Note: This was the Opening Plenary by Reverend William J. Barber II at the Rooted in Jesus 2020 Conference in Atlanta, Georgia on January 21-22. For the video, click here, and for more information about the conference, please click here.
Gracious God. Amen.
Lord, help us today. We know that whenever you call men and women to say anything in your name, you take the risk of putting treasure in an earthen vessel. Sometimes faithful, sometimes flawed, sometimes strong, sometimes weak, but you put it in an earthen vessel that when all is said and done, the excellency of the power might be of thee and not of us. Hide us behind the cross, cover us in your blood, fill us with your spirit. That the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart might be acceptable in thy sight. O Lord, our strength and blessed Redeemer. Amen.
If you’re like my family, you’re spending a lot of time on screens. Zoom calls, emails, phone calls, and more. And if you’re like us, you’re probably looking for ways to get outside. And if your neighborhood is like ours, there are more kids riding bikes (bike shops and big box stores are reporting shortages), more families walking dogs (shelters are seeing a boom in adoptions), and just more people outside generally.
What if we viewed our time outside as something God can use? What if we viewed our time outside as missional? Our family has tried to start doing that, beginning with our front yard.
“Front yard people” is a term I first ran across when reading The Turqouise Table by Kristin Schell, a book on Christian hospitality and welcome. In the book, she encourages folks to hang out in the front yard, making themselves available for impromptu encounters and conversations with neighbors.
I know the day of Pentecost is past but for some reason it has stuck with me this year. Today I noticed something about it. If you are a fan of the original Star Trek series you probably remember than when the crew set off on a mission away from their comfort zone (an away mission) you could tell which crew members were likely to be killed --- they were wearing red shirts!
I love the image that the original Pentecost was when the disciples were ordered by their captain to leave their comfort zone. Like those crew members, when we put on the red for Pentecost, we have reason to be concerned. Most of the red-shirted crew died on away missions. Scripture tells us we are to die (to self) in God’s mission.
But just as the crew members were expected to take the chance of losing their lives for the good of all people, we are expected to take the chance of losing something for the good of other people.
Every month ECFVP offers five resources on a theme. This month we've asked The Rev. Sam Dessórdi Peres Leite, who serves as the Senior Priest at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., to choose five resources that resonated with him. Please find his choices below. Please share this email with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and this monthly digest.
Last month, in a conversation about the theological nuances of whether or not the Eucharist could be celebrated online, a member of my congregation asked, “Is Jesus a Zoom bomber?”
Now Zoom bombers generally have a negative connotation. They join in on a public Zoom with malicious intent displaying racially charged images or words, for example. Bad stuff. Because of them, most churches using Zoom for their worship in this “stay-at-home” season, have stopped advertising their login links online, thus making Zoom worship less accessible to newcomers. So businesses and churches and Zoom technologists have been working hard to inhibit these imposers. Under these connotations, Jesus is certainly not a Zoom bomber!
But what if we go back to the earlier medium of photographs and photo bombers. Photo bombers are people who show up unexpectedly in a photo of a newlywed couple, for example, or behind a family posing at the beach. They were often simply inadvertent. But even when intentional, they were funny or sweet. Not malicious.
My goodness, a lot has happened in the world since we all worshipped in person together. For many, processing it all happened in the privacy of their homes. Others had to do so from hospital beds. Others from food lines, a situation they never dreamed of experiencing. Others from the front lines of community protests over racism.
In the weeks or months ahead, faith communities will gather again. Can we really just pick up where we left off and head on our way? Will Vestry meetings resume the usual topics of budget and Commission reports?
In my previous post, I put forward the idea that the The Vestry is a thing, an entity in our church which needs serious re-examination and balance. I believe that at least one of our problems lies in our unspoken, unexamined but nevertheless shared core concepts around The Vestry. Frankly, too many people in too many congregations feel responsible to do nothing more than replicate an outdated oversight and management model year after year after year. Put that way, The Vestry is far from the kind of body which would help the Body of Christ keep the main thing the main thing. I believe the problem is much deeper than any of us realize, and it’s deep in the engine room of The Episcopal Church.
The solution? I’ll say it as simply as I know how: we need to better align the Vestry with the methods of a missionary church. It’s about alignment, not a new program or crafty idea. It’s about making The Vestry work for Christ’s Body, and not the other way around. It’s about making The Vestry as healthy and gifted and inspired as our healthiest, most gifted, most inspiring member.
“What’s your brand?” A collective silence fell over the room of vestry members, clergy, and staff.
Finally, someone asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Brand of what?”
“Ahh...” The silence continued.
We don’t often, if ever, think of the Church as a brand, whether globally, nationally, or on the congregational level, but it’s a question well worth exploring. From my perspective, brand is nothing more and nothing less than your promise to the consumer – in this case to your parishioners and those considering becoming parishioners.
With the COVID-19 pandemic came the precipitous end to in-person classes at Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in early March. Students who had the option to do so were strongly encouraged to leave seminary housing and get out of the virus epicenter in New York City, so we became physically scattered and separated from our worship space in the small chapel at Union.
Within days of the cessation of classes, the EDS worship team met over Zoom and came up with a plan. Our Monday through Thursday Morning Prayer schedule would resume by Zoom. We shortened the form of worship slightly, omitting the canticles but keeping the time for song that we had cherished when we had been physically together to pray the office. Because we shortened the service, we had the space to add a time of reflection after the Gospel reading. This gave us more interaction during the service in the virtual space. We kept the EDS at Union custom of reciting the Apostles’ Creed and Lord’s Prayer in Spanish.
Participating as a lay leader of a congregation is a joyful opportunity to participate in building up the Kingdom of God. Sometimes that joy ebbs low as we face of fewer people in the pews and fewer pledges in the plate. Our highest hope and prayers aim to get by for another year, rather than really hoping and praying for the fullness of God’s promises.
If you or your Vestry are in a bit of a rut, here is a quote worthy of intentional meditation from 19 century preacher and Bishop of Massachusetts, Phillips Brooks:
"Pray the largest prayers. You cannot think a prayer so large that God, in answering it, will not wish you had made it larger. Pray not for crutches but for wings."
The COVID-19 pandemic rages on, a bit weakened in its spread, but still a major threat with over 100,000 deaths and a severe economic downturn. In tandem, many in our nation are outraged by yet another murder of a Black man - George Floyd, by law enforcement in Minneapolis, and have reacted with multiple days of protests. These realities directly impact our church communities as we tentatively contemplate the reentry to our church buildings in a yet to be determined future.
Inequity and justice are common threads among these realities. With COVID-19, it has been well reported that Black and Brown people have died from this disease in far greater numbers than their presence in the general population due to disparities in our healthcare systems, health conditions and occupations. How can we as church community and church leaders be part of the solution in addressing these disparities?