Why Mark 10:17-31 isn’t a Stewardship Text

Cartoon by the Rev. Jay Sidebotham

With tongues wagging and mouths watering, preachers are attacking this Sunday’s Gospel lesson while pledge cards are flying off the copier and every member canvas schedules are being ironed out.  It is October, which means that it is Stewardship Season in the Church.  Preachers everywhere are looking for preaching material, and here we have a text that is about money that we can allegorize to be about so much more than money, but in the end really is about money.

This text really is about money, but I’m afraid it really isn’t about stewardship, at least not in the common usage of that word.  After a short back and forth, Jesus looked at the man and, loving him, said, “Take all your possessions and sell them.”  Note what Jesus did not say next.  Jesus did not say, “Take the proceeds and hand them over to Judas, our Treasurer, who will use them to facilitate this very important ministry we’re doing.”  Jesus did not invite the man to give generously to his movement or to the institution or even to the disciples personally.  Instead, Jesus told the man to take the proceeds of selling everything and to give them to the poor.

Stop the Copier!

Unless our pledge cards have a line that allows people to indicate that they will give a certain percentage of their income directly to the poor, this text is not about stewardship.  It is tempting to force it into the mold we need, after all, most preachers would be poor if it weren’t for the generosity of their parishioners, but the reality is that this encounter between Jesus and the rich young man is about the cost of discipleship.

If it is true that in the Kingdom of God the first will be last and the last will be first, then it follows that the rich will be compelled by their faith in God to give extravagantly so that the poor might be lifted up (see James 1:9-11).  At its best, the Church can facilitate that redistribution of income, but the reality is that most of our congregations are spending upwards of 70, 80, even 90% of their budgets keeping the lights on, the roof from leaking, and paying professional ministers to teach, preach, and administrate.  My own congregation is very much included in that list.  In some cases, and again I count Saint Paul’s as an example, it is true that those professional ministers spend time reaching out to the poor (spiritually and financially) and the outcast, but when the average Episcopal Priest with a spouse and two kids costs upwards of $100,000, one has to wonder how Jesus might react, which is why, I think, trying to make this text be about giving money to the church is dicey.  Instead, I think our way into Mark 10:17-31 is through Amos, but we’ll have to deal with that tomorrow.

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Why I’m Praying for Kim Davis

Kim Davis is, at least as of now, the most famous County Clerk in America.  You’ve heard about her on the news, read about her in the paper, and been subject to various “We support Kim!” and “Kim needs to go!” social media posts from your friends across the political spectrum.  Truth be told, Kim Davis isn’t the only government official who is in violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality.  Alabama has a few of its own.  She just happens to be the one being sued for it.  Whether you are for or against marriage equality, however, the one thing we should all be doing is praying for Kim Davis.

Her decision to not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples isn’t the result of her own ignorant bigoted opinions, as the left would have us believe.  Instead, as Tony Jones rightly pointed out yesterday, she has made the choice to stand her ground based on her being taught some very dangerous theology in her church.  I’ll let her tell you, “To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word.”

It wasn’t that long ago that I was really struggling with the decision of General Convention to allow the ordination of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as Bishop of New Hampshire.  In my struggle, I was labeled and dismissed just like Kim Davis has been.  Over the course of the last 12 years, I have found my opinions on things pertaining to human sexuality to be changing.  I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work in the lives and ministries of many gay clergy and lay leaders.  I’ve come to know the powerful witness of same sex couples eager to make a life long covenant before God.  I’ve realized that in a world filled with terrible understandings of the role sex in relationships, the Church should be lifting up monogamy and the two parent family as the ideal, no matter the genders of the two individuals involved.  I voted against the canonical changes for marriage equality at this last General Convention, but not because I don’t support marriage equality as a justice issue, but because the changes proposed were sloppy at best.  I’ve come a long way on the question of sexual orientation, but I know how long it took, I know how hard that change is.  Some continue to look at me as narrow minded for having ever held those opinions or for holding Church canon to a high standard.  They would label and dismiss me, but thanks be to God, I’ve come to know that it is OK for us to be at different places on this issue, just like we are on many others.

