Thursday, August 23, 2007

Airing Linen

I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of secrecy. My experience of Christ is one of liberation and openness. Relationship is predicated upon the Light of Christ finding its way into every nook and cranny of my being. It requires not only honesty with one’s self; relationship with God requires an honesty with others that is also one of transparency.

As clergy, I have been required to maintain confidentialities of those who come to me as a part of pastoral concern. Sometimes I know things, especially in the parish, that cannot be shared because the individual who confided in me should be the person to speak of their particular concern. But here lies a sociological conundrum. How do I keep from triangling in relationships?

Triangling is getting someone else to do your work for you without you having to reveal your motives. Person A goes to Person B and tells them that C needs to do something so that B will put pressure on C to do it. It is a dishonest transaction; A should speak to C him/her self. Clergy often end up being the Person B in congregations simply because we are the person everyone comes to. The real clue is that as a pastor, I cannot go to C. I have to encourage A to go to C to provide healthy relationships in the parish.

When there is conflict I feel that the more information I have about an issue the better informed I am to resolve a conflict. It means that I have to be deadly honest with myself and with others if goodness and healing is going to result. I believe sincerely in the healing powers of the Light of Christ. “The truth shall set you free” is not merely an axiom in my spiritual journey; it works. It not only works in my personal life. It works in my corporate life.

When so many Roman Catholic prelates were being exposed for having obscured the sexual abuse of children by clerics in their charge, I understood both the plight of parents who demanded openness from the hierarchy. I also understood the charge to protect the Church by the bishops. After all, I had known Cardinal Law when he was a young bishop in Springfield, MO. I knew that he had been a man of compassion and honesty. But as the story began to unfold about the obfuscation that so deeply permeated the Archdiocese of Massachusetts, I began to see such triangling that led to sinfulness because of the basic dishonesty of the transactions. Protection began to be avoidance, and avoidance began to be arrogance in the face of abuse. Lives were being ruined simply to keep up appearances.

Today, I would rather err on the side of transparency than be a party to obfuscation in the Church. I do not wish to be a party to continued abuse of those who have been victims. However, after many years of working with the victims of abuse, I know it is in the airing of the abuse that most victims leave behind the role of victim and move into the role of survivor and then to healing. When those who have come forward begin to throw off the shame of abuse the Church needs to affirm that action by confirming transparency rather than further obscuring the facts. It is a delicate task but we need to find ways to do it.
What drives me nutz however, is the way some fall back on confidentiality to avoid taking responsibility for one’s own personal agenda. For Person A to go to Person B and expect Person B to tell Person C to change and then for Person B to refer to Person A but not by name is dishonest. When leadership falls back on an unidentified accuser as the underpinnings for punishment of a member of the group, it flies in the face of basic civil justice. The accused must be able to address his/her accusers. The Church may not be cavalier in the way it addresses information. As a leader of the Church I may not base my evaluation of another on innuendo or gossip, but only in the light of honest interaction. For leadership the task is not in telling Person C of their sins, it to bring Person A and Person C together to talk about differences. The airing of differences often leads to healing.

What confidentiality cannot be in the Church is a repository of ill will. I cannot simply allow issues to plod along without addressing them in the name of holding things in confidence and paralyzing Persons A and C from ever coming to grips with the issues they have between them. Nor may I use these differences as a way to hold the group hostage as the only bearer of the whole story. As a Christian I am required by faith to believe that Christ’s light can heal. It is in airing this kind of linen that allows issues to be addressed by all concerned rather than to be hidden allowed to fester. But this must be done in an atmosphere of trust.

