Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Holy Innocents

The three days following Christmas Day are Saints Days: St. Stephen, St. John the Evangelist and the Holy Innocents. Although all three of these call for serious reflection, I have found myself reflecting a bit more on the Holy Innocents during the past few days and I have found myself drawn to three things about the story in Matthew 2:13-16:

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

"A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because
they are no more."

  1. The story is a true story. By that I don't mean that it actually happened, although it may have, but that it is a story that reveals to us something that is true. In this case, what we see is that tyrants will stop at nothing to hold on to power.

  2. Power is seductive. While we may set out to use the legitimate power that we have for good, we can be tempted to use it to impose our notion of what is good on everyone else.

  3. People in power - and that may mean all of us to some extent - don't have to commit murder in order to cause suffering and death for others. We can do that by simple neglect. It is no wonder that the title of Jonathan Kozol's book about homeless families in America is Rachel and Her Children.
The placing of this Saints Day so close to Christmas is no accident. Not only is this story part of Matthew's Nativity narrative, the story is a stark reminder of what Christmas - the Incarnation - is all about: God's acting to share human life at its deepest level and to redeem it from darkness. The words of the 20th century theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman remind me of the Christmas work that we are called to do:

When the song of the angels is silent

When the star in the sky is gone

When the kings and princes are home

When the shepherds are again tending their sheep

When the manger is darkened and still

The work of Christmas begins --

To find the lost

To heal the broken

To feed the hungry

To rebuild the nations

To bring peace among people

To befriend the lonely

To release the prisoner

To make music in the heart.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Anglican Covenant

Having been released a week before Christmas, it is hardly surprising that many of us haven't even bothered to read the final (?) version of The Anglican Covenant. What may be surprising is that some people have had the time to read and comment on the document. I have avoided paying much attention to comments about the specific provisions of the final section - that would require that I go beyond the quick read that I have given it. I am, however, paying attention to more general comments and found two of them worth reading and re-reading. Fr. Tobias Haller has a well thought out post Incarnation (?) at his blog In a Godward Direction. Fr. Mark Harris has a somewhat less irenic post, Coal in your Christmas Socking? One lump, or two?, at his blog Preludium. The adoption or rejection of the Covenant by the Churches of the Anglican Communion will take time - not months, but years - and discovering whether the Covenant will strengthen the Communion will take even longer, maybe decades. The Anglican Communion is, I think, slowly coming to terms with it's British colonial past. My hope and prayer for the Communion is that Anglican will embrace the difficult work of maintaining relationships in spite of our diffences and not yield to the temptation to sameness. As a Provost of Coventry Cathedral once asked, "What kind of a Church would it be, if everyone in it were just like me?" Boring, to be sure, but more than boring - not the Body of Christ.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

All Peoples

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (Isaiah 25:6-9)

This was the first reading at yesterday's celebration of the Eucharist. In a time when we are sorely tempted to circle the wagons and think that the promise of the Incarnation is only for those within the circle, Isaiah pushes us to see that God's gift is for all peoples, and not just those who look or think or act like us. The disturbing message of Isaiah - and of Jesus - is that we don't get to say who is worthy of God's love, God's grace. We aren't worthy - no one is - and yet the indiscriminate love of God is for all peoples.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bogus Familiarity

The other day I got a phone call from a man working for one of the police-related charities. I should have known right away that the call was from a telemarketer because there was no immediate response when I said, "Hello." I might have hung then, but I didn't and I heard a cheery voice say, "Dan, this is...."


I'd never met the man before and, had he actually been a police officer, he would have addressed me as "Mr. Weir." My friends call me "Dan" or "Daniel" or, if they have known me since childhood, "Danny," and I, conservative on this issue at least, expect strangers to address me more formally.

The world seems to be awash in this kind of bogus familiarity. Some of it I find silly - the news anchor who ending the broadcast with, "I hope we'll see you back here tomorrow." Some of it I find offensive - the telemarketer using my first name. And some of it I find sinister - the advance fee fraud attempt that begins "Dear Friend."

Whether I see these instances as silly or offensive or sinister, it seems to me that they are all attempts to establish a familiarity, a friendship that isn't there, and to get me, because I have bought into the illusion, to do something that I might not otherwise have done. Do I tune in the following day because of the illusion of friendship? Do I contribute or buy something because the telemarketer has made me feel that he's my friend? Do I believe the unbelievable - that someone wants to give me millions of dollars - because the thieves have called me "friend"?

No, I don't do any of those things. I tune in the news because I think the reporting is good. I never give to or buy anything from telemarketers. I never fall for the fraud attempts, although I do find some of them amusing. I do, however, grieve for a world in which friendship is debased and bogus familiarity is a ready tool for the networks, telemarketers and thieves.

Some may think that I'm a crank, a curmudgeon, for being concerned about something so seemingly insignificant. But is it really insignificant? Isn't friendship one of God's most precious gifts? Friendship with one another and friendship with God. It was Jesus who told his disciples. "I have called you friends," and then went to Cross that all might be drawn into friendship with him. Friendship is a costly gift and one which I will not see cheapened by those who presume to be my friends without any willingness to bear the cost.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Giving Thanks

The Gospel lesson that we used at the nursing home yesterday was the healing of the ten lepers in Luke 17. One of the struggles that many of us have in our culture is with the temptation to take things for granted. We have been taught that we are entitled. Some of that isn't bad - the inalienable rights of the Declaration of Independence and those in the Constitutions Bill of Rights - but one of casualties of entitlement is thanks giving. We take things for granted and not for blessing.

At the center of our liturgical tradition is the celebration of the Holy Eucharist - the Holy Thanksgiving. Even if we don't believe in the Real Presence, the weekly celebrations can help us to practice giving thanks. Frequently as I preside at celebrations, I find that specific blessings for which I am thankful come to mind. Frequently, but probably not often enough. I need to cultivate the habit of thanksgiving for specific blessings. Just as my intercessions and petitions need to be specific, so do my thanksgivings.

So here are a few for today:
  1. For Jan whom I met in church in 1971 and who became my wife in that same church in 1972.
  2. For our children, Meghan and Matthew, and for their spouses, Daryl and Marnie.
  3. For our grandaughter, Emmaline.
  4. For the privilege - and it is a privilege - of serving in the Episcopal Church for nearly 40 years.
  5. For the people of Saint Matthias Church who have ministered with and to me for the past 8 years.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky

There are few men and women in the Church Calendar more unusual than Bishop Schereschewsky. His story serves as a reminder to me of how it is not how we plan our lives that matters, but how we respond to the changes which present us with new opportunities for faithful service.

Schereschewsky, born in Lithuania in 1831, was studying to be a rabbi, which would not have been at all a bad thing. However, he became interested in Christianity and began reading a Hebrew translation of the New Testament. He moved to the United States and began studying for ministry in the Presbyterian Church, which would not at all have been a bad thing. After two years at a seminary, he decided to become an Episcopalian and finished his studies at General Theological Seminary. After ordination, he went to serve as a missionary in China and would, I suspect, have been quite content to serve as a mission priest and a translator of Scripture, and that would not have been a bad thing at all. However, in 1877 he became Bishop of Shanghai, and serving in that post would not have been at all a bad thing for him to do for a very long time. Stricken with paralysis, he resigned his see in 1883 and set about the difficult task of continuing his translation work. Before his death in 1906, he had completed his translation of the Bible, typing some 2,000 pages with the middle finger of his partially crippled hand.

