THE TWIN OF GOD

In addition to being a schoolteacher, my dad was also a carpenter, and is a very gifted one at that. In the afternoon, he’d come home from work – having served all of his nearly 35 years teaching in one school district in a town just outside of Chicago – change clothes and head out, again, to replace a kitchen floor or hang cabinets or do other handy-man jobs.

In the summers, sometimes, I would go out for the day with my dad. Sometimes I’d be called on to do something; mostly, I was just there, taking it in, as children do so well.

The shapes and the names, let alone the functions of the tools were fascinating to me, and sometimes my dad would send me out to get one in particular: the terms, ‘crescent wrench’ or ‘mitre saw,’ sounded to my childhood mind like code words I could decipher. One summer day, I must’ve grown restless and wandered out to the station wagon and began to play with some of the tools, making up a game and passing time with that boundless creativity children muster. He was inside, I was outside. He was in his world, I was in mine. Later that afternoon, my dad asked me to go to the car and get something. I didn’t know which tool he was talking about, and I suppose that showed on my face. “Crowbar,” my dad repeated, “it looks like a heavy little cane. It’s the one you were playing with earlier by the station wagon.”

He had seen me playing. At once, I felt both ashamed and loved; ashamed for having been playing what must’ve seemed a silly game; loved because I was seen, recognized, the distance between our worlds not being a distance at all, not for my dad, at least.

 

 

All four gospel authors in our New Testament tell us that one of Jesus’ disciples was named Thomas. He’s there in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but as one of the supportive cast, no brighter than, say, Thaddeus or Bartholomew. But Thomas comes out of the shadows and into the limelight in the fourth gospel.

When, in John’s gospel, we first meet Thomas, back when Lazarus was about to be raised in chapter 11, the evangelist tells us that Thomas was called the Twin. In fact, he says it again in this morning’s gospel lesson as well as the next chapter. Most often when, in John’s gospel, Thomas is named it’s “Thomas, called the Twin.” It’s strange to continually offer up a nickname, alongside someone’s other name, and as any good reader – let alone a reader of the bible – knows, if something seems odd or a word is chosen regularly, it’s got to mean something.   Twin, in Greek, is didymus, as any study bible will tell you, but what they don’t tell you is that Thomas, the name itself, might not be his actual first name. In fact, toma is Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus and his friends, meaning “twin.” “Thomas, called the Twin” is really just saying “Twin, called the Twin,” just in two different languages. It’s likely the apostle’s first name wasn’t Thomas, after all, and it’s likely that his real name is, well, not named.

Lest you think I’m offering mere speculation, I’ll say, first, there is a point and, second, I’m not alone.   My friend and former Divinity School classmate (and, now, professor at Harvard Divinity School), Charlie Stang, recently wrote a fascinating piece about this, pointing out that: “A number of texts from the second and third centuries speak of an apostle by the name of Judas Thomas Didymus. Judas, of course, is not only the name of Jesus’s betrayer, but also one of his four brothers (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55). The Gospel of John refers to a ‘Judas, who is not the Iscariot’ (14:22), and in one of the Syriac translations of the Gospel of John, this ‘Judas’ becomes ‘Judas Thomas.’ One interpretive possibility then, seized upon by some early Christian traditions, is that the apostle called ‘twin’ in the Gospel of John is none other than Jesus’s own twin brother, Judas. The most famous single text from the Nag Hammadi library discovered in Egypt in 1945 is a collection of sayings ‘which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.’”

Set aside, for a moment please, any fears that just jumped into your brain about Jesus’ birth and whether there was another boy born that night – something I’m not suggesting – and wonder, instead, with me about what it means to be a twin.

What would it be like to be a twin? What would it be like spiritually, emotionally, cognitively? So like the other you’re nearly indistinguishable but, yet, you are different, you are unique, you are your own person, too. I am not a twin, but I know this feeling, in part, when I look at my own daughter, Carter, who is flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, who is so like me and, yet, so unlike me; so close and intimately known and, yet, so remarkable, fascinating and strange. Or take the context of your marriage, if that’s the case for you, for there is, as theologian Benjamin Myers writes, “no one more mysterious than a spouse – not because they are distant and unfamiliar, but because they are so near and so well known.”[1] Isn’t it true that the longer you stare at something, the longer you think about that thing, a spouse, a child, a twin, a tool – crowbar – the more it becomes both known and strange; at once, recognizable and unfamiliar?

