Saturday Night Theologian
19 July 2009

Jeremiah 23:1-6a

At its general convention in Anaheim this week, the Episcopal Church of the United States lifted a moratorium on ordaining openly gay men and women as priests and bishops. The moratorium had been imposed earlier in the decade, following the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop. Some churches in the worldwide Anglican communion had opposed Robinson's ordination as contrary to the scriptural teaching regarding homosexuality, and several parishes and dioceses within the Episcopal Church had objected as well. Over the past few years, however, several things have changed. First, the attitude toward homosexuality within the U.S.--for example, as reflected in nationwide views concerning gay marriage--has changed. Second, ongoing dialog between the Episcopal Church and representatives of more conservative members of the Anglican communion has failed to yield a consensus position on the subject. Third and perhaps most importantly, many of those within the Episcopal Church who were most opposed to accepting gays and lesbians as fully equal before God have left the Episcopal and attached themselves to more conservative Anglican bodies in Africa or Latin America, leaving the field to the more liberal elements of the Episcopal Church. What will be the implications of this move? Undoubtedly the Episcopal Church will lose some additional parishes and perhaps dioceses, but probably most groups that were going to leave have already done so. Second, other U.S. denominations such as the Lutherans (ELCA) and Presbyterians (PCUSA) may move to be more inclusive of homosexuals. Third, other Anglican communions, particularly in Europe, may take steps in the direction of more inclusiveness. Fourth, the GLBT community may view the Episcopal Church more positively and see it as a place of spiritual acceptance and support. In today's reading from Jeremiah, the prophet rails against shepherds who have scattered God's flock. "Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD." God, says the prophet, will raise up new shepherds to comfort, feed, and protect God's flock. All too often the church has waged war on itself and on those it should have been nurturing. As a result the church is fragmented, and people without a church home sometimes view it as irrelevant, or worse, antagonistic toward them. Fortunately, that's not the whole story. Ecumenism is a dominant movement within today's church, an attempt to invite dialog and cooperation among the various self-identified Christian groups. Since the start of the ecumenical movement about a hundred years ago, increasing numbers of Christians have begun to realize that the beliefs and practices that they have in common is more important than those that divide them. They've also started to see that love for one another, despite honestly held differences, is conducive to church growth, not only numerically but also spiritually. God calls us to be shepherds who unite the church and who gather the scattered flock together, especially those who have been told for years that they cannot fully participate in the life of the church.

Psalm 23 (first published 20 July 2003)

My earliest memory of the Twenty-Third Psalm is as a passage read at my grandfather's funeral when I was seven years old. When we arrived at the graveyard, I discovered that the first part of the psalm was carved on his headstone: "The Lord is my shepherd." That funeral was my first experience with death, and it was both frightening and sad. Somehow, though, the words of the psalm brought a little bit of comfort. My experience with the Twenty-Third Psalm is hardly unique. Countless people throughout the centuries have found encouragement by reading or hearing this, perhaps the most famous of biblical passages. James Sanders, in his book Canon and Community, discusses the reasons for a book being accepted by a worshiping community as part of its canon. One of the most important factors in that process involves the concept of relecture, or re-reading. Books that lend themselves to being "re-read" in different settings over a long period of time are more likely to become canonical than those whose perceived value is limited in time or space. The psalms in general fit well into that category, and Psalm 23 in particular has offered people comfort and hope in many different settings. Throughout our lives we have many people who act as our "shepherds": parents, school teachers, Sunday School teachers, pastors (so-called from the Latin word for shepherd), camp counselors, bosses, government leaders, and others. Some of these shepherds are good leaders, and others leave much to be desired. We develop our own leadership skills by observing and imitating--or avoiding--the characteristics of those who lead us. The psalm reminds us that God is the best kind of leader, because like a good shepherd, God cares deeply about his sheep. What are the characteristics of the shepherd in this psalm? The shepherd creates a peaceful environment for the sheep and provides for their needs. He offers refreshment and guidance. He protects and comforts the sheep. When we have the opportunity to lead others, in whatever capacity, Psalm 23 offers a portrait of an effective leader. Too many people today seek leadership positions for the wrong reasons. Some are in it for the money; others seem to enjoy exercising their authority over other people. Some leaders have good intentions, but they just don't care that much about the people they lead. Obviously parents will feel closer to their children than employers will to their employees, but good employers will have real concern for their employees. CEOs whose only concern is to satisfy the stockholders and line their own pockets are not good leaders. Politicians who gain office and then spend their time paying back political contributors are not good leaders. Parents who push their children to excel in their own (the parents') areas of interest are not good leaders. On the other hand, managers who show those they supervise that they value and listen to their advice are good leaders. Political leaders who support causes that benefit the world's neediest people, even if it costs them votes, are good leaders. Parents who teach their children how to make decisions as they grow up, then don't interfere with their adult children's decisions unless asked, are good leaders. What kind of leader are you?

