Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sermon: Dangerous and Peaceful

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (October 18, 2015).
Readings: Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Ps. 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Heb. 5:1-10; Mk. 10:35-45.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

BLOGFORCE Challenge: Resurrection at General Convention 78

In the latest BLOGFORCE challenge, the Acts 8 Moment asks: Where did you see resurrection at General Convention?

At this point it's not at all original to observe that the tone at the 78th General Convention was remarkably positive - that even though we were dealing with big issues that have caused no shortage of conflict in the past (most notably but not solely issues of same sex marriage) - it seemed that parties on both sides have laid down arms and looked for ways to move forward in relationship with one another.

I want to share one aspect of how that actually played out for me at convention. One of the things that excited me most about the Acts 8 gathering at the 2012 convention in Indianapolis was that people from a wide variety of theological persuasions attended to pray for the church without any other agenda. The same happened at this convention. While I guess I fall on the progressive-ish side of the church, that is something that gives me a lot of hope, because it tells me there is a desire to work together toward the furthering of God's kingdom across our disagreements.

At this convention deputies and bishops made a deliberate effort to treat each other not as adversaries but collaborators. By happenstance as much as anything Bishop Greg Brewer - among the Bishops with a more traditional understanding of marriage (and a signer of the Salt Lake City statement) -  and I had a productive interaction in the "House of Twitter." As it was growing late on the final legislative day, some friends and I observed with anxiety that D004, a piece of legislation to study and reform the process of electing bishops, had not advanced in the House of Bishops, despite being passed by the deputies days before. We'll let Storify take it from here:

Where I see resurrection in all this - it's a small but meaningful example of working in common cause across difference in perspectives (and, for that matter, across orders of ministry) for the good of Christ's church. I hope for greater things than these.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sermon: Where was Jesus?

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (June 21, 2015). 
Readings: 1 Sam. 17:32-49; Ps. 9:9-20; 2 Cor. 6:1-13; Mk. 4:35-41.
The phrase: "covered in the spilled blood of their friends and family" is a quote from Doug Perdue & Jennifer Berry's article "In an hour, a church changes forever," Charleston Post & Courier, June 19, 2015.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

BLOGFORCE Challenge: A Question of Resurrection for Executive Council Candidates

The Acts 8 Moment is asking candidates for Executive Council to answer one seemingly simple question:
“How will you share your love of Jesus inside and outside the church, and how must the church change in order to be more effective at proclaiming resurrection?”
Here's my answer.

Media preview
Photo credit: The Rev. E. Suzanne Wille

At Saturday's Indianapolis Pride parade, two others and I were assigned to carry our diocese's banner, with some 100+ Episcopalians walking behind us. In large print the banner read: "God loves you. No exceptions."

The streets on the parade route are narrow enough to allow direct interaction with the crowd. It turns out that when you're the bearer of Good News, electricity can spark. The crowd greeted our procession with cheers and shouts of "Amen" and "we love you, too!" Don't take my word for it - Indy’s ABC station's report backs me up.

I suspect we got such a big reaction because our message was what we believe about God, not who we are. Or, in Paul's words, "we [did] not proclaim ourselves, we proclaim[ed] Christ Jesus" (2 Cor. 4:5).

Yesterday's experience exemplifies a principle about proclaiming resurrection. Lead with the message of the faith that has changed my life; follow with the institution that helps form it. I’ve had a lot of practice having this kind of conversation lately through co-hosting a podcast about faith with my friend Holli, that’s also affected the conversations I have in daily life.

That principle of proclaiming not ourselves but our Lord applies equally to the institutional church. Among the more popular items of Episcapparel are t-shirts featuring Robin Williams' (apocryphal?) top 10 reasons to be Episcopalian. Whatever its resonance when first published, we need to put its status as a lighthearted creed to bed. "You can believe in dinosaurs" and "You don't have to check your brain at the door," presuppose an audience that already assumes church is important, with the main question for a denomination to answer being "which one?"

Our activities now and going forward should assume a culture that knows little about Jesus and may be hostile to hearing what we have to say. Except that maybe I'm overplaying that hostility. Because if my experience of yesterday's parade tells me anything, it's that our world longs to hear for word of God's love. But we need to be proclaiming that message much, much more clearly.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Nine Resolutions That Won't Rescue the Church

The day after last week's Ascension Day release of "A Memorial to the Church" on the web site, the Rev. Jonathan Grieser wrote about why he won't be adding his name to the list of the memorial's endorsers:
I want to spend my time and energy in following where the spirit is blowing, into new ways of being church, new ways of encountering Jesus, and new ways of connecting with those who are seeking spiritual meaning. If the institutional church can be transformed to do those things, fine, but I’m not going to be fighting that battle. There’s too much else at stake.
Though I am one of the co-authors of the memorial and resolutions ("editor" or "suggester" may be more accurate terms than "co-author", in my case), I can't begrudge Grieser his position one bit. He writes about the work his church has been doing on the ground in his city, partnering with others both religious and secular to organize against yet another judicial failure in yet another police killing of an unarmed black man. In the face of matters of such import, what's the point of worrying about the institutional church?

