Wednesday, December 29, 2010

John's Prologue

The following is a very slightly edited version of the homily preached on the First Sunday of Christmas, December 26, 2010. There were plenty of available seats (unlike two days earlier!)

The first chapter of John's Gospel is referred to by Biblical scholars as “the Prologue.”

Luke gives us the "screenplay" for the familiar tableau that we re-enacted again on Friday night: the pageant that includes angels and shepherds, baby Jesus in his swaddling cloths, the manger, and all the rest. (Although I should point out that there is no mention of donkeys that I can find in Luke.)

Matthew’s birth narrative is different: his focus is not on the simple, humble shepherds who come to see Jesus but on those wise men from the east, those goyim who bring highly symbolic gifts. Intertwined with their visit, of course, is a drama of political intrigue that resembles an old Jewish story: the story of the Exodus. It is in Matthew that we meet another Joseph, also a dreamer; who leads his family into and then out of Egypt. It is Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospel writers, who chooses a lens from the prophet Isaiah through which to interpret the Christmas story: Emmanuel, God-with-us.

We are tempted to blend the two narratives together, but there is wisdom in letting each speak to us in its own voice. Mark tells us nothing about the birth of Jesus at all.

And then there is John… In John’s gospel there are no angels, shepherds, or magi. Yet it is, I think, in the first chapter of John that we discover the true meaning of Christmas: a concise and powerful summary of the Incarnation—literally the “en-flesh-ment” of God. Luke and Matthew, together, give us the experience; but John is focused telling us what it means and why it matters to our lives.

What it means, John says, is that God has dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus reveals for us (and not just for us but the whole world) the image of God—very God of very God. We are no longer left to speculate about God’s love: we can consider a person who loves us. We can pay attention to who he was and what he said and how he behaved—how he challenged both his disciples and those who opposed him. (And how he loved both groups.) We can learn what he taught and bear witness to how he died. We can do all of this because the faith of the Church is that God is not confined in the heavens: the meaning of this event we call Christmas is that God dwells among us.

In Jesus’ life, we see not only a mirror of the divine life, but of our own lives as well; of what a fully human life might look like. Of course that is God’s desire for each and every one of us: to be alive, to be human, to be real. John insists that:

• The Word has become flesh in Jesus Christ.
• The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
• We have beheld his glory, as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

In the Eastern branches of Christianity—among the Orthodox of various flavors (Greek, Armenian, Russian) — the Incarnation is summarized in this way: God became human, that humans might become divine. To our Western ears that claim sounds almost scandalous and maybe even a little heretical. But it is actually a teaching of the Church Fathers, of the holy catholic and apostolic Church that we claim to be a part of.

We are changed by the Incarnation.
We are restored to what God intended for all people when He formed Adam and Eve from the earth. We are new creation, a holy people after God’s own heart.

We don’t say it quite as strongly but this message of John’s comes through most clearly, I think, when we celebrate Holy Baptism. It is always sad to me how the Doctrine of Original Sin has tainted and warped our understanding of Holy Baptism; because the whole point is that whatever we say about Original Sin, the point is that in Baptism Original Grace and Blessing is restored. We are given the same name that Jesus was given at his Baptism: beloved of God. We are called by our true names.

Yet we carry around with us, each of us, so many old names. Names perhaps from the schoolyard, perhaps even from our homes. “Stupid.” “Fatso.” “Ugly.” “Faggot.” You know the names…and probably if I stopped for a minute you could add the ones that most hurt you, the ones that you carry around inside of you even if on the outside you’ve long since moved past them. You may have become a beautiful swan at fifteen, but if you were called “ugly duckling” at twelve it may very well be a name you not yet let go of. Bullying may be in the news of late but it’s not a new phenomena. And those names unfortunately stick.

At Baptism, however, we are sealed and marked and claimed by the living God: as God’s own beloved children. When the priest makes the sign of the cross on our foreheads in oil, we are being claimed as a royal priesthood—kings and queens who are esteemed of God, partners with God in mission. As St. Paul told the Galatian Christians in today’s epistle, so it is with us as well: we are adopted as part of God’s family. We are heirs of God. Like Jesus, we, too, cry “Abba, Father.”

That claim is not primarily about gender, but relationship. I don’t want to minimize the challenges of sorting through the hard questions of inclusive language and images. But as I hear “Abba,” it is not a claim that God is more like an earthly father than an earthly mother. It is that God is not distant. God is like the parent (mom or dad) who changes our messy diapers or sits by our bedside when we are sick. God is like the parent who teaches us to drive, or picks us up at the police station when we take stupid pills. God is like the father, or mother, who welcomes us home with open arms and cooks up veal piccata for everyone, even when we have lost our way in the world. Beloved child of God. Not only is that our “new name,” but it is our truest name. We are a holy people. God became human so that we might become divine.

Now at some level that is a rather terrifying thought. It’s easier in some ways to be stupid, or ugly, or useless than it is to be esteemed, beloved, important, given a purpose. It is the work of the Christian life to live more fully into that which God already calls us: to live into the meaning and purpose of our Baptismal identities. The process of sanctification is never a smooth process that can be graphed as a steadily upward incline. But that’s the direction we are called to move in, even if we do so by “fits and starts,” even if it’s a step forward and one to the side and a half-step back. Because that’s who we really are, who we truly are. The journey of faith is about living into the name that is given to us by the One who knows us best.

That may sound a bit like an “I’m ok/you’re ok” message, like something you’d find in the self-help section of a bookstore. But it’s really not that at all. My concern about new-age spirituality is that it doesn’t seem to have an adequate grasp of Sin. But the life of Jesus, especially his death, make it all too clear to us that Sin is real. Sin is so real there seems to be a propensity among us to destroy the good that comes as gift from God and to ignore the good that is within us. The Christian faith, in both East and West, recognizes that Sin abounds. But we also insist that grace abounds all the more, and that God keeps inviting us to become more fully our true selves, as people created in God’s own image.

In Jesus, the divine became human, that human beings might become divine. Or if that sounds too radical to you, if it rocks your Calvinistic Protestant world too much, then how about this: we are invited, by the grace of God, to participate in the divine life. Not just someday, but today. Right here. Right now. We come to the Table to eat what God already claims that we are: members of Christ’s own body, heirs of the promise, a holy and beloved people.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mary


"In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth."
(Luke 1:39-40)

I’ll never forget the “children’s sermon” that my Old Testament seminary professor gave us about the importance of doing a "close reading" of Biblical texts, especially those we think we already know. He had two copies of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which he read aloud to us. The poem was written in 1822 by Clement Clark Moore. He had an early edition of the book as well as a modern re-printing. What he wanted us to pay attention to were the illustrations. According to Moore, St. Nick is “dressed all in fur from his head to his foot and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.” In the early editions that’s just how he is pictured — in an all white fur outfit covered with soot, “with a little round belly.” The image matches Moore's words precisely.

Now fashions change of course, and these days as everyone knows, St. Nick has gone red, with white fur trim. And like many of us he’s put on some weight. In the later version of the book he had, what happened is that the text is essentially ignored: the illustration matches the "Santa" we all love from the mall. What’s interesting, however, is that most of us don’t even notice. We don’t even register the disconnect between Moore's words and the more modern image.

Now that isn’t a huge deal. But it’s an illustration that has always stayed with me, because what my teacher said next was the real point: most of us have preconceived images dancing in our heads, especially around Christmas time. We think we know Mary and Joseph and the babe and the shepherds and the magi. We carry around pictures in our heads of that manger scene that are shaped more by pageants and Christmas cards than by the birth narratives in the Bible. So we look in vain to find an innkeeper, for example, or the number of wise men who came from the east. When we already have an image in our heads, however, it’s easy for us to make the text fit our image rather than adapting our images to what the text in fact says.

A similar problem occurs when we try to speak of this young Jewish girl, Miriam in Hebrew—or Mary if you prefer. (So long as we remember that the text precedes her becoming a Roman Catholic!)The Church has alternatively said too much or too little about Mary; much of it shaped by our own agendas.

