Sunday, June 24, 2012

Balancing act

I am a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church. I was elected at General Convention in 2006 for a six-year term. For what it’s worth, I got the most votes of any member elected by the House of Deputies at that convention. I mention it only because apparently a lot of deputies across the Church thought I am competent to do the job.

Here is what the General Convention Office says about this body:

The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church is an elected body representing the whole Church . . . The Executive Council has the duty to carry out programs and policies adopted by General Convention. It is the job of Executive Council to oversee the ministry and mission of the Church. The Executive Council is comprised of twenty members elected by General Convention (four bishops, four priests or deacons and twelve laypersons) and eighteen members elected by provincial synods.

So Executive Council is a representative body elected by our peers in the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops or by our provinces. We are entrusted to carry out the work given to us to do, part of which is to prepare a budget to be sent to the Program, Budget and Finance Committee of General Convention. General Convention is July 5-12 in Indianapolis.

Several recent events, including the recent Commentary on the budget by the Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls, chief operating officer [COO] of The Episcopal Church, and the budget recently proposed by the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop [PB] and primate of The Episcopal Church, have raised quite public questions about the Council’s competency. As a member of that body, I confess to being shocked by these developments – not because of the criticism (that comes with the territory), but because of concerns these developments raise about the direction of The Episcopal Church.

First I want to describe how meetings of the Executive Council work.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is a full member of Executive Council and the chair of the Council. She, COO Sauls and Kurt Barnes, the treasurer, literally sit at tables with Council members and participate fully in all meetings. Each meeting begins with opening addresses by the PB, the president of the House of Deputies, and the COO.

Several other staff members usually are present as well.  All staff members present (the Council does not determine which staff members are present, although we can request certain staffers be present) are invited to attend all meetings of the committees of Executive Council with the obvious exception of executive sessions. COO Sauls and Kurt Barnes are present in executive sessions of committees as well as of Council as a whole, as is the PB, of course.

Staff members are consulted on any number of topics in the course of a meeting as they are viewed as welcome resources.  Council members interact with staff constantly during the several-day-long meetings – we eat meals together and often socialize during breaks. Council members also mine the wisdom of our group, consulting with one another both during and between meetings via email and by conference call.

COO Sauls puzzled many Council members when, soon after being named COO, he released the “Sauls proposal” for restructuring to the House of Bishops without even notifying the Council of its existence. At the time it seemed, well, a bit odd that Council members should learn of such a significant proposal from the chief operating officer via news reports, but, you know, he IS a bishop and so maybe it just seemed natural to him to do it that way.  Slack was cut.

In hindsight, it appears it may have been a shot across the bow.

At the beginning of this triennium and many times since then, the presiding bishop urged the Council to think boldly and in new ways, to try to do things differently, to think outside the box. So when it came to working on the budget, Executive Council tried to do things differently, to think outside the box.

Normally budgets are developed for the three years of the triennium.  For this cycle at the request of Executive Council, the Treasurer’s Office developed a financial model that allowed a projection of income and expenses for ten years. That projection predicted that unless changes were made in our income, expenses, or both, in the 2013-2015 triennium we could have a deficit of $20 million growing to $92 million by 2022.

We are too big a group to work on the details of the budget, so we chose the Executive Council’s Executive Committee to work closely with Kurt Barnes, the treasurer, and COO Sauls to develop a proposal. The PB is a member of the Executive Committee and chairs its meetings. The treasurer and COO attend each meeting of the Executive Committee.

Council agreed we wanted mission to drive the budget, not the reverse. Some months prior to the January 2012 meeting at which we had to finalize the budget, the Executive Committee sought to involve people outside the Council and the staff in the process of setting priorities for the budget. This was done via a poll of the whole church.

As COO Sauls points out in his Commentary, the survey, while not perfect, sought input “from a defined group of church leaders—Deputies to the 77th General Convention, members of Executive Council, Bishops, members of committees, commissions, agencies and boards of the Episcopal Church (CCABs), members of diocesan standing committees, members of diocesan governing bodies, and Provincial Synod Deputies—a target group of at least 2,800 people, although the exact number is unknown because of variations in the size of diocesan conventions and standing committees. “

You can see the survey and its results in an appendix to COO Sauls’ Commentary. 

The results of that poll drove the setting of priorities in the budget, along with the desire expressed often by the PB and COO Sauls that we drive spending down to the level at which a particular ministry is best done. This was congruent with the Council’s desire to have mission drive the budget, not the reverse.

At the January 2012 meeting a goal of the Executive Committee that the whole Council affirmed was using the Five Marks of Mission as a basis for the budget. The Council asked to set aside the rest of the agenda to work solely on the budget but the PB was reluctant to do so. She suggested the Executive Committee meet and report back to the whole Council, which they did.

Council members also were clear that this budget needed to reflect that the Church – like the rest of the world -- is in a time of transition, which means we have to find creative ways to “be church” in the future. There was much discussion of a world that is becoming much more horizontal in communication and in the ways people interact. How does a hierarchical church adapt to that world and how could the budget help that process?

It was only after Council had discussed mission priorities at some length that specific numbers began being attached to specific items.

I left that meeting feeling that we had indeed produced a budget driven by mission.

After Executive Council voted on the budget, the treasurer posted a budget on the Council’s Extranet that replaced specific numbers on which Executive Council had voted with blank lines, followed by the notation that allocations in this area would be decided in conjunction with staff. It was only after vigorous complaints from numerous Council members that numbers were restored. But then the numbers turned out to be wrong.

When the budget was reported out, it was not the budget we had approved. Indeed, many of us were as dismayed by that budget as were others in the Church. How did this happen? It is a question to which I, and others who have asked, have never gotten a satisfactory answer.

At our April meeting, Council members asked rather strenuously what had happened, but the presiding bishop cautioned us sternly not to seek to assign blame. She asked whether we were sure we weren’t just reluctant to “give up” the budget to PB&F. She told us the canons prevented us from doing anything else to the budget once we had sent it to PB&F. When some members insisted on writing a memo to try to set forth the priorities the Council had intended, she was visibly unenthusiastic about it, but again urged us not to assign blame.

The minutes from that meeting say, “The Chair reminded Council that it had wanted a different budget process, which it had had. She said that was a success. She asked rhetorically, “Was it perfect?” No, she said, but it was a sign and symbol of change. She noted that complaint was part of the cost of leadership.”

In other words, suck it up and move on.

I left that meeting deeply troubled, not by the criticism the Council was getting – I’ve been a writer for newspapers and television much too long to get my feelings hurt by criticism. What troubled me was that leaders I admire and trusted seemed to me to be acting in confusing ways – saying things that were contradicted by their actions.  Again and again they urged Council to see that ministry is carried out as “close to the ground” as possible and by those people who can do it best, which is usually lay people in congregations across the church. Yet what they keep doing is to try to operate from a top-down model.

I began to pray for clarity and guidance.

In mid-May the online Episcopal Café published a memo from COO Sauls to the staff of the Church Center. 

It said, in part, "For the truth is that we as the DFMS staff will either shape the future or have it shaped for us. And if it is shaped for us, it will then be imposed on us. We have before us the opportunity to shape our own future or stand passively by and let others do that for us. I just don't think passivity is a very healthy spiritual position to be in. And, as you have heard me say, working for the Church ought not to be a spiritually damaging experience. Whether it is or not is largely up to us."

I am not the only person who was startled by this statement. I believe that it is the bishops and deputies elected to General Convention who make the decisions that shape the future of the church and that Executive Council is the body charged by Convention oversee the working out of those decisions during the triennium between Conventions.

Then on June 1st came the Sauls Commentary on the budget. Once again, the Council learned about it from news reports.

