Archive for July, 2012

“This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel. . .”

ImageFor the past two weeks, I have lived in two different worlds. As many of you know, I have been an Alternate Deputy from the Diocese of Washington at the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis. For the past ten days, I have been immersed in what one person referred to as “a worshiping community that also does some legislation.” Daily morning Holy Eucharists were rich and diverse. They plunged us deeply into the most ancient and modern of Christian traditions and music among Anglo, Latino, Asian and Native American peoples. Days were packed: very early morning committee meetings, long stretches of legislative sessions, fast-paced lunches, late-night deputation meetings.

The other world in which I lived for the past two weeks is the one of the prophet Amos. Amos lived in the eighth century BCE. He was, by his own words, a herdsman and an agriculturalist—one who tended fig-bearing trees. He did not decide to become a prophet. That was God’s idea. So Amos found himself called by God to proclaim God’s words of judgment against God’s own people.

As I have sat in the House of Deputies—a room about the size of a football field, I have listened to diverse voices within the Episcopal Church. I have also heard Amos’ words in my heart and wondered where these voices intersect. In other words, does Amos, an Old Testament prophet, have a word to speak to the Church today?

ImageA plumb line—both in the ancient world and today—is a simple device used by contractors. It ensures that when they build a wall, that wall will be straight and true. Yet Amos’ use of a plumb line in today’s reading is a little different. In Amos’ vision, the Lord stands beside a wall holding a plumb line. However, the wall has already been built with a plumb line. The wall is not what is misaligned. The people are. God is saying to God’s people that somewhere along the way, religious and political institutions have taken on attitudes and policies that are not what God intended.

Now I must digress a moment to say that contemporary scholars differ about whether the original Hebrew words in this passage mean “plumb line” or “wall of tin.” Why? “The Hebrew word ‘anak appears only here in the Old Testament. It appears to be related to the Akkadian word for ‘tin.’”[1] The plumb line analogy began in the medieval era. If one uses the “tin” symbol—tin being a thin, pliable, weak metal—then a military invasion would easily destroy the weak, pliable, soft people of God.

Regardless of the interpretation, it is clear that God is unhappy with the way God’s people are living. They have become caught up in their institutional power and policy, their “prosperity and prestige.”[2] Over time, too many of God’s people have stopped caring about what happens to the poor, the sick, those who live on the margins of society. Amos preaches truth to power. This truth—as is usually the case—is not received well.

Amaziah is the priest of Bethel. He symbolizes institutional Church power. Institutional power—whether political, economic or ecclesial—likes to hold and wield power. People in high places in the government, corporate offices or the church do not respond well to Twitter-led revolutions, Occupy Movements or people who want to re-imagine how the Church operates in a 21st century world.

The first thing Amaziah does is to discredit the prophet. The symbol of eighth century religious power sends a letter to the symbol of political power. “Dear Mr. President: this man named Amos is a threat to our homeland security. He isn’t well educated or well credentialed. Besides, he speaks out against both the government and the church. He insists that we are all in danger. That some foreign power is going to come rolling through our country and destroy our political, economic and religious structures. He insists we will lose our dearly-loved way of making policy and liturgies. But don’t worry. My people are on this. We will send him and his big mouth back to Judah. Sincerely yours, Amaziah.”

Amaziah calls Amos a “seer” and orders him to take his little doom and gloom message back to Judah. He orders Amos to “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” In other words, we don’t want the status quo to be disturbed by truth spoken to power. We want to continue to do things the way they have always been done—even if we shrivel up and die from the inside out. Even if the people who really matter to God get neglected or pushed aside. Even if those in the world outside church doors see absolutely no connection with our liturgies and their lives.

Amos is not cowed. He knows who he is. It wasn’t his idea to be a prophet. He had another vocation. But God has put God’s words into Amos’ heart and mouth, so Amos will obey and prophesy to God’s people—whether his words are well received or not. Amos will speak truth to power. He knows that God will not give up on God’s people, that they can re-align themselves with God’s dream of humankind. The path may be messy and at times unclear. People may get their feelings hurt. Some may feel left behind by the political, corporate or religious structures they have held so dear. Yet God will be present and faithful to God’s people—in the eighth century and in the twenty-first century CE.

In the past two weeks, it has been clear to me that God is present and faithful, at a time when the Church—especially the Episcopal Church—is poised at the edge of a new vision for God’s people. A vision that re-aligns us with how God has called us to live. A vision that gives us guidance for our lives of faith. In the words of one preacher I heard last week) our question should not be “What would Jesus do?” Rather, we must ask the question  “What DID Jesus do?”

The Two Great Commandments, a distillation of the Ten, call us to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Today’s prophets call us to re-define just who our neighbor is. In the past two weeks, I have heard and seen the powerful vision of what God’s Church can do—if we will listen to God and re-align ourselves with God’s dream.

