Low Sunday Reflections

In the days following Easter, I begin hearing stories about how happy people were to see the church so full on Easter Day. It does make us feel good. Our ranks are fuller, and when there are more folks people generally feel good. But why? I think there are good reasons and bad reasons and today I hope to bring the objectives of the apostles alive – and remind us why we even assemble ourselves together.

So we begin with the aftermath of the Easter event. Peter and the other apostles , Luke records in the Acts of the Apostles , have a boldness and conviction – something, quite frankly many of us in 21st century churches lack. I think it is this simple – we live in a world that rewards winners and dismisses losers. Growing up in the South, I even heard street evangelists called “soul winners”. I think it is a ghastly title that makes it all about us. We don’t ‘win’ anything! No, Peter and the others knew it was about the message. The message is not about us or how able we are to present it perfectly, because the message has power in itself.

Peter is recorded as saying, “We must obey God rather than human authority.” (Acts 5:29) To be clear, this is not long after the disciples had seen the Lord killed, and had witnessed resurrection and ascension. Their message had power because it was centered upon the deity and witness of God in the Flesh. This was the new authority – not a religious system, not a secular power – and they knew that not even death had the power to topple that.

Humans crucified, but God exalted – in other words, as Paul tells us, God’s power is made perfect – in weakness. Ancient rulers often used the title “Savior” and “Leader”. If Jesus is Lord, the government is not, and, in fact, the church is not.

There is a severe problem brewing in the 21st century American church, and we continue to look at corporate solutions where scripture already has given us the remedy. Peter’s solution is a simple message. He says,
“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus,
whom you had killed, by hanging him on a tree;
God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior
That he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:30-31)

If we want the church to be filled, we need to abandon what makes sense. When we proclaim Jesus as Lord with radical self-abandon, it will not make sense, but it is the message that will transform the world – and our churches. We have gone about it the wrong way for generations. Consider these “solutions” to the reality of dwindling church attendance and the increase in our own anxieties:
1. Better programming
2. Inclusive language
3. Seeker sensitivity
4. Updated music
5. Less stringent membership requirements
6. Eliminating difficult language like tithing and sacrifice.

I suppose all of those things could have a place, but that is not what will grow a church, because those are not a message that saves. I have a hard time thinking Peter, the itinerant fisherman, would have ever imagined a corporate model church. He would however, have begun with the vantage point of changed lives.

The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus,
whom you had killed, by hanging him on a tree;
God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior

THAT is a message. When JESUS is what we are trying to spread, the Holy Spirit looks for a way to touch someone. When we choose to reflect that back on us, we make lords of ourselves and the Holy Spirit is squeezed out little by little until the church becomes dead.

Here in Grand Island, there are 60 active churches. In many cases we compete for market share – and precious few of us are really out there looking for new souls to meet with the message of the Gospel. Instead of seeking unity in Jesus, we promote diversity in product, or try to sell others the idea that we somehow are special.

That is one thing that makes me so excited about Shared Ministry between Messiah and St. Stephen’s. It is about Jesus, not us. What if our delight was in the person saved and sanctified and set on fire with a new life. and not in the typical self-serving way we look at numbers of attendees and pledged dollars.

Now how do we grow in this. How do we get soaked in the spirit so that our witness looks different from doing what we always did and getting what we always got?

1. Make ministry about Jesus. In our conversations, let’s talk about Jesus. Let’s talk about what he means to us, how he is leader and savior to us. How his death and resurrection is about his choosing us. How has it changed our families and how has it given us hope for tomorrow. If we can’t answer that, it is time to make an appointment with the pastor/priest.

2. Let’s make our message about SOULS, not attendees or members. If the church could get that right, what we do would look a lot different. We have long prized the attendance byproduct and avoided the salvation cause. What if every new person that came in the door was not a commodity for us to acquire, but a soul to be set on fire with the Holy Spirit. Such perspective will change what we do, perhaps. Rich souls and poor souls are equal to God and we are not to spend more time attempting to acquire one and reject another. Likewise God regards the souls of Anglos, Africans, and Hispanics the same, but do we act like that? Do we rejoice when someone comes alive in Jesus who looks, acts, behaves, loves, or cherishes things different from us?

3. Let’s make this about ETERNITY. Peter’s boldness was not to save his skin, but to covert souls in error. Peter knows the temple police and the Council of the Sanhedrin need what once he too did not have. The job of Christians is to be midwives for eternity, not recruiters and fundraisers for a social club.

The successful 21st century Church needs to begin looking more like the first century church, or it is going to become a dead church. We need always remember that it was the temple council who were the educated ones, the apostles were not, and yet their message changed the world. It was the temple officials who were the wealthy ones, and the temple now lay in ruins. On the contrary, the apostles had a message, but no lands, no silver or gold, and yet you and I are here.

Jesus, souls, and eternity. It is that message that made Peter speak with boldness, and it is that message that will give us a hope and a future too.

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Seek the Lord: Creation Care and Midwest Flooding

“Seek the Lord why he wills to be found, call upon him when he draws near, Let the wicked forsake their ways and the evil ones their thoughts. Let them return to the Lord” Isaiah 55 – returning, the essence of Lent.

This spring, the people of Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin experienced horrific flooding. Livestock died by the scores. Fields lie contaminated and unplantable. Corn reserves are lost. The effects of this disaster has yet to hit our grocery stores, gas pumps, or perhaps even effect those living on the coasts. Caused by record snowfalls, a sudden warming trend, freezing and thawing and being unprepared for the sheer magnitude of the water – it was an epic confluence of events. We saw the power of God in snow and rain and flood, a harbinger of the power of nature to disrupt our lives. But in the area between Grand Island and Kearney, Nebraska each year during Lent, people from all over the nation come to witness the annual migration of the Sandhill Crane. It is a sign of God’s perfect rhythms – like grace, ever present to those willing to receive it from their loving Creator. From time immemorial these regal birds make their way, resting, feeding, and preparing for the journey.

We can learn a great deal from nature. Considering that we have so much information, we are slow to remember that God has made his presence known over and over again in different mediums, the voices in our pulpits, the words inscribed by type in our Bibles, the pens of monk and scribe, the teaching of our Lord, Paul, Peter, and John, the prophets like Isaiah, and yes, in nature whom God declares good.

I found myself wrestling with the problem that the flooding and the migration of the cranes came at the same time. In my parish, St. Stephen’s in Grand Island, Nebraska, we have celebrated “Crane Sunday” for eight years now. The legacy of our Archdeacon, Betsy Bennett, Crane Sunday is a time of wrestling with our responsibility to care for God’s Creation, preserve what we have been entrusted, and, in the words of the Baltimore Grotto Caving Society, “”Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.” I fear, this odd timing, was a chance for us to get real with each other about our role as a church in setting things right. The time is now to look at being a church committed to Creation Care.

The theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that we could learn a lot about God from nature, which he called general revelation. This world’s rhythms and laws were established by God in creation. While science tells us how these laws work, it is God who tells us in the Creation account why. Aquinas saw the reality and dignity of being a human person in the fact that the individual is able to come to know the truth and choose the good. While I can imagine there are many differing views on the science of climate change among those who will read this, I think that one thing all of us could agree upon is that whatever power we may have to refrain from hurting this fragile earth, we ought to be doing it. God is still speaking to us about our own responsibility to be a steward of his creation, telling us – return to the Lord.

For too long we have figured that it was “Someone else’s job” to begin making changes. If it does not begin with individual churches and church members, who then will begin the action. Will we suffer more flooding? More lives changed and businesses lost? There is a problem of theological myopia – the initial problem with humankind – what’s in it for me? Creation care asks a different question, “What’s in it for those who will come after me?” It begs us look at different solutions like curbing our consumption processes, rewarding those who minimize their packaging and use of plastics. True, we have taught our children reduce, reuse, recycle, but we have been blind to real amendment of life.
In our super mobile, toss-and-go society, we buy new and rarely repair. We rarely reduce, in fact, we buy multiples. Our landfills are full because disposing of garbage is cheap – or is it? Consider that less than 100 years ago, our trash per capita was a fraction. We had newspaper drives. Things like aluminum foil were washed, reused, and saved. New uses were found for old things. Our culture was built upon repairing things that were broken.

This past summer, I had a little confrontation in a window store. I came in shopping for storm windows to cover my 1921 double hung windows. I did this partly to protect my wavy period glass, but also for another level of insulation. The salesman told me that no one sells storm windows anymore (a lie by the way)– they are too inefficient. He then proceeded to show me all of his special argon filled windows. And I patiently listened to his talk. And then he asked me, so what kind of windows would you like to have installed in your home.

I replied, “I should imagine something with wavy glass, century old hardwood, and with a protective cover.” I pointed out that I had done my research and that no window had an R Value that could economically justify the destruction of the old window. I also pointed out that I could replace my panes, should they break, with glass points and glazing. He looked stonewalled.

I then asked him, “So, if your windows break, how do I fix them.” He said, “Well, you have to replace it.” So then, window after window will end up in a landfill. This is being penny wise and pound foolish in our attempts to reduce our carbon footprint. When did you last see a construction site that re used lumber? Or plumbing supplies? If not for the Habitat for Humanity re-stores dotting America, we would thing that anything you remove from your home is, essentially junk – and not a treasure for another.

Seek the Lord, why he wills to be found, call upon him – he is drawing near. God has given us to the tools to avert our causing part of the disaster of the warming of the planet, but we just keep choosing not to fix old things, choosing to throw away, instead of save and reuse. The difference between innocence and wickedness is that we know different, better ways and we still choose selfishly.

But the good news is that God is still in the business of choosing us. He gives us warnings in things like abrupt changes in our weather. As if to shake us up and say ‘We can expect more”. Scientists tell us that as the average temperature of our planet creeps upward, precipitation will increase because evaporation does. Every act of material conservation we do lessens the water or snow drenching our backyards.

