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WHAT WENT WRONG?

I used to have a picture of a sign. It read, “The Bishop is Coming. Hand in your guns when you come to meet him”, or words to that effect. The sign was probably a fake. It was supposed to be an advertisement for a visit of a ‘missionary bishop’ to a community in Montana, I think, in the 19th. Century. That was the age of expansion for the Episcopal Church. Bishops like Wipple and my favorite John Hobart Hare of the Dakotas followed the settlers west or sought to evangelize, and champion, in their own Victorian way, the Native American nations conquered by an application of Manifest Destiny. Men like Hare, despite his championing of dreadful boarding schools for the Lakota and Dakota, were vilified by white settlers, hungry for Indian land for their championing of their converts. When one reads of these bishops, traveling endless miles often in awful weather, using horse and buggy, one is astounded by their stamina and bravery. I love to re-read my copy of Hare’s biography particularly when I grumble about driving between missions in my air-conditioned car. 

 

It was said that the Baptists walked west, the Methodists came by stagecoach, and Episcopalians waited for the Pullman car. It’s a calumny with a basis in truth. Baptists and Methodists travelled light, full of Gospel zeal, to evangelize a largely unchurched populations who had lost their ties to community and their churches by moving westward in search of a new life. While these Christians organized for mission, the missionary activity of Episcopalians was burdened by a structure which had developed in the original colonies as established churches or at least members of long-established parishes. William Reed Huntingdon complained at Episcopalians were wedded to their colonial and gothic style buildings always looking back with nostalgia to English Anglicanism, a genre whose missionary memory was long dead. 

 

So Episcopalians were tied to creating a diocesan system, based on one church in one state, with a bishop, his staff and a collection of parishes. Many missionary bishops created cathedrals for themselves in the most unlikely places. The Constitution and Canons assumed a highly structured parochial and diocesan structure which if anything impeded mission and growth.

 

The pattern of evangelism was for a missionary bishop or priest visiting a community and calling a meeting of Episcopalians. In many of these places the wealthier settlers identified themselves with the church. They were merchants, bankers, lawyers, the upper crust in local towns and cities. Until about sixty years ago, this constituency of well-off people and their descendants kept parishes going. Many were attracted to our parishes from other denominations, particularly those who were upwardly mobile or whose livelihood was linked to wealth in a community. 

 

There are obvious lessons to be learnt from this history. Our present decline and systemic dysfunction is inherited from our ‘missionary’ strategy now deeply embedded in our collective DNA. The world has changed and if Episcopalianism is to survive, it must decide whether it is to be a missional church or stagger on as a structural church, yearning for former days when we were the wealthy and privileged at prayer.

A Theology of Baptism

I’ve chosen this title deliberately, despite the fact that to many, it is decidedly off-putting. I was in my early teens when an ancient priest, he must have been at least fifty-five, handed me a copy of CB Moss’s “The Christian Faith” and said “Read it.” He then remarked that the simple statement “God loves me” is a theological statement. I remember his saying that when a person sneezes, and we reply “God bless you”, whether we know it or not we are doing and applying theology. Even then, to many, perhaps most, not  excluding that teen age boy, theology seems a cold and legalistic exercise. In our thoroughly sentimental church, legalism implies coldness, lack of sympathy or compassion and probably an exclusive temperament. Think for a moment if one’s doctor, in prescribing a vital medicine, said, “Take them if you feel good about it.” Such a physician would be useless. Of course I don’t want to take the wretched pills, particularly when I consider the possible side-effects. If I’m told to eat small meals regularly – regular means by rule or law – does the rule cancel the advice? But we will return to the meal idea later.

I’ve just moved. I am looking for a local bank or credit union. I’ve been surfing the web to discover what I must do to open an account and transfer money from my present bank. I’ve discovered that I have to qualify, and there are rules to be observed and followed. In America I have to get a new license to drive upon changing states. It’s an irksome and frustrating system. Part of the process is reading a highway code. The main purpose of the rules is to make sure I drive safely, for my own protection and that of others who propel themselves from place to place in lethal chariots fueled by an infernal combustion engine. Law is necessary, even if one wishes that lawyers were not!

