Let Me Be Your Servant Too

October 19, 2015

It occurred to be that our Gospel reading for today (Mark 10:35-45), or at least the parallel account in Luke’s Gospel, is often read at the ordination service of a deacon. And Jesus’ counsel to his disciples to become “servants” is one of the reasons the diaconate is often identified as a “servant”’ ministry.

Well, I happen to be married to a deacon, and Susanne always reminds me to be careful about using “servant” imagery when referring to deacons, or anyone else for that matter. It’s not just the mild irritation deacons feel when, at a clergy conference, someone will need a cup of coffee and say something like “Where’s a deacon when you need one?” or “That’s a deacon’s ministry.”

No, it’s really more than that:  it’s one thing for the Church to challenge, say, a white, male, privileged person like me to “become like a servant.” That entails a real role reversal and perhaps the giving up of some of that privilege so that we might identify more closely with those on the margins.

But that challenge to become a servant may be heard quite differently by a woman…or a person of color…or someone who has lived most of their lives in poverty.  I wonder how African American slaves in this country understood the words, “…whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all?” (Mark 10:44)   I wonder how Black people hear it today!

Remember, Jesus said these words to ten of his disciples who were angry with James and John right after they had asked Jesus for the special privilege of sitting as his right and left hand when he came into his glorious kingdom. The other disciples were angry presumably because they also wanted to be in those privileged places and were afraid they were being given away before their very eyes!

So, while we need to be sensitive and careful about using this servant imagery, it is clearly part of the Christian calling. You even have it in your mission statement! And although deacons aren’t our servants, deacons do model something called “diakonia” for the whole Church.   Deacons model what might be called the “diaconate of all believers” just like priests, at their best, model “the priesthood of all believers.”

As I thought about all that this week, it dawned on me that maybe the wonderful hymn by Richard Gillard which we will sing a little later in the service can help with all this servant-hood business. Pay attention to the words when we sing them:

“Brother, sister let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you/ Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.” Hear that? There is a mutual ministry there. Let me be your servant…and let me be humble enough to let you be my servant in return! And the hymn goes on to describe something of what genuine servant-hood looks like:

“We are pilgrims on the journey, we are travl’ers on the road/ We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” Again, there’s a mutuality there. We’re all in this together. It’s not a question of one person being another’s servant. It’s about being fellow travelers through the ups and downs of life.

“I will hold the Christ-light for you in the nighttime of your fear/ I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.”  The Christian faith is not a solo undertaking. There’s really no such thing as “Me and Jesus.” It’s always “US and Jesus.” When I have a hard time trusting, or even believing, in God sometimes, I know that you – and others in the Church – believe for me! You hold the Christ-light for me…even when I can’t hold it very high.

“I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I’ll laugh with you/ I will share your joys and sorrows ‘til we’ve seen this journey though.” One of the great Christian virtues is something called “compassion” which literally means to “suffer with.” We’re called to suffer with one another…but also to rejoice with one another. Because there will be joy and sorrow on the journey, and it helps to have someone to share both experiences with.

Finally, “when we sing to God in heaven, there will be such harmony/ borne of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony.” What a beautiful description of our future! For the promise is that one day, it will all be set right – suffering ended, injustice overturned, God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. Harmony! What better way to describe it than “harmony?”

Well, we’re going to turn now to receiving formally some folks into our midst as church here today. We’re going to welcome them more fully into this community as fellow “trav’lers on the road.” And we’re going to make them a promise:

Right after they reaffirm their renunciation of evil and renew their commitment to Jesus Christ, I’m going to ask this congregation a question: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?”

In other words, will you serve them and let them serve you? Will you be their fellow pilgrims on the journey? Will you hold the Christ light for them in the nighttime of their fear? Will you weep when they are weeping and laugh when they are laughing?

And you’re going to answer, “We will!”

It’s likely the most important thing you’ll promise…all week!