Seek the Lord while he wills to be found – there will be a time when we can’t escape judgement. Like when we have been warned, we used up our trees, warmed our world, and left nothing for our grandchildren.

Lent is a time of being at a crossroads. A choice has to be made. We all share a sin filled world and it is our task to live into our baptisms in such a way as to show Jesus’ light in the midst of the brokenness. Opportunities abound in the midst of the aftermath around us. Let’s be like the cranes – sure and certain signs that God’s patterns are still working. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm. -Joel 2:12-13 Now, will we listen?

The “Word” Rightly Understood

Words are funny things. They mean different things to different people. They evolve over time. In some places, words from the same language are understood as entirely different concepts or idioms in different cultures.  Language is tricky and one of the trickiest places we experience the nuances and headaches of language is when we read the Bible.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word WAS God.”  Many of you will recognize that as the Prologue to the Gospel of John.  John takes us out of the numerous details surrounding the Incarnation of the Baby Jesus to approach that same Incarnation from a completely different way.  We see the eternal Christ as the Word, or in Greek, Logos.

The word Logos is a bit more complex.  We think of “Word” as something that is said or is written on a page. Understanding someone as “The Word’ gets a little confusing to us. It is a bizarre title and one that has caused some confusion.

Before I unpack that though, I want us to look at another confusing term that, I think, does a really good job of helping us understand the problem.  How about “Body” In different places in scripture, the gathering of the Baptized is considered “The Body”. In 1stCorinthians, when Paul is discussing the Lord’s Supper, he refers the other blessed Body. They are both referred to by the same Greek word, “Soma”.  I think we get the idea that the Bible can and does use the same word to refer to both the members of the church and the objective presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.  It is less mysterious than the concept of word.

This brings me to the often misunderstood Logos used in Hebrews 4 which was just read.  It appears to talk about two different things. So many folks have pulled the first sentence of the first paragraph out of context and made it to be about the Bible.  “The Word of God is living and active” is not divorced from the context of the chapter which describes this self-same Christ as our Great high priest. Jesus you see, is living and active.

Why do you think we got this common misunderstanding.  I think it is twofold.  First, we became good at using phrases from the Bible as weapons of argument.  If I want to convince others, the thought goes, we can pull a phrase out of its larger biblical content.  Theologians call this prooftexting and we as Anglicans wholesale reject the concept.

We are often taught to memorize scripture passages. That is a wonderful practice, but if you are unaware of from where those passages were taken, you stand the risk of thinking it says something that it does not. Hebrews 4:12 is a classic example of proof texting gone incredibly wrong. The “Word” mentioned here is not the Bible, but rather Jesus.

It is not a literal translation to do so, but a better way to understand the verse is “The presence of Christ is living and active. That makes the idea of Jesus as our great high priest all the more powerful.

I said this problem was two fold.  There is another problem that has developed within the last 500 years and that is the failure to see the Bible as a tool for our use, and not see that the Bible is the collection of the writings of fallible human beings that serve an infallible God. You see, there was a time when there was no Bible. When the Letter to the Hebrews was written, the idea of referring to the gathered books of the Bible was a foreign one. They had the Hebrew Scriptures, but most of the New Testament had only recently been written. There was no way that the writer of Hebrews could have understood his writing to refer to an assembling of books as today we understand the Bible.

We got the biblical canon when the Christian community came to the point where it needed to settle the issue of which books commonly considered of merit were to be considered authoritative and which actually pointed to a mistaken or heretical understanding of who Jesus was. So the bishops gathered to hash out the issues of the merits of each book. The first assembling of a canon was called the Muratorian Canon, compiled in AD 170, which included all of the New Testament books except Hebrews, James, and 3 John. The Council of Laodicea (AD 363) concluded that only the Old Testament (including the Apocrypha) and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were to be read in local churches. The Apocrypha was later removed by the Protestant reformers, but that is another blogpost.

The principles used by these councils to determine whether a New Testament book was truly inspired by the Holy Spirit were fourfold. First, the author must be an apostle or have a close connection with an apostle. Second, the book must have been accepted by the early church at large. Third, the book had to contain consistent orthodox teaching. Finally, the book had to bear evidence that the Holy Spirit really was the one who was behind its writing.

The human process of collecting the books of the Bible was flawed, but God, in his sovereignty, and despite the shortsightedness of human beings, brought the early church to the recognition of the books that God had wanted us to have.  So, our getting the Bible was a pretty long and complicated process.

In those years, there was a great number of folks who misunderstood concepts like the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the Incarnation or the co-equality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The same questions that caused the church to say which books were and were not part of the Bible was the same reason that the Church gathered to compose the Nicene Creed.

These common struggles of understanding a right concept of God in Christ exist today and some of our denominational separations reflect these issues. Hebrews attempts to sort out all of the complexities of who Jesus was and is.

