Saturday, January 02, 2016

Six lessons from a missing Jesus

Sometime during Advent, someone made off with the baby Jesus figure in our parish's manger scene right in front of the church. I did not notice the missing Jesus until the Sunday after Christmas.

I put out the word on social media, which generated a newspaper story, and then a story on the local television, as well as various reports on the region's radio stations. The story went far and wide on the internet, particularly through Facebook. We received many kind words of support, offers to help or replace the figure, and even a few jokes and some snarky comments.

On the whole it was a good experience. All of the attention has, so far at least, has not resulted in the figures return but it did give us a chance to put our best foot forward to the community and for some very good conversation...often by e-mail or in social media...among ourselves, the members and friends of Trinity, Easton.

Here are few lessons I have learned from the whole thing.

1. When faced with a crisis, especially one not of your own making, decide early if your stand is going to hopeful or hurtful, compassionate or defensive, arrogant or humble. That means not only telling only what you know, but building a framework of meaning for the crisis that is consistent with your organization's or church's values.

I talked with three reporters during as this unfolded, and all three asked me in one way or another whether this was a "hate crime," or an example of the "war on Christmas." I don't blame them for this; after all, their job is to tell the story and a priest who was red-faced with anger or else calm and forgiving would be part of the story one way of the other.

Besides, these questions were certainly on the minds of their readers and viewers. All you had to do was look at the several comments that appeared on social media and the various web sites, speculating about the motives of the thieves. The comments included everything from assumptions that the figure was going to be sold to buy drugs, to derogatory names attached to the perpetrators. It would have been very easy to join in the chorus of offense.

We chose, more or less in the instant, that we weren't going to go there. That we just wanted the figure returned "no questions asked." It has happened that way once before, there was no reason to assume that it would not happen again.

2. Keep it in perspective. 

Behind the hate crime question (and the comments by some folks that this incident was a sign of the general decline of western civilization) was the temptation to catastrophise.

That's why I use the term "disrespect" in response to the television reporter's question about whether this was a hate crime. The act was disrespectful, but whether it was a prank, a bad joke, or a statement about the church, one could not say based on the figure's absence alone. To compare our loss to the real losses and injury experienced by people of faith whose churches are burned down, or who lose their lives for believing, or who are displaced because of their faith is at best silly and at worst narcissistic.

It seemed also to us that the presence of the hungry and the homeless in our Saturday Ark Soup Kitchen is a much greater scandal.

The pain and the sense of loss is real and we need to honor that, but we have to keep it in context.

3. Keep your eyes open for hidden and surprising gifts.

One of the gifts was the discovery that a significant chunk of the congregation had internalized the message that Advent is not the same as Christmas, but is a season of waiting. When everyone, lay and ordained, are necessarily running around getting ready for Christmas--both at home and in the parish--this lesson can lost in all the noise.

But it turns out that people noticed the missing Jesus a long time before Christmas and simply assumed that because it was still Advent, the baby Jesus would not show up till Christmas. So one gift was the realization that our formation works on levels above and below consciousness. In a strange way, the incident showed us to be more fully formed than we knew.

This did not only show itself in a better understanding of the church's calendar, but also appeared in the ability of lay people to think about their faith through this incident in wonderfully creative ways.

And, of course, our neighbors and friends outside the congregation and in our parish, the City of Easton, were wonderful and supportive. Even people of different faiths or of no particular faith, all sent us warm wishes and passed along our story hoping the thief would have a change of heart.

4. We are people with a message. 

We started out looking for a lost baby Jesus figure. We found ourselves being messengers of Good News. Media was our friend in this instance. The lesson here is that Christians who have a message of hope should not be afraid to communicate it in ways that our culture understands.

5. Humor helps.

I learned a long time ago in hospital ministry that humor can keep the stress demons away. At the same time, it is important that we stay present to the real pain of people who are hurting. So humor has to happen in the right way, in the right place, and at the right time.

Humor can help keep things in perspective, especially when the phone is ringing off the hook. But don't expect the joke to accepted or understood outside of your context.

I created two things which I circulated mainly among close friends and staff when things started to get a little surreal. One was a fake ransom note created on a thing called "The Ransomizer."

Another one was this:

6. In a crisis, the job of leadership is to give direction and to frame the meaning around the event. That means for religious communities being able to think on our feet theologically. 

We, of all people, have to be able to ask out loud where God is in the mess and what do we do as faithful people. This is made much easier if the community has done their work beforehand so that they know their mission, have a common language, and have decided what their core stance as a faith community will be.

This is the background for what became a general letter to the congregation that attempts to frame what was going on in terms of our theology and mission.

At Trinity, this work has been going on for a long time. For example, at the rear of our church, near the entrance to our parish hall, is an old "Episcopal Church welcomes you" sign that is perhaps forty or fifty years old. When we built our new kitchen and addition in 2010, we hauled it out of retirement and put it up over the new entrance. It says

"Trinity Episcopal Church
Founded in 1819
A Church for All People"

That's was quite a mission statement! Every day it is a challenge to live into that. Every now and then we succeed. This was a moment when the congregation led the community and in so doing witnessed to the Gospel in a powerful yet simple way.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