While I don't think that means he shouldn't sign on to the memorial, I think the thrust of Grieser's argument is mostly right. In Salt Lake City in June and July, about a thousand lay and clergy Episcopalians will sit in conference rooms and exhibit halls, taking three days longer than it took God to create the world to take a good hard look at The Episcopal Church. But with the exception of the conversations we'll be having around the report from the Task Force on the Study of Marriage, little of what happens there will mean much to church congregations.

That includes these resolutions: even the one on church planting, even the one on congregational revitalization.

That doesn't mean these resolutions aren't worth passing. I wholeheartedly believe they are. Focusing resources on planting churches offers the opportunity for future graduating classes at some of our seminaries to relearn a skill mostly lost in our denomination. Focusing resources on congregational revitalization can expand the exciting work started by the Mission Enterprise Zone grants over the last triennium. But even with the millions of dollars the resolutions suggest deploying for such efforts, they will take many years to bear fruit.

The other resolutions are a lot more technical in nature but in brief they clarify a variety of church governance issues in a way that increases transparency and accountability in our governance, and eliminate one of our church's most opaque governance structures, the provinces. These too are worth passing because they impact the way we as a denomination act collectively. Good governance is part of good stewardship, and it's worth phasing out or reforming practices and structures that no longer serve the church or that engender confusion and distrust.

But the fact is that no piece of legislation, no matter how finely crafted, will save the church. Nor will any memorial or open letter save it, no matter how persuasively its authors make their points. Fortunately we Christians believe that the work of salvation has already been taken care of. Instead our task is to respond as a redeemed people, that is, in the words of the memorial, to:
  • Recommit to reading scripture, praying daily, gathering weekly for corporate worship, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom, knowing that engaging in these practices brings personal and corporate transformation;
  • Share the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed, including learning how to tell the story of how Jesus makes a difference in our lives, even and especially to those who have not experienced true transformation;
  • Pray and fast for the Holy Spirit to add day by day to those who come within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace;
  • Encounter Jesus Christ through loving service to those in need and through seeking justice and peace among all people.
This is the hard work of discipleship. At the very best the work of General Convention will clear a few obstacles, maybe offer a few new tools - and it should do those things! But the practices the memorial enumerates...General Convention can't make any of those things happen. These are the works of a people with hearts aflame, continuing in the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and the prayers, with God's help.

Oh, by the way! It's not too late to sign your name to the memorial. Just send your name to Please indicate whether you are a bishop, deputy, alternate, member of the official youth presence, or, best of all, an interested Episcopalian.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

These Bones

No one told us what to expect when we picked up my mother’s ashes from the crematorium.

The taxi turned into the parking lot at the top of the hill, across from the Chinese cemetery. Some chickens pecked around in the grass. The funeral director led us around to a table on the far side of the building, and then they brought her out.

She was in what looked like a large lasagna pan. She was fine dust, some ribs, an arm bone. The heat of the oven had broken her skull into three pieces.

“Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel came uninvited into my mind. No, I said to myself. No.

We said no when they asked if we wanted to keep her teeth, to melt down the gold fillings. They took the tray around the corner, and in a moment we heard a whirring like a coffee grinder. They made a funnel out of newspaper and poured the dust into the urn. The funeral direction said he would take the ashes to the embassy to be certified for travel, and would drop them off at the apartment tomorrow.

The day before, Easter Sunday, Dad, Colin and I walked behind the hearse, coughing on exhaust fumes as it trundled the few hundred yards from the funeral hall up the hill. Dad asked them to turn off the gospel music blaring from the radio. On a portico outside the crematorium, we laid white flowers on the casket.

“Alleluia, Christ is risen,” I choked out, somehow.

“The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia,” said my father, brother, and assembled friends, uncertain.

I don’t believe any of this, I thought.

That night I had a nightmare that I had forgotten the sound of my mother’s voice.

On the flight home I stowed her securely under the seat in front of me and watched Frozen.

Six months later, before we buried the ashes in the churchyard, I stood with a wheelbarrow and shovel putting dirt back into the hole. We had it dug to a double depth, so Dad’s ashes could be there too, when the time comes, but it was a bit too deep. We were to gently lower the urn into to the grave and even with my long arms it was too deep for that to happen. I added a few inches and hoped for the best.

In the end it made no difference. Dad and I knelt in the gravel, guiding the urn down. But I lost my balance and fell, the heavy urn pulling my arms down into the grave. My forehead slammed into the gravel. The urn stayed upright, the lid secure. I stood up, sheepish and trembling, my sleeves muddy. Mother Suzanne touched my shoulder.