This confusion helps us to get things straight about a proper view of the Bible. When I say proper, I am not referring to my opinion, but rather to the way that the early Church looked at the biblical texts.

They would never have used the term “inerrant” that you often hear.  That concept is a product of the late Reformation.  That idea infers that everything in the Bible is textual fact and without any error.  As any person who has studied the Bible in its translations and original language can tell you, there are grammatical and translation errors all over the place. And yet, God still speaks through them.

The early church spoke of the scriptures as “inspired”. That word is understood as “God breathed”. That means that they are filled with truths about life, but were not the project of some divine dictation.  There were human filters that saw God at work, heard the still small voice of the Holy Spirit in order to collect a tool for our use. The only time we can claim there to be a divine dictation is in the book of Revelation, where John the Apostle says that he wrote exactly what he was told to write.  In many other cases, biblical books could have been told for thousands of years before either the language evolved to include writing, or scribe actually chose to pen them for posterity.

So yes, the Word of God is active and living. His Name is Jesus. He speaks through the Bible and in the church. He is our great High priest who lives to intercede for us. All of this power is written for us so that we might know that we can trust Jesus, and appeal to him in our hour of need.

So let’s be Christians with a proper understanding of the Word. We serve the Living Word, Jesus, who is both our Lord and God, omnipotent and powerful, as well as the one who intercedes to his Father. He is revealed to us in the Bible. The God-breathed collection of truth and grace given to us to point us to a holy life under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  If you seek to serve the Living Word, Jesus, you can understand how to do that with the help and guidance of the written word, the Bible, the rule and guide of faith and the ultimate testimony of Jesus.

Conflict Management – God’s Way

One of the wisest persons I have known in ministry was the former bishop of South Carolina, Ed Salmon. He was fond of looking at challenges like conflict as an opportunity for growth. I agree with that mindset. One of the greatest successes I have had in ministry have been born out of conflict. Sometimes it is messy. You have to bear the heat of disagreement, but conflict, for all of its mess and strife is a very effective change agent…if, it is done well.

Doing this well means first looking to the Wisdom of the Bible. The scriptures teach that we are the Body of Christ and individually members of it in 1st Corinthians. We are called one body in Christ in Romans. Hebrews, Ephesians, and Colossians all call the church, the invisible unity of baptized and converted believers as the Body.

Singular. Definite article. I think we forget that.

I recently planned and together executed with Pastor Bill Schroeder and the Episcopal and Lutheran bishops of Nebraska a joint confirmation service. No greater illustration of who we can be at our best can be found other than that. Two churches came together to celebrate that we are part of something that transcends the names on our signs. We are not the Episcopal body and the Lutheran body just sharing worship and a rite of passage, we were, in that moment, the epitome of what is right with the church. We are one.

We as the church are the physical representation of Christ to the world. As such, since Christ is not divided, we as the church are not to be divided either. But that is the ideal and it does not come without a good bit of work. Since we are the body, handling conflict requires a healthy immune system. Matthew’s Gospel addresses problems of disunity in a three-step process which we will break apart into some simple mechanics.

Matthew writes, “Jesus said, if your brother sins against you, go an tell him his fault, between you and him alone.”

Get that – one on one, no intermediaries, no mediators. Conflict is usually not anyone’s business. Ideally it is solved in this manner and that way.

When I was in Florida, one of these situations happened to me. A member of the congregation whom we will call “Bruce” looked at some of the changes that had taken place since my arrival at the parish and felt I was threatening the legacy of the former rector. He did not talk about it to his friends or speak ill of me. He did ask to meet me in a private setting. When one on one interaction occurred, the process of reconciliation was easy. Not only did we come out of it stronger, I gained a true friend in Bruce. He advocated for me and helped me gain the ability to lead with some true authority, simply because Bruce had my back. He always told me, “I will not bring you a problem that I will not also bring you a potential solution.” You see, conflict can be a chance for growth. I might add that without this key person’s appropriate, biblical actions, I would not now be rector of St. Stephen’s, Grand Island. “Bruce” was a Nebraskan and was one of the folks that encouraged me to apply.

But what if that doesn’t work?

Matthew goes on…”But if the one who has caused the offense does not listen, take one or two others along with you that every charge may be established by the evidence of one or two witnesses.” Notice how simple this is. There is a simplicity about it that shows courage. At no point is it advertised, it is not a matter of gossip.

In another real-life situation, a woman we will call “Sandra” and a priest collegue had words and there was a clear rift in their relationship. She called me, a priest of a neighboring congregation to mediate in the matter. I went into that conversation and let them voice their concerns. I quickly found that her concerns were real and that the priest really was in the wrong. He had reached the time when he needed to retire and I invited him to join my staff where he was a very good fit. Conflict solved the Bible’s way ended in reconciliation, restoration of relationship, and new possibilities. “Sandra” and her former priest are still good friends and I am happy we were able to grow through the conflict.

