Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Interfaith Dialogue and Evangelism

May 22, 2017

In 2001, I was asked by the Presiding Bishop of our church, then one Frank Griswold, to come onto his staff in New York to oversee ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Episcopal Church. It was not an easy decision because I had loved being Bishop of Iowa. But I had lost my wife, Pam, to an untimely death and decided (after much spiritual direction and counsel) that a new venue and context for ministry might be just what I needed.

And I had become deeply involved in the ecumenical movement, especially with the Lutherans, while still bishop here. So I thought I might be of some use to our church doing that ministry fulltime. I knew less about interfaith relations, dialogue with Jews and Muslims and the great Eastern religions, but I had studied them some at the university and even once taught a community college course in comparative religions while I was still a young priest in Florida.

It turned out that I had a steep learning curve in both ecumenical and interfaith relations, but I wouldn’t take anything for those nine years where I was blessed to travel around this country and the world engaging in conversation with fellow Christians and people of other religions on behalf of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Most of the people in our church understood ecumenism – the movement to draw closer one another as Christians, heal the divisions between denominations, and seek closer cooperation or even full communion with each other when possible.

But interfaith relations were a different matter: Often, people would say – in an adult forum or coffee hour discussion — what are we doing dialoguing with the Muslims? Are you trying to create some kind of one world religion and do away with the uniqueness of Christianity? Do you think all religions are the same and one is as good as another? I always tried to assure them that, No, we are not trying to merge all the religions together. In fact, It’s been my experience that the more committed you are to your own faith the more you will be respected by people of other faiths.

What we did try to do was to find common ground with those folks. We tried to see where, with all our differences, we might find some agreement, at least as a place to start. I think we were trying to do what St. Paul was doing in our First Lesson today. As Luke tells the story in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was in Athens, that great seat of intellectual and philosophical curiosity and dialogue in the first century.  He was standing in front of the Areopagus which was a big rock outcropping located northwest of the Acropolis in ancient Athens. In Paul’s day it had become a popular center for trying court cases and engaging in all kinds of debate.

He begins his conversation with these intellectuals (as he often does in his epistles to the churches) by complimenting them: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For, as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17)

He even goes on to affirm their common humanity as children of the one God as he speaks of “The God who made the world and everything in it (who) gives to all mortals life and breath and all things…” These are themes the church will explore on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week as we observe the Rogation Days which some of our hymns pick up on today. A celebration of the Creation!

Now, clearly, Paul’s purpose here was not interfaith dialogue. He was trying to convert the Athenians as the rest of our passage this morning makes clear. But he started, as we do in interreligious relations, by finding common ground.   He doesn’t ridicule the Greeks’ faith. In fact he commends them for being extremely religious. He doesn’t begin by disrespecting their worship of other gods. But he finds an opening by referring to an altar they had dedicated to “an unknown god” (covering all their bases, I guess!). And he says, what you acknowledge as unknown, this I am proclaiming to you!

He’s starting with them where they are, not where he would have liked them to be! Unfortunately the church has often forgotten this diplomatic approach by the greatest missionary who ever lived. Our latter day missionaries have often gone into cultures – be they Native Americans right here in our own land, or societies overseas – and have begun evangelizing by trashing their indigenous religions and even making it appear that they had to adopt Western culture in place of their own if they converted to Christianity.

Desmond Tutu puts it this way about our missionary work in South Africa: “When the missionaries came to us, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, Let us pray, and when we opened our eyes, we had the Bible and they had the land!” Not exactly high praise for Christian missionary work in the 19th century! We’re doing a little better today for we often send our missionaries into foreign lands, but as partners not conquerors these days.

We establish hospitals and schools not primarily to convert people but to carry out Christ’s command to care for the least of these. And to show the people what Christ was like. Missionaries today look to raise up indigenous leadership in new churches, hoping to ordain native deacons, priests and bishops and to – as it were – work themselves out of a job as soon as the new leadership is trained and deployed. That’s how the Anglican Communion has developed so rapidly and why our churches in Africa are among the fastest growing and most committed in the world.

But what I want to point out most of all this morning is how this missionary strategy can work for us right here at home. Each one of us is a missionary in our day.  Our culture has become so secular, so “anti-religious” in some quarters that it’s almost like we’re starting over again, evangelizing in America! Well, let’s take as our model St. Paul, as I said perhaps the greatest missionary who ever lived, and modern missionaries be they Anglicans or Jesuits or Maryknoll Sisters around the world.

