Thursday, November 19, 2020

The fate of the country is in God’s hands; it’s honor is in mine.

Today is the Feast of Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231). She was an impressive woman and I encourage you follow the link to read about her. Elizabeth came from a remarkable family. Her brother, Béla IV (1206-1270), was king of Hungary. He was himself a devout and faithful Christian who eventually became a Third Order [lay] Franciscan. He also uttered one of my favorite lines.

In 1241 the Mongols invade Eastern Europe. When it became clear they were headed for Hungary, King Béla gathered his nobles and ordered them to call up their knights and others so he could lead an army against the invaders. But the nobles balked. Everyone knew by then that the Mongols were invincible and the nobles feared going to war with them. They argued that the king should surrender and let the Mongols have their way. The king responded, “The fate of the country is in God’s hands; it’s honor is in mine.” He challenged the nobles to ride with him for the honor of Hungary. And they did.
I like King Béla’s response, “The fate of the country is in God’s hands; it’s honor is in mine.” I remember it frequently in these challenging days for the Church. Echoing King Béla, I can say, “The fate of the Diocese of Fond du Lac is in God’s hands; being as faithful as I can be in leading the diocese into faithfulness is in my hands. This is true for the leaders, lay and ordained, of any congregation. There are forces at work over which we have no control that make being church difficult. But we do have control over our own faithfulness. Though we hope fuller faithfulness will lead to growth, that faithfulness does not guarantee measurable success. The fate of the Church is in God's hands.
The Mongols did in fact annihilate the Hungarian army in the Battle of Mohi and devastated the country before their unexpected withdrawal in March 1242. But Béla, escaped and survived after the defeat and was able return to the throne and lead Hungary for many years.
The fate of the Church is in God’s hands. Faithfulness is in ours. That is not fatalism. I will continue to do what I can to help congregations thrive and grow. And I will encourage members of the diocese to be faithful disciples and witnesses. We are accountable for that faithfulness. But the fate of the Church is in God's hands.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

"Therefore, I will now allure her" – a Sermon on Hosea 2:14-23

Hosea 2:14-23

What kind of God have you gotten yourself mixed up with?

In the prophet Hosea, we have the God of Israel making a spectacle of himself as he pursues his wayward love. Israel had continually done him wrong, two-timed him, cheated on him. And yet, here he is saying, Therefore, I will now allure her.” I will now allure her. What kind of self-respecting God is that?

I wonder what the other gods would have thought (imagining for a moment that they existed.)

Marduk: I wonder what he sees in her. She’s not all that good looking. She certainly is not wealthy like the Great Babylon where I am worshiped. I’d have dumped her long ago.

Zeus: I like to play around like any other god, but this is ridiculous.

Anat: They say love is blind, but this is too much. At least my Lord Baal has the decency to have a goddess like myself as his consort. But Yahweh insists on consorting with this ragtag people, Israel, even after they have spurned his love over and over. You’d think he’d get the hint.

Here is Yahweh, shamelessly gone courting, inviting Israel to go on a sort of second honeymoon, back to the desert where it all began. He wants to recapture the spark that had existed between them. “Therefore, I will now allure her.” “I will speak tenderly to her” – whisper sweet nothings in her ear. In the presence of such public displays of tender affection and relentless love in spite of all, the other gods are too embarrassed to exist and they fade away.

Hosea lived in distressing times. The reign of the great king Jeroboam II had just ended. Jeroboam had reigned for 40 years during which Israel had enjoyed a golden age that rivaled that of Solomon’s. But, in the midst of prosperity, there was an internal rot. Injustice and oppression were rampant. Their worship of Yahweh was diluted as the people chased after other gods.

The prophet, Amos, had warned of a coming day of reckoning. Soon after Amos had gone back to dressing sycamore trees, Hosea picked up the refrain. Hosea also warned that Israel’s unfaithfulness would have consequences. Israel was headed for destruction and, this time, God was not going to intervene. Sure enough, it was not long before the Assyrian Empire invaded and conquered Israel. All appeared to be lost. Perhaps God would finally abandon Israel.

