THE CAREFUL INSTRUCTION OF WOMEN

“No work of charity can be more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women.”

– Catherine McAuley, 1778 to 1841

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It’s Women’s History Month and today, March 8, is International Women’s Day, a growing, worldwide observation.

CATHERINE McAULEY
Foundress of the Sisters of Mercy (RSM)

A  while ago, I found myself thinking about my time teaching high school in Chicago.  In part, I was thinking about the experience of being a classroom teacher but it was more than that.  I was thinking about the community into which I was welcomed and which truly helped form me as a person, as a Christian, as a servant, and — ironically — as a man.  I say “ironically” because the Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School was a women’s school: a high school for women, led by women, which prided itself on raising up thoughtful, creative, faithful, strong, courageous women.  And they did just that, in droves.  Back then, I was one among, maybe, 9 or 10 male teachers.  Most of the maintenance staff and a few of the administrative staff were also men.  That made, oh, about 16 of us — on a good day.   16 amidst 1,800 students (all girls) and maybe 150 faculty and staff.  It made finding a men’s bathroom, for instance, a bit of a challenge, but the good news is that once you found one the lines were always short!

It was, for me, a great experience to be in such a pronounced minority and, more so, to be part of a tradition which is, even today, counter-cultural, radical, different.  It confirmed for me that those spiritualities which run against the grain of this world offer the greatest possibilities of new life.

I needed that, and I needed it (though I hardly knew I did) at that precise moment in my life.  At 24 years young, I’d already experienced the odd faith formation of growing up in a Christian congregation which was in mourning that it was no longer at the center of the community and starting to die, and I’d just come out of three years of profoundly challenging, formative, but also spirit-numbing education at a predominately secular divinity school.  I needed creativity, vitality, liveliness, and yet I couldn’t walk away from all that intellectual stuff I loved.  I needed balance.

On a rainy afternoon in early June 2000, I went to an interview at a school which, I thought, wouldn’t even think to hire me to teach theology — a man, an Episcopalian, at that, and someone who’s never had any teaching experience, ever.  I was so convinced they wouldn’t hire me that I didn’t even wear a tie.  “I’m going there to get ‘interview experience,'” I told a friend.  A few hours after I walked in and was given a tour and went through a round of interviews the Principal, Sr. Rose, offered me a job.  I said I’d need to think about it.  Walking out onto the circle drive which led to the school’s front doors, the morning rain had cleared and it was sunny and starting to get warm.  I got in my car and knew I had to say yes.  About 15 minutes later, I called back and accepted.

I’m forever grateful I said yes.

One reason, I suppose, I was thinking about all of that a while ago is because I was working on a sermon about women and Christianity.  The New Testament lesson for an upcoming Sunday was from Acts of the Apostles chapter 16, in which Paul on one of his missionary journeys runs into Lydia, a “dealer in purple cloth.”  Lydia gets baptized along with her whole house, and it’s surmised that Lydia not only became a Christian but also served as a patron and sponsor of early Christianity — she even founded a church in her own home.  Obviously, I was thinking about early Christianity’s gender inclusivity which was, to them, nothing really to be thought about or discussed.  They just did it.  They welcomed men and women into leadership positions, because their Master and Lord had already done so.  They didn’t practice inclusivity for a better marketing slant or to be more relevant or hip.  That’s who they knew themselves to be, a new people in Christ, so to do anything different would be to defy their own nature.

One of my colleagues in the Theology Department, while I was teaching, used to reserve the Community Room — an expansive room down the hall from the theology classrooms.  When the girls got to her classroom door, they noticed a sign which read something like: “Go to Lydia’s home (i.e., the Community Room).”  There, they met their teacher dressed in beautiful, flowing purple fabric.  She invited them to come in.  They sat in a wide circle on the floor and lit candles and shared a meal and sang songs and read scripture and said prayers and reflected on their life.  Then the bell would ring and off they’d go to their next class — geometry or chemistry or english or history or painting.  Lydia was, to them, new, different, odd, unusual, counter-cultural.

Lydia was all those things to the secular communities in which early Christianity grew, too.  Reading the New Testament, I’m often struck that so many of Jesus’ earliest followers were, in the eyes of their world, strange.  And it’s not that they didn’t notice or didn’t care or get hurt — emotionally, perhaps, but I’m also thinking about the demands of physical persecution — but, rather, they simply couldn’t live differently than the way they knew to be in Christ.  Spontaneity abounded.  Wherever God the Holy Spirit was moving that’s where they went.  Creativity pulsed through their message.  They rejoiced when they could come together and wept when they parted, but they weren’t entirely tears of sadness.  Conflict was rife.  Because of which, I’ve always thought, they grew.

The Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School in Chicago is named after the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuley, who set out to do a new thing in nineteenth century Dublin.  She set out to make that society a little bit more just and liveable, and her only viable option was to form a new religious order.  From what I gather, reading a bit between the lines, Catherine wasn’t entirely thrilled about becoming in the world’s understanding a “nun.”  This isn’t altogether clear from the history books which celebrate Catherine and the movement she started, but a lot of the treatment of Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy and the Mercy charism, I found, were somewhat hagiographic and romanticized.

I’ve often wondered if today Catherine would’ve been a social worker or a Christian radical, but I suspect she wouldn’t have become a politician or establish a think-tank: Catherine’s gift was clearly relational, and she inspired women and, through them, men to join a movement which was fundamentally egalitarian and missional, a movement focused solely on meeting the needs of society as those needs currently presented — and present — themselves.  It was the Sisters of Mercy, nicknamed the ‘walking nuns’ because without hesitation they abandoned a cloistered lifestyle and quickly responded to the needs of the poor, who travelled in the early days alongside waves of second generation immigrants, most notably the Irish, to New York and Boston and Chicago.  It was those same Sisters of Mercy who established the first hospital and initial schools in late-19th century Chicago, that wild west, frontier town.  In part they were nurses and caregivers and teachers and servants.  On another level they were radicals — teaching young women basic skills so they wouldn’t need to be dependent on men; affirming that a woman’s voice is just as clear as a man’s; forging a place for balance and mission in a church and world, in many ways, ordered against such values.

