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Too Safe to Save: TREC’s final report

I went to work for Barnes & Noble when I started grad school. The store was in Downtown Crossing in Boston, across from Filene’s Basement. It closed some years ago. Last I heard, the doors were locked and the space has been unused for several years.

I worked for Barnes & Noble for several years in several places: Boston, Lansing, East Lansing, and Saginaw over the course of 7 years. My wife worked there even longer. We remain big supporters of Barnes & Noble; a company built on the myth of its founder, Len Riggio who, as a college student, thought he could build a better book store than the one at his school. And he totally did.

That first Barnes & Noble was built on customer service and his legacy is a company built on that service. But when the market began to dry up in the 2000s, that service began to fizzle. Each year, the stores we worked for were expected to cut hours and cut staff. Each year, fewer booksellers were employed to help customers, which means increasing frustration for everyone.

The management is perpetually caught in a bind. More than one manager complained to me that they were mandated to spend certain numbers of hours keeping each register open, but were not given the number of hours to actually do so. When the managers asked the district managers for guidance, they were told to figure out how to make the impossible a reality.

The accounting side of this conundrum calls this change efficiency. They were able to get more work from fewer employees. Many of us put a brave face on doing more with less time. And it may honestly be the only thing that saved the company as its competitors fell apart.

Efficiency came at a price. Fewer opportunities for service, more stress on employees and management, a constant pursuit of stability that would never be realized, increased turnover, lower customer service ratings, further market erosion. A death spiral.

Photo Credit: Matty Ring via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Matty Ring via Compfight cc

Reading the final report of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC), I am struck most by the knowledge the TREC has of our own death spiral. I am also struck that their solution is to ultimately double-down on the corporate culture that produced a bloated and inefficient Episcopal Church in the first place.

As the Crusty Old Dean described several years ago, our corporate CEO image of the Presiding Bishop is a modern invention, bearing the marks of a couple trying to keep up with the Jones’ (let’s get one of those fancy leaders to represent us). The final report directly names the comparison and suggests that “streamlining” the structure would allow our CEO to get more done.

The character of the report’s introduction (you can read the whole thing here if you’re into policy documents: otherwise, just read this excellent summary or this thorough response) takes its direction from Scripture and sounds right. It’s when TREC proposes stuff that it begins to fall apart. Because the proposals don’t feel as if they are based in the Luke passage from the beginning: a passage of sending disciples out. It is full of corporate efficiency-seeking and, in those places, reads like a memo to shareholders.

Some of its suggestions are quite welcome, including a unicameral General Convention and moving the whole organization to seek assistance from those with expertise, rather than having us poll the whole body of disgruntled people to find out that they don’t want any of your fancy shmancy change.

The report delivers only on one mandate: how to streamline the Episcopal Church and General Convention. But it fails to deliver similar guidance on the most pressing issues of vitality, viability, and communication to and within our disparate congregations.

To me, the most compelling line in the whole document is on page 2 after reading about Jesus compelling the disciples to go out into the world, traveling lightly:

We invite local congregations, dioceses, and the wider Church structures to enter into a season of sustained focus on what it means for us in this moment, in our various local contexts, to follow Jesus, together, into the neighborhood, and to travel lightly.

The report doesn’t even try to show us how to do that, or to be frank, tell us why we should. know why we should. And you may know why we should, but do our people? And will they even now? Instead we get opaque references that seem to be insider nods to combining dioceses and new names for emergence ministries and fresh expressions are referenced and yet no money is actually directed there.

What it does do, however, is speak incessantly about accountability. All over the place. Musicians reporting to bishops. Bishops reporting to General Convention. Dioceses reporting to General Convention. The Presiding Bishop reporting to Gen… wait a second. That’s a lot of reporting to General Convention. The one just cut in half and smushed into one body. And don’t forget all of the many, many mutual ministry reviews.

Again, more corporatizing of our structure. And nothing says nimble, 21st Century structure like written reports to indirect supervisors.

Photo Credit: Wiertz Sébastien via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Wiertz Sébastien via Compfight cc

What Should Have Been

The report reads precisely like the sausage-making that no doubt went into it. This is perhaps the most depressing part.

The Task Force’s vision of the problem and the opportunity is straight on. I mean it. Like, I wanted to jump up and pump my fist in the air straight on. Their description of the church is prophetic and wise. The problem is found in the solutions, however, which vacillate between too small and specific to too pass-the-buck indifferent. One is left feeling like we are looking at the best option available to us, and it is a pile of over-seasoned spinach. But it is spinach that is closer to edible than what is on our plates, so at least there’s that.

