Archive for April, 2007

Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing: An Ordination Sermon

April 29, 2007

It’s a joy for me to preach this ordination sermon, first of all because of my enormous respect for Tom Breidenthal which only grows over the years. Secondly, because of my fondness for the Diocese of Southern Ohio which I am privileged to visit from time to time as Bishop Visitor for the Community of the Transfiguration, and – last but not least – because I was ordained to the diaconate on the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena the Lessons for whose feast Tom has chosen for his ordination today! 

I’ve been a bishop for nearly 20 years now and I can’t tell you how many times I have prayed again with the ordination vows Tom will take in just a few moments. Two of them always leap out at me on those occasions. The first is, “Will you guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church?” And the second, “Will you be merciful to all, show compassion to the poor and strangers, and defend those who have no helper?” The expected answers to those questions are, respectively, “I will, for the love of God;” “I will, for the sake of Christ Jesus.”

It will not surprise Tom, or many of you, that sometimes those two vows come into conflict or at least stand in some dramatic tension. The first vow, about guarding the faith unity and discipline of the Church is what
St. John was up to in our Epistle today: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 

If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (I John 1:5-7). John is talking about faith, unity, and discipline. He is talking about walking together…in fellowship.

The second vow is what the Prophet Isaiah was up to in our First Lesson: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…”( Isaiah 61: 1-2a).

This is a favorite text of our new Presiding Bishop and she has referred to it more than once, particularly as it is cited by Jesus in his inaugural sermon at the synagogue in
Nazareth recorded in Luke 4. It reminds us of God’s “preferential option” for the poor, God’s offer of healing for this broken world, and the liberty God’s love makes possible for the faithful. It is a challenging, risky text, but  Isaiah is talking about “being merciful to all, showing compassion to the poor and stranger, and defending those who have no helper.” He is talking about justice!

Sometimes, not least in the context of the tensions we face in the Anglican Communion today, those perspectives (unity and justice) are hard to hold together. We often hear it said, “You’re sacrificing justice for unity.” And the rejoinder from some: “But how can we know what true justice is without unity?” It’s a problem for bishops!

Of course, bishops are not the only Christians who have to balance those kinds of tensions and conflicts. The vows by which you are bound in baptism also ask two questions: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” But also “will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” What if the heritage of the apostles, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith you profess, is perceived by some as standing in the way of justice…disrupting peace among people…and disrespecting the dignity of at least some human beings? What if unity and justice appear to be in conflict?

What then?

Well, it can be anxiety producing! It can be excruciatingly anxiety producing…But then, Jesus has something to say about anxiety in today’s Gospel. He says to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear…If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith!…For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for God’s kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

One of the great gifts, I have found over my years as a bishop, in trying to face squarely into the contradictions, or at least the tensions, within our faith is that it eventually throws one back on the sheer love and mercy and grace of God! Upon that primary relationship between ourselves and our God. We cannot always “figure it out!” Our structures are not always up to the task. And, doing things the way we have always done them will not always be sufficient in our post-modern age.

The good news is — we don’t have to figure it out. Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. It just may not be on our timetable!  The Christian Church is not all about structures (or even “instruments of communion!”). It is about being the Body of Christ. The Church has never had it all figured out! This Body into which you and I were baptized has been growing and adapting and evolving from New Testament times until today!  And it always will be, until the last, great day!

The important thing in the meantime, my dear brother Tom, and my dear sisters and brothers in Christ, is to try and “keep the main thing…the main thing!” That is why, in the midst of all our busyness and confusion, nothing must get in the way of our basic spiritual disciplines as Christian people – daily prayer and Bible study, weekly Eucharist, an annual retreat, and focused attention to God’s mission of reconciliation.