No Peace in the World Without Peace Among The Religions

October 5, 2015

I can’t tell you how I’ve been looking forward to this visit to St. Elizabeth’s… not least because of the inter-religious theme your leadership has decided to emphasize today. I know that, as we celebrate Daphne Cody’s 10th anniversary as Rector of this parish this has long been a high priority for her, it appears to be for this congregation and it has certainly been in my own ministry. Frankly, I can think of few things more important in our day than inter-religious dialogue.
After serving for 13 years as the Bishop of Iowa, I spent 9 more as the Presiding Bishop’s Deputy for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Relations, working out of our Church Center in New York, and engaging in ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Lutherans and all manner of Christian communions as well as inter-religious work particularly with Jews and Muslims. So, I look forward to continuing that dialogue during our time following this service.
We engage in this work just a week after the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, addressed an inter-religious meeting at Ground Zero in New York City. In his remarks, he said this:
“…I am filled with hope, as I have the opportunity to join with leaders representing the many religious traditions which enrich the life of this great city. I trust that our presence together will be a powerful sign of our shared desire to be a force for reconciliation, peace and justice in this community and throughout the world. For all our differences and disagreements, we can experience a world of peace. In opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity, we can and must build unity on the basis of our diversity of languages, cultures and religions, and lift our voice against everything which would stand in the way of such unity. Together we are called to say “no” to every attempt to impose uniformity and “yes” to a diversity accepted and reconciled.” (September 25, 2015)
“Reconciled diversity” has long been used to describe ecumenical cooperation and breakthroughs among the Christian churches, but I think this is the first time I have ever heard it used to point the way forward in inter-religious relations. Reconciled diversity simply means that we can, as the world’s religions, work together toward peace and justice while accepting and even valuing our differences.
Hans Kung, the Roman Catholic priest and Professor at Tubingen University in Germany has often said, “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigating the foundations of the religions.” And, although Hans Kung has often been marginalized by previous popes as being “too liberal,” Francis would at least agree with him on this! He used the word “dialogue” countless times on this recent visit to the United States, and clearly believes in this concept in society, among the religions, and even within our own.
In our Lessons from Scripture today, we have examples of such dialogue within Judaism and Christianity. Today, we begin our reading of the Book of Job as our First Lesson. This masterful book is both prose and poetry, fiction and philosophy as Job and his friends debate and discuss the question of “theodicy” (which technically means “justifying the ways of God to humankind” but often deals with the real-life questions of “why bad things happen to good people.”) It’s a rich conversation, even though, for many of us, it falls short of coming up with a satisfactory answer (perhaps leading us to believe that the conversation is ongoing!). We don’t really know why bad things happen to good people!
Our Gospel reading can be seen as another intra-Jewish conversation as Jesus “dialogues” (even argues with) the Pharisees about a classical text on divorce in order to challenge his hearers to think even more deeply about God’s intention for marriage. We Christians often cast the Pharisees as the “bad guys” in the Gospels, but Jesus was actually closer to them theologically than the other religious and political parties of the day. Maybe that’s why they had so many “dialogues!” You always hurt the ones you love!
And, of course, the Christian church has been “dialoguing” about Jesus’ strict teaching on divorce and remarriage ever since. Paul loosened it up a bit in First Corinthians. The Episcopal Church has taken a much more pastoral approach to such couples for decades now, and it looks as though the Roman Catholic Church, under Pope Francis, may be taking some baby steps in that direction as well.
So, no dialogue between the religions without studying the foundations of our religion: That’s what serious Bible study and Christian formation can do to start the process. We have to understand our own religious tradition before we can effectively dialogue with others.
No peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions: That’s what we’re trying to do here today, and we need to look for opportunities in the future to go much farther. And finally, No peace in the world without peace among the world’s religions:
That doesn’t mean that religions are the cause of all the violence in the world. Often, religion is used as a cover for the real issues of land and power and control. But clearly if we can come to a place of peace among us, as religious people, a place of “reconciled diversity,” we can help the dream of Pope Francis come true:
“Peace in our homes, our families, our schools and our communities. Peace in all those places where war never seems to end. Peace for those faces which have known nothing but pain. Peace throughout this world which God has given us as the home of all and a home for all. Simply.…PEACE!” (September 25 Address)

Reading The Literature Of The Bible

September 16, 2015

Had a very enjoyable afternoon a few weeks ago taping a segment for our local FM radio station, WVIK. It was for a program called “Scribble” which deals with all things literary — reading, writing, poetry, prose, etc.

They had heard that I was interested in promoting reading “The Bible As Literature” or rather, more accurately, “Reading the Literature of the Bible.”

Take a listen…and see what you think. Just cut and paste the link:


and click on the “Bishop Epting” broadcast on September 12, 2015.