But before she was the BVM, she was just a kid — probably no more than fifteen years old. She is called by God through the very same pattern that we can find throughout the Old Testament: whenever God needs to have a job done, from Abraham to Moses to David to Isaiah with his “unclean lips.” The angel says, “I’ve got a job for you.” She is, in turn, fearful, confused and resistant. The angel presses on and tells her that she’ll have a baby. She responds, “how can this be?” The angel insists it can be because with God all things are possible and then Mary sings, “Here I am Lord…” Then she runs off to see her cousin, Elizabeth.

Mary says “yes” to God and the world is changed. She is Christ-bearer, which in truth is what we are all called to be. We, too, are called to say “yes, Lord” and let Christ be born into a broken world in and through our words and deeds. But she was first. Therefore she is a model, a witness of what faith looks like.

The life of faith is not without its questions and its struggles, uncertainties and fears. But with God, all things are possible. Mary’s humanity is crucial—for it is precisely in all of her vulnerability and youthful bravery that we see why she matters. If she can do this then maybe we can too.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What I Am Reading...

...or more accurately, the books that have made it to the top of my pile and that I hope to read early in 2011.



Walter Brueggemann is always good. But this book, it seems to me, goes to the heart of what his greatest contribution has been not only to Biblical scholarship but toward a helpful post-Christendom ecclesiology. In Out of Babylon he continues to explore the Biblical theme of exile relative to the experience of the Church in our time. Chapter 8, "A Durable Metaphor...Now Contemporary" just about sums it up for me.



I first encountered Bonhoeffer when I turned twenty-one at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland: a Lutheran pastor who became a close friend was doing PhD work at St. Andrews; Jorg gave me a copy of Letters and Papers from Prison. I read Life Together whenever I start to feel discouraged about parish ministry or the wider church, so that I can try to let go of my "wish dream" of the Church and give thanks for the community God gives us. I look forward to delving into this bio.


I'm planning a book study in my parish on A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith and have already begun this one. A colleague of mine offers a gentle critique that McLaren is still wrestling with his evangelical background and context and that the direction he is moving in is not unlike what Lutherans and Episcopalians have been saying for some time. Still, I find that people are at various stages in the asking of such questions, which include questions about Biblical authority, the Church's authority, human sexuality, religious pluralism and others. It seems to me that it will be a helpful way to engage in a deeper conversation.


I sometimes joke that if I wasn't a pastor I'd like to be a Supreme Court justice. It's not really a joke; I was always way more interested when in college in attending law school and going straight to being a judge than in actually being a lawyer, and I've long been interested in the Court. I think Breyer is a smart guy. A friend of mine, knowing of this interest, passed the book along to me and I'm eager to delve into it.


Robert Putnam wrote "Bowling Alone." This book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, explores faith in America, and while he writes about things that have important implications for the Church, part of what I like is that he writes not as a theologian but as a social scientist. I read an excellent review of this book in The Christian Century and can't wait to dive into all 688 pages!

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Regular Joe


O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light rises up in the darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us to do, that the Spirit of Wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in your light we may see light, and in your straight path may not stumble, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer


Some of you may remember Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, which unfolds amid racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The film ends with two quotations. The first is from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; it states that violence is never justified, under any circumstances. “Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love,” said Dr. King. The second quote comes from Malcolm X, who said “I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense, I call it intelligence.” Lee leaves it at that.

Life is complicated. It’s hard enough to “do the right thing,” but sometimes the even harder part is in figuring out what the right thing is to do. I think what makes that film so brilliant is that Lee gets that, and therefore chooses to leave us, the audience, to wrestle with the question.

There are times in our lives when it is very clear what we need to do, even though it may be difficult to find the courage and fortitude to do it. It is hard to act in accordance with our stated convictions and core values. But it may be harder still when we are genuinely unclear about the way forward. In those times, what we really need is help in figuring out what the right thing is. Is violence always wrong, or is it sometimes a necessary “self-defense?” To ask that kind of question we need wisdom and insight and discernment.

Or we may have a friend whose addiction problems are out of control: do we err on the side of not rocking the boat too much (so at least they will know they are not alone and that we do care about them) or on the side of “tough love” that sets clear boundaries (and holds them accountable for their bad choices?) So much depends on the circumstances, on context, and a whole lot of factors that may be beyond our understanding. At such times, before we can “do the right thing,” we need to figure out what the right thing is to do.

Joseph, we are told in today’s gospel reading, was, “a righteous man.” In Greek the word is “dikaios.” It’s translated into English as “just” or as “justified” as often as “righteous”—and it is a fairly common word in the New Testament, especially in St. Paul’s writings. What exactly does it mean to be a “just” or “righteous” person? I suspect that if you asked most Christians, across generational and denominational lines, they would say that it is basically about trying to do our best to follow God’s commandments as they are revealed in the Scriptures. But in the case of Joseph, there is a text in the Torah that is quite explicit, given the situation in which he finds himself. It seems pretty clear what he is supposed to do, if he is in fact a “righteous man.”

Mary and Joseph were engaged—although something gets lost in translation here when we move into English and our twenty-first century context. In first-century Palestine, to be “betrothed” was a legally binding arrangement that could be dissolved only by death or divorce. In other words, Mary and Joseph were already as good as married. And so if Mary has been “sleeping around” (and all the evidence Joseph has seems to suggest she has) then she has committed adultery. So what is the right thing to do here? How would a righteous man act? The Bible says that adultery is punishable by death.

If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)


Now we must be very clear here: in the first century, Jews were not going around stoning adulterers. The rabbis had interpreted the text as belonging to another time and place, and softened the blow quite a bit. They were not Biblical literalists. Still, adultery was considered a very serious sin and those who committed it were publicly humiliated and shamed, even if not stoned. The practice, in other words, was to make public what had happened in private. A "scarlet letter" worked as well as stoning to ostracize a person from “polite” society and make her as good as dead to the community.

Keep in mind that Joseph still believes at this point in the story that he has been wrongfully betrayed: that his honor has been violated. He must have felt incredibly hurt, humiliated, and angry. One could certainly understand his desire to lash out. But beyond that he can, as a religious person, justify his desire for retaliation by quoting Scripture! He can say not only that he has every “right” to expose Mary to public humiliation and that it’s a form of “tough love,” but that it’s his “religious duty.” He can say that is the “will of God” and that these aren’t his rules, but God’s, because it says so, right in the Bible! In spite of how the rabbis were interpreting Deuteronomy 22 in Joseph’s day, he could have pushed for a return to “that old time religion” and gotten a bumper sticker for his car that said: “Bring back stoning: God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

But of course Joseph didn’t do that.

He could have listened to the interpretations being given by the rabbis of his day and exposed Mary to public disgrace. This decision would had the advantage of being “in the mainstream.” With the full backing of the religious authorities, Joseph could have claimed the moral high ground by publicly divorcing Mary, so that everyone in town would know that he had been wronged. He had every right to do that, even if it wasn’t the right thing to do.

But Joseph didn't do that either. Even before he has this strange dream, Joseph discerns a higher calling than following the letter of the law, even a law already mitigated by the rabbis. Joseph decides that he is “unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace.” He decides that the “right thing” to do here is to dismiss her quietly. And Matthew declares that the reason he did this, the reason he went against the conventional wisdom, was because he was a “righteous man.”

How can it be that a person makes a decision that is counter to the Law, and that he is still considered to be a just person? Matthew seems to be suggesting here that it is. That doesn’t mean that he is dismissing the Law entirely. It doesn't mean Joseph or we can or should do whatever we want. More than any of the four gospel writers, Matthew writes as a Jew, to Jews, with the utmost respect for Torah. In Matthew’s telling of the story, Jesus comes not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.

But Jesus will remind his disciples what is spelled out in the Old Testament itself: that the whole of the Torah is about love. The whole of the Torah can be summed up in the command to love God and to love neighbor.

If we want to “do the right thing,” we can’t just go in search of one Biblical text to tell us what to do. We have to engage in prayer and discernment with a living, holy, merciful God. We have to learn how to trust the Holy Spirit to form and guide our conscience and to guide us into all truth. We also have to be self-aware, because the potential for self-deception is always great. But above all else, we need love. The fourth candle on our Advent wreaths is the candle of love and we are reminded today that righteousness and love are inextricably bound together.

