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.

 

Alright Guy & Election Day (eCrozier #238)

I think I’m am alright guy, I just want to live until I’ve gotta die
I know I ain’t perfect, but God knows I try, I think I’m an alright guy
-         Alright Guy by Todd Snider & The Nervous Wrecks

The Nervous Wrecks is a great name for a band, isn’t it? And Snider’s song is quite perceptive about human nature. In the song, he catalogues a list of his own sins, but then ends each stanza with the above chorus. The song is a satirical expose of people who have forgotten how to blush and who have become indifferent to their own sin. Their sin is never the problem because they can always spin it to make it look otherwise or at least contend that it’s not as bad as other people’s sin. More often than we care to admit, we all fall into this category of Alright Guys. There are always worse sinners around than us, right? But I hope we know that’s not the point, is it?

Take King David for example. Now there was a sinner. At the height of his power and popularity, King David decides to steal another man’s wife, have that man murdered, and then lie about it afterward. Later, Nathan, his national security advisor, confronts him with the evil he’s done and David admits his sin. But why did he do it when he had everything? The answer the Bible gives us is that he did it because he could. A century later in Israel’s history, King Ahab sees a vineyard that he wants for his own, but the owner, Naboth, doesn’t want to sell it. So, Ahab plots to falsely accuse him of cursing God. For this trumped up charge, Naboth was stoned to death and Ahab got his vineyard. What made Ahab do such a thing? The Bible says he did it because he was the king and he could. A century and half later, King Manesseh was so notorious in his zeal to wield brutal power that the Bible says he shed so much innocent blood that “it filled Jerusalem from one end to another.” Manessah assumed he was impervious to judgment because he had the power and the authority as king.

These kings of the Bible thought their status gave them currency to do as they pleased. I’m sure that none of us have sins that rival Israel’s kings. We see our sins as small potatoes compared to the sins of the powerful. And for most of us they are smaller potatoes, but only in size and scope. Sin is still sin. And that’s true whether it’s done by a king, a nation, a church, or by the likes of you and me.

This Tuesday is Election Day when we elect our own “kings” to govern us. The people standing for election exhibit, at least in part, some Sniderly tendencies (Hey, they know they ain’t perfect, but God knows they try). Yet, they’re quick to blame their opponents, the President, or any other convenient target (but never we the voters because we’re all smart, good looking, and above average!). And they never seem to hold themselves to account. So, we’re stuck with the Alright Guys we elect. Why don’t we have candidates who can be honest about their own faults, be humble in their own use of power, and who aren’t always ready to blame everyone else for the challenges we face as a people? Must we settle for “the lesser of two evils” (or, “the evil of two lessers”)? We get the political leaders we elect, whether we deserve them or not. I’m still hopeful we can do better.

+Scott

 

In 2006, I was Rector of St Philip’s Church in Durham, North Carolina. Not far from our family home and near the East Campus of Duke University, was the Duke Lacrosse house, a house rented by members of the team and infamously known in our neighborhood for loud parties, loutish behavior, and inane vandalism. When some team members were accused of raping an exotic dancer hired to perform at the house, many were ready to believe the accusation. I stayed away from jumping on that bandwagon, limiting my public comments to the known, unseemly behavior of some of the team members in our neighborhood.

Social Media was in its infancy then, but it lit up, as did the gossip around town. Some people in Durham jumped to conclusions and made prejudgments, and then defended such behavior by saying “I’m just expressing my feelings” or “I have a right to state my opinions,” thereby washing their hands of the consequences to real people by jumping to easy conclusions, rendering rash judgments, or making quick condemnations. Social Media has expanded greatly since then, but we who use it have not had an equal expansion in our ethical behavior or our moral compasses.

We’re called as Jesus’ disciples to have moral courage even as we confess our sin. As we sin, our sin should be one of missing the mark like an arrow falling short of a target (the Greek word for sin in the Bible actually means just that). So, in our discipleship we’re at least attempting to shoot the arrow, even if it misses wildly or falls short of the target. Yes, even our best efforts can be an occasion for sin. But they’re to be our best efforts shaped by mercy, humility, and compassion, even as we are sinners.

And that brings us to the recent unpleasantness at General Seminary, which you may know about. It became fueled in social media by quick condemnations of the Board of Trustees and prejudgments about the Dean. While decrying not having contact with the Board, 8 faculty members had their demands posted on social media and on their own website accusingly named “safe seminary.” The Board’s lack of official public communication was proof in some people’s minds of their unwarranted behavior. Many accepted the Dean’s guilt without waiting for an investigation. But those weighing in on social media didn’t have all the information, nor did they have the perspectives of all sides in the conflict. Some offered prayers for everyone involved, but many leapt to conclusions calling for the dean to resign and the Board of Trustees to repent.