What is it, then, that bridges the division, that harmonizes the discord between that which we think we know and yet that which seems so distant, even strange?

Just as when I was as a boy, playing near my father’s station wagon, thinking he was in his adult world of work and duty and I was in my own, what dissolved that distance was love – my dad’s love for me, such love that, from time to time, at least, he stopped what he was doing and peered out a window, wanting to know where I was, see what I was doing and, maybe, when he saw me playing a silly game, watched just a while longer. (Just the other day, in fact, I was putting away clothes in Carter’s bedroom, upstairs, and she and our dog, Phoebe, were playing in the rectory front yard – Carter would throw a ball, Phoebe would get it and run away; Carter would get another ball, throw it, Phoebe chasing after that one and dropping the first ball which Carter would pick up and throw, again. I watched them do this, back and forth, all the while the child talking to the dog as she does one of her best friends. I watched them do this for a long time and, honestly, I could’ve watched them play like that all afternoon, a girl and her dog simply enraptured in play and happiness.) That which reaches across what seems, to us, a mysterious distance is love, always love.

 

 

In part, we know this. We hear in scripture’s story that we are loved, that we are knit by God’s design and animated by God’s breath.

The hard part is living it. Because we also know that we are not God and, sometimes, we’re pretty far from it. Sometimes, we fear, we’re downright wretched and not at all worthy; other times, we’re not so bad, just muddling around down here. We are in our own world. God is in God’s. From time to time, we’ll throw up a prayer and hope for something but we understand when we don’t get what we want; that’s just the distance between God and us, and so go the explanations, etc. etc.

The love I’m talking about is not the feeling we try to generate nor is it the zeal we attempt to muster for God. What I’m talking about is the only love that can truly be called ‘love,’ that profound, shattering, unconditional, no-strings-attached love that only comes, first, from God. It’s the love of One who knows us as his own twin, the love of One who is, as St. Augustine put it, “more inward to me than my innermost self,”[2] the love of One who is always, already crossing the mysterious divide between creation and Creator. Long before we can ask or imagine and not because we deserve it, God always, already loves and is in love with God’s creation.

I fear we’ve missed that message all these years hearing about old doubting Thomas, so in closing let me suggest a different spin on this story.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio (c. 1601-02)

Look, again, at the gospel story (vv.27-28), just after Jesus tells Thomas to touch him but before Thomas makes his declaration of faith. Question: did Thomas actually touch Jesus? You might say “yes,” and you’d be in good company. Most artistic depictions show Thomas touching Jesus, some downright gory paintings show him actually sticking his finger in Jesus’ side, but my friend Charlie Stang suggests, on the basis of the words of the text itself, that that did not happen. That Thomas did not touch Jesus. That Jesus merely invited him to do so.

The story is actually better, richer if Thomas did not.  For then Thomas’ great declaration – “My Lord and my God!” – would be not because he knew Jesus but because, first, Jesus knew him; because Jesus knew what Thomas was hiding; because Jesus said to Thomas what Thomas said in secret the week before. What bridged the distance, for Thomas, was not his ability but Jesus’ love; not our action but God’s, first.

We are all, in a sense, Jesus’ twin. We are all made of the same stuff, flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, created of the earth and endowed with God’s spirit. We, too, are capable of living a life that will be a blessing to this world. It’s just that we, like Thomas, like Mary Magdalene last week, we who are alive are surrounded by death. We breathe it in, ingest it even when we do not wish to as our daily bread. It’s we who, somedays, turn life from a gift to a series of obstacles to overcome or a to-do list to check off.

It’s then that our Divine Twin comes to us. God, the lover of souls, comes to us. The One who was dead and came to life stares in the face of we who are alive but shrouded in death, and He loves us, first, loving us as none can and none will ever again, giving us the capacity for yet one more day to try and mimic the same.

 

 

———-

A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Easter (Year A) at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lexington Park, Maryland, a Sunday in which we swapped pulpits between St. George’s, Valley Lee; Trinity Church, St. Mary’s City and Ascension.

 

[1] Benjamin Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams (London: T & T Clark International, 2012), p. 4

[2] Augustine, Confessions 3.6.11

THE COST OF THE PRESENT MODEL

There are a lot of reasons why we need to start exploring new models of ministry in the life of the Episcopal Church. Most of these reasons, for me, have to do with a genuine and gospel-based desire to be more collegial and collaborative and mission-minded – to get over ourselves, get outside of ourselves, and better form disciples of Jesus Christ. That argument goes over pretty well with the lay leaders I have the pleasure of working with at St. George’s, Valley Lee. I’m also blessed that several neighbor Episcopal congregations – their clergy and lay leaders – are also on board with this desire to do more and be more, together.

