Category Archives: Discipleship

Good Seed in Rocky Soil

Commemoration of Alexander Crummell

September 10, 2013Alexander Crummell

Church Divinity School of the Pacific

Sirach 39:6-11

Ps. 19:7-11

James 1:2-5

Mark 4:1-10, 13-20

“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell . . .” (Mark 4.3-4)

Today we commemorate the life and ministry of Alexander Crummell.

Crummell is remembered in as a pioneering African American priest who steadfastly pursued his priestly calling in trying circumstances, who served as a missionary in Liberia, and who was an early voice for African American self-reliance and an influence on later thinkers like Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. DuBois.

In preparing this homily, I initially thought that Crummell was an example of the seed falling in good soil, yielding a great abundance of fruit.

In a way I think that is still true.

The seed of the gospel found good soil in Alexander Crummell and the harvest he brought in was great.

But the seed of the gospel that Crummell himself sowed fell in the hard, rocky soil of pre-Civil War America and the reality of slavery.

And he sowed in the thorn-choked patches of post-Civil War America where the promise of freedom for African Americans gave way to Jim Crow laws and deep-seated institutional racism.

These were the fields Crummell labored in.

His life is worthy of commemoration because he tended the seeds of the gospel in places

where the evil one threatened his harvest and yet he brought in much fruit.

Listen to his story and you will see what I mean.

Crummell sought ordination and was initially admitted to General Theological Seminary in New York, but with the school fearing the loss of financial support, he was told he could only attend if he did not live at the school, did not eat in the refectory or sit in the classrooms.

That is, he could be a student only if he didn’t act like a student.

Crummell turned them down.

He read for holy orders and was ordained in 1844 as a priest in Boston.

Crummell however could not find a permanent position ministering to African American congregations inthe Northeast and rarely received diocesan support that would enable him to fully live out his vocation.

Eventually Crummell went to the African country of Liberia as a missionary of the Episcopal Church, serving there for 20 years.

He imagined Christianity as a great civilizing force that would transform Africa and lead it to higher levels of morality and spirituality.

He envisioned a church headed by Africans for Africans that merged Euro-American technology and learning with African culture.

As well, Crummell hoped that African Americans would emigrate to Liberia to both

escape the racist structures of America and contribute to the transformation of their new home.

Eventually Crummell was forced to abandon his work in Liberia.

He could not secure enough funding from the Episcopal Church and the waves of African American immigrants never materialized.

Returning to the United States, he served as rector of St. Luke’s in Washington D.C.

where he found his new mission in fighting for the rights of African Americans in the Episcopal Church.

Southern bishops, in a resolution known as the Sewanee Canon,sought to segregate African Americans from their local dioceses and place theminto separate missionary dioceses meant for African Americans alone.

Crummell helped establish the Conference of Church Workers among Colored People

in 1883, the forerunner for today’s Union of Black Episcopalians.

Through his leadership this group successfully beat back the racist Sewanee Canon at General Convention and saved the Episcopal Church from further shame.

Given these highlights from the life of Alexander Crummell, the parable of the sower is an appropriate text to use to think about his life.

Crummell sowed the seed of the gospel to inspire Africans and African Americans to lives of greater discipleship, leadership, and creativity.

All the while he sowed his seed in the rocky ground and harsh environment of racism and neglect not just in American society but in the very power structures of the Episcopal Church.

All Crummell ever wanted was to be a priest and for his congregations to have a full share in the life of the wider church.

To do this he had to persevere against what W. E. B. Du Bois, in his essay on Crummell in The Souls of Black Folk, describes as the temptations of hatred, despair, doubt, and fear of failure.

Crummell’s life forces us to both thank God for the grace of perseverance given to the saints but also to ask what we will do when obstacles arise as we sow our seeds of the gospel.

Crummell, writing in the language of his time, tells us that steadfastness and a firm sense of vocation are necessary when confronting hardships.

