Active Hospitality

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I have been known to be critical of some things in my beloved Episcopal Church.  Yes, Virginia, it is true that one can love something and wish it to be better.  I’ve lamented our adoption of Moral Therapeutic Deism.  I’ve pondered our fear of the name Jesus. I’ve asked a lot of questions about our commitment to evangelism given our slogan “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”  It seems we welcome those who a) can read English, b) can read music, c) can navigate our labyrinthine Prayer Book (and, often, buildings), and d) seek us out in the first place.

Given the ubiquity of The Episcopal Church Welcomes You signage, my disdain for it as an ideal often stays forefront in my mind, and influences the way I engage in the Scriptures.  This was true this morning as I read the story of Abraham and Sarah and the three visitors.  The first thing I noticed is that this story is about Abraham and Saran, not Abram and Sarai.  This means that God has already established the covenant with Abraham.  In fact, God and Abraham have already interacted on a few different occasions.  Beginning in Genesis 12, the story of the deepening relationship between God and Abraham and Sarah teaches us an important lesson about true welcome – hospitality is an active noun.

By the time we get to the Oaks of Mamre, Abraham and God already know each other.  Relationships require work.  One cannot simply sit inside their tent with the flaps closed and expect relationships to grow.  Abraham is out and about, scanning the horizon, looking for guests to welcome, for friends to greet, for relationships to foster.  A sign on the corner that says the Episcopal Church Welcomes You that points to a set of closed red doors on what appears to be a building that hasn’t been occupied in years is not an evangelism tool.  It cannot be a marker of hospitality.  As inheritors of the Abrahamic faith, we are called to be out in our communities acting as signs of the Kingdom, meeting our neighbors, who are know to us because we’ve been out there for a long time, meeting them where they are and inviting them into the feast that has been prepared for them from the beginning.

What makes the Oaks of Mamre story so powerful is that Abraham can recognize God in the three strangers because they are in relationship with one another.  This is why at Christ Church, we’ve made a commitment to getting out into our neighborhood and learning more about it.  Whether it is through meeting our neighbors experiencing homelessness face-to-face, engaging in neighborhood prayer walks, volunteering in our community, serving on local non-profit boards, or some other means, we are making the commitment to be the signs of Christ’s love and light here in Bowling Green such that, when someone new shows up on Sunday morning, maybe we can meet them with a hospitality that is a little more active because there is a relationship already established and a trust already built.

The Church-Idea for an Episcopal Moment

As you might have noticed, I didn’t have a chance to blog today.  That is because I defended my thesis for my Doctor of Ministry Degree at the School of Theology at the University of the South (Sewanee) at 11am today.  I’m glad to say that process went well, and after making a few corrections and one small addition, something close to a final copy is ready for printing.

Over the years, many of you have prayed for me in this process.  When I shared my Thesis Proposal, you encouraged me.  As I’ve written, you’ve dealt with how my reading of William Reed Huntington and Brian McLaren, among others, have forever influenced how I see the Church and, as a result, read the Bible.  Thank you.

Finally, for the few of you who asked, here is a PDF of the final draft. The Church-Idea for an Episcopal Moment – Final.

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Spiritual Gifts for Evangalism – a sermon

This sermon’s audio is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you read it here.

It has been an historic week in the Anglican Communion. As you may have heard, the 38 Primates, a fancy word for the head bishop in each Province, gathered at Canterbury Cathedral this week to talk about a variety of issues. If you’ve been paying attention at all, then somewhere between Adele doing Carpool Karaoke and requiem posts for David Bowie and Alan Rickman, you’ve certainly seen the headlines about The Episcopal Church getting “suspended” on CNN, FoxNews, Huffington Post, the New York Times, and all over Facebook. There are more opinions on what happened at Canterbury than there are Episcopalians, but to be honest, I’m not too worked about it. Roger Godell is not in charge of the Anglican Communion, and The Episcopal Church has been disinvited from serving on those committees for almost six years now. If anything, this week’s meeting seems to be the beginning of a way forward toward the end of the recent unpleasantness. The Primates have made a commitment to working together for the sake of the Gospel, which is why I’m much more interested in the second statement that they put out this week, “A Statement on Evangelism.” 
We, as Anglican Primates, affirm together that the Church of Jesus Christ lives to bear witness to the transforming love of God in the power of the Spirit throughout the world.