I don’t know the whole story and very few of us do. I’m waiting, listening, and learning before reaching any measured judgment. Some of my colleagues in the House of Bishops have rightly requested all involved to seek repentance and reconciliation. Amen. I have no doubt there’s enough sin to go around on all sides. The bloggers, and the blog sites that were their enablers, weren’t included in that request. Those blog sites were just giving people a wide forum to express themselves. And those bloggers were just stating their opinions. Social media is a wonderful way to stay in touch with one another, but it’s a double-edged sword. We should all be careful how we wield it. It cuts deeply.

+Scott

 

Extreme Exercise and Self-Sanctification (eCrozier #236)

“I don’t workout. If God had wanted us to bend over He’d put diamonds on the floor.”
Joan Rivers

“One time I felt like exercising. I sat down until the feeling passed.”
Jackie Gleason

This week the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Heather Havrilesky. The piece reflects on the current extreme fitness craze that’s gaining in popularity. These aren’t exercise programs to stay healthy. Rather these are programs that challenge participants to push themselves beyond their physical limitations. The goal seems to be something my old football coach used to yell out at us during summer training drills: “No pain, no gain!” In other words, if it’s not hurting, then you’re not working hard enough. It does sound more than a little masochistic.

According to Hevrilesky, most participants in these extreme exercise regimens are “well-to-do.” I find that telling. What is it about material and professional success that would lead someone to believe that he/she needed to engage in such extreme exercise? These folk aren’t “settling” for reasonable, healthy forms of exercise. They prefer “workouts grueling enough to resemble a kind of physical atonement. For the most privileged among us, freedom seems to feel oppressive, and oppression feels like freedom.”

When we see the word “atonement,” then we should pay attention. I think her analysis is acute. It’s about self-worth and maybe trying to prove that you’re better than others who can’t run five miles with fifty pounds of rocks in a backpack. This is self-atonement and self-sanctification, pure and simple. Making lots of money, having the good things in life, and achieving status in one’s profession aren’t enough. It doesn’t bring contentment or wholeness. There’s still an emptiness that needs filling up, so “no pain, no gain.” But my hunch is that this too will fail to fill these folks up.

Now, of course, as Christians we should be good stewards of our bodies. They are a gift God gives us in our creation. We shouldn’t treat our bodies like amusement parks or production units. Exercising and eating right are faithful ways to honor our bodies as the godly gift they are. But we maybe should, as the old Anglican saying goes, do “all things in moderation,” recognizing that such extreme exercise, like extreme work-aholism, isn’t good for the soul because they both lead to the sin of self-atonement and self-sanctification where we believe we have the power in ourselves to save ourselves.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that this trend is growing in our culture. As we grow further from lives grounded in God’s providential care and grace and toward lives centered on our own merit and abilities, these sorts of manifestations of “selfism” will only become more ubiquitous. Havrilesky ends her piece with this reflection: “When I run on Sunday mornings, I pass seven packed, bustling fitness boutiques, and five nearly empty churches.”  That says it all. We must reach these folks with the grace of Jesus.

+Scott

 

This week I attended two lectures by Dr. Charles Marsh at the Virginia Theological Seminary’s Alumni Convocation. Dr. Marsh is a professor of religion at the University of Virginia. His topic for the lectures was reclaiming “The Social Gospel for the 21st Century.” His lectures were magnificent. The Social Gospel historically came out of the Progressive Era in our country, a time when theologians were seeking a biblical response to the consequences of rapid industrialization. The Social Gospel provided the theological grounding for ending child labor, limiting the workweek, establishing health & safety laws for workplaces, etc. It was largely successful. It presented a positive, hopeful approach claiming, and this is a broad generalization, that if the church appealed to the populace’s sense of justice and fairness based on Jesus’ teaching, then our human community could get pretty darn close to utopia. As we know from history, what we now call World War I ended such positive expectations for human community.

So the so-called Social Gospel became discredited as being unrealistic. And there was good reason to question its claims. It did not, as Reinhold Niebuhr critiqued it, take into sufficient account the power of our sinfulness and our human propensity to mess even good things up. But the criticisms of the Social Gospel never denied the prophetic claims Jesus’ teachings had on society’s injustices. Nor did they deny that the results of ending things like child labor weren’t a good outcome. Skip ahead 100 years, as Dr. Marsh did in his lectures, and we find ourselves going through a similar economic shift when the Church’s social witness to social injustice is still much needed. What Marsh contends is that this time a Social Gospel must be based on a deep acknowledgement of human sin. In doing so, we all could have a stronger empathy for those who suffer on the margins.