Joseph seems to believe that a “respect for the dignity of every human being” includes even the woman he feels has betrayed and deceived him and hurt him. His “righteousness” is tied to preserving her dignity. He choose mercy and love rather than public humiliation, because he was a righteous man…

Now that isn't the end of the story at all but it's a part of the story I think we do well to linger on, because it reveals a great deal about Joseph's character. But the story gets even wilder from there: because no sooner has Joseph made up his mind than it all becomes moot: his decision has been made when out of nowhere the whole story shifts and an angel appears to Joseph in a dream. (Poor Joseph; unlike Mary and the shepherds and even George Bailey, he doesn’t get a real angel—with or without wings; just a dream angel!)

But what he learns from this dream-angel is huge: he has it all wrong. He thought he had the facts right and his decision seemed compassionate based on a logical reading of the evidence. After all, Mary is pregnant and he knows he’s not the father. But then the angel tells him that this pregnancy is the work of the Holy Spirit and not of an adulterous affair at all. Mary has in fact not betrayed him. And that changes everything.

This, too, is a part of the moral life, is it not? We make ethical choices not as people who are omniscient, but as people who come to decisions based on the best information we have available to us at the time, information that at best we see through a glass darkly. And sometimes we are just plain wrong. Sometimes we leap to the wrong conclusions. Often when we do (and especially if we feel hurt or vulnerable or angry) we act less nobly than Joseph was about to act. But now Joseph changes his plans based on a dream.

And here, too, he had choices. After waking up he very easily could have said, “I’m never eating stuffed peppers again!” He could have told himself: “it was just a dream, and what a bizarre one at that. I can’t wait to tell it to my therapist!”

But that, of course, isn’t what he does. Joseph acts and does the two things his dream angel tells him to do: he takes Mary as his wife and then he names the child Yeshua—Jesus—Savior. In so doing, Joseph is claiming the child as his very own son.

Sometimes we have a hard time connecting to the people of the Bible. But we should be clear that regardless of what we say about the peculiar nature of this particular birth, Joseph was neither the first nor the last man to ever find himself in a situation like this. He is, I think in a real sense, a regular Joe: an ordinary, everyday hero who is just trying to do the right thing.

How do you know when to trust your dreams and act on them? How do you discern what is a message from God, and what is really a temptation from the Evil One? I don’t have any easy answers for you on that. All I can tell you is that Joseph trusted his dream as more real than what his rational brain told him and as more important than what all the gossiping neighbors were whispering about Mary. Maybe the dream confirmed what his heart was telling him and he wanted to live into that reality.

What does seem clear, at least to me, is that Joseph acted out of love when he could have chosen to act out of fear and anger. He stuck with Mary in spite of any lingering doubts he may have had. He gave her son his name and then raised him his own. Adoptive parents know well both the challenges and potential joys of such a decision. But do well to remember that this decision will almost certainly be costly to Joseph’s reputation and his standing in the community—and very few people beyond Mary herself will ever be able to appreciate the sacrifice he has made in doing the right thing, the hard thing. It will win him no medals, and almost certainly the whispering will go on in that small town for decades. Mamzer—they will call Jesus, in spite of Joseph’s actions: illegitimate.

In hindsight, as followers of Jesus, it’s easy to see why Joseph deserves to be called a “righteous man.” But what truly amazes me is that Joseph was able to get it right the first time around, without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight—even before he ever held that babe wrapped in swaddling clothes in his arms.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Happy Holidays!

I realize that as a Christian pastor, in a liturgical tradition that takes its time in getting to Bethlehem, that my experience in December may not be quite the same as that of others. Still, they do let me out of the church every now and again and I am, by nature, not a terribly "sheltered" or "parochial" person.

Signs of Christmas are all around me. No one, as far as I can tell, has declared war on Christmas. There are wreaths aligning Main Street in the town where I live. This weekend I went to the campus of Harvard University (that bastion of liberalism!)- to the Memorial Church, located in the heart of Harvard Yard, to worship at the 101st year of their "Service of Lessons and Carols." Absolutely lovely, but no "war" there as far as I could see.

We were at Harvard to hear my oldest son singing in the choir. Tonight we are headed to Wachusett Regional High School--our local public school--to hear our younger son sing. It won't be a worship service, but Christmas will be more than recognized through beautiful, and dare I say, "sacred" music.

I could go on: the Christmas tree at the White House, the music on the radio, the decorations in the drug store... But my point is simply this: where the front lines of this "war on Christmas?"

Or is it possible that it is just imagined? Is it possible that where there is smoke there is in fact, no fire at all?

I know that the old Protestant hegemonic powers are coming apart, and as an old Protestant I have to be honest: I am glad for that. I think Christians have done much better, historically, when we are a little bit under the radar than in the halls of power. But in the month of December, I just don't feel under attack. If anything, I find myself wondering what it is like to be a non-Christian this month: what it feels like as a Jew or Buddhist or Muslim, what it's like to have it "beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go" when it is not your tradition. Do we really think that "real" Americans celebrate Christmas?

As a Christian - as a follower of Jesus - I feel compassion for those whose holidays are not so supported by the culture. (Although I also feel just a twinge of envy sometimes too, because I think it's hard for Christians to separate out the cultural parts from the faith parts. But that's another rumination...)

I don't need to tell my non-Christian neighbors, "Merry Christmas." It feels, quite frankly, rude to me. Literally, of course, wishing them well as they attend the Christ-Mass...really? Why would I want the clerk at the Walmart to say this to me, unless she happens to be someone I will in fact see in the pews at the Christ-Mass on December 24?

These are holy days for many, a season of celebrating light in the darkness. Happy Holidays! That includes my faith but it also shows respect, and hospitality, and friendship to those whose beliefs differ from mine. I don't think it is even remotely disrespectful to Jesus.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Advent is a coming...

"Advent is a coming, not our coming to God, but his to us. We cannot come to God, he is beyond our reach; but he can come to us, for we are not beneath his mercy. Even in another life, as St. John sees it in his vision, we do not rise to God, but he descends to us, and dwells humanly among human creatures, in the glorious man, Jesus Christ. And that will be his last coming; we shall be his people, and he everlastingly our God, our God-with-us, our Emmanuel. He will come, but he is come already; he comes always: in our fellow-Christian (even in a child, says Christ), in his Word, invisibly in our souls, more visibly in his sacrament. Opening ourselves to him, we call him in: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; O come, Emmanuel." From The Crown of the Year, by Austin Farrer, as quoted in Christopher L. Webber's Love Came Down: Anglican Readings for Advent and Christmas.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I Love You, You Love Me...

This morning I was channel surfing and when I say that I stumbled on some mindless television, I mean that quiet literally. There he was; and here I had just assumed he died some years ago. It was Barney, dancing with his friends and singing about books, hoping to brainwash the youngest generation into reading: I love stories all day long/in books, in pictures and even song... I mean I agree with the message completely; I've made a living telling stories as a preacher. Even so, it almost made me want to burn some books.

Now I realize that paragraph is grossly unfair. I also realize that I had some PTSD that emerged when I stumbled across that purple monster this morning. When my children were little I tried to steer them to Sesame Street: clever, interesting, wonder-filled and geared not only to children but to their captive parents as well. Sesame Street is Bruce Springsteen singing "Born to Add;" Johnny Cash singing "Nasty Dan" with Oscar the Grouch; and a whole array of stars singing "Put Down the Duckie."

But back to Barnie. My kids, especially Graham, went through a stage where they just loved that purple freak. "Clean up, clean up, everybody do your part..." Good message, for sure; but designed to drive you insane and make you want to start throwing things across the room...

I really had thought Barney was dead. He was dead to me, anyway. I don't know if I came across an old re-run or if he's still at it day after day. I don't know because my kids are now twenty and sixteen and I have not had to watch Barney for years. He is not on my radar anymore. He's out of my life...and yet, there he was this morning: I saw him, as purple as ever.

It got me to thinking about the circles we move in, the information we receive: what we literally see and don't see. Most of us live in echo chambers, some of our own choosing but much of it related to where we live and how much education we got and whether or not we have children and what we do for work. We don't think about it most of the time, but the information we take in forms and shapes us in ways we are rarely conscious of. We are like children watching Barney, receiving subtle and not so subtle messages that we just assume are "true." The philosophers speak of epistemology and that is what I am really ruminating about here. How do we know what we know? What do we see, and not see, that is happening all around us? Literally we inhabit different worlds.