I think it’s important that we, Christians, put in some hard work to learn a language and re-brand a set of symbols that are, at their heart, counter-cultural, challenging, different, other and, in that, profoundly life-giving.  The cross is the very definition of such a symbol, isn’t it?  Talk about strange, ironic, challenging and life-giving.  This is a kind of Lenten discipline we’d be wise to invest in, kindling once again the value of being ‘other.’

It’s already a part of our story.  Look no further than Lydia or Catherine or any of those women — and men — doing a new thing today.

WHAT THE CHURCH SHOULD LEARN FROM GROUPON

This past weekend, I enjoyed a great retreat with St. George’s vestry.  It marked the beginning of a new chapter in my own thinking about ministry.  Some years ago, we started to chip away at having vestry function as the unpaid, overworked staff of the church.  That was was turning more people away than towards the Body of Christ.  In recent years, we’ve started to end the thinking that vestry are the ultimate institutional managers.  That wasn’t healthy, either — one, they weren’t able to see the hand of God in the whole of the parish and, two, it had the potential to set-up a battle between rector (visionary) and vestry (management).  For the first time since ending those unhealthy ways of functioning we’re on the verge of beginning something new.

ANDREW MASON

As a team, we’re preparing to follow a new and fairly bold vision.  At the same time, we wonder how we might grow or, rather, nest this vision organically, not impose or even teach it.  If the vision gets properly nested, we wonder, it may very well change the way we operate from the inside out, making the institution called “church” all the more akin to the living Body of Christ.

Recent events with the social networking site Groupon highlight this point.  Groupon’s founder and CEO, Andrew Mason, was fired last week.  The site isn’t making money.  In fact, the declining institutional Christian church looks remarkably good compared to Groupon’s performance.  Their current worth is a mere 18% of what it was just over one year ago!  Beguilingly, the company which is only five years young was Mason’s own idea.

I think the church could learn from Groupon.

Vision isn’t a Business Plan.

I guess CEO/Founders aren’t exempt from being fired.  Many church leaders think of themselves as visionaries.  Diocesan conventions reinforce this.  And no small amount of church members participate in this delusion — just ask anyone who’s ever served on a search committee.  What a shock, then, that having a vision doesn’t prevent getting canned.

The church’s only business plan is God’s kingdom.  What we call “vision” isn’t always the same thing.  The reality is that we’re mere infants in knowing how to talk, firstly, about the things of God.  It’s only been since the church was moved to the margins of society that we’ve had to learn another language, another besides secular business models.  (A priest friend once said she never passed up the opportunity to go into the “Business” section of a bookstore.  “They’re all so applicable to church life,” she said.  Guess Borders should’ve read them, too!)

And thus the cycle.  Leaders keep visioning while vestry-members fret about paying the bills.  Vision goes up against institutional management, evidenced in too many arguments about whether to give more to outreach ministry or pay the gas company.  It’s equally unfortunate to vault vision over business.

One of the ways the institutional Episcopal Church has figured out how to shut down business-as-usual is to teach its priests how to use power effectively.  The word rector (Wikipedia tells me its “from the Latin verb rego, regere, rexi, rectum“) has to do with being a ruler: “In a moral sense a rector has the function of keeping those under his authority on the ‘straight and narrow path’.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.)  This isn’t altogether bad.  In a congregation it’s important to have someone such as a priest, someone ultimately sensitive to seeking first the kingdom of God.  And yet clergy have been too well trained to know what power we have and what we do not need to share with others.

Only last week I was approached by someone from another congregation in another diocese who wanted to know if a rector had the right to hire or fire someone.  This person genuinely loved her church and her priest, but the situation was presented as a done deal.  It struck me that the better question wasn’t what power the rector had or didn’t have but, rather, whether there’s a better way altogether.

Clergy have been formed to function as we do.  I’ll go out on a limb and admit that, yes, there is a better way altogether, a way which involves honesty, openness, trust and humility.  This way is both visionary and institutional, exciting and banal, fresh and old-fashioned.  But in order to get there we need all the ministers of the church — lay and ordained — to show a real willingness to embrace the ways Jesus would have us function, and resist a ready compliance with the established business practices of yesterday’s world.

After years of work and prayer and patience, we’re at the precipice of this at St. George’s, Valley Lee.  Thank you, God!

Turn into the Skid.

One of the criticisms leveled against Groupon is that they identified the wrong client.  Others have tried to understand Google’s rise or Facebook’s IPO flop.

Social media is incredibly popular, but it’s not turning a profit in the way traditional businesses which follow traditional business models are supposed to.  The illusion of analysis is that we can understand a current trend by examining past performance.  This, however, is uncharted territory.  The connections we think should exist between popularity, use, and sustainability do not exist.

This applies to churches.  “If only we could attract the young families who are moving into that new subdivision,” someone thinks, assuming that if we attract them they’ll use us then they’ll help us.  This makes perfect sense to a previous business model.  The only fear is an insufficient amount of newcomers.

In my experience, it’s not about if we get newcomers.  Living and preaching the Gospel makes that a certainty. The deeper challenge is what happens, when?  When the Body of Christ grows it’s newer members will, more than likely, not pay or participate in the same way and to the same degree that those among the bulk of our current membership do.  The Millenial generation, for instance — the oldest of whom, at the most conservative estimate, turn 33 this year — will be the first generation of people who will make less money than their parents.  Underlying forces are changing deeply, and no one knows how this will turn out.

