We Murdered a Man on Tuesday Night (eCrozier #248)

We Georgians murdered someone Tuesday night. It was premeditated. We planned the murder right down to the precise amount of poison we would use. And then we did it at night. Maybe we thought God wouldn’t see us if we did it at night? God though was watching. The person we premeditatedly murdered was a man named Warren Lee Hill. He had a clemency hearing five days ago in front of the State Board of Pardons and Parole. That Board could’ve stopped our vengeful and shameful retribution, but they chose not to do so. They deemed him unworthy of clemency and said he was unfit to live. Warren Lee Hill did some despicable things in his life. He was a murderer.

But by murdering him on Tuesday we taught our children that two wrongs make a right. We taught them that it’s all right to murder someone as long as the State does it. By murdering Warren Lee Hill we’ve chosen to be like him, morally speaking. We’ve chosen the lower, baser path and not the path of humanity’s higher calling grounded in the merciful love of Jesus. By murdering him maybe we thought we were achieving some sort of justice, but what we really achieved was the recognition that we’re more like Warren Lee Hill than we’d ever cared to admit.

My brother and colleague in the Diocese of Atlanta, Bishop Rob Wright, wrote before Warren Lee Hill was murdered that it wouldn’t “be done in his (Bishop Wright’s) name.” That’s how he sees it. While I stand with him in opposition to this barbarity, I differ a bit with my brother and colleague. There’s no truthful way around this. This murder was done in Bishop Wright’s name, in my name,and in your name. Every citizen of this State, whether we want to own it or not, is complicit in the murder of Warren Lee Hill. No, we did not strap him to the executioner’s table, nor did we inject him with poisonous drugs, but we cannot deny our complicity.

Some have contended that Warren Lee Hill was horribly abused as a child; that he grew up to live violently since he was taught to be violent by his abusers. They’ve also pointed out that he was mentally deficient with an IQ of 70 and that Georgia’s standard for judging such mental deficiency (“beyond a reasonable doubt”) is unique among the other 49 States, which have a lower standard (“a preponderance of evidence”). So, they feel that those issues should have stopped his murder. But in my mind, Warren Lee Hill could have had an IQ of 140, had no childhood issues whatsoever, and what we did to him would still be wrong. This is about our behavior, not his. We chose vengeance and that, as the Bible tells us, is God’s province alone.

There are those who will reply to what I’ve written saying that Warren Lee Hill just got what he deserved. But isn’t our faith grounded on receiving the mercy we don’t deserve? Or, they’ll reply that we were just exercising the Old Testament maxim of “an eye for an eye.” But Jesus demands that we show mercy to others as God has shown us mercy through his mediation on the cross. I wish I could find some way for me and you to feel good about what we did. I wish I could find something uplifting to say, but I can’t. We murdered Warren Lee Hill on Tuesday. May God have mercy on us all.

+Scott

 

People are complex, amazing, exasperating, and funny creatures. If you doubt this, look in the mirror (and be honest about who you see there). We’re able in one moment to engage in remarkable acts of love and devotion and then, in the next moment, act in petty, vindictive ways. All this complex and exasperating behavior shows itself in our social interaction. Our interaction with others can produce in us both joy and anxiety, and yet it’s fundamental to who we are as God’s creatures. We drive one another nuts at times, but the other is blessedly necessary for us. In theological terms, we might say that God has hard-wired us to be in communion with one another (thus, it’s God’s fault!).

David Brooks, the author and columnist, tells in his book, The Social Animal, of a psychological research experiment (although he can’t find a source verifying that this experiment was ever actually done). In the experiment, middle-aged men were hooked up to a brain-scanning device. Then they were shown a horror movie while the device recorded the reactions in their brains. Later, they were hooked up to the same device when their wives were present. They were then asked to share their feelings with their wives. The researchers then compared the first and second brain scans. They were the same: complete terror during both episodes!

I share Brooks’ tale partly because I think it’s hilariously true, but also because it illustrates our complexity and differences. And those aren’t just in terms of gender. Personality research and insight, such as produced by the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, informs us about our complexity and differences in how we take in and relate to the world around us. Some of us are innately introverted, while others are given to extroversion. Some think first and then feel second, while others feel first and then engage their thoughts. All this causes great challenges for us as we try to navigate the complexities of our myriad relationships in the world, especially in the church.