Christian Ethics – How to Live…and Why

August 4, 2015

On most Sundays, preachers like me are likely to take on fairly broad topics in our sermons, often of an historical or theological nature. For example, on a day like today, I might be likely to talk about the complex nature of King David about whom who we’ve been reading for the last several weeks and about whom we heard again in our First Lesson today.
This dominant Old Testament character, the second King of Israel, who later became a model for the hoped-for Messiah, was nonetheless a deeply flawed leader who could be as treacherous as he was compassionate and as rebellious as he was faithful. In today’s Lesson we catch a sympathetic glimpse of him as he mourns the death of his son, Absalom.
On another day, I might have preached on the Gospel Reading, another Lesson about Jesus as the Bread of Life and I would have talked about how he left us the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Eucharist, this Sacrament of Bread and Wine as a memorial of his life and death, and as a perpetual way of being in touch with him every week until we meet him one day…face to face.
But sometimes, I think it’s important for us to be reminded of the completely practical nature of the Christian faith. For all our history and theology and liturgical concerns, one of the most important things about Christianity is that it instructs us, in very basic ways, how to live a good life — How to conduct ourselves in the world in such a way that we live lives pleasing to God and that we leave the world a better place when we are no longer around.
And for that I turn to our Second Lesson today, the Epistle to the Ephesians (4:25-5:2). This is a magnificent paragraph on Christian ethics! And, in it, we’re told – not only how we are to conduct ourselves, but why we are to live in this particular way! Listen again to these eight statements (you can even follow along in your service leaflets):
1. So then, putting away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. In other words, we’re to tell the truth, not just because that’s some kind of abstract “good deed” but because we’re members of one human family. And healthy family relationships are built on telling the truth to one another! The author goes on to say:
2. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. So all anger is not sinful! Anger is just a human response to frustration. Everybody gets angry. Even Jesus got angry. The issue is what we do with our anger. We’re not to let it lead us into sin, maybe by hurting another person…in our words or in our actions. We’re not to nurse anger, not even to let the sun go down on our wrath. Get it out, offer it up, get rid of it; and then anger won’t have any power over you.
3. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. And here we’re told not just to make an honest living, but what the purpose of having wealth may be – to share it with those in need! How we need to learn that lesson today…for poor are all around us!
4. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up…so that your words may give grace to those who hear. You know, cursing and critical, hurtful language not only degrades the one who talks like that, but it doesn’t serve any constructive purpose. It doesn’t build anyone up but only tears people down. And then the author reminds us that – because we’ve been baptized and sealed with the Holy Spirit –we are to live our lives in this world as ambassadors for Christ because we have been marked with his seal, the sign of the Cross:
5. (So he says) do not grieve the Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. In other words, we have a responsibility to live our lives in such a way that God will be pleased with us, pleased to have adopted us as beloved children. So we are to:
6. Put away…all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice. How different would our political campaigns, and even sometimes our life in the Church, would be if we could do away with bitter rhetoric and angry words and malicious slandering of one another, and just have an honest debate…a respectful conversation…even if we disagree. Or, put another way:
7. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. And here, we’re reminded of that fearsome request in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us.” Those phrases are related, beloved. We can only expect to be forgiven by God in the same measure as we have forgiven one another. Or, put another way, we can only forgive because we know what it means to be forgiven. And so the passage concludes:
8. Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…(an)…offering and sacrifice to God. That’s one of our Offertory Sentences in The Episcopal Church “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.” Jesus loves us…so we are to love one another!
So, dear friends, the Christian faith you and I profess is not simply about spiritual disciplines like daily prayer and weekly Eucharist and Bible study (as important as those things are). The Christian faith is about how we live our lives, how we conduct ourselves day by day, week by week, and year by year in the real world. As that wonderful Episcopalian and African-American theologian, Verna Dozier once wrote: “What happens on Sunday morning is not half so important as what happens on Monday morning…In fact, what happens on Sunday morning is judged by what happens on Monday morning!”