I confess this document hit me particularly hard, because in that document COO Sauls chose to use the official communication channels of the church in what appeared to me and others as an attempt to publicly shame by name certain members of Council. He pointedly scolded them for doing something all Council members do – meet in small groups to discuss issues. COO Sauls accused these Council members of using a conference call to set up a voting bloc and to shut out other committee members.

It hit me hard because this was a favorite ploy of the former bishop of Fort Worth, who used his office and the official diocesan communication channels to publicly shame people who disagreed with him. It worked well for him too, effectively silencing most of those who disagreed with the direction in which he was taking the diocese.  It also introduced a toxic atmosphere of distrust and fear that my diocese still is working to recover from.

To have this same toxicity injected to the Council/Church Center leadership relationship was beyond disturbing. I also was troubled by COO Sauls’ repeated assertion that staff had been shut out of the Council’s budget deliberations. That does not jibe at all with my own experience and observations.

The trust level between Council and the Church Center leadership that had been painstakingly worked on by so many had been dealt a severe blow. COO Sauls is now a staff member, and in any organization, it would be peculiar, to say the least, for a staff member to be allowed to publicly vilify members of what amounts to the board of directors. To have the presiding bishop give her imprimatur to this document by writing a foreword to it added to the impact.

I was so shocked and disheartened by COO Sauls’ action that I contacted some of my sister and brother Council members, seeking their wisdom in how to respond. And while they also were shocked that the COO chose to take such public action, they weren’t sure a public response would be helpful. The fear was that it would distract from the work facing General Convention. It was suggested that members contact COO Sauls privately to discuss our concerns.
I continued to pray for guidance on how to respond.  None of us wanted to make a bad situation worse. After all, we love The Episcopal Church. Why else would we be doing all this work?
I drafted a letter to COO Sauls, and planned to copy the PB. But before I could mail those letters, the PB presented her own budget.

And yet once again, like the rest of the Executive Council, I found out about it from news stories the morning of its release.

It wasn’t exactly “same song, second verse.” It was worse.

In it she enlarged on the criticism of the Executive Council, dismissing Council’s efforts to think outside the box with this statement: “The budgeting process that developed through Executive Council represented new behavior, which should be applauded for its courage.  In spite of those faithful efforts a coherent strategy did not emerge.”

She continued, “This approach begins with mission, and insists that mission shape the budget rather than the other way around.”

No argument there. Indeed, that was the approach the Council took as well.

There was more: “The perspective of the churchwide staff has been exceedingly helpful in this process, for they are deeply connected to mission at the local level, and have the unique ability to see across boundaries between communities.”

That statement astonished me. I am pretty sure that the bishops, priests, deacons and lay people who make up the Executive Council also are deeply connected to mission at the local level. We don’t live on Mars. We live and move and have our being in congregations and dioceses all across The Episcopal Church, and all of us are deeply involved in various ministries at the parish, diocesan, national, and, for many, on the international level.

Over the years we have built relationships across all kinds of boundaries. How ironic, I thought, that the one boundary we apparently cannot overcome is the one between Council and Church Center leadership. How ironic, too, that the PB and COO who had publicly criticized a small group of volunteers for discussing a budget proposal amongst themselves, who claimed Council had shut staff out of its budget deliberations, had now produced a budget about which no member of Executive Council was consulted.

I asked myself, what, as a member of a body chaired by the same PB who has thoroughly undermined that body’s work very publicly, do I do now as I seek to carry out the responsibilities entrusted to me when I was elected by my peers in the House of Deputies?

Once again, I turned to prayer. I also contacted sister and brother Council members again for advice. Again, no one wanted to make things worse. After all, we all admire the presiding bishop as much as the rest of the church. She is a Holy Rock Star. We are a group largely unknown to much of the church.

Again, it was decided that each person would decide the best way to proceed.

I am a writer. Writing is the way I think things through. So I decided to write this.

The PB’s budget, as a fellow Council member pointed out, benefits from information the Executive Council did not have. I am grateful to this member for sharing his observations with me.

In the PB’s budget the estimate of revenue from dioceses was increased by $3 million for the triennium. But no dioceses have had conventions recently in which they voted to increase their giving. So that is puzzling. Puzzling too that this fact was conveyed to the church only in so far as it was a line item in the Presiding Bishop’s budget.

Additionally, the debt service on the loan on the Church Center building was recalculated. The treasurer now says we need to pay $800,000 less than the Executive Council was told. It seems he had made previous calculations based on outdated information regarding the principal remaining on the loan.

And where the Executive Council budget included cost of living adjustments (COLA) for DFMS staff at 3% per year as requested by the PB, the COO and the treasurer, the PB’s budget lowers it to 2% per year. Total staff costs in the PB’s budget are $600,000 lower than the Executive Council budget.

Also, COO Sauls had requested that Executive Council allocate more than $1 million for his initiatives, which included $550,000 for an Episcopal Church Coop to make use of economies of scale, and $500,000 for a church-wide consultation on restructuring. Executive Council complied. The PB’s budget trims both initiatives, the Coop to $326,000 and the consultation to $100,000.

These moves create $5 million more for the PB’s budget, which certainly helps make it more attractive than the Executive Council’s budget.

No wonder people are taken with it. But its very existence raises challenging questions that go far beyond any concerns one member of the Executive Council might have.

What does this do to trust levels when the leader of a group very publicly undermines the work of that group before the whole Church?

 Why didn’t the presiding bishop and the COO speak up more forcefully in the Council meetings if they thought Council was going off track? Both the presiding bishop and COO Sauls are very persuasive speakers.

Where did the nearly $3 million in new diocesan giving come from?

Is it so obvious that church planting is best handled by a fund controlled by the Church Center that we should feel comfortable committing $2 million to a church planting proposal made for the first time just 10 days before General Convention?

Has the PB been mulling all of these ideas for an extended period of time and simply not sharing them with Executive Council, or have they all been hatched in the period since we met two months ago?

If there is significant new revenue available, and we seek to nourish grassroots experimentation in our church, why not revisit the question of returning some of this money to dioceses by lowering the percentage of their budgets they are expected to contribute to the general church budget, rather than creating new programs that will require a continuous stream of funding?

Is this restructuring by budget?

The presiding bishop is not elected by General Convention, but by one house as their presider. Do we want our budgets coming from the PB’s office or from a more widely representative body?

And the big question for me as a former Roman Catholic AND a survivor of the Diocese of Fort Worth schism as we consider restructuring, is whether the people of The Episcopal Church want more power flowing to the presiding bishop’s office and away from elected bodies? Do we want to shorten General Convention, make the House of Deputies smaller and thereby consolidate more power into the hands of bishops?

It will be a fundamental change in our democratic polity, which to my mind is among the best gifts The Episcopal Church has to offer. Our polity empowers our own people to take responsibility to prayerfully be part of the discernment of the governance of their church instead of ceding that responsibility to one leader or a small group of leaders.

I’ve experienced what happens when the balance among the ministries of bishops, priests, deacons and the laity gets out of whack. Things get toxic very quickly. And when one-sided unchecked power moves in, trust dies and soon love moves out.

I do not want to live through that again.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

God's entirely unreasonable love

A Sermon
preached at Trinity Church, Fort Worth
Palm Sunday 2012
by the Rev. Bruce Coggin

Well, now!  Doesn't it feel great at last to be getting some buzz?  I mean about keeping Lent and Holy Week.  Some of us here have been plugging diligently along now for the past five weeks or so, doing the things Episcopalians do during Lent—coming to church Sunday by Sunday, giving stuff up, Stations of the Cross Fridays, soup and a parable Wednesdays—and up to now nobody beside us seems to have been paying much attention.  I mean, we have two big signs out front—Soup Supper Wednesday 6:00 P.M.—and so far as I know, not a soul has come in off the street to eat and study with us.  Maybe they were there just to remind you!  Whatever's the case, Christians have been keeping Lent for over a month now, and nobody's paid much attention.