The sad part of all of this is that there seems to be so little trust in the Church at present. It would be easier for me to give up on the healing in the Church because there is little trust its system. But my hope is in God, not in leadership or ecclesial systems. The Church has often shot itself in the foot. The Church is only as perfect as I am and that isn’t very. I cannot delude myself into believing that Church is going to be better than I am willing to be. But I also need to trust that God perfects God’s Church by calling us to new and better ways of airing our differences for the good of the whole. It is a difficult task, but I believe essential if we are to survive in the face of post-modern cynicism. The transparency I can model today may mean healing for tomorrow.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Signs of the Times

St. John’s, Ithaca
August 19, 2007

This morning as I was driving here, I saw several deer, some fawns with their spots along side their mothers. I saw a flock of wild turkey, a skunk which I carfully avoided, a raccoon and some trees with the ever so lightly tinged with yellow and orange. The coolness of the morning tells us that fall is just around the corner and summer is almost gone. It is a bittersweet morning for those of us who live in upstate NY. We know that the summer that we wait 9 long months for each year is fading and we know that winter will be with us before long. It is that same kind of feeling that I believe that Jesus was reminding the people in today's reading.

For the last 2 weeks I have complained that the readings are those that the compilers of the lectionary put in August because preachers go on vacation in August and stick the visiting priest with these lessons. And today’s readings take the cake! In a world that would proclaim “Jesus loves you” from t-shirt to bumper sticker, and saccharine sweet images of the Divine dog our every move, this passage sounds remarkably harsh.
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He journeys there to address the misconduct of the religious leadership. He goes to Jerusalem because he is speaking truth to power. He goes there to call the people to repentance. The fire he enjoins upon the people is a cleansing flame—a refiner’s fire. The division he promises is not battle, but the kind of pruning that is necessary for a plant to grow.

This is not the Jesus of our childhood. This is the Christ that calls us to discipleship. This is not Sweet Jesus, meek and mild; this is the Christ who invites us to renewal and change. This is not something we want to hear on a hot August morning.

But there is no time like the present to address this passage. Jesus calls his people to recognize in the crisis of his day the call to change. And I would suggest that it remains the same for us too. If we are to understand the signs of our times and how to meet them in a Christ-like fashion, we must understand what is going on in our world.

Last week I said that I was beginning to see some slight moving toward a sense of compromise in the Episcopal Church in the light of the schism that has been tearing at us for the past 4 years. And that may be true. But I have not dealt with the whole of the issue. I could probably speak for a month on what has happened in various places in the Anglican Communion. But mostly it is an issue that began in the US over the inclusion of gay folk in the Church and in the ordained ministry.

It would be easy to blame us gays for all of this. In fact, that is what many of those who set themselves apart say that this whole crisis is about. But I daresay that if it had not been the election of a gay bishop who was in an open and affirming relationship, there would have been some other kind of crisis conjured by those who are leading the schism. This schism is not about human sexuality! It is about power and authority and who has the right to determine the path that we as Church may go. It has been nothing less than a junta, an attempt to overthrow the basic government of the Episcopal Church by a minority who cannot get their way through normal elective processes.

Underlying this attempt at take over are theologies galore which are alien to the Episcopal ethos: Biblical inerrancy, covenantal professions, fourth-century orthodoxy have all been trotted out to show how wrong the Episcopal Church is and how righteous their segment of the Church is. They are the TRUE Church—the TRUE Anglican Church in the United States, and we are apostate, we are told. But now that the Archbishop of York, the primate of England, protests their “Anglicanicity”, those who would divide the Episcopal Church are now saying that they are holier than the Anglicans and they don’t need the Anglicans either.

In all of this mudslinging, though, there is good that is coming out. And I believe it is this that Jesus is referring to in today’s readings. We as Episcopalians and Anglicans are being forced to differintiate who we are in ways that we have not had to for as long as I have been in the Church. We are being forced to say that we are a denomination of Christianity that is going to be welcoming and open to a wide variety of people. We are saying that we are a place where there is much latitude in faith and that people with widely diverging ideas can meet, discuss their faith, and form community without having to be homogenized. We are not saying that those who disagree must leave. On the contrary we invite them to be with us, to commune with us, to celebrate Christ’s Church in ways that further the broadness of our communion.

