Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The Bible and the Church are Not Political Props


He said to them, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”

It is tricky for a bishop to wade too deeply into political waters. This is not because the Bible and Christianity have nothing to say about things usually considered political. They clearly do – care for the poor and vulnerable, peace-making, reconciliation, justice, the cherishing of life and its flourishing, and more are key themes of the Bible. Each has political implications. In the Episcopal Church we regularly pray “for those who work for justice, freedom, and peace”. In Morning Prayer, we pray
Lord, keep this nation under your care;
And guide us in the way of justice and truth.
Let your way be known upon earth;
Your saving health among all nations.
Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
These prayers also have political implications.

But Christians of good faith can and do come to different conclusions as to what laws, policies, and programs will help us achieve the goals toward which our sacred scriptures and our prayers point. Members of my diocese reflect these different conclusions. In truth, the language of Christian faith does not translate neatly into loyalty to any one party or leader. For my part, I have voted over the years for politicians from different parties with varying degrees of reservation. Once, my reservations came to a head and I concluded that a president I had voted for should resign after betraying the trust placed in him by the American public.

As a bishop, I try to be at least somewhat circumspect about venturing too far onto political territory. But yesterday the President of the United States crossed a line and ventured into church territory. He used the Bible and an Episcopal Church as political props. And, in order for him to do so, police under federal command, used flash-bang shells, tears gas, and rubber bullets to disperse a gathering of peaceful demonstrators from the street and the churchyard – a half-hour before a 7 p.m. curfew went into effect. Among those forcibly dispersed were clergy on their church’s property. This was an appalling abuse of power and contrary to the very sacred scriptures the president raised awkwardly in the air.

It was wrong on many levels. He used violence against people exercising their constitutional right to peacefully protest a grave injustice. He did so for the sake of a staged photo-op in front of a building dedicated to the Prince of Peace. He held up the Holy Bible as a political prop. The Bible is the word of God, which bears witness to the Word made flesh who dwelt among us in our pain and need, who brought mercy, compassion, forgiveness for sinners, and hope for the downtrodden.

The president would, of course, be welcome to attend any Episcopal Church for worship or Bible study. He would be welcome to learn, as we all need to,  more about the Word made flesh who taught us to love one another – including our enemies – and suffered on our behalf and died for our sins.

Presidents and politicians, conservative and liberal, often invoke faith in one way or another, some more credibly, some less so. Some have been known to be church-attending men of prayer and faith, others less so. But, yesterday the president did not offer a prayer or appeal to the language of hope and faith. Instead, he spoke of domination, forced fellow citizens out of the way. and then stood silently using a church and the Bible as political props. Under the circumstances, this was blasphemous.

Our nation is hurting. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens have died so far from a pandemic that has disrupted the lives of all of us. We have seen outrageous and fatal actions aimed at our African-American brothers and sisters – a different kind of blasphemy. There is understandable outrage and protest. The excesses and opportunistic abuses of that protest need to be curtailed. Peaceful protest should be encouraged even as violent protest is opposed. But, we need leaders who can speak with empathy, compassion, understanding, and tenderness to the hurt and anger. We need leaders who can find the words and actions that might bring us together. It grieves me that our president used the symbols of faith for a photo op rather speaking from the heart the language of faith to encourage healing, reconciliation, and hope.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Justice, Wild Justice, and the Plague of Racism


I am tired and my heart hurts. I am tired of dealing with Covid-19 and find the prospect that we will be dealing with it one way or another for some months to come more than a little daunting. And while we have been dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been made painfully aware again of another plague that has long infested America, the plague of racism. Many of us have been appalled recently by the images of the killing of jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, in Georgia, the bigoted calling of the police on birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, in New York, and the slow suffocation of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police. Each story is heartbreaking. And my heart hurts.

Whatever progress we have made in race relations, and things are better than they once were, there is no denying that we have a long way to go. One does not need to hear very many stories from African-Americans to understand this. And one can understand the anger we have seen manifested in recent days. The accumulation of stories like those above along with the heaviness we all feel living with Covid-19 which we know has disproportionately affected African-Americans along with the day to day experience of racism that so many of our fellow citizens experience has taken a toll. The fact that every other means of protest by African-Americans over the last several years has been dismissed as offensive and out of bounds only adds to the accumulated frustration. We are seeing all of that boil over across the country.