But oh, what could have been…

No, what should have been is more than this.

  • The Task Force should have gone bigger and made us stretch more.
  • Or it should have gone smaller and targeted one of our real problems directly, inviting us to tackle the next big thing in 2018.
  • Or it should have expected more from us, and not let its responders off the hook for saying that what we love about our church is the community and the people, but when asked what we need to change we shouted “get off our lawn!” er- “don’t touch our liturgy!”
  • Or it should have schooled the Church, saying the problem isn’t structural or solvable by General Convention or fixed through the same proposals and funding patterns we started with: our problem is cultural. Then demanded we reallocate our finances in such a way as to promote evangelism and new ministries (like the introduction seems to advocate). But actually make that the whole thing and the centerpiece of their work.
  • Or they should have told us that their mandate was bigger in theory than in practice, they didn’t have enough time or resources to do much better, and there is no political will for the report that we most desperately need. That what we have is only a taste of what we should be getting.

What we didn’t need was big structural change that will create virtually none of the change locally that the report actually recommends.

Today, the needs of my church didn’t change. The challenge to get out and do stuff while also making greater use of our buildings are the most useful parts of this report, because they actually direct our behavior and could profoundly impact our lives together. And I totally believe it is what is needed to give direction to the church.

Perhaps now we are better off worrying less about the proposals, and instead read the report’s prophetic vision for the church as honest expectation.

 

The Opening Act

John the Baptizer and the new thing he creates

a Homily for Advent 3B  |  Texts: John 1:6-8,19-28

The messiah is in the wilderness, among the people seeking repentance. He isn’t in Jerusalem with the Pharisees. He isn’t judging or obsessing over the rules. He isn’t kicking out the people who don’t follow the rules, which the leaders wrote then enforce. Soon enough he’ll be breaking those rules to point the Pharisees toward GOD’s rules.

Photo Credit: Ian Sane via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Ian Sane via Compfight cc

read the text while you listen!

The Opening Act

The vivid opening to the Gospel According to John

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.

It begins at the beginning of everything and declares that He was there. The He that the evangelist calls the Word. He was there with GOD.

The evangelist we call John begins his telling of the good news of Jesus Christ by locating Jesus in the beginning of everything. In the beginning was the Word it says. Not in the beginning of this story but in the beginning of everything!

This grand opening to John is prologue to the book’s first action. The narrative shifts to a different character. Not the Word. The one who would point to the Word. One we were introduced to last week, and doing pretty much the same thing he was doing last week. He’s baptizing people in a river. They call him John the Baptizer. And people are coming to him, to hear him, and to be cleansed.

In reading this text every year, I’ve never truly asked myself why John is doing this. I’ve wondered about baptism, curious about what it is exactly that John is doing and how it relates to what we do. And yet something about this story has stuck in the back of my mind like a cat digging into an afghan, refusing to be removed. Something doesn’t sit right with me.

And then I start to ask myself why this matters: why it always sticks with me. And this line of questioning leads me to a place I was trying not to go. I was embarrassed by the fact that I was never sure what baptism meant to Jewish people two thousand years ago. I didn’t know if they even did it. More specifically, whether or not they did baptism like this. Like what John is doing.

What was gnawing on me was this idea that something important was happening here, but we are all blind to it. We’re too busy thinking about baptism as we know it. We impose our understanding of baptism onto this story, which means that we aren’t paying much attention to what is really happening.

A Different Baptism

This is what I do know.

Water and baptism were used for ritual purification. When people lost their ritual purity, either through touching something they weren’t supposed to, eating something they weren’t supposed to, or they had their monthly menstruation, the person would become “unclean” and would need to be made clean again through a ritual of washing and immersion.

To do this, people would see a priest at the Temple. They would also be expected to make a sacrifice to GOD. Then they could be washed of their impurity.

We can hear these concepts as echoes in our understanding of baptism, can’t we? But this isn’t about the hypothetical sins that we may have committed or that later concept called original sin, with our being absolved once and for all, but those physical acts which deprive us of our purity, and the routine exercising of repenting, sacrificing, and washing. The focus is different. It is ritual, physical, and repeatable. It isn’t metaphysical. It isn’t babies vs. adults. It isn’t about heaven and hell. It isn’t about creating the concept of purgatory to keep babies out of hell. It is about relationship with GOD: being right with GOD and restoring that relationship.

Why the story matters

So, here’s why I have come to think the story matters.

The Pharisees come up to John the Baptizer and they’re like

What do you think you’re doing?

