Saturday, February 26, 2011

Eighth after the Epiphany: Sexagesima, 2011

Isaiah 49:8-16a; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

Blessings and welcome this morning. Eighth Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany on our Church Calendar, and as I mentioned last week now on the old calendar in the heart of the season of “Pre-Lent.” Today, Sexagesima Sunday. This “pre-lent” was I think intended as a time of “leaning forward.” Perhaps the little town of Bethlehem really just disappearing now into the far distance of the rear-view mirror. Ash Wednesday only ten days away, and for all of us who are planners not too early at all to begin to think about the Lent that is before us.

A season in which we would turn with some intentionality, some care and conscientious attention to the condition of our lives. St. Benedict in Chapter 49 of his Rule for Monasteries said “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent.” And perhaps we might say, “the life of a Christian.” But, he goes on, “Since few, however have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life more pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times. This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart, and self-denial. During these days, therefore, we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink, so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of our own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit.”

A time of recollection. An offering of ourselves. To think about who we are, to reflect on how we believe God has called us to live our lives. The word “vocation”—and to think about how we are called in our families and relationships, in the use of whatever gifts have been given to us in this time of our lives. In work, in friendships. As we are able to contribute to the corner of the world where we have been placed. Neighborhood. Work and school. In the life of the Church. I’m struck by the language as Paul describes himself and the leaders of the Church and the whole Christian family this morning in this passage from First Corinthians. “Servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” We could just about spend all Lent just unpacking those two titles and job descriptions and only be touching on the surface of what they might mean. What they might mean for us, in all the unique situations of our lives.

As we begin to think about a season of reflection. Of focus. Of clearing away some of the distractions. A season of renewal. As we would think about practicing some kind of discipline as a way of giving a sharper edge to our process of attention. Sometimes to add a little restraint in terms of food and drink, or in entertainment. Or to make a commitment to take a quiet walk after dinner every evening. Or to write those letters to the grandchildren we’ve been meaning to write. Or to read Morning Prayer. (You can even get that on your smartphone or kindle!) Or perhaps a time of devotional Bible reading. No general template. What works for me; what works for you. The idea is about clearing away some of the clutter. Creating some inner space.

At the end of this Lent we will come to Holy Week and Good Friday, but we would know that Good Friday is simply another day on the Calendar and Christ on the Cross is only a story or a painting or an image or icon or piece of jewelry to buy at a religious supply shop unless we in our minds and in our hearts are ready to open up and to receive and to incorporate his reality into the reality of our lives. So we would make some space here for him. Cultivate a sense of receptivity.

The three readings this morning seem to me just right to have with us as we begin to think on these things.

This wonderful passage here from the second part of Isaiah. The Prophet giving voice to God’s word to the scattered peoples of the exile. In the refugee camps of Iraq and the ghettoes of Egypt and Syria and Iran. Defeated, broken, humiliated. Struggling even to hold on to a shred of identity. Questioning why all this happened. Wondering. Doubting. Perhaps sometimes in anger. Sometimes in fear. Sometimes in doubt. Sometimes in despair. “Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’” But no. And this wonderful hymn of restoration. Healing. Promise for the future. Hope. “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing. For the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his suffering ones . . . . Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” And then this remarkable phrase, and to think about that Good Friday that will be here in a couple of months. “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” No greater love than this.

And then Paul to the Church in Corinth. What we know is that this is a Church caught up in almost more division and conflict than we can keep track of. And I guess in that way the typical Church of every generation since. Some feel superior to others because of their spiritual giftedness. Prayer and prophesy, healing, teaching. Or because of which apostle may have baptized them. It’s not what you know, after all. It’s who you know. Or because they’re better educated. Or more affluent. And there are people who do bad things, and conflict about how to respond. And there are grievances and hostilities, and you just have a feeling some of the members of the First Church of Christ in Corinth are about ready to rent some property down the street and open the Reformed Church of Christ in Corinth. Which of course breaks Paul’s heart. The pastor, trying at a distance and by this letter to say a word. Which he does. A word of encouragement. To keep the main thing the main thing. Eyes on Christ.

And in just these few sentences this morning, to say a word about not any of us getting too full of ourselves. Of course we do the best we can. Try to do the right thing. Stand up for what we believe Christ has called us to do and to say and to be. But, he says, with a sense of provisionality as well. A recognition that no matter how clear we are that we are in the right, we still are not able to see all the way to the heart of the other. We’re making our judgments on circumstantial evidence, on what we can see, but not as God will judge, with full knowledge of the heart. And in fact we don’t even know ourselves, truly. We who can practice denial and rationalization and self-deception without even realizing it ourselves. We do the best we can, yes. But we need to know when to hold back and to leave the sorting out of things to God. From whom no secrets are hid. We are in his hand, and his peace is beyond all human understanding. In the meantime, we would be gentle with one another, and with ourselves, and practice love. We are his servants, the stewards of his mysteries.

And finally this section of the Sermon on the Mount. The birds of the air. The lilies of the field. Not to say that we don’t roll up our sleeves, or to seek the Kingdom and the righteousness of God for our lives. But to trust him. Certainly if there is any deeper practical truth than this one in all of scripture, I’d be interested to know what it is. “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Take a breath. Live faithfully, and let God be God.

Getting ready to get ready. As we come to receive the gifts at the altar. To prepare for this season of preparation. Looking forward to a time for anticipation. “Pre-Lent.” Ordering our lives, reordering our lives, as best we can, that we might be servants of Christ and stewards of his mysteries, channels of his peace, forgiveness, healing--ready to receive and to share the richness of his blessing.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Septuagesima, 2011

Good morning, and continued blessings. I said earlier this week with the sun shining and the temperature in the mid-sixties that if you didn’t have a calendar on the wall you might think it was mid-April, and that the baseball news on the radio was from PNC Park, and not from Bradenton. I don’t know that Old Man Winter is quite done with us yet, as last year at this time the snow was still high and deep and just parking around here was something of a real challenge. But even a hint of spring in mid-February is nice—and as the last of the ice and snow has disappeared from our roof it made it possible for me finally to get the Christmas lights down from the front porch.

It may be early to expect real spring, but as we move toward the end of this long season after the Epiphany we come today to the first of what traditionally were called the three Sundays of Pre-Lent, or “Shrovetide.” Today, Septuagesima, next Sunday Sexagesima, and then, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, Quinquagesima. Seventy, sixty, fifty, in advance of the Quadrigesima, the great forty days of Lent.

And if Lent is for us to be a season of personal reflection and self-assessment as we encounter and become obedient to Holy Scripture and as we live in and with the prayer of the Church, a time of self-denial and penitence, fasting and prayer and spiritual preparation as we move in the symbolic journey from the wide world of our lives toward Jerusalem and Holy Week, the Cross of Good Friday and the Empty Tomb then of Easter morning, this “Pre-Lent” is an anticipation of that, and we might say, “a time of preparation for the challenges of the season of preparation that we will soon enter.” A season to get ready to get ready.

In the lectionary of the traditional Book of Common Prayer, the Epistle appointed for Septuagesima was First Corinthians 9, beginning at the 24th verse: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So--run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath—but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Pre-Lent then a season when we might, to continue with St. Paul’s imagery in a metaphorical way, go to the gym for a little extra weight work or cardio, in order to build strength and endurance for the spiritual contest that lies ahead.

Pre-Lent doesn’t appear on our calendars any more, but there is still something of the spirit of this season in the lessons appointed for us this morning, as I think what all three of these lessons have in common is a reminder of the high calling that is our inheritance as Christian people. And as we hear these words, that the words of this wonderful section of Psalm 119 settle in our mind, and in our heart, and become our own. “Teach me, O LORD, the way of thy statutes, and I shall keep it unto the end.”

A reminder of our calling, and of our destiny: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” God’s word at Sinai to his Chosen People. And Jesus, as we listen once again to St. Matthew’s wonderful presentation of the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We are of course in ourselves anything but “holy.” And “perfect” is a concept I can hardly even begin to process. I don’t care how many hours we spend at the gym. But God isn’t finished with us. And “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.” That would be a word for us to keep in mind, as we head out into “Pre-Lent.” St. Paul in Second Corinthians. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away. Behold, all things are become new.”

Just to rest with that. To write out on a 3 x 5 card and tape to the bathroom mirror. “Behold, all things are become new.” That is how things really are, through the work of Christ, and we have the privilege to begin to catch a glimpse of it, to see for ourselves. If only in part.

The lessons this morning from Leviticus and St. Matthew and First Corinthians, as we allow them to echo around us, are not intended to communicate the idea that if we just would all work really really really hard and make fewer mistakes and concentrate we will somehow earn enough points to bring ourselves into God’s good graces. There just aren’t that many points out there to be earned, in reality, even if there were, the truth about who we are is that we wouldn’t in the end have the time and energy and inclination to win them all.

But what they do, as we listen to these lessons, as we listen to what they say in specific ways and to the music that emerges from them, is give us a glimpse of who God is, full of compassion, full of generosity, full of love. "Teach me, O LORD, the way of thy statutes, and I shall keep it unto the end.”

Who God is, in his holiness, and his righteousness, and his mercy, in his peace, which passeth all understanding. A glimpse--in these weeks before the weeks before Holy Week--of God’s purpose for us in the renewal of the earth and of all the created order. And an invitation to begin even now, in our brokenness, as we find our hope in Christ, to see and recognize and give ourselves to the amazing and miraculous things he is doing in us and through us. In him, "Behold, all things are become new." To catch a glimpse of that, this morning, as we come together to the Holy Table and as we go out into the rest of our day and the rest of our lives. In him we are and we become more than ever we could ask for or imagine.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Further Diocesan News

An update and addendum to my post last week regarding recent events in the wider Church.

It was announced yesterday, February 14, that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Somerset Anglican Fellowship have reached an agreement to settle issues related to the canonical concerns for that parish raised by the October, 2008 division of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

For my previous post, on the Commonwealth Court decision and the settlement with St. Philip's, Moon Township, Click Here.

For yesterday's announcements of the settlement between the Episcopal Diocese and the parish of the Somerset Anglican Fellowship, Click Here. And Click Here.

For the Post Gazette news item about the latest settlement, Click Here.

My Overview and Commentary

My good friend and colleague the Rev. Mark Zimmerman was Rector of St. Francis Church, Somerset. In 2007 or early in 2008 he and a majority of the congregation of St. Francis Church left St. Francis Episcopal Church to found the Somerset Anglican Fellowship, which was admitted as a new parish of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh at the October, 2008 diocesan convention. Following that convention the Somerset Anglican Fellowship functioned as a parish of the "realigned" Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh in the Province of the Southern Cone, later the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Anglican Church of North America.

From the point of view of the Canons of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church, however, Somerset Anglican Fellowship, having been admitted to the diocese as a parish in 2008, has for the past two years been a "non-responding" parish of the Episcopal Diocese.

The agreement announced yesterday seems to me to follow the provisions of "Paragraph Two" of the Stipulation or Agreement that in 2005 settled the lawsuit Calvary Church had brought against the Episcopal Diocese.

It recognizes, as I read the announcement, that properties and assets held by Somerset Anglican Fellowship as it was admitted to the diocese in October, 2008, were subject to the Canons of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and of the Episcopal Church, including the so-called Dennis Canon, which states that all parish assets are held in trust for the Diocese and for the Episcopal Church and so may not be sold or otherwise removed from the Diocese without following diocesan canonical procedures requiring the approval of the Bishop as ecclesiastical authority and of the Board of Trustees.