Learning to drive in Chicago, as I did, there’s an essential skill of winter driving called “turning into the skid.”  A driving instructor in Colorado put it well: “‘You have to go against your natural tendencies,’ he says. ‘Turn into the skid. You also need to accelerate.’ That last piece of advice seems to freak people out the most, he admits. ‘People don’t think about accelerating to control the car.'”  Your natural tendencies tell you otherwise.  Under the church’s chatter about becoming more relevant, I suspect, is a simultaneous assumption that we’ll grow in numbers, money and participation.  But if you want to truly grow, you’ve also got to turn into those underlying assumptions, crash into them and, in fact, accelerate.  That really will ‘freak people out.’

What if our increasing relevance leads, in turn, to the end of the previous business model?  What if we get more people but few care to fill the slots on committees?  Are we ready to have lots more people hungry for Jesus’ message of new life and at the same time — and as a consequence — toss out our old secular not-for-profit business model of church management?

This, I’ll offer, is our future reality.  In preparation for it, as a kind of practice, we should become more focused, nimble, lean and trim.  That’s the only way we’ll be able to turn into the forces besetting us, once they truly beset us.

Ironically, it turns out that all this work of vestry formation and leadership development was not to maintain that which we’ve had but to prepare, entirely, for something new.  It feels like that something new is also something true, something more fully the Body of Christ.  At St. George’s, Valley Lee, we’re getting ready, together.  We’ve been getting ready all these years.

WHY ASHES? PART 2, A CONFUSED OFFERING

Part 2 of a 3 part post. Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions. Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused. Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

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For me, it started with a really basic question:  Why ashes?  As it turns out, this question has nagged Christian communities nearly since ashes were introduced as a liturgical symbol or act.  Ashes had to do with initiation and life’s conversion, and yet they quickly became something else, something, I’d say, less.  What I’d like to see is a return, not so much to the original use of ashes, but rather to the spirit of a church which knew how to practice Christian initiation of adults and, for those already a part of the body, how to mentor and model a life of genuine faith and embrace that which is truly counter-cultural in an world of competing empirical interests – be it the first several centuries or, in fact, this 21st one.

Our pastoral response to increasingly secularized people should not be a continuation, indeed, reification of a centuries-long mishandling of this day.  Our response should be a renewal of the earliest spirit surrounding Ash Wednesday, revisiting the ways in which early Christians practiced initiation and helped form women and men in the story of God’s salvation.  Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be an invitation to the already-initiated, although that’s what it’s become.  Ash Wednesday should be about lifestyle change, about conversion – baptism, at its core.   That’s why, more than likely, I’ll be connected to a worshiping community (note I didn’t say “within the four walls of a church”) on future Ash Wednesdays to come.

Truly, why ashes?  I promise this is no ‘slippery slope’ argument, but consider this: Would it be right to venture forth with the pre-consecrated Host and offer folks at a subway terminal Christ’s Body and Blood?  Or would it be fitting to stand at a street corner with a bowl of water and offer baptism?

By and large, someone’s answer to a hypothetical question about Wafers to Go, say, is more quickly arrived at than their answer to whether or not ashes can be imposed inside or outside the context of a worshiping assembly.  Thus, the first point I’d like to offer is that there’s a very clear, very basic distinction between sacraments and ashes, and that’s something the church should bear in mind, not to mention take quite seriously.  Eucharist and Baptism, of course, are sacraments.  Ash Wednesday has a pseudo-sacramental quality about it.  Eucharist and Baptism share deeper layers of meaning as well as participate much more clearly in the story of God’s salvation.  Ashes were a later addition and not an entirely clear innovation, even at the time.  A body which is broken but gives new life is not only a profound spiritual concept but is also inherently woven to other levels of meaning of the Body of Christ.  Water points to Jewish purification rituals and Jesus’ action in the Jordan, not to mention the process the people of The Way developed for initiation and faith development, a process which was counter-cultural in its larger empirical setting.  Ashes, on the surface, suggest something compelling, but the connections are feeble, the nuances too great, and the revisions and human tinkering simply too obvious.

Why ashes? was obviously a question for Cranmer and those who participated in developing the Prayer Book tradition.  Significant portions of the Sarum Blessing of the Ashes were used in compiling the rite which was was, in 1549, offered as “A declaracion of scripture, with certein prayers to bee use the firste daye of Lent, commonlye called Ashwednesdaie.”  By 1552, the rite was re-named “A Commination against sinners, etc.” At least in common parlance it was called ‘Commination’ for the bulk of the Anglican liturgical tradition, up until the liturgical renewals of the 20th century.  One notable exception is found in the proposed but unsuccessful 1689 BCP in which the High Church party made some inroads in offering the new title “The Proper Office for Ash Wednesday” and drawing a more clear connection to “the due preparation of all persons for the worthy receiving the Communion at Easter,” and which was mentioned “was of good use till superstition corrupted it.”

The Book of Common Prayer, 1549

But where Cranmer, in the 16th century, used the gist of Sarum’s rite, he retained barely a hint of ashes in the liturgy itself.  Several key phrases from Sarum’s prayer of blessing the ashes find their way, in Cranmer’s text, into the second Collect following the Suffrages, but that prayer is an appeal to God’s mercy and the phrase “…of your mercy deign to bless these ashes which we have resolved to put upon our heads, etc.” is noticeably removed.  Even the words of the anthem which would’ve been intoned in the Sarum rite while worshipers received ashes is moved, in Cranmer’s text, to a final prayer and was, in 1552, changed from “antheme” to “this that followeth”, again, with no suggestion of ashes – or what many reformers feared to be a late-medieval innovation – being distributed.  Liturgical historian G. J. Cumming argues that there’s an equally strong connection to the Quarterly Excommunication found in the Sarum rite, indicating that Ash Wednesday, for the English reformers, wasn’t so much about ashes or interior life change but, rather, public discipline and the maintenance of good order.  Marion Hatchett says as much, suggesting that “one aim of English reformers was to restore public penance as a means of discipline.”