Start where people are, not where you would like them to be. Become a good listener before you become a talker.  Let people tell you of their lives, their joys and their sorrows, their struggles and their successes. People long to be listened to today. Listened to deeply and not only with 140 characters on a Twitter feed… or by so-called “friends” on Facebook.

Listen to other people deeply and compassionately. Then, when you can, make a connection with your own life perhaps even with your faith. “You know,” you might say, “when I was going through something like what you’re going through my church was really helpful. It was so good to have a community I could rely upon.” Or, in another conversation: “that’s fantastic, thank God (literally!) you had the gifts necessary to take advantage of that job opening.”

Something like that simply can be a way of sharing the good news with your family members, friends and neighbors, and others who so desperately need to hear such news these days. When you do something like that, know that you are standing on the shoulders of St. Paul the Apostle and countless missionaries and evangelists around the world.

And, like them, know that you can rely on the same Advocate Jesus promised his first disciples in our Gospel reading this morning. He said “…I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be…in you!”

That’s a promise, dear friends, from Jesus to us. His spirit is within us to guide us in our sharing of the good news. And we can rely on that Holy Spirit!

The Greatest Prayer

April 5, 2017

As I prayed the Lord’s Prayer this morning, I was reminded of how easy it can be to say it mindlessly because it is so familiar to us. In my tradition we say this prayer twice each day as part of our Morning and Evening Prayers and it is included in every Eucharist. Most other Christian traditions use the Our Father frequently as well.

I am also aware that the prayer is difficult for some because of its largely first-century world view and the dominant masculine and patriarchal imagery (“Father,” “Kingdom,” etc.). Allow me to share how I understand what generations of Christians including modern biblical scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have called “The Greatest Prayer.”

First of all, when I say “Our Father” the emphasis is on the “our.” Alan Jones used to send his students at General Seminary out to ride on the New York subway and say the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father,” Alan would smile wryly, “surely not Their Father, God?” Yes, my friends, “father” of us all. And though the masculine image of parent should be supplemented in other prayers with more gender inclusive terms, no serious scholar debates that “Abba” was Jesus’ favorite way of referring to the God of Israel. It is at least one way to understand God.

This God “who art in heaven” surely does not only live above the clouds in the top story of a three-tiered universe. But just as surely God can be found in heaven…in the heavens. I see the Holy One in the beauty of a sunrise and in the orderly rotation of the planets around the sun, and in the dying and the birth of stars too far away even to imagine. That God is in the heavens as well as all around me and in the depths of my spirit.

“Hallowed by thy Name,” of course, refers to the holiness of the very name of God which the Hebrews believed had been revealed first to them. The Tetragrammaton (YHWH) of the Hebrew Bible is unpronounceable in the tradition but is perhaps best rendered “Yahweh” – I Am Who I Am or I Will Be Who I Will Be. Or, “Being” itself, “Existence.” For this is the essence of holiness. Holy is our very being.

I refuse to stop praying “Thy Kingdom Come” just because a monarchial system may be foreign to many today and not the best way to understand God anyway – as some kind of Middle Eastern potentate. But, as biblical scholars as different as Borg, Crossan, and N.T. Wright all remind us, to speak of the Kingdom of God really means God’s king-ship, sovereignty and reign. And it is another way of reminding ourselves that God is king and the principalities, powers, and rulers of this age are not. This has enormous implications for our mission as Christians.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we express our desire that that state of affairs, this commonwealth be established soon. And that it come into existence here on earth, in our societies just as it is wherever God is truly present. Our prayer is that the commonwealth of justice and peace which is God’s dream for this world be established in our communities just as firmly as the immutable laws of the universe in which this planet exists as a tiny speck.

Too many of our prayers are petitionary in nature, asking God to do this or that for us or for someone we care about. That can be a self-serving and egocentric thing. Yet surely it is appropriate to ask the Giver of all things to “give us this day our daily bread.” It’s a way of being grateful for the fact that everything we have, even bread enough for today, comes from the Creator of us all.

