Convention Address 2014

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

One Bread, One Body, One Lord of All, One cup of Blessing which we bless
And we though many throughout the earth, we are one Body in this one Lord.

So we sang at the Eucharist last evening as we received what we are through grace and what we are called to be for the world—the Body and Blood of Christ. This hymn inspired the theme for this convention, a convention that embodies this truth through the presence of our partners and friends in Christ, the Rt. Rev. Oscar Stephen Mnung’a, bishop of our diosisi rafki, which translates friend diocese, the Diocese of Newala. In addition to serving as Bishop of Newala, Bishop Oscar serves as Dean of the Province of Tanzania and President of the Christian Council of Tanzania, the equivalent of our National Council of Churches. We are also blessed by the presence of his wife Mama Agnes, and Sr. Helena Nogea of the Sisters of St. Mary. It is a joy to have them with us and it was a blessing to have Bishop Oscar preach at our Eucharist last night. I am sure you can see why those of us who traveled to Newala last year were so excited when we reported to you at our 2013 Convention. As I begin my pastoral address to this convention I wish to thank the Rev. Dr. Paula Harris, rector of St. Luke’s Madison and chair of our Companion Diocese Committee along with all of the Committee’s members, for all their work to make this visit come to pass.

I also wish to thank Diane Brown, Bob Heindl, Lee Klugiewicz, the Rev. Dorota Pruski and all the other volunteers who have worked so hard to make this convention come to pass. A special word of thanks is due to the new Executive Secretary of the Diocese, Deacon Marge Kiss, who faithfully over sees the minutes of this convention and gathered volunteers to stuff packets for our convention business.

Thanks is also due to the Nicholson House staff. This has also been a year of changes at Nicholson House. As you recall last year’s budget only funded the position of Canon to the Ordinary for half a year. The Rev. David Pfaff, concluded his work on June 30 and went forth with our prayers as he discerns the nature and place of his future ministry. In the spring, we welcomed our newest staff member, Marlyne Udovich, Finance Officer. Marlyne has brought new energy and vision to the position previously held by Diane Blank, and she is already proving herself to be an asset and blessing to us all. She is with us at this convention and I ask you to welcome her to the Diocese. I know you join me in offering thanks for the ministries and labors of the rest of the staff, Peggy Bean, Canon for Congregations, the Rev. Carla McCook, Bishop’s Assistant for Formation and Ministry, Barbara Klauber, and Patty Jaffke.

Finally, allow me to conclude these prefatory remarks by giving thanks for and to my family, my wife Cindy and our daughters Lauren and Haley. I am grateful for their love and support as I go about this ministry to which God has called me.

At our banquet last evening we honored with the Bishop’s Shield two persons, Charlie Bardenwerper, who has served tirelessly as Diocesan Historiographer for the last 17 years and Deacon REGS Scheeler, who was invaluable throughout the litigation surrounding the St. Edmund’s property and now as we move to the sale of the property. Earlier this year REGS organized the re-interment of the cremated remains that had been interred there. I am grateful to the people of St. Alban’s Sussex in helping us provide a new resting place in the St. Alban’s cemetery as are the families of those whose remains were transferred to this new site.

Speaking of property, I am pleased to report that we have accepted an offer on the building that formerly housed St. Nicholas, Racine. I ask your prayers as we seek to complete this sale in the coming months.

Our decision to sell the property in Wautoma and move our camping ministry, Camp Webb, continues to bear fruit financially and spiritually. This year for the second year in a row Camp Webb was in the black. More importantly, Camp was over-subscribed weeks before the start and we had others on a waiting list. That financial fruit is I believe is the result of the fact that we have an excellent program at a top rate facility that teaches young people the Good News of Jesus that they are loved and cared for by a loving God and his Church. On my visitations I am told by children, youth, and parents what a great experience Camp was for them. You will hear from the Rev. Elizabeth Tester, Camp Webb Director later in this convention.

Last year I reported to you about my work in the founding of Bishops United against Gun Violence. I am pleased to report to you that our Body is over 100 bishops strong and that our Conference this year, reclaiming the Gospel of Peace at which the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby and our Presiding Bishop were in attendance, was a great success. As an outcome of the conference, I have formed a coalition of all the bishops in Province V as well as the bishops of Iowa and Minnesota who are working together to pass legislation that will require finger print background checks before one can purchase a gun. This simple change to the law has proven in Maryland and elsewhere in our nation to significantly reduce deaths by gun violence. How is this so? Fingerprint background checks reduce straw man purchases, purchases of weapons by those without a criminal record for criminals. You will be hearing more about this from me later this year. I will be asking for your help to pass this life-saving measure.