Maybe the most challenging difference we experience in community is the one related to the tension between accomplishing tasks and attending to relationships. And this tension is a core challenge for those of us who are leaders in the church. Some folk are task oriented. When they’re faced with a job to do or a role to live out, they just want to get it done. Others, however, attend themselves more to relationships. Accomplishing tasks are less important to them. This doesn’t mean task oriented folk don’t care about relationships or that relationship oriented folk don’t care about tasks. It means that in every community there will be people who tend to be more of one than the other.

The key skill here for church leaders is to help people stay on task while also helping them attend to the relationships in the group. God’s mission is not well-served if a particular task is accomplished, but in doing so people are at each other’s throats. Likewise, we’ll never engage in mission if we ignore the real tasks required to do so. If we wish to be effective leaders in the church, then we must practice mindfulness about this basic reality and attend to it in every part of church life. Both kinds of people are a part of every group within the church. That’s why church life is never boring!

+Scott

 

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. – 1 Corinthians 6:12

The Christians in Corinth believed St Paul’s message of God’s unmerited grace in Jesus and thus they weren’t bound to keep Judaism’s food and purity laws. It was God’s grace mediated through Jesus saved them. Following such religious food and purity laws couldn’t do that. But some were using this freedom from such religious laws to rub it in the face of others. So, they’d say things like: “all things are lawful for me. They flaunted their freedom from such religious laws to satisfy their own desires. They weren’t considering what would be beneficial for the other. They were basically saying: “I’m free do anything I please because I’m saved by grace alone.” St Paul agrees with them, but he also points out that while they’re indeed free, they have a responsibility to honor other people. He argues that even though God’s grace has given them the “right” to do something, they don’t necessarily need to exercise that right. Rather, they should consider what would be beneficial for the other person.

Later, St Paul uses the example of eating food sacrificed to idols to make this point. Now, that was a big deal in the polyreligious city of Corinth. There were shrines there to every imaginable god where people could bring animals to sacrifice. The best steak houses were right next door to these shrines since they got the choicest cuts of meat. So, St Paul makes it clear they have the right to eat meat sacrificed at such shrines because those gods aren’t real. But he says they shouldn’t do it because it may cause the less mature people among them to think they were really there to worship a pagan god. St Paul says that there are more important things than simply exercising one’s rights. Now that doesn’t mean we must always steer clear of any behavior that may upset others. At times that’s unavoidable. But before we engage in such behavior, we should look within ourselves to make sure that an action we contemplate is a matter of an important principle and not simply the satisfaction of a desire to exercise our rights.

And that brings us to the conversation many are having over the satire produced by the magazine, Charlie Hedbo. The thugs who murdered members of the magazine’s staff used their offense at the satire produced by the magazine as justification for their heinous deed. No amount of cartoon offense justifies murder. But just because the cartoonists had the right to ridicule other people’s deeply held beliefs doesn’t mean they had to do so as they regularly did. I hope we all want to uphold the right to the free expression of ideas. That doesn’t mean, however, that expressing every idea that plops into our heads is a good thing. Self-restraint is a virtue. Recognizing how expressing our ideas and exercising our rights affect others is a sign of our maturity, our respect, and it’s a way for us to honor the other, even if they don’t seem to deserve honor. For it’s not about them. It’s about us. It’s about how we conduct our lives. As Teju Cole of The New Yorker writes: “The cartoonists were not mere gadflies, not simple martyrs to the right to offend: they were ideologues. Just because one condemns their brutal murders doesn’t mean one must condone their ideology. The cartoonists had the right to their ideology, as do we. But can’t we still show some self-restraint and honor?

+Scott

 

As we all heard the news of the mass shootings at the Parisian satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, it was natural for us to be horrified by such violence, which is so often fueled by perceived political or religious anger and grievance. This news from Paris comes at the same time as the lone surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings begins to have his day in court. In the midst of such violent news, we may lose our perspective, and thus the big picture and the larger trajectory humankind appears to be on, at least based on the real data we have. More on that in a moment.