It is clear God’s world has never been in greater need of this resurrection love and we long to make it known.

We commit ourselves through evangelism to proclaim the person and work of Jesus Christ, unceasingly and authentically, inviting all to embrace the beauty and joy of the Gospel.

We rely entirely on the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us speech, brings new birth, leads us into the truth revealed in Christ Jesus thus building the church.

All disciples of Jesus Christ, by virtue of our baptism, are witnesses to and of Jesus in faith, hope and love.

We pledge ourselves together to pray, listen, love, suffer and sacrifice that the world may know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Come Holy Spirit.

Here, the 38 leaders of Anglicanism spell out for us the basic identity of the Church. We live to bear witness to the transforming love of God in the power of the Spirit. Witness, that’s an epiphany type word, the Greek of Jesus’ time would have called it martyrdom. As disciples of Jesus, our job is to help others come to see Jesus no matter the cost. We are to help others have their own epiphany, or as Keith put it last week, that “aha moment” as they come to know the love of God at work in the world around them. Sign me up for a Church that is committed to sharing the Good News of Jesus instead of fighting over sex, money, and power!

Unfortunately, these bitter fights over things indifferent have been around since the very beginning. If it weren’t for Christians behaving badly, we wouldn’t have most of Paul’s letters. Take today’s lesson from First Corinthians as an example. The Corinthian Church was fighting about everything. They fought about whose baptism was better. Was it better to have come to know Jesus through Paul, Apollos or Peter? Paul says, “It doesn’t matter as long as you’re following the Way of Jesus.” They fought so much that they took each other to court. Paul says, “Aren’t we better than this? Can’t we work out our differences in love?” They fought about who belonged at the Communion table as the rich got drunk on communion wine while the poor were left out of receiving the sacrament. Paul says, “Why do you come to church? Are you hoping to see and be seen? Or do you really hope to find a deeper relationship with God through the body and blood of Christ?”

In today’s lesson, the Corinthians are fighting over whose spiritual gift is better. Scholars tend to think that those who had the gift of tongues started the fight by thinking that they were better disciples than the rest. Paul says, “Forget all that. The single most important gift that the Spirit has given you is the ability to proclaim with boldness that Jesus Christ is Lord.” It is a gift of grace that allows us even to have that first aha moment, to see and know that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. After that, Paul says, everything else is gravy, and like my Thanksgiving plate, oh boy is there an overabundance of gravy. “There is an overabundance of varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. There is an overabundance of varieties of works of service, but the same Lord. There is an overabundance of things to do, but the same God that gives us the energy to do them.”

Every spiritual gift, whether it is prophecy or tongues; healing or faith; preaching or singing or website design; every gift is given by God “as a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Manifestation, that’s another epiphany type word. It comes from the same Greek root as epiphany and it means “to bring to light or to disclose.” The light of Christ is most clearly displayed in the world when the members of His Church use the gifts of the Holy Spirit to work together for the common good of all of God’s creation. That’s the kind of congregation I want to be a part of. That’s the kind of diocese I want to be a part of. That’s the kind of denomination I want to be a part of. A Church that is willing to say that because Jesus Christ is Lord, we will join with him in building up the Kingdom of God in our corner of the world and around the globe.

