Friday, January 25, 2013

Incarnational Preaching

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Christianity conceals within itself a germ hostile to the church."  Wow!  The truth of the gospel authentically proclaimed is actually opposed to the institutional church is it now stands, according to Bonhoeffer.  I believe that this "germ" likewise effects preaching when preachers are not rooted and grounded in the Incarnation.  Here is what Bonhoeffer has to say about this.  "First of all, a sermon can never grasp the center, but can only itself be grasped by it, by Christ.  And then Christ becomes flesh" in the preacher.  A true proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom of God comes about when the preacher senses Jesus in his or her flesh when preparing and delivering the Word of God.  The incarnate Lord in the preacher results in carefully crafted words that reflect the power of Jesus in Creation, Redemption and in the world.

Whether or not we are always aware of it, even after seminary, we are often view reality in terms of a bi-polar division between the "spirit" and the "flesh."  When we think or pray to God, we visualize God above us in heaven, apart and distinct from that which we empirically know, the world that we observe.  We don't consciously think this way, it just happens.  Since few of us believe in a hell below anymore, we are pretty much stuck with a two storied universe, unless you believe in an intermediate state.

When preaching is caught up in the dichotomy of "spirit" and "flesh/matter/earth", the preacher is trapped in a yo yo spin that reaches up into the "spirit" world for inspiration and then swings down into the real time activity of the sermon.  In sermon preparation, we reach up for the biblical narrative, then pull the words down into the world of real preaching without necessarily making the incarnational connection between the two.  Fundamentalists are really good at this.  They present the bible as the ideal, literal and absolute revelation of God.  This preacher yanks biblical phrases from above, out of context, and throws them verbally at the listener, often presenting an angry God who brings down wrath on something or somebody.  Homosexuality is their favorite enemy in our time.

To make the exegesis into an incarnational unity, the preacher needs to abdicate the two storied universe by understanding that Christ is in the preacher in creation, life experiences and the sacramental life of the church.  Christ embedded in the preacher wipes out the duality of homiletical Platonism, and takes on the character of an Aristotelian, or incarnate preaching style that is complete with Grace, power, relevance and earthiness.

This is not to negate a Pauline view of salvation that he presented in Romans.  Indeed Christ did die for the ungodly and we are justified by Grace through faith.  But the debt theory of the Atonement, which started with Anselm a thousand years after Paul, is not the beginning and end of the proclammation of Jesus Christ.  Some evangelicals have grabbed ahold of this and tried to make it the only message of salvation.  Incarnationalists respectfully disagree.  We view salvation like the writer of the fourth gospel; salvation begins in creation and culmnates in the process of the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, the gift of the spirit in the life of the church.  The incarnational preacher is thus grounded in process; an evolutionary system of salvation that embraces the created universe as well as the life and ministry of Jesus.  This is why Anglicans see grace in great art, music and science.

Anglican/Episcopal preachers who are well educated, intelligent, thoughtful and mature, understand that preaching biblical literalism is wrong.  Whatever the hermeneutic, our best preaching is evident when we link the incarnate Christ to the cosmos, the earth, the political and economic world, its people and the church.  From the spiritual point of view, it means that the preacher believes that the Word made flesh came in creation, in the salvation work of Jesus, culminating in the resurrection and the Holy Spirit in the life of the church and the world.  The preacher knows and proclaims that the embedded Word of God continues in the ongoing revelation of God not only in the bible, but throughout history and in these times.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Bishop Speaks of A Blessing Indeed

The Bishop Speaks of A Blessing Indeed

They called it the “Dog and Pony Show” in the olden days. Those would be my days. It was the time when the final candidates, the persons in consideration for selection for the office of bishop, would gather and go around the diocese to be interviewed/examined by the clergy and lay persons who would be voting in the election convention.

The formats tended to vary a bit with each place, but the action was pretty much the same. Sometimes the candidates would be put into a waiting area and then examined one at a time. Sometimes there could be several rooms provided and all of the candidates would move from room to room. The clergy and the laity of the diocese were always separated. Of course, there were other ways to do it.

The outcome was always the same. The candidates would leave exhausted thinking the whole thing would probably be like a turkey shoot. We sometimes blame the outcome on the Holy Spirit. I was always a little light on that idea because there were some pretty nasty things which could go on in this process and some very narrow thinking.

My belief was/is that God will take whomever is elected and try to put a blessing on that person with the hope that it would do some good and further the kingdom. Some people do not seem to take that blessing and end up making some gross mistakes.

Now things have been cleaned up a bit and we have something called a “Walk About”. It has pretty much the same type of people making the decisions and they still ask the same old questions, but it seems a little more organized.