When liberals and conservatives start talking about tax cuts for the wealthy, and whether or not it was a good idea for Obama to compromise with the GOP (or whether he should have drawn a line in the sand and gone down fighting) we would do well, I think, to realize that most of us (and most of our politicians) are pretty inept when it comes to macroeconomics. Our "decisions" are based on the messages we take in--and here is my Barney point: most of them as insipid and mind-numbing as a Barney song. Liberal Democrats say this is really, really bad; the country will go to hell if people making over a quarter of a million dollars get any more breaks. The secret message is not only that they are doing very well and need to pay their fair share, but that the rich really are (most of them anyway) like Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life." More or less conservative Republicans, not likely to ever give Obama credit, can now gloat for having outflanked that evil socialist president of ours once again, but not until they have reminded us that really small businesses run by hard-working "real" Americans like Joe the Plumber make $250,000 a year and if they don't get their tax-cuts they'll start firing the help and all the jobs will go China...

Personally, it seems to me that if these tax cuts didn't work for ten years then it is unlikely they are suddenly now going to save us. On the other hand, if the economy is trying to rebound now and "increasing" taxes slows down that growth: doesn't that affect everyone adversely - including and especially the poor? I suppose I am a liberal in many ways: theologically and on most social issues. But on economic issues I'm far more "moderate" and even "agnostic" in that I often don't know the right answer. I'm curious.

But of course our politicians and the current political climate doesn't really allow for or encourage curiosity or wonder or debate or conversation or ambiguity. We aren't allowed to say "I don't know." We don't allow our leaders to ever say that; we'd perceive it as a sign of weakness. We like our politicians to "draw lines in the sand" and to posture and to be certain; certain even when they are wrong. We have little tolerance as a nation for ambiguity, subtlety, questions, compromise, curiosity.

I blame it all on that purple freak. We are, I think, increasingly more Barney than Sesame Street as a nation. And that's not a good thing in my book.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Peace


Like hope, joy, and love, peace is an Advent word, and this is a season for preparing our minds and hearts and souls for peace on earth, and good will to all.

You don’t have to read very much of the Bible to know that the Middle East has always been a violent place, certainly as far back as the Exodus when the ex-slaves from Egypt finally reached the “Promised Land” and wanted to claim the Promise. There was just one problem: there were people already living there who hadn’t been let in on the Promise. In fact, they rather liked living there. That’s why Joshua had to “fit” the Battle of Jericho, and that’s why the walls came “a tumblin’ down”–so that some could be pushed out in order to make room for those who had been promised “milk and honey.”

When we read the Bible, or the newspaper, we find that that was pretty much how it has been ever since. A few years of peace, under David’s reign, when things went pretty well...but in the scheme of human history not much. Israel and her neighbors – the Iranians, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the Iraqis – under various aliases throughout history have not had an easy time of living together. After World War II the world community once again carved out a Jewish homeland. And once again we discovered (even when we tried to deny it) that there were people who had been living there for some time who had grown quite fond of doing so. We still haven't sorted out what that means but one thing is certain: we will never have peace if we can't be honest.

Life is not easy, and what is to one person an "answer to prayer" may be another's worst nightmare. This, I think, is what makes peace so difficult and elusive. In the real world it isn’t simply about feeling stress-free, and maybe we need to let go of that false ideal in order to make way for God’s peace: peace that brings with it justice, and that leads us to reconciliation and love of neighbor.

Those of us who claim the name of Christian are inheritors of a violent tradition that nevertheless still dares to yearn for, and dream of, and work towards peace. The prophets dare to speak of a time when “swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks”–that is to say, resources are re-directed from military appropriations to agriculture. It is only once that happens, say the prophets, that a peace that is more than just the “absence of war” becomes possible. God’s shalom is not about a “cease-fire.” It’s about abundance, and gratitude, and hospitality. It's about a a willingness to share and a table set with fine wines and veal piccata for everyone. It’s about a community where trust is a given, and where walls that once divided are broken down.

Sometimes people say to me that the Old Testament is hard to read because it is so violent. There is a great deal of truth in that statement, but there’s another way to look at it – a way that makes it so near and dear to me in fact. The Old Testament (and I believe the New Testament as well!) refuse to be “pie-in-the-sky.” They refuse to live in a dream world. They dare to look squarely at what really is.

The Old Testament especially does not avoid geo-political realities, and whether the super-powers are Assyria, or Babylonia, or Persia, or Rome, or Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union, or the United States, the Bible insists on being honest about how violence degrades and hurts God’s people, and how even religion can be used to perpetrate violence and to justify power relationships. The Old Testament, and especially the prophets, are honest about what is. But they also refuse to settle for the status quo as what must always be. They dare to dream of the dawn of a new day, of a time when God really is the ruler of heaven and earth, a time when justice and peace go together.

I’ve always appreciated the song, “Let there be peace on earth...” not just for the memories it evokes in my from childhood, and not just because I like the tune, but because of the next clause: “and let it begin with me.” I think that is a very Biblical prayer: to ask God for peace on earth, but in the same moment to also recognize that such a prayer requires a response on our part. “Let it begin with me.” In the end it is not the politicians and the generals who will bring about peace on earth. It’s people like Mary, and Joseph, and the shepherds, and fishermen, and tax-collectors, and teachers and nurses and in-laws and neighbors. Each and every one of us are called to be “preparers of the way” in this holy season.

I think that part of what Jesus does for us is to invite us to look to the little things. Ministry is about “small things.” Jesus talks about things like “mustard seeds” when he speaks about faith, and I think peace as well. We can and should pray “let there be peace on earth” - but only if we are willing to let it begin here, and now, with us on this Second Sunday of Advent.

If and when we can find peace in our own hearts, it will be poured out in our homes. Maybe it is as simple as taking time to pray as a family, or lighting an Advent candle, and building a fire and talking about our days together. Maybe we need less “fast food” this month and more “comfort food.” Maybe we need to let go of some old habits, and begin to cultivate some new ones.

If and when there is peace in our hearts, and peace in our homes, we may very well find that it begins to extend to the neighborhood, because surely peace is even more contagious than dis-ease. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some degree of conflict, or disagreement, or difference of opinion; among human beings there will be differences. But there are healthy and unhealthy ways to deal with conflicts; mature ways and less mature ways. When peace is in our hearts–when it begins there–it can truly spread. We learn to confront one another, face to face (rather than gossiping about each other third-hand.) We begin to learn and to practice ways of resolving conflicts that do not require unanimity, but simply a willingness to listen, and to learn, and to forgive, and to love.

What happens when we take seriously our calling to be “preparers of the way” and therefore allow the peace that Christ pours into our hearts to extend to one another, to soften our hard edges, to make us better communicators and more open to healing, and to forgiveness, and grace? I think what happens is that peace starts to become palpable. I think that people feel drawn into the love of God even more deeply and that mission and vocation are re-energized. And as that happens, we learn (and re-learn)what it means to be salt, and light, and yeast for the sake of a broken world.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

It's Not Light Yet, But It's Getting There (Advent I)

One of my favorite songs on Bob Dylan’s album, Time Out of Mind, is entitled “It’s Not Dark Yet.” Since you may not all be Dylan fans (and even if you are, you still might not understand a word he is singing), here is how it goes:

Shadows are fallin' and I've been here all day
It's too hot to sleep and time is runnin' away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun didn't heal
There's not even room enough to be anywhere
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin' what was in her mind
I just don't see why I should even care
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

Well, I've been to London and I’ve been to gay Paris
I've followed the river and I got to the sea
I've been down on the bottom of the world full of lies
I ain't lookin' for nothin' in anyone's eyes
Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

I was born here and I'll die here against my will
I know it looks like I'm movin' but I'm standin' still
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

I love that song in a haunting sort of way. And I have had moments in my life when I’ve felt that way; perhaps you have, also. If you pray through the psalms, you will find that the same feelings and emotions being expressed in Dylan’s poem can also found in many of those psalms of disorientation where the poet feels alone, afraid, and in trouble. For example:

- Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet. (Psalm 69:1)
- My spirit shakes with terror; how long, O Lord, how long? (Psalm 6:3)
- My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1)

It can, paradoxically, be a first act of faith to cry out to God when we are in pain: we dare to cry out to God about our awareness of God’s absence precisely because we yearn for and need God’s presence. The cry “My God why have you forsaken me?” is the cry of a faithful person who needs to be assured of God’s presence with them when they are in trouble, not the cry of an unbeliever.