Now, I also believe that we spend way too much time, in my tradition, begging for God’s forgiveness (Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us) as though God has not already forgiven us because God is the essence of love and forgiveness itself. We don’t need to beg for it. But, if we truly believe that we stand forgiven because of the love and grace of God we see revealed in Jesus, then is it not right that we appropriate it, receive it into our consciousness. And, even more importantly, that we forgive others as we believe we have been forgiven?

“And lead us not into temptation” is the most problematic phrase in the prayer. We have no idea what was intended. We know that God does not lead anyone into temptation so that’s out! “Do not bring us to the test” or “Save us from the time of trial” may well be about as close as we can get to its original meaning and should remind us that, if we are faithful witnesses to the God of our salvation, we may well be called upon to suffer, even to face persecution or death. In that eventuality, we call upon God for strength and courage.

I am told that I have a “high doctrine” of original sin. That is probably true even though I do not believe it had much to do with the follies of Adam and Eve in the mythological Genesis story.  Whatever the cause (a “fall” from a primitive state of oneness with the creation we see in some indigenous communities still, or an “incompleteness” in this universe which is surely, but ever-so-slowly, evolving toward that perfection which will one day be)  evil is real and this world at least is full of it. From street violence in Chicago to grinding poverty is the two-thirds world to the nuclear ambitions of a madman in North Korea. I am not too proud to ask God to “deliver us from evil” such as that.

I’m glad at least one of the Evangelists and church tradition has included the doxology at the end of Jesus’ prayer whether or not it was original. I often slow my words and try to experience each concept as I pray “For Thine is the kingdom… and the Power…and the GLORY” forever and ever” This universe belongs to God. The power that holds it all together is the power we call love. And the beauty and majesty we can glimpse in the night sky or hear in the harmonies of a symphony show us something of the nature of the Holy One. And this Divine Being will remain forever and ever. To the ages of ages. World without end.

Amen…So be it.

 

Standing At The Mother Mosque

March 29, 2017

Not many people outside of Iowa are aware that the longest standing mosque in North America is in Cedar Rapids. It was built in 1934 by a local community of immigrants and their descendants from what is now Lebanon and Syria. My experience is that most Iowans are proud of this fact and of the surprise it brings to people who hear about its existence for the first time.

However, with Islamophobia rising across our land due largely to the Donald Trump presidency with his fear-mongering technique against all immigrants and his insistence in using the offensive phrase “radical ISLAMIC terrorism” (emphasis on the ISLAMIC), two Iowa women decided, over coffee, that they should do something about it. The younger woman, a lay person, said “Wouldn’t it be neat to form a Circle of Safety around the Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids to show our solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters?” The second woman, an Episcopal priest from Grinnell, said, “Go for it” and got busy using her contacts to organize the event.

And so it was that I joined four hundred people from across Iowa and as far away as Chicago on a rainy Sunday afternoon for what turned out to be a glorious occasion. They arrived by the carload and parked up and down the side streets of the modest residential neighborhood where the Mother Mosque is located. There were tours of the tiny mosque, bottles of water and cookies and doughnuts to share. And then some brief addresses.

Imam Taha began by welcoming us all and thanking us for making the effort to be there. He was clearly moved by the turnout. A rabbi (college chaplain at Grinnell College) spoke of the need to stand together. The organizing Episcopal priest used Paul’s analogy of the body with many, diverse members as a metaphor for the American vision as well as for the church. A Hindu layman spoke of peace as did a Sikh woman. A representative from the Atheist Society was bold enough to point out that his group and Muslims were now the two most hated groups in America! And he pledged their support.

And, perhaps most movingly, a gentle woman from the Meskwaki nation near Tama, Iowa reminded us that, as the original residents of this land, they welcome us all here and that we need one another if we are to achieve God’s vision for the world. She spoke, as is her peoples’ custom, with eyes lowered in humility, but with a strong voice and powerful message.

We then sang “This Land Is Your Land” complete with a final verse I had never heard, written from the Native American perspective and included the refrain “this land was stole by you from me!” And, as we sang, we fanned out to ring the little mosque which sits in the middle of a manicured lawn and full city block. We were two and three deep, all around the perimeter, four hundred in all. And it was a beautiful thing to see.

A simple act. Not terribly risky. But a reminder of the better angels of our nature as Iowans…and as Americans…and as people of faith.

What is it about this vision that Donald Trump does not understand?

