Home from LA/Anaheim … Texts of talks given there

After another red-eye (I’m surviving quite a few of them this summer …), I’m back in Florida, savoring memories of a really wonderful time with the Episcopal Convention. I haven’t been keeping up with the news reports, but I can share my clear impression: there is a good and prayerful spirit among the bishops and delegates … and a sense that a corner is being turned in this community of faith. The texts of my two talks are included after the jump, for any who are interested.

Homily for Thursday eucharist:
Brian McLaren, Episcopal Convention 2009, Day 9
Buenos dias, hermanas y hermanos. Para mi, es un gran placer y honor estar con ustedes y pensar juntos sobre el evangelio de Jesus, que es el reino de dios. Me gustaria mucho dar todo de esta charla en espanol, pero cuando hablo en espanol, hago millones de errores grammaticos, y por eso, sera mejor para todos hablar en ingles. Con permiso …
Sisters and brothers, we live in a strange time in relation to the E-Word. For many of us, the word evangelism evokes ugly and morally tainted associations with colonialism, religious supremacy, and shabby televangelism. As a result, many Episcopalians would say that evangelism may be Southern Baptist or Pentecostal, but it’s not Episcopalian, thank you very much. May I humbly propose that the time for this reactionary prejudice against evangelism is over? May I further propose that from this day forward, we see E-piscopal and E-vangelistic as a holy union joined together by God, and what God has joined together, no one should put asunder. Amen?
Think of it this way: If only fundamentalists evangelize in America, what predictions can you make about the future of the American religious landscape? If Christian moderates and progressives seldom if ever share their faith with love and enthusiasm, what will their future be? To rediscover the good and true essence of evangelism, we need to rediscover evangelism in a more biblical light.
And we can start with today’s reading from 2 Corinthians. There we see evangelism as our call to demonstrate and proclaim a new creation in Christ. We see our call to live and invite others into a new way of life. We see evangelism as recruiting early adopters to be part of a radical new beginning for the human race.
This world and its empires are living by an old script, Paul would say. Politics of domination and exploitation, economies of consumption, sociologies of exclusion and prejudice, and psychologies of shame and self-justification all flow from the old destructive narrative that is passing away. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ mean for Paul, among many other things, that it is time for a new politics of service and the common good, for new economies of sustainability and regeneration, for new sociologies of reconciliation and love (ubuntu), and for new psychologies rooted in grace and faith … In short, in Christ, all things are made new, and evangelism means recruiting and training people to defect from the old order and throw themselves wholeheartedly into the new way.
The E-word for Paul, then, is the R-word: reconciliation. We are God’s reconciling co-workers; we are God’s reconciling co-conspirators; we seek to demonstrate what it looks like to be spiritually and socially reconciled individuals and communities in the Spirit of the risen Christ.
This ministry of reconciliation gives us a vibrant new identity, according to Paul. We are not merely religious insiders huddled in our stained glass ghettoes, nor are we religious outsiders living without reference to the living God, but instead we are God’s peace ambassadors, insiders who intentionally move outside to invite – actually, plead is Paul’s word – to plead with others to be reconciled to God.
So we plead with them to rethink everything and follow the way of Jesus. We plead with them based on the good news that in Christ, God is offering amnesty for all offenders, whatever they’ve done, whoever they’ve been. We plead with people to stop being part of the problem, and to join God in Christ as agents of the solution, so God’s will can indeed be done on earth as it is in heaven.
If we go to our reading in John seeking a more biblical understanding of the E-word, we see none of the ugly things that typically scare well-bred Episcopalians away from evangelism. Instead, we see intelligent and earnest people engaging with Jesus in mutually respectful conversation, and at the center of the conversation, we see Jesus ask a simple, powerful question: what are you seeking? In this way, evangelism first means inciting redemptive conversations, asking good questions, helping people think about what they’re really seeking in life … and then it means inviting people to come and see … to come and experience … to join us on a journey of faith and mission and see what unfolds.
I’m sure you’ll agree that these are good things, beautiful things, needed things. I think that Episcopalians could get downright excited about evangelism if it were defined like this. And frankly, I believe Episcopalians will get excited about evangelism again. I think it’s time. I think it’s happening already, even here at this convention. I believe a corner is being turned, a new page is being turned, hearts are being turned inside-out But dear brothers and sisters, three obstacles or distractions must be overcome for this inside-out turn to be completed.