The Somerset situation is substantially simpler than the one referenced before with St. Philip's in Moon Township, because the Somerset Anglican Fellowship had very few assets in October of 2008. Apparently these were limited to some liturgical items.

I believe the concern at Somerset was that the congregation now has plans to purchase real property--a former Presbyterian Church--and that it felt it was important to clarify that it no longer had any canonical or legal duties implied by its status as a "non-responding" parish of the Episcopal Diocese.

So the substance of the agreement is that Somerset Anglican Fellowship has acknowledged that it was admitted as a parish of the Episcopal Diocese at the October, 2008, Convention, and that the "Dennis Canon" therefore applies to its assets. Those assets--the liturgical items--will then be returned to the Episcopal Diocese.

Following the return of the relevant assets, Somerset Anglican Diocese will be removed from the roster of "non-responding" parishes of the Episcopal Diocese, thus avoiding any possible issues related to the Dennis Canon as they might otherwise have applied to the new property obtained by the parish in the future.

In the announcement of the Moon Township settlement two weeks ago it was said that there is no "general template" for these negotiations, but that, as described in Paragraph Two of the 2005 Stipulation, each parish desiring to be separated from its canonical and legal identity and duties as a parish of the Episcopal Diocese would need to enter into negotiation with the Episcopal Diocese.

I would just note that what these two settlements have in common is that both parties acknowledge their identities and duties under the applicable canons of the Episcopal Diocese and of the Episcopal Church, including the "Dennis Canon," and that in both cases the issue of "parish assets" was successfully negotiated to the mutual satisfaction of both parties.

The substantial differences between the two settlements appear to me to be first that while the Somerset Anglican Fellowship is able to satisfy the terms of the agreement all at once, with the return of property, the financial settlement with St. Philip's will require the parish and Episcopal Diocese to continue to be "entangled" by a financial agreement for a period of several years, until the payments have been completed.

Secondly, it would be noted that the agreement with St. Philip's also included an agreement to "disaffiliate" from the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh and not, for a period of five years, to "reaffiliate" with it, or with any other denominational judicatory. There are no provisions for this kind of "disaffiliation" in the agreement with the Somerset Anglican Fellowship, and thus that parish will continue as a parish of the Anglican Diocese.

I would notethat I personally am very glad that in the resolution of this the good people of the Somerset Anglican Fellowship will be able to move forward in their ministry with clarity and a sense of freedom from the overhang of possible canonical and legal problems down the road. Mark and Cindy Zimmerman, of the Somerset Anglican Fellowship, have been dear friends of mine and Susy's for many years, and Lenny and Kelly Anderson (Lenny is the new Rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church) are wonderful newer friends. I will pray for God's continued care and blessing on their lives and ministries and for the congregations of Somerset Anglican and of the Episcopal Church of St. Francis in the Fields.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sixth after the Epiphany, 2011

Year A: Ecclus 15: 15-20; Mt 5: 21-37

Grace and peace, friends. After almost a quarter of a century in Pennsylvania this California-born guy still shakes his head when he hears the weather forecast of a “warm up” into the mid-30’s. So much of this past week we have been perhaps humming the tune to that great Frank Loesser song, “Baby, it’s cold outside.” I love the original Johnny Mercer/Margaret Whiting version, and thinking about that the other day because she just died last month, so that was on the radio a few times. And of course in the wake of last Sunday evening’s sad conclusion we would feel drawn down even further into the depths of winter. Though I notice it is staying light later, and we are as well perhaps warmed by thoughts of Valentine’s Day tomorrow, flowers and candy--and even more as some of us have the day circled on the calendar, February 14, and pitchers and catchers report to the spring training facility in Pirate City, Bradenton, Florida.

And while it’s absolutely clear there’s no way in the world to be sure whether in the end what we’re seeing in Egypt is the beginning of something wonderful or horrible or something in-between, certainly there was something heartwarming about the enthusiasm of the young people in the streets of Cairo on Friday as they celebrated what they and we might well hope to be the harbinger of the dawn of a new era of freedom and political and social health. We’ll hold our breath, no doubt. With continued prayers. No matter the remnants of snow and ice here, in any event, summer is on its way, never fear. It will be here before we know it.

In the news on Wednesday in that context that Ross Ohlendorf, who, some of us will remember all too painfully, managed only 21 starts last season , injured his back, and finished with the breathtaking record of one win and eleven losses, won his arbitration hearing and next season will have his salary quadrupled to over 2 million dollars. That doesn’t have anything to do with my sermon this morning, but sometimes it just seems like something needs to be said!

On the calendar of the Church Year this season after the Epiphany is a time of transition, a shifting of attention, moving from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, the Manger to the Cross, and that pattern of transition just seems to fit with the whole environment of this midwinter time.

Also in the news this week, a story more relevant to the readings this morning. Some of you will have heard me talk about the fact that while I’ve generally been such a slow adapter to technology that we’ve hung on to the rotary wall phone in our kitchen, now in these first days of 2011 I’m somewhat surprised to find myself the new owner of an Apple iPhone. Which is still a telephone that you can use to call and talk to people, but also works as a device to check e-mail and tour the internet and update Facebook and check the news feed from the Post Gazette or the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, or, I discover, Al Jazeera English--which is pretty amazing. Also a number of other “app’s,” software applications. I have the Book of Common Prayer and the Sunday and Daily Office lectionaries, for example.