No matter what else you may do as a bishop, Tom, do those things! Daily prayer and Bible study, weekly Eucharist, an annual retreat, and focused attention on God’s mission. No matter what else you may do as a diocese, dear friends, do those things. Daily prayer and Bible study, weekly Eucharist, an annual retreat, focused attention on God’s mission! In order to keep the main thing the main thing! And what is that main thing?

According to Isaiah: It is to work for justice in order to prepare the way for the Kingdom of

According to St. John: It is to keep the faith and work for its unity and discipline in order to prepare the way for the Kingdom of God.

And according to Jesus it is actually to begin to live in that Kingdom, under that Reign and Sovereignty of God, right now! Not to wait until we “have it all together.” Not to wait until we have it all figured out. But to throw ourselves now on the love and mercy and grace of God! To strive for God’s Kingdom… and to have confidence that all the rest will be given to us as well! 


The Way, the Truth, and the Life

April 26, 2007

The Lutheran – Episcopal Coordinating Committee, meeting in Los Angeles, were blessed yesterday with a presentation by a group known as the Episcopal Urban Interns Program. These young adults, give a year of their lives, living in community and working for social justice in a variety of programs in and around LA.

Not only do they work with troubled children, homeless families, special education, etc. but they live in community, live a simple life, do regular theological reflection on what is happening to them, and make five retreats a year together to deepen their spiritual lives.

Many of have gone on from these programs to become deacons, priests, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business folks — one is even a Yahoo executive! I could not help but be proud (in the best sense, I hope) that our church supports such an effort. It is also an ecumenical one, involving Lutherans, Methodists, and others.

It seems to me that this “coupling” of work for social justice and faith formation is perhaps the best way to re-engage, “re-convert”,  and deepen the faith of our young people today. They want to “make the world a better place” but hunger also for the deeper truths of meaning and purpose for their lives and for the world.

There may yet be time for the Church to provide that “way, that truth, and that life.”     

Baptism and A New Creation

April 23, 2007

Yesterday, I baptized Charlotte Meade. Seven months old…the biggest bluest eyes I’ve seen in a long time. She didn’t take those eyes off me while I blessed the water. Didn’t seem to mind getting wet either. Or, the oil when I made the sign of the cross on her little forehead and told her she was “Sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own for ever!”Communion was a different matter however.

Her parents were happy to complete the initiatory rite by having her receive Communion on the day of her baptism. So, I broke off the tiniest piece of the Host, touched it briefly to the Wine, and placed it on her tongue. She wrinkled up her nose pretty good at the taste of this adult food. And I expect her folks will want to wait awhile before having her become a regular communicant! But, having the three actions done together – baptism, chrismation, and first communion – is very ancient. Done always by the Orthodox, increasingly by the Roman Catholics, and by ourselves as well.  Because grace always comes to us before we are able to understand it, or ready to receive it! And it’s not up to us; it’s up to God!

The rector made a nice point in his sermon. He was talking about the chaos we often experience in our lives. And about how scary that can be. But he reminded us that chaos is really the first step in a new creation. In Genesis the Spirit of God hovers over the face of the waters when the earth was without form and void. It was pretty much chaos. But God brought order out of chaos…and said that it was good.

I don’t know if that priest remembered that it was Earth Day yesterday, but I was reminded of it by his remarks. The reason Christians are to care for the earth is that it is God’s creation, that it is very good, and that we have been given a role as stewards of that creation. The Spirit of God still hovers over the face of the earth…and renews it again and again…if we will just get out of the way and stop interrupting the natural cycles which result in a creation, ever new.

The preacher did connect God’s Spirit hovering over the waters to what we were about to do in baptism, however. Just like at the creation, the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters in the font…and from those waters too brings order out of chaos; a new creation out of the old; a rising out of the dying.  And that’s what we celebrate at every Baptism…and at every Eucharist.  It’s what we were praying about in the Collect for Today:

“O God, by the abundance of your grace you unfailingly increase the number of your children: Look with favor upon those you have chosen to be members of your Church, that, having been born again in Baptism, they may be granted a glorious resurrection…

That’s what happened to Charlotte Meade yesterday! It’s what’s happened to all of us.