I do not condone rioting, still less, looting. I am pretty nearly a pacifist because I believe Jesus calls us to prioritize non-violence in anticipation of the kingdom of God. But I have been reminded of something one of my favorite authors, Charles Williams wrote. Williams, in ‘The Forgiveness of Sins,’ referred to the "wild justice of revenge" that breaks out if civil justice is not enacted. That does not excuse things like rioting – as opposed to protesting – but I wonder if it might not express a basic law of social interaction. In the absence of civic and economic justice, the opportunity to access the basic goods of life; 'wild justice' is likely to break out – like a wildfire. 

Once it breaks out, wild justice is not altogether tidy, rational, or controlled. People will do things that are even contrary to their own well-being. And some will take the opportunity to do things like looting. Wild justice is not actual justice; it is a cry for actual justice. It is a reaction when actual justice is not enacted  in the social order by  more “normal” means. Again, this neither condones nor excuses the destruction. But I contend that we must pay attention to the source of the rage which the riots express. The outrage is real and justified. Those of us who are white do not always like to look at the continuing legacy of racism. But, I agree with Charles Williams, “We shall be unfortunate if we forget the trespasses, the debts, [those we have treated unjustly] desire to repay with their wild justice . . .” 

Martin Luther King, Jr. made a similar point in response to riots in a speech just a few weeks before his assassination.
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

So where do we go from here? Let's pursue actual justice. Not only to prevent the outbreak of wild justice but because we desire justice – justice for all. Because we believe God desires justice. Because when we pray,"Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven," we mean it. In particular, we need to acknowledge that the plague of racism and the idea of white supremacy means that African-Americans are often not treated fairly in our legal system. Inherent bias continues to limit the opportunities of our fellow citizens. Our brothers and sisters of color too often are not treated with basic respect for their dignity as human beings. We shall all be unfortunate if we who are not African -American do not pay attention to these injustices and seek to redress them.

One thing we can do is listen to African-Americans commenting on our contemporary situation. Here are two examples:





We can do our homework so that those of us who are not African-American can understand better the experience and the legacy of racism and white supremacy. You might start with either Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson or 'I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness' by Austin Channing Brown. If you prefer reading novels, you might start with one of these:

'I Know Why the Caged bird Sings' by Maya Angelou
'The Bluest Eye' by Toni Morrison
'Beloved' by Toni Morrison
'The Hate U Give' by Angie Thomas
'The Underground Railroad' by Colson Whitehead

A longer list  of books on racism can be found hereAn Antiracist Reading List

And if you are looking for more concrete things to do, check out these lists: 


You might see if members of your church want to engage in conversation on the topic using a series like Sacred Ground.

You might also pray. Pray for justice and pray for the grace to have your life rhyme with your prayer. I am going to pray this Great Litany Novena for the first nine days of Pentecost which starts tomorrow. And I will continue praying for justice and reconciliation and peace.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Diocese of Fond du Lac’s Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic: Review and Explanation


Diocese of Fond du Lac’s Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic
Review and Explanation

There are many concerns involved in responding to Covid-19 – public health, economic and personal financial health, emotional and spiritual health under “lock down,” and government’s competency in balancing the other three vs. potential governmental overreach. This is not the place to discuss where there has been governmental competence vs incompetence vs overreach. But I will address how we as a diocese and, more specifically, I as the bishop, have sought to address the church’s response to the pandemic.

Our response to the virus is only partly informed by what the government has directed. We began responding to Covid-19 well before any directives from the state government. As early as March 5, I gave directions for ‘Communion and the Coronavirus’. Our congregations met under those guidelines for two Sundays, including March 15, which was after both the Governor of Wisconsin and the President of the United States had declared states of emergency and one Sunday more than some neighboring church bodies. But it was clear by then, that a different kind of care was going to be needed if we were going to mitigate the spread of the virus and help keep our members and neighbors safe.

I formed the Covid-19 Task Force in the week before March 15 and began meeting with them to discern the most faithful and responsible way forward. On March 16, in response to directions “from the CDC and the White House” I suspended in-person worship in our church buildings. This was before Governor Evers’ March 26 ‘Safer at Home’ order. It is actually stricter on some points than what the governor directed. That has been the status quo for the diocese since and remains so at this point except for the recent allowance for more congregations to celebrate Eucharist under clear and strict guidelines. While that allowance goes further than any Episcopal diocese around us, it is still stricter in terms of how many may participate than the governor’s order allowed.

[The various statements from the diocesan office mentioned above can be found at https://www.diofdl.org/covid-resources.html]

I review all this to point out that decisions regarding worship in the Diocese of Fond du Lac have only partially been in response to what the government at any level has told us we should or should not do. Rather those decisions have been based on public health information from experts, including those on our own Task Force. They have been based taking the pandemic seriously and, given that, on our equally serious determination to love one another and love our neighbors.

