Archives for September 2012

Bible Study: 20 Pentecost, Proper 23 (B) – Oct. 14, 2012

Discussion Leader: Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 10:23-25)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-15 (or Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Psalm 90:12-17); Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

 

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

As the story of Job unfolds, Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, have come to sit with Job in his suffering, and to convince him that his fate is deserved. They represent the voices of traditional theology and piety. They insist that the old explanations must hold true, evil deeds are always punished, good is always rewarded. In this matrix, Job should simply admit his fault and acknowledge that God is just. At this point in the text, Job is becoming tired of hearing the harangues of the three, and is now shifting to a sense of longing for God’s presence. Job feels remote from God, drowning in the brutality of God’s silence and inaccessibility. This is a dark night of the soul.

Dark nights are a reality of mature faith and spirituality. The author of Job courageously presents such an experience here in dramatic prose. The darkness of deep desolation oozes through the expressions of searching for God everywhere; finding God nowhere. The inclusion of such a searing and honest text in the biblical canon validates the experience of spiritual darkness for all generations, offering a hand in solidarity across the centuries between the author of Job’s own time and ours.

Which word or phrase from Job’s speech in today’s text resonate the most with you?

How does your own spiritual/faith experience mirror today’s reading from Job?

Psalm 22:1-15

This psalm of lament, so well know because Jesus’ quotes it, according to Mark’s Passion narrative, is cast in two parts. Our text today holds the first complaint, interspersed with words of hope, and fond remembrance of a former time of the Lord’s closeness. Like the reading from Job, this psalm speaks of darkness and longing for God’s presence. The tone is one of desperation; the psalmist has become pitifully poor in the sense that there is nowhere else to turn but God, and God cannot be found. The text illustrates that the Israelites were not above trying to shame or cajole God into acting. Desperate, dramatic pleas were not beyond the pale in attempts to evoke a compassionate response from the Lord.

Because the psalms were written to be sung in the Temple, lamenting God’s absence and publicly voicing feelings of desperation which accompany spiritual darkness had a place in the Israelite religious imagination. Might there be a place for such ritualized expression in our contemporary church? Most faithful believers pass through times of dryness, feeling nothing but longing, frustration, and an emptiness of soul. Are such people given sufficient pastoral support? We are encouraged, of course, to have a strong, warm personal relationship with God and we hear plenty of testimony from those who experience this. But this psalm, like the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, speak to the reality of those who suffer in the dark and wonder why God remains silent.

How might we be more pastorally supportive of those who experiencing times of spiritual darkness?

Hebrews 4:12-16

Our reading from Hebrews today covers a transition in the text– from a final statement about the power of God’s word to an exhortation that we should be confident in approaching God because Jesus, our brother, who sympathizes with us (verse 15), has passed through the heavens to be with God. The humanity of Jesus is underscored once again, but in the context of his exalted divinity. Most significantly, the author teaches that we have an advocate and an understanding ear in Jesus, although he is in a realm far removed from us. And we are invited to move forward toward him – an image which will become prominent in the remainder of the epistle. Hebrews has an engaging way of holding the paradox of Jesus’ humanity and divinity. Using vivid imagery of Jesus ascending through the numerous heavens (a reflection of the Israelite belief of the time), he remains connected to us, in solidarity with us, attentive to our hopes and concerns, despite his role as heavenly high priest. The author also emphasizes Jesus’ role as the Son of God (verse 14). This implies special access that a child has to a parent, and invites one to ponder and imagine the mercy, compassion and patience that a child can draw from his/her parents, for one’s self and for others. These few verses lead us toward such an imagining, and a sense of confidence that God, through Jesus, invites us to share in the closeness that he, our brother, enjoys.

Is there a particular phrase or image from this passage that resonates with you?

How does this text nourish your image of Jesus as a brother?

Mark 10:17-31

Many of Jesus’ teachings speak of the paradoxical way to the kingdom of God –something must be lost in order for the kingdom to be gained. Here Jesus speaks of losing wealth and even family in order to gain. The wisdom of Jesus, and the paradox of Christian faith, is that one must make downward journey, not one of ascent. The wisdom of the world teaches the opposite – we will find happiness in the gain of wealth, power, notoriety, perfection (in work, in family, in social status, in looks, in one’s spouse/partner). But Jesus often speaks about losing, taking a different path that only leads to shedding things, embracing a spirit of poverty (which sometimes might mean actual financial poverty). It is hard to preach and model such ideas in our culture today; most people don’t want to hear it. But there comes a point in life, if one is fortunate, when we begin to see the truth in what Jesus is saying, that there is little wisdom and grace to be gained in success, especially as one enters midlife; that authentic transformation and growth comes from failure, from giving up, from letting go of expectations we set for ourselves, from letting go of control, and letting God’s wisdom lead the way. It is only then that Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel becomes good news, when we are willing to let God do something unexpected, make what seems impossible and paradoxical possible (cf v. 31).

Discuss Jesus’ call to a path of descent, of letting go, of giving up. What does this mean for the Christian of the twenty-first century?

Bible Study: 19 Pentecost, Proper 22 (B) – Oct. 7, 2012

Discussion Leader: Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“The Pharisees said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce his wife.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.’” (Mark 10:4-5)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Job 1:1, 2:1-10 and Psalm 26 (or Genesis 2:18-24 and Psalm 8); Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Job 1:1; 2:1-10

It has been said that the Book of Job is where the Bible runs off a cliff! The text probes the mystery of suffering, but ultimately yields no satisfactory answer. The great contribution of Job lies in its realistic assessment of the explanations that traditional theology often provides for suffering. Those traditions held that the recipient deserves suffering, that God wills it, that there is always a reason. This masterpiece of literature is in touch with a deep reality of the human experience – that sometimes suffering is inexplicable.