So, I have a friend who is now involved in such a process and I am seeking a way to be helpful.

Lo and behold, I found a 20 year old VHS tape of the “Dog and Pony Show” made when I was being considered by the diocese where I eventually was elected and served for 13 years before my retirement. It showed each of the candidates being interviewed (questioned) by both clergy and laity. Each person had 30 minutes with the clergy and 30 minutes with the laity. I wondered if this would be helpful to my friend. I had never watched it so I did and it took me a little over two hours. I decided to share some of this with my friend.

One of the things which surprised me was that the candidates were not all asked the same questions. I kind of wanted to check in with the Holy Spirit on that one, but I did not know what to ask.

There were always a few questions on youth ministry, church growth, deacons, your spiritual life, and such. There were other questions which were always asked by the same persons, but not every one was asked these questions.

Then there were the rest of the questions. They were always there and always asked by the same persons and asked of each candidate. This was 20 years ago, but I have a hunch you might be able guess these topics.

Always at the top was “Would you, as the bishop, ordain a practicing homosexual?” Followed by “Would you allow same sex marriage in this diocese?”

In my process two of the candidates said “No!”. The others were a little more open to change, but recognized the church was not yet of one mind in these matters. No one mentioned we have been doing that ordination thing for a long time without making a lot of publicity about it.

In any case, the person asking these questions was pretty sure the correct answer was “No”.

I came away from my video screening and I just sat down and said, “Oh, dear. We have come a long way in the last 20 years”.

Now, for the rest of the story. The next day, which is today, my wife and I joined several hundred others at our church (where we have no status except as parishioners) to attend “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant”.

This was a remarkable and wonderful service. It was very dignified with beautiful music, and a great sermon. The couple has been together 20 years. They have longed for the Church's blessing on their lifelong covenant. There was a powerful sense that what we were doing was living out our commission to “respect the dignity of every human being”.

I have long believed the church should not be in the marrying business. That is a matter of the state. It is a matter of establishing order to the action of inheritance. It is the creation of a contract. It is the business of business, but it is not our business. I know many will hate these words and probably me for saying them. Go for it. I believe this is the truth.

The church is in the blessing business. That is what we do and we do it well. We, the church, must be the place for people who particularly desire to receive the blessing of their relationship. This is not about a contract, it is life. It is beautiful and it is open to everyone.

I saw hundreds of people blessed this day. The couple did not make a contract, they made a promise and we made it with them. We will love one another.

A Blessing Indeed

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Move Forward Dynamic Spirituality

A Move Forward, Dynamic Spirituality

            Sharks are the most powerful and agile creatures of the ocean, but they have to keep moving forward to live. A slug on the other hand looks simply for moisture and sits. We always have the choice to sit like a slug or move through life like a shark. I love to read about Jeremiah who is called to become a leader, but he has every excuse in the world why he can’t take on the responsibility.

            Yet, he must face the call from God to move forward. Furthermore, he is not only called to move forward, but he is also called to lead his people forward. Jeremiah is told that he will be given the strength to move forward from God.

             If he does not accept this strength to move forward, he will lose his heart, and he will become like a shrub in the desert, “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes and its leaves shall stay green.”

             In other words, God expects His people to be like sharks; he wants us to keep moving forward. If we are children of God, then we must be people who are always moving ahead with our lives, and, at the same time, we are pulling others along with us.

            In the eyes of the world Jeremiah would be considered unsuccessful. In responding to his call from God, he was only to know rejection. He would spend his life in poverty, prison and rejection by his family and friends yet he continued to move forward. Even in his sense of failure and disappointment, he continues to move forward with a message of encouragement,           

            In Mark 10, we meet Bartimaeus the blind beggar who is sitting at the roadside and hears Jesus is coming, so he shouts out, “Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me!” Everybody said “Be quiet,” No, he kept moving forward and Jesus answered “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus gave the man his sight and said, “Go your faith has made you well.” We could say that Bartimaeus kept moving forward in faith.

            We have this picture in our minds and hearts of this Jesus who is standing still. We see Jesus on the cross, but He is still. We see pictures of Jesus in our churches, but He is a still image. Back in the sixties, we began to realize how important it was to express Jesus in a dynamic art form. I can remember the exhilaration that I experienced, when for the first time I heard the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. It was a bold proclamation about the true nature of Jesus Christ. In the musical we met a dynamic Jesus. We met a Christ who had come to move people ahead. He brought a dynamic message that the world could be better if only we accepted His teachings. I am afraid that we are getting complacent, and we are no longer like Christian sharks, constantly moving ahead in life.

