Friday, June 26, 2015

Day Two of the 78th General Convention

Today's agenda at General Convention included a joint session of Bishops and the House of Deputies to formally nominate the four candidates for Presiding Bishop and to discuss issues around structure at every level of our denominational life: national/international, provincial, and diocesan. We were basically asked to discuss what is working and what is not working - and responses from each group were then tweeted or emailed back to the committee working on these questions.For this work, rather than debating on the floor using Robert's Rules of Order, each diocesan deputation was divided in half and paired with half of another deputation. So I was in the group that talked with folks from The Diocese of South Dakota, while the other half of our deputation spoke with people from the recently reorganized Diocese of Eau Claire. Interestingly enough for us, the Bishop of South Dakota, The Rt. Rev. John Tarrant, previously served in our diocese as the rector of St. Paul's, Stockbridge. (Cue the song track, "It's A Small World...")

What I've been learning at a diocesan level everyday was intensified in these conversations: one size does not fit all. The Gospel we proclaim - that Christ is alive - is the same everywhere. But living that good news out in the City of Worcester is very different from what is needed on an Indian Reservation the size of Connecticut that includes eleven congregations served by one priest. Yes, you read that right. What an interesting conversation we had!

Context matters. We are a people of the incarnation. There is much that binds us together, but the work takes a different shape. One of the aspects of Convention that it seems impossible to capture by way of the media - including social media like this blog- is the way that listening and the deepening of relationships that change the way we understand our shared vocation. It is holy work, to be sure - sometimes hard to see, and sometimes (as today) glimmering right before one's very eyes. As Gay Jennings put it so well earlier in the day in her sermon at the Convention Eucharist:
The work of disciples is spinning the golden threads that tie the ecstatic vision of a loving, powerful God to your life, to mine and to the life of the church on earth. We weave these threads when we study scripture to understand the source of visions, when we delve into our history to learn about mystics and seers and the societies that produce them; when we act in ways that make it obvious that we are inspired by a God of breathtaking power and love, when we tend the sick, feed the hungry and advocate for the voiceless. And we weave those threads between holy vision and ordinary life when we gather to order our common life, to discern what God is calling us to do and how God is calling us to do it. It isn’t easy to spin these threads, and it isn’t necessarily exciting every minute. Reading resolutions, testifying in hearings, finding yourself frustrated because people are disagreeable, or conversely, finding yourself frustrated because people avoid conflict, is all part of bringing God’s vision to rest in the church. I ask you to count it all as blessing, to understand that the labor required to see and then serve a shared vision is holy work.
Indeed. (You can listen the whole sermon here.)

Interfaith Conversations With Our Neighbors

Illumination from the Bible de Souvigny (about 1100 AD)
showing Muslims, Christians and Jews in Abraham's lap.
"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." (Exodus 20:16)
The verse above is a biggie. In fact, as I'm sure readers of this blog know, it's on God's "Top Ten" list. Yet we violate this commandment, perhaps daily, in small and large ways. "Did you hear about the new rector? He's got a problem with strong women...pass it on." Or, "did you hear about the woman who just moved in down the street? I heard that she's been having an affair with a co-worker..."

Gossip is corrosive; it destroys lives and it destroys the neighborhood. And sometimes perception becomes reality. It doesn't matter whether or not it's true - when the whispering starts it's hard to stop, and there are things we can never un-say. So we are warned to guard our words and to be careful with them and to not judge one another. But it does seem to be an insidious human tendency from which Christians are far from immune. 

We sometimes violate this same commandment when we speak about those from other religious traditions as well. Sometimes it's because we just don't know any better. Sometimes it's because we compare our best qualities or holy texts to another's worst. The result is the same, however, and this practice is one we need to repent from and then make amends for as we seek to restore relationships. Who is our neighbor?

I've been reading Amy-Jill Levine lately and in particular, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Levine, a practicing Jew and a New Testament scholar, challenges much of what many Christians believe to be "orthodox theology" that is in fact rooted in a posture of bearing false witness against our Jewish neighbors. Whenever we say that the Old Testament is all about law and the New Testament is all about grace we violate this commandment. Just because it is woven into the fabric of our liturgical and preaching lives doesn't make it right; it just makes the work before us that much more challenging. So we embark on it, always, with God's help.

