Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Election of Matthias and What It Means for the Church Today

         On Monday, February 25th, the church celebrated Matthias who was chosen to replace Judas among the twelve apostles. Scripture tells us that the election boiled down to casting lots – sheer luck (or Divine Providence depending on your theology). However you want to spin it, Matthias holds a place of honor among the twelve.
            Other than the election, we know nothing else of Matthias. He seems to disappear into history. I’ve heard that this is actually a good thing given Matthias was selected to replace Judas who was the treasurer. And odds are, if history records anything about a treasurer, it is usually bad news – embezzlement or the mishandling of funds.
            It seems to me that the election of Matthias is less about the individual and more about the governance of the church. The election takes place immediately after the Ascension of Jesus Christ. The election of Matthias is the first decision of the Church under the direction of St. Peter. It seems this decision is more about preserving the traditions of the community (we've always had 12 apostles) and less about the proclamation of the gospel.
            Ten days following the Ascension, Pentecost happens. On Pentecost, the neat and tidy organization of the Church is confused by the rush of a violent wind and tongues of fire standing on each of the apostles’ heads. As one commentator notes, “Affection, not administration, would ultimately shape the church and make it a living witness to the word of God in Jesus Christ.” In other words, administration is always secondary to work of the Holy Spirit.
            As I consider the juxtaposition between church governance and the power of the Holy Spirit, I am reminded of what a friend once said, “plan tight; hang loose.” While traditions, vision statements, canon laws, vestries, and policies are important in the governance of the church, they do not control how God acts in the world. We should fully expect God to have other plans (man plans; God laughs). If we do believe that church governance controls how God acts in the world, we are in serious trouble especially in times of conflict.
            The good news is that the Holy Spirit is in the business of reminding the Church of the main thing by, from time to time, shattering the church’s sacred traditions. The main thing is that the Holy Spirit calls all the people of the world into relationship with one another through the goodness and mercy of Jesus Christ. Our common life is bound together not because of rules and regulations, not because of cultural norms and traditions, but because of the goodness and mercy poured out in Christ Jesus for the sake of the whole world.
            The architect of the first Anglican Prayer Book knew as much. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, wrote in the preface, “There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so surely established, which (in continuance of time) hath not been corrupted.” While these words were written some five-hundred years ago, they seem especially important as we consider where the Holy Spirit is moving the Church today. 
            In an era when the Church is becoming less and less established in the fabric of society, we are quick to try and figure how to maintain the church as it “has always been.” We make assumptions that culture will come around, and we can go back to doing church like before.  While our intentions might be good and pure, they seem to ignore what the Holy Spirit is up to in the world today. And according to the scriptures, that is the gravest sin of all. 
            Under the direction of Bishop Sloan, I am excited to be a part of a small group on Diocesan Council (note the irony here) who is tasked to discern what the core values of Diocese of Alabama have been while attending to where the Holy Spirit is moving among us today.  As Bishop Sloan has said many times, our work is to hold fast to what is good and sing to the Lord a new song. 
It is my understanding that our task is not to recommend changes in what we do because what we do is all about sharing the good news of Jesus and his kingdom ways. Rather, our task is to explore how the Holy Spirit might be calling us to do what we do in ways that reach a population that is growing more and more unchurched. How can we share the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that is both consistent with who we are and with where the Holy Spirit is guiding us?
As we discussed at the council retreat, there are a lot of unknowns in this conversation. The conversation will bring up the dreaded "c" word - change. We wonder, where will this bridge take us? But as Anglicans, we needn't worry! It is the Anglican way to build the bridge as we go. There is no doubt that some of this work will call us to let go of some of our sacred traditions. However, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the good news of Jesus and his kingdom are not bound by our traditions. God’s will, will be done – with or without us. But wouldn’t we rather go with God?
            In the end, the structures and organization of the Church is not something we use to direct where God is moving in the world. Rather, God can choose or choose not to move through our structure and organization to make the good news of Jesus and his kingdom known. When our structures and organization fail, as they have and will, the Holy Spirit will shatter our illusions of control and remind us what this whole Jesus Movement is about. And that is a community that is ordered not by rules and regulations but by a mutual affection for the other, an affection rooted in the goodness and mercy of Christ Jesus.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Plain Truth

            If you are feeling a hint of guilt or even a heavy dose of guilt after hearing Luke’s version of the Be Attitudes, then I have good news. Your guilty feelings mean that you are a living, breathing human being who has a conscience. 
If you do not share that same guilt, then I recommend you read the lesson again. If you still don’t feel anything after a second reading, I hope to see you on Ash Wednesday where there is no way to escape acknowledging your manifold sins and wretchedness. Oh, come on, it will be fun!
While today we read from Luke, the most popular form of the Be Attitudes is taken from Matthew’s gospel. In case you are counting, we haven’t heard Luke’s version in a Sunday worship service since 2007. Matthew’s version says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Oh, and Matthew’s version leaves out the “Woe to you…” part. Luke’s version, however, doesn’t leave much room to interpret what it means to be poor and hungry. 
It’s hard to spiritualize Luke. Poor is poor and hungry is hungry. Luke’s gospel, after all, is the only gospel to include the Song of Mary, a song that says, “he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” And only in Luke do we hear the full text of the sermon Jesus preaches in the synagogue in his hometown. 
Summarizing that first sermon, Jesus says, “salvation is to be made known first to the marginalized, outcast, and enemy.” If you remember, Jesus is almost thrown off a cliff for that sermon. Not a great way to start a ministry. And thank you, by the way, for not throwing me off a cliff yet.
            Scholars tell us that Luke’s original audience was made up of highly educated, well off people. One commentator says, “Luke’s gospel is the good news for the poor to the non-poor.” In a way, Luke is speaking to the Episcopal Church and most other mainline Protestant congregations. 
I believe now is the appropriate time to insert an appropriate cliché. The gospel of Jesus Christ comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. The good news, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is in the business of telling the plain truth especially in Luke. 
I think it is important to note that this part of Jesus’ ministry takes place on a plain – on level ground. Therefore, this part of Luke is called the Sermon on the Plain. Unlike Matthew’s version, which puts Jesus on a pedestal - a mountain. Thus, the Sermon on the Mount. 
In my mind’s eye, the Sermon on the Mount is more celebratory in nature – maybe like a rock concert. Gather around – I have some really good news to share! While the Sermon on the Plain, is more like being called into a meeting where you are asked to pull up a chair and sit down. Listen, I need to tell this to you plainly. I have some good news and some bad news. (Good, I’m glad you’re all sitting down.)
In all reality, God tells us the bad news before he tells us the good news. The bad news is that we think too much about ourselves – for better and for worse. The good news is that God thinks more of us than we can hardly imagine – for better and for worse. Regardless of our limited love for God and neighbor, God’s immeasurable love for us is made sure in Christ Jesus. 
Therefore, the Be Attitudesfrom Luke should not be used as a measuring stick for our faithfulness. It shouldn’t be the standard by which we use to gauge how much God loves us.  Rather, this teaching should be received as a tool for conversion. Through this teaching, God is offering us a way to grow in love for God and neighbor.
As we will do with the Ten Commandments during the season of Lent, how can we not hear these words from Luke’s Jesus and respond, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep your law.” When we hear the Be Attitudes, we are confronted with our failure, moved to guilt, plead for mercy, and ask God to make our hearts right again.
God is converting our hearts not simply to make us feel better about ourselves but to make our hearts pursue the mission of the gospel – a mission that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, gives hope to the downtrodden and outcast and marginalized – a mission that we live out in our life together through Episcopal Place, First Light Shelter, Firehouse Shelter, 55thPlace, and so on. 
And now, stealing and editing slightly a gem from Bishop Sloan. “What if we gave a little more, just so we could imagine what more God can do through us?”
As we learned in Episcopal Church 101 this morning, the Episcopal Church’s official name is the “Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church.” This designation came in the mid-19thcentury when church leaders wanted to make it clear that even if one didn’t do mission work oversees, one was called to mission in their daily lives. Every baptized member of the church is a missionary for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Your missionary work doesn’t have to take you overseas or across state lines. In fact, your missionary work can take you only as far as the other side of town. Even more, your missionary work might simply call you to take interest in that lonely person or struggling family that you encounter on a daily basis. 
And it is there, in your encounter with the poor, the hungry, the bereaved, the reviled, where you will find the kingdom of God, where you will be filled with laugher and joy, where your heart will be made glad with God’s infinite goodness and mercy.     
Friends, Jesus is presenting us with some hard truths today. Sometimes the truth of the gospel makes us feel uncomfortable, the gospel may even make us feel angry, it may inflict guilt. But it is this good news that sets us and the whole world free to live in love and charity with one another. As you wrestle with these hard truths, do not forget that everything Jesus says and does is said and done in love for you and the entire human family – the rich and poor, the young and old, the weak and strong.
I read recently, “One cannot be a Christian; one can only become one again and again.” Beloved in Christ, do not be afraid to hear the hard truths of the gospel for these hard truths call your hearts to be converted again and again by God’s infinite goodness and mercy. May your daily conversion make your heart grow more and more in love with God and with all of God’s children. Amen.