So when Dylan sings that he can’t “even hear the murmur of a prayer” he is, in the true spirit of Biblical spirituality, actually beginning a prayer. When we pour our hearts out to God — even in desperation — that is prayer. When it is dark out (or dark within), crying out about the darkness is the murmur of a prayer.

Turning the calendar from November to December can be a time when many among us feel this way. Perhaps we suffer from Seasonal Affect Disorder or depression. Or maybe we are grieving the loss of a marriage or a loved one or a job, and while everyone around us seems to be dreaming of a white Christmas and humming “have a holly, jolly Christmas” that frivolity can feel like someone is rubbing salt into an open wound. Sometimes it helps us in those times to know where to find those complaint psalms, so we can get it out of our systems, so we can cry out. And if the psalms aren’t handy, then perhaps we can sing along with Dylan: while everyone else is roasting chestnuts over an open fire we can sing: I don’t even see why I should care; it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting’ there.

The First Sunday of Advent always catches me a little off-guard. I know how Lent begins: with that stark reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. In Lent we are invited to contemplate our own mortality as we journey for forty days toward the good news of Easter morning and abundant, resurrected life. Along the way we are meant to re-discover that nothing —not even our own dying—can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

Advent begins in a similar, but far more cosmic, vein: with these reminders that the whole cosmos is dust. Especially in this northern hemisphere, in late autumn, there are signs of endings all around us. And then we come to Church and hear readings about the end of the world, readings that hardly seem to have been chosen to put us in the Christmas spirit. Whether the world ends with a bang or a whimper, such thoughts often come into our minds when it feels like “our soul has turned into steel” and “our sense of humanity has gone down the drain,” when we feel like “every nerve in our bodies is naked and numb.” It’s not dark yet, but it sure feels like it’s getting’ there.

But here is the thing, and it's easy to miss if we are not very careful. It's easy to miss because we no doubt are living in dark times. Nevertheless, Advent One turns it all inside out, and that is either an act of denial or a profound leap of faith. St. Paul says to the Church in Rome—in Rome at a time when the best days of the Roman Empire were clearly in the past and the future looked very bleak indeed - that it is not nighttime but morning. That it's time to “wake up.”

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light...
It’s not light yet, but it’s gettin’ there. Paul invites us to live and walk as children of the light, to allow that light of Christ to shine through us because the world needs that from us now more than ever. In noticing the darkness to “put on the armor of light.”
“Everybody wake up, if your living with your eyes closed!” (Dave Matthews) It is not the time to turn off the lights and go to bed, but time for sleepers to awake, and arise. Advent marks the dawn of a new day; and we light that first candle not in despair but hope. It’s not light yet, but it’s getting’ there.

On this first Sunday of Advent, we gather together still sleepy from too much tryptophan. It is time, however, to wake up. We gather in a world that is worried about many things, a world that can feel very dark. We come apart to light our candles of hope, and love, and joy and peace. As we do that, we begin by contemplating cosmic endings, knowing that all created things are born and die; not just people but buildings, institutions, economies, nations, and even stars. And yet, with signs of endings all around us we remember the core of the gospel, answers the question: “can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create?” with a resounding, Yes. Alleluia! As Christians we acknowledge endings not to instill fear but to rekindle hope.

And so we begin a new liturgical year together by remembering that only God is God. We begin where we do because rather than curse the darkness, we light one solitary candle and then another and another and another - until the birth itself lights up the whole world. We will not be afraid of the dark, because we do know what time it is. It’s time to wake up! It’s not light yet, but it’s getting’ there!
In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

It’s not light yet. But it is getting there.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Stories We Tell


The stories that we tell ourselves shape the people that we are becoming. Think about two successful people, with very similar trajectories to the top of their chosen careers. It doesn’t really matter whether we are talking about athletes, college presidents, business executives, or nursing supervisors. One of the two focuses on all the people along the way who made it possible for her to achieve her goals, while the other focuses exclusively on her own hard work and determination. Obviously success requires some mix of both. But the story that each person tells will continually reinforce itself and inevitably shape the person each is becoming. One will become more and more aware of, and even grateful for, the support of others; the other is very likely to feel self-made and perhaps even self-righteous. It makes a big difference which part of that story is emphasized.

It’s not much different, I think, with the early history of this nation and the story that we remember tomorrow. As an elementary schoolboy I learned a highly sanitized and idealized story about the relationship between the people native to this land and the Pilgrims who arrived here from Europe. The story, as we all now realize, was not that simple. And yet this story, too, and the ways we tell and re-tell it, continues to shape the nation that we are becoming. It matters that we try to get it right, that we try to tell the truth; and also that we recognize that the truth is usually more complex and multifaceted than we first believed.

The stories that we tell ourselves shape the people that we are becoming. If this is true with individuals, and with nations, it is also true with families. Have you ever had the experience of adult children from a family each telling a story, about the same event, but from their perspective at the time as, say a sixteen-year old, a twelve-year old, and an eight-year old? Their stories may be wildly different not only because they experienced it differently when it happened, but because over many years of telling and re-telling, the story has become more solidified in each one’s brain—to the point where an outsider might find it impossible to discern what “really” happened. They get together, let’s say for Thanksgiving dinner, and it’s hard sometimes to believe that they grew up in the same family, because their narratives are that different.

We become, in a very real sense, the stories we tell. If we feed old wounds and grudges and those are the stories we rehearse over and over again in our heads, then if we are not careful they will form us into bitter, hostile people.

When we gather for worship, to break the bread and share the cup, we are saying "thank you God." That is what the Greek verb Eucharisteo means. This narrative means to define who we are, and who we are becoming: a thankful people who are dependent on God and neighbor. Gratitude is a practice, not a dogma; it’s an attitude; not a line in the sand. Gratitude takes us to the very heart of the Christian narrative and when we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing, and to say thanks, we tell and re-tell a story that shapes the people we are becoming, with God's help.

This liturgical act of coming together to celebrate the Eucharist is about remembering our Baptismal identity - who we really are. We pause in the midst of a lot of competing narratives—stories we tell ourselves, stories our families tell, competing stories about what makes this nation great—in order to remember the Story that binds us together and goes to the very heart of our faith in Jesus Christ. When we gather up the gifts of this good earth, bread and wine, and when we offer our tithes and offerings on God’s altar, the wealth of this good land, we come as God’s thankful people.

Now thank we all our God, with heart, and hands, and voices,
who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mother’s arms, hath blessed us on our way,
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Clive Staples Lewis, Apologist and Spiritual Writer


O God of searing truth and surpassing beauty, we give you thanks for Clive Staples Lewis, whose sanctified imagination lights fires of faith in young and old alike. Surprise us also with your joy and draw us into that new and abundant life which is ours in Christ Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

C.S. Lewis died at his home in Oxford on this day, November 22, 1963 - just one week shy of his sixty-fifth birthday; the very same day that, across the Atlantic, the thirty-fifth president of the United States was shot and killed.

Like so many others, I was first introduced to Lewis through the Narnia Chronicles, his extended allegory of the Christian gospel. Since then, I have been most influenced by The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, and A Grief Observed. He seems to have been an extraordinary man and a faithful Christian.

It interests me that both liberals and conservatives seem to revere Lewis; Evangelicals, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics all look to him for wisdom and seem to claim him as one of their own. I am never quite sure what that means, but a couple of years ago when I was in a faculty-staff study at Assumption College with all Roman Catholics reading a collection of his sermons (The Weight of Glory)I did remind them more than once that he was in fact an Anglican! Perhaps we see what we want to see in great men. Or perhaps it means that Lewis was, indeed a "mere" Christian and that light shines through regardless of the lens through which we view him.

For my own part, I love Lewis because he sought to love God with both head and heart and never fell into the trap of seeing those as mutually exclusive. "I believe in Christianity," he once wrote, "as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." That's pretty good stuff.