Tell me about the God you don’t believe in…

June 19, 2015

In his Diocesan Convention address last November, Bishop Lee invited congregations who felt they could to invite some “unchurched” folks to meet and have coffee with one of us bishops during our Sunday visitations. The idea was to hear from the actual people we are not reaching some of the reasons why? It’s easy for us church goers to “guess” at why our congregations are declining. It’s quite another to hear it straight from those who have either left our ranks or who have never been attracted to church in the first place.
Not every congregation has taken us up on the challenge, but quite a number have and we’ve learned something interesting things. First of all, some non-church-goers have been hurt by the church in some way in their past. Maybe they grew up in a very judgmental, hellfire and brimstone kind of church and felt rejected. Some are Roman Catholics who were refused communion after they re-married after divorce contrary to their church’s teaching.
Some have just drifted away because of the busy-ness and stressed out nature of their lives. They just don’t find the time for church, and some have been away so long they feel awkward now coming back. A number of folks just can’t get their heads around what they perceive to be the beliefs and doctrines of the church, and they say they’d feel like hypocrites standing in the midst of folks who seem to believe, say, the Nicene Creed when these people quite obviously don’t! And, again, they’re afraid they would be judged by us if their true beliefs, or lack of beliefs, were found out.
Of this number, some are just out and out atheists. They really don’t believe in God and wonder why some of the rest of us do. Well, we took great pains not to judge any of these good folks. They had honored us by even agreeing to come and have a conversation with us! And we weren’t there to convert them. We were there to learn from them. Privately though, I always wonder – of this last group, the self-professed “atheists” – just what kind of God they “don’t believe in!” In other contexts, I’ve often said to such people, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in…because I probably don’t believe in that God either.”
I say this because, I think often people have rejected their childhood image of “an old man with a white beard who lives above sky” or the angry, judgmental God who delights in nothing more than casting unbelievers into the fires of hell for all eternity. Some of these folks have never allowed their understanding of God to “grow up” right alongside the other areas of their knowledge which keep expanding with every year. No wonder they can’t square their Sunday school image of God with the post-modern world of the 21st century!
I ran across a beautiful quote this week from a friend of mine named Steven Charleston. Steven is a Native American of the Choctaw Tribe and lives in Oklahoma. But he is also a bishop of The Episcopal Church, has been a seminary professor and dean, and he now writes a daily Facebook post on prayer, spirituality, and the Christian life. This is what he wrote:
The same power that set the sun aflame as though it were a candle, the same power that spun the Milky Way like a pinwheel, the same power that sprinkled the confetti stars across the distant heavens, that very power holds you safe under the shelter of its eternal care. The universe is not unconscious, creation is not unaware, all that was and is and ever will be resides in the mind and purpose of a presence beyond our comprehension or control. That presence is the source of life, of love, of intricate beauty and serenity sublime. That presence is with you today and will be with you forever. (June 17, 2015)
That’s the kind of expansive view of God I would just love the opportunity to introduce some of our unchurched friends to. Because I think our God is bigger than whatever truncated image they have felt it necessary to reject. Yet, that “same power” Bishop Charleston writes about is the one which emboldened the young David to take on Goliath in our First Lesson today. Our God is the same power the disciples of Mark’s Gospel saw in Jesus because of the stilling of the storm. And our God is the source of that same power which sustained Paul through “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings” and all the rest of it…as he witnesses to the Christians in Corinth in our Epistle this morning.
It’s the same God. But we must find ways to talk about the Holy One in language different from what our grandparents, our parents, and even many of us grew up with. I hope we can find ways to do that. I hope we can find ways to do it before it’s too late, too late for the church…or at least the church as we experience it today. At the very least, I hope you will join Bishop Lee and me in trying to listen to people you may know – people at work, in your neighborhood, people in your own family – who may be struggling to square the image of God they think we believe in with the world as they actually experience it.
Don’t judge them. Listen to them. And then, after you have listened long and deeply, maybe you can find a way to share with them – ever so gently that we welcome seekers in this church (at least I hope and pray that you would welcome such people at St. Columba’s!). Try to help them see that you don’t have to “have it all together” to be an Episcopalian. If you did, probably none of us would be here! The church, at its best, is a school of love; not a museum of saints. Hear again words describing the kind of God at least I hope you would be inviting them to encounter:
The same power that set the sun aflame as though it were a candle, the same power that spun the Milky Way like a pinwheel, the same power that sprinkled the confetti stars across the distant heavens, that very power holds you safe under the shelter of its eternal care. The universe is not unconscious, creation is not unaware, all that was and is and ever will be resides in the mind and purpose of a presence beyond our comprehension or control. That presence is the source of life, of love, of intricate beauty and serenity sublime. That presence is with you today and will be with you forever.

Mary’s Pentecost…and Ours

May 22, 2015

Mary always felt better when she could be with his friends. True, all of them except the young one John had deserted him in the end. But she understood that. She’d been afraid too. And she wasn’t even in immediate danger from the Romans like they were. In any case, he’d told her just before he died, “Behold your son.” And to John, “Behold your mother.” So, clearly, he wanted her to be part of them.

She really would have preferred to stay in Olivet which is at least a little distance from where it all happened. But, as they gathered there, it was clear that Jerusalem was where Jesus had wanted to go, and Jerusalem was where they must re-assemble as well. So, they crept in, over the course of a couple of days….individually, sometimes two by two…and began meeting in that same upper room where they had celebrated Passover.

