Friday, November 18, 2011

Some Sermon Notes

Pentecost 22-Nov. 13, 2011. The Rev'd Christopher L. Epperson

One of the most culturally pervasive phobias is taphophobia, the fear of being buried alive. It has been the subject of ancient lore and modern fiction and movies. The Victorians were so afraid of being buried alive, they created all sorts devices to address the fear. One was a casket with a bell on the outside, connected to a line running inside, so the bell could be rung. Embalming was marketed as a means of insuring that an individual was really dead. Even the stethoscope was marketed as a means of telling the living from the dead. Granted, the implications of being buried alive are grizzly, there is simply something wrong with putting something, or someone, in the wrong place.

We bury the dead. We bury objects to hide them. We bury things to dispose of them.

The servant that hides his capital, given him to invest via his boss, makes that curious choice to bury what he has been entrusted to grow. That servant robbed the capital of its potential. That servant chose to hide. If increase is life, that servant chose death through burial.

Presumably, all the servants knew the boss. They knew that he expected good return on investment. They knew that he was ambitious and hungry for produce, even where he did not cultivate. By working through these servants and leaving them for a long period of time, the boss invited them to emulate him in some respect. The boss entrusted the servants to work on his behalf, function with his vision in mind and accomplish what he would, were he present.

Two knew, understood and responded, and one knew, yet did not.

Now, these parables of Jesus can only be pushed so far. They are in no way intended to be entire, self-contained systematic theologies. The parables usually have a somewhat narrow, nuanced focus.

Jesus tells this parable to his disciples to prepare them for the days ahead, when following will be arduous and frightening. How are they to function faithfully as they await the coming kingdom of God?
What does faithfulness look like as they manage Jesus' capital investment?

It is about embodying the abundant, ambitious, all-consuming ministry of Jesus that knows no bounds or limits. Matthew's Gospel characterizes Jesus ministry as the formation of a community, The Church. The Church is the school for the sinner, the house of reconciliation and vessel containing the food and drink of new life. That Church goes out into the four corners of the world making disciples, baptizing, obeying Jesus' commandments, and knowing him to be present even to the end of the age.

Listening, healing, tending, caring, feeding, loving-one another and the world.Anything less is is hiding what we have been given. Anything less is death. Anything less is disposing of our opportunity to respond to God in the abundant, ambitious, risky way God has called and assembled us. Anything less is being buried alive.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Which way to fall?

I posed a question to my congregation this past week: Are you ready to fall into God's grace? This challenge was prompted by two things I have been reading lately.

First, the Revised Common Lectionary's continuous readings for this part of the season after Pentecost have us following Abraham. In reviewing the Patriarch's life it turns out that he made a lot of bad decisions with serious consequences. He decided to take Sarah up on the offer to father God's great nation through Hagar, her handmaid, and conceived Ishmael. The consequences of that decision followed Abraham and his ancestors throughout their lives, and is still with us in the Middle East conflict today. He twice traded his wife Sarah for his own safety, risking his promise for a nation and his love for Sarah on the virtue of a Pharaoh and a nomadic tribal leader, questionable decisions at the best of times. He allowed his nephew Lot, not a giant on character issues, to decide which path to take when foraging shortages were threatening their combined flocks, a decision that placed Lot in Sodom just before its judgement, threatening Lot, Abraham, and their families. These are some, though not all of Abraham's decisions.

Who bailed him out and turned the bad into good? God. About the only good decision Abraham made was to pick-up his tents, call his family to him, gather his flocks, and lead them all to where God was showing him.

Second, in conjunction with these RCL readings, I picked-up a book by the Franciscan Priest, Religious, and Scholar, Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. The premise of this book: that we need to build structures during the first half of our lives, so that we might be prepared to be what God has created us to be in the second half of our lives. The paradox of the faith journey is that it is not the successes of our building time that help us grow, but the failures. Just as God was there to bail out Abraham, God is there to bail us out too. However, we have to learn and accept this grace. So, Abraham was most successful when he was most wrong. Hence, Rohr's title, Falling Upward.

