Truth

A prophet’s reward

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 2, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.

Our lesson from the book of Jeremiah this morning shows two prophets in conversation, Jeremiah and Hananiah. Hananiah has just made a prophesy:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house… and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon.”

As we read it in today’s lectionary, it would appear that Jeremiah is agreeing with him:

“Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord and all the exiles.”

All of the people of Judah deeply wanted this good news, and so did Jeremiah. He wanted the restoration of the wholeness of the people and peace with all his heart. There’s only one problem. Hananiah’s prophecy was not true. The story continues this way: Jeremiah says, “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” Hananiah breaks the wooden yoke, which Jeremiah had put on his own back to represent the rule of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. And then, Jeremiah has another word from God: “Go tell Hananiah, ‘Thus says the Lord: You have broken the wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them!” Hananiah died within a month and the exiles remained in Babylon seventy more years.

Jeremiah had not been exactly agreeing with Hananiah. Not at all. Hananiah had painted a vision for his country that had everything that everyone wished for. Jeremiah wanted the same things, but he was skeptical. It did not fit with what he honestly saw, or the words he heard from God.

“The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient time prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

In the words of modern-day twitterspeak, shorter Jeremiah would be: IF. If the word comes true, then the Lord has truly sent the prophet.

In our church and in our country, people are anxious for good news, for news of peace and prosperity. Sometimes, we try to cut the story short, looking for a quick, happy ending. Even the framers of the lectionary seem to want to cut the story short in a misleading way, so that things can be peaceful and resolved on a summer morning.  But the false prophet Hananiah brought nothing but a brief, transitory false hope, based on a story made up from the wishes and fantasies of people.

The word of God, however, is only the story of truth, and that can contain some darkness, nastiness and evil. It can take longer to realize than we wish. The falseness of wishful thinking can make things worse: Jeremiah pronounced that the consequence of Hananiah’s removing the wooden yoke from Jeremiah’s back was that an iron yoke was placed on the people of Israel—wishful thinking about Nebuchadnezzar did not make the Babylonians go away or make their rule any more humane. It did not shorten the time of exile or reduce its pain. The only prophesy that could give any healing or hope is the truth. Jeremiah sternly spoke the truth of God’s love and called the people to return to God—to God’s truth and God’s love.

This weekend is when we celebrate Independence Day in our country. We rejoice in love of country and express our patriotism.  Just as Jeremiah did. We are in a troubled country at a troubled time. For many, the solution is to express hopefulness and say that all will be well if we simply express our loyalty to happy outcomes that are just around the corner.  Throughout the whole book of Jeremiah, the prophet was constantly running afoul of that kind of view—he might want things to turn out fine with a minimum of conflict and suffering—but he had to tell the truth. Likewise, in our country, we have to live with and acknowledge the truth of the fearfulness, anger, distrust and dishonesty that arises around us. Of cruelty masquerading as political necessity and thoughtless panic taking the place of constructive engagement. I’m not going to talk about policies here, or about personalities, but there is no magic solution in our country. Patriotism and hope can only emerge in full truthfulness and courageous compassion.

The same can be said for the church at the present time: the Episcopal Church and all Christian churches. Quick and superficial fixes will not address the issues and anxieties of the present time. It is only in the truth that there is a pathway forward.

The truth is simple: it’s what is in this morning’s Gospel: “whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…” It is our anxieties that are complex. Like those who listened to Hananiah, we want a quick solution that restores everything to its previous comfort. However, that is not, and never has been the promise of God.

The prophet who prophesies peace and delivers it in truth is Jesus. For our country or our church, all he offers is truth. Truth that is not magic or easy. The peace that he gives is found in living his compassion—that is a very challenging peace indeed, but the rewards are greater than the return of the vessels from Babylon.

We are welcomed into this world by God, and we live by extending that welcome:

Listen once more to what Jesus said:

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

I have seen the Lord

A sermon for Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Mary Magdalen went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”

Today is the feast of the Resurrection of Jesus. On this day, God has raised from the dead, the one that the powers of this world had killed, and he brings us life and freedom from death and oppression. Today he brings us into eternal life.

ResurrectionIf we are doubtful, confused, and muddled in this life and don’t know what to think, then we are in exactly the position of those first disciples, like Mary Magdalen, to whom Jesus first appeared. She saw Jesus, and she thought he was the groundskeeper. She was so pre-occupied with her own grief, that at first she couldn’t recognize that she was talking to her teacher, the Lord of Life.

