Archive for January, 2012

The present form of the CHURCH is passing away!

January 23, 2012

 Bloomingdale. Good afternoon! My name is Christopher Epting and, thanks to Bishop Lee’s kind invitation, I am now serving as Assisting Bishop here in the Diocese of Chicago. I am the retired Bishop of Iowa and still live in that great state just to the west of you, but it’s a particular pleasure for me to be here with you today because, from 2001 until 2009, I served as the Presiding Bishop’s Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, working out of our Episcopal Church Center inNew York.

And last evening I represented the Diocese of Chicago at the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service at the Focolare Center in Hyde Park. It felt like putting on an old pair of comfortable shoes as I knew a number of the participants from my days as ecumenical officer. It was a great event!

 My responsibility, during those years, was to coordinate and oversee the relationship of The Episcopal Church to other Christian communions and to other faith traditions. I made several visits to thePhilippinesand was privileged to meet with Obispo Maximo Alberto Ramento (now venerated as a martyr of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente) as well as his two successors, Tomas Millemena and Godofredo David. I worked also with Bishop Raul Tobias in this country, making it possible for him to attend our last General Convention inAnaheim.

 Although never privileged to visit India, I once celebrated the Eucharist in a MarThomaChurchon Staten Islandand served on the Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations with Bishop John Gladstone of the Churchof South India. I have always believed that that Church and the Church of North India were models for the ecumenical movement that I wish we had followed more closely in this country when we were part of a similar association in something called the Consultation on Church Union, or COCU. I believe we had a failure of nerve and missed our opportunity to enter into a similar united church.

 I say all that by way of background just to let you know how exciting I think this shared mission and ministry is and how, in many ways, I believe that you could be a model for such experimental, risk-taking cooperative mission work in the future. In today’s Gospel, we are told that “Jesus came toGalilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘the time is fulfilled, and thekingdomofGodhas come near; repent and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14b-15).

 That text reminds us that Jesus’ primary message was the same as John the Baptist. It was that the Kingdom…the king-ship…the Reign…the Sovereignty of God was at hand! People didn’t have to wait for it to come some time in the future. The Kingdom is now! We are rediscovering today that Jesus did not come to found a Church. Jesus came to inaugurate the Reign of God in this world!

 This Kingdom had been looked forward to by prophets like Jonah in our First Lesson today, by poets like today’s Psalmist who wrote that God “alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken. (Psalm 62:7). This Kingdom continued to be proclaimed bySt. Paulwho wrote in today’s Epistle that “the appointed time has grown short…for the present form of this world is passing away!” (I Corinthians7:29passim)

 We might also want to add, in our time, that the present form of the Church is passing away!

A couple of weeks ago, the Diocese of Chicago and Seabury seminary sponsored something called “The Great Awakening” featuring Bishop Lee along with two very popular religious authors and visionaries of today’s Church, Brian McClaren and Diana Butler Bass.

 And their messages were basically the same. The institutional Church is in big trouble today. All denominations and Christian communions are facing crises in authority, economic challenges, and from declining numbers and aging congregations. The Episcopal Church is not alone in these challenges – it’s happening all over! And so we have two choices – we can either turn inward and focus on survival or we can use this as a new opportunity to re-envision what the Church is all about!

 I believe the Church of the future will be less concerned about institutional maintenance and more concerned about God’s mission in the world. An old friend of mine used to say that the important thing is not that God’s Church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a Church!

God’s mission is about the reconciliation of the world – and everyone in it – to God.  Jesus says it clearly to Simon and Andrew in today’s Gospel when he said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people!” (Mark1:17)

 And Mark tells us that ‘immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mark1:18). They followed Jesus not into the comfortable confines of a church building, but into the highways and byways ofGalileewhere they engaged with the real lives of real people with real problems and – along with their rabbi, Jesus, made a real difference in this world.

 I believe the Church of the future will also need to “travel light” as those early disciples did. So I think that will mean more “tent maker” or “bi-vocational” clergy. I think it will require ecumenical cooperation when we will learn that we are not in competition with Lutherans or Methodists or Roman Catholics or Baptists, but in league with them.  Our “competitors” are not fellow Christians; our competitors are the principalities and powers of this world which – as the Prayer Book says – “corrupt and destroy the creature of God.”

 The Diocese of Chicago has a great, and easy to remember, motto or mission statement – Grow the Church…Form the Faithful…Change the World. And Bishop Lee gave three very simple ways to carry out that mission statement in his Diocesan Convention sermon a couple of months ago. He suggested that “to grow the Church” each of us have at least one meaningful conversation with another person about God and about our lives this year. That’s all evangelism is really – sharing our lives and our relationship with God with other people.