He says in a sermon titled “Keep Your Hand on the Plough,” that “A man’s thought and interest are demanded there where his work lies; and nowhere else. It is the duty of every man to find his proper sphere. His only appropriate position is therein; and there to keep himself; there to make his activities; there to put forth his energies. It is this finding ones place and keeping it which is integrity, character, honesty, and humility.”

Integrity, character, honesty, humility.

Crummell possessed these qualities in abundance.

They are qualities we too must cultivate in our vocations.

What will we do when our seed falls on rocky places?

Crummell’s life makes us look at this parable with fresh eyes, and realize that even the rocky places need cultivation and care.

Of course, those rocky places are all around us.

The rocky places of a self-absorbed culture.

The rocky places where violence and profit margins are easier than peace and justice.

The rocky places where the Gospel is ignored, the Spirit resisted.

The rocky places where a person, or a church, would rather die than change.

The rocky places where racism abounds, even in nations that claim equality under the law.

You have been in rocky places.

You might be in one now.

You certainly will find yourself in one in the future.

In order to do work in the rocky places, it is good to attend to the teachings of the Letter of James.

To do work in these places takes faith, which in its testing produces endurance.

This testing brings one’s faith to a place of maturity and fullness.

I imagine this was the faith of Alexander Crummell.

He worked in those hard and rocky places, and nonetheless worked at nurturing the faith of others in those places.

This takes me back to the image of that seed falling in the rocky soil.

I want to offer a midrash on this parable.

A midrash is a Jewish way of interpreting Scripture that offers another reading to get at the truth of a story.

Here’s the midrash.

There was seed sown in rocky soil and the seeds grew.

A worker came to the field every day and watered the plants but the sun caused them to wither.

One night while the worker slept, the master of the field came and replaced the rocky soil with good soil.

And the plants grew and bore fruit tenfold, twentyfold, and a hundredfold.

And the worker came to the field and rejoiced.

When you find yourself in those rocky places, remember Alexander Crummell.

Keep your hand to the plough.

Tend to the seeds of the gospel.

Trust in God.

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Living Together

A sermon preached at the end of Church Divinity School of the Pacific’s Student Orientation

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1 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Ps. 90:13-17

Matthew 24:42-51

 

“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?”[1 Thess 3:9]

 

This time has been in the making for so long and in so many ways.

You all have been individually called out by God to lay claim to your particular gifts and to lay claim to your vocations.

The continual discernment of the mystery of your lives has led you now to this place here in Berkeley at Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

All of us have individually followed paths that have led us to this particular community of faith lived out in this community of learning.

We have all arrived here as strangers and we have learned how to grow together as a community.

And now this week, you who have come through orientation have been gathered together as people who were once strangers but now have become friends in this community of followers of the way of Jesus.

 

The passage we heard from I Thessalonians offers us a window into the creation of one of the earliest Christian communities we know of.

As you will learn later, First Thessalonians is the earliest letter we have from the Apostle Paul and so also the earliest written Christian document.

In this passage, we hear the joy experienced by the earliest Christians as they came together to worship the God of Israel in gratitude for the reconciling work of the risen Christ.

We hear of the mutual longing of Paul and the community in Thessalonica to see one another.

We hear of the joy that each gains in their fellowship and a desire to grow in faith that is uniquely gained by living in community.

Paul’s words teach us that a key component of living together in Christ is a mutuality and reciprocity that leads not only to love for one another but also to growth in faith.

This communal growth not only exists for the sake of the present but it is also directed to the future.

Our passage ends with this exhortation from Paul:

“And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” [I Thess 3:13]

Here Paul’s words remind us that what we do together matters.

God cares deeply about how we shape our common life together.

We hear Paul with our modern ears that God will judge us individually for what we have done.

And we recoil.

But remember this – Paul did not think like a modern person.

He thought as a Jew of the ancient Mediterranean world.

And so he thought not of individual entities but of communal realities.

How we live as community is what God will judge in the age to come.

And life in community is hard.

 

We hear about the difficulty of community life in the passage read from Matthew 24.

The context of this passage is Jesus preparing his disciples for the coming of God’s reign that will be signaled by the return of the Son of Man.

