Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Yes, Virginia, There Are Evangelical Episcopalians

Among the many places where I'm connected is LinkedIn. If you're not familiar with it, it's much like Facebook, but with an entirely professional focus.  Like other social networking sites, there are topical groups, including one for folks interested in the Episcopal Church. This week one member posted this question: "Are there any fellow evangelical Episcopalians out there?" This was my answer.

I think there are evangelical Episcopalians - by which I mean folks who experience Scripture as central to their faith, and who experience joy in living before Christ and sharing that with others, both within and without the congregation. Few of them are thorough-going Biblical literalists; but most believe the Gospels faithfully relate the experiences of the Evangelists with Christ, and that at least most of the events described, including the miraculous events, are historical.

By and large, they are not tied to a particular style of worship, although they enjoy some "praise" music. As the Prayer Book since 1979 has emphasized the Eucharist as normative Sunday worship, they have the Eucharist on Sundays, and not Morning Prayer. At the same time, most don't attend congregations where the liturgy is chanted most Sundays, or where incense is used, unless for Easter or certain special occasions.

Some of them are uncomfortable about decisions that the General Convention has made. However, they feel established in and supported in their individual congregations, and pastorally supported by clergy even when they disagree with them; and so they continue in the Episcopal Church. They see things changing around them, and regret some of the changes; but they have enough hope in Christ that they don't feel they have to fight things they can't control.

I spend half of my Sundays supplying in one church or another in two adjacent dioceses, and I meet these folks all the time. I'm happy they're with me in worship. 
 I know that the word "evangelical" when applied to an Episcopalian or other Anglican has meant something a little different: a literal use of more of Scripture, especially on social issues; a more exclusivist understanding of salvation; and, unfortunately, anti-Episcopal Church sentiments at home, and that plus anti-American culture sentiments abroad. However, I will stand by this as more accurate to the evangelical Christian tradition as folks live it out in the Episcopal Church; and I'm happy to have them with me in worship, and in my diocese, and in the Episcopal Church.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Remembering the Martyrs of Memphis

Many of my readers will be aware that the Episcopal Church remembers on certain days persons who have been especially noteworthy as models of the faith. Today is the day of Constance and her Companions, the Martyrs of Memphis. It is a day I make note of each year because the Martyrs of Memphis demonstrated their faith, and most of them died, providing health care.

Memphis, Tennessee, was wracked by yellow fever epidemics three times in ten years. The third epidemic occurred in August of 1878. 30,000 citizens – those who had somewhere else to go – fled the city. 20,000 had nowhere to go, and were forced to face the plague. Deaths averaged 200 per day, and before it was over more than 5,000 had died. The city was so depopulated that it lost its charter, and was not reorganized for fourteen years.

There were those who stayed by choice to care for the sick. The Episcopal Church remembers specifically six Episcopal nuns; four Episcopal priests, two of whom were physicians; a third physician; matrons at an Episcopal School for girls; and volunteer nurses and clergy from as far away as New York. However, we also remember that there were laypersons from many of the faith communities in Memphis who stayed: Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Jewish, and other clergy and lay workers. They stayed to serve the sick, and died for their compassion. In Memphis today this is an ecumenical remembrance, when all faith communities commemorate one another’s honored dead as they remember their own.

In the last decade we’ve seen so much to make the commemoration of the Constance and her Companions more apt and poignant. We have seen cities wracked with expressions of human evil. We have seen images of another city, a sister city on the same river, emptied of people and filled with sickness and death. We have seen the entire region leveled by storm after storm, storms that continued to rage long after the wind and water appeared to have subsided. This year alone we have seen disaster after disaster, from the devastating tornadoes in the Central Plains; to more flooding in the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys; to the floods in the Northeast and Midatlantic states from hurricane and tropical storm. And we see colleagues providing care, often at great personal risk, to rescue those who can be saved from disease and dehydration, and from the inertia of isolation and shock. We support them in spirit, with our resources, and for many of us, with our prayers.

