Friday, July 20, 2007

Constitution and Canons and Justice in the Church

After watching the events of the trial of Fr. David Bollinger, I am both relieved and disappointed in the reality of the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church in governing our Church. It is the first time I have seen the ecclesiastical process of justice in action. In fact I believe that it was the first time that anyone in that ecclesial courtroom had ever been there before. The novelty of it all made the progress of the trial a bit unwieldy at first, but the Court handled the issues well, with solemnity and seriousness. This was no TV drama. In fact, no witnesses were called and no evidence allowed to be presented because the Diocese did not provide the requisite materials and lists of witness for the pre-trial discovery in a manner that would have provided fairness to both sides. In other words the Diocese did not play by the rules of basic juridical fairness in preparing for the trial.

It was in the clear sense of duty by the judges of the Court to see to it that the trial was going to be fair that chief judge, Carter Strickland made it clear that the Court was not going to cut any slack for the Diocese or the Bishop. The failure of the Diocese to be prepared for the trial when it had brought the charges and after three years of waiting was not going to be tolerated by the Court. Also it was clear that the Court “took umbrage” at the attempt by Bishop Adams to have the trial moved to another jurisdiction. That attempt was vetoed by the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Central New York. I must admit I was relieved because there was considerable talk out and about in the diocese whether David could get a fair trial because the bishop had spent so much political cache on it.

In any case, Bishop Adam’s reputation is severely tarnished by not only bringing the charges, but also by the actions of the legal team under his direction. The attempt to move the trial to another jurisdiction when items for discovery were ordered by the court was not a wise move on his part. The failure to provide the proper information in the discovery portion of the legal proceedings, the refusal to provide the Shafer Report when ordered by the Court, and continual delay in the proceedings have shown a propensity of our Diocesan to not provide for the appropriate climate of fairness for the clergy and laity of the Diocese.

In addition, the Diocese, which is responsible for equitable justice, refused to pay for the legal counsel for Fr. Bollinger. Fr. Bollinger had been forced to file for bankruptcy in January due to the loss of salary, loss of health benefits and the loss of standing in the Owego community in which he tried to gain employment in the time before the Court convened. He was unable to secure legal counsel to help defend him even though the Diocese secured a separate firm to lead the prosecution. It is incumbent upon the Church to be above reproach when it can so easily ruin a person’s reputation without ever resolving the issue. It is also incumbent for such proceedings, accusations and evidence to be manifestly available to the public, for it is the Light of Christ that we wish to shine down on such proceedings. As Church, we must be willing to undergo the perusal of the whole community so that we are not seen as hiding or obfuscating the facts. The recent history of churches to do that demands that we be more than open about legal proceedings in which we are involved.

One of the things that attracted me to the Episcopal Church was that all persons, laity, clergy and bishops had access to the power structure of the Church. What I have seen is that the structures that once held great checks and balances on power have been eroded in the revisions of the disciplinary canons of Title IV. Clergy are quite vulnerable in the present day. There are those who would see the Constitution and Canons as an alternative to the basic rights afforded us as citizens of the nations in which we live. I do not remember my Canon Law professor ever telling me that I gave up my rights as a citizen of the United States when I was ordained. Yet we have bishops who will tell us that Canon Law is like the Military Code of Justice. That was certainly not the intention of the founders of the Episcopal Church. Those rights to a fair and speedy trial are as much ours as clergy as it is for any citizen. For as Dr. Martin Luther King said: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

We are not above the law in the Church. We must be, however, absolutely willing to call forth from ourselves, as Church, a way of living and doing business that gives no hint of malice, obfuscation, or sloth in the face of equality. To be anything else tarnishes the Gospel for which we are gathered and formed. But I was gratified that even the canons leave something to be desired and Diocesan authority left something to be desired, the sense of fairness was embodied in the judges, both clergy and lay.

The Epicopal Church has been under much pressure over the past 4 years, pressure that seems unfair and hurtful. But what is still evident is that it is the people in the Church that still make us hope. The faith in Jesus Christ still abides among us, and it matters not who assumes authority among us, it is the Incarnation of Christ that rights the wrongs of life. Thanks be to God.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

What are we here for?

July 8, 2007
Sermon Pentecost 6C

Part of the work of a parish looking for a new pastor is to look hard at itself to evaluate its ministry and mission. It can be a time of introspection, and rightly so. Often during the time of the previous pastor, there are elements of the ministry of a parish that emerge that can only be addressed during an interim. But it can also be a time of navel gazing—of turning inward because that is comfortable and familiar. The interim can be a time of clinging to what is familiar rather than preparing for the newness that will come in the new pastor.

Today’s readings give us an opportunity to look beyond ourselves. They jar us from our comfort to gaze at mission. I am sure that our gospel reading jarred those who followed Jesus too. Jesus appoints seventy to send out to teach and preach, heal and cast out demons. He sent them out to do the things that he did. And to everyone’s surprise, and to them themselves, they accomplished that for which they were sent.