It is important to know that the Son of Man refers to a heavenly figure in Daniel 3 who in Second Temple Judaism was identified as the messianic agent of God’s restoration of Israel.

In Matthew, Jesus is identified as the heavenly, messianic Son of Man.

And we hear a parable by Jesus about faithful and unfaithful household slaves.

This teaching is similar to others Jesus offered in which he used the economic and social realities of his time to exhort his disciples to work carefully with what has been entrusted to them.

I don’t think this parable means that the good slaves are Christians and the bad ones are non-Christians.

I think he is asking his disciples to imagine themselves as a household devoted to serving God by following the teachings of their master Jesus.

 

This parable is not about us and them.

It is about us.

And it asks a hard question — Are we ready for the Son of Man coming among us at an unexpected hour?

When he comes, how will he find us?

Will he find us treating one another well and nourishing one another or will he find us beating up on each other? [Mt 24:45, 49]

It is not an abstract question about when Christ comes again.

It is about how we choose to live together now, in this community, at CDSP.

We here are part of the household of God, following the way of Jesus.

We’re an intentional community – we have chosen to live together.

And we will be held accountable for how we live together and with one another now.

 

This truth reminds me of something that Mark Richardson has spoken of as a desire he has for life together here at CDSP – that we learn to cultivate the habits of ethical living and the ability to engage in moral conversation that leads to deeper life in Christ.

Moments and opportunities will come for us to follow Jesus and to show we are ready for the coming of the Son of Man.

These moments will emerge as we live together in this place in community.

Our time in this community will be determined in part by how we choose to be open to living side by side as members of the household of God, brought together as followers of the reconciling Christ.

This kind of living together is what Paul writes about in First Thessalonians.

It is a community in which the workers within the household attend to and care for one another.

It is a community that gives thanks for one another.

It is one in which the love of God serves as a common bond among us, even when we disagree or disappoint one another.

 

So we are here together facing this new semester, gathering together again as a community.

Let us care for one another.

Let us give thanks for one another.

Let us love one another.

Living this way, together, we will be ready when the Son of Man comes among us, now and in the day to come.

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Barren Branches and Flowering Branches

Thursday in Second Week of Lent
February 28, 2013
Church Divinity School of the Pacific
Berkeley, CA

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1
Luke 16:19-31

“They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.” (Jer. 17:8a)

If we imagine Lent as a journey through the wilderness, by now we have taken a bend in the road.

We can’t turn around and see Ash Wednesday behind us.

The memory of ash on our foreheads is not as strong.

But perhaps the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy still echo in your ears: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Those words call us to penance, rightly and surely.

But, remember also the ultimate referent of those words is God, the creator and source of all life.

God created all that is, setting forth and ordering all of the tremendous beauty, diversity and mystery of creation.

Remember you are made from the dust of the earth.

Remember you are made from dust that came from the stars shining above.

Remember you are dust from which plants spring forth.

Remember that when you die you will return back to the elemental realities God formed.

Remember God the Creator.

Forgetting God the Creator, the source of all being, is the essence of idolatry.

To forget God as the source of all is to break the First Commandment – “I am the Lord your God.”

When we forget this, then we forget the Second Commandment, “You shall not make for yourself any idol.”

Jeremiah addresses this forgetfulness when he speaks to the people of Israel: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” (Jer 17:5)

Immediately before in this chapter, Jeremiah has condemned the people for turning away from Torah to idols.

That turning away includes looking to foreign powers instead of God.

Israel was threatened from all sides by foreign powers – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon.

Rather than trust in God, Israel sought political solutions by turning to their own strength and by seeking alliances with other powers.

In the course of these pursuits, Israel also turned to idolatry, forgetting God’s covenant with Israel made at Sinai.

For Jeremiah, idolatry happens when the people of God move from relying on God the Creator and instead turn to their own strength.

This indeed is the origin of sin – turning away from God.

The problem is not simply in turning away from God.

Sin involves losing sight of God as the source of all creation.

