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. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Extraordinary time

You know what I miss most from my childhood? Summer vacation.

I guess I was what they call nowadays a “free range kid.” It was pretty much how we all grew up in those days. Where I lived, on the cusp between the suburbs and the country, the day was pretty much defined by how far our bikes could take us (within a geographical limit set my parents) and what we kids thought up. The only real restriction was to drop everything when the whistle at the nearby volunteer fire department went off every day at 6:30 in the evening and come home for dinner and to be in the house for bed when the street light came on in the evening. Except on flashlight tag nights or when epic games of wiffle ball were played “under the lights” in an empty parking lot!

Not that time was totally unstructured. There were chores to do, lessons to go to, a few organized sports, and things like choir camp and family trips…but I remember a lot of baseball, bike-riding, swimming at the town pool, and bouncing from house to house to watch TV, eat lunch, or have a snack. Along the way we’d do stuff, and, well, I must admit that some low-level mischief also happened that somehow or another my parents always seemed to learn about. (I could never figure out how….weird!)

Well, those free-range days are long gone. Not because of parenting style. I just grew up. (If you call this growing up!) And right about now as the program year winds down at Trinity and we enter that long green season the Episcopal Church calls “The Season after Pentecost,” I really long for summers when everything seemed wild and free.

The Season after Pentecost takes up more or less half of the church’s year. Trinity Sunday is always the first Sunday after Pentecost and this year it lands smack dab in the middle of the church year. How do I know this? Well, in our parish we pray for everyone in our congregation by name in all our worship and daily offices, so we divide up our parish list into twenty-six weeks so that everyone gets prayed for two weeks a year. (Check out your parish directory!) Pentecost Sunday was week 26. Today, Trinity Sunday, is the start of week one.

During the first half of the church’s year, from The First Sunday of Advent through Pentecost, we rehearsed all the big moments in salvation history: from our anticipation and hope for a Messiah last December, to his birth on Christmas, to his ministry that shows us that Jesus is the Christ in Epiphany season. In Lent, we turned towards Jerusalem and then in Holy Week move through the passion, his death and his resurrection. Then we recall the resurrection church—his rising from death, his appearances to the disciples, his ascension to heaven, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

After all that drama, everything that comes after might seem pretty boring. But for the rest of the year, starting today, our Gospel and Epistle readings will focus on Jesus’ teaching and how we live those teachings in light of being a resurrection people. This year, from today forward, we’ll hear about Jesus’ teaching, his healings, his miracles, and his interactions with both the disciples and ordinary people from both the Gospels of Mark and the Gospel of John.

(The Old Testament reading and the Psalm will follow the epic story of Hebrew Scriptures, starting this year with the story of King David.)

The idea is that as we will hear about the work and teachings of Jesus, just as we learn and do the teachings of Jesus in our everyday life. So, while there will be a big feast here and there, like All Saints Day, the Season after Pentecost is dedicated to the everyday, real life journey of what it means to follow Jesus. Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers have a nick-name for this long green season. They call it “ordinary time.”

We might be tempted to think of “ordinary time” as summer vacation.  After all, the program year has just ended. We will take a few months to rest and recharge—and we need to do that!—but in some very important ways the real work of being an everyday Christian has just begun! We’ve spent half the year hearing the story, and participating again in God’s salvation history, now the real work has begun. Now we have to live it!

Discovering, sharing, and living God’s in the midst of ordinary living is the real work of the Church. Where God changes the world is not just inside our sanctuaries but as we go out from here and live our faith wherever God has set us loose in the world. The Good News is that we are a free-range Church! Everywhere we go and everything we do is a chance to live and do the work of Jesus, to try on what he taught us, and to live by his example.

We may be free-range, but we are grounded and given the tools and direction we need to live as Jesus’ people in the world. Not only do we have our baptismal identity, scripture, prayer, and the Sacraments of the Church, we are held together by the very power of God!

