian Empire conquering Israel and breathing down Judah’s neck.  Things did not look good for God’s Chosen People while Isaiah was alive, and yet the prophet was able to speak words of comfort and strength to encourage the people to endure their hardship.  “On that day…” Isaiah wrote again and again, imagining a better world, “On that day when God’s mighty hand brings vengeance upon our enemies and salvation to our land, we will draw water with rejoicing, we will ring out our joy, and we will live in the presence of the Holy One of Israel.”

Some two-hundred years later, when most scholars believe a different prophet wrote the final ten chapters of Isaiah, the people of Judah have been through the Babylonian Exile, their Temple has been laid waste, and they have returned to find a very unwelcoming land.  As they begin the arduous work of building the Second Temple as a testimony to God’s presence even in the midst of their hardship, the prophet declares that their endurance will be rewarded: that the shame and sorrow of the recent past will be replaced with eternal joy and prosperity.[7]  Isaiah’s great vision of the new heavens and the new earth are a reminder of the hope of Judah that in then end the reward for their endurance will be greater than anything they could even imagine.  It is a utopian picture of God’s holy mountain, where he will dwell alongside his people, where infant mortality rates will drop from 3 in 4 to 0, where someone living long enough for Willard Scott to call their name on the Today Show would be considered a youth, where all human work is successful, where wolves stop eating lambs, and where even the lions are domesticated.[8]  All the people have to do to inherit this paradise is endure.

And endure they do.  The temple is ultimately built, and then expanded and impeccably adorned at the command of Herod, so that by the time Jesus and his disciples arrive in Jerusalem the outer court can hold four-hundred-thousand people.[9]  It is no wonder that tourists all around Jesus are looking up at its great edifice and saying, “Wow!  Would you look at that Temple!  It is breath-taking, just beautiful!”  Jesus knows, however, that things aren’t quite what they seem.  The Temple is big and it is beautiful, but it is only that way because Herod, the Roman figurehead, self-proclaimed “King of the Jews,” had funneled massive amounts of money into it.  Herod’s Temple, as it came to be known, was paid for by massive taxes on the local Jews and was as much a sign of the power and presence of God in Jerusalem as it was the power and prestige of Herod himself.[10]

Jesus knows that a time of real endurance is coming.  He is only a few days away from his crucifixion, and he is keenly aware that the road ahead for his followers is not going to be an easy one.  As they look over the Temple Hill, Jesus encourages his disciples in a most peculiar way, through an apocalyptic vision.  “The day will come,” do you hear the echo of Isaiah here?  “The day will come when this whole Temple will be destroyed, wars will be unleashed, natural disasters will pile one upon the other, and the skies will be filled with ominous signs.  You will be hated, arrested, persecuted, and some even killed.  Like me, you’ll be turned over to the authorities by your closest family and friends, but these trials will be an opportunity for you, a chance to testify to the truth.  Don’t worry.  I’ll be with you.  I’ll give you the words to say.  I’ll give you the wisdom you need.  All you have to do is endure and you will gain your souls.”

Like in Isaiah 12 and Isaiah 65, Jesus encourages his disciples to endure the forthcoming hardship for the sake of unrivaled future blessings.  He invites them to endure, not by their own might, or as the result of their own intestinal fortitude, but by having faith in the Father.  That seems to be the key to unlocking endurance.  It is not me who steels myself against the coming trial, but it is through faith in the promises of God that we gain our strength.

Given my own tendency to want to throw in the towel when the going gets tough, I think of it as miraculous that the Church exists at all, but when you think about the strength of Judah, the steadfast faith of Jerusalem, and the endurance of the early Church, it is less a miracle and more a testament to God’s faithfulness.  Over and over again, God has been willing to give his people faith as a gift of his grace.  We endure because Jesus Christ endured the cross and the grave to make us right with God.   We endure because of the gift of faith that gives us hope and saves our souls.  We endure because God wants us to.  We endure so that we can testify to his faithfulness in times of persecution and in times of prosperity.  We endure so that we can join with those who have endured from every generation in proclaiming, “Surely it is God who saves me.  I will trust in him and not be afraid… Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.”  Amen.

[1] 2012 Parochial Report

[3] The Blue Book, 2012

[4] Pew Research, 2011

[5] Center for the Study of Global Christianity, 2011

[6] OT1 Class Notes

[7] Roberts, J.J.M., Introduction to Isaiah in the HarperCollins Study Bible, (1993), p. 1013.

[10] Ibid.