At the end of August, I wrote to you in response to the Report I commissioned from the Standing Committee acting in their role as Council of Advice to the Bishop. In that letter I stated that, I was grateful for the good work they had done in facilitating a conversation that in the past had been difficult to have in this diocese. I shared that it was clear to me from the Standing Committee’s report, and from my engagement with many of you, that attitudes in the diocese had shifted from when I became bishop 11 years ago.
We are living in a time in American culture when civil marriage equality is becoming the norm. In June, this state’s ban on same-sex marriage was declared unconstitutional. That ruling was upheld in the appellate court, and the decision on Monday by the United States Supreme Court not to hear the appeals to lower court rulings in Illinois, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin means same-sex marriage is legal in our state.
As chief pastor, I have to balance my own theological conviction with humility, and a willingness to create space for those who disagree with me. I must also consider what is best for the diocese. My personal position is that, given the disputed witness of Scripture and Tradition in this matter, I see the blessing of same sex couples by the Church as a pastoral provision, informed by modern insights into human sexuality and human development, not unlike the blessing of marriages of persons who have been divorced. Thus anticipating, the court’s decisions, I have authorized clergy of this diocese to bless the marriages of same sex couples who are civilly married using a form I have set forth and guidelines for doing so.
Let us know turn to the business at hand.

Before this Convention come resolutions that while simple in language represent significant and important actions. The first amends the start of terms of members of Executive Council. By adopting this amendment, you will allow for those you elect today and in the future to begin their work on your behalf having attended and observed this body in action before taking office and empowering the current Executive Council to complete the necessary end of the year business and evaluate their common life before their terms end.

The second means that those who lead two important agencies of this Diocese the President of the Trustees of Funds and Endowments and the chair of the Commission on Ministry are no longer required to attend Executive Council and be a part of the determination of quorum. It also honors the time and labor they do on your behalf in these important bodies by not requiring them to attend 5 more meetings a year on top of the numerous meetings of the Body on which they serve. This resolution which comes at the request of the outgoing Chair of the Commission on Ministry, the Rev. Scott Seefeldt, also ensures that all who are empowered to do the work of this Convention between Conventions are elected by Convention.

The Third resolution provides for and clarifies a person to preside over Executive Council in case I am ill, unavailable due to pastoral or personal emergency or if there is a matter before the Council in which I must recuse myself.

I ask you to adopt each of these resolutions.

The fourth resolution is in regard to parish status for St. Mary’s Dousman, it reads simply in its final clause St. Mary’s Dousman is admitted into union with the Diocese. I know from reports following the preconvention meetings that some of you on reading this resolution were scratching your heads and going, huh? I thought St. Mary’s was in union with the Diocese. Let me give you a most Anglican answer, Yes and no. Before I became your bishop, St. Mary’s along with St. Bartholomew’s, Pewaukee, St. Aidan’s, Hartford, and Good Shepherd, Sun Prairie, entered in to a relationship with the Diocese through the Commission on Mission and Development as it was then constituted to redevelop these congregations in growing areas with financial assistance from the Diocesan budget. As part of this process, each of these congregations accepted mission status in exchange which meant in part that the clergy in charge of these congregations would be appointed by the Bishop, the rector of the congregation, to serve as vicar.

St. Mary’s, thanks to the faithful leadership of Scott Leannah and the generous and faithful labor and stewardship of all its members has now reached the point where this specific relationship is no longer necessary. In ten years their attendance has tripled, the have acquired land, built a new church building which will be paid off in full by April, have eliminated need for a financial subsidy from the diocese and are now prepared to elect Scott as their rector.
The resolution, which I ask you to pass, is an affirmation by this convention of all their labors together with the Diocese. St. Mary’s serves as a model of cooperation and faithfulness in Mission.

The Commission on Mission and Development is working with the other congregations St. Aidan’s, St. Bartholomew’s, and Good Shepherd to bring them to a similar place. You will hear more about these efforts in Canon Bean’s report later in the day.

The other business before our convention is the budget, a budget which reflects reduced income from congregations and keeps assessment levels as they have been since I became your bishop. It is a bare bones budget which maintains our historic commitments outside the Diocese to the General Church and our ecumenical and interfaith partners. I ask you to adopt it.

The business of the Convention is necessary work to order and undergird our common life. It is work done in the service of the life to which we are called, namely to be the body and blood of Christ in the world, to serve the world in Jesus name. It is that work to which I now turn

The question before us is, How are we to be the body of Christ in the world today? How are we to live out the truth that we are one bread, one body together?

It is no secret that the context in which we find ourselves is very different that it was when most of us were born. Most of us have faint memories of Christendom when Church membership and attendance were a part of the fabric of life for most people, a time characterized by denominational loyalty and preference for Christianity in the public square. We had Christmas Break not Winter Break from School. Stores closed on Sundays. Soccer games if they took place at all and other sporting events were held on Sunday afternoons rather than Sunday morning.

