Bishop's Blog

Bishop Scarfe shares his experiences, reflections, and sermons.

Friday, December 1, 2017

December 2017

“Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!
Unnumbered blessings give my spirit voice;
tender to me the promise of his word;
in God my Savior shall my heart rejoice.”[1]

As we enter the season of Advent, this rendering of the Magnificat by Timothy Dudley-Smith will be offered in many places of worship. This is the season of telling, or at least the beginning of the telling. On Sunday, Advent One, we will, with Isaiah, invite God to “tear the heavens and come down” (Is 64:1). Later we will read how the “people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:2), and be encouraged to let the law and the prophets, culminating in John the Baptist, enter our consciousness to tell us, “first stable on the left beyond the obvious.” There we will find the source of that great light. God in Jesus, “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood,” as Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 1:14 in The Message.

It is story-telling time. And we do it with glad hearts inspired by the Christmas story. However, I run ahead of myself for I want to do justice to Advent. This year, of course, the month of December contains within itself all four weeks of Advent. That comes at a cost. Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday and so the dilemma is raised—can’t we merge one season’s final Sunday (Advent 4) with the beginning of another (Christmas is Christmas Eve/Day through Christmas I this year)? It really makes it difficult to get the troops to spend that Sunday lunch and afternoon “greening the Church”—swapping the d├ęcor. And after all, people can only be expected to come to church once on any given Sunday, can’t they? I have already received these kind of arguments (or justifications) for blending the seasons.

My response is—do not yield to the temptation. Do not short-change the story. Perhaps be even darker on Sunday morning of Advent Four—contemplate deeply on the urgency of our dark times. Let us give voice to the things that are gnawing at us for which there seems little hope. And into that volatility, uncertainty, confusion and ambiguity (or VUCA as Bishop Doyle names it in A Generous Community: Being the Church in a New Missionary Age), let us place in their divinely strategized context Mary and Joseph and the Becoming One with the name that means “saving people from their sins.” So let “the light dawn upon us,” and let its marvelous implication of growing revelation of where our hope lies break around us in incremental power—all the way to the fullness of Light as experienced in the Transfiguration at the last Sunday of Epiphany.

Give yourself over to the liturgical calendar and reclaim this holy time. Adapt your Christmas activities to fit into your spiritual priorities of welcoming the gift of God and honoring that God hears our cries and has pitched the divine tent among us. And let curious people know why you have become counter cultural.

Advent is the beginning of the beginning. Christmas is the beginning itself. Epiphany is the revelation of what has begun. And by Lent we are perhaps so aware of the pure grace of God’s gift of light that we are ready to bring it into our internal darkness and let the process of enlightenment go deeper and more personal; until Holy Week helps us put an end to our old selves and brings us God’s newness of a Risen Life.

I am now way ahead of myself. So, let us return to the present. Advent is a time to grapple with the dark things of our world, yes, even as we are decorating our homes. It is a time to read books that challenge us in their efforts to make sense of our VUCA world, where for many authors there is no expectation of a Divine deliverer. We let the pain of our society get to us even as that same society is wringing every ounce of hope and joy it can from the story we are living as Christian people. We, however, are not oblivious to the joy around us. We see the signs of God’s approaching. (After all, in human terms, God took nine months for God to make a Savior if God was truly to empty self and become one of us). This is a time to listen more intently to the story we recite at every Eucharist, which is probably a strong reason we have become so attached to being Eucharistic communities. And our prayers are invited to carry a certain urgency and expansiveness about them.

Those who have received Christmas cards from my family know that they are not likely to reach you until after Christmas. I confess that I aim for Epiphany. Perhaps that is the right trajectory. If we want to reclaim Advent, we have to extend out our Christmas to its traditional twelve days culminating in Epiphany. We can still buy presents ahead of time. (Again, Mary carried Jesus to term, and had her outbursts of joy as expressed in the Magnificat). And we make our preparations that bring increasing light into the darkness. Yet our highest energy for launching festivities, card sending and for reconnecting with friends and honoring them with gifts would come from Christmas Eve/Day and extend into Christmas week and through the New Year to Epiphany.

What if we paced ourselves this way? Who else does something similar to that? Of course, the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah—based on a very different narrative and covering eight days—but perhaps the one the early disciples would have understood better than what we do now. The fruit never falls far from the tree.

In the peace and love of Christ,

The Rt. Rev Alan Scarfe
Bishop of Iowa

[1] “Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!” Words by Timothy Dudley-Smith, The Hymnal 1982, #437,438

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Las Vegas

October 3, 2017

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

"Nation plunges into familiar nightmare" is the headline of USA Today that greets us thirty-six hours on from the mass shooting in Las Vegas. "Is it terrorism?" the pundits are asked as they scramble to find an underlying explanation. I suppose that would bring some kind of comfort, though there really isn't any to be found in this situation. Last night people gathered in vigil, and tonight, at 5:30 pm, we will come together locally at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Des Moines for a service of lament. Yet even "Oh Lord, how long?" is inadequate as God has already spoken and acted on the issue and we do not like God's answer.

"Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword." "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." "Love one another as I have loved you." "The earth will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea." "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

Of course, it is not that simple. Vulnerability is the gift we offer each other in desiring to fulfil the law of Christ "to love one another." The vision of the children safely playing in the streets and the old folk hanging around for conversation remains the prophet's dream, and it assumes a form of vulnerability. We believe that God restores us by returning us to an innocence that is child-like. As we pray and lament, we need to ask ourselves what kind of world do we really seek? What satisfies us? When will we decide violence and weapons of violence have no place among us? The children and old folk in the streets surrounded by protective SWAT teams or streets only entered through metal detectors doesn't quite capture the spirit of the prophecy.

I read that there are about 5 pages of governmental regulations related to safety in ladder use for human protection - even though ladders only kill about 300 Americans a year. Of course we register and have national access to the identity of every automobile because we acknowledge that that is the most lethal machine most of us have at our disposal. We have even recognized the dangers of second hand smoke and have managed to limit a very addictive habit. We are working hard to address a similar epidemic with the use of pain killers. But we cannot manage to name gun use as a human health hazard.

We are simply not healthy enough as a society to be gun happy. And unfortunately we are not happy enough a society to become gun-free. In the meantime, children get hold of them and accidentally kill their siblings; gun access is too easy a temptation for those suffering from suicidal thoughts; too many temperaments are too volatile and readily prone to violent reaction to make a gun too deadly to be at hand; and for some life is too mentally fragile that the available use of a gun as an instrument of mass destruction of human life is a tragedy waiting to happen. If this is not a public health issue, and needs to be treated as such, I am not sure what is.

Are we champions of human liberty? Then let us recognize that the license of some is in fact endangering the liberty of all. And we can alter that differential with sensible gun safety laws that truly protect the rights of everyone not to have to worry about being in a public space. There has to be a tipping point and to that end I pray. 

God has spoken. And what God is often willing to do is hear us when we ask to be brought back to our rightful minds. Or, maybe it will be terrorists that in turning our own freedoms against us actually manage to bring us to that point. How much better it would be to find our own resolve for the greater good in handling our guns, as Australia has done, and in one movement decrease the danger we pose to ourselves and close the opening we offer to our serious enemies.

This has to be the will of the whole people, and we who are strengthened by the Spirit of the Prince of Peace can take a lead. Each day in this nation, ninety-two souls who are victims of gun violence and accidents meet God to ask that very question. Their lament is not "How long, Oh Lord?" but joins God's lament to us "How long, my people, until you see your answer for peacefulness and health is among you all along?" 

In the peace and love of Christ,

 The Rt. Rev. Alan Scarfe, Bishop of Iowa

October 2017

In three weeks we will be together in Des Moines for our annual Convention. We have designated this past year as one of Revival, and certainly the imaginations of many have been stimulated as each Revival 2017 weekend has come around. It seems to be reaching a crescendo as we come into the home stretch. Some have been amazed that we stuck to the program consistently through the whole year. Every congregation has had the opportunity to use this time to consider its own life in the Spirit of God. And it has been a joy to see the variations on a theme that have arisen.

I knew that Revival would also catch up on me during this time, and on several occasions, I have experienced my personal renewal with God. I did not foresee however that I would meet the joy of the Lord in the bouncy house at St Paul’s, Council Bluffs. Brought in for the children, we expected it to add a carnival atmosphere and keep them occupied while we adults prayed and communed with God. But Jesus expects us to come to Him as a child.

Let me tell you that there is no dignity to be found or preserved in a bouncy house. But laughter? I think the half an hour recovery time after the bouncing was as much from the laughter than anything else. And of course the laughter was only after falling on one’s face and not being able to get back up on your feet so readily. I laid there laughing, and I think God laughed with me. Donna and I have traveled throughout our ministry with two pictures of Jesus developed as illustrations for the Living Bible. The one we have at home is of Jesus laughing among children; and the second hangs in my office and depicts Jesus in the middle of a huge belly laugh. Sometimes I have had to look at the picture and say strongly –“what are YOU laughing at?” Normally the response is “Looking at you, taking yourself so seriously.”

Is God to be found more readily when we try and bounce and when we fall flat on our faces? That would seem to be the case. God is also more readily available when we are defeated by the kind of horror of Las Vegas or Charlottesville. As we lament and mourn, God is there too. At both ends of our emotional spectrum there God stands – weeping with those who weep, and rejoicing with those who rejoice.

Revival is about becoming more open to God’s extremes. It is not about the Church as you have known it. It is about becoming God’s agents for loving change now and moving forward. That is why at Convention we will talk about following up this past year in intentional ways, and about learning what we have to say as good news found in our relationship with Jesus Christ. How do we carry God’s renewal of us forward, and how do we learn to let it take us beyond ourselves into the world we are now experiencing? Revivals produce leadership and leadership brings change. Change can transform things around us.

See Convention as one great bouncy house, and let God laugh with you as you take on the impossible of being God’s people of love and reconciliation. Bouncing high with the Spirit will land you on your front and your back, and will not be very dignified, but you will laugh and in your laughter maybe the world around you might lighten up itself. For, without you knowing, it will be God’s light penetrating dark and wild places. It will be God's light that shines through you in that vulnerable moment of self-forgetting that is our laughter.   