Yesterday morning, your vestry gathered together to take their part in the ongoing process of listening for God’s direction in how we might be that kind of Church. We lived into this year’s theme by praying together, worshipping the risen Lord, serving one another, and sharing our stories. As we baked communion bread, sat around a makeshift boardroom table, and even over Subway sandwiches, we heard powerful and beautiful testimonies of God’s work in our lives. As we listened, we tried to help each other come to know the gifts of the Spirit that were already at work. In the coming weeks and months, I hope you’ll each have the opportunity to do the same; to find out where God is calling you to take your place in the life of this parish and his dream for the wider world. I pray that Saint Paul’s will be known as a place that through the power of the Holy Spirit, helps others to see Jesus at work.

There has been a lot of hand wringing about The Episcopal Church’s place in the Anglican Communion this week, but the reality is that it is only by the Spirit of God that every Christian is able to stand up and confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Let’s move beyond petty arguments and strive after the kingdom. Let’s get about the business of being witnesses of God’s love in the world. Let’s help our neighbors have that aha moment as they come to know the saving power of Jesus in their lives. Let’s manifest the Spirit by working for the common good in this church, in this neighborhood, in this state, in this country, and in the whole wide world. To paraphrase the Primates, let’s pledge this day to pray, worship, serve, and share that the world might know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Come Holy Spirit. Amen.

JBap’s Holistic Discipleship

In a post of the Living Church’s blogsite, the Bishop of Springfield, the Rt. Rev. Dan Martins published a post that utilized one’s preference for or against Mel Gibson’s epic, The Passion of the Christ, as a litmus test for whether one would fall on the side of Christianity as a social justice movement or oppositely, at least a the Bishop of Springfield sees it, Christianity as a global operation to save souls.  Yesterday, my friend and colleague, the Rev. Megan Castellan, used none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer to offer a strong critique of Bishop Martin’s dualistic worldview.  I strongly encourage you to read her post, as it is most assuredly better than this one.

What strikes me as odd in the Bishop’s article, is that I can’t find my own place in his dualistic world.  I didn’t like The Passion of the Christ, not because I don’t think that Jesus’ sacrifice is the lynch pin in salvation history, and not because it has the theological nuance of Thor’s hammer, but because the Good Lord did not bless me with the spiritual gift of a strong stomach.  Rarely do I watch a movie that includes graphic violence, not out of some moral repugnance, but a more physical one.  In fact, I planned to never see The Passion of the Christ on just those grounds, but when the Presbyterian youth pastor asks you to join his youth group’s discussion on it because “you’re an Episcopalian who has walked the Stations of the Cross and maybe can explain the extra-biblical bits,” you feel compelled to oblige.

Based on my reason for disliking The Passion of the Christ, am I supposed to all about social justice or evangelism?  Thankfully, as I re-read Sunday’s Gospel lesson, I realized that I have none other than John the Baptist to point to as an example of a holistic discipleship that allows for both.  You’ll recall that in the Gospel lesson for Advent 2, we heard JBap proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  This JBap would have loved The Passion of the Christ (if it wasn’t about the brutal death of his cousin, of course) because he is focused on the need for atonement in the lives of human beings, or what the Prayer Book calls “proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”  Fast-forward to this Sunday, and we hear the crowd responding to JBap’s proclamation by asking: “What then should we do?”

Note that JBap doesn’t take the crowd down Romans’ Road in search of a conversion experience, but rather, he offers practical advice of how disciples of the Kingdom should live: “If you have two coats, give one away.  If you have food to eat, share.”  In Bishop Martin’s dichotomy, this JBap wouldn’t have been impressed with The Passion of the Christ, choosing instead to focus on the politics of the Kingdom, or as the Prayer Book calls it, “striving for justice and peace” and “respecting the dignity of every human being.”

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Both are true to who John the Baptist was and what he taught because the reality is that evangelism and social justice are both at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus and to be a disciple of the Kingdom.  John is essentially proclaiming the need to be born again and then describing what the new life looks like.  Despite what Bishop Martins (from which he later retreats, albeit somewhat unconvincingly, but let’s be fair, it is a dualism held by many on the progressive side of the debates of yore as well) posits, the discipleship we learn from none other than John the Baptist calls us to believe that both the conversion of self and the conversion of the whole world are important. As followers of Jesus, we are to proclaim him as exemplar of the faith in the fullness of the Incarnation: his life, his death, and his resurrection.