In this sense theology is necessary, if for no other reason than for my well being and that of the community we term the church. It is a pity that one has to preface an essay on baptism with such a preamble. As far as I am aware and can conclude, what we term baptism is under two assault in the contemporary church. The first stems from sentimentalism. It is proposed that the necessity for baptism as an entrance to the other sacraments is exclusionary and thus legalistic and oppressive. It is exclusionary, we are told, because it erects a barrier between the seeker and God’s love. It is oppressive because it creates a class of people, the unbaptized, excluded from receiving holy communion simply because they haven’t undergone a ritual ceremony. This second point is only cogent if indeed there’s nothing much to baptism, it’s a church rite that can be got round to in due course once a person has been included fully into the worshipping community; has been loved and made welcome.

Sensing that such a practical devaluation of what baptism has been perceived to be, some are now actually seeking to create a theology to justify moving baptism from its role as the act of incorporation into the Body of Christ. It is proposed that as God, in creating women and men in God’s image has already claimed the human race as God’s own,  “behold it is good.” Of course this is no new revelation, or even bad theology. It’s a beginning. Such an acceptance teaches us to honor all human beings.  As we are predisposed to prejudice, as we seem to need to create categories of human beings, some to embrace and some to reject, the wonderful ideal that all humans are part of God’s act of love in a good creation is vital. So far, so good. However surely that isn’t the whole story. If  it were, all rites which demonstrate God’s goodness, God’s love should be accessible to all people. Yet, as we have just noticed, we are prone to practice segregation. Doesn’t that idea lead us somewhere? Something is obviously wrong. God created us, and that is good. We refuse to share that goodness with others. That is bad. Bad is a theological concept with devastatingly bad implications. This creation, made good by a loving God, is capable of dreadful inhumanity; failure to be human. Failing to be fully human is a failure to mirror the image and likeness of God.

Christians have explained this failure, this disowning of the nature created in his image, by the Doctrine of the Fall. The dusty old Articles of Religion, more theology, remarks that we are “very far gone from original righteousness.” “Righteousness” doesn’t mean acting in a righteous way, (it is not the same as self-righteousness)  it means living, being images of the creator God. In short we are flawed. The Creeds, those tables of contents outlining what a Christian believes, assert that baptism is for the remission of sins. Remission, or forgiveness usually means ‘loosing away’ or ‘sending away’ and thus making whole. In short because we have something which needs to be ‘loosened away’ or ‘sent away’ we are unable to be fully human, or if you will God-like. Of course baptism is about incorporation, adoption, being Spirit-filled, but all these actions of God to usward, require our being restored to wholeness.

Let’s pause here for a moment. For at once the thought occurs that if we perceive ourselves to be restored to God’s love, we also assert, or seem to, that we are in some manner more valuable or better than those who have not been made new. Part of Jesus’ beef with his own people was that in their owning to be a chosen race, a special people, they had become exclusive, racially superior -see how they viewed the Samaritans – and not like those ‘dogs’ the Gentiles. Being made different surely leads to self-righteousness and prejudice? How may we, to use the words of the Baptismal Covenant, “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” if we perceive that we are unlike the unbaptized? Now follows a litany of all the prejudice and bigotry practiced by Christians towards others. We may leave aside the hatred exhibited by non-Christians towards Christians. Two wrongs don’t make a right. In the world today many of us are perhaps more sensitive to this glaring problem than has always been true. We begin to explain this problem in much the same manner as those Christians who after the Reformation noted that many baptized Christians didn’t behave like Christians, ergo baptism is merely a ceremony, required by Jesus for some unknown reason, but ineffectual. In order to advance another view, it is often necessary to devalue that which had been taken for granted, that baptism works. To those Christians conversion seemed to be the answer. Our modern reformers posit the idea of the Goodness of God in creation, as a replacement for a robust theology of Baptism.

In his opening words to his treatment of “The Body and Blood of Christ”, in his OF THE ECCLESIASTICAL POLITY Richard Hooker, our first great Anglican theologian wrote: “The grace which we have by the holy Eucharist doth not begin but continue life. No man therefore receiveth this sacrament before Baptism, because no dead thing is capable of nourishment. That which groweth must of necessity first live. If our bodies did not daily waste, food to restore them were a thing superfluous. And it may be that the grace of baptism would serve to eternal life, were it not that the state of our spiritual being is daily so much hindered and impaired after baptism. In that life therefore where neither body nor soul can decay, our souls shall as little require this sacrament as our bodies corporal nourishment, but as long as the days of our warfare last, during the time that we are both subject to diminution and capable of augmentation in grace, the words of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ will remain forcible, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.”