Just look at how the Season after Pentecost is bookended. It begins today with the First Sunday after Pentecost…aka Trinity Sunday. Today we celebrate the fullness, majesty, and sovereignty of the One God united and expressed in each of the Three Persons of the Trinity. This is a Very Big Concept. We are moving into everyday Christian living just filled to overflowing with the mind-boggling wonder of the Bigness of the One God in three persons.

And where will it all lead? Glad you asked! Twenty-six weeks from now, at the end of November, we free-range Christians will be gearing up for Advent and we’ll celebrate another strictly theological Sunday on the Last Sunday after Pentecost…which is sometimes called “The Reign of Christ” or “Christ the King.” On that Sunday, we’ll look forward to how God will gather up all that we have done, learned, seen, heard, and told, and it will be placed before Jesus who reigns over all the earth…and who will bring earth and heaven together. Whew!

So what happens between Trinity Sunday here and the Reign of Christ there? Everyday life. That’s what happens. Everyday life, where Jesus shows up every single day. Everyday life where Jesus heals, teaches, blesses, and prays. Everyday life, where the power and majesty of God the Father takes our breath away in awe and wonder. Everyday life where God the Holy Spirit challenges us and encourages us as we learn and do the work of Jesus. Everyday life where we will discover, share, and live God’s love in all kinds of great and small ways.

You know what? I think the real test of the Church…What really tells the world who and whose we are… is in the everyday things that you and I, the gathered people of God, do. The real question is not how “Christian” we are at Christmas and Easter—as glorious as those festivals are—but in the summer or the fall when there is “nothing” to do…nothing, that is, except to be a friend and apprentice of Jesus Christ every day.

We are free-range Christians. Every day, fed by Scripture and Sacraments and grounded in the Church, we will go where God leads and practice what Christ teaches us, led and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Today may be the last day of our program year, but this is not the church’s summer vacation. Today, as with every “little Easter,” is the first day of the real life of the people of God.

What do you think? Maybe we need to change the nick-name of this long green season after Pentecost. It’s not “ordinary time,” it’s “extra-ordinary!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Crossing a stormy lake