Sin disfigures God’s plan for creation – that all should live in harmony and unity with God, with each other, and with all that God has created.

Jeremiah uses a striking image for this idolatry – sin is like a drought.

He declares that those who put their own agenda before God’s desire for creation will be:

“like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.” (Jer. 17:6)

By putting other things in the place of God, sin dries up and shrivels the vibrancy of life.

Sin causes the leaves and buds and flowers and fruits to fall off the branches of our life until we are left with a broken stick.

We find a similar image of sin in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke.

In this parable, the rich man dines sumptuously his whole life; he is blessed with many fine things.

Even his burial shows that he had the means to ensure not only a comfortable life but a seemly transition to the world to come.

His wealth would have been interpreted by Luke’s audience to mean that God had favored him.

And then comes the great reversal that is the core of Luke’s gospel.

The poor man, Lazarus, is exalted to the bosom of Abraham and the rich man is cast down to Hades.

The rich man went down to Hades not because he was rich but because he did not heed the word of God regarding his wealth.

The Scriptures of Israel that Jesus taught from held that the people of God must care for the poor in their midst.

Moses clearly taught this when in the Torah provisions are made for the poor and aliens in the midst of Israel.

Jeremiah taught this when he wrote: “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow . . . and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place.” (Jer 7:5-7)

For Jeremiah, not caring for the poor in your midst is linked to idolatry.

They are linked because both show a disregard for God’s plan that all be in relation with God and with each other.

And when the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his thirst, Abraham tells him it is too late – his way of life has sealed his fate.

And neither does Abraham allow Lazarus to go back to the rich man’s brothers to warn them of their fate – the words of Moses and the prophets are sufficient.

Indeed, even if someone comes back from the dead, they will not believe.

In this world, the rich man never saw Lazarus.

He neglected Torah by neglecting Lazarus.

And that neglect shows that he placed himself before others.

That attitude of superiority in itself was an act of idolatry because it signaled that God was not at the center of life for the rich man.

And so he did not respond to God’s desire for communion among all created things.

And for that, he thirsted.

Sin had rendered him dry and without the vibrancy of life.

There was no water for him.

Sin had ruined all the comforts he had carefully laid up.

Scripture is clear.

There are two ways – a way that leads to flourishing and life and a way that leads to dryness and lifelessness.

Both Jeremiah and the psalm imagine one who follows the wisdom of God as being like a flourishing tree that has set down roots by running waters.

In contrast, to not heed God is to be like a withered shrub or chaff that the wind blows away.

I imagine these two ways as the way of the barren branch and the flowering branch.

[Pull out budding branch]

We can imagine ourselves, our society, and our planet as a budding branch.

And it can become a flowering branch or a barren branch based on our actions.

We become the barren branch when we do not obey God’s desire for us, for humanity, and for creeation even when we know words of God spoken by Moses, the prophets, Jesus. [pluck buds]
Our society becomes a barren branch when we neglect the poor right under our feet. [pluck buds]

When we are willing to be complicit in injustice. [pluck buds]

When the diminishment of others is not our concern. [pluck buds]
Our world becomes this barren branch when we consume and don’t care. [pluck buds]

When we desire products that rely on rare metals whose mining means poisoned waters for indigenous people and civil wars in corners of the world remote to us.  [pluck buds]

This has been the driest winter in the Bay Area on record.

The sunshine you enjoyed today was not good news.

It was as bad news as Hurricane Sandy was. [pluck last buds]

Like this barren branch, it is a sign of the destruction that human sin causes among God’s creation.

We have created barren branches in ourselves, in society, and upon our earth.

[Put down barren branch.]

And there is the way of the flowering branch.

Psalm 1 and Jeremiah teaches that the wise and blessed are those who trust in the Lord and delight in God’s Law.

They are like trees by streams of water, bursting with green leaves, flowers and fruit.

This is the way of flourishing: choosing the way of wisdom that places God at the center and as the source of creation.

Discerning God as source and center allows us to see the goodness and communion God desires for all of creation.
To return to this sense of God’s desire for us requires repentance.