Grateful For Health Care

March 23, 2017

As we watch this astounding legislative day unfold before us in which the future of health care for many Americans may well be determined, those of us who are clergy of the Episcopal Church might well pause in gratitude for the committed lay people and church leadership over the years who have worked so hard to provide amazing health insurance coverage to say nothing of an extremely generous pension program which is virtually impossible to disappear as so many have in corporate America in the last decades.

“The seed for CPF (the Church Pension Fund) was planted by the Rt. Rev. William Lawrence of Massachusetts when, in 1910, he brought before the General Convention of The Episcopal Church a resolution to create a Joint Commission on the Support of Clergy because he was appalled by the ‘suffering and poverty of the aged servants of the Church’.”

“In 1913, the General Convention voted to establish CPF to provide retirement and disability benefits to eligible clergy…Initial funding for CPF was raised by a committee working with Bishop Lawrence that was led by J. P. Morgan, Adolph Ochs (owner and publisher of the New York Times, and Newcomb Carlton (president of Western Union Telegraph)). More than $8.5 million was collected by March 1, 1917 … the value of that $8.5 million raised to start the fund is over $159 million in today’s dollars.” (Church Pension Group web site — http://www.cpg.org)

Today, the Church Pension Group has expanded to include other products and services and to cover lay employees so critical to the Church’s ability to carry out its mission. In 1978, The Episcopal Church Medical Trust was formed to provide health benefits to eligible clergy and lay employees. And in 2009 the Denominational Health Care Plan was established to provide equal access for lay persons as well as clergy for health care benefits.  The DHP has not been without its difficulties in implementation, but is a much-needed attempt to be just and fair to lay as well as clergy employees of the Episcopal Church.

I have been the beneficiary of fine health insurance since my ordination in 1972 and now continue to count on its benefits in retirement as well as enjoying the security of a rock-solid pension. Having served congregations large and small as a parish priest for sixteen years and walking with similar congregations as a bishop for nearly forty more, I am well aware of the struggles many congregations have had to go through to provide such health insurance and pension payments for their clergy.

In a time of declining church attendance and participation, it has become increasingly difficult for smaller congregations to provide this health coverage and various attempts at premium cost-sharing with clergy and lay employees and other cost-saving measures are being discussed all across the church. Whatever the solutions are, I have confidence that my church will be there for its clergy and lay professionals and will do all in its power to keep us healthy as we serve and financially secure in retirement. I am so grateful for that.

Perhaps because Episcopalians have worked so hard to address this issue and we clergy realize how very fortunate we are, we continue to advocate for universal coverage, for health care seen as a right and not as a commodity, and — many of us, at least — eventually for a single-payer, “Medicare For All” type of national health insurance such as that which much of the developed world enjoys.

Let us continue to advocate for those whose health insurance coverage and long term retirement security are at risk in the modern world and specifically in today’s debates.

And let us do so, motivated at least in part, by our mindfulness of how very blessed we are and how grateful we must always be!

 

Watergate Redux?

March 20, 2017

In August of 1974 my wife and I were on vacation in a parishioner’s cabin in the hills of North Carolina. As I remember it was near Blowing Rock. And as much as we enjoyed hiking in the mountains and exploring the rustic beauty of the area, we were glued to our small television the day Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. I remember the feelings, a sense of relief that justice had been done mixed with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach about the future of our democracy.

His resignation was not exactly a surprise for we had watched with fascination and horror as the Watergate investigation rolled on and the bipartisan committee did its work. We were no Nixon fans (even though I had actually voted for him in 1968, so sick was I of Lyndon Johnson’s lies about Viet Nam) but even we thought perhaps he had somehow been kept unaware of the clandestine work of the “plumbers” and the other nefarious deeds which comprised this whole sordid affair. Yet, the evidence was clear.

The evidence is not yet so clear that Donald Trump had/has colluded with the Russian government in general and Vladimir Putin in particular to win the 2016 presidential election. It will in fact never be possible to prove that if there was in fact collusion that this decisively affected the outcome of the election. But that is hardly the point.

The most important thing is to determine if Russia did indeed interfere to the degree it is beginning to seem and to take steps to minimize the chance of such things happening again. But an equally important thing is to discover whether or not the President of the United States is in fact, formally or informally, consciously or unconsciously, acting as an agent of the Russian government. It is not necessary to believe that Donald Trump intended to end up in this position or not.

