I had the pleasure of attending the first of our diocesan Vestry Days on Saturday at St Paul’s Church in Lansing. I won’t give away all of the details so that those of you planning to attend this coming Saturday will have some surprises. Just let me say this: you are in for a lovely opportunity to work and grow together as leadership teams of vestries and clergy! I hope that you’ve all signed up to attend. What was especially meaningful for me was to try to see the experience through the eyes of vestry members who have not attended anything like this before. The fruit of this day was evident at our first vestry meeting with our new vestry after church today. Clearly, some of the things we discussed yesterday made a good impression on our team. The meeting was more Christ-centered and focused than many I’ve attended in the past. And I’m optimistic that the work we did on Saturday will pay off as we continue to put in practice the things we discussed.
One of those topics was baptismal ministry. Now, as a priest in a Total Ministry congregation, you might think I have this subject all figured out. It is true that we discuss our Baptismal Covenant fairly frequently in conversations and sermons at St Michael’s but on Saturday I had a new thought. Baptismal ministry was emphasized all through my ordination process so it seems almost second nature to me but I began to wonder just how many people in our pews really understand what their own baptismal ministry means. We’ve discussed it, we’ve tried to reinforce its meaning, we affirm their service inside and outside the church yet I wonder if we asked each person to share their “elevator speech” describing Total Ministry or Baptismal Ministry would they have the words? Something to continue to work on.
I hope you all already know who Covenant 5 is but just in case some readers are new let me introduce you. Covenant 5 is our diocesan social justice and advocacy group which takes its name from the fifth promise we make in our Baptismal Covenant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being? As a reminder, here’s the entire Baptismal Covenant for you:
The Baptismal Covenant
Celebrant Do you believe in God the Father?
People I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
Celebrant Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
People I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Celebrant Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
People I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the
People I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?
People I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
People I will, with God’s help.
All the promises we make when we reaffirm this covenant are important yet it only takes a few moments on social media or listening to the news to see just how crucial our attention to peace and justice issues are right now in our nation. In my sermon this morning, I shared that just maybe the cross we carry in our desire to follow Jesus might look a little like living out each of these promises: loving our neighbor, caring for those in need, speaking out against injustice, proclaiming the Good News of Christ with both our words and our actions.
Covenant 5 recently added a new statement on their website that I’d like to share with you:
Statement: Re-affirm our Fifth Baptismal Pledge
Covenant 5, the peace and social justice advocacy committee of the diocese, urges each Episcopalian to re-affirm her or his commitment to our fifth baptismal pledge of “striving for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” Renewal of our baptismal vows makes a positive and constructive statement during these tumultuous times when we are challenged with so many peace and social justice advocacy issues.
Talk to your clergy person about incorporating reaffirmation in worship as the Book of Common Prayer (p. 312, 4th paragraph) provides for Renewal of Baptismal Vows on designated holy days. The following peace and social justice issues dominating our current dialogue help make baptismal re-affirmation a positive way to express positive values. The following specific issues and concerns illustrate only some of the problems we face:
- The lengthy, multi-faceted probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and, the political attacks on law enforcement agencies and their personnel
- The continued consequences of the #MeToo/Time’sUp sexual harassment and abuse movement and continuing attacks on the rights of women
- The long-standing, multi-dimensional problems with immigration, deportation and security concerns and policies
- The long-standing gun violence issues and concerns, including 17 school shootings, 34 mass shootings and 2008 deaths from gun violence during the first 7 weeks of 2018, and our leaders’ indifference and inaction to promote public safety and security
- The decades-long epidemic of all types of bullying and harassment, including workplace bullying, and the terrible rise in suicides among young people, military veterans, and others
- The long-neglected criminal justice concerns, needed prison reforms, and, complete review of police policies, procedures and accountability standards
- The increasing disparity and inequality of wages by income class, sex, race, etc. that was further exacerbated by tax “reform” legislation, which also added greatly to the national debt
- The steady erosion of moral values and democratic principles upon which our nation was built
- The increasing need for essential environmental protections, including ‘climate change’ safeguards so that 2017’s many natural disasters do not become an annual occurrence
- The on-going discrediting, “fake news” attacks on the press’s freedom of investigative powers
- The opioid addiction crisis, cited as society’s top public health problem, and the drug overdose deaths, which reached an all-time high in 2017
We have many other concerns and still more will arise, but during these trying and difficult times, NOW is the time for each of us to renew her/his baptismal pledge “with God’s help.” By so doing, you will also pledge to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”
The Reverend Charles (Chuck) Swinehart
Co-chair, Disability Awareness Committee
Co-chair, Alliance to Abolish Bullying Task Force
Member, Covenant 5
It would be so easy to get discouraged and complacent with the onslaught of problems that seem to surface almost daily but we can’t let that happen. We must stay vigilant and focused on our work for God’s kingdom. Following Covenant 5 on their recently redesigned website, their Facebook page and their blog will help to keep you connected with others who are happy to offer resources and help.