It requires seeing the world and our lives and our society not as we want it but as God does.

[Hold up flowering branch]
Repentance brings forth the buds of the branch and causes flowers to bloom.

When we turn to God and in prayer discern God’s will for us, flowers bloom.

When we heed God’s call to care for the poor and hungry, flowers bloom.

When people make a stand for a society that is just, honest, and fair, flowers bloom.

When greed gives way to generosity, flowers bloom.

When we stop consuming and start sharing, flowers bloom.

And is it possible?

Can we imagine a way past the destruction of creation that looms on the horizon, that is indeed upon us?

Might the barren branch become the flowering branch in the desolate places we have made?

Amid the melting ice, warming oceans, and parched land?

Might the flowers on the branch bloom?

There is one who has come back from the dead to warn us.

And not just to warn us, but to give us abundant life.

[Put both branches together]

He is the branch that has sent forth new shoots from the root of Jesse.

He is the one who says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 2:15).

Blessed are those who walk in the way of the Lord for they shall bring forth fruit in due season with leaves that do not wither.

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Sermon on Ash Wednesday

I know this is a bit late, but here is the sermon I preached this Ash Wednesday at All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley, CA.

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Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Why are we here?
That answer seems simple enough: We are here to begin the season of Lent.
We are gathered to prepare ourselves for the remembrance of Christ’s death and his glorious resurrection.
We are here to prepare as the holy people of God have always prepared when approaching the mysteries of God’s grace.

Scripture testifies that drawing near to God includes purification by fasting and repentance.

But Scripture also warns that we need to have a right understanding of this process.

We live in an age in which our focus is so highly individualized.

So when we hear the word repentance, our minds first go to personal sins.

It is appropriate to deal with these but Scripture teaches that our concern ought not to be just with how our sins touch us but even more so how they effect others.

The purpose of fasting and repentance of sins is not to make ourselves feel closer to God.

God desires our fasting and repentance to be a way to reset the entire social order

The message of Scripture, over and over, is that sin matters because it distorts our relationship with God, with one another, and with all that God has created.

God’s desire for the people of God to reset their social order is found in our reading from Isaiah.

These words are addressed to the exiles from Babylon.
They are seeking to re-establish their relationship with God as they restore their worship of God at the Temple in Jerusalem.
A fast, they believe, will draw them closer to God.
But the prophet tells them a fast alone won’t suffice.
Attending to their personal sphere alone won’t do it.
And they know it.

They ask: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ (Is 58:3a)

The prophet responds:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.” (Is 53:3b-4)
God will not hear the people’s cry until they repair their relationships with one another.Isaiah reminds us that God the Creator desires all creation to be in right relationship.

But the returning exiles are not in right relationship with their neighbors, and thus not with God either.
Their fast is not pleasing to God until it is accompanied by justice and peace.
Their fast is not pleasing to God until their workers are paid fairly.
Their fast is not pleasing to God until they cease fighting with one another.
This is the fast God desires from the people of God.

Scripture says it plainly:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? [Is 58:6-7]

The fast that pleases God is a just fast.
It is a fast that involves sharing what you don’t eat with the hungry.
It is a fast that houses the homeless.
It is a fast that clothes the needy.
It is a fast that purifies not only your soul but also heals society.

And the prophet is clear: if you do not counteract injustice you are complicit with it.

Will your fast be a just fast?
It is this question that drives Jesus’ words on fasting that we have heard.
Jesus does not disapprove of fasting.
We know this because he himself fasted for forty days in the wilderness.
What he opposes is the fast that is not just.
He opposes the fast that makes us feel we are holy and special while we ignore our responsibility as people of God to do justice and to make peace.
If we are satisfied with the simple act of fasting and penitence today and this Lent, Jesus tells us we have lost our way.
In the Gospels, over and over again, Jesus calls his disciples into relationship with the God of Israel and with one another.
Jesus, like Isaiah, teaches that all we have is from God the Creator.

We are made from dust, to dust we will return, all we possess comes from God.