When you read your Bible closely, and read the accounts of the resurrection, there is always confusion and doubt at first. It’s not because Jesus wasn’t actually there. The confusion, the doubt, the grief, the despair – those were all what the people to whom Jesus appeared were feeling. The Resurrection of Christ is here today but it takes conversion to see him. And when I say conversion, what I mean is giving up those things inside all of us—doubt, grief, despair, hatred—those powers of this world that grab hold of our spirit, and keep us from seeing the truth.

This morning we are baptizing Savannah. And I’m going to break off from my sermon for a minute to say this: This is my second Easter I have had the pleasure of worshipping with you as your priest. And the number of beautiful children I have been asked to baptize—and even more important, the way this congregation upholds their children and their young people—has been a true joy to witness.

Which is going to be the main point of the rest of my sermon. It’s no accident that we are baptizing Savannah on Easter. Her parents asked me when their daughter could be baptized, and I said, “On Easter.” I’m usually not that definite or directive, I can let a lot of rules slide when it seems helpful. But the church baptizes on Easter, because we are baptized into Christ’s resurrection. It’s not just a vending machine where you get the right credential. Together, we are converted into the Truth, by being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.

Let’s open up our prayer books to page 302 and the pages that follow. I want us all to go through this together, because this is serious business. We are all called, not only the godparents, but all Christians who take responsibility for being baptized into Christ—we are all called to support this child and her parents so that she can be brought up in the Christian faith and life. This means that we have to be the Church, and live our Christian life in our daily work and society, so that there will exist for this child and others who will be the Church of the 21st century, a Christian faith and life to grow up in. We are called to live in the Truth, and not give into the real forces of evil that exist in this world.

The rest of the baptismal service is about how we do that. We renounce the spiritual forces and evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  These aren’t demons like spooks in movies or on TV. Likening these evil powers to TV shows is one of the ways that we avoid living in the truth. Destructive spiritual powers exist in the real world and they are—what? They are the behavior of real human beings who are acting in their own self-interest and who usually, are telling themselves they aren’t doing these things. That they’re not behaving with prejudice—even hatred—toward their neighbor because of the color of his skin, or where she went to school, or what country he was born in. Other people are destroyed by that kind of behavior, and nobody takes responsibility for that kind of evil human creation. Christians are called on to renounce those things, to renounce hatred and racism, and prejudice; to renounce disrespecting others because of where they come from, or their education, or social status. Doing this is not simple, it’s not a matter of saying it one time and then forgetting it. Renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness is a lifetime affair, we discover the workings of those powers in our environment and in ourselves over and over throughout our lives.

If we are truthful, we recognize that we do not have the power to defeat those powers, even in our personal lives, let alone in the society around us, where we see manifestations every day in the news. Fascism and terrorism feed on one another, and neither our anger nor our fear can do anything but help them grow. The power that can defeat the forces of hatred, death and destruction is the grace of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In him, God has the courage that we need to live honestly and with care for all God’s children.

If we continue on pages 304 and 305, this is the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, this is how we persevere in resisting evil, this is the Good News that we proclaim, this is how we seek and serve Christ in all persons and strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human person. Christ went through everything that we go through, that any one of us goes through. He died. Real death. He was, from beginning to end, a human being from God’s perspective, entirely human, entirely the incarnation of the love of God. His heart was filled with the truth, and he could see the forces of death and destruction—and he loved all those people, yes those who were allied with the forces of death against him—yet he took not those powers of wickedness into his heart. The word courage is derived from the word for heart—in Jesus, God has the courage for all of us, to live and to reject those forces of evil all around us, and have life. To celebrate and rejoice in that gift of life.

In conclusion, I will share the end of a sermon that is over 1500 years old. It is attributed to John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Constantinople. His last name is a nickname that was given to him after he had been preaching for a while. It means, “Golden Mouth.”

Enter all of you therefore into the joy of our Lord, and whether first or last receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the Day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; feast royally all of you! The calf is fattened; let no one go forth hungry!

Let all partake of the Feast of Faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.

Let none lament their poverty, for the Universal Kingdom has been revealed.

Let none mourn their transgressions, for Pardon has dawned from the Tomb!

Let no one fear Death, for the Savior’s death has set us free!

He that was taken  by Death has annihilated it!

He descended into Hell, and took Hell captive!

He embittered it when it tasted of His Flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah proclaimed, “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!

It took a body, and face to face met God! It took earth, and encountered Heaven! It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!

“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?”