King of kings

Depending on when you purchased your 1979 Book of Common Prayer, you might be surprised to realize that the commonly used name for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (or the Sunday next before Advent), Christ the King, does not actually appear in your book.  If you bought your BCP prior to 2009, there is no reference to Christ the King Day, though since the Collect for Proper 29 was stolen from the Roman Catholic Missal, it does carry strong King of kings language (Hatchett, 195).

The move to call the day Christ the King Sunday comes with General Convention’s adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, and while some are opposed to the idea of the day taking a name that is otherwise foreign to the Book of Common Prayer, and despite my strong reservations about the ongoing Roman Catholic creep in The Episcopal Church, I am beyond fine with appropriating this particular name because I think it invites us to ponder some of the language that gets used around the person of Jesus.  Words like kingdom, reign, Lord, and of course, King.

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For more than 800 years, the Pope, after his election, was crowned with a triple tiara, symbolizing, among other things, his status as the Vicar of Christ, who is seated as King of heaven, earth, and hell.  Despite the less than stellar Photoshop job above, Benedict never wore the triple tiara, as it fell out of use after the Second Vatican Council.  Still, like Christ the King Sunday, the triple tiara serves a symbol that we might want to consider as we talk about Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and King.

Like Pilate in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we are stuck with the political understandings of this world.  Unlike Pilate, as Americans 239 years removed for a Monarch, we can barely begin to imagine what it means to make Jesus King of the Jews, let alone King of our Lives.  How do we handle the bold claims that we make in the Collect for the day?  What do we mean when, almost every week, we claim that Jesus lives and reigns in hypostatic union with the Trinity for ever and ever?  Kingship is tough for us to handle, it is highly counter-cultural, which is all the more reason to call this Sunday, Christ the King and honestly engage what that means for us and for our lives.

Where is Galilee? – An Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge

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“And now, go quickly and tell his disciples he has been raised from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.” – Mt 28:7 (NLT)

I get to go to Galilee for at least an hour every week.  Sure, there are some weeks where I spend most of my time “out there,” the reality of full-time ordained ministry is that I sit at a desk a lot more than I thought I would.  But even when the week has nothing but study, sermon prep, and administration to offer, I know that at 9am on Thursday morning, I’ll enter the Galilee that is Mrs. Davis’ Kindergarten class.

Now in its seventh year, Saint Paul’s has been providing volunteers to support the work at Foley Elementary School.  When we began our work there, the free and reduced lunch rate, a key poverty indicator, was at 72%.  Now it is 80%.  Four years into the program, FES had its first minority majority kindergarten class, but Alabama’s draconian immigration policy has changed that (some).  I took a two year hiatus after the teacher in my classroom left to raise here babies, but boy am I glad to be back, seeing the face of Jesus in each child, in the grandmother who volunteers alongside me, and, most especially, in Mrs. Davis.

I know that FES is Galilee because that’s where I find Jesus.  I find Jesus in the caring hearts of every teacher, janitor, nutrition specialist, and administrator who give of themselves to ensure that every child knows that they are loved by someone.  I find Jesus in the kids who find joy in learning, who are reading well above grade level, and who carry the same privileges as me.  I find Jesus in the child who had never held a crayon before the first day of Kindergarten, who can’t tell an “A” from a “Z” or the color purple from the number nine.  I find Jesus in the simple act of playing Chutes and Ladders knowing that learning to count to 6, or 10, of 100 might help one child break the cycle of poverty.

Rarely do I wear my collar there.  Seldom to we talk about what I do.  I’ve probably never mentioned Jesus to one of these children, but I’m certain that they’ve experienced God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ because he’s met me in Galilee, just as he has promised.

Neglecting to Get Together

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

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

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

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