In our passage today, let’s focus on the response of Job’s wife. “Do you persist in your integrity? Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). We anticipate that Job would say this, but he does not. In fact, we are in only the second chapter of the book and God has already been vindicated in his exchange with the Satan – Job does not curse God, just as God predicted. Job’s wife, however, has something to teach us. When faced with this tragedy that she cannot understand, she becomes angry and rages. This is an easy route to take; such feelings come to all us quite naturally. Job, however, does not follow her. Instead, he chooses to make the journey into his woundedness, wrestling with his hurt, wrestling with God, spending those days and nights in the ashes, facing the stark reality of his pain. Job, like Jesus, teaches us that we must be willing to enter into the dark mystery of suffering and our deepest wounds if we are to see them be transformed.

Discuss Job’s response to his suffering vis-à-vis that of his wife.

How might a journey into our deepest wounds and hurts allow God to transform them into something sacred and life giving?

Psalm 8

This psalm presents a paradox – the same Creator who made things as wondrous as the moon and stars cares deeply about human beings. Carefully echoing the theology, themes and vocabulary of Genesis Chapter 1, this psalm underscores the juxtaposition of God’s majesty with human insignificance. The psalmist also wonders at the beauty and diversity of creation, while exhibiting a keen awareness of the relationship humanity has with other creatures. Like Genesis 1, the psalmist evokes the idea of “dominion” – “You give him mastery over the works of your hands; you put all things under his feet” to describe the place of humanity in the created order – a concept that implies stewardship, care and concern. This psalm links the theme of human beings crowned with honor and glory with our responsibility to other creatures. As those made in the image and likeness of God, we are to act as the image and likeness of God (i.e., as God’s viceroys). This requires a attitude of stewardship, protection and attentiveness on our part, not exploitation, marginalization or abuse of the created order.

Why did the psalmist link the idea of humanity having “mastery” over creation with the Lord’s name as being “glorious over all the earth” (v. 10)? What are the implications of this for Christian living?

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

The Epistle to the Hebrews is not really a letter but more of an extended sermon that seeks to make three points:  Jesus is the word of God; Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross atones for sin; Jesus has special insight into the heavenly world of God (The Collegeville Bible Commentary, p. 1249). In these opening verses, Jesus is recognized as the fullness of God’s communication, and the author of the epistle establishes a very “high” understanding of Jesus by noting Jesus’ heavenly seat, and superiority to the angels. For some time in Christian contemplation of Jesus, there has been a great emphasis on what is called “high Christology”, i.e., Jesus’ divine attributes. In more recent years, Jesus scholarship has reoriented the focus toward his humanity. Today’s text reminds us to remain aware of both: Jesus did indeed serve as the fullness of God’s communication to humanity, and in human form; but there is also the mystical, unknowable dimension of Jesus that is his divinity. This is a paradox to be contemplated.

The remaining verses are an interpretation of Jesus in light of Psalm 8. In Chapter One of Hebrews, Jesus was extolled because he is the son of God; here because he is a human being. We see quite clearly how the ancient writer is using the psalm to serve interpretative ends. The psalm is cast as a reference to Jesus, not humanity as a whole. But Jesus does stand in solidarity with human beings during the time when he was made “lower than the angels” (v. 9) because he shared the experience of death and because we all share the same Creator parent (v. 11). Even though Jesus is now enthroned in heavenly glory, he is still our brother (v.11).

How do we, as Christians, understand Jesus as the definitive word of God in the context of our post-modern, pluralistic society?

How do you interpret and contemplate the paradox that Jesus, the divine Messiah now gloriously enthroned in heaven is our “brother” who shares our humanity?

Mark 10:2-16

In the culture of Jesus, marriage was not primarily a joining of two people, but two families. And the ideal marriage partner was a man’s father’s brother’s daughter. Cousin marriages were and to some extent still remain the norm in Middle Eastern culture. A divorce then was a major family trauma, involving dynamics of honor and shame. Perhaps Jesus saw the pain and even violence that could result from rent families, and is here exhorting his audience to avoid such circumstances. The church has not taken Jesus’ teaching literally. In fact, this is one of a few direct, unambiguous teaching of Jesus that we do not follow. (Another, for example, is Jesus instruction not to swear oaths, see Matthew 5:33-37.) Contemporary pastoral theology views Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel as an ideal, but we accept that it is an ideal that will not always be reached, and we act with compassion toward those who divorce.

Jesus also teaches that one must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. Some have interpreted this passage to mean that Jesus is saying that we must become simple in mind and obedient as children are. An alternative, more mature way of seeing this text is to recognize that children accept every moment with a sense of joy, wonder, innocence and trust in the goodness of life. They are deeply present in the moment, free from anxiety about the future, holding no regret about the past, basking in the peace and contentment of the moment. Perhaps Jesus is inviting his audience to a similar way of embracing the world – the place where his Father’s kingdom is to come.

How do you interpret Jesus’ teaching regarding divorce?

Discuss Jesus’ instruction that one must receive the kingdom of God like a child. What does this mean for a mature adult of the modern church?

Bible Study: 18 Pentecost, Proper 21 (B) – Sept. 30, 2012

Discussion Leader: Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:50)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 and Psalm 124 (or Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 and Psalm 19:7-14); James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Today’s reading from the book of Numbers interweaves three themes – the peoples’ frustration with their situation of wandering in the desert with little to eat, Moses’ frustration with the heavy responsibilities he has been given, and the independence of the prophetic office from priestly control. The vacillation of both the Israelites and Moses in their trust in God’s guidance and protection is a matter that has received a great deal of reflection. In much preaching and catechesis, both Moses and the people are held up as negative examples, portraits of divided hearts, lacking in trust. (Jesus, in turn, is characterized as the model of faithfulness, as opposed to the unfaithful Israel.) But it might be helpful to allow ourselves to identify for a moment with both the people and Moses. Are there not times when we shake our fists at God, asking, “Why have you done this?” or “Why have you placed this burden upon me?” One who is spiritually mature inevitably passes through such times. Like Moses, we might bring these feelings of grievance to God, admitting our hurt, and allowing for the possibility that God will respond.