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen, and the Angels rejoice!

Christ is risen, and Life reigns!

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the tombs!

For Christ being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that slept. To Him be glory and dominion through all the ages of ages!

The Stones would Shout out

A sermon for Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“If these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

This Lent, we have been moving with Jesus along his path toward Jerusalem, the path to his resurrection. Today he has reached Jerusalem, and this week is about what happened in Jerusalem—that is to say, what it takes to understand and live in Christ’s resurrection.

Jesus has come to Jerusalem, to Bethany, to the home of his friends Martha and Mary and Lazarus. And he gets a colt and has it draped in garments and starts a procession into the city. There was nothing ambiguous about this in the ancient world: a solemn procession with the leader on horseback, greeted by crowds was how conquering kings entered a city. Now, Jesus was on a little donkey—that turned the values of the Roman Empire upside down, but the meaning was clear: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” The people said that, and it disturbed the religious leaders. “Shut them up, Jesus!”

And Jesus replied that the stones…
Remember at Jesus’ baptism—right before—John the Baptist said that God could raise up the Children of Abraham from the stones? Jesus replied that those stones would cry out if the people were silent. The Kingdom of God was entering Jerusalem—Jesus was bringing the resurrection from the dead into the city. The time had come to acclaim God’s presence with joy.

But the leaders were scared. They had made deals with the ruling powers, and those didn’t take into account the Kingdom of God. It was safe, it kept the forms of religion, and it kept the living God out of it.

Thus commences Holy Week and the final teaching of Jesus. Almost a quarter of the Gospel follows the entry into Jerusalem as Jesus teaches in and near the temple. He has a quiet meal with his disciples, and they learn about his gift of himself, his body and blood. The power of the resurrection in the life of being servants to one another.

And then…

We have just gone through it…

What happened? Rodger assigned to me the role of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. What happened with him? He had all the power. Legions of Roman soldiers to enforce any order. Pilate talks to Jesus and what does he perceive? Truth, gentleness, courage, hope. Not a violent revolutionary or a robber. Pilate was a politician and a bureaucrat—he did not want to get involvedCrite stations of the cross with the squabbles of these local people—he had no respect for any of them. He tried to pass the buck—the local politician in charge of Jesus’ home region happened to be in town, maybe he would take responsibility? Well…no… Pilate thinks that maybe he can have Jesus whipped, like you do with slaves and others that don’t matter, and just let him go—let the matter drop. But somehow it doesn’t work, the pressure keeps up, there isn’t any way that Pilate can get out of this without consequences. And above all, Pilate did not want to have consequences—he would rather let truth and hope die. He would judge that there had been a crime and pass out the death penalty for it just to avoid the pressure. Just to serve his time and get back to Rome with honor and reward.

Everyone wants to get by without consequences. So the consequences came to rest on Jesus. He was executed on a cross. The people were silent, those that did not taunt him, or call for his death.

And the stone—which the builders rejected—has become the chief cornerstone. The path for the resurrection of Jesus went directly through this rejection—through the rejection of responsibility by every one of us. It is only by the gift of God, the mercy of God that our hearts can be full enough to walk with him in his path of service, and responsibility, and respect. Because there are consequences of living in the truth, consequences for all of us. The freedom of the resurrection is dear, its price is high—and not just for Jesus.

God’s love for us calls us forward, toward the resurrection life: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

This week, we walk together with Jesus on his way.

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”

The only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart has made him known

A sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

No one has ever seen God. The God who created the heavens and the earth, the galaxies and the elements is too big, too complicated for anyone to comprehend. Some are brilliant at observing, thinking and reasoning; others have tremendously powerful religious experiences. Yet none of them can say in all honesty that they have seen God in God’s fullness—the finite human mind, and indeed all the minds in all ages put together, and all the computers and books that we might put together to help us, cannot hold, or comprehend God.

Human beings are but one small slice of God’s glorious creation.

Yet God loves this world and God loves human beings. And that love is also far more than we can comprehend. God loves us so much that from the beginning he chose to be among us. Jesus is what a human being is from God’s perspective—his love is genuine, his honesty is compassionate, he does not give in to the temptation to make his allies and benefactors comfortable at the expense of those who nobody cares about. God’s Word became flesh. In him, the unknowable God is made known.

