What sign are you going to give us then?

A sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 2, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

What sign are you going to give us then?

The Gospel story from last week continues. It looks like some of the same people who wanted to make Jesus a king chased him across the lake. It’s this odd thing, they know he’s special and they want a piece of him. He can do something for them, and they want it.  And Jesus is having none of it. They want to talk scripture with him, but they want to argue for their own ends. They have an idea of Moses and of miracles, and they want that from Jesus.  They say, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness …”  Basically, Jesus’ response is, “Wait a minute. You’re making both me and Moses into magic bread vending machines … you just want the bread, and you are ignoring the whole point: God is the source of life, not just getting that bread.”

In our Epistle lesson from Ephesians today, it says: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”  We see that in these people in the Gospel lesson who are arguing with Jesus.  The problem is not so much about false assertions, or big heresies. What is going on is that they are defending their prerogatives and asserting their selfish rights. “Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, what work are you performing for us?” These people contesting with Jesus were Jewish, but in Ephesians Paul is talking about gentiles, who are also more preoccupied with manipulating the good news (“craftiness and deceitful scheming”) than with listening to Jesus.  So there is equal opportunity selfishness being displayed throughout the Bible. It is people who are stuck on their selfish schemes and their narrow view of their own importance—like children. But what is expected in children, is no longer acceptable once we are ready to take up our adult place in a Christian community.

Which is why Paul exhorts the church: “Being truthful in love we most grow up.” Grow up into Christ who is the head of the body, the Bread of Life. The version of the Bible we are reading translates that phrase differently—it reads “speaking the truth in love.” That’s not inaccurate, but the word “speak” isn’t in the Greek original. What the word in Greek means, literally, is “doing truth.” Which means the emphasis is not on the talking part. The emphasis is on being truth and honesty in love as being the way to grow into Christ.

That honesty in love is a good definition of Christian humility, and that is what this entire Epistle lesson is about. It starts, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility…” Humility, especially Christian humility, is not about thinking of yourself as unworthy or not good enough—it’s not about that at all. It is about that honesty in love.

Here’s the problem with being honestly who we are, however. Sometimes, our personality traits can have their positive sides and their negative. Another way of saying this is that our virtues are often closely linked with our besetting sins. For example, intelligence and arrogance—those often come in pairs, we might notice. Kindness may be linked with fear of confronting others over wrongdoing. Passion and impatience is another duo I have noticed—I’m sure there are many others you can name in yourself and others. So how do we, as Christians, have that honesty in love that lets us balance out our strengths and our weaknesses?

I want to suggest that that line that opens up today’s epistle is the way.  “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility…” Humility is about being honest about both sides, recognizing strengths while acknowledging shortcomings. It takes courage to be humble, and a person who recognizes her strengths also discovers the calling of God to give those as gifts to his service, and the person who honestly sees his shortcomings emerging out of his strengths may well be surprised at them. I would go so far as to say that those who say, “I am not much good, I just have weaknesses and sinfulness” are not humble at all, but avoiding seeing their real shortcomings along with their strength and God’s calling.

Our Epistle lesson today is one of the most extraordinary chapters in the Bible.  “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” The life to which you have been called is to recognize the Bread of Life in Jesus and to follow him.

This chapter outlines the Christian life; it is worth taking the text of this lesson home and meditating on it for a long time. We don’t stop being the difficult people that we are by being baptized or by attending church. We don’t have a magic solution, we have a calling.  It starts by encouraging us all to humility and gentleness, bearing with one another in love. Because Paul knew that we would have a lot to bear.  There is plenty of non-gentleness and non-humility among Christians, and each of us needs to go a little further in patience than we think we should have to, in order to get along.  We don’t get along by being small factions of like-minded people, because, “There is one body and one Spirit”—our calling has one and only one hope, that is: One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  We have one hope, which brings us all together, and that is Jesus, the Bread of Life. We are brought together, not by agreement, but in Jesus, the head of the body.

We are called to live lives worthy of our calling—worthy of our best selves and worthy of Christ. Our Old Testament lesson ends this way:

manna and quails“there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance…When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

We are called to partake of the Bread of Life, humbly, honestly knowing Jesus.

“Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ from whom the whole body, joined and knit together  by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

But what are they among so many people?

A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 26, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

But what are they among so many people?

One thing I’ve noticed over the past several weeks as we have read through the Gospel of Mark is how everything in Jesus’ ministry revolves around healing. There are stories of Jesus healing people embedded in other stories of him healing other people. Jesus sent out his disciples to heal the sick and cast out demons. And even when he was back at home and couldn’t do signs of power, he healed a few sick people.