Being from dust, depending on God for our being, we are set free to be in loving relationship with all, including those we have oppressed, whether personally or complicity.

This is a key element of what the Kingdom of God means to Jesus.
This vision of the Kingdom of God encompasses a life in which all of God’s people are in a relationship and in which no one is diminished.
All are to be loved as God loves, both your neighbor and your enemy, both those you aid and those you oppress.
The point of repentance is to not only focus on what inhibits our relationship with God, but to repent of that which harms and diminishes others.

And when Jesus speaks of the rewards of heaven, I think he has in mind rewards that bring us closer to God and to the ideal way in which we are called to live.
We are called to feed hungry and care for the needy.
When this happens, what was missing and broken in our common lives is repaired.
We are called to a fast in which we move beyond ourselves and our personal concerns to a wider circle of concern for others.
We are called to a just fast.
Our reward for taking on a just fast is that in those small mundane tasks of justice the patterns of the kingdom of God slowly become visible among us.
We will come up soon and receive ashes on our head and be told that we are from dust and will return to dust.
We are born with nothing and we will leave with nothing.
We depend on God alone for our life.
And so if we depend on God alone, what is there to lose in taking on this just fast, this fast in which we expand the circle beyond ourselves?

We are dust.
All we have depends on God.

So, feed the hungry.
Clothe the naked.
Care for the needy.
Stop your quarrels.
Make peace.

This is the fast God desires.

This is the fast that leads to the cross and to the empty tomb and to the risen Christ.
The ash on your head will mark another step on the path of living out God’s justice.

There is nothing to lose and the treasures of heaven to gain.

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A Lateral Move

Wednesday nights are the occasion for a community Eucharist at Ripon College Cuddesdon (a bit like Community Night at CDSP). Tonight I had the pleasure of hearing Tim Naish (Dean of the Oxford Ministry Course and Lecturer in Missiology) preach. It was a very fine Lenten sermon. Tim unpacked the readings — the act of covenant making between God and Israel in Deuteronomy and Jesus’ declaration that he had come not abolish but fulfill the Law. The core theme was the ways in which people are drawn into the life of God and the transformations that unfold from that.

What might have been an offhand illustration in the middle of the sermon struck me. Speaking of invitations to a deeper life, Tim asked how should church leaders respond when parishioners, after being moved by formation programs like Alpha, ask what is next for them to do in that community.  The implication was that, generally, church leadership is not always equipped to take people deeper.

In my mind flashed all the amazing things that parishioners can do if they are empowered to. And not just inside church walls or doing explicitly “churchy” things like helping with the parish soup kitchen. I got to thinking of Martin Luther’s conviction that all Christians have a vocation to minister and that their occupation is where they are called to live out that ministry.  When a parishioner asks what is next, perhaps the best thing to do is to ask, “What is God calling you to where you are already?”

This is a different way of envisioning being church.  It makes being church less vertical. Parishioners are not only receiving things from church. It makes church more lateral.  Parishioners are being church. Not just on Sunday, but every day. They bring the church into the world. What can you imagine empowered parishioners doing? Reading the letter of resignation from a Goldman Sachs employee, I can envision brave stands for corporate ethics, a move away from decisions made solely on dividends and market share, a fair distribution of executive and worker pay.

Of course, what I am describing depends on the baptismal ecclesiology embedded in the existing life of the Episcopal Church and expressed in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. I have written about this elsewhere with my colleague Ruth Meyers on the subject of sanctity. At its core, the baptismal ecclesiology of the Episcopal Church holds, much as Luther did, that all Christians by virtue of their baptism are commissioned as ministers of Christ’s reconciling love. This love has practical expressions in acts of compassion, charity, and justice. Ministry in this forms does not require ordination. Ministry in this form can be lateral.