And so, too, I think, is this - simple and clear (in the spirit of Jesus) for an Oxford don: "It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Dedication at the Holden Public Safety Building

As volunteer chaplain to the Holden Police Department, I was invited to offer an invocation at today's ribbon cutting for a new Public Safety Building that will house both fire and police departments.

Holy God, beyond all of our names and creeds: we gather here with joyful hearts to admire the work of human hands and to give thanks for all who had the vision to see what was necessary and the determination and perseverance to make it possible.

As we pause to dedicate this new Safety Building, we give thanks for the faithful leadership of Jack and George.

Above all we give You thanks for the police officers and firefighters who will work here for many years to come.

Grant them courage: courage to face and conquer fears, and to go where others dare not go;

Grant them strength: strength of body to protect others and strength of spirit to overcome adversity;

Grant them wisdom: wisdom to commit themselves anew to the job and to the safety and well-being of this community;

We pray for your abiding presence not only in this new building, but with these men and women as they travel through our streets and to our homes to serve the people of this town. Guide and protect them to do the work you have given them to do, and bless their families, who know better than anyone the sacrifices they make on our behalf.

Amen.
(November 20, 2010)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Gratitude


Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love... (The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 836)

Last night, I concluded a three-week study on psalms of thanksgiving with an extraordinary group of people in my parish. It was one of the most rewarding and energizing bits of teaching I've ever had the privilege of doing. We met for the three Thursday nights in November leading up to next Thursday, Thanksgiving.

We began two weeks earlier with a brief introduction to the psalms, using Walter Brueggemann's categories from Message of the Psalms. (I once had a rabbi friend tell me that he thought that book was about the best work out there on the psalms, Christian or Jewish.) WB categorizes psalms into three headings: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of new orientation. He sees most of the psalms of thanksgiving as psalms of new orientation: that is, they grow out of an experience of loss, grief, confusion, suffering. When the writer of the twenty-third psalm says, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil..." it is not the naive confidence of a person who has never known pain that is being expressed, but the confident trust of someone who has walked through the valley before, who has confronted evil, but whose trust is such that hope will trump fear next time around.

So I did my teaching work. One of my favorite collects in The Book of Common Prayer is the one about reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture. I take that quite literally. It is too tempting for Bible Studies to become mind games, to become more about information than formation. The "teacher" knows all the right answers of course!

I really wanted to make sure in this three-week study that we moved beyond knowing something new about psalms of thanksgiving and that we might take them in and digest them. So in week two, I had asked the group to do some homework: for each of the dozen or so people in this study to journey through the psalter in search of a psalm of thanksgiving that spoke to him or her at this point in their journey. They rose to the occasion. Last week, instead of me categorizing and choosing a dozen psalms to explore, we read poetry to one another--we shared these psalms and often the stories behind them of why we had felt drawn to them. (One of the participants had chosen Psalm 104, and when he came to verse 26 (" there goes Leviathan that You made for the sport of it...") he spoke passionately about a whale watch off the coast of Mexico that had taken his breath away.

Last night, however, was the best. I had asked this group to take the risk of each trying to see the world this week as a poet, and to take a crack at writing a psalm of thanksgiving to share. Last night was an evening of beautiful testimony, of holy conversation. One person sang her psalm, about the tiniest of details in coming home to smells and sights and sounds, to her dog and son. Another took a more cosmic approach to creation and stewardship of the earth. Another paraphrased the twenty-third psalm in what she called Psalm 2010. Several persons spoke out of quite specific experiences of disorientation in their lives which had brought them to a new sense of grace and peace, literally to a new orientation in their faith. Each person in the room felt a need to make some kind of disclaimer: "I'm no poet..." But in truth they were all poets and they all had gratitude in their hearts, even in the midst of real challenges.

They were (and are) an extraordinary gift to me and to each other, bearing witness to the human spirit, to courage and hope and love, and offering thanks to God the Creator for the bounty of our lives. Our cups, MY cup, was overflowing. Thanks be to God!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Change

As you may have read, the Bishop of New Hampshire, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, recently announced his retirement. http://www.nhepiscopal.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=116:call-for-election

I was talking to a priest today who, while supportive of full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in The Episcopal Church, also felt that Bishop Robinson's election was "too costly."

He asked me what I thought and I told him that change is always costly. The real question is whether we find ourselves on the right or wrong side of history.

Hathy and I have been watching a television series called MadMen together. http://www.amctv.com/originals/madmen/ It takes place in 1960, and let me tell you, that was a "man's world." (I was born in 1963 but I grew up in a town that lagged about a decade behind the nation with most change. So I feel like I lived through MadMen.

On November 9, this press release was issued by The Episcopal Church, to honor a pioneer named Lueta Bailey of Griffin,Georgia. On November 12, at the Diocesan Convention of the Diocese of Atlanta, Ms. Bailey...
...received an award commemorating the 40th anniversary of the seating of women as deputies to the Episcopal Church’s triennial legislative gathering, called General Convention. Bailey was the first woman to address General Convention, in 1967 in Seattle, and was among the first women seated at the 1970 General Convention in Houston.

Read those words again, especially if you are younger than I am. We now have a female Presiding Bishop and I got this press release from Bonnie Anderson, a laywoman who is president of the Deputies at General Convention, which I will attend in 2012. The senior warden in the church I serve is a woman and more than half of the vestry are currently women. (In fact I'm trying to achieve some gender balance by recruiting a few good men to vestry!)

Forty years ago, The Episcopal Church was still a "boys only" club. That "old time religion?" The "good old days?" For whom!?

Yes, it has been a hard decade for the Episcopal Church. Harder still for Bishop Robinson and his family. Harder still for gay and lesbian youth who are bullied, isolated, frightened - and this from too many so-called religious people. Change is always costly. Let's just hope it doesn't take us forty years to honor V. Gene Robinson for his courage, his ministry, his service to Christ.

Monday Morning Quarterbacking

For readers of this blog who may not know what a Monday morning quarterback is, Wikipedia says it means: "A person who criticizes or passes judgment with benefit of hindsight." Since most football games are played on Sunday afternoons, Monday morning quarterbacks are those who like to second-guess what coulda/shoulda/woulda been...

Sometimes I find myself "Monday Morning Quarterbacking" my Sunday Morning sermon. Actually, it is rarely a cognizant process; more often I can feel it in my body--my neck or shoulders, especially if I felt like it was a difficult sermon to deliver.

Yesterday was one of those days for me and today I feel pretty stiff and tight. It was, I think, Fred Craddock who said in his classic book on preaching, As One Without Authority, that sermons need to follow the same Biblical form as the texts being preached. "Let doxologies be shared doxologically, narratives narratively, polemics polemically, poems poetically, parables parabolically..."

It makes good sense to me. It also helps the preacher to stay open to the diverse voices and forms of Holy Scripture rather than finding one sermon to be preached over and over again.

But it's not easy!

So yesterday I preached on a text from II Thessalonians (3:6-13); an "admonishment from St. Paul to idlers and busybodies." And I realize today, on this Monday morning, that this is not my favorite kind of Biblical text. As a pastor, I am profoundly aware that most people - even those who seem to have it most together - still carry heavy burdens (and often secret burdens at that). I am also aware, as a rector, that part of my job is to be like a coach sometimes: it is not to be liked but to push, to challenge, to admonish. I also realize that one of my own shortcomings is that I like to be liked, which makes this "coaching" a bit of a chore, and somewhat exhausting.

I think that there are two further reasons I so dislike preaching admonishment. First of all, I think many people outside of the Church and some inside the Church equate "admonishment" as a near synonym for preaching anyway. We think of preaching as "finger wagging." Don't preach at me, we sometimes say. When we speak in this way, we are not saying "don't share the good news with me" or "don't speak doxologically." What we really mean is "I don't want to be scolded." And I get that; I don't like being scolded either.

The second reason I don't like admonishment very much is that I don't think it works very well. Most people I know simply don't respond well to criticism. Also, in a community, it is hard to admonish the people you mean to admonish, since often the more sensitive people who are already way too hard on themselves will think you are admonishing them! Why is it that the hardest working person in a church hears every word addressed to "idlers" and feels guilty about not doing more, but the idlers...well, they were thinking about something else during the sermon!