At least by the 16th and 17th centuries, then, the meaning of ashes – note, in 1549, it’s labeled “the first day of Lent, commonly called Ash Wednesday” – was already disconnected as a symbol denoting interior change.  In fact, retaining the act of imposing ashes, an individual act, detracted from the larger goal of developing a properly-organized, truly Christian kingdom.  Thus the ashes were sublimated, being too disconnected, too ‘superstitious’.  By the time the Prayer Book distilled what its framers would’ve called the best of the tradition, the day commonly called Ash Wednesday had mostly to do with Christian kingdom-building: made clear in the introduction to the Commination in the 1662 version, “…in the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons stood convicted of notorious sins were put to open penance, and punished in this world …; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.”  Ashes had become, over time, a communal practice.  And in the English reformation it was judged not necessarily an efficacious one, and thus removed.

But it was, nevertheless, called Ash Wednesday so in many local contexts ashes were used.  For the first time in an American Prayer Book, the BCP 1979 provides a proper liturgy for the imposition of ashes, albeit as an option.  Hatchett affirms that “many felt the need of a special service for Ash Wednesday.  Unauthorized forms, which frequently included the use of ashes, had come into use and seemed to meet a real pastoral need.”  The imposition of ashes was brought back, and perhaps it never really went away, at least in local contexts.  The church simply responded to people’s needs, not dissimilar to the claims made by those who are distributing ashes to go.

But what practices, then, were brought back?  The original intent or the misinterpretation?  And what were the people saying, in truth, when they said they wanted, they needed ashes?  And was it a need worth meeting, or rather one worth getting underneath, one worth transforming?  I would argue the latter, that what we’re offering is not the original use nor is it the most fitting understanding of ashes.  Rather, there’s a deeper need under the desire for ashes.  The church would do well to spend some time getting back there, which would involve work of transformation, not merely service.

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Part 2 of a 3 part post. Part 1 praises the spirit of Ashes to Go and begs deeper pastoral questions. Part 2 focuses on the liturgical tradition around Ash Wednesday, exposing some valid reasons why ashes became sublimated and the offering, in turn, somewhat confused. Part 3 offers a deeper pastoral response, grounded in the original tradition around ashes, for our current context and times.

WHOEVER IS NOT AGAINST US IS FOR US & THE GOSPEL OF JESUS’ WIFE

What’s now being called ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ is a piece of papyrus with eight statements, written in Coptic and dated to sometime in the fourth century.  One of those sayings has gotten the most attention in recent days: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…”  The other lines are also intriguing.  One reads “…she will be able to be my disciple.”  Another refers to a Mary; unclear whether it’s Jesus’ mother or Mary Magdalene or another Mary.  Jesus does mention his mother in one phrase. And in another he seems to say something about cohabitation: “As for me, I dwell with her in order to…”  All in all, it’s an interesting find and it’s got people talking.

Here’s what it’s not: it’s not a definitive answer as to whether or not Jesus had a wife.  That will go unknown, now and always.  (As for me, if there were a Mrs. Jesus, it wouldn’t change the story.)  The interesting take-away from this papyrus, for me, is that it shines a light onto early Christianity, and says a lot about how they lived – and we still try to live – with different people, divergent opinions and theological diversity and, yet, at our best stay true the union of which Christ spoke.

The community from which this tiny shred of an ancient papyrus emerged had something to say about affirming the place and role of women in the church, at least this one Christian community.  Obviously, there was a relatively dominant strand in the early church, most likely a byproduct of its Graeco-Roman environment, that sublimated the place and role of women and exalted that of men’s leadership.  The household codes in several New Testament writings (Col. 3:18-4:1; Eph. 5:21-6:9; Titus 2:1-10; 1 Pet. 2:18-3:7) mimic similar codes that would be easily identifiable in the Roman Empire of the first century, placing women subservient to men – just as slaves are to masters, and children to fathers.  The New Testament codes, unlike those of secular Roman society, do not give men absolute power, however; but insist on some level of mutuality and responsibility.  We know that that dominant strand exercised, in time, almost unilateral prominence as Christianity turned from a movement to the Empire’s organized, institutionalized and, eventually, official religion.  One needs only to look at the norm of an all-male priesthood, for instance.

But that was not the only strand of Christian thought and practice, certainly not in Christianities earliest days.  One doesn’t need a newly uncovered papyrus to know that.  That alternative strand is in the pages of the New Testament.  Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, for one, is filled with women who are named and lifted up as leaders in the early church – Lydia, a wealthy patron of early Christians, is named (and her husband isn’t!) in Acts 16:14-15; a woman named Priscilla and her husband, Aquilla, were leaders in the early movement and have been traditionally listed among the 70 Disciples (Acts 18:26).  In John’s gospel, for instance, the first person Jesus tells of his Messiahship is a Samaritan woman (Jn. 4).  And even Paul, whom many think of as the ultimate mysoginistic, patriarchal pig, turns out to be quite egalitarian: affirming that “…there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28); addressing Phoebe as a deacon (Rom. 16:1); writing glowingly to Timothy about his grandmother’s (Lois) and mother’s (Eunice) faith, notably saying nothing about Timothy’s grandfather or father (2 Tim. 1:5).  The New Testament is fascinating, to me, because it seems to preserve arguments, encapsulate disagreements, and lift up a varied story of the earliest followers of Jesus.  In spite of the attempts of some Christian communities to normalize and regularize this new faith, there was, looking at the whole, a divergent and diverse collection of Jesus-followers, many of whom, if they were ever together, would disagree passionately about a lot of things, including the role of women.  To me, this newly uncovered Egyptian papyrus suggests that that conversation or, rather, argument continued.  Even centuries after the dominant, male-leadership strand of Christianity became relatively normative, there were still followers of Jesus who said, “We disagree…”  And this papyrus, if it’s authentic, is a wonderful witness to that diversity.

