Good Friday Sermon 2016

What is truth?

 

This final question from Pilate at Jesus’s trial before him in the Roman Praetoriumm lingers in the air for me each time I hear John’s passion narrative. The sound of the tenor’s voice pierces my consciousness. Every time these words are uttered I am taken back and left to ponder this question, “ What is Truth?”

WE want to hear Pilate’s question as a philosophical one, an ultimate question. What is truth? Perhaps this is who we have been taught to hear it. Our life of faith is about truth. Jesus promised that we would know the truth and the truth would make us free. Jesus’ words to Pilate which immediately preceding Pilate’s response can lead us to this conclusion as well.

It may be that we hear Pilate’s question this way because of our own need for truth. In the continued downward spiral rooted in post-modern relativism those of us who are not convinced by that project, long for the truth that is truly true. We have had enough of the relative truth’s that make up of so much modern parlance epitomized by statements such as “Well, that may be your truth but MY truth is…..”. WE are unwilling to stop short, to settle for a relative truth because as we know that just as according to blessed Anselm’s proof of the existence of God that God is the greatest being that can be conceived of and therefore must exist, so we who can conceive a truth that is greater than and embodies all the lesser truths therefore believe that Truth, the truth with a capital T, the Truth must exist as well.

But what if that is not how Pilate said it. What if it was not “What is truth?”, a question for the ages, but “what is truth?”, a dismissive response, what’s truth, truth smuth, if you will. It is certainly possible. Pilate’s later actions show he cared little for the truth. He choose the expedient rather than the right. He found no crime in Jesus, yet Pilate condemned an innocent man to quiet the crowd, pleasing the local authorities and seeking to secure that the status quo of Roman domination enforcing a brutal Pax Romana he was charged with maintaining would remain in effect.

Pilate is not the only one guilty of this. The Sanhedrin accuse Jesus of being a criminal but in this Gospel make no specific accusation to prove their allegation. They simply said, “if he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over. They need this Jesus gone, he threatens the life for which they have settled, he threatens their security and they will do what it takes to make it happen. Peter out of fear for his own life denies he knows Jesus not once but three times. Every one of them sacrifices the truth for the expediency of saving life as they know it or in Peter’s case at least as they are willing to accept it. The crowd clamoring for Jesus’s death does the same.

 

 

It would be easy for us to condemn Pilate, the Sanhedrin, Peter and the crowd. Such is the nature of our sinfulness. It is always easier to see the speck in the others eye rather than the log in our own. If we are honest with ourselves, we know we have done the same and still do. if I am honest with myself, I know I have done the same and still do. Such is the weight of sin that clings so closely, such is the power of denial that keeps us from hearing and acting on God’s urgent call to embrace the truth about God and ourselves and wholly, fully give ourselves to him. We know all too well the truth of the words we will sing later in this liturgy

 

”Who was the guilty who brought this upon thee

Alas my treason Jesus hast undone thee.

Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.

 

These words accurately describe a truth of this day. But that is not all of it.

The truth and reality of our sin is subsumed, is overcome, is swallowed up by a greater truth, the truth we know through faith, the truth we were reminded of Sunday in Fr. Mathew’s homily that God required of himself that which he did not require of humanity.

A friend of mine describes the Truth of this day as follows:

“This day, this hour, is the pivot of the universe, the still point around which everything is turned upside-down; our Judge is judged in our place; our prophet, priest and king is lifted up from the earth, and he is drawing the whole world to himself; the God who spoke the word of creation speaks one decisive word to sin, death and the devil: NO”……. And the “NO” that echoes today in the desolate silence divides what has been from what will be. It wasn’t God’s first world to humanity and it isn’t his last either. In the meantime we wait but not as those without hope. Today, God says, ”NO” to everything that separates us from him, but only because God also says, “yes” to everything that reconciles us to him.” (The Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade)

The truth of this day is that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That, “God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved.” (John 3:16-17.) It is this truth that we proclaim as we behold the wood of cross, as we make our way forward in reverence and adoration.

This truth is ours by grace through faith, by the Holy Spirt who has called us through the Gospel, through the love of the Father who loves us beyond all measure.

Thanks be to God. We know the truth and it sets us free.

Christmas Sermon 2015

The shepherds made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, ………He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

 

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

We gather this night to hear the story we know so well, “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.” This passage of Scripture, the story of the birth of Christ touches our sacred memory. When we hear it I suspect many of us are transported back in time to Christmases past and the voices of those who read the story to us; a grandparent or a beloved member of the clergy. Many of my generation cannot hear it without hearing the voice of Linus on a Charlie Brown Christmas, the special now fifty years old from the time when specials where specials and not holiday classics. I suspect many of us could recite this passage of scripture just like so many of the addresses and poems we were required to memorize and recite in school.

