The Accidental Anglican: Bishop Todd Hunter

This summer I’m catching up on some reading and came across this book from 2010 by Bishop Todd Hunter. In 2009, the Anglican Mission in America consecrated the former National Director of the Association of Vineyard Churches as their Bishop for Church Planting. The consecration might seem unlikely, which Hunter hints at in his title The Accidental Anglican.” How could such a committed Evangelical find his way into a purple clergy shirt, in an incense filled church, standing behind the altar? Hunter’s answer: God’s call. God wants to build the Anglican movement in North America, Hunter believes.

In January of the year Hunter was consecrated, another evangelical leader spoke in Washington National Cathedral to a crowd of clergy and lay people. Brian McLaren titled his talk “The Episcopal Moment” and spoke of how our world was hungry for Christianity with ancient wisdom, symbolic depth, and theological balance. Anglicanism has these treasures in spades. Our church should be growing rapidly, McLaren argued. Hunter agrees. He names the Liturgy, the Lectionary, and what he calls “Sweet Reasonableness” as Anglicanism’s principal resources for reframing Christianity in our post-secular world.

I found Hunter’s narrative limited in scope. Hunter’s vision of Anglicanism has been shaped by a lot of white men. He dedicates whole chapters to John Stott, N.T. Wright, and J.I. Packer. Only the shortest of these “influences” chapters focuses on people of color. He dedicates three pages to bishops Kolini and Rucyahana of Rwanda, who helped to form the break-away denomination that consecrated him bishop. Hunter does not go into any depth about the African leaders’ accomplishments, as he does with his English and North American Anglican heroes. Hunter’s highest praise is reserved for John Stott, who he describes as his model for “how to lovingly proclaim the gospel to the world’s power brokers and the middle class.” Questions of privilege are unexamined in The Accidental Anglican.

Hunter also ignores the divisions that split his denomination from The Episcopal Church. Same-sex relationships and women’s ordination are not broached in the book. Todd Hunter often writes that “social justice” is one of the fruits expected of the churches in his “Diocese of Churches for the Sake Others,” but he never names what this fruit might look like. Does Todd Hunter’s “social justice” include justice for people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations?

For the sake of full disclosure: I come to Hunter’s book with my own bias. As a priest in The Episcopal Church personally invested in the decisions to name the blessing of same-sex relationships and ordain women, I have a bit of chip on my shoulder toward his corner of our tradition. Still, Hunter’s book and his ministry challenge me. I agree with him (and McLaren) that our tradition has deep treasures to offer. I wonder: “Is The Episcopal Church squandering our ‘moment?'”

We have a way of following Jesus that resonates in today’s fragmented world. More than that, our particular church has been lifting up the Christian leadership of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. We are in a place to talk about “comprehensiveness” in a way that resonates today. The Episcopal Church should be investing, like our more conservative cousins, in starting new communities of disciples. We should be planting and re-planting, rather than shutting and selling churches. We should relax about our internal squabbles, and focus our energies on those outside our walls. I believe we should make this investment, not because we should be competing, but because I believe in the power of the Gospel. I believe God’s message of love and reconciliation is for ALL people. More than anything Todd Hunter makes me ask: “Where is The Episcopal Church’s Bishop for Church Planting?”

 

 

Is there room for conservatism in America? (Questions for America Part 2)

This week I am preaching the second sermon in a short series. These Sundays around the fourth of July,  I continue asking questions for America. Today I have just one final question, and it may come as a bit of a shock to you. Steel yourselves. Here it is:

Is there still room for conservatism in America?

I know that many of you think of me as a reliable liberal. Well, I have a confession to make to you. My father used to describe me as a “born Republican.” When I was a toddler, one of my first multi-syllabic words, thanks to a buddy of my uncle’s, was “Reaganomics.” I come from a long line of Western libertarian Republicans, the kind of folks who often say these days: “I didn’t leave the Republican party, the Republican party left me.” I’ll be honest. Preaching about conservatism makes me a little nervous, but these are my roots.