And the story this week that made the network news as well is that there is now an iPhone Application with somewhat tentative approval by the Conference of American Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church to help folks prepare to make their Confession. Did you see that? I didn’t spend too much time looking at this, but from what I could see it’s organized in kind of an interesting way. The Ten Commandments, and a number of different categories of sinful behavior, with a space under each one so that the user can keep a convenient, in real time and contemporaneous diary of sinful acts. Seemed mostly in the “things done,” department--I don’t know if there’s a category for “things left undone.” That’s sometimes a little harder, though I suppose at least you can chart the times you didn’t go to church on Sundays and other days of obligation. But the idea anyway is to provide a convenient way to organize your week’s transgressions in order to make an accurate and efficient confession on Saturday afternoon. No more wasting of time trying to collect your thoughts at the last minute . . . .

In any event, it’s fascinating. A few years ago the whole concept of sin seemed to be going out fashion, like rotary dial phones and network television, I guess--and I had read that the numbers of Roman Catholics making weekly confessions has been declining pretty dramatically in recent decades, but perhaps now the cool factor of this iPhone app will turn that all around. Like my black wingtips: sooner or later what goes out of style becomes cool again . . . .

People thought it was pretty funny I think when Jimmy Carter confessed in Playboy magazine that he had many times committed adultery in his heart, and perhaps that was partly because it seemed odd to have this Baptist Sunday School teacher interviewed alongside the Miss September centerfold--but as we move on through these weeks in the Sermon on the Mount perhaps we begin to sense that our smiles when we hear something like that may be masking some deeper discomfort. Do we still even function within those categories of thought? I mean, what happens if the wife or your kids pick up your iPhone by mistake? Is the thing password-protected? Will they be able to scroll through to see what dad has been up to? Murderers and thieves and all the wrong-doers of the world seem conveniently located out there, with perhaps the occasional appearance on the 10 o’clock news. But do we even have room anymore personally for a troubled conscience?

The author of Ecclesiasticus doesn’t want to let us off the hook, in any event. We have all these strategies of evasion. Conveniently short memories, for one thing. I wonder if there will also be a feature in the program for rationalizations and mitigating circumstances.. To say “the Devil made me do it” is one way to go, but we have lots of strategies. His fault. Her fault. My socio-economic context. My DNA. The dysfunctionalities of my family of origin. So just to note that the author of this great volume of the Bible’s Wisdom literature isn’t buying any of it. “Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.” I think that was the message of the old NIKE advertising campaign. “No excuses.” Don’t do the crime unless you’re willing to do the time.

Which tells us a lot about responsibility and accountability, which is absolutely important. Also not so stylish. Back in the late 1970’s Karl Menninger wrote a famous book called, “Whatever Became of Sin?” In which he said: “Whatever Became of Sin?: "The very word, 'sin,' which seems to have disappeared, was once a proud word. It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word. But the word went away. It has almost disappeared - the word, along with the notion. Why? Doesn't anyone sin anymore? Doesn't anyone believe in sin?"

The author of Ecclesiasticus clearly does in any case, which may be why he makes us more than a little uncomfortable. And Jesus here as we roll along through Matthew 5. He clearly is a believer in sin too! A lot of greeting cards and framed works of calligraphy focus on the first verses of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, but when you get down into the body of the sermon, where we are today, maybe we find ourselves turning the pages a little faster and looking for something that doesn’t pinch quite so sharply.

There are lots of ways in which the social context of First Century Palestine is different from the world we live in today, but one thing I guarantee is the same, which is that those who heard these words from Jesus didn’t like them any more than we do. The way to popularity for preachers and politicians in any and every age is going to be to talk a lot about the shortcomings of those who aren’t in the room with you, while at the same time leaving those within earshot feeling good about themselves. The General Confession that we prayed this morning is certainly still a rich and important and meaningful prayer, but I am every time I pray it struck by the phrases that the revisers of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer decided we didn’t need to say anymore. Phrases we Anglicans had been praying together since 1549. “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. “

I’m not sure if the message was that after all these centuries of Anglican prayer, we discovered that we were wrong about this. Or whether we just kind of decided that we’d had enough and didn’t want to be reminded of it anymore. Not much room in the culture of self-esteem for a bunch of “miserable offenders” who keep talking about how morally unhealthy they are. Which in a way is why this iPhone App is so newsworthy. I smiled myself when I heard the story, and some of the news stories actually seemed to find the whole idea nothing short of hilarious.

Though of course, often our laughter is just exactly the signal that the tickle has found its target. We laugh so that we don’t have to think about it—which might send us running out of the room in terror. And we’re left pretty much along with St. Paul in the 7th chapter of Romans, because this is the plain truth about us. “I do not understand my own actions,” he says. And he’s got that right. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” And then of course with his conclusion, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Who indeed?

The Confessional App may help me get a better handle on where I go wrong, keep me from an overly convenient lapse of memory and offer a few categories for introspective reflection--but as the newstories pointed out, there isn’t a feature yet to help us do something about any of this. No place to click for an Absolution. No GPS to pick us up and turn us around and direct our feet to the paths of righteousness and amendment of life. No program to heal the heart.

We’re on this journey in these winter weeks after the Epiphany, again as we would say, January, February. The Wise Men head home to Persia, and we pack up for the journey to Jerusalem for Holy Week. And the point is that this isn’t a road that we see from a distance. We aren’t spectators. In the Superman movie a few years ago an exasperated Lois Lane turns to Superman and says, “you don’t understand, the world doesn’t need a savior.”

Which is of course the one great lie that we are so tempted all the time to confess ourselves. Everything is fine. Which we say, over and over again, amazingly, despite what we read day by day in the morning paper—despite what we see in reality in the bathroom mirror, and in the back rooms of our minds and hearts. No “miserable offenders” here: no sir, no, not one. Even though of course we know, deep down, what the truth is, you and I this morning, that Lois Lane is wrong. We do need a savior. This journey with Jesus from the Manger to the Cross is our journey. And he is, as we would affirm with all our hearts and minds this morning--he is the only way out of the mess we’re in.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Monday, February 7, 2011

As the World Turns: Recent Diocesan News (Long!)