We make a mistake when we talk about “the early Christian church” or “early Christianity”, as if it was a singular, monolithic entitity.  We’d be better to talk about the early Christian churches, or early Christianities.  Likewise, we make a mistake when we back up our arguments by claiming, “The Bible says…”  The Bible says a lot of different things, and that doesn’t make it less holy or less credible.  In fact, it makes it more credible and, indeed, more holy because I can see through its human words and broken understandings and philosophical attempts at comprehension (“…through a mirror dimly,” as Paul said) and see the hand of God, gently and profoundly keeping our focus on the main thing and away from the nagging, divisive details.  Christianity, then and now, is a very big tent, for we’ve never done a great job at getting everybody on board doctrinally.

Turns out Jesus had something to do with this.  Mark’s gospel preserves an interesting snippet in which John approaches Jesus and proudly affirms that they stopped a local healer from using Jesus’ name since “he was not following us.” (Mk. 9:38)  Interesting that even in Jesus’ day his very disciples were drawing lines and making determinations about out who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’, and whether the name of the Galilean wonder-worker was copyright-protected!  Jesus’ response, in fact, is what led the early churches – and us – to this wild-eyed diversity.  Not only does Jesus tell John to back off, but he goes on to say that that “whoever is not against us is for us.”  Organizational theory experts and business consultants would say that that’s a downright terrible organizing principle – assuming, of course, that one’s goal is to make determinations about membership and privilege; assuming, of course, human standards.  But Jesus does not assume these things, and Jesus does not create borders and rules.  In fact, Jesus reserves his real judgment for those who do put up rules and restrictions and human interpretations.  According to Jesus, if my interpretation gets in the way of someone’s faith development, it’d be better if a great millstone was hung around my neck and I was tossed into the sea.  Yikes!

Jesus was not instituting a new religion.  Jesus was not a bishop who sought to organize the people around core beliefs and a Creed.  Jesus was not a systematic theologian who took biblical themes and developed doctrine and dogma.  Jesus was not a catechist who explained mortal and venial sins, and gave you a list of what you could or couldn’t do.   No, Jesus came to renew God’s Body in the world, to renew God’s kingdom within the ordinary, everyday hearts of women and men who had, over time, forgotten that they are special and created in God’s image, and that that is an indelible mark.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, became one of us to show us how to live and love and forgive and share, in the hopes that once we learned to do this we, too, would become one with Him, united in those things that matter.

And this is a message that matters, as much today as it did in the earliest years of the Jesus Movement.  What unites us, one to another, is certainly more profound and more lasting than what divides us, but you’ve probably heard that before.  You’ve probably heard it, and suspected that someone had a philosophy or governing principle or organizational theory that they were going to sell you – once they had convinced you of the shallowness of your particularities, once they had convinced you that you really wanted unity … their unity.

But what they didn’t convince you of was the depth of your particularities – the ways in which you and I, as wonderfully constituted human creatures with ego and pride and vainglory, hold on deeply to our standing and beliefs and man-made ways.  This is what’s called in the church ‘sin’, and it doesn’t go away by a simple sell or desire to wish it to disappear.  The divisions we erect are precisely that – our divisons, our made-up stuff – but they are not easily taken apart, not easily removed, not easily broken down and set free.  Sin is real and it is really within us, convincing us, day after day, that we are the lords of this world – that our politics is right (and others is wrong and, not only that, but evil); that our economic policy is the best; that our government is the only true one; that our demands are, of necessity, to be met; that our thoughts are brilliant; that our opinions are, by definition, wisdom; that what doesn’t satisfy me is bad, that what does is good, to be sought after and cherished.

This is not the way of God, obviously not the way God modeled when he became one of us and walked among us and lived and, yes, died as one of us, dying the horrible death of a common criminal, left hanging on a cross.  The way of God is to pour out himself, to pour forth in generous abundance for the salvation and redemption of the world.  This is not an easy way – note the cross – nor is this a self-learned way, nor is this inherent to us, we who are indeed pretty darn fallen.  Look at the myriad Christian groups, today, all the various denominations and groups, some of whom claim that they, still, are the one, true church and none others are like unto them – and they, alone, are like unto the Kingdom of God.  We are still as divided and fractured as the earliest followers of The Way, still as torn apart and diverse and divergent as they were thousands or years ago.

And isn’t that, then, a wonderful thing?  Look past the ideologues and the sinfulness and pride, of course, and look at the whole picture.  Look at the ways in which God is glorified in the fullness and completeness of human experience – liturgical churches, here, and praise and worship, there, and charismatic snake-handlers there, and bible-based preaching, there.  Store-front churches and grand cathedrals, hospital bedsides and underground bible studies in lands where Christians are persecuted, still.  People who may disagree about particular theologies or doctrines but who are, all together, members of Christ’s Body, serving the Risen One and seeking to give God glory, first and foremost.  No, we are not perfect, nor will we ever find the one, perfect church.  And in spite of ourselves and zeal for perfection, God is glorified, for whomever is not against us is, we remember, for us.  And that’s as true today as it was when a fourth-century scribe scribbled some strange notes about women and Jesus and begged to disagree boldly in faith.

____________________

A Sermon preached at St. George’s Church on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 30 September 2012.