The final section of this reading deals with the gift of prophecy. The “elders” represent institutional leadership. Some of these leaders are given the gift of prophecy, but not all. Two other men, Eldad and Medad, were also given the gift of prophecy and were exercising it outside the leadership’s control. Moses, in an act of great wisdom, approves, wishing that all of God’s people might be so blessed with this gift. This passage is a warning to all who occupy positions of leadership in institutional churches – the Spirit will blow where she wills; the Spirit cannot and will not be confined to institutions and their leaders. Don’t try to obstruct her!

Have you had an experience analogous to the ancient Israelites,  a time that compelled you to complain to God, questioning God’s ways and plans? How did you navigate this spiritual crisis?

Do you see modern examples of the gift of prophecy being exercised beyond the confines of institutional religion? Conversely, do you see examples of institutions trying to muzzle prophets?

Psalm 19:7-14

The Law, the themes of these verses of Psalm 19, was seen by the Israelites as a gift of God. Because God loved them so, God taught them how to live harmonious and holy lives through the giving of the Law. But God’s Law was more than the 613 precepts of the Torah. It also included the wisdom of God. The books of the Wisdom canon, which include Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, the Canticle, Wisdom, and Sirach, were reflections upon God’s teaching revealed in the everyday ebb and flow of life. When discerned, these “laws” led to the “good life” – peace, justice, genuine neighborliness.

The psalmist extols the Law in a way that implies more than literal observance of its precepts. The gaining of wisdom is also underscored (verse 7), and the happiness one gains through living the spirit of the Law is sweet (verse 10). Verse 11 speaks of a great reward. Contemporary Christians might be inclined to view this in a simplistic, reward/punishment matrix: the reward will come in the form of admission to heaven. But at this point in Israelite religion, belief in an afterlife was not a part of the religious imagination. If reward were to come at all, it would be in this life. And the prize for following the laws of Wisdom would be fullness of life here and now.

How do you understand the concept of God’s Law? Is it more than written decrees? Does it include the teaching of Wisdom discerned through everyday living? How might we integrate those two conceptions of law – written decrees and Wisdom teaching?

How do you interpret verse 11 – “in keeping them there is great reward”? Do you view the reward as a deferred dividend we receive in heaven, or as the fullness of life here and now? What implications, good and bad, might these two different interpretations have as we seek to live as disciples today?

James 5:13-20

These are the closing verses of the letter of James, a text attributed to Jesus’ brother, written possibly as early as 60 CE. James exhorts his readers to integrate their faith into every aspect of their lives, and resist faith being reduced to the acceptance of theory and ideas.

The author’s final thoughts deal with prayer and ritual. Notice James’ instruction to call for the elders to pray over the sick, using oil in the name of the Lord. This ritual most certainly was a forerunner of the sacrament of anointing. We also note James’ teaching that we should confess our sins to one another – a possible prototype of sacramental confession. What is most significant is that James commends prayer and ritual. One could easily argue that the ill should pray directly, and only to the Lord for healing, and confess sins only to God. James recognizes the need for human contact through ritualized gestures/actions, things that are rapidly disappearing from our contemporary western culture.

James concludes by underscoring his major theme – faith in action. Christians, in James’ teaching, must do more than hear the word. They must act. The author’s reference to death in verse 20 does not refer to physical death or damnation in the afterlife, but rather separation from the community. Faith in action, then, is faith that works for the building up and preservation of the community. Although individual members of a community might be sinners, the good work to maintain the unity of the group serves to counteract, to “cover a multitude of sins” (v. 20).

Why are ritual prayers and gestures important in the practice of Christian faith?

When have such rituals been especially significant in your experience?

Mark 9:38-50

This gospel text has the potential to raise serious questions for our Christian communities; questions that most likely will not have clear answers. After echoing the teaching and example of Moses as we studied earlier (i.e., that the work of God/the Spirit will not always be under institutional control – or not under the immediate control of Jesus and his disciples, in this context), Jesus employs a common ancient literary device to teach another point: the body metaphor. The body was often used to symbolize the community. (See also 1 Cor. 12.) Jesus is here addressing the issue of scandal – if a member of the community is leading others astray, that member should be removed, before the whole body is damaged. Jesus’ language here is strong. His concluding proverb about salt is not innocuous. Salt was used in the ancient Near East as a catalyst to start fires. He is telling his audience to be confrontational at times. Verse 50 could be interpreted to mean that troublemakers should be confronted so that the community can have peace. In the context of our modern church communities, we struggle to find a balance between protecting the integrity of the community and being compassionate toward the wayward, and we must also be aware of those who would abuse Jesus teaching about dealing with scandalous members.

How are we to address the issue of “scandal” in our church communities?

How might we be “salt,” as Jesus instructs, but still be compassionate toward others?

How wealthy was the Rich Young Ruler really?, 20 Pentecost, Proper 23 (B) – October 14, 2012

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-15 (or Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Psalm 90:12-17); Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Today’s story of the Rich Young Ruler is one of the most familiar in the gospels. This may be due, in part, to the fact that it occurs in more than one gospel. In addition to Mark’s account, almost identical stories can be found in Matthew and Luke. It is familiarity with all three of these that causes us to call it the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Though he is rich, or at least identified as “having many possessions” in all three gospels, it is Matthew who tells us he is young and Luke who calls him a ruler. But no matter what we call him, the subject of the story is the same: wealth and its role, not just in the life of this man, but in our own.

Wealth bought privilege in the time of Christ, and it does today. In Jesus’ world, it could be seen as a reward for faithfully following God’s commands. Do you remember Job? When he lost his children, his flocks and herds, all that he had, his supposed friends, who came to commiserate with him, kept asking what sin he had committed to cause God to take away all these things. They assumed Job’s wealth, both familial and financial, were signs of God’s favor. Up to the point of the loss of this wealth, everyone had seen Job as a righteous man, one who had, therefore, received these signs of blessing. The loss of his wealth, therefore, must be outward and visible signs of the loss of that divine favor. As a rich man, he was one of God’s favorites. As one who had lost his wealth, Job had done something to offend God.

Now look again at our Rich Young Ruler. As a wealthy person who kept all the commandments, he must have enjoyed approval, privileges, the envy of his community and regard as one who did indeed enjoy God’s favor. We might expect that he was a favorite of the temple hierarchy, an honored guest among his friends, and probably seated at the head of the table instead of the foot. His wealth most likely placed him in the among the first of his community, most decidedly not the last.