Yes a lot has changed. But there is one thing that has not Jesus who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

The answer to the question of how are we to live, how are we to be one body, one bread for the world is found where it always is found.. in HIM, Jesus, the model for our life in every circumstance and situation. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The one who came that we might have abundant life.

These past few weeks in our Sunday Eucharistic Lectionary we have been reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the letter which contains these words, words from one of the first bishops to the Church.

27 Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,…. If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Paul, is telling his first hearers and us that our call to be the one bread, the one body begins with Kenosis, self -emptying. I think you would agree with me that such life, a life with self-emptying at its center is the opposite of what we see displayed in the world in which we live.
Some of you have heard me tell this story before but it bears repeating. Some years ago Cindy and I were watching a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert on public television. Between songs Noel Paul Stookey, he’s the tall one, commented, “When I was a boy we had Life magazine, it was about all of Life, then in the seventies, there was a new magazine People, people are a apart of life there not all of life. Then in the 80’s there was a new magazine called Us. Us is some of the people, it’s us but it’s not them. Then in the 90’s the new magazine was Self, Self isn’t us. I predict the next magazine is going to be called ME. It will simply be glossy pages that reflect back at the reader.”

I have come to believe that Paul was a bit of a prophet. We see his prophecy fulfilled in the personal web page, myspace, Facebook, the Linked in Profile, and the epitome of narcissism, the selfie. Marketers and the world around us want to tell us it is all about us. As I have told many of you before If I have learned one thing in 30 years of ordained ministry. It is not about me. I also need to tell you, it’s not about you either. Yes, Jesus died for us as if we were the only person in the world but we are not.

To be the Body of Christ, both as individual members and as the church means that we must imitate Jesus’s example of self-emptying.
Self -emptying means surrendering power.
Self- emptying means setting aside privilege.
Self-emptying means putting our wants and needs for the greater good.
Most of us in this room have the privilege of being in the majority. Because of the color of our skin and the history of our nation, most of us have never experienced discrimination or racial profiling. Contrast that with the fact that almost 2 out of 3 children of color live in poverty and that African-American men are times more likely to be imprisoned than whites for the same crime. We have seen on our televisions this summer the results of this state of being as we watched the events unfold after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
One of the things that I have become aware since my return to the Upper Midwest 11 years ago is how incipient Northern racism is. We delude ourselves with the story that our ancestors fought to free the slaves and end slavery, while we enforce an economic and opportunity segregation that insures that very little will change. I applaud efforts like the combined youth pilgrimage of Christ Church Whitefish Bay and All Peoples Lutheran in Milwaukee that have sought to bridge the racial divide. But we have a long way to go before Dr. King’s dream that a person will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character is fulfilled. Over the next few months, I will be working with other bishops of this Church to make racial reconciliation one of the priorities of our common life in the coming years. I ask your prayers and support. I also ask you to seek ways both as individuals and as congregations to share in the work. It’s not just a Milwaukee, Racine, and Kenosha problem. It’s here in Madison and in every community throughout this state.
I also ask you to join me and the other members of the Wisconsin Council of Churches in our anti-poverty initiative that many of you learned about in our workshops yesterday. To be the body of Christ in the world means to serve the world in Jesus’ name and work for the expansion of God’s reign.
This call to kenosis is not just for our life outside the Church, it must also affect our life within the church as well. One of the questions that is being asked across the Church is what is God calling us to let go of so that we might be the Church he is calling us to be today. In some cases, that is buildings. I applaud the work of St. James’, Milwaukee who have come to realize that their building has become a hindrance to mission and ministry and has put the building up for sale. Across the diocese we have 19th and 20th century buildings in 19th century locations housing congregations called by God to do mission and ministry in the 21st century. Some may be redundant. Ten miles is not as great a distance as it was in years past.

In other cases, it may be how we understand the concept of parish. We need to remember that the word parish is a geographical distinction as is diocese. A Parish is a geographical subset of a diocese that may have within it one or more church buildings. Let me give you an example. Early in my ministry I was rector of Scott Parish, Orange County, Virginia. The parish church was Christ Church, Gordonsville and at one time the parish had within it two other churches, St. Mary’s Somerset, and The Barbour Memorial Church, Barboursville. It was one parish in three buildings.
What I am beginning to wonder if this is a model that may help us in some of our communities. I am grateful for some of the steps toward such cooperation in parts of our diocese. But the work is slow, in part for some it is hard to let go of what they want or to what they have become accustomed. It is hard work as the people of St. Aidan’s, Hartford and St. James, West Bend know well. I am grateful for their efforts. These conversations need to begin or continue in other places. Friends, we have seen the results of business as usual. It is not good. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. It is time for us to repent, to put on the mind of Christ, the mind of kenosis.
Dream with me. What might our diocese look like if our lives mirrored that of our Lord, the one we heard Paul speak of in his letter to the Philippians?