STREAMS TO REFRESH AND GLADDEN

Born in 1775 and consecrated Assistant Bishop of New York at the age of 36, John Henry Hobart’s life and ministry offers something of a model for our time.  Without him, who knows what would have happened to the church he served.  What did happen, we know, is quite a remarkable thing.  Or is it all that remarkable?

Most reports about Hobart focus on the High Church faction of the Episcopal Church, of which he was a strident spokesperson and advocate; most notably, his conviction in the importance of the apostolic succession and historic episcopate – set against the individualized, evangelical tendency he saw in his own church and fellow countrymen.  A man of integrity, charisma and consummate drive, Hobart is also remembered for the things he did – create The General Theological Seminary, revive Geneva, now, Hobart College, build up the clergy in his diocese, plant churches, and write hundreds of meaningful devotional manuals.  He was all those things, apparently, and he did all those things, and he happened to be a leader in the Episcopal Church.  But his vision goes far beyond the Episcopal Church, far beyond the nineteenth century, far beyond his time, and offers models for our own.

The world into which he was born was a world of dramatic, profound and, for some, sudden change.  Only one year after Hobart’s birth, the American colonies declared their independence from the mother country, leaving what was the Church of England on American soil  in a serious quandary and search for a reason to exist.  Some sided with England, and fled.  Others argued for revising their way of being church while staying true to their tradition.  We know what happened in the Revolution and we know what happened to that church, now called the Episcopal Church.  We know how this new nation established a Constitution and this new church established an American Book of Common Prayer, and we know that these new entities found their way forward, step by step, in the later decades of the eighteenth century.

But what we forget is the steady, dark cloud of fear and anxiety that surrounds any change, no less significant political and cultural change.  We forget the way, I’m sure, many remembered the good ole’ days, even though those days weren’t so good and weren’t coming back.  We seem to have forgotten that change doesn’t happen overnight, and history isn’t always linear, and even when people are on board with the idea of revision they don’t always act nicely.  We fail to remember that having your world changed right under your feet leads inevitably to anxiety and fear; most people either shut down or act out.  And even with great visionaries in the decades immediately following the American Revolution – leaders in the Episcopal Church such as Samuel Seabury and William White – ordinary folks and everyday congregations were left in stasis, extended paralysis.

Enter John Henry Hobart.  I’m sure he heard from countless members of his grandparents’ and parents’ generations all about the good ole’ days, but he never experienced that culture and he knew it wasn’t returning.  He also knew that the changed political and cultural landscape (even though he disagreed with some of it) meant that his church, which was the very definition of the establishment, was going to die unless it stopped doing two things and started doing two others.  First, stop denying the change and, two, stop looking at other churches (the rapidly growing firebrand Methodists, for instance, or the more culturally nimble Congregationalists) as if they had a better answer.  And they needed to start, for one, accepting the change (something his mentor William White established) and, for another, mining their own ‘Anglican’ tradition for ways to be true to their story and authentic in their environment.  What historian Robert Bruce Mullin has coined as the “Hobartian Synthesis” is precisely this – a compelling vision that isn’t just about getting over denial and beginning to accept but, rather, a new way forward that is, at once, entirely rooted in their story, the story of God in Christ acting through their tradition.

That’s our moment today, I believe.  I believe it because I’m living it, and I feel it profoundly most days of my own ministry.  I was born in 1975 – long  after the glory days of the post-war years, long after the Baby Boom ended, long after the mainline Protestant establishment realized it was on the decline, long after social and cultural and political shifts had fundamentally changed our country and world.  I never knew a world in which every mother stayed home all day, although I’m grateful my own mother did.  I never knew a world in which neighborhoods were all one color or race or ethnicity.  I never knew a world in which prayer was legitimate in public schools, nor did I know a world in which Sundays were set aside, solely, for Christians to go to church.   I never knew that world, and yet I was personally drawn to church – my neighborhood’s classic Old First Church.  Unfortunately, that church was in deep paralysis during my childhood years.  They fretted about the changing neighborhood, about white families moving out to the suburbs and “other families” moving in.  They remembered with fondness their church bowling league, and twittled their thumbs about numbers and a huge physical plant.  They told their story as one of bewilderment and loss, and I was growing up there, growing up in a church that was dying, and knew it.

What I learned in those years has become, in these, a priceless gift.  I learned to love Jesus, not the church.  I learned to become rooted in God, not this ever-shifting world.  I learned that a culture which supports church-going isn’t necessarily a culture that is Christian, faithful in the ways Jesus preached.  Since my church also felt like it didn’t have what other, more ‘hip’ Christian groups had, I was dragged to more 80’s Christian rock concerts and evangelical “Jesus-be-my-boyfriend” rallies than I care to recount.  And I wasn’t fed by emotional, charismatic Christianity; it seemed as shifty and unstable as anything else.  So I also learned that the subtlety and majesty and accessibility of what has become known as mainline Christianity is a wonderful thing, for it lets people go in and go out, it creates space for diversity (at its best), it’s built to change (at its best), it doesn’t force God upon anyone, and it’s solid, staid, beautiful.  I also learned that most people who have remained in mainline congregations have a lot of depth to their life and faith.  Even though they were never trained to be evangelical, they’re unashamed of talking about struggles and joys, and they’re not afraid to mention God or Jesus.

I learned that we have a rich tradition, and we don’t need a complete overhaul – we only need a new spirit.  I suppose, for starters, to believe that you also have to believe that God in Christ is acting in the world today, and that things of deep meaning are also things of constant revision and adaptation.  (Those are pretty big “starters”, and maybe you don’t agree.  You’d better stop reading, then.)  That’s what it means to be traditional.  From its Latin root, tradition implies handing down, passing on.  Things that are of the tradition are things that speak through the ages, and anything that’s powerful enough to be passed down from generation to generation is going to be expanded or, at least, have its original packaging altered.  We know, for instance, that “all men are created equal” in our political discourse has been expanded, revised, and changed.  I, for one, am not willing to go back to its original packaging just because it was, well, original.