To give away all his possessions was to risk losing all of this. His friends might look upon him as Job’s friends looked upon Job. What had he done that he must give everything away and atone by giving it all to the poor? Would selling all that he had include selling his home, not to mention all the possessions that furnished it? And how would he buy food? How would he live? Is it any wonder that he walks away in sorrow?

Our Rich Young Ruler is not the only one distressed. Imagine the expressions on the faces of the disciples when Jesus tells them it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. It is a powerful metaphor. People have struggled with it for centuries. Since Medieval times, some have believed that “the eye of the needle” referred to a very short gate into Jerusalem. However, there is no evidence that such a gate ever existed. The word used in the Greek text refers to an actual sewing needle. In any case, Jesus is talking about trying to push something much too large through an opening much too small. The only way to enter that small door is to get rid of all the excess.

Mansions, walk-in closets full of rarely or never-worn clothing, cabinets full of things that are seldom used but need to be dusted, all of the non-essentials that wealth tempts us to accumulate can become not signs of God’s blessings, but the barriers to a life-altering relationship with God.

Possessions are a primary temptation that comes with wealth. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. “I want it. I have the money; I’ll buy it.” As prosperity grows, our decisions about using money move slowly from an emphasis on needs to wants. We have it not because we need it, but because we want it. Throughout his ministry it becomes abundantly clear that Jesus hopes our want will be to satisfy the needs of others. In the third parable in Matthew 25, the sorting parable, Jesus makes it clear that those who have been attentive to the needs of those around them, those who have offered food for the hungry, something to drink to the thirsty, visited the sick and those in prison, these are the ones who will enter the kingdom of heaven. To care for these ones in need is to care for Jesus himself. Those who are not willing to use their own possessions to meet the needs of others can expect eternal fire.

Considering how harshly Jesus talks about the rich, it is reasonable to ask how Jesus feels about them. The young teenager was not alone when he asked the leader of the Bible study, “Does this mean that Jesus hates rich people?” Thankfully, Mark provides a clear answer when he tells us in verse 21, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” and then goes on to instruct the young man to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and come and follow him. Jesus’ reply is deeply rooted not in envy, distrust or any desire to put down one whose position of privilege came from worldly wealth. It comes from the kind of love that would yearn for this man to know his true worth without the possessions, the ways in which God’s love wants to provide for him in ways he can never provide for himself, to know the confidence that he is indeed one of God’s beloved and to live in that light.

As we watch the young man walk away, some recall the widow whom Jesus applauds when she, among all the people bringing substantial offerings, gives only two small coins. In Mark 12 we read: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she, out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Ironically, the widow has done what the Rich Young Ruler could not. Can it be that it is easier not to possess many things?

Consider this lesson on how to trap a monkey. The story goes that African hunters wanting to capture monkeys unharmed would use as a trap a bottle with a long narrow neck, just large enough so a monkey could put its hand in it. In the evening the bottle would be tied to a tree, and in the bottom of the bottle they would place several good-smelling nuts. In the morning they would find a monkey with its hand clutching the nuts, held securely in the bottle. At any time, the monkey could have released itself simply by opening its hand and letting go of the nuts.

“You can’t take it with you,” is a common bit of folk wisdom. It usually means that when we die, we have to leave all of our possessions behind, so we might as well enjoy them now. What Jesus seems to be saying to us is that not only can we not take possessions with us beyond the grave, but clinging to them, like the monkey to its nuts, holds us captive. There will be places we cannot go, experiences we cannot have, and insights that will never illuminate our lives if we let our possessions possess us.

This does not mean that prosperity should not be seen as coming from God. It can be seen – just as we see wisdom, talent, opportunity and a host of other things – as a gift from God. Too often, however, we fail to recognize that every Godly gift carries with it God’s hope for how it might be used. Joy for us is when we align our use of the gifts God gives with what we discern to be God’s hope. Our Rich Young Ruler is a monkey who cannot let go, free himself of the bottle, and enter into an earthly adventure that will carry him surely to the kingdom of heaven.

In reflection on today’s reading, three questions come to mind:

What are the gifts God has given us?

What is God’s hope for their use?

Are we able to let go of whatever it is that keeps us from following Jesus?

 

— The Rev. Terry Parsons served as the stewardship officer for the Episcopal Church from 1996 to 2008 and remained a churchwide resource for inquiries about stewardship, evangelism, marketing and congregational development. Most recently, she served as the rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Bay City, Mich.

[NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: The Rev. Terry Parsons passed away on October 3, 2012 (obituary). She is remembered with great fondness and respect by those of us who were fortunate enough to have known her and worked with her over the years. It is with heartfelt gratitude for her knowledge and expertise in the field of Christian stewardship that we offer this final sermon by the Rev. Parsons.]

A child’s view of St. John the Divine

Rockliff offers thoughtful history of NYC cathedral for children

Me and Momma and Big John. Mara Rockliff, illustrated by William Low. Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2012. 32 pp.

In this gorgeously written and beautifully illustrated children’s book, Mara Rockliff tells the story of a stonecutter’s son as he learns about his mother’s work on the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (“Big John”) in New York City. The middle child of a black working mother in Queens, N.Y., John is curious about the world. Momma tells him all about how huge St. John the Divine is, how it could hold a whole a whole apartment building, and how you could ride an elephant through the front door. John cannot understand why it is taking her so long to finish, but Momma explains that, in some ways, raising such a huge building is like raising a child; it just takes much longer. Many hands have worked on the building, she explains, and still it is not done.

Every morning, he knows, she gets up very early to ride into Manhattan so she can cut stone for the church, and every evening she returns tired, to care for her three children. After weeks of hard work, he is surprised to find out that his mother has been perfecting only one stone. Instead of a laborer, he assumes she must be some kind of artist. Finally Momma finishes the stone, and on Sunday, the she takes John and his siblings to see the work she has done. They look at the humble and perfect stone she has carved, and she explains where it will go.