Now, it was the Feast of Weeks, fifty days after the ceremony of the barley sheaf during Passover. It had originally been a harvest festival, marking the beginning the offering of the first fruits. She’d always loved its celebration as a child…and so had Jesus. So, she accepted their invitation to be together that morning. There were other women there in addition to his brothers and, of course, the Twelve (and they were 12 again now, with the addition of Matthias – who had, in any case, never been far from their assembly.)

They had just begun to dance…and sing the Hallel – “Hallelujah! Give praise you servants of the Lord; praise the Name of the Lord” Psalm 113:1 – when the wind picked up. It first whistled and then howled through the streets of the old city. And, even though they had been careful to secure the door, suddenly the shutters rattled and blew open. Strangely, there was no rain or fog as one might expect with the wind, but sunshine – bright glimpses of it, illuminating every face around their make-shift “altar table.” But they were too caught up in their praise dance to worry about open windows now! And the volume of their singing only increased over the noise of the wind:

“Let the name of the Lord be blessed! Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your Name give glory! How can I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me? I will lift up the cup of salvation…Praise the Lord, all you nations; laud him all you people!” (Psalm 113-117 passim)

It was their custom, during the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost) to gather the poor and the strangers, as well as the priests and Levites, for the great communal meal which was the highpoint of this great agricultural feast. It was a way of recognizing their solidarity as people of the Covenant, across all the natural divisions of life.

And so, people in the streets were from all over the Mediterranean world. But their racial and ethnic diversity was no barrier to understanding God’s praise that day! She had no idea how it happened, but no matter in what language God’s praise was being spoken or sung, everyone heard it. Everyone “got it!” All of them from east to west, from the different traditions, ethnic Jews and converts.

And, when the praises began to abate, Mary saw Peter slowly walk to the open window and, flanked by the other Eleven, he said, “People of Judea, and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you…and listen to what I say…” (Acts 2:14) (Pause)

Well, that may not be exactly how it happened on the first Pentecost. But it must have been something like that. Clearly, something momentous must have happened to transform that ragtag group of frightened disciples into missionaries and evangelists.

And that “something” had been promised by Jesus shortly before he died. He had said that something called “the Advocate” would come. He called it the “Spirit of truth” and said that that Spirit would guide them into all the truth. (John 15:26 passim) Their Pentecost experience must have felt something like that.

In fact, Pentecost felt like another story they had been told since they were children — The story from the Prophet Ezekiel about the “dry bones.” At just the point when their religion and their faith was about at its lowest ebb, dry as dust, God was expected to breathe new life into those bones, to raise them up, and to renew the people of God.

“That’s what must be happening today” they must have thought. This must be the time when “our sons and our daughters will prophecy, our young men will see visions, and our old men shall dream dreams. For surely, this day, God has poured out the Holy Spirit…and all of us will be prophets!” (From Acts 2)

Well, dear friends, we’re inheritors of that Pentecost promise. If that rag tag group of frightened disciples had not been turned into missionaries and evangelists, you and I would not be here today. We would not be receiving a new person into our church this morning! So Pentecost is important!
But, let’s not just give thanks for that first Pentecost after Easter. Let’s pray today for a “new Pentecost!”

Let’s pray today for God to pour out that same Holy Spirit upon us here at St. Luke’s… throughout the Diocese of Chicago and The Episcopal Church… upon the members Anglican Communion of which we are a part…and indeed on the over 2 billion Christians around the world who are our sisters and brothers by water and the Holy Spirit. Let’s pray for that!

In fact, we’ve already prayed for that – in this morning’s Collect. Let me offer it once again with what I’ve said today as background: “Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of the Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” Amen.