So is John Henry Hobart’s work all that remarkable?  No.  Not at all, in fact.  And, moreover, it can be replicated by women and men today, in this time of significant cultural change.  Provided that there are people of faith who are unafraid of making a choice between being culturally acceptable or being faithful to Christ.  Provided that there are people who don’t care to “see and be seen” in a pew but, rather, be transformed by God.  Provided that there are people who know or want to know the power of the Holy Spirit, not the invitation of social convention.  Provided that there are people who will root themselves in Christ, and his story – which is a story about death, first, then resurrection.  Provided that we as the institution called “church” begin to deepen our conversation and formation, and seek to become what we receive — the Body of Christ in this world.  You bet we’ll grow, provided we make that one, simple turn.

____________________

The sermon’s title is taken from Bishop Hobart’s address at the the opening of The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City, held on Monday evening, 11 March 1822: “The event that calls us together is a subject of real congratulation. An institution, organized by the Church in her highest legislative council with a unanimity and cordiality that could not have been anticipated, has commenced its operations in this city under auspices that promise not to disappoint the expectations of its founders and patrons. Here is the sacred school in which are to be trained the heralds of the cross, we hope, to the latest generations. Here is the fountain, drawing, we trust, its living waters from the throne of God, whence are to proceed those streams of divine truth and knowledge that are to refresh and gladden the Zion of the Lord, the city of our God.”

Adapted from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Wednesday, 12 September 2012, being the Feast of John Henry Hobart, Bishop of New York

THE AKASIE SCREEN – AND, AT LAST, A CONVERSATION

Look, that whole Jay Akasie Wall Street Journal-thing was a screen, an offensive blocking move which freed up others to make more substantive arguments or — sticking with basketball — shots.  And you, church, fell for it!

The thought struck me at lunch the other day with a colleague.  I’m not that interested in people’s conclusions — whether they come out theologically conservative or progressive, whether they vote Republican, Democrat or who cares what.  No, I’m more interested in the methods by which folks arrive at their conclusion; whether she’s aware of the sources; whether he’s checked his assumptions at the door and, at least, is pretty darn clear about the baggage he’s bringing into the conversation.  Part of it, for me, is the happy fruit of ministry formation in an academic divinity school.  

I don’t care about General Convention resolutions or the reasons why breakaway Anglicans are breaking away.  I don’t care when the Wall Street Journal makes mistakes about the Presiding Bishop’s staff or how much money the Bishop of Eastern Swizzlestick spent on wine and fancy dinners.  Nor do I care that the Bishop of the Lower Heartland ate only $5 footlongs from Subway every day of General Convention, and divided them evenly between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

I just don’t care.  I want to know if the church is having a genuine, authentic conversation.  I care whether we’ve been courageous enough to be a community of “inquiring and discerning hearts,” to quote the Prayer Book. 

The short answer is: we haven’t.  In fact, we’ve been downright terrible about having a real conversation, respecting differences enough to listen, being bold in our faith claims to speak of how we know God to be acting in Christ.

And yet – poof! – out of the blue comes a genuine conversation.  Lots of folks missed it because they got all bent out of shape by Jay Akasie’s silly opinion piece, but here is an actual theological conversation, transpiring in the public realm.  How cool!

Kicking it off, on July 14, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat wondered “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”  Responding to what he opined has been going on in the Episcopal Church — and, in particular, the 2012 General Convention — Douthat argued that so long as organizations such as the Episcopal Church continue their progressive trends they will only appear to the world as increasingly secular institutions and, in turn, lose members until they ultimately die.  Agree or disagree, I don’t care.  It’s a solid argument.

Of course no card-carrying liberal Christian is going to take that sitting down.  Plenty of snarkyness roiled on social media, but it took Diana Butler Bass’ comprehensive July 15 Huffington Post article to present a compelling counter-argument.  Bass’ “Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat,” maintained that – one – declining church membership is neither a conservative nor liberal issue, everyone’s struggling with loss; and – two – since liberal Christianity had to wrestle with decline for a longer period of time than other Christian traditions, it might hold out promise for the entire bunch, re-invigorating Christianity by returning us all to a balance between orthodox faith and social responsibility.  Bass concluded: “So, Mr. Douthat asks, ‘Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?’ But I wonder: Can Liberal Churches Save Christianity?”

After that, opening Facebook or Twitter was what I could imagine being in a crowd at a so-called professional wrestling match would feel like — no one was saying much of substance but everyone was making plenty of noise, that’s what it meant to be part of the game in the first place.  Blogs were posted like pamphlets of old, as if the thing spoke for itself and summarized everything:  Diana Butler Bass (yay! … hiss!)  Andrew Douthat / Jay Akasie (boo! … yay!).  I still can’t believe so many bloggers took such enormous time to refute the Akasie claims, one by one, and I thank God there was some humor in some of them, lest we, Episcopalians, be rightfully accused of failing to actually read those parts of the bible about how taking prophetic stances isn’t a good first step to making friends in high places!

Arguments of substance were starting to appear more frequently, though.  Bishop Stacy Sauls, the Chief Operating Officer for the Episcopal Church, weighed in in response to Akasie’s Wall Street Journal piece, and went beyond the tit-for-tat that dominated the blogosphere.  Like a fast break, Sauls concisely asserted that the Church has been “radically faithful” to scripture, tradition, and reason.  Slam dunk.

Taking on Bass, The Living Church ran a July 16 piece by Thomas Kincaid, asserting that she simply “doesn’t get it.”  Kincaid presented a solidly argued conservative theological criticism of liberal Christianity: it’s about salvation, after all, and what liberal Christianity doesn’t get is that the Savior role has already been taken by one Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Christ.  Like his conclusions or not, Kincaid raises a solid argument, not to mention another point that’s stopped me in my haughty tracks — factoring out immigration from Latin America when determining the numbers of Roman Catholics in this country borders dangerously on racism, if only elitism.