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. June 21, 2015

Mark 4:35-41

I’ve got a riddle for you. Why did Jesus and his disciples cross the big lake in the little boat? To get to the other side!
Once when I was a kid, I was on a sailboat with an adult family friend and some other young people on Lake George, NY. A storm came up, seemingly out of nowhere and we thought for a minute that our little boat might be overwhelmed by the big lake. It took a lot of work, but we made it to a sheltered spot. I remember being very busy, very wet…and feeling a little scared.  Frankly, it never occurred to me to ask “why were we crossing this big lake in this little boat?” But it was a worthwhile question.
After our little adventure, we were chattering about the experience when someone reminded us of a song going around church youth groups in those days called  "Joy is the Like the Rain" by Sister Miriam Therese Winter. There is line in the song that goes like this:
I saw Christ in wind and thunder, Joy is tried by storm.
Christ asleep within my boat, whipped by wind, yet still afloat.
Joy is tried by storm.
As you read and hear Mark’s Gospel, whenever it says that the disciples are crossing the lake, pay attention! It is Mark’s way of talking about the Church going into world. It is Church crossing to the other side…from that side that is safe and familiar to the side that is new, unknown, and dangerous. And along the way, the journey will be difficult.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus stills the storm. There is another time, in chapter six, where the disciples are in the boat facing a storm and Jesus walks to them on the water. Mark remembers the stories of these miracles to teach his church that going “to the other side” into the world is a dangerous, unpredictable, stormy journey—but absolutely necessary!
So why do disciples cross the lake? To get to the other side!
What’s on the other side is a world filled with unclean spirits and unclean things (once, after Jesus crossed the lake, he cast demons out of a man and into a herd of swine) or filled with people from faraway places (another time Jesus took the disciples to the Roman garrison called the Deacapolis). In Mark, the lake is the boundary between the Jewish church and the Gentile world. And I think that it is also an image of baptism. It is the boundary between the old world and the new. It is the boundary between our safe, familiar place and God’s kingdom, where miraculous and powerful things happen that transform and make holy the world.
So why do Jesus and his disciples cross the big lake? And why do we enter the waters of baptism? Why, to get to the other side!
The only way to go and do the work of Jesus is to cross the lake, and that means confronting the storms along the way. Jesus has power over these storms, but the disciples must weather them.
There are two kinds of storms we confront: the storms we cannot control. And the storms that happen inside us.
Storms go on within us. In the text, the disciples shake Jesus awake and say “don’t you care that we are all about to die?!” Their fear has to do with external things—wind and rain and staying afloat. But Jesus speaks to the fear inside the heart and the mind and the spirit. It is normal for people to worry and feel anxious. Jesus calms those storms.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the terrible news of the murder of nine people at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. There is so much we have to learn and deal with as a nation and as a church in both this violence and the sin of racism that is so deeply embedded in our culture. Over and over again, one of the ways that the embedded racism shows up in America is when the churches of black folk are burned, bombed, or desecrated. At the same time, there is something that we can learn from the Martyrs of Charleston: The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton Doctor, The Rev. Daniel Simmons, and Myra Thompson.
Accordingto the New York Times, and other news reports, it appears that after a church meeting, some folks stayed behind to study the Gospel lesson for this past Sunday and pray. A young white man came to the door and asked to see the pastor. They invited him to stay. After an hour, he pulled a gun and killed nine of the people present including the pastor.
Think about this: These folks invited him in. When he first talked of violence and when he pulled out his weapon, they tried to talk him down from his violence. When that failed, they tried to protect each other, one man shielding his aunt with his own body.
But that’s not all. After the killings, the shooter fled and was arrested in North Carolina. At his arraignment back in Charleston, the survivors of the shootings and the relatives appeared before the judge and the accused and forgave Dylann Roof.
“You took something very precious away from me,” Nadine Collier, daughter of 70­ year-­old Ethel Lance, told Roof. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” And she was not alone. The New York Times said, “It was as if the Bible study had never ended as one after another, victims’ family members offered lessons in forgiveness, testaments to a faith that is not compromised by violence or grief. They urged him to repent, confess his sins and turn to God.”
Look closely at the witness of this Christian community. They welcomed, engaged, and afterwards forgave the killer. Roof repeatedly talked about race-hatred and fear. The folks at Emmanuel AME Church talked about Jesus. And at the moment of decision, they lived and acted out the teachings of Jesus. In the moment of decision, they demonstrated that Jesus is with them in the storm and that how we cross the lake, how we weather the storm, is just as miraculous and life-changing as what comes on the other side.
Look up. Would you please? See those ribs and beams. Does it remind you of something? This church, like many others, is built to be reminiscent of the inside of a boat. Imagine we are sitting underneath an upside down boat. (I sometimes imagine that we gather, by the side of our lake, next to an upturned boat, gathered around our Risen Lord while he serves breakfast!)
Now look around you. We who sit in this nave—the root word for this room is the same as the root word for “navy”—are people who have crossed the waters of baptism are daily crossing from our world of waste, hatred, violence and sin, into God’s kingdom of love, justice, and perfect community. We don’t have to go very far to find people in need, to find people in need of healing, to find people different than ourselves. The people Jesus sends us to are right next door, at work, at school, right around the corner…they may even be right here sitting next to you. And the storms haven’t gone away either. We would like to have the little ship we sit in protect us from the storms and be a shelter from the storms we face every day.
But a boat is not designed to merely protect us from the storm—even modern cruise ships, container ships and naval vessels with all the hi-tech stabilizers in the world can’t stop the storm!  No, ships are meant to convey us through the storm.  
This nave—this ship, this vessel that houses the God’s gathered people—conveys us through the storm.  And Jesus is with us throughout the voyage.

So why did the disciples cross the big lake in the little boat? To get to the other side! And…more than that… because Jesus told them to! It's time to cross the lake!