We know, too, the richness of this text. If you have heard me or any other expository preacher unpack this text you know that to hear the Luke’s telling of the birth of the Messiah and through it gazing at the nativity of the newborn king is certainly more than a visit to see a newborn. Luke’s invitation to come to the Christmas crèche is an invitation to come and see scripture fulfilled, history rightly understood, Israel restored, and humanity’s purpose, call, and reason for being revealed. Luke historian and evangelist proclaims the birth of Christ in a manner that sets the record straight about who the true author of peace is, the one born in Bethlehem not the powerful one in Rome, the issuer of the decree that sent thousands to their ancestral homes. Luke proclaims to us the reversal of the condemnation of the prophet, Isaiah that God’s people do not know the manger of their Lord for the shepherds and the Holy family now do as they gaze on the child lying in a feeding trough now become crib and throne.

He shows us that the song Mary sang, which echoes the song of another mother, Hannah mother of the prophet Samuel, that the mighty have been cast down and the lowly have been raised up is fulfilled in the angelic message to the shepherds that to them a group of outcasts at the bottom tier of society the message of the birth of the Messiah is first proclaimed.

It is good for that we know these things. They along with so much else that can be found in Luke’s infancy narrative provide much fruit for meditation and reflection as we sing this night the hymns and carols we know so well.

But knowledge is not enough. We are called to be more than those who know the story. We are called to be more than hearers, more than those who sing, “O come let us adore him.” As the apostle James tells us, We are to be doers of the word, not hearers only. Our words must be enfleshed in our lives, our adoration of Christ shown by our actions.

To put it simply,

The Word was made flesh to cause the Word to become enfleshed in us and by us.

That enfleshing is God’s gift to us by grace through faith. The preacher and hymn writer Philips Brooks describes it in this way

How silently how silently the wondrous gift is given

So God imparts to human hears the blessings of his heaven

No ear may hear his coming but in this world of sin

Where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.

This is God’s gift to us in the birth of Christ. He comes to us again this night to be received in bread and wine to remind us that we are living members of his body.

It is from this vantage point that we hear Paul’s words to us. For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, ………He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

The Word was made flesh to cause the Word to become enfleshed in us and by us.

This poem by Howard Thurman entitled The Work of Christmas that has shaped my Christmas reflections this year

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the Kings and Princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flocks,

The work of Christmas begins.

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry

To release the prisoner,

To teach the nations, To bring Christ to all,

To make music in the heart.

 

We are in that time. Like the shepherds we are to go forth from the manger praising God for all that we have heard and seen. This praise is to be not only with our lips but in our lives in humble service to the one who entered this world in all humility. That praise is made perfect when we join the angelic chorus by engaging the work which is ours as Jesus people find the lost, feeding the hungry, releasing the prisoner by bringing and being the Good news which is Jesus to everyone we encounter and by carrying this mission into every aspect of our lives.

Image what the world might look like if we engage this work. Dream with me. Together by grace pray it may be so on earth as in heaven.

Amen.

Convention Address 2015

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

Greetings and welcome to this the 168th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee. What a joy and delight it is to be with all of you as we gather in worship to sing God’s praise in this beautiful setting here at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy. A number of you have told me that this is the first time you have ever been to St. John’s and others have told me that you did not know that it was an Episcopal School. As a member of the Board of Trustees I welcome you to this place and as Bishop of the Diocese of Milwaukee I want to say thank you to the people of St. John’s Northwestern for making the academy available to us. Thanksgiving is the theme of this convention and so before I begin my meditation on our theme allow me to take this opportunity to thank the members of the Diocesan Staff and the numerous volunteers who have made and are making this day possible. In the interest of time, I will not run through litany of names as I have done at previous conventions. Allow me to simply say to you all on behalf of those gathered here, “Thank you.” I also want to say thank you to all present, delegates and visitors, for giving of your time on a beautiful fall Saturday for this important work of the Church, work which undergirds our life and ministry as a the Diocese of Milwaukee, the Episcopal Church in Southern Wisconsin.

Our theme for convention this year is “a Eucharistic people, a community of Thanksgiving.” We reflected on one aspect of that last year in our meditation on the hymn found in the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. To be a Eucharistic people is to be a people open to self-emptying that we might be raised up by God and be taken, blessed, broken, and given to the world.