Then she takes them into the cathedral. There, John says, the church is so big he expects the singing voices to fly away and disappear. As he and Momma join in the singing, John learns that Momma’s work is also part of a great spiritual endeavor.

This remarkable children’s book, perfect for ages 4 to 8, teaches John and young readers an affectingly simple lesson about Momma’s labor: though her work seems at first small and anonymous, it turns out that it is much more. Rockliff and Low have created a sweet book that venerates Momma as a worker, showing her labor as a job, as a work of art and as a prayer.

“Me and Momma and Big John” is a pleasure to look at and read aloud. The book’s highlights are William Low’s marvelous illustrations of New York City light and life – which are bound to capture the attention of young readers – and Mara Rockliff’s reverent storytelling, which weaves together the generations of people who have worked on the cathedral and provides a thoughtful history of the construction of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Giving young readers a picture of the cathedral amidst a changing city, the author presents the church as particularly important New York landmark.

Perfect for native New Yorkers, neighbors of the cathedral and parents planning a visit to the city and church, “Me and Momma and Big John” introduces the captivating presence and history of St. John the Divine to readers of all ages.

 

(Rebecca Novack grew up in Colorado and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has her master’s degree in theological studies and is an avid fiction reader.)

A run through the thorns, 19 Pentecost, Proper 22 (B) – October 7, 2012

Job 1:1, 2:1-10 and Psalm 26 (or Genesis 2:18-24 and Psalm 8); Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

This morning, may we dare to run through the field of thorns and find the great treasure that awaits us there. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today’s gospel passage catches our attention because it addresses marriage and divorce in a way that’s unavoidable. Many preachers would like to bypass this text on this day, preach on marriage only at weddings, and not have to talk about divorce at all.

And who can blame them? Preaching about divorce and marriage is like running through a field of thorns. Why? Because any contemporary congregation is likely to contain people who are married, people who are divorced, people who are divorced and remarried, people who may get divorced at some time in the future, people who have been treated shabbily by churches due to their marital difficulties, peoples whose lives and families and friends have been hurt by the pain of divorce. It’s everybody’s issue, indirectly or directly. Preaching about it looks like running through a field of thorns, and listening to a sermon on marriage and divorce can, no doubt, seem the same way: one misstep and we just add to the hurting.

But let us venture together carefully into the thorny field, in the hope that amid the briars we can find together what sermons are supposed to reveal: good news for a world that’s broken and in pain.

The discussion gets started because some of the Pharisees are out to get Jesus. They want to trap him in his words and so destroy his credibility. The issue they raise is a controversial one at that time: whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Authorities differ on this question. Some allow divorce only in instances of adultery. Others allow divorce for the slightest of reasons. But note how the issue is framed: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? No consideration is given to the possibility of a wife divorcing her husband. That is out of the question. Here men have all the power.

Jesus knows this question is not an honest inquiry. These Pharisees are not interested in his opinion, but in testing him, defeating him. He responds to the question with a question: “What did Moses command you?” In other words, How does the Law of Moses read, the law you hold in such high regard?

Jesus knows the answer, of course, and so does everyone within hearing distance. It’s what today is called a no-brainer. And so the Pharisees shoot back the correct reference: Moses allows a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.

The reference here is to Deuteronomy, Chapter 24. It’s arguable, to say the least, that Moses is giving permission to divorce. What he does instead is to recognize that divorce happens and to set forth norms regarding certain types of remarriage. Like the canon law of the Episcopal Church, Moses acknowledges that divorce happens here in this world outside the Garden of Eden.

The acknowledgment found in Deuteronomy is turned by these particular Pharisees into permission for divorce. But remember, here we are not talking about an egalitarian model of marriage and divorce, but a system where men have all the power, where the sexes are treated unequally, and where a divorced woman has very little hope for the future.

Rather than endeavor to trap Jesus in his words, these Pharisees could have sought to learn something from him. Rather than raise questions about divorce, they could ask advice about how to live faithfully and well within marriage. What an opportunity they miss!

These Pharisees get the reference right, but get the spirit wrong. And Jesus lays into them. “So you give that Deuteronomy passage as permission for divorce, with its demand that the paperwork be in order? Moses would never have written that except for divorce happening anyway, except for the hardness of the human heart in this world outside Eden!”

It is as though he thumps a finger against the sternum of each of those Pharisees and says: “Don’t you get it? You hearts are hard! If human hearts were not hard, then marriages would always work, and Moses wouldn’t have written about what happens when they don’t!”

Jesus addresses each one of us and says the same thing: “Don’t you get it? Your hearts are hard!”

But please note this, and note it well. He’s not just challenging the divorced among us. He’s challenging every last one of us, even if we have been married happily for six decades. The divorced are not to be regarded as some pariah class different from the rest of us. The problem of the hard heart is not limited to divorced people, but is common to us all. In some it becomes manifest in a marital break-up. In others it shows itself in a marriage that remains together but is lifeless. In still others, hardness of heart appears in a failure to forgive our friends, in a judgmental spirit toward our children or parents, or any of the other forms of sin in which we humans become trapped. The divorced are not worse and not better than the rest of us. We all find ourselves in the same place: outside the gates of Eden.

But then Jesus stops talking about hard hearts. Instead, he takes us by both hands and looks at us with an expression of compassion, hope and remembrance. He calls us back to a time before the invention of power games, whether the sexism of his own period or today’s equal-opportunity destructiveness, where either partner can damage the other. Jesus, looking at us with that expression of compassion, hope, and remembrance, calls us back to a time before time, back to when our home was the Garden, back to the intention of God at creation. God made them male and female. Delightfully different. Wonderfully equal. Intended to be one flesh. No hardness of heart. No games, no secrets, but naked and unashamed.

We read in Genesis that the woman was made from the man’s rib. It’s said in Jewish tradition that the reason for this peculiar procedure is that woman and man might be intimate and equal. Woman was not made from man’s head, so that she should be superior, nor from his feet, that she should be inferior, but rather from a bone near his center, near his heart, that the two might be equal and intimate.