Over the past week a number of St. Andreans caught bits and pieces of some "new news" in the ongoing story of our lives here in the Episcopal and Anglican Dioceses of Pittsburgh and have asked if we might have a time to catch up and talk things over.

Don't know if there will be enough time to touch all the bases, but we'll try to get started next Sunday, February 13, at the regular 10 a.m. "Coffee and Conversation" Adult Forum in the hour between the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services. Hope to see you there!

In the meantime, I'd like to use this space to recount some of the history, as best I can, to collect and share some of the relevant resources as they are available online--and to conclude with a bit of reflection and comment.

Part I: Concerning the Assets of the Diocese

The first news story out last week had to do with a ruling from the Commonwealth Court. Many will remember that back in 2003 and 2004 there was an action brought before the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas by Calvary Church, East Liberty.

At a special convention of our diocese in the early fall of 2003, following the General Convention that summer in Minneapolis, several resolutions were passed that asserted diocesan independence in ways that seemed to some to contradict the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church.

Concerned that Bishop Duncan and diocesan leadership might be planning to leave or declare independence from the Episcopal Church, Calvary Church as I understand it asked to be appointed as a kind of trustee over diocesan assets on behalf of the canonical interests of the Episcopal Church. In 2005, before the matter came to trial, Calvary Church and the Episcopal Diocese arrived at a negotiated settlement, called a "Stipulation," which was approved by Judge James, presiding judge of the court.

The Stipulation had two significant paragraphs. The first addressed all assets owned by the diocese, and in the Stipulation both parties agreed that the assets of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh would remain under the control of "the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America," even if a majority of the parishes of the diocese decided to leave the Episcopal Church.

The second paragraph affirmed that in the matter of assets owned by parishes of the diocese, congregations desiring to leave the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh would need to follow procedures outlined in the diocesan canons to negotiate with the Bishop and Board of Trustees of the diocese to purchase or retain such assets.

Following the vote to "realign" at diocesan convention in October, 2008, Calvary Church applied to Judge James for an order to enforce the terms of the 2005 Stipulation--to require that the now "realigned" Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone relinquish the pre-October, 2008 assets of the diocese to the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church later joined in that request, and the Chancellor of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church likewise, as I understand it, entered as a supporting party. Both sides made presentations to the court either supporting or opposing the requested action, in preparation for a decision the court ordered an inventory of diocesan assets, and in the fall of 2009 Judge James ruled in support of the request of Calvary Church.

The "Southern Cone" diocese, now the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, complied promptly with the court's instructions to transfer control of the assets, but also exercised its right to appeal the decision to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. In 2010 both parties presented briefs and argued their positions before the Commonwealth Court, and last week the court announced its ruling, supporting Judge James's interpretation and enforcement of the 2005 Stipulation.

Most of us read about this for the first time in a couple of Pittsburgh Post Gazette articles last week. They can be read: By Clicking Here. And, more completely: By Clicking Here.

The official statement of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, including a link to the full text of the court's ruling, is posted at the diocesan website. You can get there: By Clicking Here.

This all was followed, a few days later, by announcement that the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, asserting that the decision of the Commonwealth Court was in its view based in part on errors of fact, would ask the Commonwealth Court to rehear arguments. You can read this: By Clicking Here.

Part II: Concerning Parishes

Just a day or so after the news of the ruling of the Commonwealth Court there came as well another story, describing what we will perhaps call the "first" negotiated agreement between a parish of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh under the general provisions of the Second Paragraph of the 2005 Stipulation referenced above.

Over the past year the leadership of our Episcopal Diocese--our Bishop, Chancellor, Standing Committee, Board of Trustees, and Diocesan Council authorized a committee to prepare for the possibility that parishes of the Anglican Diocese might seek, as (to use this somewhat awkward vocabulary) congregations formerly constituting parishes of the Episcopal Diocese, to negotiate about release, continuing use, and/or purchase of properties and assets of those parishes of the Episcopal Diocese, recognizing that according to the canons of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and in accordance with the canons of the Episcopal Church, no properties held by Episcopalian parishes may be encumbered, sold, or otherwise "released" without the approval of the Bishop and Board of Trustees of the Episcopal Diocese, acting in their fiduciary roles on behalf of the diocese and of the Episcopal Church.

While the Standing Committee and Board of Trustees were kept up to date in a general way about the work of the Negotiating/Property Committee, and while there were appropriate informational and advisory conversations about the general issues and concerns, it has been understood that any and all actual negotiations would need to be conducted confidentially. Thus the first official news we heard about the story was in the following Post-Gazette news story, also last week, concerning negotiations between the Episcopal Diocese and St. Philip's Church, Moon Township. You can read it: By Clicking Here.

The brief story reporting that the Parish Meeting of St. Philip's had approved the settlement may be read: By Clicking Here.

The official statement of the Episcopal Diocese, with more detail about the actual agreement, may be read: By Clicking Here.

Finally, at the end of last week our former bishop, the Most Rev'd Robert Wm. Duncan, now Ordinary of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh and Archbishop of the Anglican Church of North America, wrote a brief pastoral letter to the clergy and congregations of the Anglican Diocese. You can read it: By Clicking Here.

Part III My Reflection

Since the news of the last week had two points of focus, I guess I would organize my responses to respond to them both. But to begin with a more general comment.

Back in the period of 2007-2008, as the clergy and people of our diocese prayed about and discussed together the question of "realignment," I was led to speak and write in several contexts in opposition to the proposal. My opposition was not because I didn't share some of the concerns that Bishop Duncan and so many colleagues and friends were expressing about the directions of the Episcopal Church, but because I believed then--and continue to believe--that the best way to address those concerns was to remain within the Episcopal Church.