Mass murder, such as we just witnessed in Paris this week, has almost always been born out of people’s twisted response to their anger and grievance (at least in their own minds) over some great wrong being done to them or to their “tribe or to their “people.” Timothy McVeigh was motivated by such anger and grievance when he set off a deadly bomb in Oklahoma City in 1995. In the same state 74 years earlier, hundreds of white citizens in Tulsa systematically murdered as many as 300 black residents in a part of town known as the “Black Wall Street,” which at the time was the wealthiest African-American community in the United States. In Wilmington, North Carolina there was the so-called Massacre of 1898, which was actually a coup d’etat of the elected government. No one knows the full extent of the massacre since many of the bodies of the African-Americans killed were dumped in the Cape Fear River and never recovered.

In each of these instances, as we will probably discover with the one this week in Paris, the deranged actors all justified their murderous act or rampage on settling some score or righting some wrong. In their own warped sense of logic (engaging in an evil for an alleged evil), they were right to do what they did. The actions of others, they claim, led them to do what they did. That leads inevitably to the old “ends justifies the means” argument, which is always morally bankrupt.

But we should also know, even as the horrendous act in Paris sinks in, that such actions are actually fewer in number and less frequent than at other times in human history. It may be hard for us to believe because of the media available today, but war and other forms of political violence (like the examples above) are declining. As Steven Pinker illustrates in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, deaths related to such political violence are falling. This coincides with a steady decline worldwide of extreme poverty, child mortality, and hunger as well as the continued growth, since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, of the number of countries that are democracies.

Of course, such perspective doesn’t help those who mourn now for their murdered loved ones and fellow citizens. For now, we should just grieve with them and share their outrage and sadness, while also reminding ourselves about the historical moral bankruptcy of responding to evil with more evil. But I do hope it helps us all take a step back and see the arc of history better. As Dr. Martin Luther King said in 1967, Jr. (paraphrasing the words of the Reverend Theodore Parker a century before): The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.

+Scott

 

Research released this fall illuminated something I’ve had a hunch about for some time: Many Christians, even those who claim they hold orthodox belief, actually have theological convictions that aren’t congruent with the Church’s traditional teaching. In some ways, this shouldn’t be surprising. We all have a tendency to believe that what we believe is right because, well, we’re the ones who believe it. So then what we believe must be orthodox. Of course, that’s a non sequitur. But sin in our lives leads us to one non sequitur after another, does it not?

This particular research showed divergence from orthodox teaching in a number of areas, but the one that showed the largest gap between the Church’s teaching and research participants’ belief concerned the work of God’s redemptive grace. In the research, two-thirds of the participants said that we’re reconciled with God by our own initiative and then God responds to our initiative with grace. So, we first seek God out and only then does God’s mercy and forgiveness become operative in our lives. This has its own internal logic based on Enlightenment constructs of individualism, fairness, and reciprocity (the old quid pro quo, as it were). It makes sense to us. It sounds like it should be the way God works. It has a certain truthiness to it, as Stephen Colbert might say. As Americans who are steeped in deep internal codes of personal responsibility, we like the idea that we have a co-starring role to play in our own drama of redemption. The problem is: That’s NEVER been the orthodox teaching of the Church.

And that brings us to the 5th Century Englishman, Pelagius. Yes, he was a Brit so we Anglicans have to claim him. He’s in our spiritual family tree. He’s like that crazy great uncle we have that no one in the family wants to acknowledge, but own him we must. Pelagius contended that humans first choose God by their own personal gumption. Our sin, original or otherwise, did not, according to Pelagius, impair our ability to choose wisely by choosing God. In other words, we must choose to appropriate the benefits of God’s grace through the power of our own will. This came to be known as Pelagianism. Two Church Councils, first in 418 A.D. at Carthage and then in Ephesus in 431 A.D., rightly rejected Pelagianism. A century later a spinoff of Pelagianism, known rather non-creatively as Semi-Pelagianism, became popular. This sought to affirm the orthodox teaching about humanity’s original sin, while at the same time still insisting that we must take the initiative for God’s grace to be operative. In 529, the Council of Orange said “nice try Semi-Pelagianists,” and rejected their views.