Just as a husband and wife can draw strength from remembrance of their early days as a couple, so all of us can discover again the mystery of marriage by recalling God’s original intention: that man and woman both are made in the divine image and meant for one another in a relationship of equality and intimacy.

Yes, of course, there are some marriages that are dead from the start, and others that die along the way. There are people who simply marry the wrong partner, and spouses who have the right to escape what has become of marriage when their safety or sanity is threatened.

But in other cases, divorce happens because people see marriage like those opponents of Jesus did: as a power relationship, as a problem that divorce can solve, where an insane consumer culture leads people to treat as disposable not only houses and cars, but also spouses and families.

That’s not it! Marriage is not a problem to be solved. It is a mystery to be lived. It is not a business deal subject to a cost-benefit analysis. It is a means by which wife and husband can participate in the kingdom of God – and do so in the comfort of their own home!

Some of the male contemporaries of Jesus saw their wives as merchandise, property. It is dubious progress that now both wife and husband can regard each other in that belittling way. Instead, each spouse is to be to the other joy and challenge, cross and crown.

If you are married, God has given you your spouse not so that you can experience mere consumer happiness like the owner of a new appliance designed with obsolescence in mind.

If you are married, God has given you your spouse so that together you can taste in your human way something of the joy of the marriage between God and creation, Christ and the church, the Lamb and his bride.

In our time we know too well that a broken marriage can seem like the road to hell. May we not forget that God’s abiding intention is quite the opposite: marriage is intended as a road to heaven; not a problem, but a holy mystery; not a mere happiness, but a divine joy.

In the name of the God who in the end calls all his children home to the wedding feast where by the Spirit’s power we will find ourselves united with Christ forever. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

Salted with fire, 18 Pentecost, Proper 21 (B) – September 30, 2012

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

What starts out with the disciples trying to score points with Jesus for stopping someone who is doing the work of the kingdom – healing and casting out demons – ends with Jesus telling us all to be salted with fire! In between there is all this talk of stumbling around and lopping off limbs, tearing out eyeballs and being thrown into “hell”: all in all, a fun day with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.

This is all a part of a longer section of Mark’s gospel concerned with discipleship – faithful discipleship. That is, What is expected of those of us who would call ourselves Christians? This really is a question about what it means to be human. We are to be spiced up, healed and purified by fire and salt. Oh yeah, and stop stumbling around.

Fire in the ancient world was used to purify things. Still is. Get rid of that deadly E. coli bacteria with fire, lots of fire. Just as we were all eating our spinach fresh and loving rare hamburgers, now we are told to boil the spinach to death and go back to well-done burgers.

Which bring us to salt. Salt was used to preserve foods, extend shelf life if you will. It was also used to spice things up. And finally, salt was used medicinally.

Altogether these sayings on fire and salt suggest several things. Healing within the community of Christ is necessary to be a disciple of Jesus – especially healing that is reconciliation rather than division and challenging one another’s credentials. (We might note the vast difference in meaning between Jesus’ “Whoever is not against us is for us,” and the more popular, “You are either with us or against us.”) Further, the salt that flavors us distinctively as Christ’s own people is meant to keep us from blending in with the surrounding culture. This distinctiveness implies eliminating – lopping off – those things that cause us to stumble (skandalon in Greek) – things that get in the way of being good and faithful disciples so that we can all do the work of the gospel. The contribution of Christians to the health of the world depends on our own wholesomeness. The life of the world depends on us.

Another metaphor for all of this might be pruning. We need to prune away those things that block us from following Jesus and fulfilling our Baptismal Covenant so that we can grow in those ways that make us more human. The Christian life is a life of following and pruning – pruning and following. This pruning is not so much for our sake as for the sake of the gospel.

Most of what needs to be pruned away is a modern world that teaches self-centeredness and self-reliance,  independence, as the key to the fullness of life. Whereas Jesus calls us to be those people who dare to say that the secret of life – and death – is giving oneself away: reaching out to others, to the world and to God. It is a call to a radical dependence on God. God has gifted us with himself – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us – and if we wish to achieve fulfillment, we, too, must give ourselves away. Moral progress comes only as we learn to acknowledge life as a gift – not earned or achieved – but given.

To be wrapped up in ourselves, self-centered and autonomous, says Jesus, quite simply is hell. In the text, the word is actually “Gehenna” – which is a place. Gehenna is a valley outside Jerusalem, which to this very day is a burning, worm-infested garbage dump. It also used to be the site for human sacrifices to the god Molech. There is always fire smoldering in this valley, and over time it became a geographic metaphor for what happens to those people who have little regard for others, the environment, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.

It is interesting to note that Gehenna is a product of our own creation. People go to the edge of a cliff and toss all their personal refuse over the cliff. We are guilty of this – dumping our personal stuff on others, on the earth and on God. This dumping is sin. Sin, says our Baptismal service, is those things that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, including God’s creation.

Sin is related to temptation. So, when gas is cheaper we think we can go back to pouring even more pollution into the earth’s atmosphere and pay less for the privilege. Hell, it turns out, is of our own creation and is determined in the here and now. Hell is not some future destination. We manufacture hell every day for those who are hungry, those who have no health insurance, those who suffer from disease fostered by toxic pollution, and with our the capability of nuclear arms to destroy this planet.

And hell is not a condition that affects just the individual; hell exists collectively in human society as well. Hell is the drive toward self-reliance, self-autonomy, whether of individuals, communities, churches, governments or nations. The Anglican priest and poet John Donne said it best some 360 years ago: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

So, the answer to the question, Why is Jesus talking about hell and cutting off limbs and plucking out eyes? To impress upon us the importance that what we are doing right here and now matters. That all that we do and all that we say has eternal consequences.

We can choose to create hell, or to become purified by fire and seasoned with the salt of Jesus. We can squabble over who is the greatest and who can or cannot heal and cast out demons, or we can welcome everyone who does the work of Christ who has already redeemed the whole world on the cross. We can be those people who hold on to all we have, or become those people who give ourselves away. We do this not for our sake but for the sake of the gospel, for others and the world.