I am fairly confident that whatever headlines are written out of the 78th General Convention of the The Episcopal Church, the big ones won't be about our commitment to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. But for the past two days I've been sitting with folks who were tasked as part of a legislative committee to work on resolutions that will, we hope, come before both Houses before the week ends. One of those resolutions has to do with developing ongoing training akin to Safe Church and Anti-Racism Training about other religious traditions, for both clergy and laity. This builds on a commitment made six years ago at the 76th General Convention to inter-religious dialogue. Today in testimony before our committee one person noted how she mentioned in passing at a Bible Study last week how for Arabic Christians, God = Allah (i.e. it is the Arabic name for God, not the Islamic name for God.) She had two parishioners refuse to be confused by facts, however.

So we have a long way to go. But I'm proud to be part of a denomination that wants to continue to talk with our neighbors - all of them - about how we find our way to God. That begins, at least, by trying to understand one another, and tell the truth about each other. It begins by listening. While this work may not make the biggest waves this week and next in Salt Lake City, it's work that has a profound impact "on the ground" in congregations, in confirmation materials, in what we speak from the pulpit, in how we seek partnerships among other people of good faith. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Getting Oriented

I arrived late last night at the Plaza Hotel in Salt Lake City, after a long day of travel on a JetBlue flight that got here by way of Orlando, Florida. The view from my room was pretty spectacular but hard to capture on my IPhone last night in the dark. This morning I saw the top of a roof I couldn't see last night - even so, the view is pretty cool, as seen on the left.

Today there is a chance to register at the Salt Palace Convention Center and a legislative committee gathering tonight. But mostly it's a chance to get oriented to the city, catch up on the reading I have put off until now, and try to find my compatriots from Western Mass. In the meantime I am spotting Episcopalians everywhere - or at least they look like Episcopalians!

I've been to (or more accurately through) Salt Lake City only once before on a family trip out west: we flew in and spent a day and a night here before heading toward Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. Mostly, though, it's a new city for me. So this morning after a bit of exercise and an early breakfast (my body is still on east coast time) I went walking to find the grocery store and get in some provisions. I found Harmons, a great store that has everything, including a Park City Brewers IPA, limited  to 3.2% alcohol content.

I work for a bishop who likes to walk, and I've done a bit of walking with him. In fact, when I was in Denver last month for the Festival of Homiletics one of our Presiding Bishop candidates (Bishop Curry) asked me, "is Doug still walking all over the diocese?" I told him I thought after three sixty-mile walks up and down the Berkshires, the Pioneer Valley, and Worcester County, that maybe we were done for a while.But there really is something to be said for walking.

Usually at home when I walk it's to "go for a walk." It's not to get somewhere. When I need to get somewhere I get in my car. But what you see goes by too fast. For example, while walking back from Harmons I paused (my bag was kind of heavy so I needed a couple of little stops along the way) and noticed these amazing flowers. So I "considered them" for a few moments at least - as a first-century rabbi once suggested as a spiritual practice.

I also passed the entrance to "headquarters" for the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints - this is actually one of the places that  we did visit as a family when I was here on that western trip a decade or so ago. Pretty impressive - and I think that being here will leave a mark on us Episcopalians over the course of these days ahead. Context matters.

So here we are, and here we go. I am thrilled to be a part of the work that The Episcopal Church will be doing here at our 78th General Convention. As mentioned in a previous post, members of our deputation will be blogging at Conventional Wisdom: From the 78th General Convention. Check us out!

Here I'll be posting some more personal reflections here, as time allows.

Monday, June 22, 2015

On to Salt Lake City!

The Salt Palace, where Episcopalians will gather June 25-July 3
And we're off...

In a few hours I'll be heading to Logan Airport and then on to Salt Lake City for the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church. This is a triennial bicameral gathering of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies - the HOD includes four clergy and four lay deputies from each diocese of our denomination, plus alternates. (If you want to be a church geek and learn lots more, check out this site as a good place to begin the journey.) General Convention is a big extended family gathering with important work that also unfolds!