The way of peace

A sermon for 2 Advent C, Sunday, December 6, 2015

Today, we get a glimpse of the other Nativity story in the Gospel. Not the story of Jesus’ birth…but of John the Baptist. Our glimpse comes through the Canticle of Zechariah from the Gospel of Luke, which we sang instead of the psalm today:
In the tender compassion of our God
The dawn from on high shall break upon us.
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death
And to guide our feet into the way of peace.
John was born to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. An angel told this Zechariah, John’s father. When Zechariah decided to name the baby “Junior” the angel took away his voice until he gave him the name God wanted: John. The canticle that was the first thing out of Zechariah’s mouth after hastily scrawling out John’s name.
St. John Baptist grew up to be as tough nails. As much as we try to domesticate St. John Baptist, because we find his funny clothes and eccentric diet intriguing, there was nothing soft about him.
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Kadel wrote about him:
He called people to repentance, and he was not afraid to say hard words to those who tried to game the system. He talked about people who said long fancy prayers but did nothing about the suffering of the people. He spoke up against those who profited by power. He spoke against religious and political leaders who said one things but did another or did evil in the name of God. Those in power did not react well. In the end, they cut off his head.
But these things can distract us from what John was really all about. “The tender compassion of our God,” the song says. John was out there in the wilderness. He was a voice crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” And, as the song goes, “to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
John prepared the way for Jesus, by proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. And in so doing he confronted the powers of this world that work and act against God and God’s people. Of course, the powers that be would literally hand John (or more precisely Herod) his head. The powers of the world does not take well to the ways of peace.
Just as with John, we live in a dark, violent age, and it is difficult to see that path towards peace. By now we’ve all heard about yet another mass murder in a public building.  And we have witnessed what has become a normal cycle of reaction. People cry out for gun control, while others respond that it really the fault of the gun or use the event itself to say “see? Gun control doesn’t work!”
We look for whom to blame and we want to know whom to be angry at.  “Is it terrorism?” Of course it’s terrorism! And it does not matter if the shooter is Muslim, Christian, a disgruntled employee, or an angry high school student! Because such acts are designed to provoke fear, to grab our attention, and to affect the world by a show of power and violence.  It really does not matter what the shooters believe or who their targets are—what matters is our collective response. Remember terrorism is not an ideology, it is a methodology that is meant to deliberately scare us all into participating in their violence and out of our fear to do their bidding in harming each other. Terrorists count on us to react irrationally and fearfully. They want us to strike out at anything that appears threatening. The people who promote terrorism—no matter what their ideology, religion, or nationality might be-- are agents of chaos, fear and anger. They are agents of evil and so are precisely the opposite of the messengers of God’s peace.
John was out there in a situation not that different from our own, and he courageously called for repentance. “Comfort ye my people,” says the prophet. “Prepare the way of the Lord”—the ‘superhighway of peace.’ The road to peace is direct and purposeful…and is travelled—without fear, without revenge.
It’s easy to get sucked in to violence. Fr Kadel reminds us:
We imagine that somehow we can put together power and use violence to destroy violence. Remember how angry we were after 9/11? But the anger and the war that followed did not destroy the violence—it moved it around, recruited more angry and violent people on all sides, in our country and others. It increased intolerance and xenophobia in our country as well as elsewhere. The more that we attempt to crush violence with anger, violence and exercise of power, the more violence is multiplied in more places. This fear-laden atmosphere of violence even effects the way in which police interact with civilians—separate and apart from terrorism or weapons. We cannot stop gun violence and mass murder in our country with power. We must stop it with peace.
As I’ve said before, if you want to fight evil, we must do the things that evil hates the most.
Evil wants us to believe that peace is lazy, soft, and weak. But look at who God sent to proclaim peace. The prophets, especially St. John Baptist, were not passive or lazy or soft. Neither was Jesus, who willingly endured the passion and the cross for our—the world’s!—salvation. And they show that evil is wrong. The path of peace requires fortitude and courage.
That is why the flap about prayer versus action is an important conversation to have. Maybe you saw the Daily News headline last week? It said “God is not fixing this!” The front page was directed at those who tell us to pray for the victims of gun violence but will pass no law to deal with the proliferation of firearms in our society.
Part of the flap was a symptom of the anxiety in our society. We are stuck and incapable of staying focused on the problem at hand. Since we cannot tell the truth, and since we cannot listen to each other, and since any hint of compromise is anathema, all that energy has to go somewhere. So the conversation becomes quickly a gotcha game of who is doing more (or less) for our safety. Which is why we moved from that fourteen people killed and twenty-one wounded in a mass shooting on Wednesday to arguing about prayer on Friday. 
It's time to get unstuck. But first, let’s take a breath.
Pope Francis once talked about prayer when he said, “You pray for the hungry. You pray that God will provide for the hungry. Then you feed the hungry. That’s how prayer works.” Or, as Pennsylvania labor organizer Mother Jones more colorfully said over a century ago: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”
The problem is not prayer. Of course, we hold in prayer the dead and the injured and the grieving. Of course, we hold in prayer those who put their lives on the line for the safety of others. And, if we are as spiritually tough as St. John Baptist, we even pray for the perpetrators. We are called to do nothing less!
But if our prayers do not lead us to action, and if we use the vocabulary of prayer and piety to hide our inaction and justify our fear, then as it says in the Letter of James, our faith is as good as dead.
Our faith is not dead! God guides our footsteps in the way of peace. The way of peace does not cringe before evil, but looks evil in the eye and overflows with love…and with clarity, charity, and boldness do the things that evil hates. 

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

First rule of mission: don’t be silly

A sermon on the commemoration of Channing Moore Williams, Missionary Bishop in China and Japan, 1910. 
Unless you are wonky for all things Episcopal, you probably missed this. Recently the Diocese of Oxford in the Church of England published a blog post written the Rev. Paul Eddy called “Ten Tips for a Man-Friendly Christmas Eve Service.”
The Rev. Eddy is a vicar and is also, it seems, their missioner to bring men back into church. You see, the surveys say that men stay away from church in droves except at Christmas and Easter, when presumably, the wives (or their mothers) drag them to church. So he set out ten tips to make Christmas more man-friendly. Well, he did until the Diocese of Oxford decided to take the post down.
Some of the rules are tried and true…stuff clergy hear all the time.  You know, short sermons…don’t let church go on for more than an hour (45 minutes is even better)…easy to sing hymns.
Speaking of that, one idea strikes me as kind of gray: set the Christmas carols in a key that men can sing. We don’t want baritones to unwittingly attempt to sing up in the heavens with the sopranos.  Now I have some sympathy for this idea. For example, I agree with Garrison Keillor that the “Star Spangled Banner” should be sung in the key of G instead of its customary A-flat. But since most Christmas carols are, well, carols they are already in a key accessible to most voices. At least they are to this baritone.
Some of the ideas struck me as downright silly. And these are the ones that brought the most reaction. Among them:
5. Talk about the adventure and danger of the Mission Christ had. Tell the story of a martyr.
7. Employ masculine imagery and language.
8. Play a video clip from an action film as a metaphor.
10. Present Christ the man rather than Christ the infant, and focus teaching on Christ’s power and mission, rather than just his meekness and gentleness.
In short, he is telling us that it’s time for Jesus and his followers to man-up.
This reminded many people about the trend in some churches to combine worship with mixed-martial arts…an attempt to show Jesus as a macho not a wimpy figure that manly-men can really identify with.
We can debate some other time whether or not he has a point...but his solution is to give in to a kind cultural captivity. And not only about assumptions about gender and masculinity, but the temptation to be embarrassed by the radical nature of the Gospel and the temptation to gloss over it's demands. He wants to make the Gospel easy to swallow. 
Proclaiming and living the Gospel requires every day Christians like you and me to experience a kind of spiritual cognitive dissonance. 
If you don’t believe me, look around. 
Here we are talking about Advent as a season to open our hearts to God, to prepare ourselves for the coming of the savior.  Advent is all about the truth that we are at once living in God’s time and in our time at the very same time. We are waiting for God in quiet expectation in the middle of the Crazy Busy Season. We are quietly lighting Advent candles while the culture is talking about magical snowmen and reindeer with headlights. So if you get the idea as you go about your daily living that as Christians we are not speaking the same language…well, it’s because we aren’t.
This disconnect is so built in and so challenging that some Christians want to fix it. Among these are the people who want to trade in one kind of political correctness for the kind that requires every store clerk in the land to wish us all a Merry Christmas…and like it! In their earnest anxiety they miss the truth that all of us followers of Jesus are by definition pilgrims and aliens.