Life, as someone once said, is what happens while we're making our plans. Whatever Bishop Schereschewsky had planned for his life, his response to the changes that came was one of faithfulness. As someone who had been an outsider when he first heard the Good News, he gave himself to the work of sharing that Good News with other outsiders.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Yesterday I preached about downy and hairy woodpeckers. Well, not exactly: I preached about God's delighting in diversity, and these two woodpeckers were simply examples of that wonderful diversity. If God delights in diversity - and I'm convinced that God does - should not we - created in God's image and called by Jesus to be his brothers and sisters - delight in diversity as well? We often seem to treat difference as threat, whether ethnic difference or religious difference. There is an Anglican Chapel in ToyTown with a membership that includes a number of our former parishioners. There are real differences between our congregations: they use the 1928 BCP and we don't; we have a women priest associate and they don't; we welcom partnered LGBT members and I'm pretty sure they don't. These differences are important, but I continue to be thankful that our former members and others have found a new home. I continue to act on my own convictions in those areas of difference and to seek areas of agreement with these sisters and brothers. And I continue to pray for the grace to refuse to see these differences as threats.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

It's Not About Us

There have been some protests recently about mandatory flu vaccinations for health care workers. The line that the protesters have taken is that being forced to be vaccinated is a violation of their rights.

Now, I'm in favor of protecting people's rights, but the protesters seemed to have missed the point. Vaccination is not about them - it's about the people they serve. I find it hard to believe that there is anyone working in health care who wasn't vaccinated for a wide variety of diseases as a child. I find it hard to believe that there is anyone working in health care who wasn't aware when they began working that they would have to do certain things that might be inconvenient or burdensome. If health care workers can't be expected to be vaccinated, can we expect them to follow other procedures that help stop the spread of disease? Let's forget about handwashing or surgical masks and gowns because these are a violation of people's rights. And if health care workers can't be required to do these things, let's consider allowing police officers and soldeiers to stop wearing uniforms.

We seem to have to forgotten that there is something called the common good and that in serving the common good we often are called to do things that we would rather not do. We seem to have forgotten that a great deal of the time it's not about us.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Stumbling Blocks

We received a gift on September 4 - a granddaughter, Emmaline Abigail Achilles. She is our first grandchild and she has, if I may say, wonderful parents in our daughter Meghan and her husband Daryl.

In the Gospel lesson appointed for next Sunday, we find words of warning from Jesus: If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. (Mark 9:42) As a presbyter in the Episcopal Church, I take this warning seriously. My words - and my actions - can become stumbling blocks to members of the parish - young and old, for we are all little ones - and to people in the wider community. As a parent and, now, a grandparent, I take this warning seriously, aware that my actions and my words can be - and quite likely have been - stumbling blocks to members of my family.

Jesus' words of warning are followed by some even more disturbing words of advice: If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off... (Mark 9:43) From warning about not put stumbling blocks before others, Jesus moves to calling us to a deep awareness of what in us causes us to stumble. Jesus invites to adopt the paractce of "self-examination and repentance," and not just in Lent. It seems to me that in this passage Jesus is less concerned about the specific sins that we may commit than about what it is in us that leads us to stumble and sin. What are those attachments, those attitudes, those prejudices that cause us to stumble? Are we too attached to our money? Do we harbor "uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors"? Do we have "contempt toward those who differ from us"? In the midst of all the conflicts within the Episcopal Church would we like to assign all of those on the "other side" to the deepest circle of hell?

As I read and pray about this passage - and as I prepare to preach on this text - I am mindful of what I think may be the reponse that Mark knew is the only one that we can make: I believe; help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24) The Christian life is all about Grace, about God's gift to us in Jesus. God calls us to trust, to believe, not in a set of theological statements, but in Jesus. Our belief, our trust, is always a bit shaky - sometimes, very shaky - and we can only call out, "Help my unbelief!" and trust God to answer that prayer.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Food Fight?

A colleague observed that it was odd that in the shortest of the Gospel accounts Mark devotes more than half a chapter to what might be described as a food fight. The argument between Jesus and the Pharisees wasn't, of course, only about food, but about washing hands and other matters of religious custom. Mark may have devoted so much attention to this area of conflict because his own community was struggling with the question of whether one had to be kosher in order to be Christian, but I doubt it.

What I see at the heart of this story of conflict in Mark 7 is Jesus' hope that people will focus on what really matters in a life lived in friendship with God. There may be nothing wrong with the religious customs to which the Pharisees adhered, but focusing so intently, even exclusively, on them was, as a friend once put it, "majoring in the minors." Rather than focusing on one's own scrupulous religious observance, Jesus calls us to focus on "the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." (Matthew 23:23)

I see this conflict as nothing new, but as one that had been part of the life of Israel for centuries. Jesus stood in the great prophetic tradition of Israel:
  • Of Isaiah: Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

  • Of Jeremiah: Thus says the LORD: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD.

  • Of Amos: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

  • Of Micah: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

The great scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures Walter Brueggemann, in commenting on these words of Micah, said that we walk humbly with God not because God is so much greater than we are - which God is - but because that is how God walks with us. In the Incarnation, God became Immanuel, God with us, God with the last, the least, and the lost. And that is where God wants us to be as well.

George McLeod, founder of the Iona Community, called for this kind of engagement with the world, with the last, the least, and the lost when he wrote in Only One Way Left:

I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the clam that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles: but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek. And at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died, and that is what he died about and that is where Christ’s people ought to be, and what church people ought to be about.

At the center of the marketplace? Where are those places in the here and now that McLeod -or Jesus - might want to see the cross raised? There are many, but one which I see is the debate over health care reform. The issues are clearly too complex for me to come up with the perfect plan, but what strikes me about the debate as I have watched it is that there seems to be little evidence of compassion, of the prophet's concern for justice for the poor in it. I have read the comments of Christians who assert that it is absolutely wrong to take their hard-earned money and use it to give health care to people who haven't earned it! Comments like that are a far-cry from the words of Jesus, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." I have also found myself bristling when I hear the phrase socialized medicine. I never hear people speak of socialized education. or police and fire protection. or roads, or libraries. As a people we have decided that there are some things that need to be provided by all of us for all of us. Whether health care is one of them is still an open question, a question which we all can take part in answering. I hope that the answer we make as a people will reflect in no small measure the love of the One who is Immanuel, God with us, God with the last, the least, and the lost.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Painting With a Broad Brush

Two priests I know found themselves in the 1970s in the less-than-comfortable position of being on the opposite side on the issue of women's ordination from people with whom they had worked in the civil rights and peace movements. Another priest, with whom I stood shoulder-to-shoulder at anti-war rallies, is on the "other side" in the debates about same-sex relationships.

People, being people, often have convictions which are hard to figure out at first. In exchanges in the blogosphere, I often see this difficulty leading to unwarranted assumptions about other people's convictions. Someone assumes that the person who disagrees with the traditional interpretation of Scripture on same-sex relationships must also not believe in the Incarnation or the Resurrection. When I post comments on other people's blogs, I often find myself being accused of holding positions which I do not hold and which, usually, haven't even been part of the discussion.

Recently I posted a comment about bishops who were opposed to the ordination of women. What I said was that I thought it was wrong for a bishop's convictions to trump those of vestries that might want to call a woman as rector. That simple comment brought a response from one anonymous person about how I refused to admit that those bishops' convictions were shared by many people in the pews - after all, the bishops convictions were well-known when they were elected - and that many of those bishops and their diocesan conventions had voted to leave the Episcopal Church, and that the leadership of the Episcopal Church wanted to silence all dissent.

Whew! I wondered where that came from. Perhaps it came from the all-too-human temptation to categorize, to put folks into neat boxes, assuming that all the "liberals" hold identical convictions about everything. Perhaps it was simply laziness. As President Andrew Shepherd said near the end of The American President, "We've got serious problems, and we need serious people...This is a time for serious people...." Serious people take the time to listen and to understand others. Serious people understand that people are complicated and can't really be categorized and put into neat boxes. Serious people aren't satisfied with sound-bites and slogans, and want real conversation because real conversation holds out the promise of real solutions.

Becoming Bread

For four Sundays in August the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading was from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John and they were all about bread. Jesus is the bread of life, the living bread, the bread that came down from heaven.