And so I ask: Is there room for conservatism in America these days?

Let’s take a look at Scripture shall we? In Genesis chapter 24, Isaac meets Rebecca, with the help of his father’s servant/matchmaker. After last week’s terrifying account of Isaac’s near-sacrifice by his father, this story feels relaxed. It’s a bit odd, by today’s standards, but the result is good. Rebekah consents.

As we were preparing for this week’s service, our Music Director Mary stopped me and asked, “What’s going on with the ring in her nose?” I teased Mary about being such a conservative. I guess it is surprising to learn that nose piercings have Biblical support. But here you go, any teenagers that are trying to win mom or grandma’s support to get your nosed pierced. One of the examples of Biblical womanhood received a nose ring as part of God’s plan.

I also feel it is incumbent to say: “A nose ring is also almost always, more than a nose ring.” You want to know what statement you’re making before you get a piercing. Jewelry signifies. A hunk of gold in your nose has meaning. In this case, the jewelry is a part of a series of gifts that includes those camels and other livestock. Abraham’s servant is assuring Laban, and Rebekah, that she will be provided for, she will have wealth. The nose ring is gold for a reason.

Now, that might raise your eyebrows. Is Rebekah being purchased? As I said above, the answer is no. Rebekah consents. But the waters are a bit muddy here. Your feminist meters should be ticking. You may think it is odd that in the same sermon I’m asking for room for Conservatism, and talking about feminism. But should feminism and conservatism be opposites? If conservatives are all about values. If they are “values voters,” isn’t one of our deepest values equality? Shouldn’t conservatives be concerned about whether women have an equal say in their marriage, or in the workplace for that matter. We’re in the 21st century. Can’t equality for women be a conservative value as well?

Today we are rankled at the idea that a woman might be bought and paid for in marriage. I hope that is true across the political aisle. But a hundred years ago, dowries were still very common. A hundred years ago, no one would have batted an eye at this story from Genesis. In our grandparents’ America it might well seem to an outside observer like wives were bought and paid for. I wonder, what do we buy and sell today that will shock our descendants?

I wonder whether the generations that follow will be shocked that we thought we could buy and sell natural resources so freely. We’re not factoring the true cost of burning so much fuel, and destroying species with pollution. I find it a little shocking that those who call themselves conservatives today have such little concern for conservation. Where are the conservative conservationists?

I’ve known at least one. Russell Train, a life-long Episcopalian and a federal judge was also one of the founding directors of the World Wildlife Fund. He served as the second director of the Environmental Protection Agency, The EPA. Russell Train was a Republican, a Republican’s Republican, he was a Nixon appointee. He called his political memoir “Politics, Pollution, and Pandas.” In it he wrote:

To my mind, to oppose environmental protection is not to be truly conservative. To put short-term financial gain ahead of the long-term health of the environment is a fundamentally radical policy, as well as being unethical.

Train points out that it was Teddy Roosevelt (Republican) who began the system of national forests and wildlife refuges. He spoke softly, carried a big stick, and designated National Parks left and right. Consider these words about America from one of our most admired Republican presidents:

We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.

Is there room for this kind of conservatism in America today?

If conservatism means moving slowly, particularly in areas that will effect the economy and the well-being of the population generations down the line, where are those conservatives? Where are the conservatives who will say, “slow down, we don’t really want to kick 22 million people off of healthcare, do we?” Where are the conservatives who will say, “wait, you want to make a quick buck now and then stick the American people of the future with a huge environmental cleanup bill, I don’t think so.” Where are those conservatives? Is there room in America for conservatism today?

Now, I know that some of you are squirming every time I say the word “Conservative.” I see you. But we’re going to have to, all of us, Democrats and Republicans, Episcopalians and Catholics, all of us, are going to have to learn how to build bridges again if we’re going to do something the environment, or healthcare, or gun violence, immigration reform, you name it. We have gone beyond politicization. We have demonized the “other side.” As long as “conservative” or “liberal” remain dirty words, we’re stuck with a politics that amounts to hostage taking.