“You’ve taken her as far as you can,” she said.

In December, as I prepared to switch phones, I found a voicemail from February. Amiable, about nothing, like our conversation the night before she died, before anyone had an inkling her heart was already betraying her, and in a few hours would suddenly give out. “Have a good day,” she signed off.

I entered this Holy Week, the liturgical anniversary of her death, with unease. But it was so much better than I expected - I was just glad to be in an identifiable place. Last year I boarded a plane Maundy Thursday morning and got off Good Friday at midnight a world away, spending the meantime in a great nowhere tunnel in the sky.

This Easter Vigil I spent with the clanging of bells rather than drinking scotch and telling stories and drafting a funeral liturgy I thought my non-religious mother could live with, for lack of a better term. This Easter instead of saying goodbye I said hello, bringing a glass of wine from Easter brunch out to the grave. I sat in the sun, liked some alleluias on Facebook, sent some emails.

At a Thursday night Bible study the other week we read the passage from Luke where the risen Jesus appears among the disciples in Jerusalem and shows them his wounded hands and feet, the gash in his side. Teresa asked us who in the story we identify with. The only characters to choose are the unnamed disciples and Jesus. Everyone picked disciples.

“Come on,” Teresa said, “doesn’t anyone identify with Jesus?”

“Ok,” I said, “I do. Today is the calendar anniversary of my mother’s death. And I’m grateful not to be able to re-feel things about that day, the splitting headache, the nausea. Today can’t be more different than that day for me. Some good things have happened. I have a new and interesting kind of relationship with my dad, for one, and that’s a gift.

“But look at Jesus here. He’s resurrected but still wounded. The world did something to him that resurrection can’t undo. I’m back, in a way, too. But I’m not the same.”

Last Saturday I found myself crying in the final scene of Die Walkure. Wotan, king of the gods, stands over his daughter Brunnhilde. For complicated Wagnerian reasons he has had no choice but to place her unconscious body, living but no longer immortal, on a high rock.

The music lasts far longer than strictly needed for the action in the stage directions to occur, so for a long time Wotan gazes at his beloved daughter, delaying as long as possible the moment when the flames rise, she will be hidden from his sight, and he will go back into the world.

“Do not hold on to me,” Jesus says to Mary Magdalene. But how hard it is to let go and turn away.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

These bones, ground to dust, buried in the churchyard?

No. Maybe. I don’t know. I'll just keep saying the creed.

But. Love is patient, love is kind, love never dies. Love bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things.

Love, believe this for me.

This is a participating post in the Acts 8 Moment BLOGFORCE challenge, which asks, "Where have you experienced resurrection this Holy Week and Easter season?" Participation in the BLOGFORCE is open to anyone who's interested, just follow the link to learn how.

Monday, March 2, 2015

BLOGFORCE Challenge: What's a Diocese For?

This is a response to the second of a three-part series of questions the Acts 8 Moment is asking about subsidiarity in The Episcopal Church. This time: what's the mission of diocese, and how should it be structured?

I recently served on a task force to reimagine the Diocese of Indianapolis. We spent a year asking ourselves this very question. We wrote a 14-page report about it, which you can read here.

The crux of our report dealt with this question: the hierarchical structure of our Episcopal structure, which has bishops at its center, makes an awkward fit for the networked model of leadership that is all the rage these days. I'm kind of sick of the word "network"...I fear it's becoming the new "missional" in churchspeak, but the fact of the matter is that many of the big things that have happened in our diocese over the last few years have been ideas originating from lay and clergy folks from around central and southern Indiana latching onto an idea and making it happen, with the diocese signing on to many of these ideas to help them achieve liftoff. Examples have included a multi-parish operation to build and provide sustainable funding for a school in Haiti, and providing a home and technical resources for, which originates in Lafayette, Indiana and has helped thousands of people around the world exercise the habits of prayer to develop a closer relationship with God.

So if these ideas are starting at lower levels in the hierarchy, what's the role of the diocese, anyway? In addition to the sacramental offices of the Bishop, we came to the following conclusions:
The role of a hierarchical leadership structure in such an environment is to:
● Recognize itself as a node in the network rather than a central hub, albeit a node with special
authority and responsibility;
● Encourage experimentation and highlight successes;
● Facilitate clear channels of communication and dissemination of data;
● Mediate conflicts where needed;
● Provide correctives for deviations from Christian teaching;
● Deploy resources where doing so can help an exciting project achieve liftoff.
As for how we structure for this? Well, that's harder. An array of choices our task force laid out as an illustration for Indianapolis proved controversial. But there's a lot of conversation and a lot of experimentation going on around the church these days, and I'm confident that with God's help we'll get there.