We are tempted to make it so hard that people run away...or make it so easy that the whole exercise seems trite.
But if you think you have it bad, think about the person we commemorate today, Channing Moore Williams. He founded churches in China and Japan and helped form the Nippon Sei Ko Kai, the Anglican Church in Japan.  
Yes, he faced violence. Yes. He had hardship. But to do his work, he had to learn not just a language but a culture. He was not tough, in the popular sense of the world, he was present and persistent. He was quiet and scholarly. Along the way he started several Christian institutions including St. Paul's University (Kyoto), St. Luke's Hospital (Tokyo), and he founded vibrant Christian communities in, among other places, Nagasaki
A missionary once told me that most important skill for in his work was the ability to listen. I think it is true for us, too. Before we can invite people to Jesus, we have to know who we are inviting. We have to hear their story. Lift them up in prayer. Walk with them. Respect them. Having done that, the invitation is natural…and outgrowth of a relationship and not merely a sales pitch. That means we have to be just as at home with Jesus through our prayer, study of Scripture, and our sacramental living.
But above all, we must resist the temptation to the silly. Clever schemes and tricks won’t communicate the Gospel. And even if it fills churches (or auditoriums) these gimmicks will only distort if not outright hide the Gospel.

I mean, look at that blog post I told you about.

Everyone was talking about it—and making fun of the post or arguing for or against it-- anything but the life-changing, creation-healing, reconciling Good News of Jesus. This is why the first rule of mission work is (or ought to be): “Don’t be silly.” At least not needlessly so.

Instead, watch, listen, pray, and when you communicate the eternal love of God to all creation avoid the temptation to resort to gimmicks. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The medicine for the world

A sermon on the Commemoration of James Otis Huntington Sergent, Priest and Monk.
Wednesday, November 24, 2015

Once when I was in high school, an ice storm hit our city and towns. My parish was in the south end of Hartford and the Rector was away. The temperature was plummeting. The power was out everywhere and it was impossible to move about safely.  Things looked bleak. Except that the church, for some reason, alone among the two housing projects that abutted the church, still has power and still had heat. The rest of the neighborhood was dark, but the church was not.

But it did no one any good because the church was closed.

My Dad was the Senior Warden at the time and the Rector was away. When some folks from parish who lived in the neighborhood, including a young Church Army evangelist, called to describe the problem, he said without a moment's hesitation "open it."

He piled us all into our little Saab and we carefully drove to church and joined this impromptu relief effort. Somehow cots appeared and soup was made. Some of us had to go door to door to tell people that the church hall was open and there was food, heat, and light. To me, it was a great adventure!

In the middle of the night, someone (I don't know who) said that we should stop and pray. And so my Dad led a bunch of us in Morning was still dark out but it was after midnight. Then we went on doing was needed doing.

For some reason, that incident from my youth came to mind when I was reading about James Otis Sargent Huntington, the priest who founded the Order of the Holy Cross. Not only was he a key figure in recovering monasticism and religious life in the Episcopal Church, he did so in the context of ministering to the poorest of the poor, and the most outcast of society, in the streets of industrial New York.

Huntington was active in the labor movement and promoted the idea that landowners and industrial owners have a responsibility to those whose work makes their wealth possible.

I have always been taken by the fact that in the Episcopal Church, our 19th Century revival did not take place in tent meetings or in auditoriums but in parish houses built as community and learning centers in cities, in city streets, in places where no one could hide from the fact that the price of America's industrial revolution was a concentration of human misery and displacement rarely seen in human history. Our revival was a recovery of Catholic ritual and theology, yes; but more than that, it was an intentional experiment in connecting the ancient practices of prayer with a modern response to the needs of ordinary people in our day.

Some of the early experimenters could not live with Huntington's rigor of the monastic offices, daily Mass, and work. And it is certainly not for everyone. Nevertheless, this recovery of monasticism in the city streets changed the Episcopal Church forever.

You see it is easy for activists to be active, but to ground our activity in prayer changes our work into a prayer.

And it is easy for prayerful people to pray for people's souls, but to be active in the context of their living incarnates that prayer. It makes our prayer a living thing.

Which is why Huntington's experiment in monastic living as the framework for activism is so important. If the cross really is the world's medicine, then we who practice first-aid treating the world's wounds must be grounded in prayer. And to live in the rhythm of daily prayer and Eucharist is a daily reminder that in Christ, God is at the heart of the world. In Christ, the daily struggles for bread, for work with dignity, for education, for health, are brought to God in the cross. And through the cross, God is with us in our struggles.

And as we gather in this parish on this and every Wednesday, Sunday, and Holy Day around this altar, and as we pray the offices together and separately and lift to God the concerns of the world, we find that God is present in all we see and do. We discover against that the cross is in a tangible, useful, and eternal way, the medicine of the world.

Icon by Tobias Haller, BSG

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Martin of Tours, Veteran

A sermon for the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, November 11, 2015
Matthew 25:34-40

I wonder if it occurred to the diplomats and generals who were working out the Armistice that would stop the fighting in Europe on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 that the day was also the Feast of St. Martin of Tours.

Americans, unless they were devout Catholics, would probably have missed the coincidence. But I wonder about the French, the Germans, the Belgians, the Italians, and the other European nations both Allied and Central powers. Would they have have picked up on the coincidence...and the irony?

Martin was a soldier. He served in an elite cavalry unit as did his father in the army of Imperial Rome. He was a Christian but was a cathechumen until he was 18 or so, when he was baptized. Some say that he served only a short stint, but the most reliable witnesses say he served his full tour of 25 years. Martin was one of these early Christians who apparently would not draw blood as a soldier, but there is a story about how he would lead his vanguard into battle unarmed.

After he served in the military, he entered the priesthood and religious community. He approached vowed life with the same discipline and focus that he learned as a soldier. He had to be tricked into being consecrated a bishop...the legend is that someone ran up to him told that there was a very ill man in the church who needed him and he needed to come now. When he arrived, there was a church full of people.

I love these stories, but it does make me wonder...did every one jump up and yell "Surprise!"?

Anyway, the story goes that he ran way and hid in a barn full of geese. As a soldier, he ought to have known better. Geese were often used as a kind of early warning system for walled towns, so when they made a fuss, the jig was up and they brought him back to church for the ceremony. It is said that he refused consecration unless he could continue to live his religious vows and simple life, which he did.

Martin was known for his mercy. As a bishop, he refused to have heretics put to death and was known for always visiting and freeing prisoners. It's said that magistrates and governors in his see would hear he was coming and find an excuse not to meet with him so that they would not have to be pressed into releasing more convicts, especially politically inconvenient ones.

But most of all, Martin is known for an encounter that took place when he was young, even before he was baptized.

He was riding his horse through town when he encountered a beggar who was naked or nearly so. Martin drew his sword (which must have startled and worried the beggar, I am sure!) and used it to cut his military cloak...his half, giving the beggar the lower half.. Later, Martin had a dream that he met the risen Christ on the road...wearing the half of cloak he gave away.

This story, and the veneration of the remaining cloak, became an important part of western European popular piety not just through the middle ages but right through to the 20th century. A chapel in his honor was a popular stop on the pilgrim road between southern France and Spain. Even as France secularized in the Third Republic, veneration of Martin continued especially in the military.

So I wonder, when that first Armistice Day happened in 1918, if there wasn't, at least among a few, prayers of thanksgiving and intercession made through Blessed Martin, a patron saint of France and of soldiers. And even through we now call today's observance Veterans Day and honor all who have served their country in the armed forces, I wonder if we might not also pause from our secular thanks to these men and women and remember the example of Martin of Tours, Soldier, Bishop and witness.

Remember a saint who took on the discipline and responsibility of military service, and yet called Christ his Lord and general. Martin chose to use his power--both as a soldier and as a bishop--in the service of mercy and his discipline in the service of prayer. He advocated for those without a voice, and practiced restraint in the face of his enemy. Above all, he saw in the face of the beggar, the prisoner, and even the heretic, the face of Christ.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Some faith and values moments on "The Daily Show"

As Jon Stewart signs off of The Daily Show, I am remembering some of my favorite moments from the standpoint of this person of faith and an Episcopalian. Stephen Colbert was better known for bringing faith into the conversation on his Colbert Report, but Stewart did not stay away from faith and values. Both shows were important barometers as to how faith, ethics, and religion fits into the culture today.

So here, in no particular order, are some of the moments I remember:

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (October 4, 2004):

Bishop Gene Robinson managed to crack up Jon Stewart (January 20, 2009):

While the segment was not about faith, per se, I was very moved by Stewart's interview with Malala Yousafza.

Here is Stewart's take on Pope Francis:

On the periodic "revelation" that Jesus' had a wife:

Easter versus Passover:

On the nuns who would soon be riding a bus:

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Fish stories and other Gospel tales

My brother and me at the helm of the trusty Evinrude. 
A sermon for Evensong on Wednesday, July 22, 2015 at RSCMA King's College Course at St. Stephen's Pro-Cathedral in Wilkes Barre, PA. 

UpdatedYou know what a fish story is, right? Sure it's a story told by people who fish. But a lot goes into a good fish story. A good fish story has to be a little, well, tall (that fish was this big!…or maybe this big!). It has to be a little outlandish (like the time I once shot a bear in my pajamas…and what the bear was doing in my pajamas, I’ll never know). Above all, a good fish story has to be well told… and it does not really matter if the fish in the story got away or was caught. 
Like the time my dad caught a bass with a canoe. You mean “in a canoe,” right? No, with a canoe. “You can’t catch a bass with a canoe!” you say.
Well, my dad did.
My brother and sister-in-law share a place on a lake in Vermont which is owned by her extended family, and is called “Camp.” Once they invited my parents to come to Camp for a week, and during their stay my dad and my brother got in the canoe to go fishing. It is one of those long 10 foot aluminum jobbers with wood slats for a floor. And they were fishing off the point where the Camp is located. 
Pop snagged a small mouth bass. And it was beaut, lemme tell ya! And what a fighter! 
So Pop is reeling in this bass and the fish is going this way and that, and down to bottom and up out of the water. Pop shouts for David to bring him the net. So my six foot five inch brother, who was sitting in the stern, stands up and reaches Pop, who is up in the bow, the net. Well, you know the one you’re never supposed to do in a canoe, right? That’s right! Stand up! And so the canoe rocks this way, and then that way. And Pop is shouting for the net while reeling in this bass and my brother is saying “Here it is!” But his foot gets stuck in the slats and he can’t move and as he tries to free his foot to give Pop the canoe turns over. Now the canoe didn’t just tip, it rolled over, 360 degrees. Out into the water David goes. All the gear and the paddles are floating all around the canoe. 
But not Pop! 
He hung on and there he was, sitting in the bow, looking dazed, wet, and grumpy.
Of course, all this commotion got the attention of everyone on shore. And we run out to edge of the lake to see David swimming towards Camp towing the canoe—which is now a ten foot floating bathtub—with my Dad sitting in the bow. And when they came ashore, everyone was making a fuss. “Are you okay? What happened?” 
Now my Pop, was a Deacon of the Church and man of great dignity. And in the midst of all the chaos, he uttered these immortal words: “Forget about me. Net the fish!”
Because swimming around inside the canoe was a good sized small-mouth bass. 
And that is how my dad caught a fish with a canoe.
The Bible is full of fish stories. And perhaps the fishiest of them all is the story of Jonah and the whale. Okay. It wasn’t a whale. He was swallowed by a big fish.
Hearing that story again tonight, I wonder. If people have fish stories, I wonder if fish have people stories?
I can imagine a big fish one day talking to his buddies. Let’s call the fish Ichthys. That sounds like a good name, doesn't it? So Ichthys says “I remember the time I caught a man.
“There I was swimming along, and it must have been stormy up there because I see the bottom of this boat going up and down and all these boxes and crates and ropes and things are sinking to the bottom. And while I’m swimming along this man appears right in front of me, and before I knew it “gulp!” I swallowed him!”
“Eww!” his friends say. “Yuch! What did he taste like?”
“Well, not so good,” Icthys says. “And I have to say he didn’t sit well in my digestion. It moved around and fussed a lot in my stomach. (“Eewwww!”) And noisy! I mean not only did my stomach growl but from inside I could hear him…’Oh, God!’  and ‘I’m sorry! I should have gone to Nineveh instead of Tarshish!” I mean it was non-stop whine, whine, whine!”
“What did you do?”
“So this goes on for three whole days and I finally had enough, so I coughed him up on some beach.”
Alright. So maybe the story of Jonah is a fish story, and we don't really know what the big fish thought of all this. But just because it’s not history doesn’t make it untrue. 
Think about it. How often have you been called by God to do one thing, to be one way, and decided to do the opposite?
And how many times have you been busted and found yourself over your head because of the consequences of your choices … with no way out?
And when you’ve been over your head with no way out…have you ever experienced the most amazing, unexpected, and out-of-the-blue rescue possible?
You see Jonah’s story is not just a fish story. It is the story of God saving Jonah because God had something bigger in mind for him that Jonah himself could imagine.
The Bible is full of fish stories. There is the time Jesus called the disciples who were fishermen and told them they’d be fishing for people! And the time that Jesus calmed the storm from his boat. Or the time he walked on the water and invited Peter to do the same. When Mary Magdalene, whose feast day this is today, ran and told the disciples that she had seen and talked to the Crucified Jesus, raised from the dead, the apostles probably thought that was a fish story too. And it was...just not in the way they expected!
And there was the time, like in tonight’s Gospel, that the Crucified and Risen Jesus showed his friends that life, after meeting the Risen Christ, would never be the same again. They thought that life would go back to normal, but they are catching nothing until they listen to Jesus, put their nets over the other side, and then they have more fish than they can handle. Meeting the Risen Christ is one thing. Doing what he says is something else.
Even Jesus’ disciples had to be reminded that God had bigger things in mind than they could possibly imagine.
Which is why there are lots of fish stories in the Bible and why the most important ones may be closer to home than you think.
I have one more fish story for you. When I was a new priest in my second church, my parish had the habit of sometimes using real, baked bread for communion, but other times we’d use wafers. You know what I mean, the little round ones about the size of a quarter. And not the whole wheat ones. These were the white, very thin ones, with next to no taste. You know what I mean, right? These were the ones that manage to dissolve in wine if you intinct but stick to the roof of your mouth if you don’t.  
So before service one Sunday, one of the young people who was to be an acolyte asked me what kind of bread we would be using for the Eucharist that Sunday, because how we handled the fresh baked bread was a little different that how we handled the wafers. I said “wafers.”
He pulled a face and left the room. I overheard him report back to compadres, “It’s fish food!”
I never heard of communion wafer referred to that way…and clearly, they preferred the “real” bread to the wafers. But I had to laugh! What a great image! Communion as fish food! Imagine: we are fish being fed.
The earliest Christians used the sign of the fish as a secret symbol to identify themselves to each other. And the Greek word for fish “Ichthys” became an anagram that the early Christians used, too. In Greek the letters that make up that word for fish (Iota, Chi, Theta, Upsilon, and Sigma) were the first letters of the phrase: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.
We have been caught for God by Jesus and at the same time we are called to fish for people. We have been deposited on the shore for God’s work. We are fed with the “fish” food of Christ’s body and blood while at the same time we are called to feed and serve the lonely, the friendless, the needy, with God’s food of love, mercy, hope, cheerfulness, and compassion in what we do and how we are every day. When you find hungry people and feed them, or meet people outcast by society (or the church) and welcome them in the God’s family, when you bring comfort to people who are hurting, when you care for God’s creation, when you beauty and hope to where there had been desolation and fear, you are like the fishing apostles who gather God’s people to him.
In all these ways, as you live out your baptisms, you will discover over and over again that Jesus is calling you to be a miraculous messenger of grace, love, and hope. A person who shares the Good News of the Risen Christ, and shares in the renewal of God’s people and creation.
There are a lot of fish stories in the Bible. But the biggest and best fish story there ever will be is the one you live right now as you learn and do the work of Jesus.

