Archive for August, 2007


August 30, 2007

One of my first responsibilities after vacation was making my annual visitation to the Community of Celebration in Aliquippa, PA. I serve as their “bishop visitor” (meaning counselor, encourager, and friend).

Some may know this community better by the name of their music ministry, The Fisherfolk.

Born out of the renewal movement at the Church of the Redeemer in Houston in the 60s and 70s, the community has traveled all over the world and had major presences in England and Scotland as well as several locations here in the States. Now officially recognized as among the Religious Orders and Christian Communities in the Episcopal Church this mixed, family oriented community takes life vows and their days are marked by Morning, Noonday, and Evening Prayers from the Book of Common Prayer plus a festive, song-filled Eucharist on Saturday afternoons.

Their main ministry is one of presence in a modest to poor neighborhood of Aliquippa, part of the rust belt on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. They provide lower cost housing for a number of families, work to improve the community, partner with the Church Army in ministries such as the “Uncommon Grounds” cafe, and ecumenically with othe Christians to tutor children from neighborhood housing projects, work with a Women’s Project teaching life skills to women from the local prison. A new ministry, Global Outreach in Addiction Leadership (GOAL) seeks to “export” 12 step programs to parts of Africa most effected by HIV/AIDS in an innovative approach to understanding the linkage between these two scourges.

The total commitment of these Christians to the triune God and to each other, their perseverance over many years of ministry, their hospitality to all, and their infectious joy in the Lord humbles me everytime I am with them. Join me in praying for their life and work!  


Now With God At Table We Sit Down

August 25, 2007


I suspect that one of the reasons I got interested in ecumenism, and the relationship between churches, is that I have something of an ecumenical past. I grew up in what some would describe as a “fundamentalist” denomination. It was a Christian tradition which majored in judgment!

We stood in fear of God’s judgment, we feared the judgment of other people, and yet we were just about as likely to judge others as unworthy as we felt ourselves to be! And while lots of people still live in that kind of religious world today, more of us have exited that form of Christianity and sought out a more “generous orthodoxy.”

My family and I spent some time in the Presbyterian and Methodist churches before a next door neighbor, who figured out that we were searching, invited us to attend their Episcopal Church and we never looked back! We fell in love with the liturgy and the sacraments, with the kind of pastoral care we received, and perhaps above all else, the kind of common sense and non-judgmental preaching we heard from that pulpit.

For myself, I have no doubt that was the right decision. But there is a danger here of a kind of “flabby” Christianity! The kind of Christianity which views God as a kindly old favorite uncle who makes no demands, is easily persuaded to wink at our transgressions, and – as a matter of fact – does not take what we do or do not do very seriously at all!

Today’s Lessons challenge both of those inadequate expressions of Christianity. Our First Reading from Isaiah makes it perfectly clear that God does take what we do seriously and that God will be the ultimate judge of all our actions. “Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers who rule this people in Jerusalem,” the prophet thunders, “…See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone…a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation…And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet…for I have heard a decree of destruction from the Lord God of hosts upon the whole land.”

It’s worth noting that God’s anger here is directed against the civil leaders in Jerusalem. Instead of trusting in God to deliver them, they’ve made alliances with Egypt, and sought out foreign military aid against the threatening Assyrians. God is displeased with their faithlessness and the futility of their “homeland security measures”. And so Isaiah warns of the fall of Jerusalem.  

Lest we think that it is only the Old Testament “God of wrath” who is concerned about judgment, the Gospel reading today has some hard sayings from Jesus as well! When he is asked, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” he replies, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” And then we hear those frightening words about “…Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out!”

Again, we need to remember, Jesus is talking about a specific set of people here: the religiously “pious”! He’s talking about those who are so sure they are the righteous ones and everyone else is going to hell in a hand basket! We know that because he concludes, “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.  Indeed some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”  Once again, it’s the “little ones” who can be assured of God’s grace here – the lost and the lonely…the last and the least! 