Prior to this, Jesus had healed, cast out demons, and taught about the coming kingdom. But now it was the disciples turn. No longer were they to be disciples. Dicipulos is the word for one who learns. But they were to be called apostulos—those who were sent. It is at this point we realize that we should not rely totally on the message of the 12 apostles. Numbers in Jesus’ day had symbolic meaning. The 12 apostles were to stand for ministry to the 12 tribes of Israel—those who had been lost during the diaspora of the 5th century BC. It had always been assumed that the Messiah would return and bring with him the lost tribes of Judah that had been displaced during the Babylonian Captivity.

But to send out Seventy apostles meant that Jesus was sending his followers out to the Nations. In Genesis there is a statement that there are 70 nations in the world and for Jesus to send out 70 meant that the message, the good news that God was the God of the entire world was to be spread over all the earth. No longer was the faith of Israel limited to the ethnically Jewish. No longer was the faith of Israel limited to those who practiced the customs of the Laws of Moses. The faith in one true God was to be celebrated and lived by the entire world.

The message of Jesus was that God is in charge. God is a loving figure that embraces all humanity. It was this message, this good news that the apostles were sent out to share. And it was through this message that people knew freedom, were healed of illness, were returned to their right mind and knew joy. Those who had followed Jesus went out and shared the peace that Jesus had taught them. They returned awed by the authority that he had bestowed upon them to do the work they participated in.

It is this message that each and every one of us has received. The people of Redeemer Church have not been gathered together just to feel comfortable with one another. We have been called together to be about taking this message out, we are all called to teach that which we have learned of Jesus’ message to others. Even in our search for a new pastor, we cannot wait to be about this mission of Christ. It is all too easy to say, “We should wait until our new pastor comes before we take the message to others.” No, what makes a parish attractive to a new cleric is that there is already ministry by the congregation going on.

Now I know I am preaching to the summer folk—to those who don’t take a vacation from church during the summer. I know it is not the time to try to set up new directions for the parish in July. But I would like to suggest to you that today’s readings call us to look hard at the mission and ministry of our congregation in the light of our baptismal vows. It is the work of the parish to go out—not just sit in our church. It is the mission of Christianity to take the message of hope and joy to others.
But first we must be willing to recognize that the mission is hopeful, the mission is joyful. During an interim it is easy to forget why we come. We are often overwhelmed with running the church by ourselves that we forget the joy that brings us to be disciples of Christ. This not a time when we can allow ourselves to be distracted from the fundamentals of our faith—the realization that our salvation is based upon the wideness of God’s mercy and that we are embraced by the love of God no matter what we have done or are going to do in our lives. The faithfulness of God is ours for all time.

If we dwell on anything we must be willing to dwell on God’s faithfulness to us and that faithfulness calls forth from us the gratitude that manifests itself in our sharing that faith with others. During an interim it is so easy to get lost in the maintenance of just keeping on. But this passage reminds us that we have a much richer and fuller mission during the interim. We are called to proclaim in how we live and how we share our congregation with others. It is not enough just to come on Sunday and do the custodial things of keeping the church open. The ministry beyond the parish is the work of the disciples of God too. What is happening about how you teach others about your congregation? How are you reaching out to others by sharing God’s word with them? Are you transmitting your hopefulness to others about God’s being in charge of you life? Are you even hopeful about the future of this parish and about being a member of this congregation? These are all questions that you need to be asking yourselves, not in an accusatory way, but in an important and transparent way so that you can be clear on what you wish to share with the Nations—with the world out there that needs to hear of God’s loving care.

The most important thing that a congregation needs to learn during the interim is what its mission is. It is so important for all of you to look not at what you need to sustain yourselves, but what you need to go out to the people in this area of the city and serve them. What is special about this congregation? What is significant about all of you together that you have to offer the mission of Christ? What are the unique gifts that you have among you that help those who have not heard of the love of Jesus know Him? It is not about ministering to yourselves, it is about what you are going to preach to the Nations. And if you have ever spent anytime looking at the people who walk up and down Main Street, you will know that the Nations are on our door step.

How are we supposed to do that? Jesus told his followers several ways to meet people. He said do not get stuck with those who will not listen. He says to share the peace with one another. Share each others hospitality. We are to go about like lambs amidst the wolves—not with a kind of naïveté that will get you killed--but with the sure confidence that God’s peace reigns. For remember what the signs of the kingdom of God were? The wolf and the lamb will lie down with one another.

Peace is the sign of what we do in our Christian lives. It is the message that Jesus was trying to get across to the people of God. When we are willing to have confidence in God’s peace, the people will listen. They will come; they will know the power of God in their lives. The real question is whether we are living and teaching this peace. The real question is whether we are sharing this peace with others.

Today’s readings, in my mind are essential to the future and hope of this congregation. I believe that they are essential to the future and hope of all congregations: Are we preaching and teaching the hope that God holds for all the peoples of the world. Are we willing to live this hope and peace and are we willing to share it with others as they come to know Christ by our outreach? This not just the question just for Redeemer; it is the question that faces all Christians and for all who find God in their lives. We need but look at the crises in the world today to know that we need to know this hope and peace and share it. But it must start here. It must start within our hearts and out our front door for it to have any validity in Iraq, Darfur, Pakistan, India, Brazil or even on our town councils. It must start here.

Are you ready to address the mission and ministry of this parish? Are you ready to evaluate your own personal mission of hope and peace? Those are the questions that face us in the light of today’s readings. And we may not ignore them. AMEN