Jonah 1:5a, 7-9, 11-12, 17 & John 21:1-11

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A time for generous leadership

The 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Chuch has wrapped up a few weeks ago and we have seen some remarkable work done in some remarkable ways. In the midst of the usual parliamentary processes, the Episcopal Church’s main leadership council has made set a course towards evangelism and mission in an interconnected world. Underneath a convention that was both more technologically connected (and the Pads and balloting handhelds were only the beginning) and more networked (as with the work from the Acts 8 Moment, the convention media hub, and the House of Deputies daily news portal), I saw a convention that told us both to “Go!” as Bishop Curry said in his closing sermon, to “Innovate!”
As we go into the world, we are being charged to experiment in Christian communities that look and act differently for the sake of Christ’s mission. We are putting serious money towards trying out ways of being the church that breaks out of the buildings we’ve grown up in. We are being encouraged to use our resources and facilities in new ways. Even from across the country peering at the convention through a live stream and Twitter, I think that I was not alone in believing that God is egging us on towards something new in the Episcopal Church
But while the convention was charging us to go in one way, there were signs that we have serious signs of dislocation that threaten to keep us stuck in spiral of institutional struggle and scarcity thinking. These signs were at the edges, but nonetheless present. The bad news was that we came very close to presenting a budget that would not fund our vision for evangelism, proclamation, and mission innovation. The good news is that both Houses found a way to push pass the objections and take a calculated risk for mission. As Bishop Douglas Hahn said in the House of Bishops on voting for the budget amendment for evangelism, “I’d rather not be part of a church with a growing endowment and declining membership.”
Other signs of leadership stress were only slightly present in the halls of the convention.
The crisis at General Seminary was only talked about briefly in hearings and on the floors of the two houses. The final version of the resolution directs that a committee will only look at the relationship between the Seminary and General Convention. This departs from the original version, which asked for a more focused investigation into what happened in the last year on Chelsea Square.
While Convention was going on, the Diocese of Los Angeles was busy closing, clearing out, and selling St. James’ Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, California. The congregation, loyal to the Episcopal Church and who was attempting to rebuild their parish’s ministry after years of lawsuits and conflict between the congregation’s former leadership, who broke away from the Episcopal Church. Apparently, the sale of the property will help pay for the millions of dollars that was spent in the protracted legal struggle as well as add much needed principal to the diocesan endowment which will, presumably, be used for mission. Parish’s close or are merged all the time. What made news was that this parish in a wealthy community, which was making strides in rebuilding that many churches that many other parishes would envy, was being closed for reasons of redundancy in the aftermath of an expensive legal battle and the size of the sale price: $17 million.
Like the conflict in New York, this move has seen a vocal—but ultimately helpless—constituency lose their church and their ministry against a hierarchy that is determined, has the law and levers of power on their side, and speaks very little to their constituencies about what is going on.  In both instances, the critics are written off as people resistant to change and unable to manage their anxieties. Significantly, both the leaders and the alienated constituencies fundamentally agree on the mission and the means to get to there. So what went wrong?
Both situations indicate a leadership style that is at once hard-headed, realistic, and clear. The leaders at both the General Seminary and the Diocese of Los Angeles claim that they are doing what it must do to move the church into the future. While these leaders may be very adept at moving the levers of institutional power towards their desired short-term goals, there is profound absence of generosity and imagination in their pastoral leadership without which the Church cannot move into a hope-filled future.
If we are really going to move into a future where we grow the Church not only in numbers but in mission, we must look carefully at the kind of leadership we will need to move in the direction God is calling us. What is the way that will move us as a body towards God’s future? I believe that way forward—the way that is consistent with the Gospel and will meet the challenges of re-orienting the Church towards mission—is found in calling out a leadership grounded in God’s abundant generosity.
We tend to think of generosity only when it comes to money—how freely does a person give or spend their dollars. But generosity is a spiritual quality that trusts that God has given us the people we need, in the situation we have to do God’s work with energy and hope. Generous leadership is a kind of leadership that is particularly well-suited to the church because in it we assume that our greatest asset for ministry is also our product: the people of God in our communities. It is a leadership that both calls out and relies upon the vision of the people of God in community. And it is a style that is grounded in the very qualities we wish to develop in our congregations and our members.
The kind of managerial leadership that grew up in the church in the last part of the 20th century—the kind that formed me as a priest—assumed that the person in charge, whether it was the parish priest or the diocesan bishop, was the one to hold the vision for the community. In this approach, the job of the leader was to impart the vision and to shepherd the group—be it the team in a company, a congregation or a diocese—towards the desired direction. This approach tempts us to think of the person in charge as also being the expert, with the effect that leader isolates him or herself from the community being led. We are tempted to believe that all wisdom exists among people in the inner circle and that the people are only there to receive what we have to offer.
At the same time, we took on a notion of the church as a family system and began to use that as an organizational theory rather than as a way of understanding the temperament of the leader. So when a priest, bishop, or seminary dean, runs into resistance in the context of making change, then it becomes the problem of the people who are protesting. And when vestry members or diocesan clergy or laity differ, the problem becomes their anxiety.  In becoming an organization theory, family systems thinking stops being a tool to understand the functioning of the leader, but has become a way to pathologize the congregation.
These two approaches—the idea that vision and wisdom only comes from the top, and that the organization is fundamentally made up of anxious, reactive people—moves us towards a leadership style that keeps decision-making tightly within a very small circle, and consequently very opaque to the people who must live with the decisions this one person or small group makes.
So when conflict happens—and it will—this form of leadership poorly positions us to address the problem at its source. It makes everyone’s life much harder. When we are the keepers of the vision leading a group of people who are fundamentally anxious, then when trouble comes we will be less likely to look at our process as a board or leadership team because we will be afraid of looking weak or of “losing.” We certainly cannot trust the group we are entrusted with to give us good information because they do not “know what we know” and, besides, they are anxious and reactive. We don’t want to appear to have succumbed to a “failure of nerve.” We will tend to write off the concerns of our congregations, clergy, or faculties as nothing more than unmanaged anxiety coming from people who are resistant to change in the first place.
In short, we are tempted to approach the very people we are entrusted to lead with mistrust and suspicion.