Marsh’s insight is important. If we come to acknowledge our own sinfulness, our own propensity to mess even good things up, then we’ll be more understanding of those who have made bad choices in their lives (or had bad choices made for them) and are now unemployed, stuck in low wage jobs, or don’t have the education to climb the economic ladder. We’ll be less inclined to blame them exclusively because we know our own sin only too well. Marsh referred to what was known as “the hanging sermon.” In previous generations, the night before a criminal was hanged, the entire town turned out for a religious service with the condemned person in the front row. This wasn’t an occasion to focus on the one condemned, per se, but an opportunity for everyone to become more aware of their own real sin before God, realizing as they looked at the condemned man that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

That’s just the tonic our culture needs as we face present social ills like growing income inequality. These days we have the tendency to group people into “good guys” and “bad guys” (with “our tribe” always part of the good guys). This gives us de facto permission to ascribe our status to our goodness while concluding that those on the margins deserve their fate because they lack such goodness. That’s bad theology. A healthy awareness of all human sinfulness, ours especially, can correct such theology. I propose we bring back “the hanging sermon” (the lethal injection sermon?). But would anyone attend?

+Scott

 

Whether we enjoy it or not, technological and economic abundance surrounds those of us living in the U.S.  Our culture has many ways to stimulate our appetites for the many things we didn’t even know we needed. And it’s not just that we have an appetite for all this abundance, many people feel it’s their right to have it. Those who want lower taxes still demand their communities have high quality education, services, and cultural amenities. They just don’t want it to pay for it. In such a world, it’s a small step from claims to certain rights to the violent rhetoric of some groups, who claim, with a certain twisted logic, that in our materialistic society only the language of violence speaks loud enough to get the attention of those bent on the gratification of their desires as a “right.”

The vineyard tenants in Jesus’ parable this Sunday aren’t all that remote from us. Their acts of violence first against the owner’s servants and then the owner’s son are simply extreme examples of a demand that weaves its way through our society: “What’s mine?” The judgment proclaimed in the parable is easy for us to serve on others. We can say that their claims are too extreme, illogical, or greedy, while our claims are legitimate, reasonable, and just. We ask only our due, while they demand too much! It’s easy to see where such colliding claims lead. They lead to some form of mutual degradation. A current example of this is our broken national political culture.

So, the temptation is to choose the tenant’s solution, which is the choice for violence in some form, even if it’s not actual physical violence. The logic of oppression, which the rich and powerful use to denigrate the claims of the poor and powerless, and the logic of violence, which uses fear to gets its way, are really two sides of the same coin. Each believes that the only way to protect its claim is by denying the claim of the other.

The Gospel of Jesus is a clear alternative to this cycle of claim and counterclaim. At the heart of our lives, God has given us all we truly need. This doesn’t mean we all begin life equally or that there’s no need to mitigate the extremes of wealth and poverty, but it does mean that we’re freed from the blind claim of demanding rights or what we see as our due. We’re freed from this desire because God has given us all we truly need by his grace. If we see God as the source of all that we have and all that we are, then we can begin to see others as neighbors to love instead of opponents to overcome. We’ll begin to see them as people, like us, for whom Jesus died on the cross instead of only seeing them as competitors blocking us from getting more of what we desire.

The Gospel of Jesus confronts our sinful desires that get in the way of our ability to attend to each other in love. The Gospel is the necessary antidote for us so we’ll have the ability to see the world with the eyes of a love that doesn’t demand our rights and desires at the expense of others. The real abundance surrounding us isn’t the abundance of things that we blindly believe will fill the gaping void in our hearts. What actually surrounds us is God’s abundant grace, incarnate in Jesus, which heals our hearts and makes us whole. The Gospel of Jesus enables us to see first ourselves and then the world around us with a clearer vision and less grasping hands.

+Scott

 

As you may have read, our Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts-Schori, has announced that she’s discerned she won’t stand for election to another nine-year term as Presiding Bishop. At our most recent meeting of the House of Bishops in Taiwan, she shared with us her discernment process. Her own letter to the Church described well that discernment. I think her decision is a wise one. She’s led our Church in a remarkable time of transition. We’re still in that transition. Indeed, our Church along with every other religious institution in our culture is going through significant transition. In such a time, no leader will find universal approval or support. While I haven’t always agreed with her decisions, I believe she’s shown remarkable and courageous leadership in this very tenuous time. I also believe she wisely discerned it was time for another bishop to lead the Church in the next decade.