Jesus’ teaching about bread was hard teaching and many disciples stopped following him. It was hard, I think, for two reasons. Some of those who heard Jesus said, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, `I have come down from heaven'?” Familiarity, as they say, can breed contempt. These people knew who Jesus was and where he came from and they were certain that he had not come down from heaven!

But I think there is another deeper reason. Disciples are to become like their Rabbi and, if Jesus is living bread, aren’t his disciples to become bread as well? St. Augustine of Hippo grasped this when he said, “Through that bread and wine the Lord Christ willed to commend His Body and Blood, which He poured out for us unto the forgiveness of sins. If you receive worthily, you are what you have received.”

We are to become bread, each of us and all of us together.

And that’s a challenge for us because bread – the bread of the Eucharist, the bread that we are to become – is taken, blessed, broken and shared.

I think of these four actions as two pairs – bread is taken with thanksgiving – bread is broken to be shared.

Taken with thanksgiving: how often do we look at ourselves, our lives, and the life of our parish and give thanks? Far too often we are like Peter in the story at the end of the Fourth Gospel. When Jesus told him about the death he would die, Peter looked over at the disciple whom Jesus loved and asked, “What about him?” Far too often I wish had someone else’s good looks or money or talents and fail to give thanks for my life. Far too often members of churches look at another church and wish that their church could be like that church. If we are to become bread, if our parishes are to become bread, we need to embrace the life that God has given us with thanksgiving. This does not mean that we are to be stuck where we are, not growing, not open to God’s transforming power. We are, as we give thanks for the life that God has given us, to be about the business of discerning the purpose of that life. Why has God given me these particular gifts and placed me in this particular place? Why are these people with their gifts members of our parish? How are we to be bread here and now? Or, to put it another way, what kind of bread are we becoming?

Broken to be shared: this is even harder. We don’t really want our lives, our life together to be broken open for the sake of the world. But that is what God wants. This requires further discernment as we seek to discover how our particular gifts can be offered to others. In two parishes which I have served there were significant signs of the parishes’ being open to the wider community. In a parish I served in Massachusetts, the front doors of the parish church had been replaced by glass doors. People walking by on Sunday morning often stopped and looked in to see what we were doing. One of my dear friends wondered how many people had over the years stood on the doorstep in times of despair and found hope as they looked in and saw the lamp burning before the altar. Since 2001 the parish church here in East Aurora has been open round the clock during most of the year and I talked with people who have stopped in to pray in the middle of the night. These signs of being open aren’t, of course, enough. Our buildings can be open while we remain closed off, unavailable to anyone outside of a small circle of friends.

I believe God’s call to participate in the missio Dei, God’s mission of reconciliation, is a call for our parishes to become bread. To paraphrase Thomas Merton, each congregation is to become bread, the Body of Christ, in its own unique way, and when a congregation fails to become the bread that God is calling it to be, its wider community may go hungry.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Where the Battle Rages

Matrin Luther wrote:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest expositon every portion of the truth about God except precisely that little point at which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing him. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.

Knowing where that little point is here and now is almost impossible. We simply don't have the perspective. But the difficulty of the task does not free us from the responsibility of working to discern where that little point lies.

The Episcopal Church is struggling with many important issues , but I am sure that the little point lies somewhere in our struggles with poverty, with the growing gap between the world's richest and poorest people, the growing gap between its richest and poorest nations. When the Episcopal Church's General Convention stated in 2006 that the Millenium Development Goals would be the church's major mission focus, there were cries of protest from some who think that evangelism is the only mission focus possible. To me that response comes very close to what Luther saw as failing to confess Christ while bold professing him. For me the central challenge for Christians in the First World is responding to the pressing needs of people in developing nations. And our response can't simply be aid; it needs to involve the transformation of the world's economic institutions. So long as those institutions do not make sustainable development in the world's poorest nations a priority, the gap will continue to grow.

I don't assume that meeting the challenge will be easy and I may be wrong in thinking that God's and our concern for the poor is the little point where the battle must be waged. I am willing to wrong, but I am unwilling to sit back and not enter the fray, unwilling to spend my time and energy only in safe places. There is risk in waging this battle, but I believe that it is the one in which I can move beyond professing Christ to confessing him.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Theology is Contextual

In May I wrote a post about the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and the "lie of context-less judgment." I had come to the conclusion quite a long time ago that it is impossible to separate completely our decision-making from our contexts. That conclusion had led me to realize that I had lied when I told my draft board - remember draft boards? - that I would have been a conscientious objector during World War II. Of course, the question was not a legitimate one as it assumed that one could know how one would have viewed military service having been raised in a very different time. Context isn't everything, but it cannot be ignored.

I have been reading the first volume - Thinking the Faith - of Douglas John Hall's trilogy, Christian Theology in a North American Context. In that first volume, Hall devotes considerable space to laying out the reasons why theology must be contextual, and the danger of assuming that it can be anything else. Like unacknowledged and unexamined privilege, unacknowledged and unexamined context is very dangerous. When we fail to realize that our theology is contextual we can fall into the trap of thinking that it is universal and, worse yet, final.

I will not rehearse here Hall's argument but I do recommend his books to those who want to explore further the thin tradition of Theologia Crucis. (Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross was my introduction to Hall. The Cross in our Context: Jesus in Our Suffering World is the book that brought me back. Both are considerably more accessible than the trilogy. I have shared some of my thoughts about Hall and the theology of the cross in an earlier post.)

Although we have a desire for finality, for the kind of certitude which is absolute, theology, thinking about God, cannot have that kind of finality. It will always be provisional and contextual, rooted in the here and now. We make a mistake when we assume that medieval scholastic theology or the theology of the Reformation is timeless and isn't contextual. The mistake is a serious one, leading us to try to speak about God in our own contexts with ideas that can no longer convey Good News. But more importantly, simply repeating the theologies of the past won't work because the One about whom we speak is the Living God whom we have come to know as Emmanuel, God with us. Not God without us and not God with some generic us, but God with us in our particularity. The Living God who is on the move, whose work of reconciliation, of redemption is not finished. The decisive, pivotal act has been accomplished and the words of Jesus - "It is finished!" - are true, but the Last Day has not yet arrived and the missio Dei is still a going concern. As the angel said to the women at the tomb, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" (Luke 24:5) With proper respect for those who have gone before us and with proper study of their writings, we are to be about the business of thinking and talking and writing about God in our own contexts, about God with us here and now.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? (1 Corinthians 6:1)

These words of St. Paul have, I would guess, been cited more often in the past few years than in most decades - or even centuries - since they were written. They are often cited by those who condemn as a betrayal of the Gospel civil litigation to resolve property disputes between Episcopal dioceses and congregations that have left the Episcopal Church. I do not think that resorting to the courts is, in fact, a betrayal of the Gospel for three reasons.
  1. I respect the rights of those on both sides to seek to protect what they believe are their property. It is for them, I believe, a matter of faithful stewardship of the resources that have been entrusted to them. Although I think that those who have left the Episcopal Church do not have a right to Episcopal Church property, I recognize that those who disagree with me have every right to defend their position in court.
  2. Unlike the Corinthians to whom St. Paul wrote, we can not take these disputes "before the saints," as there is no body within the Anglican Communion with the authority to settle these disputes. We can wish that there was, but there isn't, so we are left with the civil courts when negotiation fails.
  3. The citing of Paul's admonition sounds hollow when done by those who have already in so many ways accepted the authority of the government in other matters of their organizational life. Unless I am mistaken, those who appeal to St. Paul belong to congregations and dioceses that are incorporated in their states and which have accepted gladly the tax-exempt status granted by the IRS.