ImageWhat have I heard and seen? The Episcopal Church supports bi-partisan legislation like the Dream Act—which would enable high school students of immigrant families to find a pathway for citizenship, as well as a college education. The Episcopal Church supports youth and young adults—a number of whom were part of the official Youth Presence at Convention, whose prophetic voices were heard clearly, challenging us to include them in real and present ways in the Church.

Both the House of Deputies and House of Bishops in the Episcopal Church support a new Task Force that will restructure how the Church does business. The Episcopal Church supports transgendered persons by Imagesaying that those who seek Holy Orders will be welcomed just as any other persons. The Episcopal Church supports mission—giving special emphasis during Convention to financial support for our struggling brothers and sisters in Southern Sudan, Brazil, and Haiti. The Episcopal Church supports gay and lesbian people whose voices have sounded prophetically for years.

At this convention, our church approved a theologically sound, prayerful and faithful liturgical rite for same-gender, committed relationships.Image

What do you suppose the eighth century prophet Amos would say to the Episcopal Church’s contemporary prophets? What do you suppose he would think about our efforts to re-align institutional structures—political, economic and religious—with God’s dream for the world? Somehow I think Amos would say, “Good work, people of God! Yes, only God knows what the future holds. Yes, the way ahead is messy and uncertain. Yes, God is present and faithful to God’s people. Keep listening to God. Keep watching God. With God’s vision, you will become God’s plumb line. You will be changed. The Church will be changed. The nation will be changed. The world will be changed. Then may God’s holy name be praised. Amen.

© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton

Pictures accessed at Google images.

[1] David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol.3, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 219-221.

[2] Ibid, 223.

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I am in Indianapolis at General Convention, as an Alternate Deputy for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. This is not my first GC adventure; the first was the historic 2003 GC when +Gene Robinson was approved to be consecrated as Bishop of New Hampshire. But this is my first GC adventure with this particular deputation. I am honored to be here with such a fine group of people. Prior to Convention, the deputation had met four times to prepare well, discussing issues that would likely arise and deciding to pay attention to particular ones. Now, during GC, we all often gather for meals (save for a couple of us who seem to be meeting non-stop in big committees like PB & F, the one dealing with financial and budget issues) and every evening, our bishop and deputation meet to de-brief about the day.

We have started the first two days of Convention with Holy Eucharist. As we gather to sing, to pray, and to worship, I watch people go forward to receive communion and marvel at the great diversity of the Church. This morning, one of the readings was done in the Hmong language–a primarily oral East Asian language. The Hmong people have been persecuted. Yet they continue to have courage and faith, and there is a large church of Hmong expatriates here in the US. This morning, as we got to the Lord’s Prayer, the Celebrant invited us all to say that prayer in our own language.  After we finished, we could hear, from the far corner of the room, the sound of a group of people singing. I do not know this for sure, but I think it was some Hmong brothers and sisters singing the Lord’s Prayer. Whoever was singing, and in whatever language, it sounded like something holy and incredibly beautiful. Despite my inability to know, I resonated with it deep in my soul and it brought unexpected tears to my eyes.

Later, in a legislative session, two young people addressed the Convention about the need to continue to fund Episcopal Youth events. One of them, a young Latina, said this: “Youth events have taught me to speak up, even when my voice trembles.” She then talked about how the youth may be the future of the Church but they are making a difference NOW.  While I agree that they are making a difference now, I also believe–and have for years–that youth and children are not the future of the Church. They are the present of the Church. The now in the Church. And as I watch young people come to the microphones and find their voices to support particular pieces of legislation, my heart sings.

I am aware that there are many people throughout the world who are learning to speak up–even when their voices tremble. I pray that not only will they find their voices, but that we will have the ears to hear what they have to say.

On a lighter note, I found St. Mary Magdalene today. She was striking a pose in Forward Day by Day booth at GC. St. Philippians, we will be doing Lenten Madness next year! Already got some score cards!!!

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Ordination to the Priesthood of Ginny Wilder

Trinity/Old Swedes Parish,Wilmington,DE   June 30, 2012

Readings:  Isaiah 6:1-8   Psalm 67   Romans 12:6-13  Mark 10:24-45

Servants Who Are Shaped by the Holiness of God 

Many years ago, my brother, sister and I visited our father in Raleigh, NC. By then, Daddy’s Altzheimer’s disease had progressed to the point where he was in a special care unit, eating his meals in a large dining hall. On this particular day, we were finishing our lunch when another resident began to look around with great worry. Finally, my sister said “What’s the matter, Miss Emma?” The elderly woman responded, “But. . .but. . but my dear, who is going to dismiss the servants?” Without missing a beat, my sister said, “Oh, Miss Emma, you can do that if you want to.” So Miss Emma stood up, waved her arms grandly and announced loudly, “You are all dismissed!”

Of course no one—residents, guests or staff—paid her the least bit of attention. Clearly, this tall elegant woman had, at one point in her life, possessed enough money and power to have servants to her bidding. In perhaps what was cruel irony, she now lived in an Altzheimer’s unit where she could no longer even take care of her own basic needs.