As we gather today we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah calling his first hearers and us to “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations;   proclaim that his name is exalted.” We prayed with the psalmist, “It is a good thing to thanks to the Lord and to make music to your name, O most High. To tell of your loving kindness early in the morning and of your faithfulness in the night season.” And we hear the apostle Paul telling the church at Colossae and the Church today that we are to do everything we do in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

The witness of scripture is clear that thanksgiving and the proclamation of God’s reign in the world are two sides of the same coin, thanksgiving is proclamation of God’s power, grace and blessing and proclamation of God’s Power, grace and blessing flows from gratefulness and begins with saying thank you for what God has done. This thankful proclamation is by word and deed, showing forth God’s praise not only with our lips but in our lives. This is what it means to be a Eucharistic people.

Sadly, I believe we may have lost sight of this. We confuse the Eucharist with Communion. The Communion is a part of the Eucharist but it is not all of the Eucharist. The result of this confusion and misunderstanding is seen in people choosing not to attend worship unless there is a Eucharistic celebration and resolutions submitted to the General Convention calling for lay lead public liturgies of the pre-sanctified on Sunday mornings. This is sometimes caused by the misguided teaching of clergy who told people as our church was moving to Eucharistic centrality. “if it is not communion it doesn’t count,” as if God is a divine Santa making a list and checking it twice. It is also seen in a lack of reverence for the sacrament and in the misunderstanding that some have that when the unbaptized are not permitted to receive the sacrament they are not part of the Eucharist. The Eucharist and Eucharistic life and centrality are more than communion.

The result of this misunderstanding is that the Eucharist comes to be seen not as what it is but as what it is not, not as a way of living but as a thing, another part of a consumer Christianity, an attitude that is best summed up in the words of the poem by Wilber Reese entitled “Three dollars’ worth of God.”

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please. Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation. I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

In my less hopeful moments I have begun to wonder if the revolution/reformation which was the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the culmination of a movement to reorient our Church to a baptismal ecclesiology and missiology, which placed the Eucharistic liturgy at the center of the Churches life if it hasn’t already failed, is failing.

You see our Book of Common Prayer sets forth a biblically based vision of a church in which all members are ministers who gather around God’s board to feed on Christ and go forth in the power of the Holy Spirit to seek and serve Jesus in everyone we meet. We do this because our primary identity is as a member of Christ’s body. Some of us are bishops, priests, and deacons but the most important thing about every member of this Diocese is that we have been born again by water and the Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever. As the Church, we participate in God’s mission to restore all people to unity with God and with each other through Christ. The ministry of the people of God is in and to the world, beyond the red doors not behind them. If we were to live up to this vision, there is no telling what God could do in and through us.

In his address to the General Convention as a candidate for Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry reminded us of the words of the evangelist Billy Sunday, who described the Episcopal Church as a sleeping giant. Sunday said that if the Episcopal Church ever woke up the rest of American Christianity had better watch out.

As we gathered to elect a Presiding Bishop, I could hear that the stirring that signals an awakening. And then we elected one especially gifted for this time in the life of our Church as we seek to be Eucharistic people who go forth in thanksgiving as Christ’s ambassadors in the world.

In his sermon at the close of General Convention. as Presiding Bishop Elect, Bishop Curry proclaimed, I am more and more convinced that God came among us in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth to show us the way to be reconciled with the God who deeply and passionately loves each and every one of us, to be reconciled and right with that God and to be reconciled and right with each other as the children of that one God who created us all. He came to show us how to get right and how to get reconciled. He came to show us therefore how to become more than simply the human race – that’s not good enough – came to show us how to be more than a collection of individualized self-interests, came to show us how to become more than a human race.

He came to show us how to become the human family of God. And in that, my friends, is our hope and our salvation, now and unto the day of eternity.”

 

I share that conviction and I pray you do, too.

It is in that context that I hear our Gospel lesson for today- the story of the Raising of Lazarus. The story is found in the 11th chapter of John’s Gospel. It contains two of my favorite passages of Scripture, the words of Apostle Thomas, the one who later doubted, who when confronting the other disciples fear that if Jesus went to Bethany he would be killed said, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” And Jesus’s encounter with Martha which includes their exchange, “your brother will rise again, “I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day. “I am the resurrection and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me. It is after this that our passage begins. Jesus then encounters Mary. She says to him the same words her sister did.

‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. ’ and invites Jesus to go with her to the tomb. John records,

“Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

Lazarus Come Out! This is Jesus’ word to us this day! Come Out of the tomb and step into life.