In a networked, portable world, where the church exists in a marketplace of ideas, leadership that communicates that the church is a top-down organization, that neither trusts nor nurtures its members will not forward the Gospel. It gets in the way of bringing the Gospel message to people desperately in need of hope, life, and purpose. I believe that this is why, despite the fact that that he hasn’t changed the teaching of his church one iota, Pope Francis is a more effective and challenging leader than Pope Benedict XVI was. (And to Benedict’s credit, he appears to have realized that in and then acted on it…in itself a generous act.) Francis communicates that the everyday Catholic layperson is competent to be an effective Christian, while his predecessor showed in his style and preaching that he did not trust his flock to act correctly.
Make no mistake, we Episcopalians have some very tough changes ahead! Just look at the numbers! Congregations are shrinking and some will have to close—if for no other reason than to place our resources where people are instead of where they were. Congregations in smaller communities will have to change how they do ministry. Parishes—even dioceses—will have to learn how to share resources and do ministry together. I believe that we need to re-think how we organize our common life and our ideas of “parish”  and “diocese” will have to change will have along with it. We will have to learn how to work with people of other traditions rather than compete with them. Seminary education will have to adapt to all this while at the same time cope with the fact that the way people learn, work, interact, and worship has changed. How we think of dioceses will have to change. How people get their employment, their relationships, their education and their religion is different, and our infrastructure is barely adapted to the automobile let alone the internet. So we’d better get to work!
The question is what kind of leadership will work for us as we move forward. We are not just talking about the future…what kind of leadership will help us know, respond, and minister in the present?
Leadership that relies on command-and-control, that is based on winning-and-losing, and is only good at manipulating existing levers will, sooner or later, stop serving God’s mission and God’s people.
I believe that the leadership that succeeds—that best puts our resources together with our mission—must be situational (it must allow for the fact that groups grow and mature in their competence) and it must be generous. That means that we must do everything we can to raise competent and confident lay and ordained leaders who are close to the communities they minister in, and they must be generous, trusting that the people and communities we are in have what we need to flourish and grow in the Gospel.
Lately, I have been taken by the concept of generous leadership as a practical and effective alternative to the managerial or family systems models that we have tended to rely on as the century turned. It is well-suited to the experience of the church, and I believe it shows up in congregations and communities that are “on-fire” for the Gospel and effective in their ministries.
In 2002, Tim Sanders wrote a little business book called Love is the Killer App. That year, he wrote in Fast Company:
Now more than ever. The most profound transformation in business — a transformation made more urgent, not less so, by the calamitous events in New York and Washington, DC — is the downfall of the barracudas, sharks, and piranhas and the ascendancy of nice, smart people with a passion for what they do. Forget about the Internet for a moment. Forget about Wall Street and the Fed. What's really different about the economy is that lousy guys finish last.
There are two tough-minded reasons for this soft-hearted reality. The first is the abundance of choice in business — choice of products, schools, media, and career paths. Choice spells doom for villains. At a time when more of us have more options than ever, there's no need to put up with a product or service that doesn't deliver, a company that we don't like, or a boss whom we don't respect. The second reason is what I call the "new telegraph." It's almost impossible for a shoddy product, a noxious company, or a crummy person to keep its, his, or her sad reality a secret anymore. There are too many highly opinionated and well-informed people with access to email, instant messaging, and the Web.
The bottom line: If you don't like certain people, it's easier than ever to escape them. If you are a lousy person, it's harder than ever to keep people around you. Hence, the power of love. 
The last thing we need to be is a lousy church! The front page machinations in my Seminary and in Newport Beach reinforce the notions of church reinforced over a decade of child abuse scandals and angry preachers (and it doesn’t matter if it was our tradition that made the front pages or not). I believe that we hold the life-changing, life-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and that the world is as spiritually hungry as ever…but we won’t effectively communicate that Good News by being smug know-it-alls.
Instead, a generous leader is generous with her or his time, energy, attention, knowledge, and vision. The generous leader trusts the people with whom he or she is working. Erika Andership, writing in Forbes, says:
The generous leader gives people what they truly want: knowledge, power, information, credit, praise, responsibility and authority.  Perhaps most importantly, the generous leader gives faith; assumes that his or her people want to succeed and do good work. The generous leader assumes positive intent
Hear that? Here is a business writer writing in a business magazine about…faith. In the Church, generous leadership that God has given us, right here, right now, all the people, resources, energy, and money we need to succeed. It assumes that our Christian formation is not merely there to make people more knowledgeable but also more competent and confident to live out the Gospel where they live.
Tim Stephens, writing in Fast Company, says that generous leaders:
  • Want their people to succeed.
  • Are not competitive with their team.
  • Have an open-door policy (generous with their time).
  • Would rather err on the side of grace than be just or strict with policies.
  • Have an open hand.
  • Freely share what they are learning.
  • Love to give away credit to others even when they could rightly keep it for themselves.
  • Care about their team. They know about each team member’s goals and dreams, and diligently try to help them fulfill those desires.
How might that look in the Episcopal Church? We want our people to succeed: we want them to effective, joyous followers of Jesus Christ; to be strong in prayer, rich in mercy, and effective in witness.
So the assumption that we know more than the people we lead must go. And the models that set up dioceses and diocesan leadership as competitors with parishes and their leadership for limited resources must also go. This will mean that we must stop thinking of our dioceses as separate institutions or management entities that congregations support. Neither are the congregations “franchise holders” of the larger diocese. Instead, we are in ministry together looking for God to be at work in all of us.
Our pastoral leadership must become a shepherding style that is open to ideas and innovation, aware of the power of tradition to ground us, and taking a stance that is gracious, light hearted, and open to the stories of the people God has given to us. We don’t need credit but love to tell the stories of other people’s successes, no matter how small or trivial they may seem. When we are attentive to what the people in our communities care about and help them find the resources to live them out, then we unleash people’s imagination for mission where they live.
Generous leadership is both imaginative and it is safe. When people in congregations, dioceses, and seminaries know that their leaders are trustworthy and “have their back” then they will do extraordinary ministry in the name of Jesus through those communities. If not, they will at best hold back, but more likely just walk away. When people experience their imaginations being activated and their contributions, no matter how modest, appreciated, then they will begin to see the abundant generosity of God.