But Hosea has another theme – on the other end of Israel’s unfaithfulness, misery, and affliction is God's relentless love. Hosea learned this the hard way through personal experience. He was married to a woman with the unfortunate name of Gomer. Gomer proved to be an unfaithful wife, an adulteress. It is unclear whether she merely committed adultery in the conventional sense or if she served as a temple prostitute on behalf of one of the Canaanite Gods. But it is clear that she was not faithful to Hosea – just as Israel was not faithful to Yahweh. Hosea lived with the heartache of that betrayal, but he also learned from it. He came to a deeper understanding of God's faithfulness despite Israel’s unfaithfulness.

Though Israel would suffer the consequences of her unfaithfulness, Hosea knew that God was in the suffering with her and would be on the other end of it. The Valley of Achor, which means “affliction,” would be made a door of hope.  God had told Hosea to name one of his children, “Lo-ruhamah,” which means “No Pity” to demonstrate Israel’s dire predicament. Here, he is promising that there will be pity. Another child was named, “Lo-ammi,” which means “Not My People” to demonstrate how seriously God took Israel’s infidelity. Here, God is promising that he will yet say, “You are my people.” And the people will respond, “You are my God.”  God would not give up on Israel.

God even promises that Israel will “know the LORD.” The knowing referred to here is not a matter of head knowledge only, but an intimate knowledge born of deep experience. It is the language of intimacy. The Hebrew word for “know” used here is the same word used in Genesis where Adam “knew” Eve. There used to be a euphemism for intimacy – to know someone “in the biblical sense.” “And you shall know the LORD.” The double entendre is not accidental. God desires – and promises – intimacy with us beyond our imagining.

“Therefore, I will now allure her.”  God is like a long-suffering husband romancing his faithless bride back to his love.  “Therefore, I will now allure her.”  God will play the bridegroom once again.

It should come as no surprise that this is the language Jesus uses of himself. He is the bridegroom, come to allure Israel. It is no accident that his first miracle is performed at a wedding feast. The feasting that was typical of his ministry might very well have been enactments of the wedding feast to which all are invited. Jesus, with his twelve groomsmen, went about romancing Israel in a long wedding procession toward Jerusalem and the cross. Demonstrating once again there are no lengths to which God will not go to demonstrate his love.

“Therefore, I will now allure her.”

By the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to allure, to romance the world.  We need only pay attention.

He allures us through the Scripture. The Bible has been called a collection of love letters from God.

He romances us through creation. The lift in your heart at the first taste of spring points to the one who is our Eternal Spring. Walt Whitman, in his poem, ‘Song of Myself’ refers to a blade of grass as

. . . the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,

Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners,

that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Jesus allures us through prayer. In her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, Julian of Norwich – woman who knew what it was to be loved by and to love God, wrote,

We shall by his sweet grace in our own meek continual prayer come into him now in this life by many secret touchings of sweet spiritual sights and feelings measured out to us as our simplicity may bear it.

Jesus allures through our relationships with others – friends, relatives, strangers. God is present in every encounter with another person inviting us to draw near to him through loving others.

Jesus allures us in the Eucharist. I heard the Eucharist once described as the kiss of Christ. No matter how much someone says he or she loves us, a hug, or kiss, or pat on the shoulder makes it real. You can hear in a sermon that God loves you. Receiving the Bread and the Wine, you can feel it.

Jesus allures us in the story of our own lives. We need only pay attention.

God in Christ continually allures us – wooing us into a people – we who were no people are now a people as 1 Peter says, quoting Hosea. And, of course, Paul calls the church the bride of Christ. We gentiles, who were no people, have been incorporated into the great love story of God and Israel – which points ultimately to the love story of God with all creation. And with each of us in it. However often we are as unfaithful as Gomer, God is yet more faithful.  His love is unrelenting.

What kind of God have you gotten yourself mixed up with? This kind:

A God who is alluring.

A God who is alluring you . . .

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Aunt Jemima, Redskins, Confederate Statues, etc.

It is embarrassing to admit, but when I was very young, we referred to the large nuts in a can of mixed nuts as “n----r toes” and when I first learned “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” the next phrase we used was “catch a n----r by the toe.” I have spoken to enough people to know that this was not just a peculiarity of my family nor was it unique to Indiana. I suspect many white people 60 years old and older can remember things like this. It was a sort of thoughtless, which is not to say innocent, racism.