But what if that still does not work? Matthew goes on, “If the person who has caused the offense refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church and if he refuses to listen to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and Tax Collector.”

How exactly this comes into play is a bit difficult for us to understand. Jesus is not telling us to make a public announcement, but rather to expand the circle of persons involved in the correction. Let us remember that the Greek ecclesia, or church, is a gathering of believers, not an institutional construct. Again, in a well-functioning church, this step is done quietly. If it does not result in growth from the conflict, then excommunication is the result. We often forget that biblically speaking, excommunication was for the purposes of guiding the deceived person to repentance, not punishing or cutting them out forever. The season of Lent was one such time when those who had been stubborn after the third and final step of trying to grow through the conflict could still be restored into the fellowship of the church.

Dissention is a sin and all to often we just look at divisive events as agendas. Let us all remember in every local church that there is but one opinion and agenda that matters, and it is not any of ours. The church exists, as a body, to spread Jesus agenda and vision. If left to rot, division breeds schism and schism breeds the death of local churches.

So, to recap, step one is to visit individually, not to win an argument, but to gain a soul. When you meet with someone who has offended you, you act as an agent of healing. If that fails to work, you include one or two others and repeat the process with the aim of reconciliation. If that fails, it is opened to a wider gathering of believers from the church for correction and if not addressed, results in the offender needing to withdraw from the life of the church.

So, to sharpen your skills see if you can identify the problems in addressing conflict. I have some scenarios that I would like you to tell me what went wrong and why this approach was not biblically handled:

Situation one – true story I might add. At a social gathering a man makes an off-color statement that offends another passerby. That person then calls the rector and the rector removes the offender from his lay ministry position and informs him by letter. What went wrong?

  • Not approached individually first
  • Rector did not attempt reconciliation.
  • Attempt was punitive and not restorative.

 Situation two – a church treasurer appears to have misappropriated money. The vestry has a suspicion and asks the pastor to solve the issue. The pastor ignores and runs from the conflict. What went wrong:

 

  • The situation was never dealt with not even step one was followed (you would be amazed how anxious avoidant people can be) No growth can happen if we are not willing to go through the conflict.

 

Situation 3: People are placing kitchen items in the wrong drawers. Those drawers are labeled. Church ladies then blow up seemingly without provocation at a newcomer that is new to working in the kitchen. What went wrong:

 

  • Individual causing offense was avoided.
  • Innocent new person becomes the flashpoint for anxiety that was stuffed.
  • At no point was unity and church healing even thought of.
  • In this case, the real offenders were those who blew up.

 

Situation 4. The church is being left unlocked. One of the ushers knows it is someone on the altar guild. Instead, that usher shows up at a meeting and complains about what can happen to the church, using the Guild member’s name as the offender. (the offender has no clue that she has been leaving things unlocked) What went wrong?

  • NOT APPROACHED INDIVIDUALLY
  • Healing not sought, vented and caused dissention without being direct
  • Gossipy

 

Situation 5: Jane Doe has been grossly offended. She is so timid though that she fears interaction with the person that offended her. She asks a friend to pass on a message about how she feels. What is wrong here:

  • Not direct with the offender
  • Involves a “triangulator” to deal with her own fear
  • Skips in a way to step two of Jesus conflict resolution process without going through step one.

 

We do very well to deal with our issues in any church with Jesus biblical pattern. We usually see very quickly when we do not live up to those patterns, we fail to be the church God wants us to be. While each of those examples can and probably has happened at some time in every church, it is essential that we continually remind each other about Jesus words on how to handle these conflicts.

For some of you, your families need this kind of work. Take the three-step model there too. For others of you, it is the workspace. For others, it is school. In any place, Jesus pattern applies. Let’s commit to being a healthy people and when we are the ones wronged, uses Jesus model to find healing and restoration of relationships.

When we are the one who has committed the wrong, repent and be restored with your brothers and sisters. We can do this. We are the Body, we are the Church, now let us always be one. Even in conflict, we have the possibility for unity, if we but choose to handle it biblically.

Incarnational Revival in the Town Parish: A Neighborhood Approach

Times have been better for the town parish. Throughout Middle America it is this type of parish that is suffering through decline and in some cases, even death. Town parishes are often shifting from pastoral-sized models with full-time clergy to family-sized models with part-time or yoked clergy supply. But what is the recipe for changing such an outcome? Is there a silver bullet approach? In most cases, the answer is no. There is however one thing that I hold to be key in turning a declining town parish around, and that is incarnational perspective, in other words, embracing our neighborhoods.

Most town parishes have a history like mine. It is over 100 years old. It has had a series of pastorates, some far too short to really get anything off the ground. There are stories of the “glory days” when churches were filled with far more people and Sunday Schools were filled with children. Those days, the standard Episcopalian had far more clout than most and our members were perceived as the movers and shakers in that town’s community. But…those days are long gone.