I was also deeply concerned that the vision presented by advocates of "what would come next," after "realignment," was unrealistic, given legal precedents and history as I understood (and understand them). I valued and appreciated, and continue to value and appreciate, the rich and important gospel witness and ministries that the Episcopal Church (and now also our Anglican brothers and sisters) have in our area, in our city and in the towns and villages up and down our river valleys and east into the mountains. We were a relatively small but also very strong Christian family in so many ways, touching so many lives here and having a great impact as well in the life of the church and community even beyond our borders.

No question that there was and is a lot of distress in the context of the wider Church and Communion. But it didn't and doesn't now seem to me that the resolution of these wider issues and trends is likely to be accomplished in the near term, or even in our lifetimes. And it didn't and doesn't now seem to me that the kind of division and fragmentation resulting from the "realignment" was likely to be all that productive in terms of reaching that resolution. Simply: I wish we had stayed together--and I think even now that despite the inevitable tensions and distress we would be better together than separated.

Nonetheless, we are where we are, and what I thought would happen has more or less happened. During the "campaign" for realignment, leaders of the diocese assured the members of our congregations that if they supported realignment, their life and ministry would continue without significant dislocation, and that the legal and canonical position of the realigning diocese would be strong to assure that continuity. In fact that was not the case, and certainly here in Pittsburgh, especially with the stipulation settling the Calvary lawsuit in 2005, it seemed at least to me, and I know to many others, that the decision to realign would be a decision with very costly consequences.

And now, only a bit more than two years after realignment, the courts of the Commonwealth have spoken really with some definition, and it is abundantly clear, I think, despite the "Hail Mary" of the request for a rehearing, that the assets of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh prior to October, 2008, will remain in the care of the Episcopal Diocese that continues to be a part of the Episcopal Church.

And it is also beginning to be clear, following the negotiation with St. Philip's Church, that formerly Episcopalian congregations now in the Anglican Diocese will be able to continue life and ministry in their historic places only at some cost--not because there is any desire in the Episcopal Diocese to be punitive, but simply because to meet fiduciary responsibilities the Episcopal Diocese must act in ways that support the best interests of the Episcopal Diocese and the Episcopal Church. That doesn't mean that agreements, like the one at St. Philip's, can't be reached in most or even all situations, but only that in all these cases resources that were once available for ministry are now needing to be diverted instead to the necessary legal resolution of ownership interest. There may, of course, be situations where negotiations won't be concluded successfully, and where congregations may experience great losses as a result.

And all this doesn't even begin to count the emotional and spiritual cost that this prolongued wrangling over legal matters has inflicted on all of us on both sides of the divide. In my judgment this has been considerable, and is in fact the most tragic aspect of our situation. I think of all the friendships, all the years of shared life and ministry, and of the sad irony of what this must look like to those outside of the church and outside of the faith: "These Christians, how they love one another."

I would say that from where we are now it is most profoundly my hope that the way forward on both sides would be marked by a spirit of humility and generosity. And this most especially for "our side," those of us in the Episcopal Diocese, as by way of the courts it does appear that we are being left in the stronger position. As our Lord said, "From those to whom more has been given, more will be expected."

It is my hope in general that as we move along in the area of diocesan assets, we continue to remember that for many generations those congregations now in the Anglican Diocese were part of the church family that contributed to the accumulation of these assets. Without compromising the legal issues of ownership and stewardship, it is my hope that we can look for creative ways to make use of some of these diocesan assets in a cooperative and collaborative way with our Anglican Diocese brothers and sisters.

A small but I think meaningful creative gesture was made shortly after the management of the diocesan property at Donegal was restored to our Episcopal Diocese, when it was announced that the use of the wonderful "Clergy House" guest house on that property would be available for clergy and families of the Episcopal Diocese, and also, on a space-available basis of course, for clergy and families of other churches, including those in the Anglican Diocese. I can picture other ways as well in which ministry concerns that we have long shared together--for instance, in the sheltering of homeless veterans at Shepherd's Heart, in the Uptown neighborhood, or in the outreach to at-risk youth in Garfield at Earthen Vessels Outreach and in Wilkinsburg through Tony Jackson's Youth Outreach program--could continue to be places where resources of the Episcopal Diocese could be contributed, along with the resources of both Anglican and Episcopalian congregations. That kind of sharing would be meaningful, I think, and would say a great deal to the people of our wider community about the character of our two diocesan families.

It is also my hope--and I believe this is possible--that negotiations with congregations of the Anglican Diocese about parish properties will continue to take place with a spirit of affection and mutual respect, and with a desire to find common ground that will look something like "win/win" resolutions. This would mean being as generous and creative as possible in conversations about the structuring of compensation to accomplish the sale or release of property--recognizing that the legitimate interests of the Episcopal Diocese, of continuing Episcopalian ministry in these communities, and of fiduciary and canonical duties need to be respected as well.

A good deal has been written about the so-called "non-compete" provision in the settlement with St. Philip's: the requirement of a five-year period of disaffiliation from the Anglican Diocese of the ACNA or any other similar judicatory. I certainly understand why this is a particularly painful element in the St. Philip's agreement for many in the Anglican Diocese.

I also understand the rationale, though. The leaders of the Episcopal Church believe with good reason that the ACNA and other continuing Anglican bodies are actively working at the national and international Anglican Communion level to undermine the standing of the Episcopal Church in the Communion. It seems counter-intuitive, I guess, to enter into favorable agreements about the sale or release of assets that will then, in some way, be used to support this "anti-Episcopal Church" campaign. Certainly the Presiding Bishop has made it very clear that she prefers that dioceses of the Episcopal Church do nothing in terms of the settlement of property issues to encourage the ACNA or the other similar "continuing Anglican" groups in the U.S. while this negative campaign is continued on the wider scene.