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem Hippolyte 1842

But today that changes.  Today we're causing a little talk.  Of course, Trinity got written up in The Star-Telegram this weekend for calling Mother Carlye, but that's not what I'm talking about.  I mean . . . well, I don't know if you noticed or not, but while we were all spread out over the lawn getting our palms here a few minutes ago, I saw two or three near wrecks on Bellaire Drive, people on their way to the lake or the golf course or Christ Chapel, wherever, rubbernecking and gandering and getting back in their lane just in time to keep from hitting the next curious bunch.  Maybe they couldn't figure out why everybody didn't go on inside.  But at least they were looking at us.  Tonight you’ll catch a couple of Jesus documentaries on Discovery or National Geographic, a couple of news stories about churches and their quaint customs.  We’ve been mentioned on the telly!

St. Timothy's, where I was rector a couple of years, has certainly done the city a service in that department.  As you likely know, for years they blocked off Mitchell Boulevard and gathered up down the hill at the rectory, then trooped up the street with a sho nuff real donkey under a canopy—and a monstrance on its back one year, I'm told—a thurifer out front, and the rector and the deacon and subdeacon right behind.  The years I did it, there was some comment about having two jackasses in the parade.  But by golly, they did it year after year, all got up like Roman soldiers standing up on the roof of the church.  And people noticed.  Got on television!  Don't know if they're still doing that since most of the parish opted to go into the Roman ordinariate, but when they did it, folks at least stopped long enough to look.

My friend Owanah Anderson up in Wichita Falls tells about Palm Sunday at St. Mary the Virgin in New York.  Shoot, they march right out of the church onto Forty-Third Street and into Times Square.  She said people stopped, asked for palms, genuflected, crossed themselves.  Fr. Benko here's involved in Ashes to Go; maybe it's time for Palms to Go.  Who knows?

But it makes a lot of sense.  I mean, it's a great story with great drama and great visuals.  Makes a lot of sense that people can remember it and identify it and, when they spot it from afar year after year, at least point and say, “Oh, yeah, Palm Sunday.  That has something to do with Jesus, doesn't it?”  I mean, it all looks good, looks very brave and gallant and . . . well, kinda movie stuff, y'know?  Looks pretty good.  Looks right good.

And don't you guess it looked right good when Jesus did it?  I mean, the poor old Hebrews had been waiting for the messiah for several centuries by then, and they had plenty of applicants.  There was a Messiah of the Month Club.  Take a number.  First this, then the next fire-breathing zealot would get the messiah bug and scrabble up a little band of followers and go storming around the countryside outside Jerusalem or Capernaum or Sepphoris causing trouble, and before long the Romans would spot him and round him up and dispatch him in one of any great number of decidedly unpleasant ways available to them.  But Jesus had been around nearly three years by then, drew big crowds, did amazing things, said amazing things.  He had a little scrape with trouble now and then, but for the most part he was peaceable and strangely vulnerable.  So far he hadn't made enough people mad enough to sic the Romans on him.  And that day things started out just great.  He told them he was going up to Jerusalem for the feast and that meant to the temple and to the temple was messiah talk.  At last!  Big crowd, sure enough!  Lots of people.  And him riding on that donkey, everybody hanging onto him and trying to touch him.  People pulling branches off the palm trees and waving them and saying messiah stuff:  Hail the Son of David!  Bless him who comes in God's name!  Hosanna and hosanna and hosanna.  It looked really, really good.

Of course, some of it was a couple of bubbles off plumb.  I mean, the donkey, for example.  Would have been a little more impressive on a horse, don't you think?  Maybe when he gets up to the steps of the temple the donkey suddenly turns into Trigger and rears and snorts.  Like that.  And the palm branches.  God knows, spears would have been a lot more practical when you consider he'd have to deal with Roman soldiers.  And once he got there . . . well, he did something downright nutty.  Stalked into the temple and ran everybody out, all the decent people working there where they'd been working for years, selling the stuff you need to worship properly, the people who make it all run.  Ran 'em all out.  Said they'd turned God's house into a cash cow!  And then he let just anybody in and talked with them and listened to them.  They say he healed some of them.  Pretty nutty.  Downright scandalous.  And such a disappointment!  They'd had real hope in him.  Everything looked so good.

Well, now.  It's real easy along about here for a preacher to make some cheap points on the poor old Jews, how shortsighted and fickle and dishonest and disloyal they were, how mercenary, how given to a religion of gesture and show.  Running the streets before Jesus and hailing him as king on Sunday, howling for his blood on Friday.  And then the preacher pivots to making us all feel guilty for being fickle and dishonest and so on, because we are, and end up with a smug little finale about howwe know the rest of the story.  But y'know . . . ?  Give 'em a break.  How were they to know?  They didn't know the rest of the story, and they were going on what they knew or believed they knew and had been taught ever since they were big enough to think about things.  They were ready to rise up, take up arms, do anything to get the oppressors out and the Kingdom of God which meant the Kingdom of Israel in.  Serious business, dadgum it!  And this Jesus guy looked so good.  Well, looked good until he did something nutty, and then what's a zealot to do?  What they didn't know was that Jesus did exactly what he thought a messiah should do:  clean house and share God's love.  Well, lotta good that'll do ya with the Romans.  How they must have longed for God to “take a hand in things,” step in and knock skulls.  Hear a good bit of that kind of thing nowadays too, don't we?  Don'teven get me started down that road.  So they turned right back to Plan A which was Might Makes Right and went looking for the next tough guy on a tall horse.  Turned Jesus over to the Romans.  They knew how to handle fools like that.

It all looked so good there for a while . . .

Looky here.  Things are not always what they seem.  You can quote me.  Depends on who's doing the looking and how.  A bunch of you have been eating good soup here on Wednesday nights and staying on to read a parable and think about it, following the lead of Robert Capon, a priest of our church and a writer I greatly admire.  We learned that the parables aren't Aesop fables, little allegories where everything is a secret sign of something else.  They're nutty stories about very difficult concepts which are really easy to misinterpret, especially if you bring your own preconceived notions to the job.  Let me tell you some things we've learned about the Kingdom of God, that long awaited historical moment the Jews longed for yet dreaded when God would straighten things out, get rid of the stinkers, put everything in good order, something people can understand!

First, the kingdom is not put off.  It's now.  All the kingdom parables present the kingdom as already here, full blown, “from before the foundations of the earth were laid.”  The kingdom of God, Jesus said, “is in you.”  Is.  Not will be.  Problem is, we are so accustomed to looking for something sensible and . . . well . . . decent, respectable, Godlike y'know, that we act like it's something coming down the line—and pretty scary.  Not what the parables say.  They say the kingdom is now and that God absolutely adores it.  And everybody in it.

Second, who is in it?  Surprise surprise.  The kingdom is not exclusive.  The Jews thought it was only for them.  Lots of Christians think so too, good people, decent people, people who live good clean lives.  But the parables say that the kingdom includes everybody—red and yellow, black and white, good and bad, wheat and Johnson grass, benefactors and malefactors, and even the heathen Chinee!--everybody is in the kingdom by birth.  Goodness is not required; badness doesn’t always get you kicked out.  The question in the parables is not who gets in; it's what lengths you have to go to to get yourself kicked out!  But some do.

Third, the kingdom is hidden, veiled, not always easy to recognize in the surrounding mess of history and human fretfulness.  The kingdom is not, by our standards, even plausible, all that about love and self-sacrifice and meek and mild and loving your neighbor as yourself, loving God above and beyond everything.  God thinks creation is lovely?  We're all beloved?  Yeah, right.  Tell it to the Marines.