 To “form the faithful” Bishop Lee encouraged us all to read at least one verse, or one chapter of the Bible every day. Use the Forward Day by Day booklet, or the Prayer Book lectionary, or some other scheme. But engage the Bible this year…and watch your Christian formation begin to happen.  Finally, he suggested that we each commit to one cause or one effort at social change in our community or our world. Not just to write a check, but to become personally involved in some effort to “change the world,” to make this present world look a little more like the Kingdom of God Jesus came to inaugurate.

 “The time is fulfilled, and thekingdomofGodhas come near,” Jesus says. Do you believe that?

Well, if you do, then the time is short! Don’t wait any longer! Do something this week to “Grow the Church”…to “Form the Faithful” (beginning with yourself!)…and to “Change the World.” For “the appointed time has grown short…and the present form of this world is passing away!”
































Journey to the River

January 10, 2012

 The journey to the river had been long and hard and the young man was tired. Seeing it now, after so long, was something of a disappointment to him. It was sluggish and muddy.  The banks, sloping upward so sharply that there was no easy access…or approach for that matter. The copper-colored water seemed curiously lifeless, and even the foliage which sprouted right from the water’s edge was dull green. Unhealthy, somehow.

 The man he’d come to meet was there at least. No sluggishness or lifelessness in him! This man was vibrant, filled with energy. Filled with anger too, yet somehow with hope.

He had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Challenging people to go in a new direction, change their ways, and marking that by a purification ceremony in that dirty water. Crowds had come out for this!

But the roughly dressed man didn’t seem interested in signing up a bunch of followers. He kept saying “one more powerful than I is coming. I’m not worthy even to loosen his sandels.”

 And now that One stood before him. Just one more face…in the middle of the crowd. The baptizer turned toward the river, pushing his way through the brush and raising clouds of dust before reaching the narrow bank.  He waded into the still water with the pilgrim close behind him.  Their bare feet sank into the soft river bed, and churned up more mud and the smell of decay.

 But even this dirty water felt cool and refreshing as it bathed his body.  And the pilgrim’s thoughts raced back through the history of his faith…and back…back to a time when all was water, until the words, “Let there be.” And there was.

 He closed his eyes and the image changed. Again, everywhere water! And no life. Except for those few faithful, the ones who were said to have trusted God

“In the cup of whose hands sailed in ark,

Rudderless, without mast…

Who was to make of the aimless wandering of theArk

A new beginning for the world…” *

 Yet a third time, and the pilgrim recalled a redeeming of life from a watery death. This time in theRed Sea, a sea of reeds. There was a pathway for some. A tragic death for others. But life and freedom on the other side!

 And there was water from the rock…streams in the desert…water for the purification of a thousand priests. And now… this…

As he came up from the water, he felt at one with all of it!  He knew that he was an inheritor of that Universe which had been prepared for him and for all others. And, he knew that he was God’s Child!

 He heard a voice…‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

 Well, that may have been something like what happened to Jesus of Nazareth on the day of his Baptism in theJordan Riverby John.  He knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he was God’s Son!

 That would be an event worth celebrating, I guess, even if it didn’t have anything much to do with us. But it does.  Because you and I share the Baptism of Christ!  And our Catechism says that “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as…  children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of thekingdomofGod.” (BCP858)

 When you and I were baptized, God said to us, “You are my beloved son or daughter, and with you I am well pleased!” And when women and men renew the vows of their baptism in confirmation or reception or reaffirmation, God says the same thing to us, “You are my beloved sons and daughters, and with you I am well pleased.”

 Oh, not in everything we do is God pleased. We make mistakes. We consciously sin!  But in you, in the essence of you that really is “You,” God is well pleased.  God loves you as a daughter or a son and, because you share the life of his Incarnate Son, God will never let you go!

 As Bishop Lee said in his Diocesan Convention sermon on Baptism, “Living Under Water:” Water is both life-giving and dangerous. The waves can and do overwhelm us sometimes. We do find ourselves lost in the wilderness and there we can be struck down. But the promise of God, the promise of that cloudy pillar and fiery beacon never ceases. Through the waves and the wilderness God is with us. Even when we are struck down, God is with us. Not even death can separate us from such a love – and no one is outside its reach!”

That is Good News, beloved!  That is the Baptismal Covenant God has made with us and with all the baptized…a sign of hope for the world.

 Hope we find from a Baby in a manger…from the visit of some Persian astronomers…and from a Jordan River Baptism!

 “Epiphany” – the shining forth of God’s love! To you…and to me.



*Alan Jones, “Journey into Christ”, page 37
























Caucus Night in Iowa

January 3, 2012

By now, I’m sure that everyone (Iowans included) are more than glad that this day is finally here and we can stop hearing about the pros and cons of the Iowa caucuses, whether they should be first in the nation, whether the state is representative enough of the country to warrant such attention, etc. etc. etc.