The politics of today has a lot of us feeling weary.

I’m not sure this is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” I’m not sure, but I think the invitation still stands. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say “come to me some of you.” He doesn’t say, “Come to me democrats” or “come to me republicans.” Jesus says “All.” He goes on, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The church used to call this verse “the comfortable words.” They are a comfort.

Those words make a little more sense if you know that in Jesus’ time, a rabbi’s teaching was called a “yoke.” Jesus calls his teaching “easy and light.”

Jesus was different sort of teacher. Compared to the rabbis of his day, Jesus probably laughed a great deal more. Make no mistake, Jesus engaged in the politics of his day. He questioned the power of both the Roman Authorities, and their Jewish client-rulers. He also stood up to the religious nut-jobs of his own time. Much of the Gospels involve scenes where Jesus is being questioned by rabbis or lawyers. Yes, sometimes he loses his temper, calls them vipers, but more often than not he comes up with a clever response. He finds a way to laugh, to lighten the load, and to point people beyond their polarities toward love and justice. You get a sense that this Jesus fellow was pretty grounded.

Taking up this yoke, following this way of Jesus requires, in a particular way, some personal conservatism. Jesus wants his followers to be religiously observant. In order to practice faith, you have to be a bit conservative, at least with your time. You have to say “no” to some invitations. The families with young kids who are here in our pews know this well. These days coming to church often means skipping a soccer game or a play rehearsal. But it’s true for those of us beyond the extracurriculars as well. More and more our Sunday mornings, our evenings, our early hours are quickly filled. There is less time for practicing faith.

To practice your faith means that you’ve got to sign off your email regularly. Practicing faith means making time in a rushed world. If you’re feeling weary and heavy laden, maybe try being a little more conservative with your time. I think the conservatives have something valuable to teach us about intentionally making time for family and for faith.

Honestly, it shouldn’t be too surprising that a priest identifies as somewhat conservative. We say prayers here each week that are thousands of years old. Tradition has value. I believe that slow, thoughtful, measured progress can be good, but I am also one who can be swayed by the argument: “We’ve always done it that way.” I’m an Episcopalian, I’ve made that argument. I believe wisdom accrues over generations. I believe there is a great deal worth conserving in our nation, and in our world.

There’s a basic teaching in Christianity that is inherently conservative. The teaching is simple: you can’t save yourself. You can’t. Paul gets at this teaching today in that difficult passage from Romans. “Oh wretched man that I am, who will rescue me?” This bit of Paul is tough to read, but I’d venture that many of us know what Paul is talking about. Most of us have come, at one point or another, to the end of our rope. And most of us have come their of our own volition. We know what Paul is talking about when he says, “I don’t understand my own action, for I do what I hate.” Paul knows. You can’t save yourself. As human beings, we need a savior. We need a teacher. We need to lay down our burdens, we need to come to Jesus. And we will hear those comforting words: “I will give you rest for your souls.”

I know it may come as a surprise for some of you, to hear me ask: “Is there room for conservatism in America?” But on personal levels, national levels, and global levels we could learn to slow down, to consider the ramifications of our actions. We could be less sure of our own capabilities and lean more on tradition, and more on God. If we can’t make room for that kind of conservatism, well then God help us.

Questions for America: Part One

This week and next, I am preaching a short sermon series. Returning from vacation this last week, coming home to America in time for the celebrations of July 4, I have had some mixed feelings. (Who doesn’t have mixed feelings coming back from vacation?) But these feelings are specific, and to me troubling. As a kid, I loved the fourth of July, the fireworks, the hotdogs, flying the flag. As an adult, especially this year, I feel the weight of responsibility that comes with citizenship in our republic. This year, more than most, I’ve marched. I’ve written letters. I’ve called my representatives and senators, and I don’t see many immediate results. Honestly, I’m a little frustrated with the state of our nation. So today and next week, the Sundays surrounding July 4, I have a series of questions for America.