When I was still quite young, we suddenly began calling the larger nuts, “Brazil Nuts” and when we did eeny, meeny, miny, moe, we caught a “tiger” by the toe. I do not remember any conversation about this, though there might have been. It would have been during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. I suspect that that movement awakened a different moral awareness that led my mother and father and others to reassess some of their language. I am proud of them that they did. To be fair to my folks, I do not remember ever hearing them use the N-word or words like it to refer to another human being or group of human beings. Still, I am grateful to the Civil Rights Movement for enlightening our consciences further.

I suggest that the things like renaming Aunt Jemima syrup, renaming some sports teams, and even the removal of some statues is on a par with reforming some of our vocabulary in the 1960’s. We know of course that racism did not end then. Its legacy continues. We are being called again, by a new iteration of the Civil Rights Movement, to further our moral awareness and sensitivity. We are being challenged to a deeper engagement with and response to the legacy of racism. It was not a matter of whether or not
those using the N-word to refer to Brazil Nuts thought we were being racist or intended to be. The word was racist and was offensive. So are things like Aunt Jemima, the Washington Redskins, the Confederate Battle Flag, and Confederate statues.

Most – most – of us would not want to go back to using the vocabulary in my first paragraph. We recognize that it was wrong. We would not say that changing our vocabulary was political correctness run amok. Rather, it was a response to an awareness of the offensiveness of certain words and a desire to not be racist. It was based in a desire to live what we claimed – that we believed all people are created equal and are worthy of respect and justice. Most contemporary Americans believe this, or at least want to believe it. And most of us want to live it. More and more of us are recognizing that we are not there yet. We can be grateful to those who today have taken up the mantle of advocating against racism and racist systems and who are inviting all of us to higher moral ground.

Ending racism, which is more deeply embedded in our social, political, and economic structures than we might want to admit, will take more than changing our vocabulary or removing racist names and symbols.  But whether we want to admit it or not racism is also embedded in our imaginations. And our imaginations are shaped by such symbols. If we do not want racism to shape our imaginations, one way to move in that direction is to remove them from public display.

See also:

The Heritage of Racism – a Baseball Analogy

Why "Black Lives Matter"

Justice, Wild Justice, and the Plague of Racism

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Heritage of Racism – a Baseball Analogy

There was once a baseball game between Team A and Team B. Team A had an extensive Spring Training. Team B, on the other hand, was made up of players who had never been allowed to play the game and were not allowed Spring Training or any other practice before the game.

In the first three innings, Team A had all the latest equipment while Team B had no mitts and no cleats on their shoes. Furthermore, when they were at bat, Team B was only allowed two strikes, while Team A was allowed the customary three. No walks were granted Team B for any reason. The umpires were hired and paid for by Team A and were overtly biased in their favor. The strike zone was much more generous for Team A’s pitchers. Close calls and calls that were not even close went against team B. And any time a Team B player hit a home run, he was ejected as soon as he crossed home plate. And any Team B player who complained about any of this was also ejected.

After three innings the score was Team A: 32, Team B: 3.

Before the fourth inning, each team got all new players. But the score remained. Team B received acquired gloves but still no shoes with cleats. Team B batters could earn a walk after six balls but not if the batter was hit by a pitch. And Team A pitchers regularly aimed pitches at Team B batters. The umpires were still paid for by Team A and heavily and obviously biased in its favor. Team B batters were no longer automatically ejected for hitting a home run but any Team B player who complained about a bad call was ejected.

After six innings the score was Team A: 51, Team B: 14.

Before the seventh inning the players for each team were again replaced by new players. But the score still carried over. Now both teams had access more or less to the same equipment. and the rules were the same for each. But the officials still seemed to favor Team A.

At the end of the eighth inning the score was Team A: 62, Team B: 19. The players of Team B again protested the uneven score and the bias of the umpires. The current players of Team A responded, “Why are you complaining? None of us was playing during the first six innings. It’s not our fault the score is so uneven.” And, “It’s not like a close call never goes against our players. We don’t believe the officiating is all that unfair. In any event, we’ve had to earn every run we have scored.” And, “Sure, Team B players matter. But all players matter. After all, at the end of the day, we’re all playing for the same league.” But the score remains unfairly lopsided and the biased officiating continues. 