I believe it would be a diocese where each of us consider ourselves as a minister of the Gospel, a person called to serve everyone we meet in Jesus’ name. We would see every human being as someone who Christ died for and we would look for Christ in them. It would be a community where the principal question would not be what do I want but want does God want. It would be a diocese that was less worried about receiving communion on Sunday and more concerned about being the Body of Christ for the world. It would be a diocese characterized by cooperation and flexibility.
The promise to us is that if this becomes true, then what happened to Jesus will characterize our life. What was the Father’s response to Jesus’s self-emptying? Paul writes
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
I am convinced that if we imitate Jesus in his self- emptying we will share in his exultation, maybe not from the world, but from the one from whom it really matters, the Father, who through Christ has washed us clean from every sin and raised us to a new life making us a kingdom of priests to serve the world in Jesus name.

They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that He has done. The Bishop’s Easter sermon

“They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done.”

 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: Amen

 

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” 64Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead”, and the last deception would be worse than the first.’ 65Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard* of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’*66So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone. Matthew 27:62-66

So begins Matthew’s version of the account of Jesus’s resurrection. Our lectionary does us a bit of a disservice because it has the reading appointed for this Easter Day begin where the other author’s begin their telling of the Easter story with the dawn of the first day of the week. But as Raymond Brown, a renowned biblical scholar eloquently and clearly demonstrates in his book of essays on the Easter Gospels, “A Risen Christ in Eastertime,” Matthew’s telling of the story begins not with the first day of the week but with the seventh. Saturday not Sunday. He does so by showing how the structure of the story of the resurrection of Jesus displays the same five- fold structure found in the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew in the telling of the story of Jesus birth.

I must confess that every time I read this Gospel, I am drawn to this story about the guards. This could be because as a boy I was always fond of stories about people in uniform, policeman, firefighters, and most especially soldiers of every era. But I suspect the deeper reason is that Matthew wants us to pay attention to them as he is the only gospel writer to include this part of the story.

As I wrote to you and the rest of the diocese in my Easter letter. Whenever I read this story one place I always go is to the he opening cut on Pat Matheny’s album First Circle, a dissonant and farcical march entitled simply, “Forward March.” I don’t know what inspired him to write the piece but every time I hear it I picture the guards placed by Pilate and the authorities at the tomb of Jesus. I picture them parading around the tomb filled with self-importance and certainty of purpose looking as silly as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion do when the don the uniforms of the guards at the castle of the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz while fulfilling their mission to make the tomb of Jesus as secure as they could.

Our faith helps us to see the humor in that command from Pilate, “Go, make it as secure as you can.”  We know that nothing can hold God’s love in. God’s love and power burst forth from the tomb and the stone is rolled away to reveal that it is so. God’s love is so great that nothing can hold it in. That is what make’s Pilate’s command comical.

Why does Matthew include this part of the story? It could be that it is simply a rebuttal of the assertion of those who did not believe the good news of the resurrection, an assertion that Matthew believes was planted by those who opposed Jesus from the start. “His disciples stole the body.” A falsehood that persists among some to this day. It could be that Matthew is writing to a community that is experiencing the first throes of separation between church and synagogue ( a separation it is our duty in this age to mend) and he is asserting the primacy of the first day over the seventh. But perhaps there is more.

Could it be that Matthew mentions the guards because he wants his first hearers and us to consider the guards that we place around the tomb of Jesus, guards that keep us from truly knowing and living the power and truth of his resurrection?

What are some of the guards that you have placed there?

An unwillingness to truly accept God’s love and forgiveness. The desire to persist in thinking that God’s love is dependent and conditioned by your actions rather than on God’s grace and Being. Do they have names like Anger, Resentment, Fear, Selfishness, Fatalism, Defeat, Prejudice, Obsession, and Disbelief? I know both as a pastor and fellow traveler on the way that at times our human frailty and failings—pride, fear, prejudice, lack of charity toward ourselves and others, unwillingness  and inability to accept that we are loved—can keep that power from working fully in us.

Today, the angel of the Lord descends. He makes those guards fall dead. The stone is rolled away and the power of God’s love is shown to be stronger than any guard, stronger than any principality or power. He proclaims to the women at the tomb and to us that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And all that would keep us from knowing and living that truth loses its power once and for all.

The resurrection of Jesus is God the Father’s action to show us God’s faithfulness. On the cross Jesus commends himself to the Father. In the resurrection we see the result of that commendation. God is faithful to those we are faithful to him. Nothing can holds God’s love in.

Nothing can hold God’s love in.

But there is more. We know that when a child is ready to be born it is ready. Could it be that Matthew by structuring his telling of the Resurrection story with the same five-fold structure of the birth of Jesus wants us to see that the Resurrection is more than just a victory over death? It is a new birth.