I would rather have seen all the property questions settled without recourse to the courts, but I believe that they must be settled, in court or elsewhere. The properties in question were given to the Episcopal Church for the furthering of its ministry and its sharing in the missio Dei. Settling which parties have a legal right to these properties is important.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Like a lot of others I receive a lot of SPAM each day. I decided that a SPAM filter wasn't always a good thing when e-mails from our daughter and from a staff person at the Episcopal Church Center got caught in a filter. I ignore most of the SPAM, but I find that I can't ignore those that are fraud attempts. For a while I reponded to some of them, urging the senders to stop what is not a fitting pursuit for one who bears God's image. Recently, however, I started forwarding them on to the various internet service providers that the criminals use. A number of those ISPs are very good about closing down the e-mail accounts that are being used for fraud attempts (,,, and are good at closing accounts that violate their terms of use agreements.) Unfortunately a few ISPs don't have a way to report this abuse and now some ISPs are refusing any e-mail from me. The internet is a useful tool, but I think stopping crimianls from using it ought to be a goal of all ISPs. Sadly it isn't.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. (Mark 4:35-36)

Just as he was.

Even though I had read or heard this passage many times, I had never noticed that phrase until a colleague pointed it out to me. Reading back to beginning of Mark 4, I saw that Jesus had begun his teaching sitting in the boat near the shore and so this little phrase that I had overlooked for so long simply meant that he had remained in the boat until he was finished teaching and the disciples set out for the other side with Jesus sitting just where he had been all day.

But I don’t want to leave it at that, nor do I think Mark wanted to. At the nursing home where we celebrate the Eucharist each week, we sometimes sing “Just as I am…” and I rejoice that Jesus invites us just as we are. But isn’t it also true that Jesus invites us to a relationship with him just as he is?

The problem, of course, is that we don’t want him just as he is. We want a different kind of savior. One of my friends has said that we want an ATM savior. We ask and out pops the answer that we want. Or we want a Rambo savior who will mow down any obstacle or enemy in our path. Whatever kind of savior we want, we hardly ever want Jesus just as he is.

As the story in Mark 4 continues, we hear that a storm blew up and the disciples feared for their lives and chided Jesus for sleeping. After he had rebuked the wind and the waves, he chided the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Faith, not belief in a set of propositions, but trust in Jesus. Perhaps what the disciples had not yet grasped was that Jesus wasn’t what we might call a meteorologist savior, one who would show us where the storms of life were so that we could avoid them. I don’t think Jesus wants us to avoid all of life’s storms, but he promises us that he will be with us always, even when the winds and waves threaten to capsize our boats.

Someone has observed that we really don’t want a savior who was crucified, dead and buried, and then was raised to life again. We want a savior who avoided death altogether. We want our lives storm-free. We like smooth sailing. But that isn’t the kind of life to which Jesus has called us. We are called to bear witness to God’s love in the world, and that means that our lives will be stormy at times. The world doesn’t really want to hear that God’s love is freely given to rich and poor alike, and that wealth and prestige and power are not what matters. And when we challenge the world’s values, when we proclaim that what matters is sacrificial love, the world may decide that we are crazy and, perhaps, dangerous.

One of my favorite hymns, a hymn about those fishermen who became Jesus’ disciples, ends with these unsettling words, The peace of God it is no peace but strife closed in the sod. Yet let us pray for but one thing - the marvelous peace of God.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


I follow several blogs written by folks who are very critical of the Episcopal Church. While I don't find Schadenfreude (pleasure at the troubles of others) in the bloggers' posts, I do detect it in the almost gleeful comments of visitors to these blogs. Every piece of negative news about the Episcopal Church is recounted with what I see as smugness.

I do not count myself as a paragon of virtue, but during the past five years I have been thankful for the successes of the Anglican Chapel that was organized by some of our parishioners who had left us after the 2003 General Convention. The Chapel's Rector is a friend and I was glad when one of the Chapel's members was ordained to the diaconate - a better candidate would be hard to find.

Why shouldn't I rejoice when another congregation grows? Why should anyone rejoice when any Church, not just the Episcopal Church, loses members? Our parish planted some seeds in the lives of those who left us; the Anglican Chapel watered those seeds; but it was God who gave the growth. For that we should all rejoice and be thankful.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pentecost: In Praise of Diveristy

When I bought a copy of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's The Dignity of Difference, I asked the friend who had recommended it if he thought the cover illustration of the Tower of Babel was appropriate. His response was that it was, so long as we understood the story in Genesis the way Prof. Christopher Duraisingh interpreted it. Christopher is on the faculty of Episcopal Divinity School and I was on sabbatical there when I bought Sacks's book, so it did not take long for me to learn about Christopher's understanding of the Tower of Babel story.

As that story is often linked with the story of Pentecost in Acts, it has been in my thoughts as I have prepared to celebrate Pentecost. Far from being a story about division and disunity, the Tower of Babel story is, I think, a story about God's love for unity with diversity. In this fascinating story, God responds to the human desire for uniformity by affirming diversity. The desire for uniformity, while a good thing in many circumstances, can lead to a totalitarian suppression of all differences. Even in its more benign forms, this desire can lead us to overlook or dismiss the wonderful diversity that exists in creation. For me, as a white male, to assume that we are all alike would be a failure to honor the distinctive cultures, experiences, and perspectives of those who are not white males.

The story of Pentecost is not, I think, a story of the reversal of what happened in the Tower of Babel Story. Yes, there is unity in the story, but not uniformity. Those who hear the disciples "speaking about God’s deeds of power" do not hear some sort of universal language, but just the opposite. They hear them speaking in their native languages, in the languages of their childhood, their mother tongues. There was an almost universal language available, Greek, but they each heard the Good News in their own languages. Unity, yes, but not without diversity.

Pentecost is not only about the Good News of what God has done in Jesus the Christ, it is also about the Church's participation in the missio Dei, in God's ongoing work of reconciliation and renewal in the world. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall has asserted that our work in mission needs to be marked by faith, hope, and love. Far too often in the past these three virtues have been in short supply as we engage in mission. We too often have acted as if we had all the answers and that we didn't need to walk by faith because we had absolute certainty about our own understanding of the Truth. We too often have acted as if we had already arrived, had reached the goal, and no longer needed to travel in hope. And we have far too often been so dismissive of the cultures and experiences of those we meet in mission that it would be nearly impossible to say that we loved them.

I recently read a story about different approaches to language training for missionaries and about how those approaches effect their mission work. When missionaries attend language school before they are sent to the communities in which they will serve, there is a tendency for them to long for the camaraderie of those with whom they attended the language school and to welcome the chance to meet with them again. However, when the missionaries attend language school after some months in the communities in which they are serving, the pull of those reunions is much less, and when they attend meetings with other missionaries, they are anxious for the meetings to be over so they can get back to their work.

When we engage in mission, whether in our own communities or in other countries, honoring and even celebrating diversity is a Gospel imperative. It is often fear that keeps us from admitting that we don't have all the answers and might have something to learn from people of other cultures, other faiths. It is often fear that keeps us from admitting that we haven't arrived and don't even have a perfect road map for the journey. It is often fear that keeps us from becoming vulnerable by loving others. But perfect love casts out fear and we are loved perfectly by God, so let's get on with the mission of reconciliation and renewal in faith and hope and love.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Lie of Context-less Judgment

The nomination of the Hon. Sonia Sotomayor to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court has raised again the question of how context influences our judgments. To listen to some who oppose her nomination you would conclude that it is possible to make decisions that are not at all influenced by our own contexts. Judge Sotomayor understands and acknowledges that her experiences will influence her decisions, but why is that a problem for some people?

Those of us who belong to the dominant group in our country - or in any profession - can be tempted to believe that our belonging to that group does not influence our decisions. It is probably harder for someone from a minority group to be tempted in that way. But no matter our own context, our own life story, our own ethnicity, the challenge is to recognize how context influences our judgment. Denying that it does can blind us to our responsibility to make sure that context does not have an undue influence on our decisions.

If Judge Sotomayor becomes Justice Sotomayor - and I hope she does - I suspect that there will be plenty of people warning her against the danger of letting context become too great an influence. But who will be reminding the white male Justices of the same danger?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Privilege of Marriage

I have, for the most part, stayed away from the discussion of marriage in the blogosphere. I have made a few comments, usually stating that I am suspicious when people who enjoy a privilege want to deny that privilege to others. There is, however, a more fundamental argument to be made, not only about the marriage debate, but about other controversial issues.