Our deputies from Western Mass will be blogging here. We've set up a rota so that each of us will take a turn over the course of the next eleven days. I'll be part of that rota and may also write some short posts here as well. As mentioned in a recent post I am excited that this is my second time around and I ask for your prayers as we undertake this work, hopefully not just for the sake of our denomination but for the wider mission of God's work in the world.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Mustard Seeds

I'm not preaching much over the summer, including this coming weekend. But I'm still in the habit of reflecting on the upcoming readings and this Sunday we'll hear one of my favorite parables, the parable of the mustard seed.  The reflections below are basically a reworking/re-editing of a sermon I preached nine years ago at St. Francis, Holden. Perhaps some who are preparing to preach on this text (and others who will be listening to sermons on this text) will find these thoughts helpful. 

From now until the end of November, our gospel readings come from Mark’s Gospel, the earliest of the four. (There is one slight digression: we’ll spend four weeks in late July and early August on the sixth chapter of John, where Jesus explores the metaphor of what it means to call him “the Bread of Life.”) Other than that, it's all Mark until we get to Advent. So it's a good time, perhaps, to sit down and re-read this shortest gospel - ideally in one sitting, and preferably aloud in order to "hear" the good news. If you are looking to dive into a great commentary, for my money none is more provocative than Ched Myers' Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark's Gospel.

As we embark on this journey with Mark, a very brief re-cap where we are in his gospel before turning to today’s reading, which comes from the fourth chapter. Mark's story begins in the Judean wilderness, where we are introduced to John the Baptist and his diet of locusts with wild honey. We meet Jesus when he comes out to the Jordan to be baptized by John. Immediately afterward, Jesus is driven by the Spirit further into the wilderness to be tested. When he returns, he calls the first disciples, performs an exorcism in the synagogue, and then heals a leper. All that in chapter one!

Then he returns home to Capernaum and immediately there is controversy with the religious authorities, followed by more healing, more callings, and more conflict. By the end of chapter three Jesus has re-defined family in a way that is dramatically counter-cultural—not only to the norms of the culture of his day, but of ours as well. Those who would speak about the church as "family" or in the political world of "family values" need to pay very close attention to what Jesus does and does not say in those verses. In the Kingdom of God, according to Jesus, “family” isn’t a mom and a dad and 2.2 children living in the suburbs. “Who is my sister and brother and mother and father?” Jesus asks. The answer is simple and clear and concise:the one who does the will of my Abba. 

Christian "family values" are not founded on allegiance to tribe or family lineage or ideology. The new community that Jesus calls together is instead bound together by the waters of Baptism. For the new family that is created by those who put Jesus at the center of their lives, “water is thicker than blood.” Baptized with Christ, we become sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers to one another.

In chapter four of Mark, Jesus begins to teach his disciples about this Kingdom of God. Through the healings and exorcisms we’ve already seen glimpses of that Kingdom. But now Jesus turns to stories—parables of the Kingdom. That is important. He doesn’t offer a catechism or a creed or dogma that defines who is in and who is out of this new family he is forming. He doesn’t say you must read the Bible this way or that way, or how the church will be organized as an institution. Rather, he tells parables that challenge anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear to imagine the world in new ways. He tells stories that give us “hints and guesses,” and which are always in need of being interpreted anew in each generation.

I suspect that most of us can go weeks and even months without using the word “eschatological” in our vocabularies. Eschatology is simply talk about the end times. Whether or not we use the vocabulary it’s important to know that most of us probably do think eschatologically when we think about the Kingdom of God: i.e. we focus on the end result. We focus on the end of the world as we know it. What will the Kingdom look like? Will the streets be paved with gold? Will the lion and the lamb lie down together, and a little child lead them? What will it look like when every tear is wiped away, and they study war no more, and they do not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain? What will it look like when Christ is all in all and the world is restored to unity and every knee bends and proclaims Jesus as “king of kings and lord of lords” and swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and when there is a new heaven and a new earth? The mystery of faith is that Christ has died/Christ is risen/Christ will come again. Eschatology is about that last part—about the end of human history.

And yet we live “in the meantime.” We live with lots of war and study of war, even in the ironically named city of peace, Jerusalem. We live with forty percent of school children in Springfield—the home of our church’s cathedral—living below the poverty level. We live with AIDs and civil war destroying Africa. We live with deep divisions in our nation and in the church and in our community. We are a town and a state of "yes" and "no" signs and it doesn't much matter what the issue is: we dig in. We are certain we are right, and our neighbor is not just wrong but amoral. We live with these deep divisions and are used the polarization of a society that isn’t comfortable with “maybe” or “I'm not sure.” And so it feels like a long way from “peace on earth and good will toward all.”