Those of us who are spiritual directors, or find ourselves on a conscious spiritual journey through life, know how subtle and maliciously sin works in our lives. The giving in to small temptations lead to compromise with even greater ones. Avoiding the consequences of sin early in the game can lead us to believe that we will never be found out, that the wages of sin really are not death in any real sense. We roll down the slippery slope of self-centeredness and deceit and wake up one morning in the garbage pit of the lost.

It is particularly difficult for an egocentric narcissist like our current President to catch the early warning signs of such a descent. His wealth and personality disorder has so sheltered him, throughout his long life, from suffering any of the consequences of his actions (or any consequences at all!) that he would be a ripe target for the Adversary (whether one understands that term in the cosmological or geopolitical sense!).

Foreign agents and spies are always on the look-out for men like Donald Trump who they can turn and manipulate. But I’m sure few could have imagined that such a potential mole could win election as President of the United States. The evidence is, as I say, not in yet. I actually hope the bleak scenario painted above is not so.

But I remember another leader of the free world once assuring us, “I am not a crook!”

And he didn’t even have a Twitter account.

Temptation

March 5, 2017

This first Sunday in Lent is always marked by the story of Jesus’ Temptations in the wilderness, his 40-day fast, upon which our season of Lent is based. Years ago, I did a sabbatical at our Anglican College of St. George in Jerusalem and spent some time in the very Judean wilderness we heard about in our Gospel this morning.

The desert in which Jesus spent some forty days, fasting and in prayer, begins just outside the city of Jerusalem. In fact, it’s positively startling to drive, or walk, a total of a few miles from Jerusalem’s city center…to crest the top of a little hill…and to find yourself gazing out into some of the bleakest and most dangerous countryside in the world. This particular desert is not miles and miles of snow white sand drifts like we sometimes picture it.

It is bleak, barren, rocky ground so hot and dry that you have to wear a hat at all times and drink water constantly in order not to dehydrate and suffer heat stroke in a hurry. My assumption is that Jesus fasted mostly from solid foot during those forty days (as a matter of fact, others have done that) but that he did drink water.

And, during those days of fasting and prayer, Jesus – as a relatively young man, by our standards, but in those days it may have been more like midlife – struggled with just what his life and ministry were going to look like from this point on. He had inaugurated his public ministry by being baptized in the Jordan River by John, but immediately felt led by the Holy Spirit to make an extended retreat, a time apart to get some perspective on his life and to seek fresh energy for what lay ahead.

And Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he had to wrestle with several primary temptations. First of all, Jesus was tempted to try and meet everyone’s needs by turning miles and miles of rocks and stones and boulders into bread enough to feed the known world. And, as wonderful as that would have been, Jesus came to see that not even ending world hunger would satisfy what we are really hungry for. Deep down, we’re hungry for God’s Word.  We want to hear from God, and to know that we are loved and cared about. And so Jesus said, “It is written: One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)

Then, Jesus was tempted to do something even more dramatic, to do something spectacular to prove that he was God’s Son and that God would come through for him by sending angels to protect him just like Psalm 91 had promised.  Actually, we’re told later that Jesus was ministered to by angels, but not in the showy, egocentric way the Tempter had in mind. So Jesus said, “Again it is written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matthew 4:7)

And, finally, Jesus was tempted to “sell out” for this world’s goods. “All the kingdoms of the world can be yours, Jesus, if you’ll just worship them…and me…instead of God.” But Jesus replied, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord our God and serve only him.” (Matthew 4:10) (Pause)

I don’t know what your specific temptations are, but if you’re anything like me, they may not be all that different (in substance) from those Jesus faced. The temptation to try and meet everyone’s needs…the temptation to do something spectacular to draw attention to yourself…and, maybe above all else, the temptation to “sell out,” to forget that we cannot serve God and Mammon and to cave in to the values of the world rather than the values of the Gospel. But, you know, you can ward off those temptations too — in much the same way Jesus did. By being attentive to God’s Word…by refusing to put God to the test…and by rededicating yourself to put God first in your life – and nothing else! (Pause)

We’re entering more fully today into the season of Lent. Like Jesus’ experience in the desert, it is a time for fasting and for prayer. A time to listen for God’s Word…a time to stop putting God to the test…a time for worship and for service. I hope you’ve taken on some spiritual disciplines to help you do some of that. The Ash Wednesday Liturgy told you what some of those disciplines are (but it’s not too late to begin today, if you missed the first days of the season!)