In the peace and love of Christ,

The Rt. Rev Alan Scarfe
Bishop of Iowa

Sunday, September 10, 2017


Revival Sermon at New Song Episcopal Church on Saturday, September 9 by the Rt. Rev. Christopher Epting

Isaiah 11:6-9, John 3:1-6

Classical evangelicals make much of these few verses we just heard from the Fourth Gospel; the ones about being “born again” or “born from above” as the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates it. And what they often mean by that is a powerful experience of the love and grace of God, the moment when (as they are likely to describe it) they “accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.”

Some of us here tonight can remember such experiences. A moment of surrender and acceptance on a deeper level of a faith we may have professed with our lips for many years. Mine happened on the couch of a college apartment in Gainesville, Florida. And it really did feel like being “born again.” But I think many of us today recognize that the “born again” experience is not so much a one-time event, but a recurrent pattern which may take place countless times over the course of a lifetime.

I was born again in that college apartment and it led me into a deeper search for whatever truths Christianity and the Bible might offer for my life and the life of the world. I was born yet again in a seminary experience which I wasn’t sure was going to lead to ordination, but which was where I needed to be to get more answers and seek deeper truth. Ordination itself was another born again experience in which I felt myself stepping into a long succession of those called to that particular ministry (I remember a vision of looking backwards as though through the wrong end of a telescope and seeing all those who had gone before me in this role!)

Becoming a bishop here in Iowa was yet another such experience, being born into a completely different ministry for which – in those days at least – there was absolutely no preparation. Never have I had to rely so completely on the love and grace of God as in those thirteen years as Bishop of Iowa. There was no other way to get up every morning!

And, finally, at least for tonight, I would point to an experience of being born again when I accepted the Presiding Bishop’s invitation to serve as his Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations – for here I was initiated more deeply into the gifts and graces of other Christian communions and other world religions, many of whose disciplines I adopted as my own and still treasure to this very day.

Well, those few simple examples from my own life may illustrate a pattern which I believe is the template for many, if not most, of us on the spiritual path. Theologians often point to the fact that the paradigm for Christians at least is not “getting better and better every day in every way,” some uninterrupted pattern of spiritual growth which lead us to higher and higher levels (or deeper and deeper truth, depending on your analogy!).

No, the Christian pattern is death and resurrection -- The pattern of Jesus’ life. The reality those same theologians call “the paschal mystery.” For some reason – known only to God – we seem to have to die before we can be raised!

Jodi Page-Clark’s wonderful hymn puts it so well: “Teach us to know your word, Lord/ Let it cleanse us through and through/ As we open our hearts to each other/ Break us and make us anew! We have to die before we can be raised!

This is what will happen to us at the end of our lives, but it is also a pattern which takes place, on a smaller scale, over and over again during the course of our lives. And every little resurrection is preceded by a little death. I died to certain aspects of my life after that experience in a college apartment – but I was introduced to so much more.

I died to certain simplistic understandings of Christianity and the church during my time in seminary, but learned how much richer and more complex our faith can be. I died to certain freedoms when I was ordained to the priesthood and to the episcopate, but I found the kind of freedom which can only come from discovering what it means for whatever gifts you may have to be matched up to ministry which needs to be done – the place where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” as Frederick Buechner puts it.

And when I went to New York, I died to the folly that my way was the only way to God -- that even “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement” has a lot to learn…from other faith traditions and from people whose life experiences are so different from many of ours!

Tonight, during this experience of Revival, we will be invited to make a new commitment, or perhaps a re-commitment, to some aspect of our faith journeys. No one is required to do this, but everyone is invited. That may mean acceptance of some “nudging of the Spirit” you have been feeling for some time.

It may be to take the next step on your journey – even if the way may look dark and somewhat frightening viewed from this place. You may wish to commit to a new way of living out your Christian faith – some way to make a difference in this world which is so desperately in need of “difference makers” today. Or, it may be something totally unexpected. God’s spirit within you will provide that guidance – not me.

These little experiences of being “born again,” these little deaths and resurrections sometimes feel life-changing and significant, at other times they are gentle “mid-course” corrections. But be they great or small, they are our ways of participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the paschal mystery at the heart of God’s creation. I would point out one thing: according to Jesus in tonight’s Gospel the whole purpose of being ‘born again’ is that we might “enter the kingdom of God.” And that means so much more than getting into heaven when we die!

When we risk being “born from above” we are opening ourselves to see the world -- and help transform the world -- as God sees it and is transforming it. Our little “dyings and risings,” patterned on the death and resurrection of Jesus, are for the purposes of preparing the way for nothing less than a New Heaven and a New Earth.

We don’t know exactly how that will happen. But the Christian hope is that, in God’s good time, and perhaps as a result of our being willing to die and rise with Jesus, to be born again and again and again:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…

Most of all, it is our hope and our fervent prayer that, one day…

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;

For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea!