Archive for October, 2015

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)