This is the kind of leadership the Episcopal Church needs for the tasks before us today and tomorrow. We have tons of competence. Barrels of talent. We have knowledge in abundance. We have vision galore. To bring it all together,  we must have generous, hope-filled leadership that activates our imagination for the Gospel.  We must “go!” We must innovate. And on the way, we must be generous.

Updated on July 16, 2015 to correct some typos. atg

Monday, July 06, 2015

Problem (#500)

So... I am using my g-mail and when I attempt to go to my "sent" files to find some old e-mail...I forgot what... when a yellow box appears at the top of the screen. 

"Oops... the system encountered a problem (#500)" or something like that. 

There is a little clock counting down when it will try to do what ever it was doing. Next to that are the blue highlighted words "Retry now." 

So I retry. Same result. Only now the clock is reset to a longer time. Before it was one minute. Now it's one minute fifteen seconds. 

Hmm. I think I have just been put in the penalty box for 15 seconds for my impatience. Let me see.

So I "retry" again.

Now the timer reads 1:45. A thirty second penalty! 

I look around. No. I am not carrying a 600 year-old elfen wizard on my back and this is my study, not a swamp. So, no, I am not here to learn patience. 

What the hell is Problem #500? 

I retry again. 2:08. Penalty box me, will ya? But 23 more seconds? Weird.

Curious. I open a new tab and then open G-mail. No problem #500! Cool! Send a test e-mail. Out it goes. I find a sent e-mail from my other e-mail account and reply to it. Hit send. Aaannnnd... ding!... it shows up on my phone. I then look at old tab. The countdown clock is now reading 4:41.

From the old tab, I notice that my activity in the new tab is dutifully recorded without my having to refresh. There sits the test e-mail. But the Problem #500 clock is still ticking.

Apparently Problem #500 has nothing to with my functionality. So what the hell is Problem #500? And whose problem is it?

The numbers are not red, and the clock is not counting down in tousandeths of seconds, so it can't be a bomb. Maybe if I let the clock run down, it will go away?

I let it count down to zero and (Thank you St. MacGyver and all the angels) there is no explosion! But it did reset to 3:00. 

What to do? I know!

I open a new tab and Google "What the hell is Problem #500?" 

The first thing I got was a Google screen asking me to ask the Google Plus community what a Problem #500 is. Or I could go directly to the Google Plus world and find out what other people have said. I choose that. Others have asked this question. I am not alone. 

There is very entertaining conversation between some IT techs sharing war-stories about Help Desks I Have Known. Funny. But not enlightening.

So I scroll down and find that it has to do with some problem at a server in Googleland. What problem? Doesn't say. 

I envision that there is some lowly tech who has had to spit out his coffee, and run around looking to reset some switch that has gone wonky and that my request (whatever that was... by now I've forgotten) is hanging out there in cyber space causing a light bulb to blink in helpless digital frustration.


Just for giggles, I open another new tab and go to Bing and ask "What the hell is Google problem #500?" This generates an ad--cleverly disguised as a search engine answer-- that tells me, in effect, that I would not be having this problem If only you were using Bing! 

So "would you like to make Bing your default search engine?" 

"Certainly not! Are you mad?!" I click.  

No answers for you! Next!

There are no answers on my first g-mail screen either. The clock is now reading 5:13. Minutes and seconds, I presume, but now I am not so sure.

At first I imagined the tech whizzing off through some windowless warehouse sized server farm on a Seqway to fix that errant switch. Now I think that perhaps he is deep into his phone rescuing Kate Upton from dragons and trolls on company time and has shouted to no one in particular "Can't you see I'm busy!" 

Or maybe he's lost in the warehouse. Or maybe the Segway ran out of juice because the last tech forgot to plug it in. Or there is no Segway and maybe through a lonely, dark warehouse sized server farm, at 3 am Pacific Time. 

Or the tech is lost in some swirling vortex where time is running backwards!

Or he doesn't know what Error #500 is either and is flipping through a fat notebook right now, cursing. 

Timer: 7:37. 

Now totally bored and seeing that there is apparently nothing is wrong with anything I really care about, I say "The heck with it." And close the tab. 

I'll bet Google loses a lot of techs this way. They disappear into warehouse sized server farms like so many socks in dryers. And when the user signs out while the clock is still running... Oops!

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Tax exemptions for non-profits promotes the public good.

A recent article in Time by Mark Oppenheimer reminded me of a conversation that I have from time to time with folks about our taxes and the Church.

One interaction took place about a year or so ago, when a neighbor started parking his car overnight and for much of the day in our church lot. It probably seemed okay to him…like many centers of small cities, parking is a constant problem…and our lot was empty most nights. But we rent space to people who work downtown during the week and we kept coming up a space or two short especially in the mornings. People who paid rent for a space or who work in our church or volunteer for activities at church were growing frustrated. 