Practice Our Kindness Like An Art

May 4, 2015

Good morning! I’m Christopher Epting now serving as Assisting Bishop here in the Diocese of Chicago thanks to Bishop Lee’s kind invitation. I’m the retired Bishop of Iowa and also served on our Presiding Bishop’s staff in New York as the ecumenical officer for The Episcopal Church for a number of years. It’s a joy to be with you today at Holy Nativity and to be able to confirm (and receive) some new folks into a new stage in their Christian lives and in The Episcopal Church.
As you know, confirmation is the time we “confirm” the vows made on our behalf at Baptism. We’ll be rehearsing those vows and promises in the Baptismal Covenant in a few minutes. When we “receive” people into our church, that usually means they came to us from another Christian communion or denomination and now wish to live out their Christian commitments with us here in The Episcopal Church. And we welcome them all!
I can’t think of a better set of Bible reading for this occasion than the ones we had today on the Sixth Sunday of Easter! We began with the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 10:44-48) and Peter preparing to baptize his first set of Gentiles into the Christian Church. When we confirm and receive people today, as I said, they are confirming or renewing the vows made at their own baptism, and we will be joining them in that by renewing our own!
In other words, we are continuing in Peter’s footsteps in these sacraments of initiation into the Church. Today’s Psalm then celebrates all that by saying, “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things!” (Psalm 98:1) Indeed God has! And we are the recipients of those “good things.”
Then, all the rest of our Scripture today is about love! In the Collect we prayed, “O God…pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above things may obtain your promises…” In the First Epistle of John we learn that “…everyone who loves the parent (God) loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey (the) commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey (the) commandments.” (I John 5:2) And, finally, in the Gospel, Jesus tells us what the most important commandment is, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
The Christian faith is all about love! Love of God and love of neighbor. We hear that so often that it doesn’t even make the impact upon us that if ought to make. When I was putting together this sermon last week, I was wracking my brain to come up with a way of describing what that kind of love might look like…in reality…in the real world…where you and I live.
And what should pop up on Facebook but a little reflection by a friend of mine, Bishop Steven Charleston. Steven is a Native American of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, but also a former bishop of Alaska, a seminary professor, and a gifted spiritual writer who puts out a daily Facebook post on how to live the Christian life. This is how he says each Christian should face every new day:
“Here it comes again, another gift of time, another number of hours, in which to do something good. Each day opens the possibility, reveals the opportunity for us to practice our kindness like an art. We do not know who may cross our path or what may suddenly appear before us but we will know what they offer us when they arrive: an invitation from the Spirit to share in the work of creation, our chance to make the connections that link one heart to another, that sets in motion the process of change, that begins to heal an old hurt. This is the first step toward doing what we imagined when we first believed we were called to follow.” (May 4, 2015)
Isn’t that wonderful? What if we woke up every morning realizing that we’ve been given another number of hours to do something good? What if we saw each new day as an opportunity to practice kindness…like an art? What if we looked at every person we come across as an invitation from the Holy Spirit to share in the work of creation by making a connection that links one heart to another…that sets in motion the process of change…that begins to heal an old hurt?
That’s what I would pray for you today. Those who are being confirmed and received today and those of you who have been confirmed so long you can barely remember the experience! I pray that you would begin to see each day as an opportunity to do something good…to take a step toward doing what you imagined when you first believed you were called to follow Christ!
I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said that we were to love one another. I think that’s what St. John was writing about when he said that everyone who loves the parent loves the child. It may even be what the Psalmist was thinking when he sang, “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.”
I know it’s what we prayed for as we began this service. So let’s pray for it again:
“O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Traces of the Trade and Ferguson