In part what I said yesterday was this:
The meaning of today’s Epistle reading is not immediately obvious. We begin to get a clearer picture, though, when we remember that it’s a misnomer to say that Paul wrote this letter “to the Thessalonians.” He didn’t write to the Thessalonica Daily News. He didn’t write to all Thessalonians. He wrote to the small house churches in Thessalonica — to the baptized community in what we know as modern-day Greece. He wrote these words just a couple of decades or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus. So let’s be clear: he’s not making a political argument to cut welfare and replace it with workfare. Nor is he suggesting that the Thessalonian congregation cut the church’s mission budget to the poor because the poor are lazy and undeserving. Rather, Paul is speaking to the Church in Thessalonica, and reminding the members of that congregation that they need to share the workload, that ministry is a team sport. He is wrestling here with what was apparently a persistent problem in that congregation, because this is not the first time he has raised it. In First Thessalonians, Paul writes: “We urge you, beloved; admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” (I Thessalonians 5:14) Apparently these admonishments and encouragements didn’t work. Apparently there are still idlers and busybodies there.

You know those people: they are the ones who say things like, “it would be great if somebody in this church would do x…” Depending on how developed the person’s sense of humor is, I sometimes respond by saying, “hey, you’re somebody!” It’s an old problem in the Church, dating back to those early decades of the Church’s life in Thessalonica; and it hasn’t yet gone away. In the reading we heard today, basically Paul says: “look EVERYONE needs to pitch in and help. NO ONE should be expecting a free ride here. Let’s get to work!”

We first learn, for good and for ill, how to be members of a community in our families. Hopefully we learn that everyone has a role to play and a job to do. If you don’t learn this at home, then hopefully you have a choir director or a basketball coach or a teacher who helps you to learn it somewhere along the way. In my experience, idlers create resentment and hurt feelings which break down community. When people leave their dirty dishes in the living room or on the kitchen counter because the dishwasher is full (but they never think to empty it if the dishes are clean, or run it if they are not) then resentment builds. They think “somebody” will clean up after them.

It is no different in a congregation. I can tell you that I have witnessed, on occasion, that sometimes people leave their dirty dishes in the sink here at St. Francis or on the tables in Fellowship Hall or in the library. It happens. And let me be very clear: Jesus died for them too. They, too, are beloved of God. But it doesn’t mean they are easy to live with. Paul calls them idlers. My own experience as a pastor, however, tells me that these things don’t always happen because people are lazy. Sometimes they are just clueless. Sometimes they really just don’t know any better. The work of a congregation, whether in first-century Thessalonica or in twenty-first century Holden is to help people to grow into the full stature of Christ. If they don’t know any better, they can learn, with God’s help. If they are lazy, then they need to be admonished. If they are clueless then someone needs to take them aside and encourage them. But we need all hands on deck. I think that these words we heard in today’s epistle reading are really just the flip side of Paul’s image of the Church as the Body of Christ. We are living members of that Body, Paul says elsewhere. He is reminding us that there is plenty of work to do and so no one should try to come along for a “free ride.”

Now this is all, I think, true. And from time to time it needs to be said. It's true, but it isn't the whole truth, especially in congregations like the one I serve. There are so many people who do get it, so many who serve above and beyond the call of duty, so many who do quiet things that no one else even knows are being done, including me.

These texts must, of course, be preached sometimes. But I vastly prefer texts (and Paul has some of those too) that lead us to gratitude for the ways that faithfulness is being lived out. My mother taught me that "you get more bees with honey than vinegar." Deep down, I guess I really do believe that myself. And I think the next time Paul is admonishing a congregation,I'll opt for the gospel reading, or make sure the Associate is preaching!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tradition

A friend of mine posted this as his "status" today:

"Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire."

He attributed it to G.K.Chesterton. A quick Google search found the same quote is attributed to Gustav Mahler as well. I don't care who said it; maybe they both did. I like it!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day


It's not like I've been blogging for decades, so maybe it's way too early to start re-posting things! But as I sat down this morning to think about this date - 11-11-11 - and what it means to me, I went back and looked at what I posted one year ago. And really, I don't have anything to add. So here goes--a "re-run" from 11-11-10! (rms)
O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer, page 839)

On this day in 1918, World War I ended. Wikkipedia says that there was a "cessation of hostilities." That gets it about right. There was not peace and there was not justice; people were just sick and tired of war.Certainly that is understandable. And yet most historians argue that the end of World War I (ironically fought as the "War To End All Wars") marked the beginning of World War II, or at least the roots of it.

In my experience, soldiers never glamorize war. The ones who do that are the politicians who remain a safe distance from the front lines. By all accounts, those front lines in "The Great War" were pretty awful. Armistice Day would eventually become Veterans Day because, well because it wasn't the war to end all wars at all. Because you don't end war by making war, or even with cease-fires. You end war, as the prophet said, by beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. You end war by doing justice, and loving mercy, and by making peace, which is an active verb, not a passive one.

Our yearning for peace is not at odds with honoring the men and women who have served in uniform.  In fact, it seems to me that the greatest honor we can pay those who have "ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy" is to work for peace and justice, and to help create a world where our children and grandchildren "study war no more." That requires realists, not idealists. It requires hope, not wishful thinking. It requires peacemakers, not "crying peace where there is no peace."

At 11:00 a.m on this day, I hope readers of this blog will pause for a minute of silence to remember those who have served this country and who are currently serving this country. Give thanks for the sacrifices they have made and are making. If you have a chance to thank a Veteran then do that. Give thanks for their families who also know the costs of war.

But be sure to also pray for peace, true peace, lasting peace: the peace that passes all understanding - the shalom that allows us to convert instruments of war into instruments of peace.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

St. Francis Church

It was on this weekend of All Saints, in November 1997, that Hathy and I "snuck in" to worship at a Saturday Service at St. Francis Church in Holden. We had driven up that afternoon from Westport, CT, where I was serving as Associate Rector, with our two sons, who were seven and three at the time.

The Search Committee was down to two final candidates. I had questions, particularly about the Saturday Service which had been described to me in so many different ways that it made my head spin. Some described the music as more "praise oriented." I know the Body of Christ is a "big tent" but I did not see myself as rector of a parish that leaned that way. In fact, I would learn in time that the parish was polarized around music questions and in fact there were some who did want to move in that direction. But what I found when we got there was something I felt much more comfortable with, even if it was less familiar to me than the Sunday Service led by the organ: the ushers handed out Gather Hymnals at the door and guitars and keyboard led us in what felt more like a Roman Catholic folk mass from the 1970s than a tent revival.

Hathy and I took the boys out for dinner after worship, and we sat and talked. We both realized that night that this was a place we could call "home." I think that most people who serve on Search Committees aren't usually fully aware that Clergy are "searching" too and have their own questions and concerns and anxieties. Most Search Committees I've met are comprised of very nice people who think their primary job is to find the right priest for them. And maybe it is. But they don't tend to be quite as aware that the process is more like a dating service (not that I have first-hand experience with those!) in that there are needs (spoken and unspoken) coming from the other side too. It's a hard balance to strike.

By the time we came to Holden that night I'd said "no" to a job offer that just didn't feel like a "call." And that was much harder than being told no, to be honest. I felt like I was letting them down. I was letting them down! It had not seemed to occur to that Search Committee that I might say "no thanks." But I knew in my bones that I wasn't right for them; and just as importantly that they were not right for me (and my family.)

I'd also been the second choice at a university chaplaincy I REALLY wanted, and at a parish on the north-shore of Boston that I THOUGHT I wanted. All of which is to say that it really did matter how that Saturday Service went. While the sermon preached by the interim ranked as one of the worst I'd ever heard, the music was lovely, and more importantly the spirit of the place was warm, and the people seemed "real."

I didn't know at that point that at the December Vestry meeting, I would in fact be asked to become the fifth rector of the parish. What I did know, however, is that if asked I would say "yes."

Like most marriages, I think the first seven years are perhaps the hardest. There were ups and downs including the departure of most of the staff I inherited, the tragedy of 9/11, the parish's celebration of it's fiftieth year as a congregation, General Convention 2003 (which led to the departure of several active families) and the reclaiming of the congregation's mission that followed. It's been quite a ride.