Episcopal Church 101: History and Legacy

Summary Notes
  • Episcopal comes from Greek word episkopos meaning overseer or bishop. Unlike our Mother Church in England where the Monarch is the head of the church, the Episcopal Church finds authority in bishops.
  • Henry VIII break from Rome was politically motivated while the Reformation on the continent was theologically motivated (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc.). Before break from Rome, Pope called Henry “Defender of the Faith” for criticizing Luther. Henry did move for worship to be said in English (Latin no longer common language of church) and permitted laity to drink wine. Anglican legacy: gospel takes root in local vernacular and authority should be local
  • Under the reign of Elizabeth I, the Church of England found a compromise (Via Media) between the Roman Catholic and Protestant expression of faith. The result was a prayer book written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Anglican legacy: Both/Andtheology shaped by prayer not confession or dogma
  • Anglicanism in colonies varied by region.
    • Virginia: Vestries a part of local government, taxed churches, imported priests
    • Southern: Influenced by Age of Enlightenment, Jefferson Bible – took out references to miraculous, relied on human agency and not Divine intervention
    • New England: Puritans created established church, Anglicans minority class – relied on support from Church of England/loyalists
  • How would Anglicans survive the Revolutionary War
    • Samuel Seabury consecrated bishop in Scotland by bishops who didn’t swear oath to crown in England. Legacy: used Scottish Eucharistic Prayer for consecration taken from E. Orthodox
    • New England – wanted bishops; VA/southern – didn’t care for bishops. William White created a 2-house system to govern (House of Deputies and House of Bishops)
    • Bishops began as Rectors of large parishes and gradually took on more administrative duties
  • Anglicanism spreads during British Colonization – Chicago/Lambeth Quadrilateral defined common beliefs across church:
    • 1) scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation 2) Apostles’/Nicene Creed sufficient statements of faith 3) Baptism/Eucharist – Great Sacraments 4) authority in local bishops
  • Renewal Movements
    • Early 18thcentury – Great Awakening– call to repentance and conversion – emotional appeal (George Whitfield, John and Charles Wesley)
    • Mid-19thcentury – Oxford Movement– move to add ceremony to liturgy (priest vestments, crucifix, stained-glass, incense). Also, concerned with social justice because high church liturgy attracted blue collar/immigrant
  • Mid-19thcentury – named Domestic and Foreign Missionary Societyof the Protestant Episcopal Church – everyone called to mission work – even locally.
    • Women’s Auxiliary (Episcopal Church Women) – created charities/societies for poor and needy
    • Created social agencies to support widowed, orphaned, poor, etc.
  • Church begin to turn inward – 20thcentury
    • Government took over many social causes
    • Civil Rights, Women’s Ordination, New Prayer Book 
  • Changing Role of Women
    • Career women – volunteer power in church diminished
    • Women’s ordination 
  • Church grew in 80s/90s
    • 60% non-cradle Episcopalians. 
      • RC’s who wanted to think for themselves + 
      • Protestants who wanted liturgy 
  • Benefactor Paradigm
    • Early 20thcentury – wanted to be national church 
    • National Cathedral
    • Sanctify nation/moral compass
  • Power, privilege, resources support poor/advocate for poor/political action
    • 1960s – church no longer moral authority
    • church no longer established position in society – therefore advocacy/political work not as powerful (still important but can't be only work)
  • Inherent power imbalance with givers and receivers
    • Fundamental question: In addition to supporting/advocating for poor/marginalized, how to identity with and receive from vulnerable?
  • New Apostolic Era
    • Default religion in America: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
      • There is a God – created world
      • God wants us to be good, nice, fair – like taught in most religions
      • Central goal of life – be happy, feel good about oneself
      • God not called upon unless crisis to resolve
      • Good people go to heaven when they die
    • Disconnected from narratives of Christian tradition
    • Many spiritual options (pluralism)
    • Discontinuity and fragmentation in culture (technology)
    • New Tribalism (Fox v. MSNBC)

“We are in a new day, where a different kind of conversation must guide us forward, a conversation that attends deeply to God’s promises in Christ. As long as we focus on the church and try through our own best efforts to turn things around, there is no reason to believe much will change. Instead, now is a moment to refocus our attention of the story of God’s life with and for us in Christ through the power of the Spirit — to live more deeply into our identity as people of the Way.” – Dwight Zschelie

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Absalom Jones: The Whole Truth