In the town parishes I have known, this is a common lament with significant blaming: culture, youth, technology, lack of duty, soccer games on Sunday mornings, and the list goes on. But one thing that town parishes never really had to do was look into their neighborhoods. Town parishes grew used to evangelism by attraction and forgot that we are called to be witnesses of resurrection, that is, a vehicle that conveys all that is right, good, and gracious in our own neighborhoods.

One such turnaround was in a parish that I served as a consultant. The Priest-in-Charge was in ill health and projected a very “Father knows best” attitude. The Vestry had noticed (quite appropriately) that the congregation really did not look like the neighborhood. The church was composed of an ethnic group that did not look like the neighborhood and they were significantly older as well. The only outreach ministries were aimed at addiction, and those who attended those programs, drove for the program from a nearby town. There seemed to be little interface with the neighborhood. All that would change.

New life and new faces changed when that church decided to construct an open playground for the children of the neighborhood. Let’s be clear -this church had NO children, it was purely giving something away without hope of a return. A series of get to know meetings (always including free food) celebrated the playground’s debut in the neighborhood. As people began to visit their neighbors, celebrating this gift to the neighborhood, relationships were formed, stories shared and slowly, new faces appeared at worship in this now “neighborhood” church.

Town parishes often do not sit next to residential neighborhoods. The last story was an unusual one. In fact, the standard model is the downtown church. But here too, the incarnational approach of knowing your neighborhood can help. (Spoiler alert, I lead this very town parish). I hear the same aforementioned laments. People tell me, “All the people I know already attend some other church.” But the one thing that this parish did not look at – out of fear – was its own neighborhood.

I said WAS. We have turned a corner together. The neighborhood had plenty to engage: addicts, the trafficked, the homeless, the lonely. It was these that I pointed out were our neighbors. We began with a free lunch on Sundays. It is never fancy, just sandwiches, coffee and bottled water. At times, we get as many as 120 on a given Sunday and manage to always have money to keep the mission work going. At times the church is a little smelly and we have had to make adjustments for security as well. But this activity has made us actually look our neighbors in the face, know their names and hear their stories. Usually, folks just come for the meal, but occasionally, for worship as well.

We also began embracing our neighborhood by going into a local school and providing an after-school Bible study. We chose the most impoverished school and one we knew might have some families that frequented our “Sandwich Sunday”. For many children, this is the only church that they have and a perfect jumping off point to bring new families in. On Pentecost Sunday, we offered “open baptism” and invited through our neighborhood Bible study welcomed four new souls through baptism. (Just to be clear, the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that Bible studies may occur in schools after hours if they allow for any outside after school groups whatsoever)

With any transition, there will be those who dislike it, and others who may actively sabotage a new initiative. While that is really the subject for another blog, you can expect that you will need to do some campaigning to get the initiative across. Invariably, when embracing your neighborhood, the detractors will quickly point out that these folks do not pledge or give (or give very little). I would be quick to point out that God always sees that what he wills is paid for. I have never had a hard time getting funds for our neighborhood ministries simply because we all see the effect they make.

I wish I could tell you that this one simple way of incarnationally welcoming your neighborhood would make a dramatic U-turn for any congregation. Instead, I offer it as a congregational development strategy and not a grow-your-church-quick initiative. Embracing our neighborhood has changed us and poises us to look firmly at our present and not bemoan our lost past. When we embrace only those initiates that promise rear ends in the seats, we often fail to realize that we have to grow together before we will ever grow numerically. A funny side effect did happen. It galvanized the Generation X folks of our parish to be the missioners in our neighborhood. Although our numbers are only moderately climbing, the average age is much lower than 5 years ago and our vestry has no one over the age of 60. It is a significant corner to turn.

We will not be who we once were. That is part of the life cycle of a parish. If we stay just where we are, we never grow. Embracing our neighborhoods changed forever two parishes in active decline. It is a provocative question to ask ourselves, “Are we known by and involved with those in our neighborhood?” If not, it’s time to get into your neighborhood.

Sacred Journey: The Meaning of Holy Week

Each year the church provides an opportunity to observe the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, his betrayal, death, burial and resurrection. The week is steeped in symbolism and can be a very moving thing to experience.

First, it is important to understand that Holy Week is the final week of Lent and not a season to itself. The color changes from violet and unbleached linen of repentance to passion red. This deep blood red is meant to convey both the shedding of blood, which purchased our redemption as well as the intensity of the events. It is passion red that was the first liturgical color of the church

Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion or Palm Sunday is a commemoration of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus had decided that this was the time when he would, in the words of the Evangelist Luke, “Set his face toward Jerusalem.” Upon entering, he rides in on the back of an animal, a donkey in Luke’s version. The gathering crowd lays palm branches on the road before him. To the onlooker, it seems to us a parade of triumph. In fact, it is a geopolitical statement whereby Jesus is using a gesture reserved for kings returning victorious from battle. He has now become a threat to the temple police and the government. In the few days that follow, the crowd shifts from a celebratory tone to a riot and shouts of Hosanna! become Crucify him!” in short order.