Several summers ago a speaker at the Chautauqua Institution suggested that people whose position on an issue is based upon religious conviction need to move beyond simple assertions about God's law when they engage the issue in the public square. In our increasingly diverse country, to be effective arguments need to be based upon common values, values shared by religious and non-religious citizens.

In the current debates about extending the privilege of marriage to same-sex couples, I have yet to hear a convincing argument based upon common values. (I also haven't heard one that is based upon the Bible, but that is another matter.) All the fear-mongering about the threat that gay marriage would pose to opposite-sex marriage doesn't convince me. Same-sex couples who marry are incapable of doing the kind of damage to marriage that heterosexuals have been doing for decades. Whether or not churches decide to bless same-sex marriages, I think it is high time that states extend the privilege of marriage to same-sex couples.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


There is a very good post about the President's visit to Notre Dame at The Friends of Jake. As the controversy was heating up I wondered whether of not Notre Dame had bestowed honorary degrees on anyone who disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on other life issues, e.g., capital punishment. Unfortunately the university has not yet posted a list of past recipients, but it has promised to do so on its website.

The Friends of Jake post cites an op-ed piece by Thomas J. Reese, S.J., in which Fr. Reese wrote, 'I think part of the problem is that the bishops stopped listening and teaching and started ordering and condemning. With an educated laity it no longer works to simply say, "it is the teaching of the church." This is the equivalent of a parent shouting, "Because I said so."'

The priest with whom I served in my first parish once said that lay people in the Episcopal Church were woefully ignorant when it came to the Bible. I suspect he would have said the same thing about theology and ethics. Few branches of the Catholic Church place a very high value on having an educated laity. Far too often members of the clergy - including me - act as if theology, ethics and Biblical study are simply too hard for lay people and that we will do their thinking for them, we will tell them what to believe. Lay people, who are often quite a bit smarter than the clergy and are very well educated in other fields, are no longer likely to accept, as Fr. Reese points out, "it is the teaching of the church." They may well want to know and will ask clergy, "Why does the church teach this?"

I have a Roman Catholic friend who often speaks about the importance of an informed conscience in making moral decisions. The problem, as Fr. Reese asserts, is that informed consciences don't emerge by accident, but through teaching, teaching which involves respectful listening. The classic understanding of the work or functions of the church identifies these four: worship (liturgia), proclamation (kerygma), fellowship (koinonia) and service (diakonia), to which I think we must add a fifth: teaching (didache). Without teaching, without an educated laity, all the other functions of the church will be anemic. The church's emphasis in the past half-century on the ministry of the baptized makes attention to didache more important now, perhaps, than in any other age.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Over at Preludium Mark Harris has a post, "Friends doing well in Anglican land." One of the friends that he mentions is The Rev. Dr. Ian T. Douglas, Angus Dun Professor of Mission and World Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School. I had the privilege of auditing a course that Ian taught during my sabbatical at EDS last fall and came to appreciate Ian's continued reminders that the mission of the Church - and of the Churches 0f the Anglican Communion - is not to be shaped by our own agendas but by God's mission, the missio Dei. We are privileged, as I wrote in a recent post on my parish's website, to be able to share in God's mission. As Mark put it in his post, our work is to "get with the program."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


There has been a lot of discussion - perhaps too much - in the blogosphere about the polity of the Episcopal Church in the United States, and I have added to that discussion by posting comments on other blogs. Perhaps the best way to explain my own understanding of the situation is with a little history.

Before the War of Indepedence, the Church of England congregations in the colonies were under the authority of the Bishop of London. During the war, some of the colonial clergy remained loyal to the King, including Samuel Seabury. After King George's army lost the war, there was work to be done - reconciling clergy and laity who had been on opposite sides, and organizing an indpendent Church. There was nothing inevitable about the decisions that led to the formation of Dioceses and the election and consecration of Bishops. A congregational polity was common enough and was an option that wasn't chosen. Instead, those first Episcopalians chose to organize their congregations into Dioceses and their Dioceses into the Episcopal Church.

Both decisions involved a surrender of some autonomy to the larger body. Congregations could, in many places, be legally incorporated, but that did give them complete freedom in the ordering of their worship, common life, and ministry. Bishops had to approved the calling of clergy - and in many places and at many times, the Bishop decided which clergy were serve which congregation. Dioceses could be incorporated, but that did give them complete freedom. The General Convention approved the Book of Common Prayer, the only book for most of the Episcopal Church's history that was authorized for public worship. The General Convention also enacted Canons that regulated many aspects of Diocesan and congregational life, from the approval of candidates for ordination to the requirement that financial records be audited each year.

In order to enjoy the benefits of being part of the Episcopal Church, congregations and Dioceses have surrendered some of the autonomy that they could have enjoyed had they chosen another polity. Imagine how an Independent Baptist might view the way in which Episccopal congregations call clergy - you mean the Bishop has to approve? - or the way Dioceses elect a Bishop - you mean Bishops and Standing Committees who might never have visited your Diocese have to consent to the election? - or our use of the Book of Common Prayer and the Lectionary.

We have made an important choice, one that has an impact on so many aspects of our life together, a choice that I think was a very good one. Now there are those who argue, not that the choice wasn't made, but about what that choice means. They argue that the Diocese is sovereign and that in choosing to be in union the General Convention, Dioceses did not surrender any significant autonomy. Given the General Convention's authority to enact canons that govern so many essential aspects of the life of a Diocese, it seems pure foolishness to assert that Dioceses are sovereign and that the General Convention isn't.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

Over at his blog Preludium, Mark Harris has a very thougthful post, The Global Warming of Fear and Hate: Anti-Semitism, Homophobia and Xenophobia.

A central point of that post is that in difficult times folks often look for someone to blame and, in the history of the West, the someone is quite often the Jews. I find Mark's post echoing some thoughts that I have had the past few days about the economic mess in this country. From some quarters we are hearing warnings about "class warfare," as if anyone commenting about the widening income gap in the USA was inciting a riot. From others we hear strong words of condemnation for Wall Street villains, as if the rest of us had no responsibility for the maintaining of our over-consuming culture.

Criticism, including self-criticism, is called for, but not condemnation, including self-condemnation. One of the joys of living in grace is that we are free to look honestly at our own sins and the sins of others. We have been - are being - forgiven and transformed, and do not stand condemned.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Message About the Cross

Seemingly by accident one afternoon during my sabbatical, I came across a book by one of my favorite theologians, Douglas John Hall, now Professor Emeritus of McGill University. Years ago I had read Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross. The book that I found is The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. As I thumbed through the book, an italicized passage caught my eye:

The theology of the cross, which may be stimulatetd (as we have seen) by a certain kind of anthropoligical understanding, is nevertheless first of all a statement about God, and what it says about God is not that God thinks humankind so wretched that it deserves death and hell, but that God thinks humankind and the whole creation so good, so beautiful, so precious on its intention and its potentiality, that its actualization, its fulfillment, its redemption is worth dying for.

Having set as one of my sabbatical projects studying Atonement theology, finding Hall's book and this particular passage seemed not accidental , but providential. I had long thought that in much of what I heard in sermons or read in books there was an underlying assumption that God's basic attitude towards humankind was wrath and anger and not love.

However we describe the atonement, whichever theologian we prefer, whether Alselm of Canterbury or Gustav Aulen or James Alison, if we miss the point that Hall makes we are missing the boat. It is all about God's love.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


When Peter rebuked Jesus for saying "that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" he was expressing a very common understanding of the Messiah, one that he had learned. Unlearning things like that is often the work of a lifetime. All of us have ideas about life that we have learned, and some of these ideas need to be unlearned.