As I listen to Christians in America, it seems to me that the vast majority of us are de facto Semi-Pelagianists. God’s grace makes us uneasy. Grace doesn’t feel right or fair. It’s like we’re getting something we don’t deserve or didn’t have to work for at all; that we didn’t get it the old fashioned way by earning it. It’s as if someone gave us something exceptionally amazing at Christmas, something it turns out that we really loved and needed, and it’s not that we just forgot to get him anything in return, we actually chose not to get him anything at all. EXACTLY. And, for me, that’s what puts the “merry” in Christmas.

+Scott

 

Facts That Get In The Way of Our Truth (eCrozier #243)

We human beings tend to believe what fits into our narrative of what must be true. When we see or read a news story, if it fits with our narrative, then we’re likely to believe the story, whether it’s true or not. Through “news” sites on the Internet and in stories shared on social media, we’re inundated with “news.” So, maybe more so than in the past, we can have our opinions and biases confirmed by what we read or hear on our preferred multimedia echo chambers. We believe what we want to believe all the while looking for evidence in “our” news that will prove the other side is wrong.

A recent story by Rolling Stone magazine about an awful sexual assault at the University of Virginia turns out to have some dubious reporting. Rolling Stone has issued an apology for its errors. Those predisposed to doubt this particular story or to question whether there is a widespread problem of sexual assault on campuses nationwide can conclude that such a problem doesn’t now exist because of Rolling Stone’s errors. (“See, just what I thought, they just make that stuff up”). Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a widespread problem of sexual assault. It only proves that there was shoddy reporting going on this particular case.

There can be tragic consequences to people when we assume we know the facts of an event. People can vilify others unfairly and jump to conclusions when they believe their personal narratives about what must be true. This occurred recently with the messy conflict at General Seminary. Some people were quick to side with the “aggrieved” faculty while others were just as quick to defend the “unjustly” accused Dean and Board. In both cases, people were reacting out of their biases as to what must be true. The facts, it seems, are less important than how we feel or think the facts must be. My hunch is that this is also playing out in the recent Senate report on the torture of terrorism suspects. None of us wants to believe we tortured other human beings. Some of us don’t want to believe it so much that we won’t believe it no matter what the facts are. It just doesn’t fit our preferred narrative for what we want to believe about ourselves.

I’m as susceptible to this as anyone else. Facts complicate my life. I don’t like the facts about myself that don’t support the personal narrative I want to believe about me. Like anyone else, I’d prefer the truth about me and the truth about the world around me to be the truth I want and not the truth that is. We’re all complicated, fallible creatures and are occasionally delusional in how we see ourselves and the world around us.

That’s why Jesus is the necessary antidote to what ails our humanity. His birth tells us that God fully enters into our messy humanity and his cross tells us that all that self-delusional truth about us, which is part of our sin, is crucified with him on the cross. Jesus’ redemptive work in his birth and in his cross then liberates us so we’re free to be

more skeptical of ourselves and of the things we want to believe. We’re freed from the tyranny of needing to be right all the time. We’re invited into a stance of honest humility since the facts about each of us before God can’t lie. God’s redemptive, gracious love for us isn’t dependent on us having the right opinion. Thank God.

+Scott

 

Time To Wake Up (eCrozier #242)

At the beginning of Advent, Jesus says to us in Mark’s Gospel: “What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” He’s assuming that we’re already awake, so he admonishes to remain so. We need to be wide awake if we’re to pay attention to what God is up to in the world. But we’re not awake. We’re asleep. And it’s time to wake up. Things are being done in our name while we’re drowsing. People working for us are causing the deaths of young black men for crimes hardly deserving death.

There’s a pattern here and it can’t be comfortable for us to acknowledge. Young black men are at a far greater risk of being killed by police than young white men in similar circumstances: 21 times greater! This is according to ProPublica’s analysis of federally collected data on fatal police encounters. There were 1,217 deadly police encounters from 2010 to 2012 collected in the federal database. The data show that black young men, age 15 to 19, were killed by law enforcement officers at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white young men in that age group faced the same fate.