I think this way of approaching our faith lives, both individually and corporately, makes us uncomfortable here in the the good ole USA. This culture values success, and it values people and congregations who are "self-made" in their success. The problem with this way of being is that it leaves little, if any, room for God and God's grace. My church is trying is trying to rebuild. I think we need to be bold in trying new things, risking the possibility of being as incredibly wrong as Abraham, and letting God work on us through these failures. Given my choice, as anxiety laden as it may be, I choose falling, and falling upward would be fine.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Generational Narcism

Serving historic churches is a mixed blessing. The long history, the structures-physical and organizational, and the reservoir of ministries accomplished are all things that provide for the kind of inertia that save many of us from immediate irrelevance. If it were not for this institutional and spiritual inertia, inertia of a good sort in that it connects us to the historic witness and its trajectory, my 293 year old congregation might have ceased to exist independently about a decade ago. Generational Narcissism, the sense that my generation is the only one that matters, interferes with the positive aspects of standing among the great cloud of witnesses.

It was in an invitation from a local synagogue, one celebrating its 110th anniversary, that I was reminded of this obligation that may constrain but may also be a factor in giving life. At the turn of the 20th century a Jewish community of Eastern Europeans was established in my town. Coming from varied backgrounds from within their own faith, they put aside their differences in order to form a synagogue. Then, interestingly, they were aided in their effort by two local churches, one Roman Catholic and mine. The aid was structural, contributions to a building to house the congregation, and relational, a teacher to instruct these young Eastern European Jews in the Hebrew they needed for their Bar Mitzvah. To imagine a group of early teenage boys trooping to the Episcopal Church for Hebrew instruction is quite intriguing, especially in the late nineteenth century. Hearing the story bound me to its narrative. I stood no longer on my own, I stood in that line of rectors, good and bad, that led the spiritual life of this community.

I have been known for both creating change and reinforcing tradition, hard things to do. Hard poles to manage. The change that I am aiming for is not to totally redo things in this place, but to give it form in a new context which both honors the traditions and takes us into the future. My parish is on less solid ground financially than the one now tended to by Chris. So it needs updating, not upbraiding, and it needs a congregation, which when asked which traditions are really important, can tell me clearly, distinctly, and with a sense of spiritual understanding that shows not only local but universal connections as well. None of us stand alone in the Church.

The mixed part of this blessing, and one in which generational narcissism plays a major role is in the unfortunate history that is part of my parish's past. I am not talking about wrestling between Rectors and congregants. That is tough stuff but not the worst. Rather it is this institution's history with slavery as a commercial enterprise and the source of wealth for prominent members and leaders of this church as well as the source for many of its buildings. Focusing on recent history, and not connecting to our past, allows us to forget the degrading impact of this legacy, one which should firmly ground all the generations of this parish in the notion that they are not perfected but redeemed, and that with our holy deeds have come unholy ones as well. Humility, it seems, is the response that is appropriate to the views of the heights, depths, and faithfulness of the Church and its congregations.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

One's Place

I have only just started a new ministry in a new parish.  The move has contained all the elements one would expect, the pain of physically uprooting with possessions and setting up house, the emotionally draining task of bidding, those you have grown to love, farewell and the process of opening to new people and a new community.  It has been a wonderful process.

The parish, I now serve is very historic.  I took a picture that I posted on facebook of the list of rectors that have served this jewel.  My name is the 35th name at the bottom of the list.  The start date of the first name is 1674.  Some of the names on the list are recognizable and known.  Others jingle no bells and stir no recognition.  There I am in their midst.  I have become part of the unfolding life of this place.

In a conversation with a colleague, one of us used the phrase "generational narcism"  the idea is that many of us function out of our own limited, time-bound and experiential identity.  It is difficult to do anything else.  This is not an attempt to stereotype, but to recognize that members of particular generations often share particular nuances and perspectives, peculiar to the particular group.  I know there are a thousand exceptions to this, but there is ring of truth in it.  Certain generations are dominated by particular, governing, philosophical assumptions.  Other generations might have new and different ways of thinking, different assumptions and new questions.

Here is the rub.  The Church is home to individuals across generational designations, and with the designations come ways of thinking, being and doing.  How does the Church stay on-course as the upside-down vessel,  granting passage to all of us?