March 23, 2015

St. Thomas, Chicago
This is, of course, the 5th Sunday of Lent and next week we will observe Palm Sunday and begin our journey together through Holy Week to Easter! We’re in Year B of our lectionary and Sunday Bible readings, the year we read through the Gospel of Mark on Sunday mornings. But Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels and, to make it through the whole year, we have to supplement readings from Mark with a few from John’s Gospel, one of which we have today.
This is one of the passages where we see that Jesus was beginning to have some premonitions about his death. Right after Philip and Andrew arrange to have Jesus meet some Greek-speaking Jews who were curious about him, Jesus says: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:23)
And, in case that was too subtle a reference for them, he goes on to make it clear to the disciples, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (John 12:27-28a) As we can see throughout the Gospels, Jesus didn’t want to die (any more than any of us want to die), but he was willing to die if that was what it took to carry out his mission!
As I meditated on that passage this week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s own “premonitions” as to the danger his own life was in that last week. In Memphis to support the garbage collectors’ strike, on the night before his death he gave what would be his final sermon. Amid the call for African Americans to boycott businesses that mistreated workers, he delivered a sermon, without notes, that focused on his life and disavowed any concern that he might be killed for his role in the fight for civil rights.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” he said, “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” It wasn’t the first time that he had spoken publicly about his possible early death, but I doubt that Dr. King expected that April 3rd sermon to be his last. “He always knew some speech would be his last,” wrote Andrew Young, “Was he afraid? Not on your life!” (Christian Science Monitor, April 4, 2011)
Like Jesus, Martin Luther King did not want to die (any more than any of us want to die) but he was willing to die if that was what it took to carry out his mission!” And like Jesus, Dr. King knew that he had not reached the Promised Land yet, but he had seen it! And he had absolute confidence that, one day, “we, as a people, will get to that promised land!”
You and I need to be reminded to have that confidence today! In the wake of Ferguson and as we mourn the senseless deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and so many others, it’s easy to give up in despair and to fall into thinking things will never get any better.
Bishop Lee and I just returned from a meeting of the House of Bishops at the Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina. We gather twice a year as a House for mutual encouragement and support. This time largely because of those tragic events I just mentioned, our focus was on racism and on our own complicity and silence in these times. Oh, the Bishop of Missouri and the Dean of his Cathedral have been in the streets in Ferguson and the Church has spoken out in many places. But we need to do so much more!
We viewed and discussed the powerful film “Traces of the Trade” which is an award-winning documentary produced by a white family of Episcopalians who discovered that their wealth, and the wealth of their little New England village, had been built almost entirely on the slave trade in which they were involved. This family was horrified by the actions of their ancestors and embarked on a journey from Connecticut to West Africa to Cuba and back again in search of answers and repentance. To date there have been more than 300 screenings of that film and discussion about its consequences all around our church and around the country. But we need to do so much more!
That evening we had an intense session entitled “Traces of the Trade and Ferguson” in which it became clear that the deep racism in that community and in so many parts of our country go right back to the “original sin” of this country and our participation in the African slave trade. Contemporary events – whether gun violence and drugs in the city of Chicago, the mass incarceration of young black men in the North, or voter suppression of entire populations in the South – all can be directly traced to the history of racism and slavery in this country!
As bishops, we re-committed ourselves to continue the struggle as our Presiding Bishop challenged us to have “courage to face the problems, curiosity about those we may consider to be the “other” and compassion which means to “suffer with” those with whom we wish to stand in solidarity. Or, as one of the bishops put it: “Show up…speak out…live brave!”
“I may not get there with you,” said Dr. King, “but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” (Pause) “And what should I say – Father, save me from this hour?” asked Jesus, “No, it is for this reason that I come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”
Jesus and Martin…Courage, curiosity, and compassion…Two who willing to show up, speak out, and live brave! Are we? Am I?

Cleansing of the Temple…and the Church!

March 7, 2015

It seems strange to have the story of Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple read on this Sunday in Lent. We usually think of it as coming in Holy Week, toward the very end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, right after the Palm Sunday story, the so-called “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. In fact, that is where Matthew, Mark, and Luke place this story – setting up the conflict between Jesus and the authorities which eventually led to his arrest, trial and crucifixion later that week.

Contemporary NT scholars like Marcus Borg even write about “two processions” coming into Jerusalem that Palm Sunday – one from the east and one from the west. From the west, Roman cavalry and foot soldiers followed Pontius Pilate into the city to make sure there were no violent uprisings in Jerusalem during the Jewish celebration of Passover. And, from the east, a rag tag bunch of pilgrims and peasants cheered as Jesus rode down the Mount of Olives on the back of young donkey. What a contrast! And what an obvious set-up for a conflict of world views!

But John, the Gospel writer we are following today, for his own purposes, has this event happen early in Jesus’ ministry. His gospel has Jesus going to Jerusalem several times during the course of his three year public ministry rather than only once at its conclusion. And John is interested, not so much in the conflict between Jesus and the Roman government as he was between Jesus and his own religion’s leaders!

A complete outsider to the power structure of the Temple, Jesus issues a challenge to the authority of the Temple itself that quite literally shakes it to its foundations. By throwing the money changers out of the Temple, and letting loose the sacrificial animals, he throws the mechanics of Temple worship into chaos, disrupting the temple system during one its most significant feasts so that neither tithes nor sacrifices could be offered that day.

The implication is that Jesus is claiming authority to challenge the supremacy of the Temple because his whole life bears testimony to the power of God in the world. The Kingship, the Reign, the Sovereignty not of the Temple, but of God alone!

Now, none of this should be interpreted as meaning that Jesus was advocating the superiority of some new religion called Christianity over the old religion, Judaism. Jesus was an observant Jewish male who traveled to Jerusalem regularly for the major holy days. Jesus taught and observed the Ten Commandments we had as our First Reading this morning.

No, Jesus’ challenge was to the authority of a dominant religious institution in Judaism – the Temple and temple worship – not because he’s anti-Jewish – but because he stands in the long line of Hebrew prophets like Amos and Jeremiah who challenged a religious system so embedded in its own rules and practices that it is no longer open to a fresh revelation from God. (see New Interpreter’s Bible; Volume 9, page 545)

And that, dear friends, is where all this begins to apply to us!
We hear a lot today about people, and not only younger people, describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” For many of them that means that they believe in God, may admire the figure of Jesus, pray from time to time, and believe in some kind of life after death. But they are not terribly interested in what we sometimes call “the institutional church.”