I’m not interested in arguing anyone’s guilt or innocence. I assume that in nearly all of these cases, white and black, the young men were guilty of some infraction of the law, or at least they were reasonably suspected of it when their death occurred. So let’s take that off the table for consideration. Michael Brown, who was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri, was no saint. He apparently robbed a convenience store of some cigars prior to being shot by Officer Wilson. But cigar robbery is hardly a capital crime.

And Eric Garner, who died this past July by being choked to death by a police officer, was apparently guilty of selling cigarettes illegally. Again, hardly a capital crime. Yet both he and Michael Brown are dead. And there are many more. The data clearly shows that if you’re a young black man you’re 21 times more likely to end up dead through an encounter with police than if you’re a white young man. That’s a statistical Sanctus Bell. We need to wake up.

What does it say about us as a people when a grand jury this past Wednesday failed to find anyone indictable in Eric Garner’s death? When confronted by police for allegedly selling cigarettes illegally, this unarmed young man was put in a chokehold against the police’s own policy standards. All of this was captured on video. He’s heard saying his last words: “I can’t breathe.” The coroner, an official of the state, legally ruled Mr. Garner’s death as a homicide. So a homicide occurred, but no one is indicted? No one is accountable? Are we still asleep?

Let me be clear: I don’t blame the police. They have a very difficult and dangerous vocation. They’re all formed and shaped by the ethos and culture in which they were raised and by the training they receive as police officers. They’re not the problem, per se. We’re the problem. I blame all of us: Me, you, everyone. No finger-pointing elsewhere. This is our problem to solve and solve it we must for the good of our own souls and for our well-being as a people. We’ve been asleep. It’s time to wake up.

+Scott

 

Our Gospel for this Sunday’s Feast of Christ the King is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. The parable presents us with a compelling vision of God’s final judgment on the creation. Jesus tells us there’ll be sheep and there’ll be goats. And that presents us with the challenge for how we’ll live with this truth in our lives until God’s final judgment. It’s tempting, of course, to get into the judgment business now by deciding on God’s behalf who the sheep are and who the goats are. The problem is that sheep and goats aren’t always easy to name clearly and without a doubt. Sometimes they are. We can all come up with examples of sheep-like or goat-like behavior in the extreme. But it’s those areas in between where we have difficulty clearly sorting them out.

Years ago I met a real goat, or so I thought. Most people looking at this man’s life would have quickly surmised he was just no good. He was in prison for multiple aggravated assaults and for selling illegal drugs. No one would’ve mistaken him for being in the Good Shepherd’s flock. In the great judgment, he’d be a sure bet to be with the goats. Yet, some of us believed in God’s power of redemption. We gathered at the prison where I baptized him in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After he was released from prison, I lost track of him. Many years later, I ran into him. To be honest, I was a bit anxious. But my anxiety quickly went away. He smiled, hugged me, and told me his life had changed. He was now a deacon in his Church, married, and working full time as an addiction recovery specialist. Was he a goat who became a sheep? Or, was he a sheep all along and no one saw that but God? Do you see how difficult it is when we get into the judgment business? It can lead us to behaviors that should rightly make us pause. It’s clear to me that our moral confusion around, for example, the torture of terrorism suspects comes from our readiness to judge all such suspects as goats before God.

A check on this temptation to be in the judgment business is found embedded in this parable. One of the least noticed aspects of the parable is also one of its most impor­tant. In the final judgment the sheep don’t even know they are sheep. When Jesus places them at his right hand and ushers them into eternal life, they are clueless as to why. They ask, “Lord, when did we do all these compassionate things to you?” Jesus responds to them, “When you did it to the least of these, then you did it to me.” That alone should make us think again when we’re tempted to place ourselves on the throne of judgment.