Jesus' message is simple.  It's the same message God has been sending since we first learned to listen for it.  Contrary to popular opinion, contrary to how things look, how we look at things most of the time, God is not mad.  Disappointed, maybe, but not mad.  In fact, God loves the world so much that he sends us Jesus; and when we trust Jesus we stop getting ourselves thrown out of the kingdom, we are “saved” from ourselves.  That's so because God's will which is God's love in action will be done.  Shall be done.  Is being done.  Right now.  In you.  And me.  The parables teach us that the kingdom exists in an apparently hostile environment to which God responds, to which we must respond.  But the response is not a cosmic temper tantrum.  When we disobey God, get ourselves kicked out of the kingdom of his perfect love, his response is usually—as it was to Adam and Eve, to the Israelites who wanted a king, is always—“Well, Sweetheart, have it your way.  When you come back to your senses, I'll be here.  And I'm not mad.”  God's love does not deal with evil; it overcomes it, folds it up into itself, supplies the love to make everything new.  Again and again and again.

Jesus' call to us is to believe that vision of life, to believe that it is the truth, even if what we see in our “real lives” is a portrait of Hell.  Jesus asks us to trust him, to pick up the cross of ourselves and follow him, and to live our lives loving God above everything, loving each other the way we love ourselves, seeking and serving Christ in everyone we meet.  Of course, that can get you in trouble.  Look where it got him.  Most of us do such a paltry bit of it there's little chance we'll cause much buzz, stop much traffic; but even the little bit we try can get us into plenty of trouble.  Been in any trouble lately as a result of your promise to live in the kingdom of God day by day?  Most of the time we do the sensible thing, the acceptable thing.  Nothing nutty.  Yet God's entirely unreasonable and not always respectable party is the only party in town.  What's a feller to do?

Is it any wonder the people who followed Jesus along his way to the temple were confused?  They had less to go on than we do, and we're confused a whole lot of the time.  The implications of today's dramatic liturgy are both comforting and challenging.  Comforting because, well, we do know the rest of the story.  We know that Jesus' nuttiness got him raised up on a cross and that he turned that cross into the throne from which he draws everyone to himself.  We know that God's good green earth is at least one of the apples of his eye, that we are his beloved children, that when we live that love out in our own lives the results can be scary at times but that nothing else will really do.  Everything shows us the way to eternal bliss in Abraham's bosomhanded to us, shaken down, good measure running over into our bosom.  We know that and we rejoice in it, find strength in it, cherish it.  We're here to inhale that pleasing aroma.

Were you here last Sunday to hear the three deacons talk about their vocation?  Deacon Dana mentioned the long tug of war between Christians who think worship comes first and good works flow from worship; others say people find God in good works done or done for them, then worship in gratitude.  A false dichtomy, of course, and Dana compared it to breathing:  do you want to inhale or exhale?

We've spent an hour inhaling the sweetness of God's victory.  Now comes the exhaling, and that's where today's experience becomes a challenge.  Those people driving by on Bellaire, gawking at us, maybe wondering, more likely chuckling, most of them don't have a notion of that sweet aroma that intoxicates our souls.  Not a notion.  Maybe not much concern, though who's to say.  What's for sure is that, whereas it's fun to cause a little stir, get a little buzz, the fact that thousands of people drive by this church every day who find us and all our falderal either mildly amusing or, worse, merely inconsequential.  We've been here over a century.  What have we not done?  Considerable, it seems, and that's a challenge.  That's a problem.  Pray about it.


Friday, March 09, 2012

Take up your cross. Follow me.

A Sermon
preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Worth, Texas
Lent II 2012
by the Rev. Bruce Coggin

As the deacon read the gospel just now, I hope that amid all the drama of Jesus calling Peter Satan you didn’t miss one of the most widely known and repeated formulations of Christ’s call to each of us:  Take up your cross and follow me.

Take up your cross.  Follow me.

It would be hard to imagine any words more appropriate for our hearing and learning and praying on a Lenten Sunday than those—take up your cross; follow me—because they rivet our attention on the mystery of the cross, which I find, aside from the mystery of the resurrection, the central and often the most confusing and vexing of all the mysteries of God’s dealing with us.  Jesus, long before he goes to the cross on which he died, calls us each and every one to take up our own cross and follow him.

Gotta tellya, growing up a Wesleyan in Montague County, I heard about that.  Plenty. 

We sang songs about being valiant, Christian soldiers marching onward, braving all disaster, bearing consecrated crosses, to the death we follow thee!  We sang hymns like Am I a Soldier of the Cross? and I’ve always recalled one verse in particular—Must I be wafted to the skies / On flow’ry beds of ease, / While others fought to win the prize / And sailed through bloody seas?—because I knew I wasn’t fighting very hard, and as for bloody seas, well.

I promise you, all that worried me.  In the first place, I had no idea what it all meant.  In the second, I didn’t have a cross.  (Well, actually I did and was living with it full time, but I just hadn’t found it out yet.)  I didn’t know what the other kids at Sunday School thought about it, because we Did.  Not.  Say.  Such.  Things.  But when I heard the stories about the martyrs—St. Stephen, stoned to death for speaking up for Jesus; St. Peter crucified upside for speaking up for Jesus; St. Paul, beheaded for the same—I worried considerably.  Is that gonna happen to me?  I never heard of anybody being pilloried for professing Christianity in Montague County.  To the contrary.  Where was all that going to happen?  And when?  Oh, the grisly prospect occupied my youthful mind a good bit.
I knew I was in little danger of any such thing as long as Eisenhower was president, and I was blithely unaware that there were places on this earth where the mention of Christ’s name was a death warrant.  Still is, of course, some places. You can hardly help being amused at some Americans today, whining about religious persecution in this country.  I wonder how mouthy they’d be in Nigeria?  I remember when I was in seminary, working over here at All Saints’ Hospital as a chaplain intern that Fr. Blackwell asked us one afternoon, “What will you do when the goons put the barrel of a gun up the side of your head and ask you if you believe all that hooey?”  And I couldn’t say, because . . . well . . . I’d never had the experience.  I mean, I hope I’d be brave, but I don’t know.  Do you? 
Really?  It’s a right scary prospect in more ways than one.

When I got a little older, my practical problem got complicated by some real resistance to what’s called blood atonement theology, the notion (in the basest terms) that ever since the Garden of Eden, God has been so monumentally irritated with mankind that nothing can calm his wrath but somebody willingly throwing himself across the altar and dying an indescribably gruesome death.  Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.  For refusing all God’s good, annihilation under all the world’s evil.  That’s never appealed to me . . . but that’s another sermon.  The point for me is that I ended up a grown man still wondering what that cross was and why I had to carry it.  Was to the death on Calvareeee the only way to follow Jesus?  Is it?

We usually subsume Jesus’ death on the cross under the broader topic of Christ’s passion, passion in the sense of suffering, undergoing, putting up with, not whatever it is people mean nowadays when they say they have a pa-a-a-assion for this or that.  Passion from the same word root that gives us patient in both its meanings.  And usually when somebody speaks of the passion of Christ, they’re talking about the Mel Gibson version in that movie about fifteen years ago.  Remember that?  Oh, it was gonna change the world, that movie was.  I was living in Brady then, and the churches sent busloads of teenagers over to Brownwood to see it in the sure and certain hope that those kids would come back converted.  What I mean.  Well, y’know, it didn’t happen.  Somehow they sat through that supremely grisly spectacle—so I’m told, didn’t see it—and came back just a whole lot like they went.  Surprised, maybe, but not much changed.  Nevertheless, that’s what most people think of when they think of Christ’s passion, a shameful, painful, unimaginably horrible agony, way beyond the power of most of us to imagine.  And for some reason, the fact that Jesus died horribly is supposed to reassure me that God’s not mad at me.  Jesus died for your sins, no?  Well, what am I supposed to die for?  If Jesus did it all, why must I pick up my cross, whatever that is, and follow him?  Somehow that whole notion of my relationship to Christ has never satisfied me much, inspired me, reassured me.

So where do we go from here?  As I wrestled with these lessons I decided to try to get behind the theology and think in simpler human categories, like What am I fairly sure of?  And I got some help there.