God’s Splendor Over Earth and Heaven

April 22, 2007

While there will, no doubt, be some oh-so-trendy celebrations of “Earth Day” across our land today, people of faith and perhaps particularly people of biblical faith should understand something of the stewardship of creation. We believe that, from the beginning, God “saw that it was good.” We believe in the mystery of the incarnation in which God’s word “became flesh” in the midst of the material world. And we believe that the Holy Spirit “renews the face of the earth.”

Eastern Orthodox theology has long championed this perspective and the current Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople is known as the “Green Patriarch” for his passionate teaching in this area. For all our complicity in the destruction of the environment Protestant and Catholic Christians have come to embrace the need for witness and action to preserve the resources of the planet. And there are signs today that Evangelicals and Pentecostals too are awakening to this bibilical call to care for creation.

How could we all not? Do we not all pray together the words of today’s morning psalm?

“Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps;

Fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, doing his will;

Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars;

Wild beasts and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds;

Kings of the earth and al peoples, princes and all rulers of the world;

Young men and maidens, old and young together,

Let them praise the Name of the Lord, for his Name only is exalted,

his splendor is over earth and heaven!”

(Psalm 148: 7-13)

Violence: Then And Now

April 20, 2007

Friday in the Second Week of Easter (Acts 5:34-42; Psalm 27:1-9; John 6:1-15)

Earlier this week, in his thoughtful homily addressing the tragedy at Virginia Tech,
Jim Lemler pointed out that our Lord Jesus Christ was no stranger to violence. He was misunderstood, feared, despised, abused, tortured, and eventually executed by the state as an innocent victim of their version of capital punishment.

Even in today’s largely celebratory story of the feeding the multitude, the last line (which we sometimes miss) reads, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Even his own people, who wanted him to be their king, were prepared to use force against him!

But the violence didn’t stop with Jesus, even with his Resurrection. In the line which precedes our reading from Acts today and Gamaliel’s speech, the text says, “When they heard this (from the apostles) they were enraged and wanted to kill them.” And then the teacher Gamaliel proceeds to catalogue the violence perpetrated against some of Jesus’ predecessors in the prophetic tradition:

“Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men…joined him, but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed…After him Judas the Galilean rose up…and got people to follow him (but) he also perished. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone…”

So persuasive was Gamaliel that “they were convinced by him and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and let them go.” So, even in gaining their freedom, these early Christians suffered violence – they were flogged first!

I don’t know if society is more violent today than it was in ancient times, or prior generations. Certainly the tools are more horrendous. A cat-o-nine-tails with pieces of lead embedded in the leather is a terrible thing. But a Glock 9mm handgun with 33 rounds in each clip is a weapon of mass destruction!  And we permit its legal sale!

The World Council of Churches is more than half way through something called a “Decade To Overcome Violence.” We have a long way to go before even making a dent in this massive problem. And the focus needs to include, not only war and global terrorism, but the rage that seethes in the human heart and how we can be instruments in the of healing – and prevention — of that rage.

May our continuing celebration of the Easter season inspire and strengthen us for this ministry. And may we be comforted by the words of the Psalmist that, no matter what may befall us (and we never know what will befall us!): In the day of trouble he shall keep us safe in his shelter; God shall hide us in the secrecy of his dwelling, and set us high upon a rock!      

After Sunday School

April 19, 2007

Last Sunday I was privileged to lead an adult Sunday school class in one of our New York parishes. Some twenty-five or thirty brave souls ventured out in the midst of a nor’easter not only to participate in the Eucharist, but continuing their formation as Christians as well. After the lecture and a good period of thoughtful questions and attempted answers, I was approached by three individuals.