So maybe that’s just the Gospel of Mark’s thing? It is true that each Gospel has a different perspective, and in Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, Jesus the Son of God, casts out demons and heals the sick.  Today, for some reason, the lectionary shifts from the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of John. So we have a different perspective. So how does this lesson in the Gospel of John begin? “A large crowd kept following him, because of the signs that he was doing for the sick.” Jesus heals, in all the Gospels.

You know when you hear it said, “Jesus saves?” What it means is that Jesus heals. He heals the injuries and illness of individuals and of groups of people, even our society.  Some think that it means that he swoops people out of this world into someplace else, but that is not what salvation means, it means healing.  And those demons he casts out—those are the injuries and illness that no one wants to take responsibility for—illnesses of our whole systems, and they take on a life of their own.

So we are in the Gospel of John and a huge group of people comes around the lake to catch up with Jesus, looking for healing.  Jesus is standing there, up on the hillside next to Philip. I think we sometimes get too serious and somber when we read the stories, just because they are in the Bible. Jesus is standing there on the hill and he sees, from quite a way off, this big group of people coming. He knows that what they want is healing—it’s not like they’re coming for a dinner party. But it’s a BIG GROUP. So he nudges Philip, and he says, “How are you going to feed all these people?” And Philip’s eyes get big, and he imagines the cost. He freezes. He says “Two hundred denarii. That wouldn’t even be enough to buy bread for this group.” He’s thinking of a pile of silver coins bigger than he would likely ever see—the whole payroll for a week’s wages for a large crew of workers. It never occurred to him to send them over to Trinity Church after Sunday service.

Andrew says, “Here’s what we have, but what is that among so many people?” The disciples are all overcome by the size of the problem. They want a solution to the whole problem, and they see it as a problem that they need to solve out of their resources. Jesus says: “Have them all sit down.” It turns out there was a lot of grass there—they could all sit down in relative comfort.

Loaves and fishesThen Jesus took the loaves and he gave thanks. Jesus took what they had and he gave thanks, he gave thanks to God for those loaves and those fish, not for the ones that they didn’t have or wished they might have. Jesus gave thanks.

We miss that so often, that in his life Jesus gave thanks, that thanksgiving is what defines us as God’s people. That is what this service, the Eucharist, means. In thanksgiving, Jesus began to distribute the bread and the fish to the people. Now the story we read is a miracle. But the thing is, Jesus wasn’t focusing on the problem of the five thousand, he focused on thanksgiving, and on giving, giving the bread and the fish to those who were there in front of him. In this sign, Jesus is generous and God is generous and feeds everyone.

We turn to Jesus for healing, as did his disciples, as did all of those people in that crowd. Out of God’s superabundant generosity Jesus healed them all with food for their bodies.

But this group saw it as something different.  They saw that he made all this food and it looked like power to them—they wanted to make him king.  People want to take the gift of healing and turn it into power. We tend to think if we have enough power, we can do away with the need for healing, that we will be smart enough and good enough—we forget about all those times when we are neither kind, nor thankful.  As the people grabbed at him, trying to institutionalize his power and make him king … Jesus slipped away.  That was not what the bread or the fish or any of the healing was about.

But how does this story end today? The disciples get in the boat again, and they are in the storm again. And they are very afraid, again.  And they saw Jesus walking on the water, and he said, “It is I, do not be afraid.” And they wanted to grab him into the boat, but right then they found they had reached solid land.

Dear friends. Let us be thankful, let us be generous, let us be unafraid, let us be steadfast. Let us gather in thanksgiving at the Lord’s table.

You who were once far off

A Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 19, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the Blood of Christ. For he is our peace…

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus said to his apostles: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going and they had no leisure, even to eat.” That happens … and it is important sometimes for all of us to take rest, step back and allow our bodies, minds and spirits to recover and re-energize. Last week, Paula and I took time away—we went to Boston for a few days to visit my granddaughter and her parents, then we spent several days on Cape Cod Cape cod marshwith our friends Josh Davis and Danielle Thompson. Josh is a theologian, who until recently, was on the faculty with me at General Theological Seminary; his wife, Danielle is an Episcopal priest. We had a wonderful time with them, visiting, playing with their kids, walking on the beach, and Josh and I spent hours talking theology.  It’s what you do on vacation, I guess.

One of the things that Josh mentioned was that he had been looking at the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. So often, Christians regard Galatians as a place where Paul is saying that the Gospel has superseded or negated Judaism, by giving a better way that is free from the law. But that isn’t what Paul is saying at all. What he says is that the Jews remain Jews and the gentiles remain gentile and they are united in Christ. That Jesus, the Jew, included those who were not Jewish into participation in God as a pure gift, not destroying their separate cultures, and at the same time including those who practiced Judaism in Christ without changing their practice and obedience to Jewish law.