Liturgically speaking, this day begins with the congregation’s invitation on the journey. We celebrate that although the day is a day of somber observance, it nonetheless is a time of feasting as every Sunday is a feast of Resurrection.

Monday in Holy Week: It would seem that Monday is without importance, but Jesus actions are still important on this day. Traditionally this is the day of the withering of the fig tree. Symbolically it teaches us both that the power of faith has the ability to do things in the natural order that we think impossible. The fig tree also becomes a symbol of the Old Covenant. God is about to fulfill the Old Covenant with a new one. Jesus is about to enact a New Covenant in his own blood.

Tuesday in Holy Week: This day, although relatively un – ceremonious liturgically, is probably the day that purchased Jesus’ death. Jesus enters the Temple and is disgusted by what he sees. One level, he is disgusted by the commercialization of the sacrifice and that the temple, meant to be a house of prayer, has now become a circus of crafty business practices. But even more than this, the temple has become a sort of economic center for the Roman occupied Jerusalem. In an action rivaling our postmodern Occupy movements, Jesus turns over the tables and drives out the businessmen from their places, In doing so, he keeps both the morning and the evening sacrifice from occurring and shuts down trade for a day. This is essentially the one thing that modern biblical scholars agree created so much cause for the Sanhedrin to plot his death. This is also a day when the church gathers to hear the words of the psalms and the early church fathers in a service called Tenebrae. This service, (Latin for shadows), recalls in dramatic form how God knows the worst of this world and is still chooses to redeem it.

Wednesday in Holy Week: This is the day that Judas decided to plot with the Sanhedrin to deliver Jesus for a sum of thirty pieces of silver. Echoing the prophesy of the Psalms, the conspiracy is now in place and Judas looks for an opportunity to turn Jesus over. We do not know what darkness was in Judas’ heart. He seemed to have a problem with greed. The Gospel of Matthew even said that Judas kept the common purse and used to steal from it. But in the betrayal that follows on the next day, we see that Judas even wishes he had not agreed to act in betrayal.

Thursday in Holy Week, commonly called, Maundy Thursday: On this day we celebrate the last also the day when the Passover meal is changed forever. Previously, the Passover meal was to commemorate the passing of the plague of the firstborn over Egypt. It was a pivotal event that commemorated a vital part of the Old Covenant. When God saw the blood of the lamb over the doorposts and lintels, he would Passover the home and the firstborn would live.

Jesus takes this sacred feast and then re-interprets it according to the New Covenant. In this model, the Passover Lamb becomes Jesus, and the blood over the doors becomes symbolic of atonement. The feast of unleavened bread becomes a gathering of followers who celebrate the New Covenant in Jesus’ Body and Blood.

This feast, shrouded in the confusion of the disciples, acts both as the central act of Christian Worship thereafter, and a prologue to the three days which follow. Jesus gathers his friends and gives a new commandment that they love one another. Demonstrating servanthood, Jesus takes a basin and towel and washes the feet of his followers. Leadership is reinterpreted as servanthood.

In our liturgy for this day, we celebrate both the institution of the Eucharist and the washing of the disciples’ feet. We share in those things to both remember the act of love and care for one another. The day ends in darkness and with the stripping of the altars. The betrayal of Christ would make us think that all is lost, and to the disciples, it was.

From here, the church observes a vigil. Jesus asked his followers if they could not watch one hour. The church then is open until midnight and whoever would like to take an hour to pray may do so by signing up in the narthex. We watch over the last remaining sacrament in the church, sacrament that will be consumed tomorrow when, “It is finished!”

Good Friday: The betrayal of last night gives way to the underhanded and illegal activities that lead from Jesus’ arrest to his condemnation to die. Peter, warming himself, denies Jesus three times, just as foretold. Jesus walks to his death on a way called the Via Dolorosa. He is nailed to the cross and dies. While it would appear that the powers of sin and death are victorious, Jesus actually has undone the pattern of sin and death by meeting the death of creation with his own death, the righteous for the unrighteous.

The liturgies for this day are very simple. The church remains stripped. After recounting the death of Jesus as recorded by the Apostle John, the church venerates the cross. The symbol of death and shame is simultaneously a symbol of Victory. Following a fourth century custom, a simple wood cross is brought into the church. Three times the carrier says “Behold the wood of the cross, come, let us worship” then each is invited to make some connection with the symbol of our faith, some simply touch, some embrace the Cross, whatever is most meaningful for the worshipper. After that veneration, we receive, without fanfare or consecration, the gifts of God that were watched over the night before. The Body and Blood of Christ are given and received.

Holy Saturday: On the day after Jesus’ death, the Body lies in the tomb. Although the church waits for the rest of the story, the body of Jesus is about to make a transformation. Gathering at Dusk, the church throughout the world commemorates the fact that sometime during that night, Jesus broke the bonds of death and hell and rose victorious from the grave. The following morning, the tomb is vacant – empty.