This parable then is about God’s faithfulness and love. Like with the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, it’s not the hard work of the la­borers that’s rewarded. Rather, it’s the faithfulness of the landowner who keeps his promise to all the labor­ers. Or, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, it isn’t the spiritual insight of the son that’s crucial. He just wanted to get out of the pig slop and back to life on his father’s farm. Rather, it’s his father’s gracious love that makes it possible for his son to be welcomed home, no strings attached. In this Parable of the Sheep and the Goats we find God’s faithfulness and God’s love combined in the King who is the Good Shepherd of our souls. Because of God’s faithfulness, God honors our human freedom to choose even to eter­nity. But also because of God’s love, God redeems us, and indeed the entire creation, through Jesus.

+Scott

 

Suckers for Misperception (eCrozier #240)

There’s a sucker born every minute – P. T. Barnum (actually a misattribution)

Ipsos, a non-partisan market research company, recently completed a comprehensive survey entitled: “The Perils of Perception.” The results of the survey show how we’re remarkably ill-informed about the society in which we live. For example, the survey showed that we think that only 56% of our country self-identifies as Christian. The reality is 78% of us do. Americans believe that 15% of our country is Muslim. When the reality is that only 1% are Muslim. 51% of us believe the murder rate is rising, while only 30% believe it’s falling. The truth is that it has been falling steadily for over 20 years. The same is true with teen pregnancy. We believe that 24% of all teenage girls become pregnant. The actual figure is 3% and that too has been declining steadily for decades as has the number of abortions performed each year. We also believe that 32% of our population are immigrants. The fact is only 13% of our population are immigrants.

These misperceptions have a real impact on public policy. We vote based on these wildly inaccurate perceptions electing people who reflect back to us our misperceptions. Take our public policy on criminal justice: We demand building more prisons to incarcerate more people, because we believe violent crime is growing and we need to lock more people up. The truth is violent crime, like the above mentioned murder rate, has declined steadily over the last 20 years. But our prison population continues to grow. In the last 30 years, the number of people we incarcerate quadrupled from 500,000 to 2.3 million. We have 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. And we spend over $70 billion annually incarcerating people, some of that going to for-profit entities who benefit from this misperception. Now, it would make sense to be doing this if violent crime were on the rise, but it’s declined by 24% in the last 12 years.

In the 19th Century, P. T. Barnum is wrongly alleged to have said: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It seems we’re no wiser now at differentiating fact from fiction. We’re suckers for misperception. If the moral psychologists are right, then we’re such suckers because the misperception is what we want to believe. We somehow want to believe we’re being over-run by immigrants and Muslims, plagued by rampant teen pregnancy, and seriously escalating violent crime. Sounds pretty dystopian to me. But none of it’s true. Yet, we believe what we want to believe regardless of the facts.

A book was recently published entitled: “The Lost Gospel – Decoding the Sacred Text that reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary Magdalene.” But, the “Sacred Text” in question isn’t “Lost” and it’s not even a “Gospel.” And to top that, there’s no mention of Jesus or Mary Magdalene in the ancient manuscript in question. Dr. Robert Cargill, a scholar of Syriac language and history, calls the book “speculation wrapped in hearsay couched in conspiracy masquerading as science ensconced in sensationalism slathered with misinformation.” I predict the book will become a best seller. People will want to believe it to be true. Barnum might’ve commented about all this by saying: “I told you so,” but, of course, to my knowledge he never actually said that either.

+Scott

 

Some of you know I’m a huge fan of the singer-songwriter John Prine. And it’s a testament to my love and devotion to the Church and to this Diocese that I’ll be present at this evening’s Convention Eucharist because John Prine is performing tonight at the Savannah Civic Center. Prine’s lyrics are magical and almost always funny while also plumbing the depths of the human condition. A song he sings as a duet with Iris Dement evokes an affect that I want to share in my Bishop’s Address this year. The song is entitled “We’re not the Jet Set,” and part of it goes like this:

No, We’re not the jet set. We’re the old Chevro-let set
Our steak and martinis, Is draft beer with weenies
Our Bach and Tchaikovsky, Is Haggard and Husky
No, we’re not the jet set, We’re the old Chevro-let set. But ain’t we got love

In this Diocese, we’re not the jet set. Most of us are more comfortable with draft beer and weenies than we are with steak and martinis. Haggard and Husky are more likely to be on our play list than Bach and Tchaikovsky. Here in the Diocese we don’t have what a lot of dioceses have in terms of financial resources. We don’t have many large metropolitan areas that provide amenities that would draw people to move to them. With a few exceptions, the counties in our state that are projected to have significant growth are all in that certain diocese to the north, just above the gnat line.