Christ has come into the world, and the unity of human beings, is not in being alike, but in being united with him. It was the great and extraordinary gift, that the God of Israel bestowed this belonging on the Messiah of Israel—that is what that Greek word Christ means—to those who were not otherwise part of Israel. Galatia was a part of that area that is now modern Turkey. Ephesus was a city substantially west of there, on the west coast of modern Turkey. Our epistle lesson this morning was written to the Christian community at Ephesus, which like the Galatians, was made up of gentile Christians with few Jewish members.  In our lesson, the unity of all people in Christ is emphasized.  But we would be mistaken to think that when Paul talks about Christ breaking down the dividing wall between the groups he means that Christ is abolishing differences.

The lesson says this: “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” The wall is the hostility between people, not their differences. All through the writings of Paul he is contending with one party or another, where leaders arose who tried to simplify their own lives by saying that the church should be one, and that should be by everyone conforming to their culture, observances and way of living. Eventually what happened was that Paul lost out. Rather than Jews living observantly, being one component of the diverse body of the Messiah, they were eliminated or conformed into the gentile church; Jews were regarded as the enemies and rivals of the Church. The results of that have been tragic.

Hostility was masked in the church by conformity and was replaced by fear and hatred. People find it simpler to have only one kind of people. Or rather two kinds of people, “Our People” and “Bad People.” That then makes it easier to control: our people can then gradually let some of the Bad People become part of our people, by becoming like our people. That is not the message of Jesus or of St. Paul, who said it this way: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the Blood of Christ. For he is our peace…” It is the mercy of God and the undeserved gift of being admitted to Christ that gives any of us hope and life abundant. It is not ours, Christ is not our possession, we are his. We don’t serve Christ by giving up our own distinctiveness or opinions, neither do we serve him by failing to accept those who differ from us.

The Body of Christ takes its beauty from its many forms, from the depth of people’s commitment to their own cultures and traditions and from the respect between peoples. This is not easy or automatic—in fact it is easier at times to see the walls of hostility than to see that respect. We are not united in a Christian culture, but in Christ. It takes the action of God, the mercy of God, the gift of God to make this happen.

As our lesson from Ephesians concludes:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are build together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

John, whom I beheaded, has been raised

A sermon at St. James the Fisherman, Wellfleet, Massachusetts

July 12, 2015, 7th Sunday after Pentecost

“John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

This is the Gospel of Mark’s preface before we hear the plot synopsis of the Richard Strauss opera Salome.

The Herod in the Gospel lesson is the son of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas.  Antipas wanted to be king of all Judea, like his father, but he had a brother who also wanted the same thing and another brother who also had a claim. When they gathered in Rome, the emperor didn’t think any of them was as talented or as trustworthy as their father, so he split up Herod’s kingdom and made none of them king. The oldest brother got Jerusalem, and Antipas got the consolation prize of being tetrarch of Galilee. What does tetrarch mean? Well, it is a Roman name for an officer in charge of an area. AND it definitely does not mean king.

herod and salomeSo we have the image of a man born to privilege and some power, who definitely wants more of both, but is afraid of losing them both. Sort of a run-of-the-mill kind of guy in our country nowadays, especially in New York City, where I lived until recently. You can see it in the kind of games he plays with his friends and his use of the young woman: a feeling of entitlement that is heightened by fear of losing his privilege.

John, who we know as John the Baptist, spent his life reminding people of the truth: the God of love is the center of all, not anyone else, not any person, no matter how powerful. John called people to repentance, and he pointed out things; things that were uncomfortable, because they were true.

The Herods were all Roman clients and it was to the Roman Empire that they owed their loyalty. Herod Antipas was challenged by John to attend to the God of Israel, the God who heard the poor and brought them out of Egypt, the God who led them beyond the fear of any human being. Herod was challenged by that truth—then he listened to his fear. His fear of the Romans, his fear of losing privilege.  He has the power, he has the soldiers, and he has to silence John, the reminder of the truth, so he had him taken into custody.

He goes home, he has some friends, and cronies and affiliates over, and we have the Strauss opera. It’s a tragedy, and often the tragedy is understood as the dilemma of Herod’s choice as to whether to behead John the Baptist. But the real tragedy is his running from the truth to protect his privilege.

The lesson starts, “King Herod heard of it.”  Heard of what? The only thing this can be referring to is what we heard in the previous passage last week. In that passage, after Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs, we have these two verses: “So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

That’s what Herod Antipas’ heard—and that was his worst nightmare. In the message and life of Jesus, was the same truth preached by John: “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand!” The demons of society are cast out and the poor and the sick are healed. Fear is cast out, and truth comes in. And where does that leave Antipas and his privilege? He’s left with his fear and need to run away from truth. Good news for the poor made no sense to Antipas.