The church has, for centuries, marked the night when Jesus conquered death by having a vigil. This is the time when the new fire of Easter is kindled, the lessons of salvation are read, baptisms celebrated and promises renewed, and the first mass of Easter is celebrated. It is this service that is the original Easter service. The first shouts of Alleluia are heard and the sanctuary is bathed in light – Easter begins!

Then, on Easter Morning, we begin forty days of a new reality. Jesus’ death, although real and atoning, could not contain him. As the first fruits of those who have died, God raises his body. Theologically, that tells us that the sacrifice of Jesus was truly atoning and that God has accepted that sacrifice. The risen Body is proof positive that the world order has now changed and what was once hopeless is filled with immortality.

Alleluia, Christ is risen
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

When Hate Fills Our Streets

The recent events in Charlottesville are alarming for our nation. As people who profess faith in Jesus Christ, it should be a matter of deep prayer for us to address the sin of racism, in our nation, our communities, and even in our churches. It is times like this that we are reminded that the Body of Christ has a lot of work to do.

I was once shown a DNA genotype profile that showed the genetic sequence of a man from Indonesia, a woman from Oslo, Norway, and two men from Nigeria. The profile showed something peculiar – there were more genetic differences between the two men from Nigeria than there were between the rest of the sample. In short, race is about perception, not real science.

Race is also a concept burned into our national history due to the Eugenics Movement. This group sought to “purify” bloodlines and systematically eliminate what were perceived as “defective” or “undesirable “. While there were some strong Eugenics Movements in the United States, the pinnacle of the Eugenics Movement was found in Nazi Germany’s attempt to create a “master race” of Aryans.

The racial divide in this country is not as simple as North vs. South. While it is true that the Ku Klux Klan began in the south during reconstruction, it is of note that there were strong movements of the Klan here in Nebraska. In fact, the cities of York, Fremont, Omaha, Lincoln, Hastings, North Platte, Scottsbluff and even Grand Island had thriving hate groups. [1]

Since the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, there have been two movements, which occasionally come to a confrontation. The first is a movement that saw the atrocities of the Holocaust and determined that this must never again happen. The second was a revival of Nazi ideology that on occasion rears its head. The events in Charlottesville are not something new. Similar skirmishes happen with these groups from time to time in places like: Skokie, Illinois (1977), Coeur D’Alene, Idaho (1999) and countless others.

I grew up in the South. The town I served before coming to be your rector (Ocala, Florida) had one school that was not desegregated until 1986 – No, that is not a typo – 1986! My hometown, St. Petersburg, Florida, had a 10pm-dawn curfew (no residents of color were permitted north of Central Avenue) that existed on the city codes until 1967. My grandparents used to tell of having to hurry to get their housekeeper home before the curfew time. This is insanity!

I also was blessed to have parents and grandparents who were not part of this racist history. I grew up in an environment where I was consistently taught that since we all came from two first parents, we are essentially one family. As a Christian, I am even more convinced of our unity, because Jesus’ death was for all of us. If we hate, we are actually turning against our own family.

I struggle to really understand how anyone could hate another so much as to cause death. Yet at the “Unite the Right” rally, Heather Hayer, a 32-year-old woman was mercilessly run over by an Ohio man. This senseless act also injured 19 other people. I think back to the savage treating of African-Americans by people like “Bull” Connor who released police dogs and fire hoses on black protesters in Birmingham or the countless lynchings that dotted the American landscape. We have come far, but not far enough. The end goal should be a vision like that in Revelation, where the people of God are from every “people language, tongue, and nation” (Rev. 5:9).

I do think there is hope. Larry Trapp, once the Grand Dragon of the KKK for Nebraska, denounced a lifetime of racial hate and violence after experiencing the loving kindness of Rabbi Michael and Julie Weisser. Trapp had organized Neo-Nazi meetings, sent out hate literature and intimidated African-Americans and Jewish leaders. Some claimed he was even involved in several arsons and bomb threats. After he made threatening phone calls to the Weissers, they responded with messages of love. Trapp asked the Weissers to meet with him. After speaking with them, he renounced his hateful associations. I find hope in stories like this. Martin Luther King spoke of this power to change, saying, “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”

While we certainly pray for those who have hearts filled with hate, we need to also demonstrate our own commitment to all of God’s children. If we are serious about our Baptismal Covenant, we see that “striving for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being” includes eliminating some of the silent racism that allows these problems to perpetuate. Things like promoting fair wage equity and hiring practices, encouraging our children and grandchildren to have friends who are different from them.

We have a long way to go to have a just society. Little by little, as the Kingdom of God on Earth, I hope to see us eventually get there. Pray for those who hate. Demonstrate love in all your affairs. May God’s Kingdom come, on Earth, as in Heaven.

Robert+

[1] Michael W Schuyler, “The Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska, 1920-1930,” Nebraska History 66 (1985): 234-256.