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 http://nyti.ms/1PEFdi6.
[2] John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

We wish to see Jesus


One summer night a young man in Scotland decided to take a shortcut across the moors on his way to the town where he had a job. That night he knew he would be passing near one of the area’s many limestone quarries, but he thought he could avoid it. So, he set out through the rock and heather on that inky black, starless night. Suddenly he heard a voice call out with great urgency, "Peter!"

A bit unnerved, he stopped and called back into the dark, "Yes, who is it? What do you want?" No response. Just a bit of wind over the deserted moorland.

The lad concluded he'd been mistaken and walked on a few more steps. He heard the voice again, more urgent than before: "Peter!" He stopped in his tracks, bent forward to peer through the dense black, and stumbled to his knees. Reaching out a hand to the ground before him, he clutched thin air. The quarry! Sure enough, as Peter carefully felt around in a semicircle he discovered that he had stopped at the edge of the abandoned limestone quarry, one step before a fatal plunge into the deep. Out there in the desolate moor someone knew him and someone cared. Peter Marshall never forgot that. Dedicating his life to the One who'd called him by name, he became one of America's greatest twentieth century ministers.[1] Peter Marshall's vibrant, real, and utterly compelling faith was no dusty relic inherited from his parents. Peter Marshall knew God.

Today’s gospel reading seems particularly appropriate for St. Clement’s.[2] Bethsaida, like Honolulu, was a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan city. Many of us are well educated. Many of us usually think logically, seek facts, and assess those facts to arrive at our conclusion. This approach to life was widely associated with first century Greeks. John’s gospel was written primarily for a Greek audience. Thus, no great interpretative leap is required to imagine that the two men who approached Philip had a logical, nascent scientific, worldview. We in Hawai’i value story and networking. Stories of Jesus similarly motivated the two men to meet Jesus; somehow, they knew Philip, who went to Andrew, who in turn went to Jesus. I hope that you gather here on Sunday mornings emulating those two unnamed Greeks, having heard God is this place and wanting to experience God or to know God better. We, like the two Greek men, want to see Jesus.

The gospel enigmatically fails to report if they actually met Jesus. Instead, the gospel’s author has Jesus speak of his own impending death and then instruct his disciples that they must (1) lose their life, that is, die to self, and (2) serve him by loving others. Each of those is in fact a path that brings us to God.

Psychologists and biologists agree that dying to self is literally impossible. No way exists for a person to completely lose his or her whole self or ego without becoming mentally ill. Carefully studying monasticism’s long history reveals the frustration of those who have devoted years to slaying their own ego. However, we, like many monastics, can diminish the ego and thereby make room for others and for God. Making space for God sets the stage for being able to hear God’s voice leading us away from trouble, as Peter Marshall experienced. That type of dramatic moment is rare; more often, we experience God as a small, still voice that speaks from deep within us. Alternatively, we may discern God’s loving presence, and perhaps a word, from God in a breathtaking natural vista, the mysterious grace of a shared meal, or an undeserved but much needed hug.

How can we die to self without becoming a monastic? Prioritize spending time – even five or ten minutes – daily in meditation, prayer, meditative reading, prayerful walking, or expressing your hopes and fears in art, whether words, painting, music, dance, or another art form. In other words, adopt a discipline, a daily habit, that opens space and time in your life for you to develop a thin place in which to cultivate an ability to discern God’s presence.

Several years ago, an 18-year-old Toby Long traveled to Africa for two and a half weeks with World Vision, a Christian organization committed to alleviating hunger and suffering around the world. One day, Toby was helping to distribute food and supplies to people when a boy came up and tapped Toby on the shoulder. The boy looked at his worn-out shirt, then looked at Toby's sturdy clothes and asked if he could have Toby's shirt. Toby didn't know what to do. He knew that he would be working all day in the hot sun and not return to camp until night. Speechless, Toby backed away from the boy. As the group left the distribution center, Toby realized what he had just done. That evening he went to his room and cried.

After Toby's stint with World Vision, he returned home to Michigan. But he could not forget the boy to whom he had refused to give his shirt. So, he organized a T-shirt drive in his community called "Give the Shirt Off Your Back." The media trumpeted the story, and soon Toby's Campaign received over 10,000 T-shirts. A group called SOS (Supporters of Sub-Saharan Africa) agreed to transport the T-shirts for free on their next trip to Africa. Toby doubts that the boy he met will get one of the 10,000 shirts he sent, but he prays about it.[3]

Toby Long, new creation in Christ, is learning to hate his own life and to walk obediently in Jesus' footsteps. One step was his mission trip to Africa. But that step exposed another aspect of Toby’s self-centeredness to the light of God’s love. His tears reflect a dying to self even as his T-shirt campaign reveals the birth of new life. Further steps await him. But each step, painful though it may be, will bring him closer to Christ as the seed of self dies, giving birth to new life. What small steps to love others is God calling you to take?

May our prayer this Lent, and always, be: We would see Jesus.

(Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018, at the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI)



[1] Steven R. Mosley, Glimpses of God (Sisters, Oregon: Questar Publishers, Inc., 1990), pp. 149-150.
[2] John 12:20-33.
[3]Mark Moring, "Toby's Two Tons of T's," Campus Life, July/August 1996, pp. 28-29.