Sunday, July 15, 2018

Racing for God

I briefly encountered the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, in London. Sadly, we are not on a first name basis. Now that I have your attention, I’ll tell you what actually happened. One evening her motorcade drove by as Susan and I walked from our London hotel to a nearby restaurant. You may feel I misled you. Many Christians face a similar credibility challenge. Christianity promises people to help them develop a first name relationship with God and then too often fails to deliver. Today’s gospel reading (Mark 6:1-13) offers several constructive suggestions about how to assist people connect with God.

Clergy are icons of God. Believe me, these icons all have clay feet. Nevertheless, one reason the Church sets aside clergy is to symbolize God’s presence in our midst. Good clergy aim to achieve this purpose through being transparent, appropriately sharing personal foibles and struggles while hoping that people will simultaneously discern God’s presence. Incidentally, being an icon is difficult when parishioners are accustomed to seeing one as a carpenter (think of Jesus) or a PR executive (think of Mark Haworth recently ordained deacon out of this parish). Consequently, our canons follow Jesus’ example by requiring clergy to serve a congregation other than their home congregation.

More broadly, every Christian is called to be an icon of Christ in the world. As God’s icons, we hopefully hear and answer God’s call – whether for ordination, or more frequently to sing in the choir, serve at the altar, join an outreach ministry, or embrace a stranger with God’s love.

Controversially, the gospel reading names Jesus’ brothers and sisters. The Greek is frustratingly ambiguous and can mean either siblings or cousins. On the one hand, Mary was a Jewish young woman married to Joseph in an era before artificial birth control. They had multiple motives for desiring a large family. On the other hand, Christians understandably venerated Mary for being worthy of bearing the one traditionally seen as God’s son. Concurrently, Christian theology frequently emphasized God’s transcendence at the cost of distancing humans from God, making a relationship with God more problematic. These factors coalesced in many Christians depicting Mary as an eternally blessed virgin, immaculately conceived without original sin so she would be worthy of being Jesus’ mother, having been bodily assumed to heaven without dying because she lived a sinless existence, and recent efforts, prominently spearheaded by Pope John Paul II, to declare Mary co-redemptrix with Jesus. Although lacking explicit scriptural warrant, these ideas do have Scriptural roots. Today, these conflicting views of Mary frequently coexist in the same congregation.

This past week, the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention met in Austin, Texas. One hotly debated topic was the merit of using only masculine pronouns and nouns to name the persons of the Trinity. Individuals who have suffered abuse from a male – whether father, other relative, friend, co-worker, or stranger – often find male terms for the deity painful. General Convention authorized non-gender specific language for the introduction to our Eucharistic prayers and a few other places in the liturgy. Heather and I, like a majority of Episcopal clergy, sometimes refer to the Trinity with a variety of gender neutral or mixture of feminine and masculine terms. And Scripture, in fact, uses feminine and non-gender specific terms for God. Furthermore, most biblical images of the Holy Spirit are feminine nouns in the original language. I predict that future generations will find this fight silly. What you call God is unimportant. What is important is that you know the love or light, by whatever name, that brings life, healing, and meaning. Welcoming everyone and helping them to recognize God’s loving presence in their life requires embracing multiple terms and paths for describing the spiritual life.

Jesus’ inability to perform deeds of power in Nazareth poignantly reminds us that God alone, by any name, is not the answer. Promising that God can solve all problems is wrong. Instead, God acts in conjunction with people. And even then, not everything is possible. For example, God rarely heals, as the Apostle Paul knew, chronic, incurable disease but daily empowers one to live with the disease.

Laying on of hands and anointing with oil are symbolic, liturgical means by which God’s people incarnate and communicate God’s presence and love. We witness this in ordinations, anointing of persons in our mid-week healing Eucharist, hospital visits and other times, blessings during Holy Communion for those not receiving the consecrated bread and wine, and perhaps most especially in the passing of the peace, a time to bless one another rather than gossip.