Today is the Visitation.  Mary arrived to see her cousin Elizabeth and breaks into Magnificat.  "His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation."  Mary's vocation was not intended for a particular time.  Jesus ministry was not meant for a particular people, but all people.

As people of faith, how do we accept what has been given us,  seek to understand the profundity thereof and do an interpretive piece?  We are under some obligation to proclaim what is at the heart of the Christian religion.  To do that, I think we have to know it.  Knowing it means grappling with it, not merely jettisoning the pieces we don't really understand or worse,  don't like.  I think we have to mine the tradition for what is at the core, and communicate the core in ways that have resonance for the present.

At our 7:30 am eucharist, I told the small congregation that any innovation in the liturgy would be a result of ignorance, not intent.  I want to get to know this congregation, and I want them to get to know me.  I am not worried about making my mark, but developing a relationship.  That takes time.  The work we do in the Church isn't exactly our own.  We are beholden to those who have come before us and our time.  We know there will be those who come after us and our time.

I am but one member of a generation and the generations run...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

And Episcopalins Too

The opinion piece by Russell Moore is rich with all sorts of material--on Baptists, church growth, denominational loyalty, and what constitutes vital tradition. However, there is one part I would like to focus on today, although there may be more later: what denominations and, especially, Episcopalians do at their best.

Moore expresses this thing in summary. He says "[denominations] represent fidelity to living traditions of local congregations that care about what Jesus cared about--personal conversion, discipleship, mission, and community." I may choose a different vocabulary and some slightly different emphases for these expressions, however, I largely agree, with at least one addition. Denominations also express catholicity, our connections through the body to each other, present and past. Otherwise, congregations run the risk of being disconnected "ecclesial communites," and disconnected generational narcsists.

The Episcopal Church emphasizes this catholicity through its continued practice of the sacrments, its commitment to the ancient creeds, its organization and expression around common prayer, the use of a lectionary that routinely takes the church through all of the books of the Bible, and its ordering according to the threefold ministries of deacon, priest, and bishop.

There are other aspects which I am certain to have missed in this summary, but the need to guard against isolationism and egocentrism (i.e. becoming the "church of what's happenin' here and now) is the special trust of the denomiations, with their indiviualized but corporate empahasis.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

WSJ article: Where Have All the Presbyterians Gone?


Are we witnessing the death of America's Christian denominations? Studies conducted by secular and Christian organizations indicate that we are. Fewer and fewer American Christians, especially Protestants, strongly identify with a particular religious communion—Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc. According to the Baylor Survey on Religion, nondenominational churches now represent the second largest group of Protestant churches in America, and they are also the fastest growing.

More and more Christians choose a church not on the basis of its denomination, but on the basis of more practical matters. Is the nursery easy to find? Do I like the music? Are there support groups for those grappling with addiction?

This trend is a natural extension of the American evangelical experiment. After all, evangelicalism is about the fundamental message of Christianity—the evangel, the gospel, literally the "good news" of God's kingdom arriving in Jesus Christ—not about denomination building.

The post-World War II generation of evangelicals was responding to congregations filled with what they considered spiritual deadness. People belonged to a church, but they seemed to have no emotional experience of Christianity inside the building. Revivalists watched as denominational bureaucracies grew larger, and churches shifted from sending missionaries to preach around the world to producing white papers on issues like energy policy.

More and more Christians choose a church not on the basis of its denomination, but on the basis of more practical matters.

The revivalists wanted to get back to basics, to recover the centrality of a personal relationship with Jesus. "Being a member of a church doesn't make you a Christian," the ubiquitous evangelical pulpit cliché went, "any more than living in a garage makes you a car." Thus these evangelical ministries tended not to talk about those issues that might divide their congregants. They avoided questions like: Who should be baptized and when? What does the Lord's Supper mean? Should women be ordained? And so on.

The movement exploded. Before 1955, there were virtually no megachurches (defined as 2,000 people per worship service) in the country. Now there are between 850 and 1,200 such churches and many are nondenominational, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Evangelicalism wanted to open its doors to all believers and it often lacked roots in the traditions of particular congregations. So many evangelical churches have a generic identity. This has changed the feel of local church life.