One thing I’m absolutely sure of is the reality of what we call sin.  I have no doubt that there’s something wrong with us.  Nobody with two brain cells to rub together can fail to see that.  I don’t have to run up a bill of particulars.  Just watch the news any evening.  There’s something wrong with us.  I mean, that’s what the first two chapters of Genesis are all about.  If God is good and made us in his image and shows us his love and tells us to love each other, then why do we treat each other like hell?  The jury’s still out on the why, but nobody much has ever questioned the evidence.  We live on a dangerous little planet in a morally neutral universe where if the microbes don’t get us from the inside, a meteor will get us one day from the outside.  In the raw, life can be winsome and lovely to be sure, but give us our heads and we’ll manage to foul our own nest soon enough—to say nothing of what we’ll do to yours.  Sin is real.

I am also absolutely sure that love is real, and I mean love in all its multisplendored variety—the love of a little girl for her kitty (a girl in this parish lost a cat last week and came straight here to pray about it), the love of a child for its parents, of parents for their children, of a lad for a lass, whatever package it comes in.  I mean also specifically the love of God which we believe is the very source of our life and being, and we know that as Jesus revealed it, that love never says Me first! but rather puts self aside and goes to the rescue of its neighbor at once, joyously, willingly.  I believe also that it is God’s will—God’s plan if you have to think that way—that his eternal love take solid, palpable, historical shape in the created universe we occupy and most specifically in you.  And me.  I know love is real because it’s saved my life more than once, and I’ve watched it do miraculous things, see it doing miraculous things day by day, right here, among you in this family of faith at Trinity.  Love is real.

The thing is, the kicker is, that for reasons I don’t entirely understand God’s divine love chooses to live in history, our history, your history, and living in history means living with sin, coexisting, sharing the playing field.  And that’s where I think we find Christ’s passion, where I, at least, can get a grip on what that cross he bore was, other than a hunk of wood they nailed him to.  It doesn’t take rocket science to see that if sin, sin in general and our sin and sins in particular, set themselves athwart God’s eternal self-sacrificing love, the results will be gruesome.  Somebody’s gonna get hurt.  I mean, I don’t have to spell any of this out.  You know that.  From experience.  You also know, of course, that in the final struggle God’s love is gonna win, has won, does win, shall win.  It’s just the playout that’s rough, and since Jesus was Jesus that’s where he spent his whole life.

I think Christ’s passion was far more those last unspeakable three hours.  Christ’s passion is eternal, part of the mystery of God’s being.  Jesus is the historical incarnation of that passion, that clash, that cross, that crucifix right smooth at the center of the intersection of sin and God’s eternal love.  I think Jesus’ whole life is a parable of divine love offered and rejected.  Herod struck first, but the list is endless.  They tried to throw him off a cliff, ran him out of town, laughed at him, cursed him, spit on him, beat him up, called him everything but who he was; and finally they did their worst.  And how did he react?  He turned the other cheek, went the extra mile, forgave them, offered them love, again and again and again.  Seventy times seven.  And when they finally lowered that tie-beam onto his back, how did he in fact carry it?  When a little clutch of us do the Stations of the Cross here on Fridays, we’re reminded.  He shed blessing all the way to Calvary, that’s what he did.  He consoled the women of Jerusalem.  He blessed Veronica for wiping his bloody face.  He forgave the men who nailed him up.  He forgave Dismas and promised him paradise.  He blessed his mother and his best friend.  He was being who he was, who he is, the embodiment of that divine love which shares the field with our sin.  He was living like always at that hot intersection where time and eternity meet.  And it hurt.  For Jesus there was surely the real hurt, the physical nightmare, but there was also the pain in his heart and soul he’d known all his life—and I figure the last was worst than the first.  I think we catch perhaps the truest, most pitiful glimpse of the passion of Christ when he weeps over Jerusalem.  How often, he wails, I would have gathered you to my bosom like a mother hen does her chicks.  And you would not.  The pain in that cry, the pain.  Pretty breathtaking.  And that, I submit, is the passion of Christ that you and I are called to share, to carry like a cross.

Okay.  If that’s the cross Jesus bore all his life, what’s mine?  Oh, it’s not too hard to tease that out, is it?  I, like Jesus, live at the intersection of my sins and God’s love.  You, like Jesus, live at the intersection of your sins and God’s love.  Curious, isn’t it, that we don’t seem to fret about it a lot of the time?  Curious how we get right adept at ignoring that reality.  I mean, we know what Christ’s call involves, or at least we certainly should, most of us.  Yet when our sin, somebody else’s sin, sin in general whispers sweet nothings in our ear, we almost reflexively opt to believe the deceiver.  And it doesn’t have to be Big Sin, doesn’t have to be Cecil B. DeMille sin, David and Bathsheba stuff.  The thirty-nine cent variety will do for an illustration.  This morning on the way over here I was driving at a pretty good rate along I-30 just east of downtown and spotted a man walking across a bridge on the very edge of the road.  He was old, maybe as old as me.  He walked with that Little Old Man shuffle, the Tim Conway walk.  And he was bowed down under a heavy backpack, about as big as he was.  Poor old thing, the minute I saw him I could sketch in his life, the sad story of how love had failed him.  Now . . . you’d think . . . you’d think . . . I mean if I were really loving my neighbor as myself this morning I would have pulled over, tried to see if I could help, just extend a hand, a little love.  He might’ve shot me.  He might’ve been looney.  He might’ve been absolutely vile.  He might not thank me for the effort.  Beside that, I had places to go and commitments to keep, a schedule, plans.  So I shot right on past,  And I feel just a little diminished by the memory.  In a perfect world . . . but it’s not perfect and I’m not perfect.  True but little comfort.  My cross was inconvenient this morning, is a lot of the time, in fact.

Well, now we know about my cross.  What about yours?  How do you handle the crucifixion of living at the intersection of your sins and God’s love?  Sad to say, I can’t answer that one for you.  Oh, I could likely make some suggestions.  We’re pretty talented when it comes to figuring where somebody else has failed the divine calling.  Some people make a career of it.  I’ve done my share, and it tastes bad, believe me.  The simple, sweet truth is that each of us, you and I, must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, living suspended on the cross that forms in our lives and hearts when we open our eyes to the reality of the presence of God in our lives—and the unspeakably heavy cross that lays on our drooping shoulders.  Just like I fail my calling daily, you fail yours, and the sad thing is, it’s not going to stop.  We carry that cross right to the grave with us, and the only thing I know to do with my failures is to pile them up and lay them at the foot of that Old Rugged Cross where the savior of the world suffered and died.  And know what?  His love is enough to make up for my failures, your failures, our failures, the failures of humankind.  Aren’t you glad?

Well, we have to leave it there, I reckon.  There’s no way to sort it all out, no way I’ll ever sort it all out nor will you.  But if this call from the gospel—take up your cross and follow me—has called you into the mystery of the heart of darkness and the light of Christ that leads us out and onward to our own resurrection, then I figure I can just leave you there with the Lord and let y’all find your way forward.  I reckon you will.  And I can’t think of a better way to stop than with that prayer from the foot of the cross:  We praise you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.  Amen.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Demons? Yes, demons.

A Sermon
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
Fort Worth, Texas
Epiphany IV, 2012

How wonderful it is that we don’t have any Big Mountains to climb this morning, now that the parish meeting is behind us.  Today we can get down to what I’ve heard Fr McClain call “just plain, ordinary B-flat church.”