This struck me as I prayed the 22nd psalm these last few days. Psalm 22 is the psalm of Holy Week. We all know how it begins. Jesus utters its first verse from the cross. My God, My God why have you forsaken me?

But do you know how it ends. I’ll give you a hint. I began this sermon with it. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that God has done. My brothers and sisters today this verse is fulfilled in your hearing. In the resurrection of Christ, a new people is born. People who know that death is not the last word, people who know that nothing can separate us. People who are more than conquerors through the deathless love of Christ.

And because we know this to be true we can go forth from this place clear that our call is to participate in God’s mission making known the saving deeds that God has done in Christ with our lips and in our lives confident in the words of that great Easter hymn.

 

Easter triumph, Easter joy these alone do sin destroy,

From sins power do thou set free souls newborn O Lord in thee.

 

In Christ we are born anew.

 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (I Peter 1:3).

 

Bishop’s Easter Message 2014

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead”, and the last deception would be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard* of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’* So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone. (Matthew 27:62-66 NRSV)

Dear Friends in Christ,

The opening cut on Pat Matheny’s album First Circle is a dissonant and farcical march entitled simply, “Forward March.” I don’t know what inspired him to write the piece but every time I hear it I picture the guards placed by Pilate and the authorities at the tomb of Jesus. I picture them parading around the tomb filled with self-importance and certainty of purpose looking as silly as the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion do when the don the uniforms of the guards at the castle of the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz while fulfilling their mission to make the tomb of Jesus as secure as they could.
Our faith helps us to see the humor in that command from Pilate, “Go, make it as secure as you can.” We know that nothing can hold God’s love in. God’s love and power burst forth from the tomb and the stone is rolled away to reveal that it is so. God’s love is so great that nothing can hold it in.
The resurrection of Jesus is God the Father’s action to show us God’s faithfulness. On the cross Jesus commends himself to the Father. In the resurrection we see the result of that commendation. God is faithful to those who are faithful to him.
While nothing can hold God’s love in, I know both as a pastor and fellow traveler on the way that at times our human failings—pride, fear, prejudice, lack of charity toward ourselves and others, unwillingness and inability to accept that we are loved—can keep that power from working fully in us. These things are what the poet Michael Hare Duke means when he writes in his Easter poem/prayer, “the grave clothes hold us, they are all we know, grant us the courage to be loosed and live.”
Grant us the courage to be loosed and lived. That is my prayer for all of us this Easter. May God grant us the courage to be loosed from the grave clothes of doubt, fear, self-righteousness, and pride that we might live a life that shows the power of resurrection by and through our complete trust of the Father through our imitation of Christ.

Yours in the Risen and living Lord Jesus.

The Rt. Rev. Steven Andrew Miller
Bishop

Invitation to a Holy Lent 2014

“Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful….”
Joel 2:12-13a NRSV

Dear Friends in Christ,
On Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we begin the holy season of Lent, a time of prayer, fasting, and self-denial in preparation for Easter. Over my years in ordained ministry I have written a number of articles for parish and diocesan publications inviting those in my pastoral care to observe a holy Lent. These articles have urged the faithful to take on a spiritual discipline rather than see Lent as a season of giving up or invited folks to participate in Lenten programming. While these are good things, I want to invite us this year to go deeper.
We hear the prophet Joel invite us to rend our hearts and not our garments on Ash Wednesday. When we do that what do we see? I suspect that if we are honest with ourselves we see that even before this tearing there was much brokenness within. We see the scars left by our own failings, the brokenness of others, and the culture in which we live. If you are at all like me I suspect you see your own selfishness, your participation in unjust structures of society, and your denial of the truth not only about yourself and your relationship with those you love but the world in which we live. But as we rend our hearts, we see also the possibility of healing. A heart must be broken before it can be healed, just as a surgeon must open the body before it can be repaired.
Of late, I have become increasingly aware that if Lent is to mean anything it must mean surrender to grace as the operative in our life rather than our will — Letting go and inviting God in Christ through the Spirit to enter deeply and receive the grace to be formed and molded by God, and God alone, rather than our images of God that are often less than God and frequently are idols. (I have often said the entire library which is the Bible, is a conversation and call to reject idolatry in all of its forms.)
What idols is God inviting you to set aside this Lent? What might you be worshipping that is less than God? Are we so busy trying to save ourselves that there is no room for the Savior?
These are the questions I am asking this Lent. Will you join me?