Those disciplines are: self-examination and repentance…prayer, fasting and self-denial…reading and meditating on the Bible. I invite you – once again – to keep a holy Lent this year. May our prayer for these days be the prayer of the Psalmist this morning…a prayer which, quite likely, Jesus himself prayed during his Lent, his forty days in the desert.

You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble;

you surround me with shouts of deliverance. (Psalm 32:8)

 

 

 

Reading The Bible Again

March 2, 2017

I am choosing an unusual Lenten discipline this year. In addition to acts of abstinence and dipping back into some Marcus Borg, I am once again embarking on “the Bible Challenge” (reading the Bible through from cover to cover). But this time I am daily reading three chapters of the Hebrew Bible, one Psalm, and one chapter of the New Testament — in the King James’ Version!

Why in the world would I do such a thing? Well, after decades of reading only the most recent translations of the Bible — The Revised Standard Version, The Jerusalem Bible, the New English Bible, The New Revised Standard, etc. — I felt the need to immerse myself once again in the elegance of the English poetry and prose of the KJV. Certainly I am aware of the fact that more recent translations are more accurate in the rendering of the Hebrew and Greek texts and that recent scholarship is reflected in these editions which was simply not available to the translators of King James.

Yet I am thoroughly (or should I say “throughly!”) enjoying the melodic rhythms of this classic text and remembering that one of the reasons it seems so ponderous and downright difficult to follow in places is because the translators of the KJV followed pretty much the order of the Hebrew and Greek words of the manuscripts they had available. Sometimes, new (or rather old) meaning can be gleaned from this original word order  — or at least, so it seems to me.

Undoubtedly some of the pleasure I am receiving from this exercise hearkens back to the fact that I was an English literature major in college and remember with pleasure reading Shakespeare, John Donne, Spencer and Swift marveling at the sheer beauty of their use of the English language. It is a joy once again for me to relish in, and wrestle with, such literature.

I would never recommend the King James Version (or even Rite One, for that matter) for regular liturgical worship these days. Clarity of thought and contemporary theology is best understood in the language “understanded of the people.” That was the whole reason for translating the Holy Scriptures from their original languages into Latin and eventually, by the Reformers, from Latin into English. People need to be confronted with the “Word of God” in language they understand easily.

But, like browsing through an old photo album and thus immersing oneself in one’s history, from time to time it may well be worth meditating on the words of the venerable King James’ Version of the Bible. Or, at least, this Lent, so it seems to me.

World Mission Begins At Home

February 28, 2017

We conclude the great missionary season of Epiphany today. I say “missionary” because this season has been all about the light of Christ shining into the whole world, making it clear that the Good News of God’s love was not to be limited to the people of Israel or any one,  ethnic group, but was always intended to be shared throughout the world to all people.  Because of that, the Last Sunday after The Epiphany every year has been designated “World Mission Sunday” by the Episcopal Church. Our mission to the whole world!

One of the ways we do “World Mission” in our church is by a network of Companion Dioceses. We pray every week for our long-term relationship with the Diocese of Brechin in Scotland and our one with Swaziland which was established during my time as Bishop of Iowa. And, of course, we now have an even newer companionship with the Diocese of Nzara in South Sudan.

They especially need our prayers these days as their country descends even more deeply into chaos and war. Please remember Bishop Samuel Peni and his family. He actually studied for the priesthood right here in our diocese, in Dubuque, at one of the seminaries there, and his family received financial support from the people of Trinity Cathedral. They are our companions in World Mission!

And we always read the Gospel story of the Transfiguration on this Sunday because it was one of the formative experiences for Peter, James and John as they were present at a powerful mountain-top experience of Jesus. And they realized –quite literally “in a flash” – that Jesus was the embodiment of the Law (represented by Moses) and the Prophets (represented by Elijah). This realization left them silenced for a time, but it didn’t take long for them to regain their voices and to be about their mission as apostles…as those who are sent.