It is in this crisis that we as Episcopalians have had to declare who we are, and whose we are. And this is not a bad thing today when the title ‘Christian’ is becoming a word that has been appropriated by right-wing political ideology to mean something remarkably anti-intellectual and strident. For the Episcopal Church, the epitome of what once was described as the “Republican Party at Prayer” is now called upon to articulate itself, without its ideological trappings, without its regard to status. We are having to claim ourselves as open to conservatives AND liberal, open to catholics and evangelicals, and open to those who have often been excluded simply because of who they are. We are being forced not just to SAY we include, we are having to LIVE this out in radical ways that are uncomfortable and perhaps even somewhat embarrassing. We are having to put our money where our mouths are. We are having to live out an inclusivity that we would rather give lip service to, but the crisis now says we must step up to the plate.

Forty-two years ago this past week a young Episcopal seminarian by the name of Jonathan Myreck Daniels forced the Episcopal Church to deal with the inclusion of people of color. The Church had paid lip service to integration, the plurality of membership. But throughout the South, Blacks couldn’t attend a white Episcopal Church. Jonathan Daniels and Judy Upham, now a priest of our diocese who serves St. Mark’s in Candor, went to Selma to stand as witness to white brutality in the Black sections of that city. Their presence brought the inhumanity of racial segregation to the crisis point. Jonathan was gunned down on the streets of a small Alabama town on August 20, 1965 because he was trying to register Black folks for the vote. Last summer Judy and I returned to Selma to participate in the memorial to the Alabama martyrs. Judy carried a picture of Jon while we retraced the journey that Jon and others made that fateful day. They had no understanding then that the crisis that unfolded was to open the Episcopal Church to an acceptance of what we know as a Christian truth: that all are created equal in the sight of the Lord.

The strife in the Episcopal Church today is a crisis from which we are all going to learn. It has been painful; it will continue to be painful. But I do believe that we as Church are going to come away from this schismatic attempt by some, a better and healthier Church. The purpose of the Church is to preach and teach the love of God. And I see the Episcopal Church doing that. Our bishops have made it clear that they will not step back from the ordaining gay folk in open relationships. Our General Convention has shown that it supports the legislation that is open and welcoming. And over this summer I have heard the clearest and most open discussions of who we are as Church and what we proclaim. It is a Church that I can support whole heartedly because it has taken Jesus at his word. It has not shrunk from Jesus’ fire or sword. It has been willing to stand the test. And yes, there has been division. There has not been peace. But there have been good things that have come from this.

Jesus chastises the people of his day for not understanding the signs of the times. In Luke, we hear him say that we can tell when it is going to rain, why can’t we interpret the signs of the coming of the Messiah? I do believe that the “present unpleasantness” as some would call the past four years in the Church, is a sign of God’s work. I do believe that the crisis that we have seen will bring about the kind of change that will allow us to meet the challenges of a new era. I do believe the Christianity is alive and well and not bound by anti-intellectual tomfoolery. And I believe that the Episcopal Church will continue to be a place where all will be welcome no matter what our theological stance. And I believe that what will unite us is what has kept us together for 2000 years—the Eucharist of the Altar.

If we cut ourselves off from that, then we will lose our focus on Jesus and devolve into some kind of group of nay-sayers that provide no substance or sustenance for the people of God. I hurt for those who have separated themselves from us. I hurt for us in losing them. But I will not step back from the place of inclusion to which Christ has led us. For Church is not about how many enter the doors. It is about being faithful to a Christ that would take such crises and bring growth from them. We must be willing to experience the fire. We must be willing to endure the battle. We must be willing to read the signs of our times. We must be willing to recognize Christ’s hand at work among us and rejoice. AMEN

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Betrayal of Innocence

Word has come this week of the suspension of another colleague for sexual misconduct with minors. It is a terrible blow. I have known the priest for many years and considered him a respected colleague. He has accepted the decision of the bishop to suspend his orders for 20 years which will effectively remove him from the priesthood for the rest of his life. And I agree most heartily with the actions of the bishop. But I am still left grieving for the young people who were molested, for the priest who has fallen so far from the grace of God and for the Church who has been besmirched by his actions.

The adolescences that were betrayed, I hope, are being tended to by professionals who can help them regain an unsullied image of themselves. There will be no way for them to regain their innocence about life, themselves or the Church. They will forever question themselves about their own involvement because that is the nature of sexual abuse. That betrayal of innocence will mark them the whole of their lives. And that is why this sin is so abhorred by all.