We get this chance on the fourth Sunday of the Epiphany season during which, as you’ve been reminded plenty of times, the Prayer Book asks us to consider not parables or prophecies but rather the astonishing signs, the things Jesus did to back his claims—very often things which seemed to make no sense or to make sense for the first time ever but so right-up-under-your-nose they couldn’t be denied.  Today’s moment in the synagogue at Capernaum is one of those.  In the first lesson from Deuteronomy you heard Moses promising the Hebrews that, though he would not go with them into the Promised Land, God would not leave them comfortless, would send faithful prophets to lead them, prophets they could believe and trust.  And that promise, of course, eventually grew into the messianic hope into which Jesus steps in today’s Gospel.  He goes into the synagogue and teaches, and when he’s done people are impressed.  “This guy teaches with authority.  Not like the scribes.”  That should raise a question in your mind:  how was it the scribes taught if not with authority?  Well, to get a notion of that, go back and listen to Paul in today’s lesson from Corinthians, another one of those cases where this may be so or that may be so or it may even be a sin—unless it happened on Wednesday or your grandmother was a Presbyterian or if you bought it at Wal-Mart.  You know?  Those tortuous adventures in casuistry a fascination with law creates.  That’s the way the scribes taught, and Jesus had likely treated the congregation to one of those You-have-heard-it-said-but-I-tell-you teachings.  And they were impressed.  “This guy gives you the word with the bark on it.”

And that fits the pattern just right, doesn’t it?  Jesus can claim to be the prophet Moses promised.  Neat as a pin.  Hand in glove.

But when I was reading this and wondering what the Holy Spirit had to say to you today, I couldn’t find much of a sermon.  I mean, who here has an authority problem with Jesus?  We were all brought up believing that Jesus is Lord, and all of you here have believed that at least since your baptism.  We don’t have much trouble acknowledging Jesus as Messiah.

So where’s the sermon? sez I to myself.  I went back and re-read that lesson, and it came to me that the sermon here for us today is all about . . . demons.  That’s right, demons.  I mean, no sooner than Jesus finishes, there’s a stir.  Evidently a man, part of the congregation, had an “unclean spirit” which elsewhere would be called a demon, and that spirit recognized Jesus right away.  There was tumult in the man’s soul, and the demon spoke.  “What do you want with me, Jesus.  I know who you are.  Whatchoo gonna do to me?”  Jesus wastes no words—“Come out of him”—and that demon is but gone.  And what do the people standing around say?  “This is a new teaching.  Even the demons obey him.”

Teaching?  What teaching?  Go back through that passage and show me any teaching.  What I see is an act—which the crowd took as teaching in action, I suppose, but they were impressed sho nuff.  Jesus’ fame spread throughout the region.

Well.  Well, well.  Oh, dear.  Demons.  We hear that and get a little uneasy in our chair and mutter and demur.  That’s something from the past.  We know better than that now.  Oh, some people, the kind that handle snakes and holler wave their hands in the air and all that, they probably believe in demons, but . . . well.  We’re Episcopalians.  We don’t do demons.

Wanna bet?

Back when I was in seminary and knew a whole more than I know now, I couldn’t help noticing that the Bible is full of demons, front to back, so though I knew we don’t do demons, knew I sure didn’t do demons, I figured I needed to come to terms with the whole idea somehow.  I was looking for a definition.  I got one from somebody, maybe Dr. Moreau, who knew all about Greek theology, and the definition was, more or less, that a demon—the Greek daimon—is any part of a being that takes control of the whole and deforms and derails and pollutes it, misshapes it, drives it nuts.  That’s what demons do.  They usurp the driver’s seat, and once their grip closes nobody knows where they’ll steer the careening vehicle.  A part takes over the whole.

You know that, you can see that.  Demons come in all sizes.  Our nation has one—well, it has a good many—but at least one immediately recognizable today is the demon of anger that plagues our political discourse during these campaigns.  “The voters are angry.  So and so has identified with that anger, tapped into that anger, is making hay out of that anger.  The president needs to show some passion, get angry.”  Yeah, that.  That’s a demon.  We should know better, but we ain’t drivin’ Betsey.  The demon is.  Anger is a part of human nature.  Officially, it’s a sin, although I’m not sure anger is the sin so much as what we do with anger.  But today anger has got our political body by the tail with a downhill pull.  Much good may it do us.

Churches can get demons.  Parishes sure get them.  Years ago I was rector of a parish where they’d done pretty well from the 1870s right on up into the 1940s.  But when that war was over, all kinds of . . . well . . . new people, not exactly like us, started to move into town, and some of them, gulp, wanted to join that parish.  In 1948, the vestry—I am not making this up—the vestry voted to close membership.  The demon of pride, better-than-you-are, snobbery, had that parish in its grip.  Bishop Mason didn’t put up with it, cast that demon right out.

And they come in all sizes to you and me personally, from within and without, day and night, whispering and yelling, coaxing and coercing.  You know what yours are; I know what mine are; we’ve all got demons.  And now that you think about them this way, you’ll likely admit it:  we’re all demon possessed to a greater or lesser degree.  A lot of the time we’re so used to them we just call them bad habits; but if you’ve ever tried to kick one of those, you know they don’t go without a fight.  You can’t just say “Get thee hence” and expect cooperation.  You have to go up into the attic and rassel ‘em down two flights of stairs and out the back door and off the porch.  And before you can wipe your sweaty brow, the suckers will run right around the house and come in the front door while you’re getting your breath.  You know.  If you’re anything like me, and I think you are, you know.  Demons are real.

Another thing about demons:  they lie.  They’re part of the devilish urge to disbelieve what God has been telling us from the first, namely that He loves us.  But from the Garden of Eden up to now, the Father of Lies whispers, “Oh, he doesn’t really mean it.”  Demons make us believe our bond with God is broken.  I learned that when I was a seminarian and working right across town at All Saints Hospital as a “chaplain intern.”  Fr. Blackwell gave us about two weeks’ prep and then turned us loose on the helpless patients.  One of the first rooms I walked into held a feller who took one look at me, saw that chaplain badge, and figured I was God’s boy come to see that he was getting his punishment.  “I don’t know whut it is I done to make God put thissun on me, but I musta done sump’n.”  How many people have you heard say things like that?  If something bad happens, and lots does, it must be God sending a demon to punish us.  The people Jesus taught sure thought so:  disease means punishment by divine agency.  Lots of people, some of them maybe in this room today, find it very hard to believe that God loves them when Bad Stuff happens.  We might even just say that demons are the Bad Stuff That Happens.  Merciful Heavens, how do you fight that?

I hope this doesn’t sound too simple minded, but the answer is:  we ask God to exorcise them, to cast them out, to free us.  Now, when I say exorcism I don’t mean to strap some adolescent girl to a bed and watch her turn six different colors and growl and float up in the air and barf on the priest.  That’s rude.  You all remember that sensational movie and all the knock-offs that appear now and then.  Not that—although this church does practice ritual exorcism.  Some years back, St. Timothy’s across town was desecrated, and Bishop Barnds, once rector of this parish, exorcised the whole place.

I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about how you and I, how we, get rid of the demons that plague us, personally, right at home, very real and very ugly, dangerous often.  We can do a lot worse than pray that believer’s prayer from the old children’s hymn—Come into my heart, Lord Jesus—because that’s what it takes.

Let me see if I can help you get a notion of what I’m talking about.  Jesus, the Bible tells and we believe, is The One sent from God, firstborn among the new creation, our teacher and Lord.  And what does Jesus say?  He reminds us, in the first place, that no matter what we’ve been led to believe, God is not angry with us.  He reminds us that God’s message is love.  “God your father loves you so much that he’s sent me to tell you you’re not condemned.  The way God sees you, you’re wonderful, splendid, perfect, destined for glory.”  And Jesus reminds us that we don’t need lots of rules but rather only two:  we must learn to love God the way God loves us—heart, soul, and mind—and to love each other that way, no exceptions.  He summed all that up for us in last week’s gospel:  repent and believe the gospel.  Get your eyes off your demons; turn them to God in Christ Jesus; stop believing the lies you’ve heard and hear everywhere and start living in the conviction that you are God’s beloved child in whom He is pleased beyond description.  Do that, and you’ll love everybody else that way.  Get you some Kingdom Eyes and behold the world in a new and eternal light.  That’s the way God sees the world and you and me, and when we all get that and act on it, well, the Kingdom of Heaven is revealed in its splendor all about us.