The first, a young African American man, was finishing up a graduate degree and writing his dissertation on some aspects of “environmental sustainability.” He asked me what the churches were doing ecumenically about threats to the environment. I shared with him some of the efforts and programs of the World and National Councils of Churches, referred him to their web sites ( and and agreed to meet with him to discuss the matter further.

The second was a young woman in her 20’s who said she was simply a visitor, had found the class quite interesting, and wondered if there was a church for “someone like her.” I soon discovered that “someone like her” meant an interested young seeker. Someone who sometimes thinks that the creeds are simply “beautiful myths” but really believes (and desires) them to be more than that.

I told her that I am sure many churches would welcome and value a bright, honest, young person like herself, asking legitimate questions and who appeared quite open to search for some answers. But, I said, the Episcopal Church is certainly one of those churches. We have a wide spectrum of belief within this church.

Some who do indeed believe the creeds to be “beautiful myths.” Others who hold both creed and scripture as literal truths. What binds us together, at our best, is a commitment to gather week by week at the Lord’s Table; listen to the old, old story; pray together; break the Bread and Share the cup of the Lord together in confidence that “when two or three are gathered together in his Name, he will be in the midst of them.”

And that he may even be made known to them “in the breaking of the Bread!”

The third, and final, person who approached me after class was a quiet young man whose accent sounded perhaps German. He simply asked if he could come in and chat sometime. I said, Sure, and gave him my card.

I wonder what we will talk about? 

Living Stones

April 15, 2007

“Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be  yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (I Peter 2, passim)

My former diocese belonged, and still belongs, to a partnership called “Living Stones.” It is an association of (mostly) small dioceses exploring together the concept of what is sometimes called “total ministry.” That simply means mission and ministry rooted and grounded in our baptismal covenant in which all Christians, clergy and lay, are called to work together in teams in order to more visibly express the presence of the Body of Christ in their local communities and throughout the world.

In this concept of “team ministry” some of the negative effects of hierarchy, of clericalism, and its evil twin anti-clericalism are done away with, or at least minimized. For the sake of the gospel. For the sake of mission. For example, I like to replace the usual pyramidal paradigm with bishops on top, priests next, deacons next, and laity on the bottom (substitute your own nomenclature for the ordained and the lay) with a circle.

The circle has Christ at its center, the empowering means of grace like word and prayer and sacrament radiating out like the spokes of a wheel from Jesus, and the various ministries and ministers of the church found along the perimeter of the circle, none “higher” than the other, but each and all empowered by the same grace of God to carry out their several vocations.

I believe that is a much healthier and much more ancient model of ministry than the top-down, consumer/provider  forms of ministry we still see in much of the Church today,  in whatever denomination. We are together “a holy priesthood (meant) to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ!”

What I Mean When I Pray The Lord’s Prayer

April 13, 2007

Our Father in heaven 

“Heaven” is wherever God is. God is the power/source/principle-of-rationality at the core of the universe and of all that is.


Hallowed be your Name 

This power/source/principle is beyond all final knowing or naming and can only be beheld in awe.


Your kingdom come 

The world and universe are not complete, but are constantly and ever evolving – we pray — into a better, more just and peaceful future.


Your will be done on earth as in heaven 

A sign of that ongoing evolution is our work in building a more just and peaceful planet.


Give us this day our daily bread 

We desire, hope, and even expect that our basic human needs will be provided for.


Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us 

We cannot expect mercy unless we are willing to grant it.


Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil 

We seek protection from destructive powers without and within.


For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever.


Ultimate sovereignty, power, and honor are due to no other being or system for all eternity. These things belong only to God.



Hearts Burning Within Us

April 12, 2007


Lots of people were baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church over the Easter weekend! I don’t know how many. Not sure if Kirk Hadaway has a way of finding that statistic out for us or not! But, suffice it to say, it would be in the thousands. They, or their parents and godparents, were asked to make a number of promises before receiving those sacraments of initiation. And one of them is, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” The expected answer is, “I will, with God’s help.”