So, God will judge the unrighteous and the unjust of this world. God has made us the stewards of creation and it does matter how we carry out that stewardship. But that doesn’t mean that we need to cower in fear like Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God!” Rather, we can be comforted by what I’ve always believed to be among the most beautiful passages in the entire New Testament, our Second Lesson today from Hebrews:  

“You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest…But you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…” (from Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24)

The author is hardly holding up a vision of that permissive “favorite uncle” God I spoke of earlier! No, we do indeed stand before the living God and heavenly Jerusalem, before innumerable angels in festal gathering…and before God…the judge of all!

But we stand there surrounded by the communion of saints – in the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven…the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and…We stand in the presence of Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant… 

Because of his life, death, and resurrection and because of our baptism into that life, death and resurrection, we have learned to trust that – one day – people will indeed come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.  Our deeds will be taken seriously and judgment is inevitable. But the life of Jesus teaches us that God’s judgment is always tempered by mercy!

Our motivation for doing “good deeds” is not to earn God’s love and forgiveness. We already have that! Our motivation for doing good is gratitude! We are so grateful that we have been given God’s love and the gift of eternal life that we want to live the kind of life God wants us to live! We don’t do good in order to be saved; we do good in thanksgiving for the fact that we’ve already been saved!

 We already sit at God’s table. Today, we eat and drink in the kingdom of God! Today, we who really are last…are welcomed as among the first! Today, the words of the Psalmist are fulfilled in this place:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,

And though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;

Though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge!



How Does Jesus’ Death Save Us?

August 24, 2007


There is a good bit of discussion and debate today in “emergent church” circles about the Atonement – the doctrine(s) which try explain what Jesus’ death on the cross has to do with our salvation.

Emergent church is not really a church, but a movement, largely of young people, who consider themselves “post liberal” and “post evangelical” and who are trying to articulate the Christian faith for their peers in this “post modern” world. Predictably, they are finding themselves having to re-address or even redefine classical Christian doctrines for themselves (as perhaps every generation does to a greater or lesser degree).

Among the many theories of the Atonement, three have achieved the most prominence historically. The “substitutionary” theory proposes that Jesus died in our place. We deserve death because of our sins and a just God will not allow that debt to go unpaid, so Jesus came to take upon himself that punishment so that we would not have to suffer it. Many people today find this a harsh and intolerable explanation.

The “moral influence” theory proposes that Jesus came as an example for us. He taught us how to live a good life. If we do that, and confess our sins when we do fall short, we overcome sin and the death which is its consequence. Many people find this theory weak and unsatisfactory.

The “Christus victor” theory sees Jesus as engaging in a great cosmic battle with the Evil One, winning the victory by his life, death and resurrection and therefore liberating all humankind from the bondage of sin and death. Many people find this theory just simply unintelligible and bereft of the kind of rational categories understandable to modern (or post modern) people.

Most theologians agree that no one theory is adequate, that each of the three (and other theories) attempt to explain and flesh out the biblical witness and that a number of theories must simply be held in tension as we seek to understand yet another mystery of the Christian faith which may be beyond our ability to articulate adequately.

My own approach comes from the fact that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Because Jesus was the very incarnation (“enfleshment”) of God, it is not  adequate to view God as punishing his innocent son on our behalf. (The caricature of this is sometimes called “cosmic child abuse!”). Rather, God took upon himself, in the incarnation, the full consequences of sin and death.

Because God loves us so much, he was willing to undergo – in the Person of the Son – everything you and I will have to undergo, including identifying with our sin and undergoing death itself, sin’s logical consequence. Therefore, when we cry out to our God we cry out to One who, not only understands us from afar, but who has “been there.”

This effects the “at-one-ment” with God lost so long ago in the mists of human history and the reconciliation with God which leads to abundant life here and eternal life in the hereafter. This is admittedly a somewhat subjective and experiential theory, but at least deserves, in my view, to be held together with the others in a kind of “quiver” of the various approaches to this central mystery of the Christian faith.

In the final analysis, I appreciate Bishop Tom Wright’s observation that “on the night before he died Jesus did not give us a theory; he gave us a meal.” It is in sharing that meal that we perhaps best understand and experience “atonement!”          

Coming Down From the Mountain

August 21, 2007

All good things come to an end, the saying goes. Maybe not, but holidays and vacations do! Even the Transfiguration, that mountain-top experience of Jesus and his friends, ended not with enshrining the moment and seeking to live in it forever — but in coming down the mountain, focusing on Jerusalem and the very hard “work” ahead.