We do this to become people of fire and salt. As we read in today’s gospel, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland, where he teaches World Religions and IB English. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

Bible Study: 17 Pentecost, Proper 20 (B) – Sept. 23, 2012

Discussion Leader: Paula Toland, Episcopal Divinity School

“He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’” (Mark 9:35)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Proverbs 31:10-31 and Psalm 1 (or Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20 and Psalm 54); James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Proverbs 31:10-31

This, to me, is a challenging passage. It is difficult to look beyond the immediate visceral reaction to the patriarchal assumptions about a woman’s life and worth being connected to her husband – thus the description of the “capable wife.” These assumptions would have been expected and accepted when Proverbs was written. And we know that passages such as these continue to be used to relegate women around the world to second-class status. As difficult as it may be, I urge you to look further, to read more deeply, because this passage says much about the woman’s independence, her strength, her skills, and her ability to execute life-giving choices for herself, her family, and the poor and needy. Although vulnerable in the society, she is clothed in strength and dignity and is recognized for speaking with wisdom and kindness. As I read this passage more deeply, I imaging the “capable wife” in conversation with the Lord she fears, letting God know that she making the best use of the gifts God has given her while holding society’s assumptions and expectations lightly, as she “laughs at the time to come” when God’s vision will be the reality for all.

Do you find it possible or valuable to dig deeper into those biblical passages that challenge your theology and worldview, perhaps especially with those passages that have been used to silence your voice? Are you able to focus on the wisdom or a vision of God’s kingdom that enables you to hold the challenging bits lightly?

Where in your life are you challenged to look beyond what you first see to what is underneath? Is it with a particular person or group of people? Is it with a particular theology, worldview, or political stance? Are you able to see anything positive with a deeper look?

Psalm 1

Psalm 1 tells us that those who depend on God will be fruitful. When we make God’s will the focus of our lives, that pivotal center from which we derive our strength and abilities, we will prosper. When we allow human will – “the counsel of the wicked” or “the way of sinners” or a “scornful” attitude – to become the source of our values and actions, we lose our ability to live righteously, to live in accordance with God’s will. We become estranged from God. This estrangement leads to the kind of deep unhappiness that can be characterized as despair or hopelessness. As Christians, we understand that God’s will, God’s desire for life-giving relationship with us, is transformative, leading to hopefulness and joy. With hopefulness and joy we are able to live into the unique gifts that God gives to each of us in ways that are fruitful and allow us to prosper God’s kingdom.

Where are the places in your life where you consider yourself less than fruitful? Are those places in which you find it more difficult to follow God’s will?

What would it take to let go of human will and desires and allow God’s will to become the focus of that part of your life?

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

James’ epistle continues the theme of dependence on God in all that we are and do. James extends the ideas of God’s will and wisdom beyond the individual to relationships in community. In much the same way that reliance on human will leads to estrangement from God and despair and hopelessness for the person, reliance on “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” wisdom leads to discord in the community. We are rendered unable to live peaceably with each other because we are focused on the ways in which we feel slighted or deprived. When we are focused in this way we cannot see all that God has given us and is doing in and through us. We no longer consider ourselves blessed to be created in God’s image, as each of us is, and crave those things that are not born of the pure love that is God’s love for God’s creation. We lose sight of ourselves as God’s own. We lose our ability to ask of God what is God’s will for us and become vulnerable to wickedness and sin. James tells us to submit ourselves to God, to be vulnerable to the full experience of God’s will in our lives, because in that vulnerability we will experience God’s grace and mercy.

If you think about the places of discord and conflict in your life, are those places in which you feel you have been slighted or deprived somehow? Are those places in which you feel vulnerable to another person?

Where are the places in your life in which it is easier to experience or recognize God’s grace and mercy? Would you say that in those places you have allowed yourself to be vulnerable to God?

Is there a place that you would like to be more vulnerable, to draw nearer to God so that you might know God’s presence more fully in your life?

Mark 9:30-37

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples what it is like to be vulnerable. Jesus talks about his willingness to be vulnerable to the wickedness of the humanity that will crucify him because of his willingness to be vulnerable to the pure love of God, to the full experience of God’s grace and mercy. The disciples are confused, they argue amongst themselves about who is greatest, completely missing the point of Jesus’ message. They want to be recognized as great in human terms when the real gift is to be recognized as one of God’s own on God’s terms. In an example that might be confusing to those of us who live in a society and culture in which children are loved and nurtured, Jesus holds up the example of a child as the epitome of righteous vulnerability. In Jesus’ time a child would have been barely noticed and certainly would not have been a priority recipient of the community’s resources, because a child had little or no economic value, and even less voice. Jesus is telling the disciples and us that God sees us fully in our vulnerability. When we acknowledge that about ourselves and each other, we experience God’s presence more deeply in our lives.

Where are the places in your life in which you struggle to be seen and heard and recognized? Are those places in which you might feel differently about yourself and the world if you focused on welcoming yourself as a child before God?

Where are the places in your life in which you are better able to be vulnerable before God and are aware of the presence of God’s grace and mercy? What is it about those places that makes that possible? Is there something happening there that you might replicate in the places of struggle?

Faith matters more than a running tab of good works, 17 Pentecost, Proper 20 (B) – 2012

September 23, 2012

Proverbs 31:10-31 and Psalm 1 (or Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20 and Psalm 54); James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

In the preface to his 1522 translation of the New Testament, Martin Luther famously refers to the Letter of James – from which our second reading today is taken – as a “straw-letter,” or an “Epistle of Straw,” as it is more often called. What he meant by this comment has been the subject of scholarly conjecture and debate for centuries and will probably remain so for some time to come. Curiously, the remark is missing from later editions of the Luther Bible, so perhaps Luther had second thoughts about his initial assessment of the letter.

But no matter how you look at it, the Letter of James is indeed a bit of an oddity in the New Testament canon. One commentary notes, for instance, that Jesus is mentioned only twice in the entire letter and then rather perfunctorily. Little in the letter is specifically Christian, and much of the text is given over to advice and exhortation, not unlike that found in the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament – or perhaps even the New Age literature of our own day. Thus, the letter has remained more or less an anomoly and on the back shelf of scripture study for centuries.