Of course, friends know that I am also sometimes quite critical, as a loyal member of the Episcopal Church, of the Episcopal Church. Perhaps in this sense my sympathies for the adversarial stance of the Episcopal Church against its external critics are less intense than the sympathies others may feel. But it is nonetheless my belief that in the long run an approach of generosity and respect, even when positions differ dramatically, and even when the immediate results might appear to be detrimental, is what would be required of us as Christian people. It's hard to sort through the anxieties and demands of this process without remembering the one who told us that when our coat is demanded of us, we are to offer our cloak also. I personally would have preferred that this "disaffiliation" had not been a part of the agreement--not because I don't understand its rationale, but because I believe it will further damage the relationship between the members of our two diocesan families and make more difficult the ability of our own diocese to have an effective Christian ministry and witness.

In any event, I am glad that in the negotiation with St. Philip's the two parties were able to agree on only a limited "disaffiliation." The five year break will likely be enough to gain the support for the agreement of those in the Episcopal Church and in our own Episcopal Diocese who might be most anxious to prevent the wider "ACNA" movement from immediately benefiting from a settlement. At the same time, the requirement for disaffiliation is not absolute or permanent. I imagine that among the clergy and people of St. Philip's there will continue to be a spiritual, social, and pastoral sense of informal connection to the people of the Anglican Diocese--and of course there is nothing in the agreement that can prevent individual members of St. Philip's from also continuing to participate, on their own as individuals, in support of the life of the Anglican Diocese.

Moreover, in the Post Gazette article linked above Rich Creehan, spokesman for our Episcopal Diocese, emphasized that none of the elements of the agreement with St. Philip's were to be understood as "non-negotiable" requirements in any further negotiations with congregations. The Episcopal Diocese has interests, concerns, and goals, as have the individual congregations. But each situation will be unique, and each negotiation will begin with a blank page and be conducted in good faith.

And so, a conclusion of a very long post, to say that in the narrative of the last decade here in our corner of the Church, this past week has marked I think the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. There is still a long way to go, I suspect, before there is a final resolution to the contest over diocesan assets, and an even longer way to go before all the questions of parish property and assets are resolved. But in the decision of the appeals court and in the settlement with St. Philip's we are, I think, beginning to see the general contours of what we will be dealing with in the months and years ahead.

Blessings--and, again, looking forward to our conversation on Sunday morning.

Bruce R.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fifth after the Epiphany, 2011: Salt and Light

Isaiah 58: 1-12; First Corinthians 2: 1-6; Matthew 5: 13-20

Grace and peace this winter morning, as we have in this past week crossed the midpoint of our season after the Epiphany, which happens every year more or less at the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, the Feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, Candlemas, on February 2, the 40th Day of Christmas. And as Groundhog Day in Punxatawny gets everybody thinking about spring, so we begin to move in a transition in the themes of the Church calendar, with our eyes turning toward Ash Wednesday and Lent and Holy Week, now just over the horizon. With a very late Easter this year we have still a couple of weeks before we come to the traditional “pre-lent” Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, but we’re on our way in that direction in any event. Turning our attention from the Manger to the Cross.

We continue this morning with the well known words of the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew, as we began last week with the Beatitudes. Having just spoken about the inheritance of blessing that would come to his friends as they remained true to him, despite sufferings and persecution, hints of the cross for all of us, there is this shift of tone. A gentle and personal word. You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Jesus and his disciples didn’t have much need for snow shovels, and the imagery Jesus intended was obviously about salt as preservative and flavoring, but here in Pennsylvania we know that salt has its non-dietary purposes as well, as it works in chemical reaction to break up and melt the hard crust of ice that forms on roads and bridges and sidewalks. And that’s a great image too, when we think about what Jesus is sending his disciples out to do—what he’s sending us out to do.

To be lamps in the darkness, to be salt for a world bound up in the icy prison of self-interested desire. –That wonderful line at the end of Psalm 12: “O Lord, watch over us . . . the wicked prowl on every side, and that which is worthless is highly prized by everyone." But then, what we heard in God’s word in the Prophet Isaiah: “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”

A word for us about vocation and identity as we come forward to the Table this morning and then as we scatter out into the day and into all the corners of our lives—home, family, school, work. The message of the reading from Isaiah, and from Paul to the Church in Corinth, and then in Matthew: that what God accomplished in Christ at the Cross has implications for us not just in some very abstract way in the discussion of great theological ideas, but in terms of the lives that we live day by day, and how we organize ourselves, the impact we allow ourselves to have on others. Sometimes this in a direct and conscious and focused way. Sometimes in such subtle ways that we don’t even really know it’s happening.

I know Mitch Albom wrote about this in his book Five People You Meet in Heaven. And I confess I really didn’t read this book. I think I just spent about 15 minutes looking at in while we were shopping one evening at the old Barnes and Noble over in Squirrel Hill. But the idea as I recall it was that you would meet in heaven the five people whose lives you had had the greatest impact on. And the surprising thing was, for the one character I was reading about, anyway, the surprising thing was that some of them were more or less strangers. People who had hardly made an impression, but whose lives had been profoundly changed by something that you had said or done. People whose very lives you may have saved. But strangers.

The point simply that this is a big story we’re living in. God’s story. And we each do indeed have some important and meaningful and perhaps even essential role to play as it moves towards its conclusion. And sometimes we catch a glimpse of what that role might be. Sometimes we have a sense of what God is doing in and through us. Perhaps we can have a sense of having been a part of it in a positive and constructive way. And perhaps we sometimes look back on how we have conducted ourselves and discovered that we were in some moment or other part of the problem rather than part of the solution—as that certainly is the case for all of us at some point or other.

Thinking about how sometimes things that seem big and important to us in the moment turn out when we look at them later to have been essentially meaningless, and how other things that seemed at the time inconsequential, trivial, have in later times appeared to have been extraordinarily important. And how terrifying, in a way, it is that we really can’t tell the difference for sure in the moment.