Where hymnody once came from the spontaneity of slave spirituals or camp meetings, worship songs are increasingly now focus-grouped by executives in Nashville. The evangelical "Veggie Tales" cartoons—animated Bible stories featuring talking cucumbers and tomatoes—probably shape more children in their view of scripture than any denominational catechism does these days. A church that requires immersion baptism before taking communion, as most Baptist traditions do, will likely get indignant complaints from evangelical visitors who feel like they've been denied service at a restaurant.

But there are some signs of a growing church-focused evangelicalism. Many young evangelicals may be poised to reconsider denominational doctrine, if for no other reason than they are showing signs of fatigue with typical evangelical consumerism.

For example, artists such as Keith and Kristen Getty and Sojourn Music are reaching a new generation with music written for and performed by local congregations. Yes, prosperity preacher Joyce Meyer sells her book "Eat the Cookie, Buy the Shoes," which encourages Christians to "lighten up" by eating cookies and buying shoes (seriously). But, at the same time, Alabama preacher David Platt is igniting thousands of young people with his book "Radical," which calls Christians to rescue their faith by lowering their standard of living and giving their time and money to Church-based charities.

And though nondenominational churches are growing, the Southern Baptist Convention—the nation's largest Protestant group—has over 10,000 students studying for ministry in six seminaries right now.

If denominationalism simply denotes a "brand" vying for market share, then let denominationalism fall. But many of us believe denominations can represent fidelity to living traditions of local congregations that care about what Jesus cared about—personal conversion, discipleship, mission and community. Perhaps the denominational era has just begun.

Mr. Moore is dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.

So David, what do you think?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

New Idea

One of the very important facets of the Christian life is community, and by community, I don’t mean a mere social function. I mean something more substantial, a group of fellow travelers treading the path of discipleship, who are open to one another along the way. I mean small groups really working on faith.

One of the best parts of my week is lunch with a friend and colleague in ministry. My friend David is rector of a neighboring parish and he knows what it is like in the trenches of parish ministry. Once a week, we meet, eat and share our successes, failures and challenges. Our conversations cover a wide array of life.

Last week, we decided to share some of that on this blog. We will pose questions to each other and answer them, much like we do at lunch. The idea is that we might loop more people into the conversation.

So watch this space and welcome David!

Finally, This is the text from Isa 58, that I am praying of late.

9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What is a church worth?

A study asks: What's a church's economic worth?

Posted:02/01/2011 8:04 PM
By David O'Reilly
Inquirer Staff Writer
What is the dollar value of a marriage saved? A suicide averted? An addiction conquered? A teenager taught right from wrong?

In short: What is a church's economic worth to the community it serves?

Last summer, a University of Pennsylvania professor and a national secular research group based in Center City took up that seemingly unanswerable question. With a list they devised of 54 value categories, they attempted to calculate the economic "halo effect" of a dozen religious congregations in Philadelphia - 10 Protestant churches, a Catholic parish, and a synagogue.

They added up the money generated by weddings and funerals, festivals, counseling programs, preschools, elder care. They tallied the salaries of staff and the wages of roofers, plumbers, even snow shovelers. They put dollar signs on intangibles, too, such as helping people find work and teaching children to be socially responsible.

They even measured the diameter of trees on church campuses.

The grand total for the 12 congregations: $50,577,098 in annual economic benefits.

The valuation for 300-member Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Episcopal Church in Queen Village, for instance, was a middle-of-the-road $1.65 million. By contrast, the figure for Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic parish in Kensington, with 7,000 congregants, a parochial school, and a community center, was $22.44 million.

The numbers, culled from clergy and staff interviews, "just blew us away," said Robert Jaeger, executive director of the research group Partners for Sacred Places.

The study is not yet published. When it is, the robust sums are likely to be challenged, predicted lead author Ram Cnaan, a Penn professor of social policy.

Some valuations were drawn from existing academic research, such as $19,600 for pastoral counseling that prevents a suicide and $18,000 for an averted divorce. Cnaan himself arrived at other values - for example, $375 on "teaching pro-social values" to a young child.