Before we get to the questions, let’s take a look at the Bible. We have spent the last few weeks in church hearing stories of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, the matriarchs and patriarch of our faith traditions. We’ve been reading the “founding stories.” The beauty found in these stories is stunning. God takes Abraham out under a cloudless night and says to Abraham “look at the sky. Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens.” Sarah laughs, when she hears God’s plan that she will conceive in her old age. She’s 90. Laughter is appropriate, holy. Sarah laughs, and at long last Abraham and Sarah have a son, and they name him Isaac, laughter. The stories are beautiful, and, if we’re honest, the stories are problematic.

Last week we heard the story of Hagar, Abraham’s mistress who bore his first son Ishmael. Sarah and Hagar are rivals, and their sons grow rivalrous as well. After seeing Ishmael taunt Isaac, Sarah wants “the other woman” and her child out. Hagar and Ishmael are left out in the desert to die.  The story is painful, ugly. How could we believe in a God who would allow such inhumane treatment? Well, these texts are problematic, and there’s a great deal going on behind the scenes. Still I am struck by these stories, because just when I think: “I can’t believe in a God who would bless such behavior,” the text turns. God shows up for the characters who were cast out.

All this backstory is recalled ever so briefly in in today’s lesson. Speaking to Abraham, God calls Isaac, “your only son.” Now God should know better. As we heard last week, God saved Ishmael in the end. Ishmael will also found a dynasty. Abraham will be the father of many nations. The founding story is beautiful and problematic. Today’s text is frightening, and a pattern for salvation. We’ll get deeper into the Bible in a bit.

As I thought about the beauty and the problems of these founding stories of our faith, I found myself also thinking about the beauty and difficulty built into our national stories. When I lived in Washington DC, I used to love to visit the monuments on the National Mall at night. If you’re traveling to Washington, I can’t recommend a nightime visit to Jefferson and Lincoln more highly. You’ll often have the whole place to yourself, and the way the park service lights the marble at night is magic. Standing in his psuedo-Greek Temples, looking out over the Tidal Basin, I loved re-reading Jefferson’s words, lit up against the dark sky. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The monument does its job. You can’t help but contemplate beauty of our founding story.

The United States were built on the bedrock of equality. And yet, there in the text we can hear the problematic element of our founding story as well: “All men.” As Angelica Schuyler sings in the musical Hamilton: “When I meet Thomas Jefferson, Imma compel him to include women in the sequel.” Knowing what we do about Jefferson also begs the question, ”How could the architects of freedom also perpetuate the enslavement of Africans?” Our founding stories are both beautiful and problematic.

Like Isaac and Ishmael, like Sarah and Hagar, our founding stories set up rivalries. In America, often those rivalries are based in racial identity. Toni Morrision has said “Race” is the fundamental metaphor neccessary to understand the “construction of Americanness.” “American” has been defined as “white.” This was literally true at the time of our founding. Enslaved African Americans were only counted as 3/5 of a person by our constitution. And they only counted in order to give their owners more power and representation. Latinx, Asian, and Native American communities have also had their personhood legislated. We have set up racial rivalries across American History.

I entitled this sermon series: “Questions for America.” My first question is this:

“To whom does America belong?”

This morning we heard Jesus’ words about Welcome. Welcome the little ones. Christians believe in fundamental welcome. We hear that this is a nation with Judeo Christian values, but how often do we welcome the way Jesus would have us? How often do we see Americans as Americans? How often are Asian Americans and Latin Americans asked, “Where are you from?” and then “no, really, where are your people from?” How often are black citizens denied basic protections for liberty and the pursuit of happiness, even life?

Did you hear the story of Aaron Bailey, another unarmed black man shot by police officers, this time in Indianapolis, last week? Yes, Aaron had a criminal record. But wasn’t he more than his record? Did you know that Aaron was a volunteer at Christ Church Cathedral in the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis? Did you know he was a regular guest at their Sunday breakfast? Who counts as American? Whose lives matter? To whom does America belong?