I cannot hear these words without being reminded of a poem by the Scottish bishop Michael Hare Duke. I shared the last line of this poem with you in an Easter letter a couple of years ago. These are words that describe the only way out of consumer Christianity, the only way we can ever be the people God intended us to be, the only way we can wake, the only way we can come forth and live in to the vision God has for us.

Death is the physic;

There is no remedy less radical.

We cannot patch the threadbare goodness with a small square of glory

We have to come to where the fragments must be fused painfully into a unity

By resurrection out of a three days tomb.

 

First, death of self-concern…

 

{Which stands outside the event

To keep score of good or bad

‘How am I making out?’- ‘That’s better now.’

For we must be born into that action which is all ourself,

Total commitment when the cost’s been weighed

Authentic choice to be, with reserves in case it doesn’t work.]

 

Then death to judgment of our brother;

The secret pleasure in his faults

The double mind condemning while love wrestles to control

 

Then last of all the death, to set us free

From testing God, setting the scene where he must play a part,

Dance to our piping

Ratify our schemes because we made him our patron

Doing our own will behind the Three-fold name.

 


 

Dead, and alive in Christ

We find new trust.

 

[Not flabby relaxation but poised rest

The knife-edge of discernment’s still to tread.

But always with the knowledge that he reigns

Both in the choosing and whatever comes

Out of that choice]

 

The grave clothes hold us they are all we know grant us the courage to be loosed and live. *

The grave clothes hold us they are all we know.

Think a minute. What grave clothes are holding you? Where is Christ calling to you to be unbound and come forth?

Some of those grave clothes, I suspect, are fear and worry. The myth of power and control. Doing the same thing and expecting different results. And of course, the seven last words of the Church, we have never done it that way before. This and so much more are wrapped around us like the clothes which were wrapped around Lazarus.

I have seen the results of this binding in my ministry as your bishop. 6 congregations have closed in the 12 years that I have been with you and with only a couple of exceptions the root cause of their demise was an unwillingness to be the Church in ways that demanded these congregations to set aside business as usual and take the risk of using their resources to do ministry in new ways. The focus was on who was there and what they wanted rather than on who wasn’t a part of the community and how are we called to serve them. This grieves my heart.

That is why I am excited for you to hear the presentations by Alice Mirk of St. Paul’s, Watertown and Dr. Jennifer Henery later today. Some among us have made the decision to shed the grave clothes and their ministries are beginning to thrive because they are no longer doing business as usual. I am excited by a new partnership between Trinity, Mineral Point and Trinity, Platteville.

Other partnerships are being established across our diocese as a means to share mission and ministry. Trinity, Baraboo and St. John the Baptist in Portage are sharing clergy leadership, a parish and a mission, in hopes of developing shared ministries between the parish and local communities. We are working to build a similar relationship between Christ Church in Delavan and St. John in the Wilderness in Elkhorn.

A multicultural team from across the diocese has been gathering monthly to look at how we can be more inviting to all people in our communities as a first step. And in a follow up step the team is planning how to truly include and incorporate our diverse neighborhoods into our congregations while at the same time learning how our congregations can be incorporated more fully into the wider community.

We are called to be unbound in our ministry in the world. Before this convention comes a resolution that asks this diocese to engage the work of combatting systemic racism. I hope you will pass it.

You will recall that in my address to you last year I asked you “to join me and the other members of the Wisconsin Council of Churches in our anti-poverty initiative.” I have continued in that work over the past year. On Wednesday, I met with a group of leaders to discuss the next steps for this work. I was in the focus group that reviewed a proposed theological statement. It was sent back to the drafting room. One reason was that it was too long. But most importantly, it was sent back because it was too white. White in its deistic, institutional Christendom approach modified by interfaith sensibilities and white in that it made the poor a “them,” failing to recognize the poverty of us all.

You know that I am anxious to engage this work. In early December I will be meeting with Bishops of the Church to begin work on a new pastoral teaching on racism. If we are going to do so faithfully we must be unbound from the myth of power and privilege which has shackled us for so long. We must learn to listen and we must be doers of the Word we hear.

Eucharistic people are those who share the peace of Christ. It has to be more than a liturgical exchange. To share the peace of Christ means to act in such ways that God’s will for peace is made real on earth. It is for that reason that I continue my work with against Gun Violence. Universal Background Fingerprint background checks and a 48 hour waiting period on all gun purchases may not end all the horrific violence that occurs in this state and this nation. But even if they only save one life (the data shows they save so many more) it is worth the event. The dignity of every human being means every person matters. This week a bill to reinstate a 48 hour waiting period for gun purchases was introduced in our state legislature. I ask you to join me in working for its passage.