I am sure this analogy can be improved one way or another (feel free to offer suggestions). It does not, for example, capture the real physical, emotional, and psychological violence of racism. But I hope it gets at the reality that for generations the deck has been stacked, often violently, against one “team”. From Jim Crow and lynching, to Red Lining and unequal access to the G. I. Bill, to unfair policing and courts, Black Americans have had multiple, often deliberate, obstacles placed between them and success. 

Many of the most egregious these injustices continued well into my lifetime. Even the history is recent history. It is undeniable that this has led to exiting inequities in opportunity and the accumulation of wealth. Playing with the analogy a bit more, one can acknowledge that not every player on each team is equally talented or has put in the same individual effort but the fact remains that we are in a situation in which one team has had and continues to have unfair advantages resulting from a history of inequality and abuse. And it is not all past. 

I don’t have a simple solution to address or redress all the resulting disparities. But a place to begin is for members of “Team A” – White Americans – to acknowledge the disparity and recognize that we benefit from the score having been run up even before we entered the game. At the very least we can begin with the officiating.

Here is a brief video laying out the actual history the above analogy attempts to portray:

Friday, June 12, 2020

Why "Black Lives Matter"?

In the sixth chapter of Acts, there is this account of the early church:

1Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Greek-speaking Jewish converts complained against the Hebrew-speaking Jewish converts because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “All widows matter.” And that settled it.

Actually, that is not what they said and not how they settled it. Instead, it went this way:

2And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. 3Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ 5What they said pleased the whole community.

It appears there was a division in the earliest church and a disparity in how the widows of one group were being treated vis a vis the other. Given the tensions it might have been tempting for the twelve, being Hebrew-speaking Jewish converts, to deny the disparity. They did not. Rather, they formed the order of deacons to issue that everyone received a fair share.

We have heard from our African-American sisters and brothers that there is a disparity in the way they are treated. In the case of Ahmaud Arbery, Christian Cooper, and George Floyd; we have not only heard, we have seen it. This is true across the board. Particularly, and much too often, our black brothers and sisters report that this disparity of treatment shows up in their engagement with the police and the courts. This gives the impression that justice for them – indeed their very lives – is worth less. Hence the cry, “Black Lives Matter.” 

One does not need to endorse all the views of the organization that calls itself Black Lives Matter to understand and endorse the sentiment of the slogan. For the vast majority of those declaring Black Lives Matter do not. Nor is the the point of Black Lives Matter that other lives do not matter. It is not that the lives of police or anyone else do not matter. The Greek-speaking converts did not insist that their widows mattered more than the Hebrew-speaking widows. They were demanding fairness and justice where fairness and justice were not being applied. So it is with Black Lives Matter. 

Those of us who are white have the same choice as the disciples in Acts 6. We can ignore or deny the injustice. We can avoid dealing with it by deflecting and insisting that all lives matter so we do not have to deal with the reality that it is not in fact always true in our society that all lives matter. Or we can acknowledge that something is wrong in the way black people have been and are being treated. With them we can affirm and insist that Black Lives do indeed Matter. We can acknowledge that racism is a corrosive reality in America and one with a long, deep, and pervasive history. We can commit ourselves to doing something to address that history and change that reality.

What if we, like the disciples in Acts 6, faced the injustice? They formed the order of deacons – servants – to insure fairness. What if we committed ourselves to be better servants of our black neighbors? What if we listened better, with open hearts and non-defensiveness, to their stories of injustice? How might we, like deacons, advocate with and for them? What diaconal policies and laws might we advocate for to insure more justice?

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 smoke canisters, pepper balls, and batons [edited*] 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 than speaking from the heart the language of faith to encourage healing, reconciliation, and hope.

* In the original version of this post, I said that tear gas had been used which is what was originally reported. That appears not to be the case. Instead, smoke canisters and pepper balls were used (see here). Smoke canisters + pepper balls might have been  mistaken for tear gas by some eyewitnesses. This change in detail detail does not change the substance of this post. [It turns out the CDC categorizes  the chemical in pepper balls a "tear agent" which while maybe not the same as what is usually referred to as "tear gas" the difference appears to be more a matter of technicality and semantics. See here and here.]

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]

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?