As an “Iowan by choice” I have participated in many of these events and believe they do have a role to play in the overall process. It’s a good “winnowing” strategy — old fashioned, grass roots, face-to-face politics which, as yet, has not been totally ruined by the Supreme Court’s ridiculous decision to deem “corporations as people” and the vast increase of negative advertising to which this has led. Just wait until some of the real primary states!

True, Iowans are nowhere near as diverse ethnically as much of the rest of the nation. On the other hand, we are more diverse than some western states. More importantly, every socio economic strata is represented here from the very rich to the very poor. Every conceivable political position is represented here — from right wing evangelicals to the most liberal perspective possible (and not only in the “Peoples’ Republic of Iowa City!”)

As a “yellow dog Democrat” (one who would vote Democratic if our only candidate was an “old yeller dog”) I will miss the give and take of a “real” caucus this year — with folks making speeches, voting, dividing up into small groups for debate, etc. Yes, Elizabeth, it really does happen that way — in school rooms, church basements, town halls, etc across this amazing state.

We Democrats will gather in larger groups in fewer places, hear from our President over cyberspace, and begin to stategize on how we can assure four more years of an Administration which — despite the economic hole out which we had to climb and a cynical, gridlocked Congress — has made progress, if not totally fulfilled, every promise he made to the American people during his campaign.

Finally, while my doctrine of “original sin” is far too high to believe that Democrats are blameless or above the kind of corruption and petty politics we see all around, the Democratic platform at least seems to reflect much more completely the kind of “Kingdom values” I believe Jesus would have us uphold. And, while Christians can be “political” without being “partisan,” I find that increasingly difficult when faced with an opposition party which seems increasingly to embody the values of the “Empire” rather than the values of the Reign of God. 

And, whenever your state weighs in, don’t forget to vote!

How do the “literalists” do it?

January 2, 2012

Reading again the opening chapters of Genesis, I wonder how those who claim to read the Bible “literally” and to believe in the “inerrancy” of Holy Scripture do it? The fantastical ages of people like Methusaleh and the co-mingling of divine and human beings producing the giant “Nephilim” warriors. Do they simply “suspend disbelief” and assume that such things happened in those days, but no longer do? I suppose that’s one way to do it. But how much richer to see those ancient Hebrews, wrestling with their “prehistorical” past and borrowing along the way from similar Babylonian stories and myths from tortured geneologies to some primal memory of a flood which destroyed life in the (then) known world.

And even in the New Testament: how much richer to see the author of Matthew’s Gospel, even in the early chapters, beginning to describe Jesus as a “new Moses” figure by having Herod seek to destroy all the children two years old and under, forcing a “flight to Egypt” so that “out of Egypt” God might call his son (Jesus) just as once this same God called his servant Moses from that same land to become his people’s deliverer and law giver. 

I just find this way of reading, and wrestling with, the Bible so much more interesting and fascinating than seeing it as some kind of strange history book or “how to do it” manual for daily living. In fact, it challenges me to take the Bible seriously as the record of one people’s interaction with God down through the centuries. A record which can be a companion to me as I continue to relate to this one God in my life and in the world today.

My New Year’s Resolution and the Bible

January 1, 2012

So, my New Year’s Resolution this year is to read the Bible through in 2012. The idea came from an article I read recently in The Living Church which suggested that this could be done fairly easily by reading one Psalm, three chapters from the Old Testament, and one from the New each day.

My reason for doing this is not because I think there is something meritorious in having read the Bible from cover to cover. I have not done so in many years and have often cautioned students not to worry about doing that since a good bit of the Bible is repititious and much of it not particularly edifying anyway! Besides, having started off with good intentions and bogging down somewhere in the  middle of Leviticus can be a turn-off to serious Bible study for the best of us!

No, my point is to engage each book of the Bible as a whole and on its own terms and to allow the author(s) to speak in their own voice. Reading lectionary selections — as I have done for forty years praying the Daily Office — makes this harder to do and, even while following the lectionary carefully, entails a certain skipping around from season to season and there are interruptions for holy day lections, etc.

I intend to use the New Oxford Annotated Edition of the New Revised Standard Verson and to include the introductory material and footnotes in my reading. I will begin with the Psalm, since these hymns are also prayers worthy of entering the Divine Presence, proceed with three chapters of the Hebrew Scripture and one of the Christian Testament.

Then, I’ll follow with a brief period of prayer and silence, making this whole endeavor into a kind of lectio divina exercise. I expect I’ll miss praying the Daily Office this year but, with forty years behind me, I expect I’ll survive a year off!

I won’t promise to blog about this every day (for which my vast audience of readers will be gateful!) but comments arising from this process may appear here from time to time. Wish me luck. My past experiences with New Year’s Resolutions have not been pretty.

But this one intrigues me…