Well, you and I are the “sent ones” today. We’re the ones who are sent to share with our families, friends, and neighbors what we’ve discovered about God through Jesus and the church, and to continue to let God’s light shine in our dark world today. Our Prayer Book Catechism says that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people…to unity with God…and each other…in Christ.”

But that’s a pretty sparse definition, so the Anglican Communion has tried to flesh it out a bit, by adopting something called “The Five Marks of Mission.” It’s a kind of check-list for us to see if we are being about the mission of the church. I’d like to share them with you this morning:

Mark #1 is “to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.” Obviously, it all starts there. We are to witness, by our words and our deeds, the extremely good news that God is in charge of this world, and that we are not! That’s what it means to live under the king-ship, the reign, the sovereignty of God…and to begin doing it right now! That’s one reason good preaching is important. It’s typically done by an ordained person, but more and more licensed “lay” preachers are being trained and commissioned for this important ministry.

Since Susanne and I moved to Iowa City, we’ve been attending New Song and I’ve been mightily impressed with the several lay preachers I have heard. They bring a unique and different perspective to the pulpit and to the proclamation of the Gospel that never fails to move me.

Mark #2 is “to teach, baptize, and nurture new believers.” So, Christian education is important for a congregation as well. If we have young people, then of course Sunday school and such newer programs like Godly Play and Journey to Adulthood need to happen. But, our formation as Christians doesn’t stop when we grow up and get confirmed!  Bible studies, Education for Ministry, and the kind of ministry formation programs we hope you will get involved in here at St. Alban’s help keep us alive and growing in our faith, instead of just stagnating and sort of “treading water” in our spiritual lives.

Mark #3 is “to respond to human need by loving service.” St. Francis famously said, “Preach the Gospel always…if necessary, use words!” And, by that, he meant that serving other people is also a way to demonstrate that they are valued and treasured by their Creator, and that God, and God’s people, want only the best for them. That’s why we’re so proud of you for the outreach you do in this community by hosting the various recovery groups, by the feeding program, the underwear ministry, the gift bags, and by the faithful jail outreach which emanates from your gathered life here as the People of God.

Mark #4 is “to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind, and to pursue peace and reconciliation.” Some people are uncomfortable with the church speaking out in the public square, but the “separation of church and state” doesn’t mean that the church has no role in society. It means that the state may not establish any one religion in this country. The church should never be “partisan” but Jesus does call us stand with the poor and the marginalized, and to challenge structures that oppress and hurt people.

Sometimes, you can either keep pulling people out of a raging river one at a time, or you can go upstream and find out who’s throwing them in…and try to make them stop! The work Grant Curtis and others do to make our community a more accepting and welcoming place for recent immigrants and new citizens of the United States is a good example of this Fourth Mark of Mission.

Finally, Mark #5 is “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.” It has to be said that we Christians have not always taken our responsibility to this planet very seriously. And while it’s true that the first Creation story in Genesis says that we are to “be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it,” (Genesis 1:28), the second account of Creation says that God put us in the Garden of Eden “to till it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:1):  in other words, to be good stewards of the earth. Like a good farmer is to be a good steward of the land – so that it will bear fruit for years to come.

I hope that your vestry keeps that responsibility in mind as you make decisions in this congregation about how you care for this beautiful piece of property you are stewards of, whether that’s in how you conserve energy or how you re-cycle or how you take care of the land.

Well, we enter the holy season of Lent this week. This Wednesday is “Ash Wednesday.” Lent is a time of self-examination and repentance, of prayer, fasting and self-denial. I hope you’ve been thinking about something to give up for Lent or something new to take on…or both! But it’s not only a time for self-examination of our personal lives. It can be a time for the church to do some self-examination of our own –corporately.

Are we carrying out the mission of the church here at St. Alban’s, are we willing to make the kind of changes necessary to make sure we can continue carrying out that mission for years to come? Are we proclaiming the Good News? Nurturing our young people? Serving the poor? Speaking out against violence? Being good stewards of this beautiful world God has given us?

If not, there’s still time to repent. Still time to turn around and go in a new direction. Still time to heed the voice from the cloud which spoke to Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration: Look: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

 

 

 

The Compassion Deficit

February 23, 2017

And so, steadily and surely the civil and human rights fought for under the Obama administration continue to erode under the fledgling Trump regime. Transgender bathroom rights may not seem like a huge issue, affecting as it does, a relatively small percentage of the population. But it speaks volumes about the “compassion level” (or, rather “lack of compassion level”) of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others who are now in power; to say nothing of their ignorance concerning matters of sexuality and gender identification.