Feast Day of Absalom Jones
February 13, 2019

           The Episcopal Publication Lesser Feasts and Fasts tells us that Absalom Jones was born in 1746 as a house slave in Delaware. After being sold at the age of sixteen to a store owner in Philadelphia, he attended night school for Blacks run by Quakers. At the age of twenty, he married and bought his wife her freedom.
            Over twenty years later, Jones bought his own freedom and began serving as a lay minister for the Black membership at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Under the leadership of Jones and his friend Richard Allen, the Black membership grew significantly. This distressed the vestry who decided to segregate the blacks into an upstairs gallery. 
During a Sunday service, the ushers attempted to move the Black membership to the upper gallery. Led by Jones and Allen, the Black membership walked toward the back of the church and kept right on walking out of the church building. 
            In 1787, both Jones and Allen become the overseers of the newly formed Free African Society who raised money to benefit those in need. In 1792, the Society began construction on a new church which was dedicated on July 17, 1794. The African Church applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. In October 1794, it was admitted as St Thomas African Episcopal Church. Bishop White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest on September 21, 1802. He was widely known as the “Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church.”
            The Episcopal publication does not, however, tell us why it took almost 10 years for Jones to be ordained priest. The publication also does not tell us why it took 200 years for the Episcopal Church to recognize Absalom Jones on the liturgical calendar.
I imagine it took over 200 years for the Episcopal Church to forget that it too was a part of the system of injustice that did not give African-Americans equal rights in the church. Jones’ ordination in the Episcopal Church was delayed because it was a condition under which St. Thomas could be admitted into the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Another condition stipulated that neither priest nor lay leader could serve as a delegate to the annual diocesan convention. 
            In my own conversations relating to racial injustice, I’ve observed the problem is not simply in what is said but also in what is not said. A vast majority of history is told by those who hold the power. As is human nature, we will tell that history in a way that is most favorable us. It was not until I was a fully grown adult that I began to hear the minority stories of not only Black Americans but also Native Americans. The whole truth is much more troubling than what I remember learning in school.
            One of the things I admire most about the Old Testament scriptures is that the writers do not water down much of anything. The history of the people of Israel doesn’t leave out anything. It includes everything -  the good, the bad, and the ugly.
As I read these ancient scriptures, I am reminded of the core truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ –a truth captured in a Camp McDowell song. Jesus loves me when I’m good. Jesus loves me when I’m bad. In the end, the story our faith is not defined by us mortals but by a God whose property is always to have mercy. Or as the letter to the Galatians says, “you who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”
As a people who proclaim a faith rooted in the grace of God in Christ, we have no reason to conceal a part of the truth to make ourselves look better. In fact, we have every reason to know and hear and share the entire truth. Because only when the whole truth - the good, the bad, and the ugly - is brought to light, can God truly begin the work of redemption in us and through us by the grace of Christ Jesus. 
On the cross, Jesus brings this truth to light. Jesus shows us that the history of our sins is more destructive than we could have ever imagined. Jesus also shows us a love and mercy that we can hardly fathom. On the cross, as Jesus looks upon those who put him there, he speaks God’s ultimate truth, “Father forgive them.” 
May God’s promise of mercy help us not only tell the whole truth but also more willing to hear the whole truth. And may our journey of faith be less about making ourselves look good and more about trusting in a God who redeems all of history – even the worst of our history. And then and only then can we learn to live into Jesus' command to love others as Christ loves us.

From Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2018

Jones was born on November 6, 1746, in a house slave in Delaware. He taught himself to read out of the New Testament, among other books. When sixteen, he was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia. There he attended a night school for blacks, operated by Quakers. At twenty, he married another slave, and purchased her freedom with his earnings.

Jones bought his own freedom in 1784. At St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, he served as lay minister for its black membership. The active evangelism of Jones and that of his friend, Richard Allen, greatly increased black membership at St. George’s. The alarmed vestry decided to segregate blacks into an upstairs gallery, without notifying them. During a Sunday service when ushers attempted to remove them, the blacks indignantly walked out as a body.

In 1787, black Christians organized the Free African Society, thefirst organized Afro-American society, and Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were elected overseers. Members of the Society paid monthly dues for the benefit of those in need. The Society established communication with similar black groups in other cities. In 1792, the Society began to build a church, which was dedicated on July 17th, 1794.

The African Church applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions: 1. that they be received as an organized body; 2. that they have control over their local affairs; 3. that Absalom Jones be licensed as layreader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister. In October 1794 it was admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Bishop White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest on September 21, 1802.

Jones was an earnest preacher. He denounced slavery, and warnedthe oppressors to “clean their hands of slaves.” To him, God was the Father, who always acted on “behalf of the oppressed and distressed.” But it was his constant visiting and mild manner that made him beloved by his own flock and by the community. St. Thomas Church, Philadelphia, grew to over 500 members during its first year. Known as “the Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church,” Jones was an example of persistent faith in God and in the church as God’s instrument.

Jones died on February 13th, 1818, in Philadelphia.