The purpose of the Sabbath was indeed to step back from one’s work, to realize that we do not exist only to be productive and that we are not possessed by our possessions, but ultimately and finally children of the living God. But that very sabbath experience of rest and re-creation had, as one of its tanglible results, the effect of letting one start over again, refreshed and renewed, for the tasks of living and the work of ministry.

So, lazy summer days of (in our case)  jazz festivals, state fairs, visits with parents, chidren and grandchildren, naps in the afternoon (and sometimes in the morning!), working on our house and in the yard, reading mindless novels, and more leisurely and reflective prayer times must come to an end for now. May we carry something of this quality into the busy-ness of our working days.   

And may we be even more fit for  God’s service in the days, weeks, and months ahead!

Pinder’s Kids

August 18, 2007

When I was a teenager, growing up in Orlando, Florida, a young black priest named Nelson Pinder came to our high school youth group and shared his experience of “the Plunge.” This was a program of the Urban Training Cener in Chicago where participants were given a dime and put on the streets of Chicago to learn, firsthand, what homelessness was like.

Hearing Fr. Pinder speak and later reading a book called “Light the Dark Streets” documenting Paul Moore and Kim Myer’s experiences as young, inner city priests in Newark fired my imagination and introduced me to the (then) radical new idea that the gospel had something to do with social justice and that the Church might actually speak prophetically and stand alongside the “last and the least” like Jesus himself had done.

Later, after many “dangers, toils, and snares” I decided that I could either stand outside and criticize the Church for not being braver and more faithful, or I could get involved, become an “insider” and try to make a difference. This was part (though not all) of my “call” and led me to seminary, ordination, and a life of service to the Episcopal Church.

I have run across Fr. Pinder a number of times during the years. (In fact, he was instrumental in steering me toward my first curacy upon graduation from seminary — and he never tires of telling that story…how he “got me my first job.” Indeed he did!)

I read today in the Orlando Sentinel that a new play has been written entitled “Pinder’s Kids” which dramatizes and documents Nelson’s mentoring of young black students in 1960’s Orlando in the ways of non-violent resistence, walking in the footsteps of Dr. King.  I could not be happier and more proud of him!

Pinder’s Kids. Although he may not know it…I’m one of them!      

Too Many Assumptions About the Assumption

August 15, 2007

We remember Mary, the mother of Jesus, in a special way today. While our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers celebrate this as the feast of the Assumption (Mary’s body and soul being “assumed” into heaven) and the Orthodox are more likely to observe Mary’s “falling asleep,” we simply call this day the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin.

It joins several other Marian celebrations in our calendar – the Annunciation by the angel to Mary, the Visitiation of Mary to Elizabeth, and the “Purification” of Mary after Jesus’ birth and his Presentation in the Temple. And surely it appropriate to remember with joy the one who bore our Savior into this world! There is even an interfaith component here: Jews can honor her as “Miriam,” a strong and faithful Jewish mother; and Muslims do treat her with respect in the Qur’an.

I believe that all Christians  can honor her without embracing all the accretions into the tradition over the years, the overly dogmatic pronouncements by the Roman church, or the rather convoluted arguments in the latest Anglican -Roman Catholic International Commission’s publication, “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ” about her proleptically experiencing — in her “immaculate conception” and “assumption” — all that Christians now receive by virtue of our baptism.

Is it not enough to sing with her “From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:48b-49)? And to pray: “O God, you have taken to yourself the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord…”

It is for me.     

Decisions of a Christian Assembly

August 12, 2007


The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America concluded their Churchwide Assembly on Saturday August 11 in Chicago by making three major decisions.

The first was the election of Mr. David D. Swartling, a Seattle attorney, as Secretary of the ELCA. He succeeds The Rev. Lowell Almen who had served as the only Secretary of the Church in the ELCA’s twenty year history. This position is the number two ranking one in the churchwide organization and combines the roles of chief record keeper, guardian of the history and archives, primary interpreter of the church’s constitution and governing documents, and main organizer of the biennial assembly. Mr. Swartling was one of only two lay persons on the slate of eight finalists for the position.