Well, to that you wouldn’t be remiss to respond like Jake Barnes at the end of The Sun Also Rises:  wouldn’t it be nice if it were so?  Because you know and I know and only a fool doesn’t know that life ain’t like that.  I mean, that’s what the first two chapters of Genesis are about.  If God is good and loves us and we’re good and created to love, then why do we treat each other like Hell?  We have to live in what we call history, time and tide and circumstance.  And that’s the truth.  For reasons of His own, maybe because the school of hard knocks is the only way we can learn to love, I don’t know, we first find God in history.  It’s all part of the mystery of God, but just remember that God Himself came and lived in it, and Jesus had to put up with a whole lot more than any of us.  Never.  The.  Less . . .

Let me tell you a story.  Down in Monterrey at Sagrada Familia parish, a woman named Mary González was the apple of everybody’s eye.  She was a simple in her fifties, not very well off, but she was happy just about all the time.  Then one day she went to the doctor.  And she got some bad news.  And she got some bad doctoring.  Pretty soon she was losing control of her find motor skills, then the big ones; next she couldn’t walk, had to sit, lie, be pushed; finally she lost control of her innards and spent her life being cleaned up by a daughter who found it all very hard to justify.  But through it all to the bitter end, Mary was healed.  Happy, chirpy, worrying about others, full of prayers.  She never once listened to the demon that had crawled in bed with her.  It had the best of her in one way, to be sure, no doubt about that.  But she died in such a state of . . . well . . . joy is all I can call it . . . that we all felt her love with us with no doubt.  Still do.
Now, it’s not easy to do that.  Your life is going great, things are generally good, and one day you go to the doctor’s office.  Or someone learns something about a spouse that’s pretty awful.  Or a child.  Or a friend.  And remember, sometimes we let the demons in.  We let that drink or that drug or that pride or that greed—their name is Legion—right in the front door and nurse it to our breast like Cleopatra and her asp.  Am I asking you just to ignore what can’t be denied?  Not at all.  I’m asking you to admit it and turn it over to Jesus, because as another hymn says, “there’s no other way.”

Even the demons obey Jesus.  That’s the new teaching.  And you come to believe it by letting it happen.  Don’t ask me to explain how it happens; but just like the demon in today’s gospel, our demons know what they’re up to, and if you, if I, in desperation turn in prayer to God and say, “Lord, help me believe in your love.  Help me remember that the horrors that sometimes come after me are not your doing.  Help me remember that, whether it’s my own fault or whether I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing, nothing whatsoever can separate me from your love.”  Then do your best to act that out.  It is not easy, and we don’t always meet the test.  I’ll tell you, though, I don’t know how Jesus does it, but somehow He knows.  And He comes.  He holds your hand, and He loves you from start to finish.  I know other therapies are there, and thank God for them.  But down at the bottom of my soul, where I am umbilicaled to God for time and eternity, I know it works.  Even the demons obey Jesus.  It’s not therapy.  It’s the mystery of God’s love.  And somehow, it works.

I know because I speak from experience.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

S**t diocesan and parish communicators think, but don't say

Not that I personally have EVER thought any of these things . . .

Actually, bishop, just because you have an IT person does not mean you have a communicator on staff. It means you have an IT person on staff.

You don't "do email" or check the web site because it takes too much of your time, so you want me to stop what I'm doing to give you all the updates on what's going on in the parish/diocese? Seriously?

For the 500th time to a reporter "No, it's not the Episcopalian Church, It's the Episcopal Church. And people who go there are Episcopalians, not Episcopals."

Yes, all that information was in the most recent E-Newsletter, to which you subscribe, and no, I don't have time to read it to you.

Seriously. How long can it take the bishop/rector/senior warden to write a 300-word piece for the newsletter?

No, I didn't post the information about your organization's yard sale because you didn't send it to me. I am good, but reading minds is something I haven't yet mastered.

Yes, I DO want to know who was elected to the vestry at the annual parish meeting. That's why I sent you an email that said, "Please send me the names of those elected to the vestry at the annual parish meeting."

Yes, I know your son is not included in the video of the youth activities at convention.That's because he wasn't there. Yes, I'm sure of that. And no, I don't have any idea why he would tell you he was there if he really wasn't. (But I can guess.)

No, I wasn't at your parish's recent men's chili cook off because I was with the bishop at his visitation to St. Swithin's. I'm sorry but I have not yet mastered bilocation.

Yes, I did see the story on the web site about the bishop's recent trip to your parish. I wrote it.

Where do you find the bishop's schedule on the web site? Click on the tab that says "bishop's schedule."

Yes, I saw the front page story in the newspaper about the Presbyterians who went on a mission trip to Haiti and got trapped in a landslide and had to dig themselves out with spoons, and while I love our parish's ministry to the food bank, no, I cannot make the newspaper do a similar story about it.

No, you are not required to give me your email address, but if you want me to sign you up for emailed news updates from the diocese, it would be very helpful.

Yes, I will be glad to create all that delightful new content for the web site as soon as I dig myself out from under the last pile of work you put on my desk.

Where on the web site do you find the report on diocesan convention? Click on the tab that says "Report on diocesan convention."

Tell me you are not seriously suggesting we buy an ad in the Yellow Pages.

Yes, I really do believe that if our church can't be Googled, we don't exist.

Yes, you do need to update your parish web site. It's January. Most people aren't looking for the Vacation Bible School schedule right now.

Yes, I see you have a smart phone. I'm still not going to give you administrative rights to the diocesan Facebook page.

No, we will not live Tweet your annual parish meeting.

Yes, if you put titles in front of all the names of clergy, you have to put titles in front of all the names of laypeople. Yes. You do.

Yes, I did change the story you submttted. It's called "editing."

I know I can count on my sister and brother communicators to add to this.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

So here is another wonderful offering from the Rev. Bruce Coggin, good  friend and now interim at Trinity, Fort Worth. Read and enjoy.


A Sermon Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
Fort Worth, Texas
Holy Name 2012

Happy New Year!  I’m mighty proud of you for coming to church on New Year’s Day in a year when the calendar has us all about two bubbles off plumb.  And I’m also particularly happy to see you this day, since it’s my first “official” day as . . . well, doorkeeper, I guess, until Trinity has a new rector, something your Succession Commission is working hard on.

I’m also particularly happy to see you this morning, because today we’re doing something really rare in terms of our liturgical life.  Today is the Feast of the Holy Name, the day Jesus got his name, one week after Christmas, and usually it’s kept—if it’s kept at all—at a weekday Mass with the celebrant and the altar guild and the Four Sainted Dames who go to weekday Mass.

But this time Christmas came on Sunday, something that happens only about every time the dragon flies, so this year instead of celebrating Christmas I, we get Holy Name today; and all over the world, liturgical churches like ours get the opportunity to pray and think about and respond to that moment in the Lord’s life.  The lessons are about naming—God blesses and thus marks his people, Jesus gets his name (almost in a footnote!), and Paul assures us that we are God’s children and bear his name.  In that light, then, I want us to spend some time this morning pondering Jesus’ holy name, then names and naming in general, and I want us to think about God’s notions about the names you and I bear, about the name he’s given us, and what that means in the way we live the rest of this and every new year.