What we can do I suppose is treat even the smallest moments and situations and opportunities of life as though they might be big. There is this wonderful and in some contexts famous line in the Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 31, about the characteristics of the Cellarer of the monastery. He’s what we might call the property manager, in charge of all the furnishings and equipment. And the line is, “the Cellarer will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar.” Every plow and screwdriver and bottle-opener, with the same care, even let’s say the same reverence, as the paten and chalice used for Holy Communion. The same reverence.

And so, a moment of vocation and identity, as we move on through this winter season, as we receive the Holy Gifts at the altar ourselves this morning and then go out into the world to be salt and light, signs of God’s love, God’s power, God’s care. Reflecting him, carrying him out, in word and action, in big ways and small ways, day by day. Salt and light.

The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fourth after the Epiphany, 2011

Our Guest Preacher at St. Andrew's Church on Sunday, January 30, 2011, was the Rev. Carol Henley, former Priest Associate at St. Andrew's, recently retired from ministry as Chaplain at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.


Micah 6:1-8
I Cor. 1:18-31
Matthew 5: 1-12

In my guest bedroom/home office, I have a cartoon on my bulletin board, which has been there for a few years now. It shows a picture of an attorney sitting at a desk and reading a will to a large family, sitting in chairs, in rapt attention, facing the attorney’s desk. She reads this from the will: “And…to his meek son, Richard, he leaves the earth.” It’s a cartoon, it’s (supposed to be) funny. It made me laugh when I first saw it, and it still amuses me. I think it amuses me because it is so counter cultural. The meek will inherit the earth. Yea, right! But, then, didn’t Jesus say exactly that, in the sermon on the Mount? He said, among other things, “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” And he said several other things, many of which just don’t seem to pan out in our society. Jesus says, “blessed are the peacemakers”. We want to believe this, we yearn for peace, all the while sending troops and more troops to the Middle East to protect our national interests. At home, we don’t even have peace between the Republicans and Democrats! Where can we find peace! “Blessed are the pure in heart”…. How many of us act with pure motives! We’re human. We are sinful. We want to make it in this world; we want to be successful. Our motivations are often self centered – personally, for our families, for our country. Do we really consider the big picture, the one that includes God? “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” These words probably speak to every one of us. Is there anyone here who doesn’t hunger and thirst for righteousness? I doubt it. We are church goers and a people of faith. Our faith, no matter how little or how much faith we have, leads us to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Unfortunately, we often don’t see righteousness or justice in our world. The distance between the rich and the poor gets wider and wider. We continue to live in the shadow of violence and terrorist threats. Self interests clog the machinery of government. And we get discouraged. But Jesus says, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” A cynic might say, “filled with what?” We might wonder about that, too. …What does it mean, ”for they shall be filled?”

We all have an emptiness in our lives. How is that emptiness filled? Is it filled by shopping? Those ads that say, “must have” … must have this, must have that. Who says? Our consumer culture tries to tell us that things, that stuff, will fill our innate emptiness. Some people try to fill up with food, or drink, or drugs, or even with work. These things might keep the void at bay, at least for awhile. But ultimately, we have to face that emptiness. And when we do, Jesus tells us that if we “hunger and thirst for righteousness” -- rather than things, stuff, food, drink, drugs, even work – “we will be filled.” Being filled is a blessing.

The blessings that Jesus talks about may, when we hear them in the Beatitudes , seem like some remote reward. If we just hang in there and be patient and trust God, we will be blessed. But the reality is that the blessings are not only for the future; they are also present to us right now. For God’s reign has broken into our world to the extent that we see glimpses of the Kingdom now. Right in the midst of an unjust, sinful world is God’s presence, perhaps as a still, small voice, but the fact is, God is present with us. Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Being poor in spirit, that is, when we feel empty inside, when we recognize our own limitations, God is with us to work in us and through us. The Kingdom of heaven can only become a reality when God is working through us. It is a present reality to the extent that God lives in us now.

When we feel persecuted by an unjust world, God is with us. We walk both in the Kingdom of Heaven and in an unjust world right now. When we hunger and thirst for righteousness, we are in the right place. We are where God wants us to be.

When I hear people talking about where God wants them to be, the context of the conversation is often about vocation. …people asking: is God calling me to be a doctor working in Haiti? Is God calling me to work at the Food Bank? …and the questions asked by those who are thinking about ordained ministry: Is God calling me to be a priest? …or is God calling me to be a deacon? When we think about where God wants us to be, we are often thinking: what is it that God wants us to do in our lives. We may, at some level, think that if we work at the Food Bank, we would be more pleasing to God than if we worked at the Giant Eagle. If we were a doctor in Haiti, we’d be more pleasing to God than if we were working in a more prosperous community.

The Beatitudes are not about vocation. They are about what is in our hearts. They are about knowing that God is with us when we feel empty, when we mourn, when we feel persecuted. The Beatitudes are about living in Kingdom life when we let go of materialistic ambition, when we are pure in heart, when our motives are pure. We are living in Kingdom life when we are peacemakers – peacemakers within ourselves (that is, when we make peace with the warring factions within our own heads), when we are peacemakers in our families, or our workplaces, when we are peacemakers wherever our lives touch others. We are living Kingdom life when we show mercy. And we can show mercy not because we are inherently good, but because God is merciful to us. When we believe and acknowledge that God is merciful to us, we are freed to be merciful to others. The Beatitudes reflect the nature of our God who created us in His image. And it is God walking with us, now, that enables us to live out the Beatitudes. We don’t have to do it on our own, to get some future blessings. The blessings come as we open ourselves to God’s presence in our lives right now. And future blessings await us when we will see the Kingdom of God in its fullness. Amen.

Carol Henley