There is a fundamental problem in our national story. Racism has been called “America’s original sin.” I believe it is important to name it as such. But this story also has beauty, and the beauty has the capacity to overcome sin. Over our 241 years (I think I got that math right), over our 241 years of history, women and people of color have asserted their rights to citizenship.

Historically we have believed in equality, in freedom, and in their expansion. As a nation, we do not believe freedom is a finite resource. You don’t need walls to protect freedom. Walls fence us in. Freedom grows when more people are free. The more free our neighbors are, the more free we are. Freedom grows exponentially. But if we start policing hard lines of belonging. If we say: “you are American, and you are not,” it leads to some of the darkest moments in our history.

My question about who counts sends me back to our story this morning of the binding of Isaac. Historically the Jewish and Christian people have seen this scripture as a story of salvation. God spares Isaac. In the end God does not demand the sacrifice. (The irony for Christians is strong. In the end God does not require the sacrifice of an only child, and yet when God’s only Son came to us, we killed him. We demanded blood. But that’s another sermon). We’ve read this story as salvific historically, but for readers today it still seems barbaric.

I’ve never been able to fully embrace this story, and as I read it in preparation for today’s sermon it was the silence that stood out to me. Where is Abraham’s protest? Why does he just quietly prepare to heed God’s command to kill his son? For that matter, where is Sarah? She fiercely defended Isaac in last weeks story, where is she now? Where is her protest?

Traditionally, even in the New Testament, Abraham and Sarah’s silence is intepreted as a sign of their faith. “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac” the book of Hebrews tells us. I’m not sure I buy this story. I want to know where the missing verses are. Where is Abraham’s argument with God? Where is Sarah’s persistence?

This is my second question, it’s for our text today and for America:

“Can protest be prayer?”

For this question (as I’m sure you can tell for most of my questions in this series) I have a strong opinion. Yes, I believe, protest can be prayer. As the ACLU bumper stickers proclaim “Dissent is patriotic.” Full disclosure, I borrowed the phrasing of my question from another preacher.

Over our vacation these past two weeks, we had the opportunity to worship on a Sunday morning at the Riverside Church in New York City. Riverside is the tallest steeple in America, built to be “an interdenominational, interracial, international, open, welcoming, and affirming church and congregation.” It’s a huge cathedral of a place. We went for the architecture, and to see a big successful diverse church. But we went especially to hear one of my homiletical heroes, the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, give a sermon. She’s an incredible preacher.

I borrowed my question: “Can protest be prayer?” from Dr. Butler. In a sermon she preached the day after the Women’s March (she marched in Washington DC), Dr. Butler talked about what she realized as she joined the gathered crowd of pink hats on that January day:

Almost immediately after I emerged from the Metro station onto the sidewalk in downtown D.C., in that mass of people stretching as far as I could see, I began to feel something I haven’t felt in some time: hope.

I didn’t feel so alone or despairing anymore.  I didn’t feel that our community was in the minority in our calls for the church to speak up.  And I started to believe again that change might actually be a possibility, and that pushing back the darkness becomes a reality when all of us hold up our lights and raise our voices.  Together.

Sometimes being nasty is the same as being holy, and protest can be prayer.

I can’t believe God required Abraham and Sarah’s faithful silence. I think God answer’s the question “Can protest be prayer?” with a loud yes! God wants dialogue. God wants people to stand for justice. Faith isn’t always quiet and polite. Faith can be nasty. Protest can be prayer.

Tell Abraham and Sarah. Tell your neighbors. Tell your friends and cousins, and the people on social media. Are you feeling distressed? Stand up. Pray. Get out there on the streets. Ask yourself, am I praying for this country with my silence? Could I be praying with my feet?

On Tuesday I dare you, celebrate. Remember the beauty of our founding stories. Remember the promise. All people are created equal. Then ask yourself: “To whom does America belong?” Ask yourself: “Can protest be prayer?” Then, let’s ask those questions together of our country. This fourth of July, let’s ask some Questions of America.