+Steven

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, thou hast brought forth perfect praise. Christmas Sermon 2013

“Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise”
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Out of the mouths of babes thou hast brought forth perfect praise. These words from the psalmist, words our Lord quotes on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, came to my mind as I read in preparation to preach this Christmas Eve.
We gather again this night to hear the story we know so well, “and it came to pass that a decree went forth from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.” We gather to sing the hymns of praise that touch deeply our sacred memory and at times we can hear the voices of our loved ones miles away or now on a more distant shore singing with us. These hymns transport us from chronos to kairos, temporal existence to God’s time, and place us at Bethlehem looking at the manger cradling the newborn surrounded by his parents, the shepherds, the ox and ass. We have heard the call of these carols to come and see, “come and adore him, born the king of angels,” “come to Bethlehem and see the one whose birth the angels sing,” to follow the shepherds bending our joyful footsteps thither and kneel before the feeding trough that is now a throne.
But what is it exactly that we come to see? This is more than a visit to a maternity to see a child behind glass as we would a new grandchild or niece or nephew. To gaze at the newborn king is certainly more than a visit to see a newborn, to come to the Christmas crèche is to come and see scripture fulfilled, history rightly understood, Israel restored, and our purpose, call, and reason for being revealed. And if that sounds like the outline of a sermon, it is.
To gaze at the Nativity, is to see Scripture fulfilled. The Evangelists, Luke whose nativity story we read tonight, and his fellow evangelist Matthew, whose favorite phrase is “this was to fulfill” and whom we hear on the 12th day proclaim to their first hearers and to us that the birth of Jesus the Christ is the fulfillment of what is foretold in scripture, “a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son,” “You of Bethlehem Ephrata are not least of the clans of Judah for from you a child shall be born in Bethlehem,” “Kings of Arabia and Saba shall offer gifts,” God’s son shall be called out of Egypt. Even the hymn sung at his birth echoes the vision of the prophet Isaiah in the Temple scholars tell us.

To gaze on the nativity is also to gaze on history correctly understood. Remember that the Emperor Augustus was seen as the bringer of peace ending years of civil strife throughout the empire. His reign and the peace which ensued, known as the Pax Augustana, allowed that the doors of the shrine of Janus, the Roman god of war, to be closed. For this reasons, in parts of the Empire the birth of Augustus was celebrated as the beginning of the year and his birthday was described as the birthday of a god which brought peace. Luke wants us to know that real bringer of peace was not Augustus but Jesus the Christ at whose birth the heavens and earth shook and the angelic chorus of glory to God and peace to his people on earth, the first noel heard by shepherds.
And the peace Christ’s birth brings is more than temporal, it is eternal. But there is more. By showing that Mary and Joseph were willing to participate in the census unlike the revolutionary party that came into being in Israel at the time of the census, the Zealots, Luke is also telling his Gentile hearers and their Roman persecutors that there was no need for the government to fear the growing number of Christians.
To gaze on the nativity is also to see God’s relationship with his chosen people Israel restored. Perhaps it is because of Christmas pageants that we have made more out of the lodging than the crib. Despite its place as a part in Christmas plays and its richness as a homiletical device, “Would you give them a room?” there is no mention of any innkeeper or keepers turning away the holy couple. The inn in which there was no place was a common covered place set apart for travelers in every town. What is important is the crib, the manger. Luke wants us to know that in the birth of the Messiah, here is reversed the condemnation of the prophet Isaiah of faithless Israel, “The ox knows its owner and the donkey knows the manger of its Lord; but Israel has not known me and my people have not understood me.” Now God’s people know their Lord and the manger in which he lies.
But most importantly, to gaze on the nativity is to see our purpose, call and reason for being revealed. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast brought forth perfect praise. In that search all preachers know who have any age on them, (this is my 29th in Holy Orders,) a mere babe to some in this room, and asking myself the eternal question all preachers ask themselves as they prepare for their Christmas sermon, “What am I going to say to them this year.” I turned to a book that has had a profound influence on my spiritual journey from the time I first read it over 30 years ago and now as then has taken me to a new and deeper place. I would say perhaps it has shaped me more than any other. The book is entitled God the Father: Meditations by Emile Guerry. Thankfully, it is now available in reprint and I commend it to you.
He writes, “At his entry into the world His first look was directed not on the men whom He came to save but on his Father. He came to do the Father’s will. By this oblation of His whole self to the Father He indicated where His sacred Humanity really belongs…… From the moment of Jesus’ conception, and for the first time in the history of the world, the worship due in all justice to God was given him. That homage of adoration, of love, and of reparation, which the Father had so long awaited, now at last arose from His creation through this little infant, apparently inert in His manger— under a miserable rood—in the silence of the night—unknown to the world.
A homage of adoration, ….. a homage of love, in the absolute conformity of His Human will to the will of the Father. For true love lies in the union of wills.” (Guerry, pp. 3-4).
True love lies in the union of wills. In the Incarnation we see the divine will and the human will truly joined, dwelling in the infant Christ, and from the beginning He does the Father’s will and shows us what it is and how it is to be lived out. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast brought forth perfect praise. Perhaps that is why Jesus in his ministry invites us to receive the kingdom of God like a child. As a newborn is completely dependent on its mother, and a mother seeing her newborn knows that unconditional love and attachment in her child’s eyes, so we see in the nativity, in the child in the manger see God’s design for our relationship with Him.
He wants our will, our hearts, to be joined to his, God wants our actions to show his actions; God wants our giving to be like his giving; generous, full and complete.
And so we kneel before the Christmas crèche, and see what has come to pass. Gazing on the nativity, seeing God’s purpose for our life and his call to us revealed what is to be our reponse?
My prayer is that it will be to imitate Jesus so that we too may know and do the Father’s will. It begins with giving our hearts anew as we knell to receive the one who comes, as babe, as king, as bread, as wine, as Savior and Lord. “ Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.” Amen.

Reflection on the Boston Marathon Bombing

Dear Friends in Christ,
Life can change in an instant. I was reminded of that again yesterday (Monday, April 15, 2013) when I heard the news of the explosions at the Boston Marathon that killed three and at least 174 more. We grieve those who died and pray for healing for those who were injured and those whose lives have been forever changed through the tragic loss of a loved one. We ask God to give them solace, comfort, healing and strength. I ask you to join me in adding them to your daily intercessions.
My first thoughts went to a friend who runs that Marathon each year. I was grateful to learn today that he and his family were safe. Then I found myself asking what causes people to do such heinous acts as these? What motivates their actions? What level of powerlessness must they feel? I began to think about the Oklahoma City bombing and its perpetrators. I was reminded of the terror I experienced during the days of the DC Beltway Sniper in 2002.
Life can change in an instant. This reminder causes me to do two things. First to give thanks for those I love, family and friends, and ask God to keep them in his loving care. Second to ask God how I might be a change agent for those who believe themselves powerless and oppressed. Could it be that God is calling us to be life changers?
We are called to be people of peace in a violent world. We are called to be messengers of hope in the midst of despair. Christ is counting on us to be faithful to our call.

Yours in Christ,

+Steven

God Lives in a Timeless Now

Aside

Sermon:           Advent I 2012, St. Paul’s, K Street, Washington, DC

 

Thank you for the honor of being with you today on this day of beginning— this day when we begin the season of Advent and thus a new liturgical year and also the day when the Rev. Kyle Oliver celebrates his first Mass. It is rare for a bishop to get to be a part of such an occasion, after an ordination we bishops are usually on to the next thing, and I would like to thank Fr. Sloane for his kind invitation to be with you today. Your rector and I were in the same colleague group for seminary supervisors at Virginia Seminary and I have always been grateful for his friendship. I understand that he will be retiring in January after your patronal feast.  Please know that I will hold you all in my prayers as you walk the journey of saying goodbye and looking to the future. I also want you to know how thankful I am for the help you have given in forming seminarians from the Diocese of Milwaukee, not only Fr. Oliver, but also the Rev. Seth Dietrich, now rector of one of the largest churches in my diocese. He asked me to give you all his best wishes and regards. Thank you so much for your role in raising up faithful priests for the service of Christ and his Church.

One of the realities of my life is that I am on a lot of mailing lists. Because I lived in a swing state this past election as I suspect did some of you, I received throughout the months of October and early November daily mailings from presidential candidates and political action committees. these were of course preferable to the incessant robocalls, still I am certain that entire forests are breathing easier now that the election is over.  Since I am a member of the clergy I am on another series of mailing lists.  This means I received regular mailings from vestment manufacturers, purveyors of Sunday School curricula, tour companies inviting me to lead pilgrimages, and advertisements for religious magazines and sermon writing guides.  As a bishop I also receive numerous parish and seminary newsletters, as well as a number of diocesan publications and theological journals.

It is not uncommon to read in the latter this time of year meditations on the season of Advent that proclaim Advent as the authors favorite season of the Church year. I must confess that I have written such meditations myself. Year after year I am struck by this. What is it that makes this season so? Why does the season of Advent speak to us so deeply? Why do it themes resonate within us.

I recall writing as a young priest that I suspected the answer to this question was that advent rings true to our experience of the Christian life. Advent mirrors our experience of the life of faith and invites us to live into the tension between the already and not yet of the Christian journey— Salvation is present and yet in the future, the kingdom of God is in our midst but we wait for its consummation. This reality coupled with this sense of urgency speaks deeply to our hearts and minds.

That urgency is reflected in our collect for today, this much, if not most loved collect of our Anglican tradition.

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light now in the time of the this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility that when he shall come in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead we may rise to the life immortal.

In the midst of that marvelous imagery of light and darkness, majesty and judgment the word that leapt at me this year is the simple word now:  Now.

What I have come to believe is that this urgency, this now is not only true for us, it is true to the very nature of God the know in Jesus, the God who was and is and is to come.