Every time one of my colleagues or friends is ordained to the vocation of deacon, priest or bishop, I think about Miss Emma in two ways. First, I believe that every person whom God calls to the ordained ministry is a deacon forever. So whether we are deacon, priest or bishop, we have no integrity if we forget that Jesus calls us to serve, not to be served. Miss Emma has stayed with me in a second way. At the end of every ordination service, I always want whomever dismisses us to wave their arms grandly and announce loudly , “You are all dismissed!” As people baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are all called to serve, not to be served. “We are all dismissed—to love and serve the Lord!” That should remind us where real ministry is supposed to take place—out there in the world, beyond any set of church doors.

A particular challenge of ordained ministry, however, is that very fact that we are called to serve, not to be served. Newly minted deacons begin their ministries excited, fresh, full of ideas, eager to use all that knowledge they have acquired in a crucible of three years in seminary. About six months later, a glowing priest changes the way she wears her stole. She is empowered “to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessings, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s body and blood.”[1] Oh, and one more thing: “. . .to perform the other ministrations entrusted to you.”[2]

Sometimes, it is that last phrase that sticks out its foot to trip priests and bishops. One minute, we’re running the race with strength and patience. Then, without warning, we feel as if we are slogging through mud and can hardly walk—much less run. Suddenly, we find ourselves either face down on the track, flattened either by misstep or exhaustion, or by too many of those “other ministrations.” So if we are called to serve others, what must we do to nurture, nourish and strengthen ourselves in order to serve God’s people after year after year?

Of course, this problem is not limited to the ordained. Throughout the years, I have known many fine lay people whose ministries have strengthened, sustained and supported the Church. Yet when those folks do not invite or engage others to help, or when they do not hand over a long-standing ministry to someone else and take a much-needed break, they can easily become a martyr for Jesus. Sometimes the wreckage is not pretty.

Clergy are no less susceptible to this kind of misdirected service. The majority of us are really good at responding to others’ needs, yet when it comes to feeding, nourishing, taking care of ourselves? No. (I speak from some experience here, Ginny.) We must remind ourselves—or, for some of us—be reminded by people who love us—to rest, to reflect, to be in the presence of the Holy One who has called us to ministry. We must remember what that call from God originally looked like, sounded like, felt like. Did that call to vocational ministry happen in a holy place like it did for the prophet Isaiah? Did it happen in a moment when we could no longer run from the God who had created us, redeemed us, sustained us, and now calls us to a different kind of ministry? Or a moment that split open our souls, revealing the great truth that God is God—and we are not. In a holy moment of truth, in which we know that it is only God’s gracious action that calls us. God opens our ears to hear “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” God opens our mouths to utter words we may never have thought we would say: “Here am I; send me!”

Yes, the call to serve others as deacon, priest or bishop is experienced in a variety of ways. Yet whatever that call looks like, it must be centered in the holiness and love of God. If our calls to ministry do not continue—throughout the years—to be grounded in the spiritual practices which nourish and strengthen us, our bodies and our spirits will trip us up. We will find ourselves spent, sprawled out face down on the track.

So we must follow our most perfect model of spiritual and physical nourishment: Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus withdrew frequently from the crowds and his disciples to be in the presence of God—to pray, to reflect, to listen, to rest. Yes, Jesus gave of himself to others. Yes, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Yet in order to meet the exhausting demands of ministry, Jesus nurtured his own body and soul as best he could. Jesus also took the time to nurture and teach his disciples. He corrected their false illusions about power. He modeled how to do ministry—not individually, but in pairs. He showed them how to offer what they had, to rely upon God to multiply out of God’s abundance. He showed them how to die so that they could truly live. Then, through his gift of the Holy Spirit, he empowered them to do God’s work in the Church and the world.

In a very real sense, Jesus formed disciples in a way that Brian McLaren describes “as an artist forms a work of art—or better, disciples are formed as an artist himself is formed.”[3] In other words, Jesus modeled the practice of a holy life      by his own example, then sent the disciples out into the world to teach that way to others. So it has been for over two thousand years.

In his book Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, Brian McLaren writes about practices by which we experience the holy, transforming presence of God. Whether we are ordained by baptism or into holy orders, these seven spiritual practices can ground us in the way that they ground Jesus. “Pilgrimage, fasting, sacred meal, common prayer, giving, Sabbath, and liturgical year—these ancient practices have formed people of Abrahamic faith through many centuries.”[4] The practice of such spiritual disciplines reminds us, day by day, year after year, of the importance of centering our ministries in God, not in ourselves.

Only when we commit to such practices which empower us—laity, deacons, priests and bishops—will we be able to take the last place at table, not the first. Only then will we kneel and wash others’ feet. Only then will we pay attention to those who have no power, no prestige,nothing to give us. And then, only then, will we show—not only with our lips, but with our lives—the holiness and transforming love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. For those who have ears to hear, let them hear. Amen.

© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] From “The Ordination of a Priest” in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, 531.

[2] Ibid., 531.

[3] Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2008), 36.

[4] Ibid, 28.

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