And John is all

What does it look like? I’m in the middle of baptizing people.

And they say

But who said you could? You didn’t go to seminary. You weren’t ordained by a bishop.

And John’s response is

Well, GOD, man. It’s GOD.

John is on the other side of the river from Jerusalem, where the Temple is. I think this has deep resonance with his action: that he is putting himself on the other side from the Temple leadership. He’s doing these unsanctioned baptisms, without the blood sacrifice of animals, and without his being a priest. The Pharisees say that they would be OK with this if they actually thought John were the Messiah, but they don’t think he is anyway. They just seem interested in nailing him for these outlaw baptisms: these unlicensed ritual purifications. Today, we would call this seeking ecclesiastical discipline.

This is the telling theme of the wider story: these people are unable to see GOD in their midst, because they are too busy focusing on the imperfections of this religious weirdo. They want to trap him and have him punished. But they can’t see that GOD is actually doing a new thing here.

John messes with them (and with us) with his response. It is cryptic.

Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.

John is breaking the rules, declaring GOD’s purifying grace upon the repentant, and bringing the people’s awareness to the Messiah who is not so much as coming: the Messiah is already here! He is in the crowd. He is standing right beside you. He says to them. Next to him, I am nothing.

Into the Wilds

John is doing a new thing. He is transforming how people relate to ritual purification, saying this isn’t about the person or the location: it is on you. Do you repent? Do you seek to actually become different. Do you want something of a do over or a new start? Then come, let’s do this. Not with all the visuals and all the fanciness. Not with the exclusionary financial burden of Temple sacrifice. Not at the whim of the leaders. Not in the place where prophets are killed and torture is how things get done. Out here, on the other side of the river. Where things are different.

But what makes it truly different is not the location: out in the wilds: it is John’s declaration that the Messiah is there with them.

The messiah is in the wilderness, among the people seeking repentance. He isn’t in Jerusalem with the Pharisees. He isn’t judging or obsessing over the rules. He isn’t kicking out the people who don’t follow the rules, which the leaders wrote then enforce. Soon enough he’ll be breaking those rules to point the Pharisees toward GOD’s rules.

The messiah is part of the new thing. This crazy, disturbing, countercultural new thing: the thing that is upsetting and troubling to the powerful, but calls out to the people with true authority. This new thing calls them out into the wilds. It is calling to us.

Come, come to the river!

Where are our wilds? Where are the places where the Messiah already is? The places where new things are being created. The places where new hope is offered and new repentance is given?  That is where the Messiah already is. We are told in our scripture where to look for these places: with those struggling for justice and those scraping enough to eat. With the victims of torture and those in prison. With those who grieve and with those whose work for GOD increases when times get hard.

And we have 10 more days to get this place ready. Ten days to build that sense of hope and a renewed culture of repentance and forgiveness. Ten days to rediscover the Bethany-side banks of the Jordan and do a new thing, like rebellious prophets, making straight the way of the Lord.

Our ten days to get right with GOD, building, giving, loving the Christ that is coming, the Messiah already in our midst.

Hard Truth For Today’s Problem

Belief

Believing “they have always done it” does not make it right.
Thinking “they must’ve deserved it” does not mean they did.
Fearing for your life does not justify your taking theirs.
Holding a weapon doesn’t make you safe.
Choosing the easier route for yourself may make it harder for someone else.
Supporting only people you like ensures that there will be people you don’t.

 

Instead

 

I Believe

Believing in a person might make you right in the end.
Seeking an end to injustice also brings an end to the need to blame.
Taking responsibility for your own actions sets a better example than teaching them a lesson.
We are only safe when we make our neighbors more safe.
Eliminating suffering makes everyone’s life easier.
Instead of defeating our enemies, we should make more friends.

 

Because

 

I Want

A better world
A better life
A just society
To give thanks
To rejoice at creation
To be too busy making a better world to put up with all that other BS.

 

And if you want the same?

 

Make a Better Advent

Repent for the crap you carry (because we all have some).
Forgive yourself.
Forgive your neighbor for the crap they are still carrying.
Make time for reflection
Make time for discernment
Make time to plan to make the world a better place

 

Because

 

Advent Means

Jesus is coming
Jesus is here
Jesus never left
GOD promised
GOD came
GOD remained
The Spirit woke us
The Spirit provoked us
The Spirit enlivens our souls

 

To Be Continued

The never-ending story of GOD

a Homily for Advent 2B  |  Text: Mark 1:1-8

 

reading

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read along as you listen!

The Beginning

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

This gospel, given to us by the writer we call Mark, opens with a declaration of beginning. It does not say this is the beginning, for it is not the only beginning of the gospel. Nor is it the only way to enter into the gospel. The evangelist doesn’t want us to mistake his writing for the gospel itself. He is pointing us toward the gospel, the good news.

And so we gather to hear the gospel with new eyes, in this new liturgical year, brought to us with great anticipation in Advent. It is appropriate that we return now to the beginning.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. it begins. The beginning of the good news. And what does the good news center on? Jesus. But the evangelist doesn’t simply call him Jesus. He doesn’t begin with Jesus of Nazareth, the more common name for Jesus in his historical context. Not Jesus the Nazarene. He is already declared by the evangelist, before we are past the first sentence in this gospel that Jesus is the Christ: the Messiah, the one spoken of.

And then the final clause; we cannot forget that: the Son of God.

The evangelist has given us an introduction that tells us what we are about to read, who we are about to meet, and the very stakes of the conversation. This is not about a new leader or another prophet. This story is about the coming of the Son of God.

And we start at the beginning. This is good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But in the story, the Son has not yet arrived. The story begins before the good news is realized.

Or perhaps, realized by all but a few.

Our Misunderstanding

We begin the year with John the Baptizer, this prophet who proclaims the coming Christ. We don’t get to see Jesus yet. In this telling, John is not a cousin, nor are we waiting for the baby to be born. Here we are waiting for the Christ to come.

And the story begins with John and his prophetic message of repentance. And it begins with the large crowds of people, coming out to the Jordan to be baptized. We are instantly reminded that these people have come, not to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. They have come to hear the message that this prophet is proclaiming. They aren’t coming to meet Jesus through a person’s preaching, but to find something deeper and much less specific. They are coming to find the grace of GOD offered by a fiery prophet. They come to John to receive grace and John offers them some. But he tells them that more will come from the one who comes after him.

Nothing speaks to the confusion of the coming of Christ better than our confusion over this season.

To be accurate, we are at least roughly familiar with the idea that we are not in the Christmas Season yet. The Christmas Season starts with Christmas, it doesn’t end on Christmas. But I’m not as much a stickler about decorating as I’m taken for. The problem we have in getting this detail wrong is essential to our understanding of what we are indeed preparing for.

The Word Never Left

We read how John the Baptizer quotes 2nd Isaiah about “the one crying out in the wilderness.” And when we read the passage from which this is drawn, we hear:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

Which all sounds very Jesusy to our ears, doesn’t it? But hear it, instead in 2nd Isaiah’s context from within the Babylonian Exile. The people were divided and half are pulled from their homes to live a generation in the wilderness of another civilization far from home. These people, who are struggling, do not know where GOD is or if GOD is even around anymore and many have lost hope and are thinking of throwing in the towel and becoming Babylonians. Others are scheming of ways to get back home. And here is the prophet calling out, not to GOD, but to the people to ease the suffering. GOD is saying that our people have suffered enough she says.

This cry, like the cry we gave last week for GOD to “tear open the heavens” so that GOD can come and help us now. Our people are suffering. Our people in Ferguson and Cleveland and New York and Indianapolis and Terre Haute. We are doing more than waiting, we are calling, we are searching, we are going out into the wilderness to find word of what GOD is doing.

And it is out there that we instead hear back that we bear the cause of one another’s suffering, but also the solution. Because we forget that GOD never left us. That when Jesus was born, it didn’t mean GOD wasn’t with us before and when Jesus ascended, it didn’t mean that GOD had left us. GOD came to us as GOD continues to be with us, as GOD promised to come being-there-howsoever-GOD-will-be-there.

This is why we aren’t preparing for a birthday of one who has left us, but as a remembering of GOD’s sacrifice as a marker of what GOD always does; who GOD always is.

To Be Continued

Now, I’ve just made the mistake of preaching a Christmas sermon in Advent. This is the occupational hazard of a story that is truly only understood as a whole story. That preaching the birth of Christ is only honest when we preach the life of Christ. And the life of Christ is only honest when we preach the death of Christ. And the death of Christ is only honest when we preach the rebirth, and the ascension, and the apostles, and the Pentecost. And all of that is but a part of the gospel.

The story we tell, what we call the gospel is not a biography of Jesus. There is only one gospel and that is the Word. What we have in the Bible are small bits of the gospel from four different perspectives. And each has a beginning. A beginning that is not about the birth of a hero. But a beginning that reveals again a great relationship between GOD and the people.