Back to the original players, Ross Douthat blogged a response to Bass on July 25.  Unfortunately, most of Douthat’s “Is Liberal Christianity Actually the Future?” is another tit-for-tat, this time quoting whole chunks of Bass’ claim in order to disagree, but he does get around to offering an intriguing counter-argument: Isn’t much of the searching Bass calls “neo-liberalism” happening as (Douthat:) “individuals, rather than as members of the liberal churches and congregations that keep trying to roll out a welcome mat for them”?  So we’re still talking about a decline in religious institutions, and that’s happening at a faster pace in liberal churches than conservative ones.

I want to play coach for a moment, and suggest future moves.  There are several:

One, admit that we are, in fact, talking about the decline, death, and substantial changing of religious institutions, social institutions that are not that old in the first place.  Frankly, this needs to be said — and has been astonishingly mute among neo-liberal voices.  Even our most mission-minded church leaders are still afraid of saying that the conversation we have embarked on will, ultimately, mean the ending of the diocesan/deanery/parochial system.  Say it anyway.

Two, admit that we need to learn from the conservative movement of the 1970’s and 80’s that bypassed denominations and, instead, focused on building a community from motivated individual seekers.  Douthat’s right: we can’t compare liberal and conservative denominations when the dramatic rise in conservative Christianity happened in from dynamic leaders leading much-hyped congregations, not because a denomination said so.  Admit that we liberals / neo-liberals / mainliners / deadliners / whoever we are suck at evangelism, and we’ve got to learn new skills and learn them fast.

But do not admit that we are anything but deeply Christian.  And remind the world that we […if you can’t tell by now, my conclusions line up with a fairly progressive Christian stance] are motivated to make these stands because we spend our days rooted in the tradition, the scriptures, and the gift of reason. 

And stop getting hung up on the non-substantive conclusions — whether they like us, understand us, respect us, or know why our Presiding Bishop carries the stick she carries.  That doesn’t matter.  Engage the deeper, more important conversation about they ways we know God in Christ to be active in this world through the Holy Spirit.  And show how you get there by reading the scriptures, living with the tradition, and responding to ever-opening vistas of grace.  That, I’ll say, is the only conversation that has the power to save people’s souls.

TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHY WE’RE HAVING THIS CONVERSATION

Last week, I was getting really excited — the General Convention of the Episcopal Church was kicking off in Indianapolis; Independence Day was coming up; I was getting together with Episcopal church leaders from southern Maryland to be more strategic about re-imagining the church in our region; and on Thursday evening, I was hosting a focus group in which someone from our diocese was coming down to hear from a diverse group of St. Georgians about the ordination process and what ordinary folks thought about the state of ministry in the Episcopal Church.

Sounds like a full week.  It was, but I’m afraid I justify my sense of busy-ness by, well, being busy.  That’s not necessarily the same as productive or meaningful or, in the end, making much of a difference, let alone much sense.

Take the Thursday night focus group, for instance:  I was supposed to get 8 to 10 people to come so I invited twice as many, thinking because it was July — and because it was an invitation to talk about the ordination process in the Diocese of Washington — most people would say something like, “Actually, Greg, my dog’s been needing a bath…”  Or “That sounds interesting, but I promised myself I’d avoid church conversations on Thursdays…” Or a simple: “No.”  In fact, everyone I invited said they were interested in coming, and all but two came.  Wow, I thought, what a moment for the Episcopal Church.  That moment didn’t last long.  About an hour into the conversation, I noticed some folks had grown quiet, whereas others were speaking up repeatedly.  You know that moment in a large group conversation that’s as if we all, suddenly, forgot why we came?

I’m sure much good will come from that conversation once the feedback is processed.  But I’m not talking about that meta stuff.  I’m talking about the impact such conversations have on those who gathered — the ones who make a choice to worship God in Christ on (most) Sunday mornings, a choice that’s different from some of their neighbors and friends who are, otherwise, sleeping in, reading the Washington Post, or on a bike ride.

That next Sunday, after the 8am Mass, in a quiet moment over coffee, two of those who were present on Thursday night asked me how I thought it went.  I think I said much of what I wrote, above, but something else was behind the question.  “I was trying to figure out why we were having this conversation,” one said.  Without prompting, he rattled off the institutional reasons we cited (because the bishop has placed a moratorium) as well as theological (because the chuch is dynamic) and business-based reasons (because we need more creative, entrepreneurial leaders).  But those straightforward reasons didn’t answer his question:  “I’m trying to figure out why we’re having this conversation.”  That’s a really good and a really deep question, and I’d like to think it’s one that will haunt us for a long time to come.

Look at the General Convention in Indianapolis, and ask that question.  When so much excitement is around the structure and process and decisions about the next triennial budget for the Episcopal Church, something’s going on.  I don’t disagree that we’re at a ripe time in our institutional church.  And I don’t disagree that conversations about budgets and committees and process and structure are not, in fact, moral, missional, and theological conversations.  I just wonder if we’re talking in ways and with such a trunkful of assumptions that we’re leaving countless people trying to figure out why, in the first place, we’re having this conversation, and what in the world we’re trying to say.  And I’m not just thinking about the people in our very last pew, but those who are sitting at home on Sunday morning, enjoying  a quiet cup of tea and the New York Times, reading about Episcopalians or Presbyterians or Methodists or Catholics talking about what we talk about.

I’m talking about what is discernably and actually alive and real, what 1 Tim. 6:19 calls “the life that is truly life.”  When are we going to get to have that conversation?