From a point of view of being privileged—and I include myself in this—it is very difficult to even see the privilege, let alone to acknowledge that any change is possible.  How can there be a change, for instance, in racism and its effects in this country, that won’t have an impact on the comfort and prosperity of those of us who don’t suffer from racism? When you think about it, that’s an odd question, yet people have been saying that for years—sometimes, they express it as not wanting to disrupt society. And change in a society effects everyone, and it changes things for those who have power and privilege.  People are afraid of changes, because they fear a loss of comfort and security. Like Herod Antipas, who ran from his fear by indulging in strange parties and taking his brother’s wife—he sort of covered it up, but his fear was greater, not less. And he could never face up to the Romans.

Make no mistake, Jesus brought good news to the poor, and it is good news for all of us. The freedom that comes from the casting out of demons and the healing of the sick is precious, the most precious thing of all, but it comes at high cost. Sometimes when we face our fears, what happens is indeed what we had feared.  This is the hallowed Christian tradition of the witnesses, the confessors, the martyrs. Yet it is the only way for change to come into the world.  Last week, Jesus was rejected in his hometown, so he went out and he sent out his disciples to heal and to cast out the demons of this world. And Herod Antipas was afraid.

Hear how our Old Testament lesson ends:

“When King David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.”

Unlike Herod Antipas, here King David, the archetypal king of Israel, was all about the people, the whole people—to each, both men and women a full portion all good things. Just so, Christ feeds us, as we partake of his death and resurrection in the Eucharist.

 

…except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them

A sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

Jesus went home, and he taught in the synagogue and it was pretty impressive. But THEY knew his background. “That Mary woman, he’s her son. Yeah, we know about that family. carpenter He’s just a rough carpenter, sometimes picked up work framing houses—but I hear now he mostly just wanders around the countryside with those ‘disciples’ of his.  He’s better off just wandering out of here.”

Around home, they know all the down sides of people. When we know people from a long time back, we’re not so inclined to be polite about them, and we’re not so inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt—because we think we know them. But with strangers, it’s different. Especially when someone appears successful, well-dressed, wealthy, powerful. Despite the fact that we really don’t know them, we want to think of them as perfect. And we want to imagine that the people we endorse are perfect—perfectly powerful, perfectly good-looking, no blemishes or doubtful aspects to their background, and certainly never disagreeing with us, or calling our behavior into question.

Jesus was a hometown boy, and the people remembered every little thing, every jealousy, every mistake, every disagreement. By the way—when we talk about Jesus being the incarnation of God, we tend to think that he didn’t make mistakes. I think that’s wrong. He was a human being, and there is no reason to think that, as a Palestinian kid, he did calculus and differential equations as a three-year-old. His perfection was in being the perfect manifestation of God’s love, and that did not mean that he was never annoying to his elders or contemporaries. So he came to his home town, and he preached in the synagogue. And at first, the listened and the insight touched them, it was extraordinary, but then they said, wait… we know this guy, he’s not so impressive…he’s not a great philosopher, he’s a carpenter.  And we know his family… you know, one of those families—in fact those brothers, James and Joses, I had some dealings with them…

Like the rest of us, the people of Nazareth were looking for something really big, and really impressive, and from sources that could not possibly be criticized. And you know what? Those sources don’t exist, because ever since Eve saw that apple and got into that conversation with the serpent, criticism and suspicion have been a big part of how people do business. So great acts of power… the people of Nazareth weren’t going to see those.

What did Jesus do?  It says, “he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Jesus reached out and healed, and pretty much nobody noticed.  Because he was familiar, and not driving the newest car, or wearing the fanciest clothes, no one noticed that he reached out to the sick and healed them. No flashes of lightning or puffs of smoke, no fireworks like we saw last night, he just laid his hands on a few sick people and cured their disease.

The important things that God does are not fireworks. We come to God for salvation, but that word salvation, it does not mean dramatic rescues, or big rewards far away and a long time off, salvation means healing, salving, of our souls, our relationships, our bodies and our society. Sometimes, especially close to home, that healing comes without all the fanfare that we might want or expect. Jesus healed a few sick people, and that was all that was necessary. Then he sent out those twelve who were with him. Two by two they went with nothing.  Just themselves, no resources. And what did he tell them to do? “Whenever you enter the house stay there.” That’s all, stay there. Nothing big, nothing dramatic and nothing about what wonderful people the disciples were, or even how wonderful Jesus was. So they were there, they talked about the love of God and repentance. In the process here’s what the Gospel says happened, “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

Sometimes we think, “Oh, if I just lived in Bible times, or the times of the early church!” or “Oh, if there was just the opportunity to know what God is clearly calling me to do, and the chance to do it.” I’ve certainly thought that at times. But if we look at Jesus and his disciples, their life was much like our lives, and what they did, was what we do, they came together, talked about the love of God, prayed for the sick and anointed them with oil.