Pitching ‘collaboration’ and ‘mission’ to top-level leadership in the Episcopal Church comes with conceptual approval, but also hesitancy and critical distance from suggestions from the field, coupled with good, if not uselessly airy and idealistic wonderings about whether and how we can “tweak the existing system(s)” and who has the power and authority to do so anyway.  The further you get from day-to-day life on the ground in the Episcopal Church, the further you get from life as a parish priest or congregational lay leader, the more you see only the meta-data and larger trends.

Here’s yet one more reason why we need to start exploring new models of ministry: we can’t afford the current one much longer.

In 2012, the missions and congregations of The Episcopal Church brought in $1,303,458,185 in pledge and plate contributions. That’s based on the 6,667 congregations and missions – both domestic and non-domestic. Simple division gives us $195,508 as, let’s say, Average Pledge & Plate Giving. I know that pledge and plate giving is one part of determining the Parochial Report’s Normal Operating Income (NOI), and I know the NOI is more than pledge and plate.  But let’s use this $195,508 number for three reasons: first, Kirk Hadaway and the Episcopal Church statistics gurus don’t report the average NOI (and I really don’t care that much to search further); second, the latter – namely, pledge and plate – is the singularly most reliable, albeit lagging indicator of actual ministry-based participation and giving in a given community; and third, I’ve already written about how utterly useless and stupid the NOI is.

Take our average Episcopal congregation, then: St. So-and-So’s, with their annual pledge and plate offering of $195,508.

Let’s say they tithe to the diocese (give $19,551), leaving $175,957. Now let’s do the math.

Based on the clergy compensation scale in the Diocese of Washington, a priest with, let’s say, three years of ministry-related experience should earn at least $49,057 in cash stipend, but when you follow the diocesan personnel guidelines you’ll also factor in pension contribution (18% of the stipend is $8,830.26) and health insurance (two-person medical and dental in 2014 is $18,336) and a modest car and cell phone reimbursement (say, $5,000) and a continuing education line item (go with $1,000) and you’ll get the total amount budgeted to having a full-time clergyperson is $82,223, leaving a remaining $93,734.

In this day and age, as well, a congregation poised for growth needs a support staff. Factor in a competent parish administrator who, let’s say, only works twenty hours each week. That employee would earn at least $19,508 according to the Diocese of Washington lay compensation guidelines. Also, given the church’s well-intended desire to achieve parity between lay and clergy ministers, there’d be an additional cost to health insurance (one person medical / dental is $10,224) and a matching contribution to a retirement savings account, say, $2,000. Added up, such a vital minister would cost $31,732. (If the parish administrator were full-time, that position would cost $51,241 – leaving $42,493 for everything else we haven’t paid for yet.  Such a package would never fly, however, so let’s keep maintaining the delusion that there’s a plethora of people on the job market with sufficient skills and gifts who are waiting, just waiting for part-time parish administrator gigs. Two further pieces are also important to maintaining this delusion: for one, you’ve got to pretend that this 20-hour/week parish administrator is able to move mountains and accomplish everything everyone wants him/her to do in that span of time; and, for another, you’ll need to pretend that the former delusion also means that absolutely no administrative work will ever keep the rector at her/his desk and away from the ministry field.)

A part-time organist with a bachelor’s degree and a mere five years’ experience, one who’s contracted to work only ten hours each week, would earn $12,524. Let’s also be exceedingly kind to this fictional congregation and suggest that the music director, in question, doesn’t need health insurance and opts out of the church providing some measure of retirement savings. Looking at the numbers, though, a local colleague of mine just hired a new organist / music director and the going rate, she reported, that most of the applicants quoted was $300 per service. With 52 Sundays in the year and three extra services (certainly Christmas Eve and maybe one or two others) that’d be a total compensation of $16,500. Splitting the difference, then, between the diocesan scale ($12,524) and the actual going rate ($16,500) let’s say that a gifted and competent music director would cost $14,512.