My favorite Greek word, that I’m pretty sure doesn’t appear in the Bible, is adiaphora, which means “things indifferent.”  In the context of theology, it means those things which are not necessary to salvation.  To use Kim Davis’ words, things that aren’t “Heaven or Hell decisions.”  Despite what you might hear from the extreme right or the extreme left, one’s opinions regarding same sex marriage are not, and never have been, a matter of salvation.  We should pray for Kim Davis that she might come to know the freedom that comes from the word adiaphora.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we are faced with the tricky reality that even Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh, God in man made manifest, needed time to come to grips with the fullness of God’s love for all of his creation.  In a story that is shocking to our 21st century ears, especially in the heightened racial tensions of the past several months, we hear Jesus using a racial slur in telling the Syrophoencian Woman that he came to show God’s love for the Jews.  In the course of Jesus’ encounter with the woman, he is changed.  His divine will overcame his human will as he realized what he had known all along: God loves everyone, no exception.

God loves you in your struggles.  God loves me in mine.  God loves David Moore and David Ermold, one of the couples to whom Davis has refused issue a license, in theirs.  And yes, God loves Kim Davis.  I pray she knows that even in her struggles, even if she did issue a same sex marriage license, God loves her.

The Great Rummage Sale

As my sabbatical draws to a close, I’m thankful to once again be preparing a sermon for Sunday.  Though I am out of the habit and am feeling quite rusty, there is something about being immersed in the study of Scripture that is soothing to my soul.  While I’m not particularly excited about the way in which the great Revised Common Lectionary divining rod has decided to reenter Mark’s Gospel after what felt like 100 weeks in John’s Bread of Life Discourse, it does serve as a great bridge for me from my last sermon through sabbatical time to everyday parish ministry.

My thesis, the proposal for which you can read here, takes a look at the ways in which The Episcopal Church might be well suited to meet the needs of a changing America.  This assumes that we can all agree that things are changing.  Having received some pushback from at least one professor who thinks that this time is no different than any other, I set my sights on the great Phyllis Tickle and her book, The Great Emergence.  Tickle cites the late bishop of Bethlehem (PA), Mark Dyer, in arguing that though our time is not unique, it is a rare moment of opportunity for the Church to engage in the hard work of a rummage sale.

“About every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace [1] that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.” [2]

In many ways, the Church today: be it Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and even non-denominational conservative evangelical; can be accused of the same thing.  Each expression of the Christian faith can be accused of worshiping its worship.  Each can be called to task for paying attention to their own desires over the dream of God.  Each can be accused of inviting God to bless their plans rather than fulfilling God’s plan for them.  Jesus’ message is as needed today as it was in the Synagogue 2,000 years ago.  We must move beyond our obsession with tradition in order to live more fully into the kingdom of God.  The work is not easy, there really is some awesome crap crammed in there, but the task of cleaning house, of seeking to follow God more closely, is certainly holy.


[1] The hard upper shell of a turtle, crustacean, or arachnid.
[2] The Great Emergence, 16.

Sealed for the Day of Redemption

If you’ve hung around this blog for even a short period of time, you probably know by now that I am an unabashed church nerd.  I love our liturgy and I love to study liturgy.  I love our history and I love to study history.  I’m not big on vestments, but I love to know the theology and history behind them.  In The Episcopal Church, there is one service that stands above all the others when it comes to church nerdery at its finest, the Ordination of a Bishop.  Here in the Central Gulf Coast, we had the opportunity to celebrate just such a service a few weeks ago, as we welcomed our Fourth Bishop, the Right Reverend Russell Kendrick.  For all the pomp and circumstance that went on during the more than two-and-a-half hour service, the piece that I find most intriguing happened hours earlier and for the most part, went totally unnoticed until the official pictures were posted today.