The first and most obvious is institutional conflict. I believe your community has been doing a difficult but needed service for the whole church and the whole world by wading into turbulent waters in recent years. Instead of thanks, you’ve received criticism and sometimes even mockery, as is often the case with true leaders and pioneers. But there is more at stake than the immediate outcome in terms of policy. What good would it be for your side – whatever that is – to win the debate if in the process you lost your balance and lost your identity as God’s evangelistic agents of reconciliation? Your challenge, it seems to me, is to faithfully work through this season of conflict without letting it form or deform your identity. Your challenge, it seems to me, is to reaffirm at every moment of institutional conflict your deep incarnational identity as ministers of reconciliation.
That brings us to the second potential obstacle or distraction, which I would identify as institutional identity. People like you in these times of institutional conflict and stress could easily be tempted to lodge your identity in the saving of a beloved institution. But here we encounter, I believe, a great spiritual paradox. To recall Jesus’ words, what if those who try to save their institutions will lose them? What if the best way to save an institution is to focus on saving something else, something bigger? What if the point isn’t saving the institution but rather leveraging the institution in the saving of … the world, the world God so loves, according to John 3:16? In your simultaneous commitment to the Millennium Development Goals and to true and deep evangelism, you are in the process of choosing this outward, missional focus … leveraging your institution for God’s mission in today’s world. So much depends on this. I hope you see how deeply a commitment to poverty reduction, planetary stewardship, and peacemaking is related to a commitment to evangelism. I don’t believe one commitment can be successful without the other.
That means that we can’t afford to have a single one of you, as leaders in the church, to see yourselves as institutional maintenance people alone. From oldest to youngest, from the most seasoned bishop to the most newly baptized disciple, you must see yourselves as leveraging the institution for the mission of making disciples, and not vice versa. Do you see the difference? If you seek to do evangelism for the sake of the institution, I think you will lose ground and experience frustration. But if you align and retool the institution for the grand biblical mission of making authentic, fully-formed disciples of Jesus Christ for the good of the world, I think you will find God’s empowerment and blessing at every turn.
Which brings us to the third obstacle which all denominations face, not just Episcopalians: along with institutional conflict and institutional identity, we must grapple with institutional rigidity. From my outsider’s perspective, your most urgent issue of institutional rigidity relates to the complex ways candidates are accepted and trained into ordained ministry. To put it bluntly: for all your system does well, it is perfectly designed to scare away from Episcopal leadership almost everyone with a spiritual gift and passion for evangelism. And I have to make a confession: I am one of those people who was scared away about twenty years ago. I was deeply drawn both to evangelism and to the Anglican tradition while I was in graduate school in my twenties. But as I approached my discernment retreat with the bishop, I increasingly felt that a call to Episcopal ministry was at odds with my primary calling to evangelism. I hope that you will make it possible for people like me not have to choose one over the other in the future. May it be said to all people who are gifted and called in evangelism that the Episcopal church welcomes you. Amen? Perhaps today, this hope is coming true.
The good news is that this would be a relatively simple thing to change … and the Episcopal structure itself, I believe, has remarkable inherent powers of self-renewal. And that’s why, I believe, every moment of Episcopal crisis is also a moment of Episcopal opportunity. Perhaps, in the ways of the Spirit, the crisis and opportunity always go together. In that Spirit, let us pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, You stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace. So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, for the honor of your name. Let us not forget the lessons of the past nor fear the challenges of the future. Anoint us with your grace and shine in our hearts as we reflect your light, seeking to be and make disciples in reconciling communities for the good of the world you so love. Amen. (BCP)
2 Corinthians 5:17-20
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
John 1:35-42
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).
Talk at LA night, Wed. evening:
Breath, sky, water, earth. I don’t know if you’ve thought of it this way, but that’s what you and I are made of. Earth, touched by water and light from the sky yield plants which feed the animals which together feed us … and every breath we take is a reminder that we take in, we give out, we take in, we give out, and we are part of the breath, sky, water, and earth of God’s creation. Breath, sky, water, and earth are parts of the whole of who we are, and we are part of the whole with breath, sky, water, and earth.