How do we live in such a world as followers of Jesus: with hope and with patience and with perseverance? That question is always before us: what does it mean to be an Easter people who carry with us a vision of the kingdom and yet not live in denial about all the hurt and pain and suffering of the world? What does it mean to live faithfully between “Christ is risen!” and “Christ will come again?” 

This, I think, is the context in which we need to try to see these two parables about seeds with new eyes. It’s relatively easy to paint a picture of the Kingdom of God when it comes to fruition. But how do we develop the kinds of eyes that can see the seeds of that reality already in our midst today? Where is the Kingdom already present?

I’ve been wearing glasses since second grade for near-sightedness. I can still remember the feeling on the first day of wearing those glasses that there was a whole world out there I hadn’t been able to see before. Now I wear progressive lenses—tri-focals--which take some work to get used to and quite frankly knowing where to look through them for what. 

I think that the parables of Jesus are above all else about helping us to see the world from another angle, through another set of lenses. We hear “Kingdom of God” just as the people of Jesus’ day did. We tend to look for the big things—for things you can’t miss like a mighty sequoia or redwood in our midst. (The Biblical equivalent is the cedar of Lebanon—but that’s all it means—something big and unmistakable.) Yet if our glasses are just for seeing big things far away, it’s very easy to miss the mustard seeds that are already in our midst—right up close. And I think that Jesus is trying to get his disciples—then and now—to look at the world close up.

The parable of the mustard seed is not only hope for the future, but about patience and endurance for the present. The theologian’s word is to speak of the Kingdom as present “proleptically”—which is an even better word to use than eschatological if you want to impress people. But really its meaning is quite simple: for there to be peace on earth it has to begin with me and with you. For the Episcopal Church to work its way through the challenges of the day it has to begin in parishes like this one. For the world to simply live, we must learn to live more simply.We can think globally but if we don't act locally it's a sham. 

The “cedar of Lebanon”—the big hairy audacious goal—is to eradicate world hunger. But it begins at places like the Mustard Seed (interesting name, eh?) in Worcester on the second Wednesday of every month when somebody goes and buys those large cans of baked beans and those hot dogs and somebody else cuts the hot dogs up and opens those cans of beans and stirs the pot and puts them in the oven. And another bunch of somebodies stop by here and drop off desserts, and somebody else comes by to pick up the cooked beans and franks and drives them into Worcester where somebody else has dropped off the salads and then they plop it on the plates of a whole bunch of somebodies with real names and real lives and their own stories so that they can put food into an empty belly. And then the pots come back here and somebody scours them out and puts them away. And then on Thursday night another congregation does the same thing in their own way, and on Friday night another congregation does it. Little tiny seeds—barely visible—especially if you don’t know where to look. Because the Telegram and Gazette for the most part isn’t interested in covering what happens at the Mustard Seed.

You don’t feed the world by waving a wand. You do it one plate of beans and franks at a time. And maybe along the way someone begins to ask a question about the roots of hunger. Maybe someone wonders what it would take to deal with underlying causes of poverty, to move beyond charity and to look at issues of economic justice. In such moments the Kingdom of God is very near indeed. And wherever seeds are being planted and nurtured the Kingdom of God is truly in our midst. It’s already present—here and now—even if the harvest remains in the future. That truly is good news. It sustains us in doing the work God has given us to do. It means that we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the enormous scope of the challenges that face us, but that like that guy walking along the beach and throwing the starfish back in the ocean we do what we can. We do not lose heart. We entrust the future to God—the shade of the mustard bush where the birds of the air come to find peace and refreshment. The work we are given to do is to keep hope alive, and to not lose heart. Our job is to keep on planting seeds.

I imagine it was hard for the first hearers of Mark’s Gospel to be patient and hopeful: a tiny, fragile community standing against entrenched imperial power. Yet they persevered. And we are the beneficiaries of their perseverance.  I know that it is hard for us—increasingly aware that the mainline churches are sidelined from the power structures of our society. Yet maybe that isn’t all bad news. Maybe it is as a tiny, fragile community that we are better able to bear witness to the love of God we have known in Jesus Christ. Maybe our work is to keep on tending to the Kingdom in mustard-seed like ways here and now—so that our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren enjoy the fruits of our labor.  