Photo by Cindy McCrory of Blue Room Photgraphy.

The Signing and Sealing of the Ordination Certificate is, for me, one of the coolest parts of an episcopal ordination.  It signifies that new bishop’s place in something much larger than the particular diocese two which they have been called.  The wax seals, made with the ring of each bishop in attendance, shows that the new bishop is part of a bigger church, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that encompasses every denomination and every Christian since the disciples stood, staring slack-jawed at the bottom of Jesus’ feet on Ascension Day.

It also signifies the seal that every disciple of Jesus wears upon their forehead, the seal that Paul speaks on in his letter to the Ephesians that we will hear read on Sunday.  We who have been baptized are sealed by and with the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption.  We are marked as belonging to the tribe of Christ, the family of God.  We wear upon our foreheads the sign and symbol of the redeemed, the same seal worn by Peter, Paul and Priscilla; Augustine, Francis, and Teresa; William Reed Huntington, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The seals on Bishop Russell’s ordination certificate should remind each of us of the seal we wear upon our foreheads, the seal that sets us apart as sinners restored and disciples of Jesus Christ.  The seals should remind us of our place in the Church catholic throughout the generations.  The seals should remind us of the work to which each of us has been called, reconciling the human beings to God and to each other through the love of God, the mercy of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
The Book of Common Prayer, page 308

Episcopalians as Apostles – Sharing the Good News #GC78

I did it.  I went to the Program, Budget, and Finance (PB&F) meeting and I testified.  I engaged in the very system I hate, so that I might call the Church outward and upward toward evangelism.

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As I finished my brief testimony, there were shouts of “Amen!” and applause.  It is the mind of this Church to move beyond the either/or mentality that says if we talk about Jesus we can’t talk about social justice and instead embrace the reality that talking about Jesus brings with it changed hearts and minds and moves us toward a more just society.

Today in the House of Deputies, we have a chance to turn the mind of the Church into concrete action.  We are scheduled to take on four resolutions, B009 – Digital Evangelism; D005 – Church Planting; D009 – Revitalization of Congregations; and A012 – Mission Enterprise Zones which combined, call the Church to put its money and energy into spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.  These resolutions come with a big price tag, $11.7m over three years, but the reality is that even at nearly 10% of the triennial budget, this is just a drop in the bucket.  We must embrace evangelism, not in order to save the Church, but in order to fulfill the commandment of Jesus to “Go!” and to live more fully into our identity as his followers, disciples, and apostles.

In the Gospel lesson for Sunday, Jesus sends the 12 out two-by-two.  Mark tells that they followed his directions and “went out and proclaimed that all should repent.”  Those who had been disciples became apostles, that is “one who is sent,” by following the command of Jesus to go into the neighborhood, traveling lightly, to share the Good News.  The Episcopal Church has a similar opportunity.  We are being called to go, to share the Good News, and to change the world to the honor and glory of God.  It is time for the Church to stand up and re-commit itself to evangelism, not just by passing resolutions that make us feel good and not merely by throwing money at it, but by each member becoming an Apostle: taking seriously Jesus’ call to “Go and make disciples.”

Excelling in Generosity at #GC78

Today is the Big Day, the one we’ve all been waiting and praying for.  No, not the Presiding Bishop election, though that is a big event.  No, not the House of Deputies 230th Anniversary party, though that will be full of delicious vanity M&Ms.  No, not the first four hour legislative session, though that’ll make your rear end fall asleep.  Today is the Big Day because today is the Program, Budget & Finance (PB&F) Committee’s hearing on expenses.  The day when Deputies, Bishops, and registered guests wait in line for hours to take their part in an awful theology of stewardship and scarcity.

I took part in the event that makes Jesus weep three years ago.