We are enjoined in Romans 13:1-2 to,

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.”

While we generally submit to the governing authorities and are suspicious of calls to resist those authorities unless they contravene a gospel imperative, the Church’s ultimate authority is not what any earthly government – whether local, state, or federal – says. Or, for that matter, any of the various interpretations of the Constitution. Nor is our ultimate allegiance and loyalty to any of those. Ultimately,

“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20)

And we seek a better country, the City, the New Jerusalem God has prepared for us:

“They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

We put our hope in no governor or president or nation for, as the New Testament declares, ‘Jesus is Lord’.

Jesus is our authority and it is his directives we are trying to follow. His commandment is that we love one another as he loved us (John 13:34) and he promises to free us to do so. Thus, our most fundamental right and freedom is to love God and love our neighbor. So, we seek to, “owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). And it is that direction we are seeking to follow in our decisions regarding whether, when, and how to open our church buildings. Based on the best knowledge to which we have access regarding the threat of Covid-19 and given our determination to follow Jesus’ directive to love one another and our neighbors, what is the most faithful, most responsible thing for us to do? It is with that question we are grappling. Whatever we do will based not on fear, but on care.

Believe me, I wish as much as anyone we could just simply go back to worshiping together in our
church buildings. We have beautiful church buildings that evoke wonder and a sense of the holy. They are soaked with decades of prayer and memory. It is right for us to miss them. Even more, it is right that we miss gathering. And I miss regular worship together in the presence of the gathered body of Christ. At the end of every Eucharist with the dismissal we disperse our members so we can be the body of Christ in the world. But we are meant to be ‘re-membered’ week by week. This long, enforced dispersal is not natural. I do not just not like it; I think it is problematic. I want us to resume gathering as the body of Christ in worship because it a fundamental vocation of the Church.

But it is not clear that it is safe to do so at this point. The state supreme court’s ruling expressly did not deny the ongoing seriousness of the virus. Even with masks, physical distancing, and other precautions, it is our understanding from public health experts that the length of time shared in the same space, breathing the same air, makes worshiping in groups too unsafe. I appreciate that many are willing to take the risk of contracting the virus in order to participate in worship in your church building. I would be willing to take that risk as well. If it was just about me. But I do not want to risk giving the virus to someone else if I am infected unknowingly. I do not think you do either. That is why we are being extra careful. We will continue to make our decisions based on the best medical and public health information we can glean as we seek how best to go forward faithfully.

We will begin a phased resumption of gathering for worship in our buildings, possibly as early as the middle of June. But that will largely be determined by the rate of infection and other public health factors. Directions for the first phase of regathering in our church buildings will be published next week.

There is a lot of talk now about the Church being essential. I absolutely believe it is. It is important to note that while we have not been going to our church buildings, we have not ceased to be the Church. We have found creative, faithful ways to worship and pray and connect with one another and serve and bear witness in spite of the constraints imposed upon us by the pandemic. In that sense, we, as the Church, have continued the free exercise of religion as per the First Amendment.

I ask your patience and forbearance as we discern the next steps. And I ask your prayers for me, the Task Force, our clergy, lay leaders, and all members of the Diocese of Fond du Lac. It is my firm conviction that God is faithful and will see us through this challenging time. And God continues to lavish grace upon us even now.

Under the Mercy,

Bishop Matt

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

First Goat, a Fable


This is the story of First Goat. First Goat lived long ago in the before the before time. He lived there, just north of south and little east of west, with all the other first animals. There were First Dog, First Horse, First Elephant, First Chicken, and all the others. And they all got along. First Rabbit would go for walks with First Fox without any worries because First Rabbit knew that First Fox had a taste for broccoli and not rabbit stew. Even First Mosquito preferred fruit juice.

The world was new. It was so new not everything had happened yet. And not everything that had happened had happened completely. Things had not yet stuck in their final place. Sometimes the grass would start out green in the morning but turn to purple around noon. It usually turned green again before night – but even night sometimes came early and sometimes came late. Sometimes the sun rose in the east, but sometimes it rose in the north. Things were still new. They had not stuck.

Some things were so new they had not happened yet at all. One day, the first rain fell. This surprised the first animals. But they found it refreshing. They were dry, dusty, and dirty. They needed the first bath. As the rain fell on their noses and on their tongues, they became thirsty. The first puddle formed. The animals gathered around it. First Goat was surprised to see the reflection of the beautiful blue sky in the water. The reflection was so clear, the puddle seemed to contain the whole sky.