In Baptism we are “born from above”, loosen and unbound of sin, and made part of God’s advance party here to claim back the world for God. Once re-born, we are strengthened for service by the Eucharist, because we continually fall, exclude, hurt and destroy other human beings, and offend God in so many other ways. So Baptism doesn’t make us better, although it provides a remedy for the ‘disease’ with which we suffer throughout life. It empowers us to be servants of God. The Eucharist isn’t a shared meal to grant some kind of vague blessing from God to all creation, a gratuitous act of loving kindness or inclusion. The Eucharist is the food to be taken regularly by those sent as servants, not superiors, to act for God in love in the world.  By receiving Christ, after acknowledging our faults, we acknowledge that we are part of God’s chosen ambassador-corp, on a mission for God. Is such a vision legalistic theology, or empowering loving grace?

FIRST SERMON IN MY NEW CURES

I preached the following on Rogation Sunday, 2012 at St. Bartholomew’s, Granite City and St. Thomas’ Glen Carbon, IL

 

SERMON FOR EASTER SIX

 

 

 

I begin on a busy Sunday.  Of course it’s Mothers’ Day according to St. Hallmark.  It’s also Rogation Sunday, and it’s the Sixth Sunday in the Easter season. Fortunately for me, there’s a common theme running through the lessons which link up these themes.

 

When I was a boy, this was an exciting Sunday. A plough was brought into church, and blessed. After Mass we all climbed onto a farm cart, servers, choir and priest still vested, and we began our journey around the boundaries of the parish, stopping to bless fields and farms, treated to mugs of beer, so that when we arrived back at the church we were a merry bunch.

 

In the Church of England a parish is a geographical area, containing all the dwellings and people who live in the village. Of course not all come to church or are Anglicans, but the vicar is available to all and is charged to care for all. It’s all about the church being something to do with community and not just about those who attend on Sunday. If you will, the community is family.

 

Those who attend church, together with the priest, represent that greater family to God and God’s love and care to the community. That’s a concept to which we will return often.

 

Rogation Sunday marks the beginning of the agricultural season. Winter is over, crops are being planted, and so we ask God to bless “all good things around us” and to remember that they are “sent from heaven above” as the old hymn puts it.

 

We tend to forget that truth as we shop in the grocery store and supermarket. God gets left out of frozen foods and cans of vegetables.

 

In the Gospel today Jesus tells his chosen followers that they are his friends. Friendship has something to do with the wider family. A true friendship is a relationship of care and trust. One knows that friends stick around even when we seem unlovable and we stick with them even when they disappoint us.

 

You and I became friends of Jesus – more than friends – when we were baptized. In baptism we were made adopted children of God, not because we are good, but because God made us and loves us. In this Resurrection season we cling to the great truth that because Jesus died and rose again, we have died to sin and risen to a new life. The Resurrection means that God has re-claimed this world, the fields in which the crops grow and the people of the earth, including those in the communities in which we live.

 

If you will there are two types of relationship, of family, involved. All people, whoever they are, are part of us because we are all created by God.

 

Among these created people are the baptized. Those who have been through the holy water, you and me, are not better than the rest of the human race, or kinder, or more moral even. No the thing is that we have been called to serve the God who made us and all other people and the world which belongs to God. Start thinking that you are better than others, and you will very soon become useless to God.

 

Well, you may think, aren’t we God’s friends in order to get into Heaven?  That would be sort of selfish don’t you think?  Being “saved” means being called into God’s Kingdom. Getting into heaven, or the new heaven and earth which God is going to make, is God’s gift. You can’t earn a gift or buy one. It is given.  All you can do is say thank you.

 

So we gather here today as God’s family, the friends of Jesus, to meet with Jesus in this holy meal, to be strengthened for service, bound together in unity, forgiven corporately and individually and then sent into the world to love and serve the Lord.

 

And as we give thanks for our mother’s and the mothers and grandmothers here today, we can give thanks for the Mother of Jesus and all the saints who are part of the family and friends of Jesus, including our own mothers who we sometimes call dead, but who are alive and surround us with their perfect prayers and love.  That is what we mean by the Communion of Saints when we recite the Creed.  The boundaries of God’s Kingdom are far wider than these church walls, or of the town in which we live, or the nation, or the world.  God’s territory is as wide as all creation and his love shines through the planets and the stars and the universes.

 

So we begin together today. Pray for me as I will pray for you. Let us work together to be worthy of our status; friends of Jesus and members of God’s family called to serve God in the communities where we live and where this church building is planted..