They perceive us as being hopelessly out of touch with the contemporary world they live in. They shake their heads at our “church wars” over changing liturgies or the ordination of women, or the place of gays and lesbians in the church. And they wonder why we spend so much of our time, money and energy on maintaining church buildings and church governance structures that don’t seem to have very much to do with Jesus or with his primary message to the world!

Well, there may be a certain simplicity in that kind of critique. Very few movements can survive, over time, without a certain institutionalization. You need some kind of structure to pass the message on from generation to generation. But, if we are going to take the message of Jesus in this morning’s Gospel seriously, we need to recognize that he is challenging – not only the Temple-centered Judaism of his day – but the “over institutionalization” of the contemporary church…in our day!

Over the last 65 years or so, we in The Episcopal Church (and most other mainline denominations) have built up some pretty elaborate structures of diocesan and national church bureaucracies and staffs that we can simply no longer afford. We have pretty strict rules and regulations about how worship is to be conducted in an Episcopal Church. And we have an amazingly complicated process through which men and women have to move in order to be ordained. All of these things are being questioned and are, in some sense, up for grabs today.

I don’t think we have any idea what the Church will be like 50 years from now, or certainly by the year 2100. I know it will look very different from the Church we live in today. And we can either be fearful of that kind of change, and resist it with all our might. Or, we can be open and flexible to see indeed “what the Spirit is saying to the churches” in our time.

We have to be willing ask ourselves where and when the status quo of religious practice has become frozen, and therefore closed to the possibility of reformation, change and renewal. The great danger is that we in the contemporary church, like the leaders of the religious establishment in Jesus’ day, will fall into the trap of confusing the authority of our own institutions with the authority of God.

During these 40 days of Lent when we journey with Jesus in the wilderness, I invite you to be open to embrace whatever it is that God is up to in our day. I invite you to join us in this season of discernment – for surely not everything that is “new,” or claims to be of God, is of God.

But I do believe God is calling us into a kind of new reformation in our day. And if we are to be faithful to that calling, it will require us to be open, to travel light, but to ground ourselves ever more deeply in prayer, study, and mission.

Because, as long as we are grounded in God, we need have no fear of changing times or changing circumstances. For it is God alone that we serve. God is our rock…and our salvation!

A New Book Review

January 16, 2015

The Soul’s Journey: An Artist’s Approach to the Stations of the Cross. Artwork and Text by Kathrin Burleson. Forward Movement, 2014. 94 pages.
A little over half way through her beautiful book Kathrin Burleson mentions that she is a practitioner of lectio divina. This ancient, but still popular, method of meditating on Scripture involves four steps: read the text, meditate on it, pray about it and then keep silence. This would, in fact, be a fruitful approach to reading The Soul’s Journey.
Burleson has created fourteen Stations of the Cross not in the traditional representational way, but with vivid and colorful abstract paintings with the common theme of Light. Each depiction is followed by a brief meditation by a number of “leading theologians, bishops, and priests” then a somewhat longer one by the artist herself. The section is concluded by a brief, “arrow” prayer the theme of which arises from the painting and the meditations.
Just has she has exercised freedom from the usual representational way of depicting each station, so in accordance with ancient tradition she has taken liberty to add and subtract specific Stations (particularly the non-biblical ones) and expanded the material covered. For example, she begins not with Jesus Being Condemned to Death, but with his Agony in the Garden. I found this approach refreshing and helpful.
So I found myself following a kind of lectio approach while working through this material. I would gaze long and intently at the icon-like painting, slowly read the two meditations, offer the short prayer provided, and then sit in silence enjoying the insights gleaned and appreciating in a new way the Passion of Jesus. I would heartily commend this book as a spiritual exercise for Lent – or any other time, for that matter.
I do have to say that I found the insertion of meditations by the “theologians, bishops, and priests” more of a distraction than a help. They were uneven and sometimes even at odds with Kathrin’s meditation which follows. I would much have preferred to leave “the professionals” out and move directly from the painting to the artist’s reflection on it. At the very least, I would have recommended having her meditation first and theirs following.
This should in no way discourage one from buying and treasuring this coffee table book. It is a masterful piece of work and I am grateful for the opportunity to take this Soul’s Journey with a skilled guide.
C. Christopher Epting
Assisting Bishop
Diocese of Chicago


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