Friends we are living in Bible times. Events of the last few weeks in Charleston and elsewhere, show that our society has many demons to be cast out. God is the one who casts out demons, but we gather together and pray—like the disciples we may have no bread, no bag, no money in our belts—but God cures the sick and gives us life, not through drama, but through his presence.

St. Paul said this to the church at Corinth:

“God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefor I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Then he put them all outside … and went in where the child was

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 28, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Then he put them all outside … and went in where the child was.”

After the storm that was in last week’s lesson, Jesus and the disciples got back in the boat and crossed back to where they were before. Immediately, Jesus is back among the chaos of the crowds, and we have a story of two healings. Often these two are pulled apart and discussed individually, even by biblical scholars, but I think it’s important to look at them together.

One of the leaders of the church comes to Jesus and begs him to come heal his daughter. Jesus has compassion and goes along with this community leader—just as he is doing this, the other story interrupts. A woman, a part of this crowd—a woman who has suffered with a condition for a dozen years, which has ruined her life—she pushes through the crowd to get close to Jesus, the healer. The blood, the force of life, which has been flowing out of her, has made it so that she cannot be touched by a man. She pushes close to reach out to touch this man, the healer. He felt the force leave him and he turned to see her. “Daughter your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Jesus had compassion on this woman, who had been an outsider, who transgressed by touching him. He healed her, and commended her trust in God.

This was in the middle of crowds pressing around, all sorts of pressure and confusion. And the other story comes back. Jesus is standing there and people come from the house of the religious leader and say, “She’s dead. Let the teacher go away.” Practical, realistic, discouraged people, just giving up. Jesus looked at these fearful and discouraged people and said, “Do not fear, only believe.” They had seen a healer and now they believed that the chance for healing was lost. So they dismissed the healer. But Jesus would not accept their resignation and dismissal, “Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus knew far more about life than they knew about death. He got to the house, and they laughed at him. He said she was asleep, and they laughed at him, and Jesus said to them, “Please, just go outside for now.” He took the parents into the room and took the girl by the hand and said, “little girl, get up!” And she did. Jesus had compassion on the child, and on those parents of hers, those respectable leaders of the community, and he had compassion on that woman, the ruined outcast. All at the same time. He did not listen to those who were telling him “don’t bother, go away.” Jesus won’t listen to hopelessness, rather he has compassion for those who hurt, who are confused, who are fearful.

There were two healings on that day. Most people would have advised Jesus to pay attention to just one or the other, to choose, to choose the more worthy or the one with the greatest need or the one that agreed with them. Jesus would not do that, and as everybody started to advise him more, “he put them all outside.” We think we know about compassion and healing, but we don’t, not really—Jesus just tended to healing and being compassionate. Jesus just shakes his head and sends them outside—there are no limits on God’s love, in particular, not limits that we contrive.

People are often most hurt by the limits that others put on God’s love—usually, trying to defend their own claims on God or their own privilege they conclude that others should get out of the way—like that woman with the hemorrhage, she shouldn’t interrupt Jesus getting to the house to heal the important man’s little girl.

On Friday, two important things happened. In the morning, the Supreme Court of the United States announced its decision affirming marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. Not too long after that, the President of the United States preached about grace at the funeral of the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed during a bible study in his church by a racist attacker. Is one more important than the other? Can God have compassion on only one group? In both cases, people have suffered long, with disapproval and dismissal by the dominant groups in our culture. It is common for people to lack understanding of the sincerity and humanity of groups that they are not part of. Marriage equality will not change attitudes or relationships over night. And President Obama said this about race:

obama“We don’t earn grace. We are all sinners. We don’t deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway and we choose how to receive it. It is our decision how to honor it. None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight. Every time something like this happens, someone says we have to have a conversation about race. We talk a lot about race. There is no shortcut. We don’t need more talk. None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy. It will not. People of goodwill will continue to debate the merits of various policies as our democracy requires. There are good people on both sides of these debates. Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete. But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.”

 

The violence of racism is not simply in shootings or lynchings, it is also in the constant denial of ordinary human respect, that goes unnoticed day by day among those in the dominant culture. Likewise, our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers suffer similar indignity—it caused many to hide, but not change, who they were. We are often tempted to seek comfort by denying Jesus’ compassion, but he won’t let us get away with it.

 

Is life possible when all we see is death? They laughed at Jesus. But he went upstairs, and took her hand and said, “Talitha cum” –“Little girl, get up!”