            The psychologist Madeline Uddo who is with the Southeast Louisiana Veterans’ Health Care System in New Orleans finds that it is “dynamic” people who can take action and face any situation in life, no matter how oppressive. These Dynamic Move Forward people have three things in common:

 1) They embrace a challenge

 2) They do not run from long term commitments

 3) They believe that they can get at least some small control of the situation.


            An expression I often use is, “When you are in hell, the worse thing to do is stop. Don’t give up!” It is the driving nature of the soul to move forward. Spirituality is about caring for and touching the soul. Our soul is the powerful moving force of our life. It is where we find our driving energy. We have heard the expression that person has “real soul”. When we say someone has soul, it means they have the ability to carry on, no matter the circumstances. Today, in Episcopal congregations, we need a spirituality of soul-based optimism that life of our Episcopal community can grow and move forward.  We must have the soul of a spiritual shark.

            Frank Lloyd Wright designed many famous buildings and when asked near the end of his career about what building was his most favorite he answered, “The next one.” He understood the principle of moving forward. God has done wondrous things for us, but God never performs his greatest feats in yesterday.

            Bartimaeus knew rejection. He lived with rejection, but he did not give into it. Instead Bartimaeus learned that from his greatest rejections by the crowd came his greatest direction from Jesus, “Go, your faith has made you well.”


            In our Episcopal journey of hope let us have a spirituality of a shark. If we have a dynamic Move Forward spirituality, in all our concerns about the future of our denomination and its congregations we will:

1) Embrace the challenges in front of us with a dynamic shark like spiritual energy,

 2) Will not look for easy answers; we will continue, like Jeremiah and Bartimaeus, to move

     forward in the face of all small and great obstacles,

3) We will take some small action step everyday towards solving the problem.


            As a result, if we are asked about the best year our parish ever had, we will not say, “Oh, our best year was back in 1980. We had 400 hundred members, and everything was flourishing.” Instead, we will answer like a spiritual shark, “Oh, our best year as an Episcopal parish is next year.”




Saturday, January 5, 2013

Stewardship 101 in 2013

Episcopal couples talk finance just like other couples; they budget just like other couples. Experts tell them the three largest items in their budget will be housing, transportation and food; over spending in these categories is a proscription for doom and gloom.  So we find this nice Episcopal couple sorting out their financial plan for 2013 and discussing stewardship – how much of their blessings will be returned to God, through the Parish and to the other charities they support.  It will be a stretch but they are committing themselves to 14% of their gross income.  The largest proportion will be their church pledge, but dollars will also go to support a child in Guatemala, to assist two local food pantries, to fulfill cultural and fine arts pledges, to support service club Foundations, plus a number of other donations. 

This nice Episcopal couple feels good about their decision making; it is a spiritual decision and they believe an appropriate one.  Their signed pledge card to the Parish will equal 8.5%, with the remaining 5.5% going to the other worthwhile charitable endeavors.  Good people, great plan, everyone is happy; drop the pledge care in the offering plate and all is well.  If only that were true!
Two Sundays into the New Year they hear the Rector announce an anticipated budget shortfall and suggest everyone just add $5.00 a week to their pledge.  (In the trade this is called the “Numbers Game”.)  Wait a minute our nice Episcopal couple thinks to themselves; we have already talked to God about our stewardship and now you tell us we are wrong?
Two more weeks and the Rector again announces that the budget shortfall still continues and admonishes the congregation to consider what they spend on fancy clothes, nice cars, grand vacations. (We clergy know this as the “Guilt Trip” approach to stewardship.)  Our couple discusses this at home and again believes that to increase the total percentage to stewardship is inappropriate; equally inappropriate would be to cut the amounts going to other worthwhile charities.
The Rector next announces that unless the members dig deeper, the Parish will just fade away (the “Poor Us” approach).  Of course, that can’t be God’s will -  therefore the Rector and Vestry have decided on a “Faith Budget” which means that they are going to spend at the predetermined  budget level and have “Faith” that “God will provide.”
Some Rectors will cry “foul” and plead they have never used the Numbers Game, or the Guilt Game, or the Poor Us Game, or the Faith Budget Game.  But Rectors do play games with the congregation every time the bulletin lists or they announce a fund raiser or a special offering.
Nothing is more frustrating than to make a meaningful pledge to a congregation and then be nickeled and dimed to death.  God Bless the Rector who tells the congregation that the Parish will operate on pledge/plate giving and there will be no special offerings or fund raisers - period!   One Parish I lead endorsed this policy and allotted $50,000.00 to the Out Reach Committee; they handled all special offering requests, some were funded, others were not.
It is time to trust that congregation members are telling the truth when they make a pledge and to write a budget accordingly.  To keep asking for more is to view them as dishonest cheaters that have to be manipulated.
What happened to our nice Episcopal couple?  They moved their membership.