To emphasize the lateral dimensions of ministry, that all Christians are called to it, might be a way of moving the Episcopal Church out of its current structural crisis.  If, as has been argued by the Crusty Old Dean (aka Tom Ferguson), the era of centralizing denominational systems is over, if the vertical alone won’t cut it anymore, then it is time to make a lateral move. When we speak of the riches of the Episcopal Church we name our sacraments, our historic episcopate, our tradition, our appeal to a reasoned interpretation of the Scriptures. But we also have a gift in our baptismal ecclesiology. We still need funding sources form the national church. We still need offices and centers that can help people coordinate ministry and offer resources, best practices, and sites for making common cause. But we do also need a new way of expressing our core ministries of worship and mission. If Episcopalians really mean it the Baptismal Covenant when they vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons, they can find ways to fulfill it in lateral forms of ministry

What would it look like if parishes and dioceses set to work to ensure that the Christian life carried over from Sunday to Monday by explicitly linking the worship and teaching in church to the rest of life? To be sure there are many places that strive for this, but many that falter. And regardless, there are still more to be reached with the message of God’s transforming grace. And there are more corners of our culture that need the witness of Christ’s love and desire for justice. All levels of the church (Episcopal and otherwise) need to awaken to the need to nurture disciples of Christ who will take Sunday to Monday. Discipleship breeds mission. It is time to pick up the pace and to spread our mission out of the vertical structures and make lateral moves that educate, equip, and empower all Christians to be ambassadors of Christ’s reconciling love and desire for justice.

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Disestablishment and Discipleship

One of the biggest benefits of being a professor is the opportunity to have a sabbatical. Since mid-January I have been on sabbatical from my church history position at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. I have been living with my family in Oxfordshire and enjoying my position as a visiting scholar at Ripon College Cuddesdon, a theological college preparing people for ministry in the Church of England and elsewhere.

Over the past few years I have found myself increasingly drawn to questions of ecclesiology.  So it has been a great pleasure for me to be at Cuddesdon (as they call it) and to spend time listening to and talking with Mark Chapman, an important voice in Anglican ecclesiology. Mark Chapman has been teaching at Cuddesdon for 20 years and last weekend there was a symposium held in his honor.

I was only able to attend his lecture (a family outing to see Thomas the Tank Engine at the Didcot Railway Centre held precedence for most of the day). In his talk, Mark Chapman spoke of the decline in the established Church of England. He quuickly laid out the statistics showing decline in the Church of England in terms of active membership (about one million), current baptism rates (about 20% of the population), and current confirmation rates (about 12%). But he refused to bemoan these statistics. Chapman argued instead that it is in keeping with the gospel vision that Christianity should be a minority religion. When a church becomes established, becomes normative, it loses it vitality and sense of mission. But a small church is one in which all members are called to do the work of the church and engage in a life of active discipleship. When an established church devolves to the work of being a local church it can overcome the stultifying effects of bureaucracy. People are called upon to act for themselves to achieve the gospel vision of a community of love, justice, and peace. As I interpret these words, when a church begins to conceive of itself in local terms, and not in established terms, it also begins to conceive of itself as a community of disciples, not a community of consumers.

All of this got me thinking about the difficult situation the Episcopal Church has found itself in. There has been a signficant decline in membership over the past decade. Currently  there has been much outcry about the new budget for the Episcopal Church. Behind those budget cuts is the story of the decline of this denomination. For a long time, the Episcopal Church has acted like a quasi-established church in the United States. It has assumed that it held a place of cultural prestige because of its wealth, its association with American elites, its aesthetically pleasing liturgy.  But none of those assumptions have held.

Amidst the tumbling down of assumptions, Chapman’s words are useful.  It is at the moment of decline and of crumbling assumptions that we can best hear the call to discipleship.  Perhaps now is the best time to abandon Henry Hobart’s dream that the Episcopal Church will become the national church of the United States. Now is the time to stop assuming that if we just show how we worship in the right way, people will be drawn to us. Now is the time to stop assuming that because we once were influential we still are. Now is the time to take up the opportunity to reimagine how best to be a church called to discipleship.  If the Church of England needs to own up to these questions, so do we.

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Filed under Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Church of England, Discipleship, Ecclesiology, Episcopal Church and Anglicanism, Ripon College Cuddesdon