Anyone who looks and listens can understand Jesus, his compassion, his calling people out when they represent themselves as being the holy or righteous ones while they are really just trying to get the advantage over others; his courage for the sake of others, especially the poor and the weak. When people don’t understand, it is because they wish not to understand that listening to Jesus might disrupt their strategy to be on top, or their desire to hold on to things or status. The stories, the images, the message, and the life of Jesus are not incomprehensible—all it takes is openness to the truth—he is The Way, The Truth, and The Life. What is incomprehensible, is the love of God, that God would do this—spend everything so that human creatures could know how to live humanly. The compassion of Jesus, is the compassion of God and the only way to be human is to live in God’s compassion. To choose against compassion is to choose hate, and that will eat you up and destroy you. The Word became Flesh to give us life, abundant and joyful life, not destruction. It is not some manual of instructions that he brings, not a set of teachings or rules to memorize. It is the very life of Jesus, God come in the flesh, that shows us God’s compassion – how to live as compassionate human beings.

The Latin word for “becoming flesh” is Incarnation. And God’s becoming flesh and blood with us is so important that the Church celebrates the feast of the Incarnation for twelve days. Thursday night, we had mass on Christmas Eve. Today is the third full day of that feast, the first Sunday of Christmas. We feast and celebrate. We call to mind that the power of Jesus’ love is in his entire life, even as a tiny baby. allan-rohan-crite-Baby JesusToday we celebrate and rejoice in his coming. This afternoon, to continue our celebration, the young people of this church, that is to say, the church of the twenty-first century, will present a pageant, recounting the birth of our Savior at the beginning of the first century.

Let us bless the Lord and rejoice in his love for us. As it says in today’s psalm:

Worship the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise you God, O Zion;

For he has strengthened the bars of your gates;

he has blessed your children within you.

He has established peace on your borders; he satisfies you with the finest wheat.

 

Merry Christmas!

The tongue of a teacher … to sustain the weary with a word.

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 13, 2015

Then he began to teach them…

allan-rohan-crite-the-last-supperJesus is our teacher. It is from him that we learn the truth. But sometimes it’s hard to recognize the real Jesus in the midst of all the fantasies and images that people put forward about Jesus. People have always tried to understand Jesus by seeing him as in some ways similar to themselves. That’s why the picture of Jesus behind our altar looks more like the men who worshiped here when it was painted than it looks like any Palestinian Jewish peasant of two thousand years ago. That is a phenomenon that has good and bad consequences and is important to think about, but it is not what I’m talking about here. Jesus teaches us, but we skip over things we should hear and substitute things that we would rather hear.

Jesus teaches us about the freedom of God, and about our freedom, about abundant life in the Kingdom of God.  The teaching of Jesus is not hard to understand, you don’t need to have a college degree, or some special magic glasses. Jesus tells us the Good News, and how we are to live so that it is good news for us, and it is not too high or too hard for any of us.  The thing is, the Kingdom of God is in this real world that God created. And this real world was good enough for Jesus and he teaches us and leads us into that Kingdom. And you don’t get there by cheating, by ignoring what Jesus is teaching and making up your own kingdom.

Jesus was walking with his disciples. The sequence of events in the Gospel of Mark just before this, was that Jesus fed the Four Thousand, then there was a controversy with the Pharisees who demanded a sign and a discussion with the disciples about the danger of the Pharisees and of Herod. Then Jesus healed a blind man at Bethsaida. Jesus fed. He taught. He healed. Now he’s walking with his disciples and he asked them,  “Who do people say that I am?” There’s no trick and no secret here. The disciples knew the buzz about Jesus, and they answered, “John the Baptist, or Elijah or one of the prophets.” These were good people, known for telling the truth, for challenging people and leading them to God. This is what the disciples were hearing from all over, even Herod was afraid that Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life. And then Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, the most outspoken leader of the group, spoke for them, “You are the Messiah.” For Peter and the rest, Jesus was more than a prophet—he was the anointed one of God, the one who was to lead Israel into the Kingdom of God.

But then … Jesus began to teach them. Jesus told them about the real world, about what would happen to this teacher and prophet.  This is how Jesus told the disciples about the Resurrection from the Dead. But they were working on a different story of who the Messiah was, and what Jesus was teaching was not what they were prepared to hear; Peter and the rest had already filled in the blanks with their own story. That story was magical and wishful thinking, not the real world that we live in. Of Course. If you are wishing for things, you don’t wish for suffering and rejection, certainly not for your beloved Teacher. Of course, you wish for God to make things fine and comfortable for everyone. But Jesus wasn’t wishing, he was teaching, and he was teaching about the real world. Peter thought that he had the power to protect Jesus. He did not. He thought that he had enough dedication and commitment to stay with Jesus and never reject him, and he thought that others would also stay with Jesus and not reject him. He was wrong. On both counts.