In writing about the call of Abraham in the Letter to the Romans, Paul characterizes Abraham's body as being "as good as dead." How often do we think of the older members of our communities as being no longer capable of contributing anything of value? Is that an idea about older people that we need to unlearn?

It seems that it took Peter a long time to unlearn his ideas about the Messiah, but he needed the shock of Jesus' rebuke - "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." - to jumpstart the unlearning. Perhaps Lent can be a time when I let God jumpstart the unlearning that I need to do in my life.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Presiding Bishop on Varied Understandings

Much of the controversy in the Anglican Communion is at its core about how we interpret Scripture. There are some who believe that the only acceptable interpretations are what Gray Temple calls "canoical interpretations," interpretations that have been given the authority of Scripture itself. Listening to different voices, appreciating how sisters and brother look at Scripture different lenses is challenging, but I believe that is what God is calling us to do.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, addresses this challenge in Varied understandings: Different lenses provide different views of Scripture.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Have We Made an Idol of the Anglican Communion?

This was written in 2005. I was prompted to post it because of a post and comments at Mark Harris's blog, Preludium, How important is it to belong to the Anglican Communion? Although some water has gone under the bridge since 2005 and I might put things differently now, this is still a good representation of my thought on this matter. I remain committed to staying within the Anglican Communion because I think we need one another, but I still see the danger of idolatry and the possibility that I might one day find that I could not in conscience and in good faith remain in the Communion.

F. D. Maurice, in a sermon preached on November 30, 1856, spoke of being preserved “from all idolatry of any outward things whatever, whether they be the elements of bread and wine, or anything else that is sacred because it is God’s creature, and accursed when it is made into a God.” The Anglican Communion is just such a creature, holy because it is God’s creature, but sadly in danger of being made into a god and, thus, accursed.

The communiqué from the February 2005 meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion confirmed for me what I had feared since reading the Windsor Report: the price of remaining in the Anglican Communion would be the repudiation of the action of General Convention in confirming the election of Gene Robinson.

There has always been some tension for me in being an Anglican. I disagree with the convictions of many prominent Anglicans in this country and elsewhere and remaining in communion with them has always been a challenge. Anglicans have held and continue to hold conflicting convictions on a number of important matters, e.g., abortion, capital punishment, remarriage after divorce, the use of military force, polygamy, and the ordination of women. Somehow we have managed to live with these disagreements, as Episcopalians did in the mid-nineteenth century in avoiding schism over the issue of slavery. But when the question at hand is the place of gays and lesbians in the Church it seems that it is no longer permissible for Anglicans to have differing convictions.

The Primates and others have taken the position that being an advocate for what Gray Temple in Gay Unions calls “sacramental equality for gays and lesbians” is not possible within the Anglican Communion. We either agree with their convictions about homosexuality or run the risk of expulsion from the Communion. The Primates’ request that “the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada voluntarily withdraw their members from the Anglican Consultative Council” for the next three years may not be a threat of expulsion, but it comes very close.

In pressing for uniformity on this issue, “traditionalists” have tried to frame the debate as one between those who accept the authority of Scripture and those who don’t. Ignoring the work of scholars such as Robin Scroggs (The New Testament and Homosexuality) and Victor Paul Furnish (The Moral Teaching of Paul), “traditionalists” have claimed that disagreement with their interpretation of Scripture is a rejection of the authority of Scripture. I grant that Christians are free to reject the interpretations laid out by Scroggs and Furnish and others, but I would argue against the contention that accepting these interpretations is a rejection of the authority of Scripture. As a pacifist I have always assumed that Christians with whom I disagree on the use of military force are as committed to the authority of Scripture as I am.

To remain in the Anglican Communion on the terms that I believe are being offered by the Primates is for me impossible and would, in my view, make an idol of the Communion. Unless a way can be found that allows for the same diversity of convictions on this issue as we have enjoyed on other issues, there seems to be little hope for those of us who support sacramental equality for gays and lesbians to remain within the Anglican Communion. Leaving would be painful. We have friends with whom we would no longer be in communion. Relationships that are already strained might well be broken. But those are costs that we may have to bear for the sake of our faithfulness to what we believe to have been the calling of God at the General Convention.

I hope that I am wrong and that I will be able to stay within a Communion that has been a gift and a blessing to me for nearly sixty years. I hope that I will not be forced out for believing in sacramental equality for gays and lesbians. But if that happens, I will accept expulsion, reluctantly and with sadness. But I know that I will not be alone.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Crisis in Zimbabwe

Over at the Episcopalians for Gloral Reconciliation blog What One Can Do there is a posting by David Lane of about the crisis in Zimbabwe. He includes a link to's call for support of the African Union as a guarantor of the new unity government in Zimbabwe.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have issued a plea for fasting and prayer for Zimbabwe.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Subversive Texts

A discussion at Jan Nunley's blog was still rattling around in my head as I prepared to preach on Genesis 1:20-2:4a. One verse jumped out at me, "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." In a patriarchal society, what a wonder it must have been - and still is - to hear this affirmation that not only men but women are created in God's image. One verse of Psalm 8, the psalm appointed in the lectionary, makes a similar subversive affirmation, "Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens." Children and infants, persons with almost no standing in Israel, are graced with the opportunity to praise God.

These verses, like so many others in Scripture, are subversive, acting to erode the societal conventions that subordinate women to men and children to adults. God's people often - maybe even usually - resist that subversion, preferring to conform to the world's standards, the world's patterns of domination and oppression. God, however, is not content to leave us in our resistance. God speaks to us through these subversive texts, calling us to a life free from the world's oppressive systems.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


The people who sell things and the people who help them sell things know that a respected brand is important. We don't usually think this way about Churches, but maybe we should. A question that has been asked around our parish recently is "How do our neighbors think of us?" Are we thought of us just those crazy Episcopalians who seem to be arguing about sex all the time? Or are we, as friend of mine told me recently, seen as the most welcoming Church in town?

I suspect that neither answer really captures how our parish is seen in this village, but hearing both of them is important. Episcopalians have argued about sexuality a lot in recent years, and although those discussions have been important, there is a lot more going on that is also important. My friend Ian Douglas, a professor at Episcopal Divinity School, reminded me recently that the resolution on homosexuality was not the only resolution passed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops. There were other resolutions adopted, and two that are often overlooked, but have proved to be very important, were Resolution I.15, International Debt and Economic, and V.2, On International Debt Cancellation and the Alleviation of Poverty. These resolutions challenged Anglicans to advocate for debt relief for the poorest nations and to provide funds for international development programs. In the United States, Episcopalians were instrumental in getting legislation passed that cancelled one billion dollars in bilateral debt. That legislation became the framework for international agreements that leveraged an estimated twenty-seven billion dollars in debt relief.

Another friend told me recently about how a parish to which she once belonged had established its brand with a sign at the entrance that quoted Bishop Edmond Browning, the Presiding Bishop at that time: "There will be no outcasts in this church." Our parish has had the sanctuary open for prayer pretty much all the time for the past seven years and a sign on the front door tells people that we are "Open for prayer." From time to time I hear from people who have responded to that invitation and found a place to pray at 2 A.M. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said in a sermon at the meeting of the Communion's Primates, "I remember a signboard outside a church that was filled with activities and I couldn't help but wonder if they had left any space for God."

What is the brand of our parish in this small western New York village? Are we seen by our neighbors as part of a Church that works for debt relief, a Church committed to the poor? Are we seen as a Church committed to prayer and to providing sacred space for others to pray? I hope so.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Who's In? Who's Out?

(These are some thoughts about the Gospel that will be read on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 1.)

In the first chapter of the Gospel according to Mark, we find Jesus teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. Suddenly, he is interrupted by a man with an unclean spirit, who recognizes Jesus as the Holy One of God. This story raises lots of questions for me, but the most important ones have to do with who’s included and who’s excluded.