First, there’s the name of Jesus.  The story says that Gabriel revealed it to Mary at the Annunciation, so God evidently had some notions about the child the virgin would conceive and bear.  He gets it exactly one week after his birth like the law requires, since the evangelists insisted he met every requirement to be messiah.  And notice this about the name Jesus:  it’s mighty rare in the Bible.  Hardly shows up anywhere else.  I mean there are Samuels and Nathans and Jacobs and Johns and all the rest—but hardly another Jesus anywhere.  There’s Jesus ben Sirach in the apocrypha, but you just don’t find many Jesuses in the Bible.  The angel also talked of some of God’s notions about the child.  Jesus would be great and bring great good to God’s people, which is a considerable notion in itself—and about as much a glimpse of the Father’s mind as we get.

Among us, here in Fort Worth today, the name of Jesus is certainly . . . well . . . holy.  We know, we’re taught at our mother’s knees and everywhere else, that Jesus is something special, a name we don’t use lightly.  Or better not.  I can tell you, when I was maybe ten, eleven years old and learning to express myself . . . colorfully? . . . I got slapped right away from the table at my Grandmother Coggin’s house for using it flippantly.  She was a Tennessee Methodist and not prepared to put up with a bit of that.  Of course, in Mexico that didn’t work.  I mean there are men—and women—named Jesús all over the place.  But it comes right home to you north of the border.  I live over on the east side of town where a lot of people came from Mexico, and one day I was driving down Ayers to the grocery store and saw a sign in a yard:  House for sale.  Dial 817 dit dot dit dot dit.  Ask for Jesus.  Well, now!  That’ll catch your eye.  At least around here, though a lot of us profane it, most folks have a very acute notion that Jesus is a holy name, a name set apart, connected straight with God.  Don’t mess with it.

How about our names, my name, your names?  We don’t get to choose them, you know, unless we do it as adults.  Somebody else names us, and usually the names we get include notions, like God’s notions about his son.  I know my parents named me Bruce for my mother’s first cousin who died horribly.  Aunt Ada asked my mother to name her first son Bruce, so I got that.  And I’m Wayne after my father.  It didn’t occur to me for decades that Bruce Wayne is Batman’s name, for Pete’s sake.  My students in Mexico all called me Doctor Batmán!  A little gift with my name fifty years in the coming.  But from time to time, I recall the notions my name includes.

We don’t get to choose our family names either, at least men don’t ordinarily, and they carry a load too.  Bishop Pope said his mother always cautioned him to “remember who you are” and by that meant the family’s Good Name.  There are times I wish he’d remembered it a little less!  But you get the point.  The family name has content.  We say, “Oh, that’s just the way those Ledbetters are!” or “That’s just the Randolph in him.”  Names have baggage.

What about naming?  If you’ve ever named a child—even a pet—you know what I mean.  When I was an undergraduate in Austin—I didn’t go to this little four-year college across the street; you’ll just have to forgive me—I had a friend with a girlfriend named Ginna.  Ginna.  I just loved that name, liked the way it sounded in my head, swore if I ever had a daughter, she’d be Ginna.  As it turned out the mother of my children had a best friend named Virginia, so my daughter is Virginia for that friend and Kathryn for my mother-in-law—but to me she’s Ginna.  I had notions about her when she was tiny, and as often happens, they haven’t exactly turned out.  She’s made her own life and has the usual woes and wonders, but she’s still my Ginna and I love her so much I can hardly stand it, always will.  Just say Ginna, and my heart fills up.  My other kids’ names are just as loaded.

It’s also important that names be right.  Sometimes things, even people, get the wrong name.  I teach a Faulkner story in which a family has lived in the same great white plantation house for over a century, and the men heirs are named John and Bayard and John and Bayard from generation to generation until the last Bayard married a dadgummed Yankee carpetbagger girl whose maiden name was Benbow, and that woman named the heir to the place Benbow.  Benbow!  Everybody called him that except the ninety year old grande dame who lived in a wheelchair in the library, and she called him Johnny.  She knew what his name should have been.  In that connection I think of Abram and Sarai getting their names changed to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis.  Evidently it wouldn’t do for them to have Arabic names, so they got retrofitted with proper Hebrew monikers.

Sometimes people reject their names.  I teach another story, Flannery O’Connor, in which a mother, an optimistic woman named Hopewell, has notions about her daughter and names her Joy.  Well, Joy grows up and goes to college and studies philosophy and learns that life is meaningless and horrible, so she goes to court and changes her name to Hulga.  Hulga!  The ugliest name she could think of.  She knew who she thought she was.  It was mighty hard on that mother, though.  All her notions right out the window.

What about calling names?  At times we use names as weapons.  There are a good many names I’m familiar with that can get your teeth knocked down your throat if you use them wrong.  Oh, we have many, many of those in our arsenal.  Even my youngest grandson Danny spots them.  When he’s at some family gathering, and one of the adults uses some vivid language, his eyes pop right open:  “That’s a ba-a-a-ad word!”  Even little children know.  Names are not just handles.  They’re complex engines of emotion and power.

Well, enough about the way we name.  Let’s think about God’s notions about you and your name, because I think he’s got some.  I figure just about everybody in the house was baptized at some point in the past.  Some of us can remember our baptisms.  I remember mine.  I was eight or nine and already had my names.  Others were baptized as infants and, depending on where that happened, you got the Fred or the Mary or the George or the Linda you go by at the very least.  If you were baptized Roman Catholic or in some fine High Church parish of ours, you also might have gotten a saint’s name—St. Kentigern or St. Etheldreda or some other worthy—and that saint’s day is your name day.  The Freds and Marys are about your parents’ notions, the saints’ names about some priest’s notions.  Have you forgotten that, along with parents and ministers, you were ushered through those waters of baptism by none other than God?  God parented you then just as much as any of the others, and God gave you a name too:  Jesus.  You are born, after all into Christ—let’s call him Jesus—and you bear his sign and name the rest of your life and forever.  Consider that.  You’re named Jesus.

Another thing from Mexico.  People with the same name—two men named Juan, two women named María—have a word for each other:  tocayo, tocaya.  That way they avoid having to use their own names with each other.  Well, every one of us is tocayo with Jesus, because that’s our name too.  Think of it.  God has notions about you, and they are a whole lot like the notions he has about Jesus.  God also knew that, unlike Jesus who alone ever fulfilled his heavenly father’s notions entirely, you and I are not up to living into those notions a lot of the time.  Children often don’t meet their parents’ cherished notions.  You know.  If you’re anything like me, and I think you are, you drop the ball all the time.  I sure do.  That’s why God gave us Jesus when he renamed us.  He knew we’d need help.

Consider this about your Jesus name.  One of the promises we make—and will repeat right here next Sunday—is to seek and serve Jesus in everyone we meet.  That means serving ourselves in a way, and I know I find Christ in you and others all the time.  Maybe you don’t need my service.  Maybe we just need to recognize each other and strenthen and encourage.  But when we see the needy, rejected, despised, outcast Jesus in others, we had best get cracking to fulfill those Matthew Twenty-Five notions—feed, clothe, comfort, love, all that.  And what about people seeing Jesus in us?  In you?  Do your fellow Jesus tocayos recognize you as one of the family?  Likely they do.  I mean, you’re here.  But what about people who have heard of Jesus and don’t like what they hear?  What about people who have no notions about Jesus at all?  Do they see something in you, your Jesus, that somehow stops them, makes them wonder, “Who is that who seems somehow . . . different, blessed?”  Do I, do you, do we, does Trinity Church remember day in and day out that we who bear the name of Jesus are the light God’s notions have set for the rest of the world?  Do we bear that light?  Each of us, all of us?

Well, those are some things to think about the rest of the year.  You may be a little surprised to think of yourself as Jesus, but that’s exactly God’s notion about you and me and all God’s chillen.  We’re all in that family the way God see us, his notion.  Our job this day and every day is to remember who we are, whose name we claim, whose name saves us, and then to find ourselves, yourself, myself, in everybody we meet.  I mean, God’s notion is that we’re all one blessed family.  It’s our destiny to pray and work to make that a living reality.

Happy New Year!  Happy Name Day!