There’s one more resource I want to share with you this week and I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I missed this when it first came out. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies, shared a letter back in January that is representative of the fifth covenant:
January 22, 2018
Dear People of God in the Episcopal Church:
In recent weeks, compelling testimony from women who have been sexually harassed and assaulted by powerful men has turned our minds to a particularly difficult passage of holy scripture: the story of the rape of King David’s daughter Tamar by her half-brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13: 1-22). It is a passage in which a conspiracy of men plots the exploitation and rape of a young woman. She is stripped of the power to speak or act, her father ignores the crime, and the fate of the rapist, not the victim, is mourned. It is a Bible story devoid of justice.
For more than two decades, African women from marginalized communities have studied this passage of scripture using a method called contextual Bible study to explore and speak about the trauma of sexual assault in their own lives. Using a manual published by the Tamar Campaign, they ask, “What can the Church do to break the silence against gender-based violence?”
It is, as the old-time preachers say, a convicting question. As our societies have been forced into fresh recognition that women in all walks of life have suffered unspoken trauma at the hands of male aggressors and harassers, we have become convinced that the Episcopal Church must work even harder to create a church that is not simply safe, but holy, humane and decent. We must commit to treating every person as a child of God, deserving of dignity and respect. We must also commit to ending the systemic sexism, misogyny and misuse of power that plague the church just as they corrupt our culture, institutions and governments.
Like our African siblings in faith, we must create contexts in which women can speak of their unspoken trauma, whether suffered within the church or elsewhere. And we must do more.
Our church must examine its history and come to a fuller understanding of how it has handled or mishandled cases of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse through the years. When facts dictate, we must confess and repent of those times when the church, its ministers or its members have been antagonistic or unresponsive to people—women, children and men—who have been sexually exploited or abused. And we must acknowledge that in our church and in our culture, the sexual exploitation of women is part of the same unjust system that also causes gender gaps in pay, promotion, health and empowerment.
We believe that each of us has a role to play in our collective repentance. And so, today, we invite you to join us in an Ash Wednesday Day of Prayer on February 14 devoted to meditating on the ways in which we in the church have failed to stand with women and other victims of abuse and harassment and to consider, as part of our Lenten disciplines, how we can redouble our work to be communities of safety that stand against the spiritual and physical violence of sexual exploitation and abuse.
Neither of us professes to have all of the wisdom necessary to change the culture of our church and the society in which it ministers, and at this summer’s General Convention, we want to hear the voice of the wider church as we determine how to proceed in both atoning for the church’s past and shaping a more just future. May we find in our deliberations opportunities to listen to one another, to be honest about our own failings and brokenness, and to discern prayerfully the ways that God is calling us to stand with Tamar in all of the places we find her—both inside the church and beyond our doors, which we have too often used to shut her out.
The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings
Presiding Bishop President, House of Deputies
In response, Rev. Jennings announced a series of essays and reflections during Lent from women around the church sharing their #MeToo experiences. The Episcopal New Service article about this series will give you more of the details and you can find the individual reflections and meditations on the House of Deputies website. The stories are hard to read because we want to believe that the Church is above this kind of behavior and yet we all know that the Church is made up of people who err and need to repent as much as any other organization. It’s time we acknowledge the pain that women in the Church have faced and clean up our own house so that we may demonstrate God’s grace for others.
There’s much we can do – especially when we tackle the problems together!
Wishing you all a blessed Lent.
Let us pray –
Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live, has given power and commandment to his ministers to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins. He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel.
Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
~ The Rev. Judith Schellhammer, chair, Resolution Review Committee, Diocesan Council