The Martyrs of Memphis are a part of the heritage at my hospital and health system. While we are not all Christian, much less Episcopalian, we are all in the tradition of health care. Watching the consequences of these events, we know that risks to the health of our communities are risks to us. We continue to serve, knowing of costs we hope we will never have to face. We serve those who come to us, knowing we are not immune ourselves. There is real courage and commitment in our service, and it is the same commitment shown by the Martyrs of Memphis of all faith backgrounds and of none.

As an Episcopal Chaplain, I consider each of my colleagues in health care to be holy and all of their works to be sacred. The compassion and commitment each of them shows reflects, I believe, the compassion of God. Today, as I honor the Martyrs of Memphis, I honor and pray for them; for each of them witnesses to individual faith at personal risk and cost, and reflects the presence of care here at in my hospital and health system, and in the whole of God’s creation.


There is a wonderful article today from the Episcopal News Service speaking to the work of chaplains on September 11, 2001, and in the days after. You can read the article here.

As we remember that day ten years ago, we can remember those noted in the article, and so many more. Quite a few Episcopal chaplains and other clergy and lay ministers assisted in New York; while many of our colleagues in military chaplaincy assisted in both New York and Washington, and so many places around the world. I remember the late Mike Stewart, then Treasurer of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains (AEHC), who served in the Office of the Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies (now the Bishop Suffragan of Federal Ministries) to coordinate efforts in New York and the Episcopal Church’s efforts at disaster response. I think of Peggy Muncie, who walked virtually the length of Manhattan for the opportunity to serve (and those of us who know Peggy have some idea of what that took). I think, too, of our colleagues in other traditions. After all, the first victim identified from the disaster was a New York Fire Department Chaplain, Fr. Mychal Judge, a Roman Catholic priest and Franciscan friar. Many of us served as well in our own places, caring for the families of those lost and those affected; caring for our own frightened staff members and parishioners; and praying for God’s guidance in the midst of fear and grief and confusion.

In fact the Executive Committee of AEHC was scheduled to meet in New York on September 14 and 15. We talked and wrestled with what we should do, what duty required of us at that point.  Ultimately, we did not meet, which relieved our own families (in my household the words "baseball bat" and "kneecap" came up in the same sentence). However, AEHC members played our parts in cooperating with the National Office in responding to these disasters, and preparing to respond to the next.

As we remember this anniversary through this weekend, may God grant that we humans of all creeds will be guided more and more to love neighbor as self; and when we fail, may God continue to call chaplains to step forward to care for the fearful and the suffering, and for those who serve their needs.

Monday, September 05, 2011

When Your Sibling Sins Against You: Reflections on Proper 18, Year A

This sermon or something like it was preached September 4, 2011, at St. Mary Magdalene Church, Kansas City.

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God'll cut you down
Sooner or later God'll cut you down

If you were paying attention to the lesson from Ezekiel, you can understand why this song came to mind.  “I have appointed you,” says God, “if I have sent a word through you, you are to proclaim it. If you proclaim it, and they don’t pay attention, they’re still accountable, but you are not. But if you fail to proclaim it, they are still accountable, but so are you.”

And you know that all around us, and all across the world, that is the subject of the sermon. I bet you could throw a rock, and hit a church where this is being preached: “Tell them that God’s going to cut them down!” And any of us who have heard that sermon – and who among us hasn’t heard that sermon? – know that they have a laundry list. They have a guidebook to give them the list of sings to talk about.

Go tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler, the gambler, the back biter
Tell 'em that God's gonna cut 'em down
Tell 'em that God's gonna cut 'em down

And I have a problem with that. I don’t them they’re on the right track. I don’t think they’re paying attention to what Jesus said.

That’s not to say that we couldn’t talk about sin. I thought about preaching about sin. The thing is, I don’t really think there’s that much to say. Paul gave us the important handle on sin when he quoted Jesus, who quoted Leviticus. Paul said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. All the other commandments are covered if you love your neighbor as yourself.” And that’s the point. We could actually talk for a long time about sin. We could talk about original sin, or about sin as part of the environment we live in, or about the fallenness of creation. But at some point it comes down to this loving neighbor as self. The point where we experience sin is when someone fails to love us as we think they would love themselves – or when we fail to love someone as we would love ourselves.