Two lay theologians write to the House of Bishops

J. David Belcher

J. David Belcher

J. David Belcher

and Shane R. Brinegar

Shane R. Brinegar

Shane R. Brinegar

were first year graduate students in the Th.D. program at the General Theological Seminary in the Fall of 2014. They have published the following letter to the House of Bishops, which is currently meeting at Salt Lake City in the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

This letter should be seen in the context of a recent public relations campaign by the General Theological Seminary promoting the seminary in its current manifestation. These posts are mostly entitled: “General Voices: Why I stand with the General Theological Seminary.” They can be viewed at this link. The Seminary has been selective in which voices it presents on this news feed. For instance the sermon by Hershey Mallette at the commencement day eucharist is not included. Thus it is appropriate that the voice of these two General Theological Seminary students get wide circulation as these other posts have.

 

“A Truthful Blue Book Report on the State of The General Theological Seminary of The Episcopal Church”

Dear Bishops of The Episcopal Church,

We write to you as former doctoral students at General Theological Seminary (GTS) who were forced to withdraw from our programs last fall because of the administration’s mishandled response to the recent crisis at the seminary. We are concerned about the disastrous toll this crisis has taken not only on particular persons’ livelihoods and vocations at GTS but also about the future of theological education and ultimately the future of the church. Our purpose, therefore, is to offer an honest theological and ethical perspective on theological education as it is rooted in the ministry of all the baptized and to call upon you to help lead the whole church into a much needed conversation about theological education’s important place in the mission and ministry of the whole body of Christ.

You recently received a communication from eight of the bishops who sit on the Board of Trustees of GTS. That letter expressed great anxiety that the church’s ministry, across all mainline denominations, is facing a rapidly changing world to which it must readily adapt. As the bishops put it, “The Episcopal Church is not the same church it was 100, 50 or even 10 years ago. Life has changed; our context for mission and ministry have changed [sic]. Systems must be more agile, adaptive and lean.” These bishops now call upon you to join them in solidarity by justifying their actions during this crisis on the basis of a decisive need for change.

And indeed the administration of GTS has made widespread changes to the basic structures of GTS: a full tenured Faculty has been reduced almost completely to replaceable adjunct labor; an institution formerly premised on the basic baptismal notion of the collaboration of all members of the community has been transformed into an insulated hierarchy in which collaborative community has no place; the seminary now exempts itself from requirements for safe space, failing to provide basic structures of accountability for accusations of discrimination and harassment; students are now understood to be consumers, bishops and dioceses customers. Worse still, these bishops have failed to tell you the disastrous effect these changes have had on the basic building blocks of every institution: its people.

In their letter to you, the eight bishops made no mention of the great exodus of students these last few months; nothing of the fact that seven of the eight protesting Faculty are gone; nothing of the decimation of the only ThD program in an Episcopal seminary to which we are witnesses; nothing of the staggering loss of staff; nothing of the considerable financial and psychological cost their intransigence has exacted not only on students but also on their families and loved ones; nothing of the few, dejected, and considerably ill-formed MDiv, MA, and other students that remain. They know that the seminary’s substantial endowment has been egregiously mismanaged and that the incoming class of Fall 2014 was reduced by 30% by mid-semester.

Scholars, postulants for priesthood, deacons, lay theologians, spiritual directors, faculty members, and others—we all came to GTS because we discerned that this was a place committed to nurturing the flourishing of our baptismal vocations and our spiritual gifts. We believed our vocations for theological education belonged to the church and its ministry, not academia, and that GTS was the place to nourish those gifts. But the Dean and Board treated our vocations as commodities to be bought and sold. The seminary’s response to its crisis was dehumanizing to us, and it has maligned the baptismal dignity of persons involved: faculty members and students like us, as well as our spouses, partners, and children, our homes and our jobs.

Even now the seminary sends fundraising letters from current students who used to be our colleagues and other invested parties of faculty and alumni. Such responses are shortsighted, as are the “remaining faculty” whose silence allowed injustice to thrive, and the “replacement faculty” who have sought personal advancement at others’ expense. They are shortsighted and callous because they ignore the ways we, along with the Faculty, have become the collateral damage of “change,” treated as less than human, and how our families’ lives have been turned upside down. These appeals give no account of the children of faculty members and students who have been removed from their homes and their schools; how spouses and partners have lost friends, employment, and church homes; how basic spiritual discernment and even faith have been disrupted. They do not mention that some have been pushed out of the church, for good. As bishops of the church called to care for all members of Christ’s body, this should concern you greatly.