Sin can be defined in many ways, but few definitions are more comprehensive than this one: sin is apartness. Sin is apartheid. It is breaking apart from God, from our neighbor, from the stranger and other and enemy. It is breaking apart from the earth. Sin is the violation of the whole for the benefit of the part.
Salvation, in this sense, means the restoration of wholeness. It means reconciling parties who have been living in apartness or apartheid. It means bringing all things together in Christ, as we have it in Ephesians.
The Old King James Bible did us a favor in this regard, a favor that is largely lost in newer translations. New translations typically use the simple word heal to translate the term for save in the Gospels, but the King James typically used the term “made whole.” So the woman with the hemorrage in Matthew 9 wants to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment so she will be made whole, and Jesus tells her her faith has made her whole. Similarly, the man with the withered hand is made whole in Matthew 12, and the daughter of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 is made whole, and the blind man in Mark 10 is made whole, as is the centurian’s servant in Luke 7. And Jesus says it is not the whole who need a physician but the sick.
Whole in this sense means that all the parts are working in right relation with one another. They are plugged in, connected, and functioning harmoniously. Saving and healing mean making whole, and as signs and wonders, they give us insight into what it means to call Jesus savior. He is the one who has come to help us, to lead us, to empower us and train us to leave our apartheid, our apartness, our unwholeness, and to enter into the wholeness of God.
The wholeness of God … In the aftermath of Jesus’ life and ministry among us, Christian theologians, after a few centuries of reflection, eventually found themselves re-imagining God in a radically new and unprecedented way … not as a simple transcendent monad ruling over everything as before, but as a Trinitarian wholeness whose nature was inherently social and relational, and therefore dynamic and alive. In this way, God wasn’t simply a member of a set to be connected with: God was in Godself the connectivity into which everything would be connected and everything would be made whole.
Among the many things we who are leaders in the church do – whether we’re ordained or not, paid or not – as leaders in the church we help people enter into greater aliveness, and a key way we help them enter into greater aliveness is by helping them see things whole and be more whole. At the eucharist, we mystically eat Christ’s body and blood, reunifying in our bodies what was separated in Jesus’ death, so we embody the wholeness of Christ. We learn to see ourselves as members of the larger whole, you a hand, me an elbow, him an ear, her a foot … all part of one larger whole.
Don’t think about this too much, or you might blow up … but your body consists of over 60 trillion human cells, plus even more non-human cells without which you couldn’t survive. In each of those human cells, there are 400 billion molecules consisting of trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity going on in your body at this very instant totals over one septillion actions, which is one with 24 zeroes after it. Your body right now has more processes going on inside it than there are stars in the universe. All this explains why some of us feel so tired much of the time.
But my point is, your body is a parable of wholeness. A lot of things have to be going right for you to live through the next breath. And you just did! And then expand this wholeness upwards. Think of the fact that you are part of larger wholes – families, communities, even this Episcopal community and the Anglican communion. And each of those larger wholes is part of still larger wholes, nations, ecosystems, planetary systems, solar and galactic systems, and so on.
What a difference to see ourselves in this great wholeness rather than fragmenting the wholeness in terms of our individual self-interest.
Your faith has made you whole. Your faith has brought you wholeness. Your faith has brought you into wholeness. No wonder the early church sang these lyrics in the Colossian hymn:
For in Christ all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible … in him all things hold together … For God was pleased to have all God’s fullness dwell in Christ, and through Christ God was pleased to reconcile all things to Godself.
For the apostles, the gospel was a message not of a new religion coming on the market, competing for market share, but of a new wholeness into which all people of all religions are invited … It was a message of reconciliation, a plea for everyone to be reconciled to God and to one another in the most beautiful whole of all, the kingdom of God, the ultimate whole which includes, if we can imagine this, both God and creation together in one cosmic embrace.
Seek first the kingdom of God, Jesus said. Seek first the wholeness, the big whole. If you do, as you do, your individual needs will be taken care of.
Jesus walked among the people, teaching and touching, healing and feeding, bringing people into the connectivity he called the kingdom of God. Jesus walked among the people, spreading a contagious wholeness … a wholeness which doesn’t absorb particularity into homogeneity, but a wholeness which mirrors the trinity, where Father, Son, and Spirit are not collapsed into one another, but are a beautiful, glorious whole in whom there is no apartheid, but rather glorious harmony, wonderful unity, majestic mystery.