As I prepared for this sermon among the things I read was an Advent Meditation by my friend and teacher, DOM Benedict Reid, first Abbott of St. Gregory’s Abbey of Three Rivers, Michigan. In the midst of his meditation I read this simple yet powerful reminder, “God lives in a timeless now.” God lives in a timeless now. The call for us in all of our Christian life but most especially in this Advent season is to meet God in the now. If we are to live in God we must live in God’s now.

As I think about it that is the call of Jesus throughout the Gospels, the call to the now. That is the point of Jesus’ word to his disciples recorded by the evangelists Matthew and Luke to consider the ravens that God feeds or the lilies of the field which God clothes. It is the call of the parable of the rich fool who built large barns and stored up large amounts only to learn that that very night his life was required of him.

And yet to live out that call is easier said than done. Scripture records numerous stories about those who look back. Lot’s wife who looked back at the smoldering Sodom and Gomorrah and was turned to a pillar of salt. The people of Israel who after being led through the waters of the Red Sea and being fed with bread from heaven complained that they did not have meat, melon, leeks or garlic like they had in Egypt. For this and the rest of their murmuring God required them to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Our  Lord Jesus himself tells us that no one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

We know that nostalgia and longing for the good old days is a common occurrence. Gathering with old friends most always includes a discussion of the good old days.  I am always struck that styles repeat themselves in 20 and 40 year cycles as witnessed by the popularity of the program Madmen and the return of some of the colors for clothing from the 1980’s. Our past is what has shaped our identity, who we are but it does not shape our destiny and whose we are.

To be on the watch for this is particularly important for us who hold dear the faith once delivered to the saints. Many of  the people of Jesus’s day could not see that He was God’s Messiah, the Christ because their images of the Messiah were so tied to a certain image of kingship in the past that they were unable to see how Jesus embodied all that had been foretold.

We do well to remember the distinction between tradition and traditionalism. I am certain that many of you have heard this adage, Tradition is the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. I would add that Tradition is the timeless faith of the communion of saints living and dead as in the Eucharist we are made one with our Lord and all the members of his body. In the Mass, past, present and future become one Now.

The call to live and be in God’s now is also a call to reject prognostication and anxious anticipation. In this past year we have seen another round of predictions of the end of the world ranging from the current buzz about the Mayan Calendar which ends on December 21, 2012, which some have posted on Facebook as the reason they are not shopping this season and the New York Times has reported that this is caused such a stir in parts of the Russia that the government called upon bishops to speak out against the notion, to the group that earlier this spring like many Christian sects before them declared the precise date of the second coming.

But an over focus on the future is not just the purview of the religious. Investors wonder what the next big thing will be, websites invite us to watch trends, and we are all told to plan for our future. This problem is exacerbated by the media streaming machines at our fingertips equipped with bells and whistles to let us know a new message has arrived and someone has just posted what they had for breakfast or tweeted out another random thought.  We all know those who are too concerned about the future to live in the present, those who are always on to the next thing.  For some it is so easy to be consumed with these things as well that wondering what will happen next fills our minds and renders us virtually immobile.

Allow me to give you an example from my own life. I am a recovering worry wart. How do you know if you are one? Have you every worried when you’re not worried? Cause that’s when you know something is really going to happen. Join the club. What I have come to see in my own life is that worry is simply another way not to surrender control of my life to God. If I can’t control anything else at least I can worry. Yet what is Jesus’ word to us? Jesus tells us do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. (Mt. 6:34)

Here again the words of Jesus from our Gospel lesson: “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place..… and to stand before the Son of Man.

How shall we do this? We begin by getting dressed. The call to live in God’s now begins with repentance and casting off everything that hinders us “the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light, God’s grace of clothing our shameful nakedness in the waters of baptism, and giving us the gift of his indwelling spirit Christ living in us. It is this vesting that the Anglican Divine George Herbert refers to in his poem, Aaron, a poem especially appropriate for this occasion the convergence of I Advent and a first Mass.

AARON.

HOLINESS on the head,
Light and perfection on the breast,
Harmonious bells below raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest.
Thus are true Aarons drest.*

Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest :
Poor priest ! thus am I drest.

Only another head
I have another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest :
In Him I am well drest.

Christ is my only head,
My alone only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me e’en dead ;
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in Him new drest.

So holy in my Head,
Perfect and light in my dear Breast,
My doctrine tuned by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come, people ; Aaron’s drest.

For the Christian to live in God’s now is to put on Christ as Paul writes in the letter to the Romans that inspired today’s collect. It is to know in the words of the Apostle that I no longer live but Christ now lives in me. “Christ is my only head, My alone only heart and breast, My only music, striking me e’en dead ; That to the old man I may rest, And be in Him new drest.”

Because Christ is God’s, Christ is God incarnate, God present, God immanent. And God lives in a timeless now.

May God accomplish that in us through the grace of his Son and the power of his indwelling Spirit: Amen