Thus, in the light of what change has meant for the real lives of people caught in the middle of this conflict, the attempt of these eight bishops to associate the crisis at GTS with an undeniable need for change, which all mainline churches are facing, is shameful in its cynicism and deceit. In no way have the actions of the Dean and Board of Trustees of GTS during this long crisis been truly concerned with the future of the church in the new mission field to which all baptized Christians are called. Rather, their actions represent the intransigence of obsolete structures operating at their very worst to bend the gospel of Jesus Christ to their own interests.

Indeed, while Dean Dunkle himself called for this same sort of change in his peculiar widely circulated letter to “the beloveds of God’s church in the world” (October 3, 2014) he also obliquely suggested that the Faculty represented “entrenched interests eager (and vocal) to return to the ‘way it used to be at General.’” By framing their letter in terms of the demand for change amidst a changing world, these eight bishops likewise intentionally cast the conflict at GTS as one between the visionary leadership of a forward-looking Dean and a recalcitrant, privileged Faculty. We can tell you, however, that this is an intentional and scandalous misrepresentation.

The vision the Faculty set forth in their Way of Wisdom declaration proposed widespread and comprehensive changes to the entire curriculum and mode of life at the seminary. Clearly the Faculty are not resistant to change; they were concerned, however, with the kind of change necessary to theological education and its place at GTS and in the wider church. Their bold and visionary declaration respected theological education as a basic gift that belongs to the ministry of all the baptized. In it, these Faculty also gave our own gifts a place, truly carving out a space for our voices and our particular ministries within the church. It is an expansive and inclusive vision. Contrast this with the administration’s diminutive vision of change—an insulated world for which GTS’s “Close,” with its wrought-iron gates, is a perfect metaphor—which is fixated on a leadership of exception and domination and workers as cheap, replaceable labor.

Misrepresenting the truth of the situation at GTS, as these eight bishops and other recent communications from the seminary have done, helps no one. It further empowers a floundering and aimless Dean and Board of Trustees, while specifically inhibiting the kind of true healing that is necessary at GTS. Perhaps most importantly, it prevents us from having the more pressing conversation about the real integrity of theological education within the mission of the church and its importance to our future. This is a conversation we as lay theologians are eager to engage in, and one to which the Faculty at GTS offered a comprehensive vision in their Way of Wisdom declaration. Unfortunately, that vision was largely silenced by the leadership of the seminary.

Our common calling in baptism carries specific ethical obligations. As we seek to be faithful to the mission of God in this world, we all vow in baptism to seek justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. In doing so, we align our lives with the most basic dictum of Israel’s Torah: God’s gratuitous creation of humanity in the image and likeness of the living God. In Genesis, that image is tied in a special way to our work, the charge we are given to tend and nurture the flourishing of creation and one another’s lives. What is often translated as our “having dominion” over creation really means we are to attend to the world’s needs, to sustain it and the lives of our fellow creatures. That labor is what God’s image in us is.

This is why Scripture speaks so passionately against the mistreatment and exploitation of laborers. When our work is most free, most vitally alive, then the image of God is most fully realized and creation itself flourishes. But the oppression, frustration, or exploitation of laborers and their work not only hinders life but assaults human dignity and, by extension, God’s good creation. Laborers share in God’s own creative labor. Indeed, it is not too strong to say that any attempt to connect the kind of change God wants for us to the exploitation and mistreatment of human labor is simply a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.

Sabbath is thus more than rest from labor; it is the celebration that reveals our sharing in God’s eternal delight in creating (Exod 31:15). We attend especially to the needs of the “poor” and “oppressed,” the “orphaned” and “widowed,” the “stranger” because they are the ones for whom we labor. They are the ones most likely to be forgotten or shut out from the dignified care of creation. Managers are commanded not to withhold wages until morning because to do so, as Leviticus says, is to “steal from” (“oppress,” “extort”) the laborer (Lev 19:13). Isaiah insists that religious practices are meaningless when coupled with the unjust treatment of workers (Isa 58:3). The New Testament is no different. James commands Christians not to extort wages because the cries of the worker goes immediately to God’s ears (Jas 5:4). Jesus comes announcing the light burden of those who bear his yoke. Indeed, the very biblical vision of salvation is summarized in the moment when shalom and justice (or fairness) kiss each other (Ps 85:10). In the economy of God’s work of salvation, no labor is truly for “buying” and “selling” but exists only for the proliferation of God’s shalom. Shalom is not simply “peace” (or the absence of conflict) but the active presence of restoration, renewal, righteousness, justice—the wholeness of relationship. Unfair and inequitable treatment of workers is a sin against God’s shalom, a violation of human dignity, and so of God’s creation.