"Look, it's quite possible that someone will say we calculated all wrong" in some categories, he said. But, he added, he welcomed scrutiny.

He and the 21-year-old Partners have well-established reputations in the valuation of houses of worship. In 1998 they began a landmark research series on urban congregations' services to the poor (worth an annual average of $140,000). It led George W. Bush in 2000 to create the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, which continues in the Obama administration.

If there are challenges to the "halo" study, they are not likely to come from churches, which stand to benefit.

"Equipped with such measurements," the report said, "a congregation could produce hard numbers to show community organizations, policy makers and potential funders the value of its local presence."

Among the churches in the study was 150-member Summit Presbyterian in Mount Airy, where last week the Rev. Cheryl Pyrch stood in the snow and pointed to a row of DayGlo orange dots climbing the stone bell tower.

Each spot marked where masons soon would drill iron reinforcing rods to keep the tower from cracking further - a job that will pump $50,000 into the economy. Summit's century-old slate roof is also "coming to the end of its useful life," Pyrch said. The estimated cost of replacing it is $250,000, a windfall for a contractor.

Summit's operating budget is a modest $265,000. But the study calculated its "halo" last year at $1.47 million.

It is home to a remarkable array of community organizations, including a day-care center, a chamber orchestra, a synagogue, a dance and drum ensemble, a computer company, a dance school, a martial arts program.

It also rents space to the Adult Congenital Heart Association for its national headquarters. "It's almost as if this [church] is a small-business incubator," said Tim Clair, an association director.

On the other side of the city, the Rev. Bruce Lewandowski said the study changed his perception of his Visitation BVM parish.

"You might think of your church as an employer," he said, "but not as an engine driving the neighborhood economy."

Founded in the late 19th century for Kensington's Irish population, it now serves primarily Latinos and Vietnamese. He discovered that many of his congregants stay in the neighborhood long after Sunday Mass, patronizing Asian stores and restaurants.

Lewandowski thinks of Visitation as three institutions: the church, the 480-pupil school, and the Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua Community Center. "Our mission is not just to get people into heaven," he said, "but help them maneuver through the trials and troubles of life."

The community center is home to dozens of sports teams and civic groups. At night, it becomes a refuge for prostitutes plying their trade along Kensington Avenue.

If he can acquire a vacant bank building nearby, the pastor said, it will become a 60-unit senior housing center.

In West Philadelphia, Calvary Methodist Church reported helping 100 people find employment last year. With each job valued at $14,500, the category alone added $1.45 million to its $2.6 million halo.

Not all the categories proved net positives, however. The researchers found, for instance, that crime rates near eight of the churches were higher than in tracts several blocks away.

And measuring the congregations' impact on property values backfired for St. Luke's and the Epiphany Church in Center City, where adjacent real estate values were lower than in nearby neighborhoods. While that could not be pinned on the handsome church's presence, the category put St. Luke's halo into negative territory: minus $226,000.

Tuomi Forrest, Partners' associate director and a coauthor of the report, said he and Cnaan were pondering how to make real estate a more accurate metric. But he defended the overall findings: "No one in any field has ever tried to compile so many ways to calculate" the value of congregations."

The study shows the contribution of religious congregations "to be 20 to 30 times bigger than we knew," said director Jaeger. It "will give congregations dozens of new ways to articulate their value, broaden their constituencies, and survive and grow."


The 'Halo' Effect

The economic "halo" effect of 12 Philadelphia congregations:

Visitation Blessed Virgin Mary, Kensington $22,440,382

Congregation Rodeph Shalom, North Philadelphia 7,969,884

First Baptist, Center City 6,090,032

Mother Bethel A.M.E., Center City 3,188,685

Calvary Methodist, West Philadelphia 2,597,359

Arch Street United Methodist, Center City 1,871,621

Shiloh Baptist, Center City: 1,656,456

Gloria Dei Episcopal, Queen Village 1,646,469

Summit Presbyterian, Mount Airy 1,465,327

Jones Tabernacle A.M.E., North Philadelphia 1,126,231

St. Mary's Episcopal, University City 750,244

St. Luke's and the Epiphany, Center City -225,595

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or