Today Jesus calls each of us to come forth and be unbound. He calls us to come forth with joy and thanksgiving for the life which is ours through his death and resurrection as members of his body to be taken, blessed and broken for the life of the world. We serve a living Lord. He is calling us to new life, as congregations, as a diocese, and as a creation. May God grant us grace to answer this call not only with our lips, but in our lives.

*The bracketed sections of the poem were not read in the sermon but are included here.

General Convention Report #3

Dear Friends is Christ,

Yesterday the House of Deputies concurred with three separate actions of the House of Bishops: the approval of the continued use of the rite “The Blessing of a Covenant Relationship,” the authorization of two trial rites for Marriage, and a change to the  Marriage canons to allow for the marriage of two persons of the same sex. I voted in favor of the first two resolutions, and abstained on the third. 

As I was determining my vote on the canonical change, the words of Jesus, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no” resonated within me. As I could not faithfully do either, I abstained. Those of you who know me know that while my heart is desirous to embrace this change, my mind is not yet there. Moreover, I felt the canonical change was both unnecessary to the trial use process and would cause further strains in the world-wide communion.

No doubt, most of you are wondering what this means for the Diocese of Milwaukee. While I have yet to work out the details, I anticipate I will authorize the use of the trial rites under guidelines similar to those set forth when I authorized clergy to bless civil marriages. As the new rites are marriage rites, clergy will be able to act as agents of the state should they so choose. 

Please remember that while some are celebrating this development, there are others for whom this decision has caused pain. All are valued and loved members of this diocese. 

Yours in Christ,

+Steven

The Rt. Rev. Steven A. Miller

General Convention: The Power of a phone call.

Dear Friends in Christ,

After the shootings at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, I made a call to PresIding Bishop Katherine and said that we as bishops of the Episcopal Church were in a unique place to lead the Church and the world in addressing the issue of Gun Violence. She suggested I call Mark Beckwith, the Bishop of Newark, who was also interested in this issue. From this phone call Bishops United Against Gun Violence was born. On Sunday 60 bishops led over 1500 Episcopalians in a walk “Claiming Common ground Against Gun Violence.” We heard powerful witness from victims, former law enforcement officers, and our Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry. Together we are building a core of people committed to doing all we can to end this scourge through the passage of reasonable and sane gun laws that protect the rights of gun owners while restricting access to those who should not. 

Here is a link to the coverage of our walk http:www.deseretnews.com/86561588/

God wants to use each of us to build a better world. Is there a phone call you need to make?
+Steven

General Convention: First Post

Dear Friends in Christ,

I write you from Salt Lake City, site of the 78th General Convention. Today is Registration Day for Bishops and Deputies and the initial meetings of Legislative Committees. As at last Convention, I am on the Committee for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. 

In one sense, General Convention is like a big family reunion. I sat on the plane next to a priest from Vermont who had been my GOE reading partner years ago. Last night, I had a good visit with my friend Tony Pompa, Dean of the Cathedral in Bethlehem, PA. I am certain I will see many other friends in the Exhibit Hall today.

I want to remind you as I have before previous General Conventions that the media does not always accurately report the decisions of Convention. This is not by intent. We are a nuanced people in an unnuanced age and the black and white nature of reporting does not always grasp these subtleties. Your deputies and I will meet with you after Convention to share with you what has transpired. 

In closing, I ask your prayers for me, our Deputation, and most especially the Church. Pray that we may have grace to glorify Christ by our actions.

Yours in Jesus’ name
+Steven

Marching and Praying

Dear Friends in Christ,

Early today it was announced that  the officer involved in the  shooting of Tony Robinson would not be charged. As I write clergy of this diocese and other faithful people are marching from the site of the shooting to Grace Episcopal Church on the Capitol Square where they will gather for prayer. This evening churches throughout Madison will be open for prayer and conversation. I am grateful for the witness of these sisters and brothers and pray for them. I pray for the City. I pray that the peace will prevail. I ask you to join me in this prayer.

What has become clear to me this past year is that those of us who claim Jesus as Lord must be at the forefront of working to address the systemic racism that is so much a part of our life in Wisconsin. The first step is to end the denial that it even exists. The second is to admit that those of us who are white have benefitted from its existence. As Jesus taught we need to remove the log from our own eye before removing the speck that is in the eye of another.

Yours in Christ Jesus,

+Steven