A challenge of our present time is to recognize that we don’t need complete agreement in order to remain in fellowship with one another to support God’s mission through the Church. In our culture, where tribalism has taken hold, one instance of disagreement seems to mean one must condemn the other side for their perceived lack of purity (just look at our national political culture). This relatively new notion is disastrous to any group, especially the Church. We ought to be able to disagree on particular decisions or positions and still rest on our unity in Christ.

One point of disagreement I’ve had with our Presiding Bishop is the focus on the internationalism of our Church. We have 16 nationalities represented in The Episcopal Church. While this does provide a rich diversity to the Church, it runs counter to the Anglican ethos we’ve received over the centuries. At our Church’s core is the belief that our catholic heritage is best lived out locally. That’s why the Church in England became the Church of England. No Bishop in Rome could define particularly how the catholic faith would be lived out in England. As Anglicanism spread, we were faithful and effective when we deliberately indigenized the church. Throughout the world Anglicanism is most faithfully led by indigenous leaders who follow the local expression of the catholic faith. The strength (and some might say, genius) of our Church has been Anglicans who come together around the authority of a bishop and other chosen leaders to lead a local diocese in God’s mission. That bishop and other leaders then maintain communion with other Anglicans. An example of this is in the Episcopal Church of the Philippines. As long as the American Church directed and funded it, it didn’t grow significantly. But once it gained indigenous leadership and autonomy in the 1990s, it flourished. Prime Bishop Edward Malecdan of the Philippine Church presented their remarkable witness and story to us this week at the House of Bishops meeting.

Our next Presiding Bishop, I believe, needs to lead us to a more diocesan-based focus for God’s mission. That means we need a smaller national church with fewer resources leaving local dioceses to support the national church structure. My hope is that our efforts at re-imagining our Church’s structure for mission will lead us in this “back to the future” direction reclaiming our Anglican ethos for a new thriving Church.

+Scott

 

My hunch is I never would’ve paid much attention to this particular newspaper headline and story if I hadn’t been in Taiwan at the House of Bishop’s meeting. The headline read: “Americans Neutral On Taiwan.” The story was about a survey done by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. In the survey Americans ranked Taiwan 12th among 25 other countries. That score indicated that Americans were neutral about Taiwan. If I read that story in Savannah, I would’ve moved on to the sports page. But reading it here gives me a chance to experience how that story feels to the Taiwanese. It matters a lot to them that Americans have a more favorable view of Japan and South Korea than they do Taiwan. A story I would’ve ignored if I were elsewhere is front-page news here.

That’s why culture and context matter so much. We perceive the import of matters based on the context and culture in which we live. We do this all the time without noticing even as we think we’re being objective and dispassionate in our assessment of a situation. But pure objectivity is elusive, we must know. That’s why a healthy and humble stance in relationship to the world involves acknowledging our lack of pure objectivity and our, at least, semi-captivity to our own cultural prejudgments and proclivities.

And that brings me to the Church of the Good Shepherd in Taipei. Here I am pictured with the Rector, Mother Lily Chang. It seems to me this parish has, more than most, a healthy and humble stance that embraces Chinese culture while acknowledging its own limitations on objectivity. For example, they practice what the Chinese have traditionally called “ancestor worship,” but they do so in the context of the Christian tradition of the communion of the saints. It thus becomes not so much worshiping one’s ancestors as honoring those who have gone before us in the faith.

Mother Chang said Protestant churches who first evangelized Taiwan forbade “ancestor worship” and thus were less effective in their evangelization than those who contextualized the faith while maintaining the larger tradition. Before we forbid or condemn something we discover in another culture, we should ask ourselves: Is this coming from the Gospel or just from our own subjective cultural lens on the Gospel?

One other interesting and compelling thing I discovered about the Church of the Good Shepherd, Taipei. In the Taiwanese form of Mandarin, the Church’s name is Mu Ai Tang, which literally translated means the Church of Shepherding Love. I find that both interesting and compelling because at the heart of the church’s name is a verb not a noun. That means the church’s identity is shaped by the action of a verb more than by the subject of a noun. The church’s mission then is activating the love of Jesus in the world rather than simply being subjects receiving that love. Their name compels them outward rather than inward. It identifies them more by how they believe rather than only by the content of their belief.  In western culture, we too often fixate only on what we believe and fail to put those beliefs into action. Mu Ai Tang reminds us that what we believe cannot be separated from how we believe.

+Scott