All catholic Christian communities acknowledge the importance of this link between labor and the image of God, and so also the place of labor rights in social ethics. Vatican II’s Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), for example, declares: “Among the basic rights of [the human person] (personae humanae) is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people” (III.2.68), linking this basic right explicitly to the dignity of the image of God (I.12). Our own General Convention has passed numerous recent resolutions, echoing Gaudium et Spes (see, e.g., resolutions 2006-C008, 2006-A125, 2006-D047, 2009- D039, 2009-C083, 2009-D032, and especially 2012-D028). Indeed, our Book of Common Prayer clearly affirms that that our social obligations are inseparable from our daily life as baptized Christians.

If this is the guiding vision of Scripture, our Christian heritage, and our common baptismal vocation; if this is the vision that stands at the root of the basic ethical teaching of the Christian church; if this is what God wills for those who labor to proclaim salvation—how, may we ask, is it possible that the Christian men and women of General’s Board of Trustees, some of them bishops of the church, have treated us, other students and staff, and especially the protesting Faculty as they have?

It is this biblical ethics that the Board has most egregiously distorted in their treatment of the Faculty. Having sought respectfully and discreetly to correct the breakdown in their working relationship with the Dean, and under conditions that they found increasingly unbearable, the Faculty were ignored or rebuffed. Warning leaders on repeated occasions that the situation was reaching a breaking point, no action was taken. And when they finally acted in such a way that they could no longer be ignored, asking simply that the Board meet with them, they were summarily fired. That decision cannot plausibly be defended as consistent with Christian witness, theology, ethics, or the church’s mission. It is, by all scriptural accounts, a violation of the dignity of the image of God, pure and simple.

These facts are of special concern to us as doctoral students at GTS. Because we are lay theologians, the spiritual gifts bestowed on us by the Holy Spirit at baptism are for teaching and service to the church through theological education. This is our work as baptized members of Christ’s body. These gifts and that work belong in the church. It is the only place they can truly thrive. However, the actions of the seminary’s leadership this year have said to the whole church that these gifts are superfluous, expendable products to be bought and sold like commodities. They have turned away our deepest desires to serve Christ in the church and the world, and have left us to fend for ourselves.

In her recent Commencement Address at GTS, the Presiding Bishop praised this leadership, saying that sometimes we need “reckless” leaders to make the changes necessary for our survival in the future. Dear bishops, the kind of change enacted by the Dean, Board, and these eight bishops, including the Presiding Bishop, requires us all to be willing publicly to embrace the violation of the most basic dignity of human life as revealed to us in Scripture, to build a future for our church that explicitly refuses to participate in God’s own way of working and creating. It is a church in which our gifts have no place; where we are expendable and our labor is exploited; where, instead of being integral members of the Body of Christ, we are all of us reduced to numbers in an accounting ledger, customers and consumers only. Such a future is opposed to all that we are as The Episcopal Church. It is opposed to the ethical orientation of our common baptism. It is opposed to Scripture and God’s will for the church’s mission in the world.

Here, we commend to you once again the faculty’s Way of Wisdom declaration as a true, biblical vision of change. They claim that truly transformative change in theological education will actively reconnect with the life of the church in order to recover its purpose within the mission and ministry of all the baptized. It will reject the false separation of spiritual life from theological reflection because it has distorted the purpose of teaching in the Church’s life and damaged the formation of laypersons, priests, and bishops. It will promote collaborative work across the whole church to promote an integration of theological education with the mission and ministry of the whole church, an extension of our baptismal mission in the world.

Baptismal life is in fact our most basic vocation as Christians. Martin Luther said that baptism, though it only happens once, is a reality we never get beyond, but is a daily “dying and rising” with Christ. The Spirit richly bestows distinct gifts on the whole church in the baptisms of each one of us. Those who receive gifts for theological education fulfill their baptismal calling in their labor of service to the whole church. The church has no other mission than to deepen and expand the ministry these gifts support. Not even ordination transcends our basic baptismal calling, but only deepens it. In this water-bath of rebirth, we all set our faces with Jesus toward Jerusalem, marked with his cross forever. And marked as his own, we are never free to commend any system that impugns this basic baptismal vocation. We are not free to define “value” in any other terms.

Two paths stand before us: one paved by the labor of all the baptized, the other by those who claim power and use it to perpetuate outdated systems that rule our world. What kind of future our church will have depends on the kind of change we now enact. For we have much to give the church that is built up by our common baptismal labor; indeed, we will give the whole of our lives and all that we are. If the future of the church lies with the vision of change offered by the Dean, the eight bishops, and the Board of GTS, then our work, our lives, our families, our wellbeing, they are all as expendable as these eight brave faulty members. We pray you will choose the way of wisdom.

With urgency and in the Peace of Christ,

J. David Belcher and Shane R. Brinegar