Fat Steve took part in the Event-that-makes-Jesus- weep three years ago.

The Apostle Paul writes to the Church in Corinth imploring them to excel in generosity by giving out of their abundance.  The Episcopal Church has abundant resources, however the vast majority of them are in the wallets of our members.  Despite the inroads made by groups like TENS and the Alabama Plan, the reality is that most Episcopal priests and the congregations they serve have succumb to popular pressure and avoid talking about money like the plague.  Coupled with the fact that our young leaders are members of a third generation of an un-churched, de-churched trend, this means that even those who care deeply about the Church, her ministry, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, don’t have any clue what it means to excel in generosity.  They’ve got no concept that the tithe is the biblical minimum for giving to the building of the Kingdom.

This means that by the time money trickles to the top, there is less and less money to do bigger and bigger things, which leaves us standing in line to beg for the scarce resources, afraid that our favorite thing won’t get funded.  A theology of scarcity is a terrible theology.  It has developed, in part, due to pressures from the wider culture, but the real reason tonight’s PB&F hearing will make Jesus and not a small number of deputies cry is that we’ve gotten here because of a lack of leadership.

Paul encourages the Corinthians to give generously to the needs of others.  He lays before them a vision of what it means to be a member of the body of Christ and asks them to live into it.  He offers them a compelling reason to be generous.  Instead of casting a vision for the Church, our leadership has, over the last, well as long as I’ve been in the Church, allowed 1,000 competing voices to create their own vision to the end that no one knows in which direction the Church is headed and instead we walk in one giant circle every three years.

The time has come for a compelling vision.  The time has come for a Presiding Bishop who will confidently lead us toward that vision.  The time has come for us to fund that vision boldly; to stop competing for line items, but rather to give generously to the glory of God, no matter how it impacts the bottom line of our pet project.  Let’s excel in generosity this triennium, and the rest will take care of itself.

Our faith will make us well #GC78

Median ASA

According to the Report of the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, between 2001 and 2013, the Average Sunday Attendance of the average Episcopal Church has fallen from 80 to 61, a 24% decline in twelve years.  Twelve years?  Where have I heard that number before?

“Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.” Mark 5:25

It may seem crude and crass to compare the state of the Episcopal Church with the struggle of the hemorrhagic woman, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an apt comparison.  Over the course of twelve years, thanks to our very public internal struggles over human sexuality, a growing culture of unaffiliated nones, and, as the State of the Church Report says, “The advanced — and still advancing — age of the Church’s membership, combined with a low birth rate, means that the Church loses the equivalent of one diocese per year through deaths over births” The Episcopal Church has, on the whole, been hemorrhaging members for a dozen years.

The hemorrhagic woman lives on the margins, she is destitute, she is desperate for healing and so she does the only thing she can think of, she reaches out to touch Jesus.  In the midst of such a large crowd, all she can manage to do is get a finger on the hem of his robe, and immediately her bleeding stopped.  Jesus turns to her, realizing what she has done, and says these most powerful words, “Your faith has made you well.”

How I long to hear those words from Jesus for my beloved Episcopal Church.  The Living Church published an article yesterday entitled, “Jesus for Presiding Bishop,” in which they argue that the “walk-about” with the Presiding Bishop Nominees showed that The Episcopal Church is ready to return to and outward and visible faith in Jesus.  It isn’t so much that we haven’t had faith in Jesus all along, but more that we’ve been so preoccupied elsewhere that we’ve nearly forgotten about it, which is, to my mind, the true source of our decline.

Our faith can make us well, but we must be willing to put our faith in nothing less than the saving love of God through Jesus Christ.  Doing so will change our lives individually and our culture corporately.  We need not be afraid of the name of Jesus, but in his name, be willing to be healed, and through his name, be willing to be saved, and using his name, be willing to share the Good News.  I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to reach the hem of his garment and find our bleeding stopped.  Won’t you join with me in praying for the renewal of the Church?