I do not understand the need for adults to find sexual gratification from young people. I can understand the temptation to find sexual gratification from others. I can understand the extreme loneliness that often comes in the way of life that is called the priesthood. I also can understand the loss of control that leads one into temptation. But I do not understand the desire to destroy the innocence of young people or children nor the naiveté that perpetrators often delude themselves with when they ignore it. But understanding the motivations or the temptations are not necessary. I just know of the evil of it. And the anger that image surfaces is a temptation toward sin in and of itself.

What do I do with the feelings I have for the colleague who has violated those boundaries? Do I hate him or her? No! I am unwilling to be facile about ‘loving the sinner and hate the sin.’ I must be willing to stand in that very uncomfortable place between the sinner and the sin and invite the sinner to return to faith. That is what is called of the Christian.

It would be easier to just hate the sinner and remove him/her from my acquaintance. But as a Christian I am called to accept the judgment of God, that all are deserving of Divine mercy. And perhaps that is what is so difficult about this particular issue in the Church. For us to know the mercy of God means that we must be willing to forgive. There is part of me that would like to stay angry at my colleague; there is so much energy in righteous indignation. But that would pull me into his sinfulness. I cannot go there for the sake of my own soul.

Over the past 15 years or so, we as Church have had to address this problem of the misconduct of clergy in a much more up-front way than it was dealt with in the past. We cannot shove things under the rug as did the Roman Catholics in Boston. We must be willing to look dispassionately at the failure of fellow clergy. We must be willing to offer the mercy of God and not shun those who fail, but we may not ignore it. We must be willing to stand in that space of discomfort between the sinner and the sin, between the image and the reality of a Church that is heavenly inspired but lived-out in the muck of temptation and sin.

We, as Church, can no longer live in a naïveté that the organization is holy without our vigilance. We cannot know our churches as being safe if we are not diligent in making them so. We cannot expect our clergy to be impervious to sin in positions where there is little collegial support, no ecclesial support and damned little support of our parishioners. We must be willing to understand “there but for the grace of God, go I.” We all are capable of such sin save for the grace of God. And consequently the Church may not maintain a veneer of innocence. We are all sinners in need of redemption.

And so I stand today, chastened by my friend’s sin, yet with my hand open to him inviting him/her to the mercy of God. I stand loving my Church knowing that she will never be the same, and yet knowing that she is the fount of blessing for me as always.

Saturday, August 4, 2007


I am not sure where the compilers of the Lectionary get their readings for August. I am sure, however, they were all Rectors who took their vacations during August and left such readings for the supply clergy to have to deal with.

In the Gospel reading we find Jesus being asked to settle a dispute between two brothers. Jesus responds in a harsh way that to us is surprising. He says “who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Jesus will not be drawn into a dispute over things.

The role of a rabbi in the first century was often to be the arbiter of such squabbles in a community. Rabbis knew the Law, and could render judgments that were binding. But Jesus did not want to enter into this kind of legal fracas. He wanted to deal with the issue for what it was—a fight over money. At the center of the feud was not fairness, not justice, but greed. Jesus’ response is harsh. He will not be pulled into a fight over things.

All too often we fight over ‘things.’ We even get to the place where the things are made into principles, principles that become some how holy and righteous in the process. But in this instance, Jesus, stops the discussion and tells the parable about the rich man who tears down his barns to build even bigger ones for all the things he has. ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

Jesus cuts through all the pious ‘fairness’ stuff and gets to the heart of the man’s request. It is GREED.
There is no greater sin in the Bible than idolatry. It is the sin that God punishes unmercifully in Hebrew Scripture. The Old Testament is filled with stories of the Hebrew people betraying their covenant and losing their inheritance. Idolatry, the going after other gods, is the fundamental distrust in the God who has given everything to the believer. In today’s epistle reading from Colossians, the writer equates greed with idolatry—placing things above the place of God. Anytime believers put more trust in their possessions than God, they commit the sin of idolatry. And I would suggest that the greatest sin that tempts us today is not sexual profligacy. I would suggest that in a consumer economy the greatest temptation to sin is greed.