In some ways, even more tragic is the Donald’s decision to overturn Barack Obama’s order concerning the necessity of further investigation of the harmful effects of the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is now full speed ahead on this ill-considered project, signalling that the use of fossil fuels will “trump” every concern about clean water and the environment. Trump promises “thousands” of jobs for this project — the vast majority of which are extremely short-term. It will take literally a handful of people to run it once it is in place.

And it says clearly that this Administration’s concern for “religious liberty” will extend only to adherents of the Judaeo-Christian traditions upon which this nation is believed (falsely) to have been founded. The fact that this pipeline will invade the sacred Earth in which the bodies of generations of Native Americans rest is of little interest to the insensitive man we have elected to the presidency.

I am proud of the hundreds of Iowans who turned out recently at town hall meetings of our two senators, Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst (what embarrassments!). Predictably the Administration has sought to depict these contentious and angry gatherings as attended mainly by paid, “outside agitators.” Fortunately, those of us who live in Iowa recognize the farmers, teachers, union members, and young people who were in the room and who do indeed actually live here and are increasingly concerned and even frightened about the direction Donald Trump and his minions on Congress seem to be taking us.

Our task must be continually to hold our elected officials accountable for their decision and to be willing to stand in solidarity and to assist those who will be increasingly affected by these actions. Now that we know that the Trump “jobs program” has been initiated by the hiring of 10,000 new ICE agents as his promised “deportation force” we will need to be especially sensitive to the undocumented immigrants in our communities and, whether we use the term “sanctuary city” or not, to be prepared to shelter the sojourners in our land as the real Judaeo-Christian tradition to which many of us belong actually demands.

Susanne and I spoke last night about the possibility of our guest room being added to the list of such places of refuge in the developing New Underground Railroad.

Who would have thought it would come to this?

Well, some of us were pretty certain that it would.

Bonhoeffer…Benedict…Or…Gerald Ford?

February 14, 2017

New York Times columnist, David Brooks, asks this question this morning, “How Should One Resist the Trump Administration?” Interesting first of all, from this conservative voice, that the question is not “Why” but “How” to resist. Brooks uses some interesting metaphors in wrestling with the issue.

If “the primary Trump threat is authoritarianism,” Brook opines, the U.S. may not slide into full fascism, but become a kind of “repressive kleptocracy” where democratic rights slowly disappear, federal contracts go to the oligarchs, and the media and judiciary are complicit. In such a case, what is called for is a “Bonhoeffer moment,” using street protests, disruptive tactics and fiery rhetoric against the Administration. (I note that Brooks would not recommend following Bonhoeffer in participating in an assassination plot!)

Alternatively, we could simply be in for a time of stagnation and corruption which would call, in Brooks’ estimation, for a “St. Benedict moment.” Following this founder of monasticism who fled into the desert to form alternative communities, then activists simply ignore Washington, put their heads down, and commit to making change happen at the state and local levels. And, presumably, wait for better days to come.

Or, David Brooks’ third possibility is that the main threat from a Trump Administration is “a combination of incompetence and anarchy.” In which case, it will collapse of its own weight and the task will be a “Gerald Ford Moment” which will eventually call forth a decent, experienced public servant who will rebuild the fabric of government and restore the trust of the people. Predictably, as a completely establishment conservative, Brooks thinks the third option is where we are headed and hopes for “a new establishment, one that works again.”

While one can wish that this scenario may indeed play out, my take is that our diagnosis of the current situation depends a lot on where we sit in society, the perspective from which we view this disastrous election and its aftermath. If you are wealthy and secure, like Mr Brooks, you can afford to see things calling for a “Ford Moment.” If you are middle-class and largely secure, like me, you can choose the luxury of opting for the “Benedict Moment” and hunker down, working to effect small changes locally. (I even wrote a blog recently entitled “Think Globally, Act Locally).

But if you are poor. Or if you are a woman. Or if you are a person of color. Or if you are an immigrant. Then you may well see this as a “Bonhoeffer Moment” and resist with every fiber of your being and by every means necessary.

Hopefully, not with the despairing last resort of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the horrors of Nazism.

Hopefully…not that.