So the demographics aren’t very favorable to us. Demographics, however, aren’t destiny and dwelling on them isn’t faithful. We trust in a providential destiny only God provides. Plus, as John Prine sings, “ain’t we got love.” We have God’s love for us incarnated in Jesus and we have our love for one another. And we have hope, hope that God is moving in our midst working out through us God’s plan of salvation.

Our call, then, isn’t to bemoan what we don’t have or what’s not favorable to us. It’s to celebrate and be thankful for what we do have and the favor God has shown us, and then to put all that we have and all that we are into the coming of God’s Kingdom on this earth, as it already is in heaven.

No, we’re not the jet set. We’re the old Chevro-let set. But this Chevy has many great miles to go and we’re fueled by the hope of what God will do through us to bring about the Kingdom.  And I want us to dwell on that sure and certain hope for these next few minutes. For as the Scriptures say: such hope will not disappoint us.

Now, we’re schooled by cable news and through social media to be afraid of just about everything from Ebola to the dirty ring around our bathtubs. If that were all the news we had, then it would be prudent to be afraid and to feel hopeless. Yet, if we have eyes to see, there are hopeful signs all around us.

1. While as a whole our diocesan Sunday attendance is basically flat, we now have more congregations that are significantly growing than are declining.

2. The core leadership training we’ve offered for clergy and laity through the Church Development Institute (CDI), Emotional Intelligence training, and peer coaching has now begun to bear fruit in many places. Clergy and lay leaders in many congregations are now better equipped to lead growing, vital congregations in the 21st century.

3. Our support for and focus on community ministries has led many congregations to reach out in real, concrete ways into their neighborhoods developing signature ministries that serve to transform people’s lives. We must remember that Jesus did not leave people stuck in their hunger or their sickness or their sin. He fed, He healed, and He liberated them. That’s what our community, signature ministries are all about. From Thomasville to Augusta, from Cordele to Darien, our congregations are embracing a vision of vitality through engagement with their communities.

4. Honey Creek, as you will see this afternoon, is being reborn into a more strategic missionary asset of the Diocese. In the last year, 70% of its ministry directly supported the mission of the Diocese. And 93% of its ministry was church-related. That didn’t happen by accident. We consciously renewed Honey Creek’s mission to be all about supporting God’s mission in and through this Diocese. And, I should add, we’re doing all this operating in the black for the 3rd straight year. When you see Honey Creek’s Director, Dade Brantley, this afternoon, please give him a big hug and a thank you.

So, there are many things we’re doing to help our congregations thrive. And thriving congregations must be our goal if we’re to accomplish God’s mission.

In this last year, while I was on retreat with the Sisters of St John the Baptist, I spent long periods of time praying for you. I did. I spent hours of time praying just for you and for each of our congregations.

There on retreat, thanks to Canon Logue, I brought with me the Field Guide to the Diocese. With that objective data and with my own direct experience with each of our congregations over the last four years, I placed each congregation in three, separate categories: Those that were thriving, those that were treading water, and those that were in decline.

I had some assumptions ahead of time about what congregations in each of those categories had in common that would tell me why they were in the category they were in. I discovered that my assumptions were mostly wrong (it’s good to have our assumptions challenged on a regular basis). It wasn’t the congregation’s location, or its size, or the amount of financial resources it had that defined whether it was thriving. The thriving congregations were of all sizes, in vastly different locations, and had widely differing resources.

There’s only one variable that all the thriving congregations have in common and it’s this: they’re all focused beyond their own doors and their own property lines. They’re concerned with that co-worker who had given up on God saying that if Jesus were real, then he must not love him. They’re focused on that hungry child down the street who won’t have enough to eat tomorrow. They’re alarmed to learn about that senior citizen who was all alone in the nursing home across town. Those are the topics dominating coffee hour conversations and discernment at vestry meetings. How might we reach them with the Good News of Jesus? How might we love them? How might we humbly serve them? Those are the questions being asked and discerned in our thriving congregations.