Like the Sesame Street song, we set about finding out which car was different. When we figured it out and tracked down the owner, 
 I explained our situation and asked him to refrain from using our spaces. (This was one of those “they didn’t teach this in seminary moments,” for sure!) 

He said that he did not know we rented spaces. I pointed to the sign that said just that. He said that he’d like to rent a space. I said, sure, but there’s a waiting list. Still, I was sure we could work something out. When he asked how much our rate was, I told him. He was aghast!

Never mind that our rate was 35% of what our city charges for a monthly on-street permit, and 50% of what other area property owners charge downtown workers to park in their spaces. He was still aghast.

“What kind of a church are you to charge this much for parking?” he sputtered.

“Well, we’re the kind of church who has to pay taxes, insurance, maintenance, and staff time to have a parking lot, that’s what.”

Less apparently aghast, but still not mollified, he said “Taxes? You pay taxes?” Clearly, he didn't believe me.

Yes, I sighed. We may be a tax-exempt, non-profit organization, but we still pay taxes. We pay property tax to the city and county for this very parking lot. We pay business privilege tax. We pay all the employee taxes and benefits that we are supposed to. And we pay fees in lieu of taxes that is tacked on to our water bill just like other local, private, non-profit, tax-exempt  groups in our town. 

Besides, we return to our community a whole host of goods and services that make our city a better place to live and work, while saving local, county, state, and federal government both the direct and indirect costs of providing those services—assuming that they would provide them at all.

Which leads me to the basic argument in Oppenheimer’s post: that charities take from the community far more than they put back in. It is an old that goes back decades. He cites a study that shows all of the potential tax revenue that is lost to all levels of government through the charitable tax-exemption. The author lives in the city of New Haven, Connecticut, and he points to the exemption that benefits Yale University, with its large endowment, as a net cost to his city. 

I suppose
 that chart could just as well be read another way. It is just as much an indicator of how much value tax-exempt non-profits add to their communities. Are there trade-offs? Of course! But these are trade-offs that the communities themselves have chosen to make.

Besides the fact that I will bet that between the hospital and the University, Yale is probably one of the biggest employers in the area and adds to the economy in all kinds of ways, the tax rules governing charities and charitable giving create a kind of market place that at once serves a civic purpose and is in keeping with our democratic traditions.

Tax exemption is a way for the government to promote worthy social ends without running or "owning" the project. Non-profit arts groups, charities for children and youth, senior centers, educational programs (both private and public schools/colleges, after school programs, church and non-church charitable day schools and nursery schools), housing, non-profit healthcare, and more all reflect worthy society aims. The system allows society to promote civic and social values of ethics, artistic expression, mercy, scholarship, and spirituality in a way that is at once democratic and market-based, because it is the donor who gets to choose which cause to support.

Tax exemptions for religious institutions, in addition to the charitable and NGO work they do, in and of themselves provide a worthy social aim. Many times religious and non-profit charities will go places and do things that government won’t or cannot do. And they will stick with the task longer, with closer ties to the local community, than government can. When Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the whole array of emergency response was activated. Now, ten years later, it is the charitable community, many of them religiously based, who are still on the ground doing the long-term work of recovery and redevelopment.

In our country, we have found that the best way to promote this general good without establishing a religion… or banning religion (which would be, after all, a form of religious establishment)… is to treat every religious group (no matter what their flavor...including the non-theistic ones) as a voluntary society and to give them the same tax-exemption that is given to schools, arts groups, health care, and other charities.

Our congregation gives back to the community as an essential and basic part of our mission. So, in addition to the religious instruction, pastoral care, and worship, which is at the core of our work, we do much that aids the community we live in. Our own parish hosts a weekly soup kitchen that feeds between 65 and 75 people a week. The Soup Kitchen is the base for other work: periodic health screenings from an area non-profit university who send nursing students and physician assistants to run the program. We practically donate our space when it serves as a public polling place because the donation that the county offers is well under what other groups collect and pay us. And that’s okay. Because we see it as part of our mission to the community.

Oppenheimer was not just picking on churches in his essay. His thesis is that there should be no tax-exemption for any non-profit institution. He cites The Church of Scientology or the tension between Yale University and New Haven as examples as to why charitable tax exemption do not work. But these examples really point to problems of management and town-gown relationships. For every corrupt or incompetent religious group or non-profit you show me, I can point to a corrupt or incompetent government agency or private sector company. This kind of argument gets us no where. Bad management and corrupt practices needs to be addressed for what they are: incompetence and dishonesty. If you can't prosecute them for their dishonesty, at least monitor them for their effectiveness. And if they won't be monitored or can't be prosecuted and you don't like how they use their money, then don't give to them.

Imagine what our society would be like if he got his wish and both the tax-deduction for charitable donations and the tax-exemption for charitable groups were to suddenly go away.

First, a portion of money that people give to charities would go, right off the top, to the government in the form of taxes. More than just a cost of doing business, charities would have to treat their donations the same way that businesses deal with receipts, sales, and interest income. In the non-profit world, the majority of donors are small donors. The most money comes from a few large donors, but the vast majority of the people who send money to charities are small donors. This means that people, who have already paid taxes once on their income, get to see another portion of that money go off as taxes.

Second, many small charities would simply disappear. The cost of property taxes, business taxes, etc. would simply make most small charities too expensive to operate. Only large charitable groups that have large endowments and active development programs would remain.

Most of all, what would disappear is the kind of charitable marketplace that the tax-code now encourages. Right now, people voluntarily choose to support the charitable work that appeals to them. People choose to support the charity or special cause that appeals to them. Sometimes that can go viral where everyone is jumping on board, as with last years ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, but most of all that shows up with the average donor chooses to tithe to their church or give to their alma mater or give to a local hospital or orchestra. Philanthropists have the freedom to support their favorite charity with their big ticket gifts but more often it is the small giver who chooses to support a tangible public good with a voluntary gift.

What would be the alternative if this were to go away? Well, before there was an income tax, Andrew Carnegie went around the country building libraries and voluntary society’s abounded. But government did less and taxation worked differently in those days. Under the current tax structure, the loss of the charitable deduction and tax-exemption for charities would at worst kill off the charitable sector but most likely shrink that marketplace dramatically. 

And this is just any marketplace. It is a marketplace of social concern, of civic participation, and social good. It is made possible, in part, by the way we exempt charitable work and the donations that support them.,

Tax-code or not, charities and charitable giving provides to the public basic social benefits where people vote with their time, their dollars, and their energy.Protecting donations to charities from excessive taxation and encouraging donors to give. It offers promotes a marketplace where social good is provided on all kinds of levels with a minimum of government interference. And in a free society, it allows people to choose their level of participation and what social good they will support through their giving.