I am grateful for it all, especially knowing that as I near the completion of thirteen years that there have been way more ups than downs and that the "relationship" is strong. That doesn't mean that there are never challenges, any more than a marriage of thirteen years doesn't still have its challenges. But there is more authenticity; more patience with the other; more of a sense of humor and more of an awareness that there are no perfect rectors and there are no perfect congregations: just God's people trying to be faithful to God's call.

I am grateful that my family has in fact come to call Holden our home: both Hathy and I have lived in the rectory now longer than any other residence in the almost five decades of our lives. Our kids have gone through an excellent public school system. We have been blessed and are blessed.

I am grateful that I have been asked to walk with people in their faith journeys and tonight as we remember those who have died since last All Saints Day I am aware of all the funerals I have done over thirteen years. And as we Baptize five persons this weekend I am aware of all the Baptisms I have officiated at, as well as the weddings, confirmations, and everything else in between.

There are many challenges and even crises that the Church in our day faces. But most of them seem more like opportunities, and less like danger, when God's people are working together: when pastor and people share a vision and a sense of purpose. I am grateful to be in a place where that is so.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Holy Women, Holy Men: The Feast of Richard Hooker


The following "rumination" was originally preached as the homily at a midweek Eucharist at St. Francis Church in November 2003 to commemorate the Feast of Richard Hooker, who died on this day in 1600. Those who remember recent history in TEC will remember that the fall of 2003 was a particularly "unsteady and confusing time" for many. I have slightly edited the homily and updated it to be shared in this context, but essentially it what I said then (and still believe today.)The gospel reading appointed for the day is John 17:18-23.

O God of truth and peace, you raised up your servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The English Reformation, from which the Anglican Church was born, didn’t have a central figure who led the charge akin to Martin Luther or John Calvin. Rather, Anglicanism grew out of both a desire, and the necessity, of finding Christ in the midst of competing and very different theologies. Some wanted the Church to remain close to Rome, while others wanted it to be more Reformed. Luther, Calvin, and the Pope all had their followings and “theological camps” in England.

The Reformation as it unfolded on English soil was therefore different from what unfolded on continental Europe. Over the course of Anglican Church history the pendulum has swung at some times toward a more catholic sensibility, and at other times toward a more protestant piety--and all the while there was no small amount of confusion and dissent. But over that extended period of time what begins to emerge is the great gift of Anglicanism: a deeper awareness that truth is mediated in and through differences, not unanimity. The “via media”, or middle-way about which we pray on this day is, at its best, “not a compromise for the sake of peace, but a comprehension for the sake of truth.”

There is no central figure for us like Luther or Calvin, but there are important leaders. Thomas Cranmer was one of them, the liturgical and linguistic genius who revised the Latin Mass and the daily prayers of the monasteries to create The Book of Common Prayer–a book to order prayer that might build up the Body of Christ rather than tear it apart into factions. That document has gone through revisions and changes over more than four centuries, but its essence remains unchanged. One can hold up that first Prayerbook, and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and see the commonalities. Still, the goal is to fashion a people after God’s own heart, a people who come from different places to one Table, a people who ask God each morning to “open our lips” not in order to gossip or lie but that our “mouths may proclaim [God’s] praise.” We pray that we might do so not only “with our lips but in our lives, by giving up our selves to [God’s] service” and by walking always in the presence of God. (BCP 80-102)

But our praise doesn’t end with the morning office. We sing God’s praises throughout the day, at home, and work, and at play until we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes “behold the vesper light.” (BCP 118) At the end of the day we ask God for “a peaceful night, and a perfect end” and know that even if this day is our last we are prepared to die, “for these eyes of [ours] have seen the Savior whom God has prepared for all the world to see: A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of [God’s] people, Israel.” (BCP 127-135)

Cranmer taught us as Anglicans to pray together, even in the midst of dissent; to offer common prayer that binds us together to love and serve the Lord. It was left to people like Richard Hooker, whom we remember on this day, to reflect on what that all meant theologically: not by writing a new creed or catechism but by articulating what it means to be a praying Church.

The quote from Lesser Feasts and Fasts requires some degree of reflection, but it goes to the heart of what Hooker understood the Church to be, and just as importantly of what he knew it was not. Hooker was challenging the Puritans, a group that was to have an extraordinary influence in the new world and especially here in New England. They tended to see the congregation–the Meeting House–“the assembly” as synonymous with "the Church."

But Hooker saw (correctly I believe) that assemblies–whether liturgical or legislative–are not the right metaphor for what it means to be the Church. Rather, Hooker talked about the Church as more akin to a “Society.” Assemblies belong to the Church, but they are not the Church.

What’s his point? I think it is goes directly to the struggles we face as a Communion, as a denomination, and as a congregation. The point is that what happens in an Assembly to elect a bishop, or an Assembly to confirm a bishop, or an Assembly to ordain a bishop, or at an Assembly in Dallas or Lambeth matters a great deal. But none of them are the whole truth–-and even the sum of them is not the whole truth. Assemblies require there to be winners and losers. They resemble the political process, because they are political processes. They are necessary because faith communities do need to make decisions to the best of their ability, hopefully after much thought and prayer and with God's help. Decisions–even innocuous ones–will always lead to disagreement and to some degree of conflict.

We tend to think, on both the right and on the left, that our “Communion” is in danger. We tend to think one more Assembly might fix things. But I think Hooker would insist that we have that wrong. He would insist in the twenty-first century as he did in the sixteenth century that the Church is not ultimately an Assembly, but a Society, i.e. a mystical Body. As another great Anglican, Charles Wesley, put it: a “mystic sweet communion…a fellowship divine.”

No Assembly regardless of its ideology to the right or to the left can undo that, because that Society is a gift is of God. The Church, Hooker saw, is organized not around an ideology but a Person: the Person of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. The Church is His Body for the sake of the world, not just when life is settled and calm but even in the midst of conflict and struggle. Especially then, when it may well be harder to notice.

That doesn’t make conflict go away, and it doesn't make conflict "not real." It does, however, re-frame the question. It allows us to see that the Church is bigger than all of our Assemblies. In practical terms, it means that we can (and must) co-exist with those with whom we disagree because we are all "in Christ" - like it or not. You cannot declare "victory" of one side over another and still call that "Church." It is Jesus Christ who creates the Church of which we are living members in and through Holy Baptism. Our job is to try to understand what that means, with God’s help.

Hooker’s great gift to us is to remind us we are called into that “mystic sweet communion” with God and with neighbor: not final resolutions of conflicts, but to friendship with God and one another. We are called to practices of hospitality and reconciliation more than we are called to making pronouncements.

Can truth, and peace coexist? Our collect this day insists that they can, in God. Our job is not to make them exist but to approach that reality through prayer. Our Anglican “middle way” at its best is not about political compromise, nor about being wishy-washy (although I realize we do often experience it that way.) Rather, as we have prayed: it is about authentic discernment, about a deeper comprehension of the truth that leads to a peace that passes all understanding.

Or as the reading from John’s Gospel puts it: our common prayer leads us once again to the insight that just as the Father is in Jesus, and Jesus is in the Father, so, too, is God the Holy Trinity in us. That makes us one–just as the God the Holy Trinity is one. Whether we like it or not.

Monday, November 1, 2010

For All the Saints!


O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia. Alleluia.

Today is the Feast of All Saints, a time to remember those who have gone before us and to pray that we may have strength and courage in our own day to follow their example and witness.

Each of us was given the faith we have, however strong or weak that faith may be, by others. From that moment in Mark's Gospel at the empty tomb when the women were too afraid to "go and tell" it is clear that eventually they found their voices; they went and they told someone. And someone told someone else, who told someone else...

...and eventually someone told us. Faith is not words alone, but words-made-flesh. Sometimes people have told us with words about what they believe, but just as often and perhaps even more often they have shown us how to live by their faithful example, without words: finding courage in the face of difficult circumstances, embodying hope in the midst of grief and loss, showing us how to love by loving us even on the days when we have perhaps not been particularly lovable.

For all of them we give thanks on this holy day. May they rest in peace and light perpetual shine upon them.