TRANSITIONS

Towards the end of last month I had a birthday. One normally marks decades, and receives cards making rude remarks about one’s age. My birthday didn’t mark a decade, but rather signaled that moment when the Episcopal Church, by Canon, decrees that its clergy must retire. It would be interesting to discover how General Convention came to the conclusion that seventy-two years marks the expiration date on the label. Seventy might have been logical: seventy-five perhaps too antique, although the present Bishop of Rome, in another jurisdiction, is still in office in his mid-eighties. Of course Rome doesn’t cover too much territory!  I gather that venerable prelate has other responsibilities too.

 

In the early days of the Episcopal Church it was assumed that clergy retired when they died. In the case of bishops this policy, based on an early church tradition, resulted in bishops serving even when they reached the stage when they attempted to ordain brass knobs on communion rails. So assistant bishops were appointed, men (in those days) who were spry youngsters in their sixties. Following that, the office of bishop coadjutor was created, by which a bishop was elected with the right to succeed when the diocesan bishop expired. Such bishops were rumored to ask the sitting bishop how he felt on frequent occasions. Rectors just staggered on, and unless their parishes could afford curates, they did so unaided. I met a priest, Fr. Frank Hawker Kingdon, who died in office in his CofE parish at the wonderful age of 97.

 

But no, this isn’t another rant about the retirement age. Last Sunday I said my farewells to the parishioners of St. Paul’s, La Porte, Indiana. I’m writing this in an echoing rectory. The movers came yesterday. I’ slept last night on an air bed, designed for one person. Now it’s an upscale model. One plugs it in and it inflates to a reasonable size. I’ve yet to discover how to deflate it. I shared this limited space with my two dogs who couldn’t fathom why their space had shrunk. My cat attempted to join us, but gave up in disgust. I found it easy to get on this contraption. Getting off it was another matter. After an attempt which threatened to dump me prone on the floor, I managed an unseemly shuffle, feet down, body towards the bed, a push up, hand on the wall and then a turn which propelled me to my feet, an interesting maneuver in the middle of the night as nature called. Such a lack of dexterity no doubt proves the point of a retirement age.

 

Thus for some brief days, I am without parochial responsibility. The vital aspects of ministry, ‘the Calendar says it’s white tomorrow but isn’t it St. Vitus Day Father?’, ‘the toilet in the lady’s room is blocked Father’, ‘why didn’t you go to see Nora (or Jim, let’s be PC) in hospital – no you weren’t told he/she was ill but you should have known,’ are absent from my life. It’s all rather strange. What on earth shall I do with myself? Someone emailed me to suggest I write my biography. I’m afraid too many people are still alive though. I don’t play golf, having forsaken all forms of muscular Christianity when I was a youth as a religious discipline. I’ve never had the impulse to chase balls of various sizes in order to get them through or over poles or into tiny holes. I realize that most people seem to think my lack of interest in such things to be a character flaw. But one only has time for a limited number of those.

 

During the past few weeks a number of people have said they will miss my sermons and bible studies – one said I should have been a professor, did that mean I should not have been a priest? Those I’ve ministered to through illnesses or personal crisis have been appreciative. It’s odd that they are the only ones, or nearly the only ones in a parish who don’t give one a hard time. Let me hasten to say that this parish, or rather what is now my former parish has seen me through a broken hip, a broken wrist and a broken leg, chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem-cell transplant all in the space of four years. Their prayers and care have seen me through. I shall always be grateful.

 

There have been lovely moments in this process too. My bishop took me out for lunch. Some of the diocesan clergy hosted a lunch for me at an upscale eatery on the campus of Notre Dame. A host of ‘Facebook’ friends have bidden me Godspeed. Even the tellers at my bank and the ladies at the pharmacy, where I am a very regular customer, have wished me fond goodbyes. The Church Pension Fund promptly send me a generous relocation check and my first pension payment arrived on time. Battling with the Medicare bureaucrats has been another matter. I won’t tell. Who knows who reads my blog?

 

What shall I do with myself?  Well, instead of caring for one parish, I’m to pastor two missions, which neither singularly nor collectively can afford a full-time priest. My younger son flies in tonight. He will drive with me to my new home, provided for me,  and stay to help me unpack, bless him. Each Sunday I will lead worship in one at 8.45am – it’s a twenty minute drive – and then I’ll hasten back to the other for a 10.30 am Eucharist. During the week I shall continue to do that which a priest does and that will now include two vestry meetings a month. I don’t think I have any worries about how to occupy myself in ‘retirement’ which is all to the good. To tell you the truth, I’m rather excited.