Ephesians 2:11-22 (first published 20 July 2003)

Blacks and whites in America and South Africa, Israelis and Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis, Hutus and Tutsis, Bosnian Serbs and Muslims, Russians and Chechens--the history of the world is filled with hatred and conflict of one group of people for another. The original reasons for the hatred are often buried deep in the past, far beyond living memory. Yet the hatred lives on, sometimes for centuries. On those rare occasions when one set of conflicts is resolved or set aside, it seems that another is always ready to rise to take its place. In nineteenth century America, people whose families had lived in the U.S. for generations looked down their noses at the recently arrived Irish and Italian immigrants. Now that the Irish and the Italians have finally been fully integrated into society, this new group now focuses its hatred and xenophobia on Hispanics, Arabs, and South Asians. Perhaps the saddest part of this debacle is that, at least in many parts of the world, Christians are often participants in the antagonism between one group and another. The first century relationship between Jews and Gentiles was as poor as any the modern world can boast, but the book of Ephesians offers hope that humanity can move beyond its differences, it prejudices, and its hard feelings over events of the often forgotten past. That hope lies in Christ, who modeled reconciliation before his disciples and the world during his lifetime. And in his death, he effected reconciliation not only between groups, but between all people and God. Christ is portrayed as a peace-offering to God, one that is able to break down all the barriers that humans raise between themselves. Christ is our peace, not our truce. During the Hundred Years War, England and France would frequently declare a truce for a month or two, allowing each side to rest and regroup in preparation for fresh slaughter. Christ is our peace, not our armistice. The armistice at the end of World War I signaled a cessation of fighting, but it did nothing to ensure that fighting would not break our again. On the contrary, despite the efforts to form a League of Nations, the political situation in Europe only worsened, and fascism took root in Germany and Italy, leading to World War II. Christ is our peace, not our ceasefire. The Korean War ended with a ceasefire that still stands uneasily today. The ceasefire is maintained by tens of thousands of troops on both sides of the demilitarized zone, and violations of the ceasefire occur on a regular basis. The peace that Christ offers is real, deep, and permanent. As followers of Christ, Christians should make every effort to bring about peace by encouraging reconciliation between individuals, groups, and nations. Groups like Reconciliation Networks of Our World are doing just that: bringing people together to forgive and receive forgiveness, pledging to work together to end war and injustice. Unfortunately, for every Christian who is working for peace, it seems there are a hundred supporting conflict, hatred, even war. Waging war is quick and easy; waging peace is slow and time-consuming. Nevertheless, it is what Christians are called to do. How can you wage peace? Invite someone from a different culture or who speaks a different language into your home, and visit theirs as well. Get to know them and you will realize that you have more in common with them than you thought. Encourage your church to partner with a church with a different ethnic background in your own city. Have pulpit exchanges. Have joint worship services, sometimes in your church, sometimes in theirs. Get involved with organizations that work for peace and reconciliation. Donate money, and donate your time as well. Christ broke down the walls that separated us from one another and from God, but his followers have rebuilt many of those walls. It's time for us to tear down all those walls. It's time for us to wage peace.

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 (first published 20 July 2003)

When I was growing up, I often went on youth retreats with my church. These retreats were highly regulated affairs. For a weekend retreat, we'd arrive around 8:00 Friday night, unpack, eat supper, and have a Bible study before bed. We woke up early the next morning, had a brief morning devotional before breakfast, followed by worship, an intensive Bible study, organized recreation, and lunch. In the afternoon we had more recreation, more Bible study, and half an hour of free time before we had to go back home. I'd return home exhausted. Most of the adult retreats I've been on with various churches have been about the same. Somewhere along the line, many Christians have forgotten that the purpose of a retreat is to rest, relax, and spend time with God. It's certainly possible to meet God in worship and Bible study, and even in recreation, but it's not the only way. In fact, it may not be the best way. In my own experience, I've had more deep encounters with God when I was by myself than when I was with a group. I don't need someone to plan out my entire day in order to orchestrate a meeting with God, and I didn't when I was a teenager, either. Jesus understood the need for quiet, the need to separate himself and his group of followers from other people for periods of rest and refreshing. We don't know everything Jesus and his followers did on their retreats, but it's interesting to see what Jesus didn't say. He didn't say, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and study the Bible," or "Come away . . . and let's worship God for hours." He said, "Come away . . . and rest for awhile." We have many opportunities to serve people, and we should do so whenever we get the chance. However, our service will be more effective if we will take time to rest and recharge our batteries. What would an ideal weekend retreat be for me? Arriving at the retreat center, having the choice to eat meals with others or alone, determining when I went to sleep and got up, walking, reading, sitting, praying, singing, as the Spirit led. I see real value in church staff retreats, marriage retreats, deacons retreats, choir retreats, and other "working retreats," but they should really be called sometime else. A "working retreat" is an oxymoron. A retreat is for rest, not work. For most people, it will be about solitude, or perhaps spending time as a couple, not group dynamics. However, terms like "staff retreat" are probably too firmly fixed in a church's vocabulary to be changed easily, so we probably need to come up with another word for the kind of retreat that is characterized by rest and unstructured time alone and with God. I have a word in mind. When I was in Boy Scouts, after I had been a member for quite a while and had advanced in rank and responsibility, I was inducted into a group called the Order of the Arrow, a service organization. Part of the initiation ceremony involved all of the new inductees going into the woods, a little ways away from the main campground, and spending at least an hour alone in silent contemplation. This period of quite reflection was called the vigil. It harkens back to the medieval Christian practice of observing holy days with special, personal times with God, also called a vigil. Christians about to embark on a difficult journey, or people facing a hard decision, would often engage in a vigil as well. In 1982 Kemper Crabb produced an album called The Vigil (a great album, now available in CD), and the songs on it were based on the theme of a knight spending time with God before beginning a quest the next day. To become healthier Christians, we need fewer "retreats" and more vigils.