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church

The Bishop and Deputies from the Diocese of Western Mass
at a a Province I (New England dioceses) gathering
(The Revs. Meredyth Ward and Annie Ryder missing)

Almighty and everliving God, source of all wisdom and understanding, be present with those who will take counsel in Salt Lake City for the renewal and mission of your Church. Teach us in all things to seek first your honor and glory. Guide us to perceive what is right, and grant us both the courage to pursue it and the grace to accomplish it; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 
(The Book of Common Prayer, page 818.)

+     +     +

I am getting ready to attend the 78th General Convention, a triennial gathering of Episcopalians; this will be my second time around. We will gather in Salt Lake City from June 25-July 3. If you are interested in learning more about the work of General Convention, here is the site to check out.

As you will see in the banner that runs across the top on that site we work as a bicameral legislative body at General Convention. It looks a lot like the U.S. Congress because the denomination is about as old as the nation, and some of the same people worked on governance in both places. So the bishops meet together as do the deputies - an equal number of clergy and laypersons, four of each from each diocese (plus alternates.) To pass, a resolution must pass in both houses.

Not to get really boring with "inside baseball" here, but part of the work we will be doing in SLC is to consider something called the TREC report, short for Engaging God's Mission in the 21st Century: Final Report of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church. A lot of work has gone into this report and like all reports, some feel it is not bold enough, some feel it's too radical, some feel it doesn't get to the core issues. Among other things, our work in Salt Lake City will be to try to figure out what seems good and true to us and the Holy Spirit in this report and then take it from there.

Far more exciting to me: we will elect a new Presiding Bishop in our church. Well, to be more precise, the House of Bishops will elect the new presiding bishop from these four nominees. If you are at all interested in these sorts of things, I encourage you to check out their videos. Anyway, the HOB will elect, but the House of Deputies ratifies their decision. If we say "no" then my understanding is that it goes back to them to ponder anew (although I don't think that's ever happened before.)

Although I'm sure I'll post a few things from Salt Lake City on this blog, our deputation is also writing a blog called Conventional Wisdom. That blog has already begun, with introductions of my colleagues starting to flow in before we head out. As you'll see if you follow along on that blog, I get to spend time with some really amazing people. I learned last time (at the 77th, in Indianapolis) that this is no junket! I know - clergy love to talk about how hard they work and I can be as guilty of that as the next person. But truly, the days often go from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. It's an intense experience...

Whether or not you are an Episcopalian, whether or not this post is the most exhilarating one you've ever read by me, I ask for your prayers. A former colleague of mine in Holden used to talk about churches that have a "middle name." I liked that way of putting it, reminding us Episcopalians and Lutherans and Baptists that we are all called to be Christians first. But that said, I like my middle name. The goal is not to be an Episcopalian but to be an Episcopal Christian. But still our peculiar ways are a part of what makes us a certain flavor of Christian. We do things in our own unique and often peculiar ways as all church bodies do. But they work for me, two aspects in particular:

First, I am glad to be connected to a wider body. The Episcopal Church itself is part of something larger - the Anglican Communion, which is in turn part of something much larger - the holy, catholic (universal) Church. Which you could argue is still part of something larger - children of Abraham with Jews and Muslims - people of faith with other religious traditions, partners for social justice with agnostics and atheists of good will. Being together in worship and in conversation with Episcopalians from across not only the United States but also central and south America, Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, a bigger glimpse, at least, of what it means to be part of a community where there is no east nor west, no south or north, but "one great fellowship throughout the whole wide earth."

And second, while Episcopalians may resemble more hierarchical traditions because we do have bishops, the truth is that authority is shared in our denomination and the bishops don't just get to tell the rest of us what to do! The back-and-forth between both houses can be as maddening at General Convention as it is in Washington. But the fact that clergy and lay people are elected from each diocese and have to find our own messy consensus with the bishops is, for me, a holy and good thing. Bishops have their role and voice - but so, too, priests, deacons, and laypersons.