The second major decision was to refer all “memorials” on issues of human sexuality, including the possibility of blessing same gender unions and official rostering of partnered gay and lesbian clergy to the ongoing task force on human sexuality which is preparing a social statement on the topic to be presented to the 2009 Churchwide Assembly. In a related decision, however, the assembly voted to ask bishops and synods to refrain from exercising discipline upon those gay and lesbian clergy who are currently rostered and serving faithfully in their respective callings. It is a baby step “forward” (or “backward” depending on your perspective).

The final action of consequence was passage of a statement on the Middle East which calls for ongoing work for a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine. A late amendment was also adopted calling for investment in the Palestinian territories, consideration of refusing to buy goods or invest in activities taking place in Israeli settlements, and a review of other economic options. This last however specifically precludes the divestment option which had become so controversial in a number of other denominations.

For what it’s worth, I would have the following observtions on those decisions:

The election of a lay person to such an important office in the ELCA is another demonstration of “the ministry of all the baptized” becoming increasingly significant in today’s church. The Christian Church is becoming less dominated by a clerical elite and, gradually, more responsive to the voices of all her members. St. Paul’s vision of the Body of Christ with each member being crucial for the functioning of the whole is, happily, more and more a reality in our midst.


“Kicking final decisions about human sexuality down the road to 2009” will seem to some another delaying tactic and a denial of justice to gay and lesbian persons in the Church. As Lutherans, I cannot imagine that they could have done anything else. Theology is important to Lutherans and, until they have their theology straight, they could not possibly have moved “forward.”


Anglicans, on the other hand, at least Episcopalians, seem to operate on an action/reflection model. First we act, then we reflect on it theologically. Is that “ready, fire, aim”? Or simply the result of our history — the facts of the English Reformation, the consequences of our moving to these shores, the inevitable results of our historic presence in cities, university communities, and along the coasts of this country? We have been confronted by “facts on the ground,” responded to those realities, and then sought to make sense of them theologically. (Sort of like people and communities in the Bible).


The ELCA will inevitably be criticized by the Jewish community for even suggesting a “boycott” of goods produced in the Israeli settlements which most of the world acknowledges are illegal. While I believe blanket “divestment” from companies doing business in Israel is unwise, the Lutheran decision is compatible with their long-standing Middle East policy. And ours, frankly. It is the most gentle of economic sanctions to put teeth in opposition to “the Occupation” of Palestinian territory.


All in all, I think our Lutheran sisters and brothers did rather well!        

Living Out Our Call To Common Mission

August 11, 2007


One of the ways we live out Jesus’ prayer “that we all may be one” is to accompany one another as churches, to stand in solidarity with one another, and to “bear one another’s burdens.” Four of us from the Episcopal Church have been attendance at the Churchwide Assembly (“General Convention”) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Today is the last day and tomorrow I will comment on some of their more important decision — such as the election of a new Secretary (“Vice President” of their church), decisions on issues of  human sexuality, and a new statement on the Israel/Palestine conflict. For now, these are the formal “greetings” I brought on behalf of the Episcopal Church:  


“First of all, let me bring greetings from our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, from the other members of her staff at our Church Center in New York, and from the people of The Episcopal Church, your full communion partners in common mission!  It’s a joy to share this time with you.

I bring greetings too from the members of our Lutheran Episcopal Coordinating Committee. In our meetings around the country it has been most encouraging to experience the many areas of that common mission from joint congregations to ministry with young people to theological education. And, by liaison members from the Joint Anglican Lutheran Committee in Canada, to know that we are part of a world-wide rapprochement between Lutherans and Anglicans within the one ecumenical movement!

I was asked to speak to the question of “How the Episcopal Church is addressing the place of Scripture in the life of the church” in these remarks this afternoon – and it’s a joy to do that!  While the centrality of Scripture was uppermost in the English reformers minds in the 16th century, I think it’s fair to say that – until fairly recently, at least in this country – Episcopalians were formed by Scripture mainly read and expounded upon in community through the liturgy.