I have talked about suffering in other sermons. Certainly the question of suffering is here in this lesson, and it is real and important, but I want to talk about another piece of this.  Jesus was teaching about being engaged in the real world, in what actually happens. And in fact, he was not talking dismally and hopelessly; he was describing how you get to the resurrection of the dead. Peter wanted to skip the uncomfortable steps and it just got past him that in doing so he was also missing the resurrection. We live in a world where people usually want to skip over the uncomfortable, workaday steps of real world existence and go right to already having their goal, which is usually power, privilege and wealth, in one way or another. In that selfish skipping over reality, it is other people who get skipped over; it is generosity and caring that are lost. It is abundant life that this world loses in striving to be the top. Jesus brings abundant life, and he teaches it this way: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

We rejoice in the constant love of God. God has given us this real world, filled with abundant life, the opportunity live in generosity, in the midst of God’s love for his children.

Listen once again to a word from this morning’s lesson from the Prophet Isaiah:

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”

Poets, not hearers who deceive themselves

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

14th Sunday after Pentecost, August 30, 2015

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.

We live in a world where people attribute everything to God, or nothing to God. As if every random thing that happens has been planned out and dictated by God, or, on the other hand that God isn’t there at all, or God is relevant to nothing. Our epistle lesson this morning, from the letter of James, says something quite different.

child and gift“Every generous act of giving and every perfect gift” is from God. It doesn’t say, “all the stuff we get or want” is from God, it says, “Every generous act of giving…” We detect God, we perceive God, and we understand God in the generosity of people. There is a famous passage in the First letter of John, describing God: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God in them.” We see God in others when we see that un-self conscious generosity that puts the needs of others first. I know the presence of God in my life, when I have the gift of being able to give for others without looking to my own gain.

People like to turn it around and make someone else responsible for their troubles and if no one else is convenient then it’s all God’s fault. God is the giver of perfect gifts, the God of love, but it so easy to quickly defend ourselves and to blame.

The letter of James continues: “My beloved, let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” How often do people get this backwards and become quick to speak and slow to listen? That’s particularly the case when we’re defending ourselves and trying to tag somebody else with being ungenerous or unkind, quick to win the argument. That quickness to speak goes along with a slowness in listening, and in that slowness, we miss the generosity of God.

Attend! Be quick to focus and listen to the living, the most generous, the most perfect God. But that is just the beginning of this passage. It is not enough to just hear good things, and listen to the right answers. It is not enough even to memorize the right answers. Copying out answers from the Bible, or from Dr. Phil, or Oprah or anyplace else will do you no good. Here is how the passage from James continues: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” It is not enough to just know the right rhetoric. It is when the Word of Life becomes the fabric of your life and governs your way of doing things that it makes a difference.

When I was looking at the Greek of this lesson, I noticed a little detail. That word, “doers” is not a very common or graceful word in English. It’s a good enough translation. In Greek, the word is  ποιητης [poietes] which means a person who does something, but it is also the same word that is used in Greek for a poet–ποιητης [poietes] is the origin of our word poet. A poet takes language and a story and does something with them and does something new that makes more sense and conveys more truth than was there before—at least, that’s what a good poet does. Living the Christian life is much like being a poet: in our lives, we receive the gifts of God, we hear, we listen—any artist spends much time absorbing the world around her. But that is crafted by the artist into something new, something is done so that a new and true gift is made for the world.

I noticed the next sentence in this lesson for the very first time when I was preparing this sermon. It says, “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror, for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” That image in the mirror, that image that comes from looking at ourselves, doesn’t really reveal the truth about ourselves. Self-absorption does not make the poet. It is the integration of the whole of reality, of getting beyond ourselves, that we become doers of the word, poets with our lives. The text continues, “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” That doing is the poetry of our lives, and that perfect law is the generosity of God that manifests in the generous lovingness of people. That blessing in our lives is the doing of God’s generosity in lives of thanksgiving.

Please listen once again to our psalm for today:

Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle?

            who may abide upon your holy hill?

Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right.

            who speaks the truth from his heart.

There is no guile upon his tongue; he does no evil to his friend;

            he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.

In his sight the wicked is rejected,

            but he honors those who fear the Lord.

He has sworn to do no wrong

            and he does not take back his word.

He does not give his money in hope of gain,

            nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things

            shall never be overthrown.

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