What was this man with the unclean spirit doing in this holy place? Shouldn’t he have been excluded? Where were the ushers? I am reminded of an Alice Walker story, “The Welcome Table.” In that story an old African-American woman attempts to enter a white church during Sunday worship. The ushers don’t know what to do, until their wives instruct them to throw her out. After being thrown out, she continues down the road, telling Jesus her troubles, especially the injustice of being thrown out of church by people whose children she had helped raise.

Some years ago I asked a group of parishioners, “Who is excluded from our worship?” They were shocked by the question because, of course, we didn’t exclude anyone. “What about people who don’t speak English, or who are deaf, or who can’t get up the front steps?” Although we don’t usually think about it, there are people who are excluded from our worship, and perhaps there always will be. Try as we may, there are barriers that are very hard to overcome.

For many years and in many places, children were routinely excluded from worship, at least from worship with the rest of us. Sent out to Sunday School just before the sermon, to return, at all, in time for Communion, children were not expected to part of our worship. In The Episcopal Church of my childhood, we were taught that there are two sacraments that are “generally necessary to salvation…Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.” (The Catechism, 1928 Book of Common Prayer) There was a problem with that in practice because baptized persons who had not been confirmed were excluded from Holy Communion. That has changed and in many congregations the newly baptized receive Communion as part of the celebration of their Baptism.

The work of inclusion is still challenging, whether those who have been excluded are children, people of color, gays and lesbians, immigrants, or people of a different socio-economic group than the majority of church members. And the challenge isn’t just about letting people in the doors; there are ways that we shut people out of real participation in our worship. I think that perhaps is the greatest challenge, the ongoing work of making worship accessible, liturgy in which all those present have a real chance to participate. And beyond that, making life together in the congregation open to newcomers.

The man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue in Capernaum recognizes who Jesus is – something the disciples don’t get for a long time, and maybe not until after Easter. Perhaps there’s another lesson for us in this – those whom we have excluded are often great sources of spiritual wisdom when we have the grace to let them in and listen to them.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

O Canada!

During my fall sabbatical as a Proctor Scholar at Episcopal Divinity School, I found a wonderful new friend in the other Proctor Scholar, Wayne Stewart, a Canadian Anglican. Both of is audited a course with one of the longest titles in recorded history: The Episcopal Church and The Anglican Communion: Imperial Impulses and the Post-Colonial Church. Taught by the Rev. Dr. Ian T. Douglas, Angus Dun Professor of Mission and World Christianity, the course considered not only current relationships within the Anglican Communion, but also the history of mission in the Communion, and especially in The Episcopal Church. Professor Douglas is the obvious person to teach such a course - he was the only seminary professor from The Episcopal Church on the design team for the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

The reading list for the course included books by Kevin Ward, a lecturer at the University of Leeds; Episcopal priest Mark Harris; Miranda Hassett, soon to be ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of New Hampshire; Ephraim Radner, professor at Wycliffe College in Toronto; Philip Turner, Vice President of The Anglican Institute; Bruce Kaye, General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Australia from 1994 to 2004; and Professor Douglas; as well as a collection of essays edited by Douglas and his EDS colleague, Kwok Pui-lan, William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality. That collection, Beyond Colonial Anglicanism: The Anglican Communion in the Twenty-First Century, included essays by scholars from England, South Africa, the West Indies, Tanzania, Canada, the United States, Brazil, New Zealand, and India. (A copy of the list is posted here.)

During class and in discussions over meals, Wayne and I both wondered why it was that The Episcopal Church, rather than The Anglican Church of Canada, was the target of so much criticism from conservatives in the Communion. Although The Episcopal Church has a partnered gay Bishop, there are now three or four Canadian Dioceses that have approved official rites for the blessing of same-sex unions, something which has not happened in Episcopal Dioceses. Wayne would often say that the Canadians had tried to take some of the heat off their southern neighbors, but that their efforts were futile. Somehow, we concluded, conservatives prefered to attack The Episcopal Church, often comparing the decision to ordain the Bishop of New Hampshire to the decision to invade Iraq.

The United States government, and US institutions, including The Episcopal Church, are easy targets. The US has, particularly during the past eight years, demonstrated a frightening ability to act unilatterally, pursuing its own often narrow interests and ignoring the legitimate concerns of others. The US is frequently seen, with some justification, as a schoolyard bully. I often agree with that assessment, but I am deeply troubled by that kind of characterization of The Episcopal Church, to which I have belonged for most of my life and which I have served for more than thirty-five years.

I propose two challenges for members of the Churches of the Anglican Commnuion. For those of use who belong to The Episcopal Church, the challenge is to be very mindful of how we act in our realtionships with Anglicans in other parts of the Communion, especially Anglicans in the southern hemisphere. We can be arrogant without even knowing it as we fall prey to the myth of American exceptionalism. Humility and a profound commitement to listening are very much needed as we continue to explore how we can remain in communion with sisters and brothers with whom we have some serious disagreements.

For Anglicans who are upset with the actions of The Episcopal Curch, the challenge is not to allow legitimate anger about US government actions to color their assessment of The Episcopal Church. Conservatives have legitimate concerns about the actions of The Episcopal Church, but equating those actions with the invasion of Iraq does not help any of us move ahead in finding ways to work together as Anglicans. The missio Dei, God's work of reconciliation in the world is too important, and our participation in it is too urgent.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Being Called Into the Reign of God

The Revised Common Lectionary for this week provides us a study in contrasts.

In the passage from Jonah, we get Jonah's second chance to answer God's call. We recall that when God gave him his marching orders to go east to Nineveh, Jonah headed west instead. After a close encounter with a big fish, Jonah is given this second chance to go to Nineveh and preach. This time he goes and follows orders, although we know from the end of the story that he was less than happy about this. And here's the contrast. The people of Nineveh don't need a second chance - they repent right away.

In Mark's account of the calling of Andrew, Peter, James, and John, there is no need of a second chance. For whatever reason, these four fisherman down their nets and follow Jesus. Jesus calls them and they follow. In this sense, as in so many others, Jesus is not a typical rabbi who would wait around for potential disciples and would send them off on their own when they were qualified to be rabbis themselves. It is Jesus who calls, and not the disciples who request admission to his rabbinical school. And there is no graduation, no time when we stop being disciples of Jesus.

We might wonder, as Christian have for centuries, what moved these four fisherman to drop everything and become disciples of Jesus. Such wondering is probably beside the point. The point, as Mark tells the story, is that they did. Jesus comes proclaiming that the time has been fulfilled and that the reign of God is near. This is Good News - or one might say - news of the victory of God, for that is how the Greek word was often used, for news of victory in battle. God is victorious, but the announcing of that victory comes with an invitation, a call, first to repentance, to changing one's life direction, and second to believing this Good News. Belief is not simply a matter of intellectual assent to the truth, but of trusting and acting upon that truth. To use an analogy suggested by the idea that the time is fulfilled, a husband's intellectual assent to his pregnant wife's announcement that it's time is not enough, action is required if she is to get to the hospital for the baby's birth.

What is being birthed in us is what was already birthed in Jesus, the reign of God. That reign is present in Jesus and it is perhaps enough to say that Peter, Andrew, James, and John see that and follow. Do we see that in Jesus, and in one another? Do we see in one another lives that are being live towards God and not towards the world's idols? Do we see that in ourselves? Are we willing to let the reign of God be in us as it is in Jesus?

Thursday, January 22, 2009


There has been a lot of blog space given to arguments about whether or not a Diocese of The Episcopal Church can secede and affiliate itself with another member Church of the Anglican Communion. Much of the argument from those who see secession as possible is centered on the legal standing of Dioceses as incorporated within their respective states. While it may be true generally, as some have argued, that a religious corporation has the right to associate itself with or disassociate itself from whatever other religious organization it chooses, I think that Episcopal Dioceses do not have that right.