And so we come to the Gospel. Jesus is talking to the disciples, to the gathered community. “When a brother sins against you…” – note that the word here is “brother.” Jesus is talking about siblings in the community, in the Church. I think we need to hold these things together. The word in Greek is “brother;” and while we think of it as a sibling in Christ, we need to appreciate that is applies when our relationships are at their most intimate. That’s when our sins are most difficult. It is when those closest to us fail us that we are most hurt; and when we fail those closest to us that we are most guilty.

And in that moment, Jesus tells us to do something difficult: “When a brother sins against you, go to that person individually; because if you can reconcile at that point, you’re saved the relationship.” Of course, our reaction is, “Lord, do I have to? Can’t I just let this slide? After all, it wasn’t that bad. That person isn’t that bad. Can’t we just let that pass?”

But, Jesus says to go, to reach that person, to save that relationship. It’s important to see this in context. The paragraph before this Gospel lesson is Jesus telling the parable of the lost sheep. “Don’t lose any of these little ones,” he says. “If you have a hundred sheep, and one goes missing, you leave the ninety nine and go looking for that one, however hard it is. And if a brother sins against you, go to him individually to try to save the relationship.” It’s about saving the relationship, about reconciling with that sibling in Christ. And if it doesn’t work one on one, take two witnesses with you – but not as witnesses about how God’s going to – well you know the song. Take two persons to witness how committed you are to saving the relationship. Take them for consultation to show how far you’ll go, even to the point of hearing about yourself. And if it still doesn’t work, take it before the whole congregation. And if you still can’t reconcile, then treat that person like a Gentile or a tax collector.

Now, once again this is a place where I think folks go wrong. There are Christian communities that take this very seriously – Anabaptists and others. It is important to involve the congregation. Confession is before the whole congregation. And if the person won’t confess, then the congregation treats them “ as a Gentile and a tax collector:” they cut them off. We call that shunning.

But as much as I respect their commitment to the faith, I think once again they’ve missed the point. Specifically, they’ve missed just how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. Like the tax collector that Jesus called to be one of the Twelve. Like the Gentile woman who taught Jesus that messiahship went beyond the people of Israel. Jesus didn’t cut off Gentiles and tax collectors. He reached out to them. He partied with folks that others wouldn’t be seen with, tax collectors and prostitutes, and said his mission was especially for them. He didn’t cut them off. He continually went after them.

And so it is for us. If we are to treat them as Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors, then we can’t cut them off. Even if with the support and consultation of the entire congregation the relationship can’t be reconciled, you don’t just give up. You keep trying, you keep hoping, you keep praying. No, it may not work. But like Jesus, you don’t give up. And he has promised us that, even when it isn’t working, Jesus will be with us.

Now, we are surrounded these days by folks that seem more interested in who God will cut down, or at least who must be cut off, than in bringing folks together. It has become a part of our political discourse. It has infected the debates among some Christians. It is all around us, and so many for one reason or another want to work out, not how to reconcile, but who to shun.

And we know that reconciliation can be difficult. Every one of us has someone around that each of us considers the most stubborn person in the world. (I won’t give the list of those who think that of me!) Sometimes it can seem easier to just give up.

But, that is not how Jesus has instructed to us. When your sibling in Christ, however close, sins against you, do what you can to reconcile. Try it in person. Get consultation. Get consultation even from the whole congregation. And if after all of that you can’t reconcile, don’t give up. Keep trying, keep hoping, keep praying. And trust that Jesus wll be with you. Whenever two or three are gathered, Jesus will be with you. Even when it isn’t working, even when you can’t reconcile, even when you’re the one who did the sinning, remember that he said he would be there whenever two or three are gathered. So, when your sibling sins against you – and certainly when you sin against your sibling – work to reconcile. Keep trying, keep hoping, keep praying; and trust that, even when it doesn’t seem to be working, know that Jesus will always be with you.