Suddenly, First Goat remembered his thirst. Afraid the other animals might drink before he did, he
pushed them out of the way, butting and kicking. He began to gulp furiously. But remember – everything had not yet stuck. Would you believe First Goat gulped so fast and so hard that the sky’s reflection came unstuck he drank it up right off the puddle? And now First Goat was full of the reflection of the sky.

With the sky in his belly, First Goat became very, very, very hungry. He began to eat and eat and eat. But he could not get full. After all, how can you fill the sky? He ate grass, he ate bark, he even ate bugs – but you can’t fill the sky with grass and bark and bugs. He even ate the wrapper of the first Twinkie – left on the ground by First Litterbug.

No matter what he ate, nothing could fill the emptiness. He tried distracting himself by singing and dancing and playing games with the other animals. But he was still hungry and the empty sky inside would rumble and thunder. He tried to keep busy. He worked harder and longer. He built the first patio. Still he was hungry. He still contained the empty reflection of the sky.

And so have been all the goats that have come after First Goat. They still eat anything and everything. They still make noise all the time and keep moving, trying to satisfy the empty sky inside.

Humans are like First Goat. We experience a great emptiness, emptiness as big as the sky. We are full of the reflection, not of the sky, but of God. We are hungry – hungry for God. Like First Goat, we sometimes try desperately to fill that hunger with everything but God. We buy more and more stuff. We try to lose ourselves in work. We try to distract ourselves with play and entertainment. We move from place to place and from relationship to relationship. But we remain empty and restless.

As St. Augustine said, we are made for God and our hearts are restless until they rest in him. Our hearts are empty until they are filled with God. Try as we might to fill it with activity, things, or people, only God can fill our infinite emptiness. Activity, things, and people can distract us, can even numb us enough to forget the deep emptiness inside for a while. But they cannot fill us. They cannot satisfy. God created us for himself and God alone can satisfy us.

- The End -

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Thoughts on the Feast of the Confession of Peter

Window from St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Ripon, Wisconsin

Today (January 18) we celebrate that Peter confessed Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). But we know that, for all that Peter got right in that declaration, he fundamentally misunderstood what it meant. Just a little later, after Jesus declares that "he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised" (Matthew 16:21), Peter rebukes him Jesus saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you" (Matthew 16:22) To which Jesus famously responds with his own rebuke, "Get behind me Satan!" (Matthew 16:23)

Peter had come to believe Jesus was the Messiah. But he believed that that meant Jesus had come to kick butt politically. He was supposed to be like King David beating up on the Philistines or like King Cyrus beating up on the Babylonians. Peter wanted the Messiah to be a divinely appointed bully to out-bully those he believed were bullying the people of God. He wanted a Lion of Judah. But he got the Lamb of God who came to undergo great suffering and be killed.

What Peter got was a Messiah committed to extravagant mercy. What he got was a Messiah who blessed not those with wealth and power, but the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness/justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those willing to be persecuted for the sake righteousness/justice.  What he got was a Messiah who rejected vengeance and insisted that enemies (yes, even those enemies) must be prayed for and forgiven. What he got was a Messiah who insisted that turning the other cheek was an essential discipline of his faithful followers. What he got was a Messiah who warned that we will be judged based on how we talk about and treat others, on our caring for the least of these, on our clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the stranger, etc. What he got was a Messiah who insisted that life was not about winning, but, humility, self-sacrifice, and service. Indeed, it was about denying the self, taking up the cross and dying in order to truly live.

By the end, Peter came to understand. But not before notoriously denying Jesus. When the crisis came, the one who had made the solid rock confession, crumbled and admitted, "I do not know the man" (Matthew 26:72). Though that was partly to save his own butt – the butt Jesus would not save by kicking other butts – it was also one of the truest things Peter ever said. On a deep level, he still did not know Jesus or what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah.

Like Peter, Christians through the ages have confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But also, like Peter, Christians have been tempted to believe they know better than Jesus what that meant. Christians have been happy to affirm that Jesus is the Way, but less willing to follow in the Way Jesus is. We are still tempted to remake the Lamb of God into some Lion of Judah. We are tempted to look for a political King David or a worldly King Cyrus to deliver us from our enemies. But that is not the kind of Messiah Jesus is. Do we want to know him? Do we want to confess Jesus as the Messiah he is? Or do we want risk hearing the words with which Jesus rebuked Peter shortly after his confession?