Christians have been making that promise for centuries now. And we’ve been acting out that promise for even longer than that. The vow itself is taken from Luke’s account of the early Church when he writes, in the book of Acts, that “those who welcomed (Peter’s) message were baptized and that day about 3,000 persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)

But those practices even go back farther than that. According to Luke’s Gospel, one of the resurrection appearances involved just those same practices. Two disciples, walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, joined by a stranger, sharing with him their grief and confusion on the death of their prophet and the reports of his resurrection. Conversation with the stranger about Moses and the old prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. And a shared meal…recognition…and burning hearts, as he is made known to them in the breaking of the bread!

And I wonder how many times those same two disciples had experienced those practices with the historical Jesus before his resurrection. Journeys together along the road, conversation with him and the other disciples about the scriptures, a shared meal – and hearts that burned with love and commitment for this rabbi, this prophet, this one they increasingly believed was their messiah!

You and I get to have that same experience at every Eucharist. Apostolic teaching from the Word of God, read and preached; fellowship with one another liturgically acted out in the passing of the Peace; the broken Bread and the poured-out Cup…and, of course, the prayers. Not just the prayers of the people – although they allow us to bring our concerns and thanksgivings before the Lord and the community.

But the prayers of preparation, the songs of praise, the Great Eucharistic Prayers which rehearse the story of our salvation, re-member his words at the Last Supper, invoke God’s Holy Spirit upon the elements and upon ourselves!

We are one with those disciples who slept alongside Jesus on the road, with those two on the road to Emmaus, with those 3,000 who were baptized after Peter’s sermon. And with those thousands baptized just a few days ago! We are one with all those people in the Eucharist!

Are not our hearts burning within us as we gather to share this meal?


I hope so. Because “The Lord has risen indeed…and he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:32, 34)



Apostle to the Apostles

April 10, 2007

It is absolutely clear from all four Gospels that women were the first to discover the empty tomb! In Matthew, it is Mary Magdalene and “the other” Mary. In Mark it is Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. In Luke it is  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “the other women.” And in John, it’s Mary Magdalene alone. So…who’s the common figure here? Mary Magdalene!

No wonder the Orthodox regard her as a disciple, even “Apostle to the Apostles,” and venerate her as the patron saint of the great cluster of monasteries on Mount Athos.

One thing is clear from the Gospel accounts: the men had fled! The “twelve” who were supposed to make up some kind of inner circle had betrayed him and left him to face torture and crucifixion alone (only the young John may have made it to the foot of the cross to stand with Jesus’ mother). It was the women disciples, chief among them apparently Mary Magdalene, who risked being associated with him still further even after his execution at the hands of the state by going to the tomb.

Even after dragging Peter there to witness the emptiness of the tomb, that was all he experienced at first – emptiness — and he returned home without pursuing it further. Luke tells us that the 12 initially considered the report of an empty tomb “an idle tale.” But Mary wouldn’t give up! She went back to the tomb, weeping. I’ve never been sure if she was weeping because of her grief at the loss of Jesus or her grief at the loss of nerve of the 12! But she wouldn’t give up! She peered once again, even deeper this time, into the tomb and when she turned around, she encountered the Risen Christ!

Not that she recognized him right away. At first she thought it was the gardener. But he spoke her name and immediately she knew who he was! Not a Jesus who had somehow escaped death. Not some kind of resuscitated corpse. But a wonderfully transfigured and transformed Teacher who was being taken up into the life of God 

“Do not hold on to me because I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” And this time, she was able to tell the 12 – not only that the tomb was empty, but “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18)

Surely Mary Magdalene’s journey must be ours this Easter season. Not to be content with the Easter morning vision of an empty tomb. But to return to it again and again, persistently, peering into it, ever more deeply. Until we hear him call us by name. And send us forth as his witnesses! Apostles to future apostles!

Like Mary…first at the tomb!