It is a story that continues beyond the words on the page and beyond the scope of our lives. A story that involves our ancestors and will involve our descendents. A story of faith and life and trust. A story of doubt and death and deceit. And the one constant, the one most powerful message is that unlike us, GOD keeps promises.

A promise of favor and hope mercy. A promise which comes through repentance.

This second week, we continue with our message of hopeful expectation and with our ongoing cries in the darkness for the coming of the light. Let us also prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. Not specifically in the manger or in the clouds, or any of the specific ways described in Scripture. But in the people we know and in the people we will meet. In the moments of stillness and in raucous parties we throw. In the solemn care we give to gift giving and the thankful effort we give in feeding strangers. Let us be prepared for the coming of Christ in all the ways that Christ will come.

Because the one thing we completely forget about this time of year, every single year is that we are preparing for the arrival of someone who is already here: a houseguest who never left. A Christ who will forgive our sins and be with us in our suffering. A Christ revealing himself on our streets and in our classrooms and in our soup kitchens and in all those places we’ve been told to find him.

Ours is a dinner party for a guest helping us in the kitchen and being entertained in the den. A guest who isn’t a guest, but a friend. A friend who wants to celebrate with us. A friend who is constantly on us to expand the guest list. May we prepare with this spirit of repentance and profound hope.

 

Ghettoed Suffering: a Reflection on World AIDS Day

red ribbon in palm

Photo Credit: Sham Hardy via Compfight cc

I drove across town to Maple Avenue United Methodist Church. It was dark, cold; the streets were wet. I was running late, but thankfully it started late.

The room was nowhere near full. But it was diverse. Wide variety in ages, including college students and some much older. There was also ethnic and gender diversity. In some ways, this was much more comfortable for me than Sunday mornings.

Aside from the opening prayer, there was virtually no overtly religious feel to this service: a gathering of remembrance and hope for World AIDS Day. What there was, however, was palpable desire for community.

The first speaker described her son, who died of AIDS three months ago. Of course she is still grieving. Her tears were mixed with pleas for help. Not for herself, but for the people like her son.

Her son was gay. And he was diagnosed with HIV more than twenty years ago. He was a survivor.

He was also funny and loved by the people who knew him. At least those people who knew him away from home. Here, she said he felt alone and isolated. Even within the local gay community, he could not find support. He was stricken, diseased, like one with leprosy.

This mother’s witness to her son’s suffering moved me beyond measure. Her concern was not only for her son’s physical suffering, speaking to how he would pick at his sores (what a physical image to remember), but to his social and emotional suffering. He felt rejected by “his” people. He felt separated from those who are most likely to understand that suffering.

I would never pretend to understand: his experience, his mother’s, and the local gay community. Nor would I ascribe any ill will to them. This mother certainly wouldn’t. She wasn’t angry. She was hopeful. She was pleading to us to make a different world for someone else’s son.

The service was pretty and emotional; respectful and hopeful; and we were given a few calls to action. Get tested. Help spread the word. It was a positive experience.

In my car, I sat in silence for a moment and I cried for the suffering. The suffering of complete strangers. Of these survivors and these people left behind. This small group, gathered on a dark night in a church tucked away from the common spaces.

I want to be here, with these people and to witness to their suffering. But the “here” was gnawing at me. This is the place that people could gather for World AIDS Day. This may be the only church that could be the event’s home. Perhaps, tucked away, it is the only place many of those there felt safe.

I cried because I wasn’t sure that our church would be any better of a home for this event.

I cried because all of this suffering is in silence and in darkness. Suffering happening with only the closest of family members and the true friends that stick it out until the end. An end that could come very fast or take more than 25 years.

I cried because this disease doesn’t just kill our bodies, but it kills our spirits. It kills our ability to be intimate: not just as a euphemism for sex, but in its truest sense. It kills our healthy cells and replaces them with fear.

As I drove home, the quiet car and the hum of road noise didn’t match the volume in my head. The darkness outside matched the season’s theme so earnestly: the memory of the candles we lit in the service reminded me of the flame kindled from Sunday morning. Advent began in our cold worship space (the heat wasn’t working) with a single candle lit, alone with three friends still waiting to join him.

Alone among friends.

Perhaps our gravest sin is found not in those spaces of intentional abuse and suffering, but in the multitude of ways we perpetuate suffering. Our fears. Our cynicism. Our hatred spilling forth and over those already suffering. Those people whose great desire is for us to simply treat them as people and their suffering as real.  While we, afraid of the contact, of even human touch, reject them.

As if sympathy is more contagious than a disease. And we’d rather stay cynical.