In contrast, what about the congregations in the two other categories? They’re anxious about their inward issues and talk mainly about surviving and protecting what they now have. Rather than be open to their community, they may feel that they have to struggle against it. While not always the case, this may lead to an unhealthy focus on things like the color of the new carpet in the narthex, or the rector’s recent haircut, or the choir’s lack of musical range. Or more dangerously, they may become focused on finding someone to blame for why their church isn’t thriving. And that blaming, often of the clergy, becomes what fuels the congregation’s life.

So my epiphany while I was on retreat is really quite simple: if we want thriving congregations and thus the transformation of our Diocese, then that’ll only happen when, as Bishop Lesslie Newbigin wrote, local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society. (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

Now, it would be wonderful if the Diocese had the financial resources to help congregations engage the Gospel in their communities. We’re trying to raise those financial resources. We’re working to get every ounce of mission out of the limited resources we have in the Diocese. We have one of the smallest diocesan staffs in the Episcopal Church for a diocese our size. Frank, Mary, Elizabeth, Rudy, Vicki, Gayle, and Libby, not only put up with me on a daily basis, they’re committed to help all our congregations thrive. I’m blessed to serve with these amazing people.

Yes, it would be wonderful if we had more money and as I said, through the Capital Campaign, we’re working on finding those financial resources.

But, you know, we don’t need money to love our neighbor. We don’t need deep pockets to care about what happens to kids in the school next door or the overwhelmed single mother across the street or the lonely man in the nursing home around the corner. Each of our congregations can make a Gospel difference in their communities without having a dime to do it. All we need is the will to set aside our inward focus and embrace our neighbors with the Good News of God’s redeeming grace in Jesus.

I see hopeful signs of this in so many of you and in our congregations. We must not lose heart or believe we’re incapable of changing our local mission strategy. As a church, we’re facing nothing short of an avalanche of social and cultural change. I don’t need to list all those changes for you. You’ve read about them and you see them every day in your community.

When I was first ordained in 1983 to serve Lake Wobegone Episcopal Church, all we needed for what we understood to be “success” back then was a nice church building in a semi-decent location with passable worship and acceptable music. It didn’t hurt if the priest’s sermons were mildly entertaining, but not too challenging. If we added a clean, safe Church school, then we had a congregation sizable enough to pay all the bills.

But those days are gone and they’re not coming back. Please hear me when I say this: Those days are gone and they’re not coming back. Nostalgia for the past is hindering us from embracing our present mission.

The old road maps for “success” in our congregations are no longer applicable. We can’t just show up anymore, say we’re the church, and people will pay attention. We must take the Gospel into the public life of our communities with a passion and a commitment we’ve not had before. The people of our society are suffering from a lack of grace and compassion in their lives. They’re living in the “mean time” in both senses of that term. Mercy and empathy for one another is in short supply. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to renew and redeem us and our neighbors.

As Bishop Newbigin wrote: If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society…it will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

Many of you are realizing that. That’s why I see so many hopeful signs of God’s redeeming grace in our congregations. You and I need to see more of these hopeful signs from one another, so we can encourage each another to live into the changes we must make locally in order to grasp the new mission God is placing before us.

The congregations that recognize what time it is will be the congregations that will thrive in the future. Those congregations who don’t, who insist on making the church’s mission only about those who show up, or only about what’s good for me and mine, those congregations will die a slow and banal death. That’s simply the truth.

So, can we let go of our inward focus and embrace our neighbors with Jesus and his Gospel in new and creative ways? Can we take the Gospel out of our churches and into the public square, not to nag or cajole, not to finger point or to blame, but to love and to serve and to bring hope to those who, as St Paul so aptly described, are literally perishing without the Gospel?

Can we do this? I know we can.

It’s true. “We’re not the jet set. We’re the old Chevro-let set. But ain’t we got love.” We sure do have love. We have the love of Jesus for us and for this wonderful and beautiful, yet sinful and broken world in which we live. And the love of Jesus is all we truly need.