The formation of new Dioceses is governed by Article V, Section 1 of the Constitution of the Episcopal Church. It begins, “A new Diocese may be formed, with the consent of the General Convention and under such conditions as the General Convention shall prescribe by General Canon or Canons.” Dioceses are the creations of at least two bodies. In the case of a Diocese that is created by the division of an existing Diocese, the General Convention and the Convention of the existing Diocese. In the case of a Diocese that is formed by joining together of two Dioceses or parts of two Dioceses, the General Convention and the Conventions of the two Dioceses. In the case of a Diocese formed in an area where there is no existing Diocese, by the General Convention and “a Convocation of the Clergy and Laity of the unorganized area called by the Bishop….” That same section concludes with the mention of one very important requirement for any new Diocese and a description of the relationship between the Diocese and the General Convention: “After consent of the General Convention, when a certified copy of the duly adopted Constitution of the new Diocese, including an unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons of this Church, shall have been filed with the Secretary of the General Convention and approved by the Executive Council of this Church, such new Diocese shall thereupon be in union with the General Convention.”

All Dioceses of the Episcopal Church are “in union with the General Convention” and must have given “unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons of this Church….” One can look in the Constitution and Canons for a description of how a Diocese can seek to be no longer in union with the General Convention. All that one will find is a provision in Canon I.11.3.b for the transfer of “a Missionary Diocese beyond the territory of the United States of America” to another Church in the Anglican Communion. Such a transfer is only possible after consultation between the Bishop of the Missionary Diocese and the Presiding Bishop, and with their mutual agreement. The Presiding Bishop is then “authorized, after consultation with the appropriate authorities in the Anglican Communion, to take such action as needed for such Diocese to become a constituent part of another Province or Regional Council in communion with this Church.”

Some have argued that because secession is not prohibited in the Constitution and Canons, it must be allowed. Canon I.11.3.b supports an argument against that position. Realignment, to use the currently popular, is provided for in the Canons for this one circumstance, that of a Missionary Diocese outside that United States that is incapable of functioning as a jurisdiction in union with the Episcopal Church….” If realignment were to be possible for Dioceses within the United States, then the Canons would have provided for such realignment, just as the Canons provided for realignment in I.11.3.b.

What then is the status of the realignment votes of Diocesan Conventions? Under the religious corporations laws of their respective states it may appear that those votes are legal and effective, but under the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church, such votes are not allowed and have no effect. For example, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh is still a Diocese in union with the General Convention because, having made an unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons, the Convention of the Diocese has surrendered any rights to secede. The deposed Bishop of that Diocese and others may wish to form a new organization, perhaps called the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, and seek membership for that Anglican Diocese in some other Church, but this new Diocese has no rightful claim to the assets of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, nor to the assets of any congregation within the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, including assets of congregations whose vestries have voted to align their congregations with the new Anglican Diocese.

Unfortunately the resolution of this business will be in the hands of civil courts, simply because those who want to realign want to lay claim to the assets of the Episcopal Dioceses and their congregations, and are largely basing their arguments in favor of realignment on the religious corporations laws of their respective states. While I am no fan of civil litigation, I believe that it will often be necessary in defense of the polity of The Episcopal Church.

The status within the Anglican Communion of the new Anglican Dioceses that have placed themselves under the authority of member Churches of the Communion will be determined by the Archbishop of Canterbury in consultation, I assume, with the Primates of the Communion. It has long been true within the Communion “that no two Bishops of Churches in communion with each other should exercise jurisdiction in the same place; except as may be defined by a concordat adopted jointly by the competent authority of each of the said Churches, after consultation with the appropriate inter-Anglican body.” (Canon I.11.4) Without a concordat between The Episcopal Church and whatever Churches in the Anglican Communion that have taken authority over these new Anglican Dioceses, I think that it is impossible for these new Anglican Dioceses to be part of the Anglican Communion. That seems to be the view of those who maintain the Anglican Communion’s website, and I can only hope and pray that that is an indication that the Archbishop of Canterbury agrees with me.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


A fair number of evangelical Episcopalians seem to be hoping that the Primates will discipline the “revisionist” leadership of The Episcopal Church and establish once and for all that the only acceptable Anglican position on same-sex intimacy is to be against it. That is, of course, the position of the Roman Catholic Church and of many other Churches. From time to time we hear “slippery slope” or “domino theory” assertions that accepting same-sex intimacy will lead to acceptance of sexual abuse of children and bestiality.

While I find those “slippery slope” assertions absurd, there is a real “slippery slope” and we need to beware of it. This time the Primates are being asked to make an authoritative statement about the interpretation of certain passages of Scripture with Reason and with reflection on Tradition. Once we have granted the Primates that authority, what will be the next ethical or theological question upon which they will decide to speak authoritatively? There are plenty of proscriptions and prescriptions in Hebrew Scripture that they can choose. Perhaps they would choose one of my favorites, Exodus 22:25, “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.” Would that mean that we can longer take interest from any money that we might lend, directly or indirectly, to “the poor among” us? Or perhaps they would choose Leviticus 19:19, “You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.”

Of course, these two examples would be considered by most of us to be rather silly, but there are serious theological and ethical issues that the Primates might choose to address. Many of those issues are ones about which Episcopalians and other Christians have disagreed with one another in good faith. The Primates might decide to address the issue of Christian participation in war and make an authoritative statement that such participation is not allowed or an authoritative statement that conscientious objection to participation is not allowed.

I think that we need to careful about what we ask for. It is my experience that once a person or a group of people have been given authority to act it is well-nigh impossible to rescind that authority. The Primates, as sinners like the rest of us, might just come to enjoy speaking authoritatively and might find ways to enforce their Primatial Bulls. If that is what some Episcopalians want, they are welcome to it. However, if the Primates are ever granted that authority, it would be a betrayal of Anglican tradition.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


The Gospel according to John has stories of the calling of the first disciples of Jesus that are different from those we find in the synoptic Gospels and it is not a good idea to try to harmonize them. John's accounts continue two intriguing ideas - finding and being found by Jesus and coming to see.

The story of the calling of Philip begins with Jesus finding Philip. That poses questions about why Jesus was looking for Philip and what there was about Philip that moved Jesus to find him. We might also ask those questions about why Jesus went looking for and found any of us. Unless we are delusional, we know that our being sought and found is pure gift, not something we deserve, but something that God desires out of love.

After being found, Philip goes to find Nathanael and tells him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Now, that's a very odd way to put it. Philip didn't find Jesus, Jesus found him. But perhaps we can be gentle with Philip and imagine that there was something in him that was ill at ease, that was yearning for something, probably without even being able to name the something. When Jesus finds him, Philip is surprised and realizes that in Jesus he has found and been found by the very something that his heart desired.

After Nathanael makes that blunt and honest statement about his own prejudice - "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" - Philip tells him to come and see. As we read the rest of the stories about these disciples in John's account of the Good News, we see that it takes them a long time to see the truth in Jesus. In fact, as Jesus himself tells them, they can't grasp the whole of that truth until after his death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is that way with us as well. Even though we have the Gospel accounts, it still takes more than a lifetime for us to see. As Paul tells us, "now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face."

Come and see is not only about seeing who Jesus is, but about seeing who we truly are. It is in our relationship with Jesus, within the community of faith, that we come to know ourselves. It is in following Jesus, in being his disciples, that we are freed from the false selves that the world, and we ourselves, have manufactured. We need not be hard on ourselves about those selves. Many of them were manufactured to protect us, we thought, in our often very difficult lives. Others were manufactured to win favor with others - our parents, our teachers, our employers. But as we grow in our relationship with Jesus, we come to see that we don't really need those false selves, that the love that Jesus has for us is enough.

I was stuck recently by what is not a linguistic connection, but a linguistic coincidence. Find is a word we get from Old English and found - as in the founding of this nation - is a word we get from Latin. But coincidences can often suggest truth to us. Our life in Christ is founded on our being found. It is only because God in Christ seeks us and finds us that we have this gift of abundant life. Our being found is the founding, the absolutely essential beginning, of that life.

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. (Philippians 3:9)