Luther was likely most discomfited by the letter’s seeming emphasis on human wisdom and common sense – doing the right thing, we might call it – works, in other words, as opposed to faith. In James, it almost seems sometimes as if salvation could indeed be won by our own efforts and action without the Cross of Christ, which is tellingly not mentioned even once in the entire letter.

Luther’s misgivings may have been justified.

Yet the truth is that most Christians of any age – in spite of what scripture tells them and us about the importance and centrality faith – remain firm believers in works. We are all “Jamesians,” to coin a phrase. Deep down, most of us believe in salvation by works. We readily judge others by their deeds. Ask most any Christian today how they plan to get to heaven, and they will readily tell you that it is by trying to lead a good life and helping others. By works, in other words. Few will first cite their faith in the loving mercy of God and in Christ’s redemptive death on the cross.

Meanwhile, we all want to get ahead in the world – perhaps not unlike the disciples in today’s gospel account.

Asked by Jesus what they were arguing about along the way, they are at first silent but then sheepishly admit that they were contesting who among them was to be the greatest – who would achieve the most. There are probably few better examples in scripture of the allure of works and their presumed rewards over faith and its illusive promise than this telling admission from the closest followers of our Lord. No wonder “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him,” when Jesus spoke of his impending death.

Perhaps the disciples just did not want to hear about it. Likely in their effort to become “the greatest” they were more comfortable matching good deed for good deed with their fellow disciples – as if the spiritual life were a sport or competition – rather than in thinking about the depth of their faith in our Lord, much less in his Cross, about which at this point they admittedly had only an inkling.

Anyway – they may have thought – how would you even measure and quantify faith? Surely, it is easier to count good works and keep a running tab. Perhaps it would be better for them, as some in our society today seem to advocate, to become totally self-reliant and ruggedly individualistic Apostles – with a capital “A” – than childlike and humble servants of all, concerned only for the needs of those less fortunate.

Still, as the medieval theologians remind us, faith builds on nature.

You have to start somewhere. And at some level, we all begin with works. For most of us, including the disciples, this means somehow taming our own base instincts for self-defeating and self-destructive behavior. Where, in other words, do “conflicts and disputes” come from, James asks. Precisely from the “cravings” that are at war within each of us. That which comes from heaven, on the other hand, is in James’ words “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Human wisdom left to itself, James concludes, is too often “boastful and false to the truth” – seeking, not unlike the disciples, self-aggrandizement and recognition – to be the greatest.

He may not have been a great theologian like Paul – or Luther for that matter – but James has a common-sense grasp of the dynamics of the human heart. Works or no works, he appreciates that we must first “resist the devil … and draw near to God.” We must do something. It is only then, he seems to tell us, that God will ultimately “draw near” in turn and approach us with the gift of grace and redemption.

Christ draws near us in his death and resurrection.

Our gospel account reminds us of this reality in our Lord’s own words to his sometimes clueless disciples. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him,” he tells them and us, “and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” For Christians today, rising with Christ still means dying with him to self and “selfish ambition,” as James calls it.

It means finally putting all of our faith in the only “works” that matter: Christ’s own death and resurrection.
— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a chaplaincy of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” St. Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com.

The business of managing a parish

Why business matters and what priests need to know

Source: Shutterstock

The idea that managing a church is like managing a business may make some of the faithful’s skin crawl.

But with church attendance in a general free fall and budget cuts requiring some pastors to do more with less, business principles put to good use in a church setting could be the answer to prayers.

Educators and priests explain:

Simeon May, chief executive, National Association of Church Business Administration, Richardson, Texas

Why Business Matters: “A church isn’t out to make a profit like a business, but that doesn’t mean it can lose money,” said May. He suggests that having good business practices in place, such as internal financial controls, budgeting and a social-media marketing plan can mean the difference between a congregation expanding its membership or shutting it doors.

What Priests Need to Know: “If you want to spread the gospel of Jesus, you need to market your church,” said May. He went on to explain that at the very minimum, it means having a website that’s attractive and easy to use. It also means embracing free social media such as Facebook and Twitter to spread the news of your congregation’s events and connect with potential members. “Like it or not, people are using those mediums, and you may miss them if you don’t,” advised May.

The Rev. Buddy Stallings, priest-in-charge, St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York City

Why Business Matters: “The notion that ‘God will provide’ is a spiritual truth, for me, but not a very good business plan,” said Stallings, who was previously the executive vice president of a management company that owned and operated a chain of more than 50 nursing homes. Stallings believes this kind of thinking is a result of viewing religion as something that’s different from the rest of life, rarified somehow, not subject to business principles. “The result is that religion isn’t subject to the demands of real life, such as paying the bills and living within a budget,” he said. Ignoring these financial realities can have serious negative financial consequences for a congregation, he cautioned.

What Priests Need to Know: “Entrepreneurialism always involves risk and is a requirement for innovative church management, but it only works if it’s rooted in good, reasonable planning,” said Stallings.

Charles Zech, director, Villanova University’s Center for the Study of Church Management, Villanova, Penn.

Why Business Matters: “No church has enough resources, and we can’t afford to waste any,” said Zech. He pointed out that rectors who don’t understand finance will waste financial resources. Similarly, pastors who don’t understand marketing or evangelization will not only have difficulty in growing their congregations, they will be unsuccessful in understanding the various segments of their congregations and meeting their differing needs. He warned that not having an understanding of human resources could also put a rector and a congregation at risk.

What Priests Need to Know: Zech said the most telling “aha” moment in a civil-law course for church management comes when students learn that practices they had taken for granted were in fact illegal. For example, churches may hire only members of their faith, but they can’t discriminate on the basis of age. “They’re subject to the same laws governing negligence that everyone else is,” Zech warned.

 

(Veronica Dagher is New York City-based reporter and an Education for Ministry graduate. She is a recipient of a Religion Newswriters Foundation Lilly Scholarship and a parishioner at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City.)