One Sunday afternoon during our recent stay in Venice, Susan and I while crossing a bridge were startled to observe dozens and dozens of small boats, all rowed or paddled. We saw Viking longboats, pirate ships, kayaks, a Chinese dragon boat, and lots more. We discovered that over four thousand participants in two thousand plus boats were racing along an eighteen-mile course. They were all amateurs, which was glaringly apparent from multiple boats crashing into buildings, bridge abutments, and other boats. Surprisingly, nobody ever loses in this annual race. Every finisher receives the same medal and equal acclaim.

That boat race is a great metaphor for the Christian life. The boat represents the ark of one’s salvation, living Jesus’ lifestyle of loving God and neighbor. The variety of boats connotes our individual spiritualities. Paddling symbolizes our effort – unbelievably amateurish, exceptionally competent, or most often somewhere in between – to partner with God and thereby experience God’s loving presence personally as well as becoming an icon or vehicle that enables other persons to experience God’s love. Everybody wins; there are no losers. May all of us participate in this race. Amen.

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 8, 2018

Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Why people go to church

Why do people go to church?

I’ve written previous Ethical Musings posts on this subject, including Why bother with church? and Time to market the church.

More recently, the Gallup poll has conducted some excellent research on the subject. I especially commend this post by fellow priest, Jon White, Why people go to church found on the Episcopal Café website. Jon helpfully summarizes the research, which has strong implications for congregations that wish to grow numerically.

My last post discussed the question of what was Jesus’ brand. If we believe that others along with us should follow Jesus and that part of following Jesus is to gather regularly with God’s people to worship God, deepen our spirituality, build community, and to serve others then having an attractive brand is vital. Even more important is to have a community that attracts and successfully integrates newcomers. This requires:

·       Practicing genuine hospitality. We must learn to welcome the stranger, including the stranger in conversations and what’s happening without causing the stranger to experience an unwanted level of attention or any other type of discomfort.

·       Removing barriers to entry. Integrating a newcomer into an established group – for example, a small congregation, study group, or other gathering – requires recognizing and dismantling the group’s barriers to entry to permit newcomers to feel welcome and then to join. What are barriers to entry? Inadequate signage (who likes to ask for the location of the restroom?), insufficient parking (get old-timers to park at a distance), steps that keep the handicapped out – these and other barriers block entry.

·       Offering substantive value for time spent and money contributed. This explains why people rate good sermons their highest priority in the Gallup survey about why people go to church.

·       Congregants honestly sharing their successes and failures in modeling their lives on Jesus. Who wants to worship with a congregation comprised entirely of hypocrites who claim to model their lives on Jesus but whose words and actions blatantly and consistently reveal their hypocrisy? Conversely, who wants to worship with a congregation who allegedly gather in Jesus’ name but who can point only to their failures and never to their successes?

·       Pervasively focusing on helping people to apply lessons from scripture to daily living (do not confuse this with the prosperity gospel!). Attendees, both new and old, seek help with their daily lives.

·       Giving people instruction, encouragement, and opportunity to cultivate their spirituality. This is at the center of what it means to be church. Otherwise, the church becomes a social club, social service organization, advocate for social justice, or other type of non-profit. All of these are good but lack the distinctive spiritual focus of a church.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What was Jesus' brand?

What was Jesus’ brand?

The catalyst for that question was a recent federal court decision in favor of The Episcopal Church retaining its name, trademarks, etc. The decision was against the breakaway group led by the former Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, Mark Lawrence.

More broadly, continuing globalization makes branding ever more important. Inundated with information and choices not only about religious affiliation and media outlets, but also choices about competing products, services, and even friends, branding becomes a convenient way of narrowing one’s choices. (For choosing friends, think in terms of tribes and clans instead of brands, concepts that greatly overlap.)

Who really wants dozens of choices of soaps, toilet paper, canned baked beans, and so forth? Evaluating each option while standing in a store aisle or sitting at one’s computer would require more time and energy than the task deserves. So, we tend to rely upon brands to help us to find the product, service, or person for which we search.

What was Jesus’ brand, that is, what was his image among the people of Galilee, Judea, and Samaria that attracted people to him?