Everywhere we turn we are bombarded with the temptation to put things before God and others. Our media is lousy with ads that badger us to buy this or that so that we will be prettier, stronger, brighter, and more with-it than the next guy. And ultimately we are to be so self-sufficient that we no longer need God. Once we have all the things that we want, we must be willing to protect those things. We build bigger barns, move to a larger house, buy more insurance, and put up higher fences. We cannot leave our things any longer to visit other places or cultures to broaden our perspectives about life. We must find ways to guard our property. We become prisoners of our possessions.

Judy and I have so many books that it has become too expensive to move. The cost of moving all those books is prohibitive. Will we reread all those books? Not in a lifetime! Now, I know that none of you have this problem. But over the years we have inherited things like our mother’s china, or been given all kinds of ‘valuable’ things for which we have no earthly use, but because they are ‘heirlooms’ we feel some responsibility for. These have become albatrosses hung about our collective necks. I remember when we moved Mom to a retirement center; I found my high school prom dress, which she had painstakingly made, still in the closet. I had a hard time sending that to Salvation Army. I guess I could have sold it as an antique on EBay but…. We become overwhelmed with things.

Now, I often divide the world up into “Keepers” and “Neatnicks.” For those of us who are packrats, we must be willing to see our penchant for nostalgia may be rooted in the sin of putting our trust in things. For those of us who can throw things away easily, we must guard against consuming more than our share of the world’s commodity. In either case, the glorious age of consumerism that is gripping the world is a time when we must guard against the sin that would have us believe that we deserve or are entitled to whatever simply because we can afford it, or more importantly, even when we can’t. The sin of greed is insidious. It makes us think we are invulnerable. It can make us foolish thinking that somehow we may ignore God’s command to love others as ourselves. We can merely send our money rather than screw up enough compassion to care about people in dire situations.

Greed is an embarrassing sin. At some level we know that the quality of life that we have in the US impinges upon the rest of the world. We make all kinds of excuses---we give so much to other nations, or we are basically good people, or we WORK for our things, or we deserve it because we have made ourselves great. “God helps those who help themselves” we say. (By the way, that does not come from the Bible. It is found in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, but it is not from Scripture.)

But the Christian life is not about what we deserve. If we follow Protestant theology, we are nothing and deserving of nothing except by the grace of God. There is one thing that working among the Lutherans for the past couple of years has done is reacquaint me with the concept of sin. Lutherans don’t believe they have been to church if they have not been made aware of their sins and then told that God has forgiven them. We, Episcopalians on the other hand, are likely to say, “Sin, do we still talk about that?”

But we must be willing to recognize that we are being tempted by an economic-political sphere that would have us believe that we can fiscally control the world. The adage “he who dies with the most toys, wins” is not only NOT true; it is remarkably leading many of us away from trusting in God. We are creating false gods to follow. At some point we are going to have to hear: ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

There is a story going around that I heard at Luther leadership camp a week ago. A wealthy man was dying, and he made arrangements with the local funeral home for his burial. He asked that a specific picture of his family that hung over his mantle be buried with him. The family all gathered around the man when he died. At the funeral home, the director could not get the picture and its frame into the coffin so he took the picture out of the frame. Out of the frame fell $160,000. The family was so angry that they refused to go to the funeral! Taking it with us is not an option.

It was this kind of fight over money that Jesus refused to get involved in. He chose instead to bring the focus of the man back upon his own greed. It is a difficult task, to look upon our sinfulness. But unless we do, we can never repent. We can never come to know the real joy that comes from knowing the benevolence of God’s grace. And we can never choose to be better and happier trusting in God’s grace to save us from want.

I invite us all this week to look at the places where greed has seeped into our lives. Allow yourself to acknowledge the sin of trusting in things rather than God’s loving- mercy by changing your consumer habits. And let us rejoice, unlike the Lutherans who don’t rejoice much, that we are saved by the grace of a loving God. AMEN.