The old saw was that, when Episcopalians *got* introduced to personal Bible reading and study we were surprised at how many passages from the Prayer Book were actually incorporated in the Bible!  Well, of course, it’s the other way round – the Book of Common Prayer has sometimes been described as “the Bible arranged for prayer” and whole sections of it are indeed made up of scriptural texts and scriptural allusions.

But certainly, in the latter half of the last century and into this one, Episcopalians have become more comfortable with, engaged in, and challenged by Holy Scripture – in personal devotions, in small groups, and in formal study.  Lots of reasons for this: The widespread availability of accessible translations, the “Vatican II” emphasis on the Bible (which affected us as well), the popular “Forward Day By Day” pamphlets based on the daily lectionary which many lay people and clergy use, the influence of charismatic and spiritual renewal across the Church, and attention to the catechetical process in forming and welcoming new Christians. I’m particularly moved by the fact that the meetings of our General Convention and Executive Council have, for years now, included daily bible sharing among clergy and laity in small groups.

While some of us continue to be envious of the kind of Christian education and formation Lutherans almost seem to take for granted, we are increasingly working toward a sort of “cradle to grave” formation process as well. From early childhood experiences such as “Godly Play” and “Catechesis of the Good Shepherd” to programs like “New Beginnings” and “Happening” and “Journey to Adulthood” for teenagers and the four year course for adults known as “Education for Ministry” pioneered by one of our seminaries – all these are scripturally based and designed to deepen our appreciation for, and understanding of, the Word of God.

But, we have a long way to go, and I hope we can travel that road together for we have much to learn from you…and perhaps some things to share as well. God bless you in this Assembly. And thanks for giving us this time!”              

Transfiguration Day

August 6, 2007

Have you ever been in the presence of someone seemed absolutely to “glow?” I certainly have. I think of the many new “cursillistas” with whom I ministered over the years right after their three-day weekends of spiritual renewal. Or, someone who has just made a new discovery or understood something for the very first time. Or, for that matter, young lovers in one another’s presence.

I think the Transfiguration experience must have been something like that, different in degree rather than in kind. The union of Jesus with the Father when he prayed must have been an amazing thing to behold! As to whether Moses and Elijah actually appeared “in the flesh” (whatever that might mean for two men so long departed!), I’m not sure it really matters.

The text says “They appeared in glory…” (Luke 9:31) and the disciples were, after all, “weighed down with sleep” (Luke 9:31). But then how many times has God’s word been revealed in the dreams and visions of holy men and women throughout the ages? Too many to count.

The point of this mystery is clear, if not its specifics. First, there is a union between this Jesus and God which is so intense that it is transformative and has physcial and well as “spiritual” ramifications. Second, the apostles and evangelists saw the continuity between their Master (Luke 9:33) and God’s “Chosen One” or “Beloved” (Luke 9:35) and God’s revelation in the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). And third, the implications of that fact demanded sacrifice and action, not endless contemplation even in three liturgically correct “tabernacles” (Luke 9:33)!    

May your Transfiguration day be filled with light, illumined with truth, and may its radiance lead your feet into action to share the good news and help build a world which reflects the glory of God’s Reign!

Bishops Endorsing Candidates

August 4, 2007

So my brother bishop, Gene Robinson, has gone on public record as endorsing Senator Obama for President!

Beside the fact that I’m not sure anyone cares whom clerics like us plan to vote for, I wonder if he has considered the potential ramifications of this.

I’m not a lawyer and so hardly qualified to render a legal opinion on this, but I certainly cannot remember another bishop endorsing a political candidate in quite this way. It has always been my understanding that, while the church can certainly make “political” statements and get involved in “politics,” our tax exempt status depends upon our remaining “non-parisan.”

I would maintain that the church must always be involved in politics in order to fulfill our prophetic role. Our Washington office regularly “lobbies” our government on behalf of the church’s positions on moral and ethical issues, but never endorses specific candidates or political parties.

There was a big flap recently in one of our large California parishes when a retired rector “appeared” to be endorsing a political candidate. The IRS got involved, as I recall. We seem to have won that dispute precisely because the rector stopped short of endorsing a particular candidate during his sermon.

The Bishop of New Hampshire has now done so quite intentionally. Wonder if his chancellor will be hearing from the IRS any time soon? I wonder if our Office of Government Relations in DC will be?