What is Jesus’ brand today?

For some, Jesus’ brand is increasingly identified with Donald Trump. Christian evangelical endorsements of Trump have largely remained constant in spite of personal behavior (adultery, lying, verbally berating people, etc.) and public acts (demanding unquestioning personal loyalty, statements that at a minimum imply condoning racist attitudes, etc.) that are prima facie incompatible with Christian teachings. These endorsements of Trump seem akin to biblical declarations of God using non-Christian leaders (e.g., the Pharaohs and Nebuchadnezzar) as God’s instruments. In the case of Trump, Christian endorsers believe God may use him to outlaw abortion, to wrest control of the judiciary from anti-Christian liberal judges, and to preserve American exceptionalism.

For others, Jesus’ brand emphasizes loving our neighbors (all of them, near and distant!), caring for creation, and working toward justice for all. This perspective identifies more with Pope Francis than with Donald Trump, and even more with Francis of Assisi than his contemporary namesake.

If you self-identify as a Christian, does Jesus’ define your brand? That is, does Jesus define your identity as person and your image in the community in which you live, whether actual or virtual?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A new commandment I give you

In a German prison camp just months before World War Two ended, Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds stared down the barrel of a Nazi’s pistol and refused to identify the Jews among his fellow prisoners of war.

“We are all Jews here,” said Sergeant Edmonds, the highest-ranking American noncommissioned officer in the prison. “The Geneva Convention does not require prisoners to divulge their religion,” Sergeant Edmonds added, warning that if the German shot them, he would be tried for war crimes.

Edmonds’ act of defiance spared the lives of 200 Jews.[1]

On Maundy Thursday Christians commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciple, Jesus’ Last Supper, and his giving his disciples a new commandment to love one another.[2] Each represents an important aspect of the Christian tradition.

Foot washing – washing and often anointing with perfumed oil the dirtiest part of the body among people who wore sandals or went barefoot in an often dusty and sometimes muddy place – was an act of hospitality performed by the household’s lowest member or servant. Hawaiian residents certainly understand foot washing is an act of hospitality. Jesus humbly performing this task memorably emphasizes that Christians are called to servant leadership. Washing dirty feet metaphorically recalls Holy Baptism, renewing our baptismal vows by dipping our fingers into the baptismal or other holy water font and then making the sign of the cross, a priest washing her or his hands before officiating at the Eucharist, and other moments in which we experience God’s forgiving, healing love. Similar to foot washing occurring when people gathered, Holy Baptism is our sacramental that welcome into the Body of Christ.

We remember and celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper in the Eucharist, now the central act of worship in the Episcopal Church. Prior to the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, our worship was more focused on Scripture and most parishes only celebrated the Eucharist once a month. A major reason for this shift in was a growing recognition that God feeds us in the Eucharist. Many Episcopalians mysteriously experience or receive grace necessary to sustain their spiritual journey by participating in the Eucharist.

After the Last Supper, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment. Maundy Thursday derives its name from the Latin word mandares, meaning mandate or commandment. Naming the day for this new commandment is very fitting. Foot washing recalls Baptism and continuing dependence on God’s grace. In the Eucharist, God nurtures us individually and forms us into a community, the body of Christ. Jesus’ new commandment to his disciples that they love one another as he loved them incarnates our new identity and proclaims us as Jesus’ people, Christians.

I don’t know if Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds regarded himself as a Christian. I do know that the love he showed for the other US military personnel in that German POW camp, a love he courageously exhibited while staring down the barrel of a pistol, a love so great that it saved the lives of about 200 Jews, is precisely the love Jesus expects us to have for one another and our neighbors. Those who attempt to walk intentionally in Jesus’ footsteps should aim to make Edmonds’ extraordinary demonstration of love our everyday lifestyle.

[1] Julie Hirschfeld Davis, "Wartime Act of Defiance: ‘We Are All Jews Here’," New York Times, January 28, 2016 accessed at
[2] John 13:1-17, 31b-35