Between the rector ($82,223), part-time parish administrator ($31,732) and very part-time music director ($14,512) this sample congregation would’ve spent $128,467 — and that’s not including someone to clean and, maybe, a bookkeeper and/or a nursery caregiver or, perhaps, a formation director or youth minister. Let’s pretend that the floors magically clean themselves and that there’s a sufficient network of volunteers. Even among that limited personnel pool – rector, parish administrator and musician – that’s 65% of St. So-and-So’s pledge and plate collection. That startling number puts an even finer point on the financial struggle of most congregations; Kirk Hadaway from The Episcopal Church, in fact, softens this reality by focusing on Normal Operating Income (NOI), not pledge and plate.  Based on a 2008 survey, Hadaway reports that congregations with an Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) between 51 and 100 spent 52% of their total NOI on staff, and those with an ASA of 151 – 350 spent 51%.  Those percentages go down as the ASA gets smaller than 50 or larger than 350 (those with ASA between 1-25 spend 31% of the NOI on staff, 26-50 spend 45%; conversely, those with 351+ spend 49%), but that’s because in smaller congregations there is hardly any staff support and a congregation has to have a lot of people in order for it to sustain the idea that there can be a full complement of staff.  I know that ministry is more than paying staff positions, but it is hard to imagine that these reductions won’t have a negative impact on how the Episcopal Church is able to deliver meaningful, transformative encounters with the living God in the various contexts and communities across this country.   The unquestioned dominance of the one-parish/one-priest system is financially unsustainable, and we are quickly heading to a church in which there will be plenty of buildings but decreasing ministries. 

If you’re running the numbers in your head, St. So-and-So’s would, at this point, have $67,041 remaining. They would need to budget that money on heating gas and/or oil ($10,000?), electricity and other utilities ($7,000?), household supplies and modest kitchen expenses ($4,000?), office expenses and staples and copier leases and paper and information technology support and needs ($7,000?). They would need to find some money for communion bread and wine, and they’d barely squeak out enough to really support the ministry of the altar guild and provide for meaningful and dynamic worship experiences ($6,000?). They’d most certainly continue to defer maintenance on their buildings and grounds and I’d suspect that they would only have a little bit to invest in modest clean-up or capital improvement efforts ($5,000?).

This isn’t even mentioning Christian education programs ($10,000?) or social justice outreach work ($10,000?), ministry and mission that is the bread and butter of the Body of Christ. Apparently there won’t be much, if any money left-over for supply clergy or guest organists, so those key ministers, the clergyperson and music director and parish administrator, will be limited in their ability to go away on vacation or retreat. So much money is spent on presence and personnel and property, I’ll bet, that there’s not a lot of room for dreaming about mission and ministry and what we can be doing in the wider community to make disciples of Jesus. At this point, we’re down to about $8,000 remaining in wiggle room.

Add to this that even if the clergyperson has a truly missional calling and is ready to serve in this ministry context, the rector will, if s/he tries to follow the clergy compensation scale, price her/himself out of that congregation in less than five, probably fewer years of service there. That is to say, when that rector gets to eight years of ministry – this is, again, based on the Diocese of Washington’s 2014 clergy compensation scale – s/he will be eligible for such a cash stipend and comparative increase in pension, not including the obvious increases to health insurance and other costs, such that the clergyperson’s entire compensation package will consume any remaining surplus in the parish’s checking account and start to drive down spending in other areas. In short, the clergyperson has less than a five year ministry in that place, lest s/he be the very reason why the congregation has to raid their savings account or investment income in order to manage cash flow, pay the heat bill, buy sufficient crayons for the Sunday School, or provide substantial help to someone who is truly in need.

And it is sure to follow that a congregation with a nearly guaranteed turnover of clergy leadership every five years, on average, is a sure bet for a congregation that will only continue on a downward spiral in energy — sure it’ll spike with the new arrival but fall just as quickly thereafter — and a subsequent decline in time and giving and potential.

Not only can we much longer afford the currently dominant model of ministry in the Episcopal Church, but this is a time in which the moment is hot and, frankly, will quickly pass us by. Like it or not, we’ve arrived pretty late to the evangelism / mission game, but not so late that our numbers – our people and money, our total resources – are insufficient to the task at hand. We’ve actually got a healthier level of resources than many churches in our present situation.

But this is not a time to commission further studies or wonder who has the power to do what or ask fairly inane questions about how to transition the dominant system or shift the blame between diocese and congregation. No, this is a moment in which we know where we need to go and we have a pretty good stock of resources by which to do it.

So let’s do it.