Thursday, February 25, 2010

Simon of Cyrene

As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. (Luke 23:26)

Before my trip earlier this year to Israel I had grown a bit weary of the "Stations of the Cross." My walk last month through the streets of Jerusalem on the Via Dolorosa (in the rain!) changed that, however, and made a big impact on me. This Lent I have returned to the practice of praying the Stations on Fridays. It has been a big help to use John Peterson's A Walk in Jerusalem, because the prayers seem to me to be real and contemporary, and at times haunting. They do not allow the pray-er to stay in first-century Roman-occupied Palestine, but rather invite and insist that we walk "the way of the Cross" in our own time and place.

In his commentary for the fifth station, Peterson (who was formerly Dean at St. George's College) writes: "At this Fifth Station of the Cross, we are given the opportunity to lift up our own prejudices and fears to God: prejudices and fears that stem from our own weakness, that make us less than human because of the anxieties they provoke."

Some seem to think that we are now "color-blind" (whatever on earth that means!) because a black man sits in the Oval Office. No doubt we have come a long way, but it is within my own lifetime that George Wallace ran for that same office on a platform dedicated to segregation. While the gains we have made as a nation ought to be celebrated, anyone who says racism no longer exists is either in denial or willfully disingenuous. In 2008, President Obama stated in an extraordinarily honest and real speech on race that "the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexity of race in this country that we've never really worked through - a part of our union that we have yet to perfect."

As Christians we are called, especially in this holy season and especially at the Fifth Station where an African takes up the cross on our Lord's behalf, to take strides in working through "the complexities of race." We are called first, I think, to introspection about our own complicity with racism and the recognition of our own fears and prejudices and anxieties. But true repentance invites us beyond introspection and into the day-to-day work of reconciliation. To allow God to work in us, and then through us, is to share in that continuing work of perfecting our Union and doing the work God has given us to do, toward the day when all people from every tribe and language and people and nation will be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.

He Said, She Said

Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me.’ (Genesis 39:6b-7)

Ah, here's to you Mrs. Potiphar! Today's reading from the Daily Office Lectionary (Genesis 39:1-23) makes it very clear that this is all her fault, and poor young handsome and good-looking Joseph was innocent and unjustly accused by a woman angry that he wouldn't give her what she wanted. And maybe that's exactly what happened.

But I think the most important thing I have learned from feminist Biblical scholars is to develop a "hermeneutic of suspicion" - or as Walter Brueggemann puts it, to ask "who has an axe to grind in this text?" Poor old Joseph: first his mean brothers, and now Mrs. Potiphar! Smart, good-looking and charming Joseph: what's not to love? Yet somehow he seems to bring out the worst in people, and it never seems to be his fault.

I remember when the film "Disclosure" came out in 1994 with Demi Moore and Michael Douglas - about sexual harassment in the work-place with a clever twist (at least at the time): the boss is a woman and she is the one who harasses her male employee. Except that as I remember the conversations after that film, few of the women I spoke with who saw that film saw Michael Douglas as "an innocent victim;" yet most men I knew did. I haven't seen the film since it came out, so I don't know how I'd see it today. But the conversations with friends, and their divergent perspectives, have stayed with me.

So what would Mrs. Potiphar say happened with that young good-looking man whom her husband invited to live in their guesthouse "just until he could get back on his feet again?" Of course we can never know; we get only the story we get. And I'm not trying to cast aspersions on beloved Joseph nor question the authority of Scripture. But I think Scripture is meant to be read critically and to engage our minds and our imaginations as well as our hearts.
One thing seems clear to me in the entire Joseph saga: God's ways are far more mysterious and difficult to comprehend than in the good old days of his great-grandaddy, Abraham. By the time we get to this fourth generation, God is no longer saying "go to a land I'll show you" or "your wife will be pregnant soon" or "take your son, your only son whom you love..." God now speaks through dreams that need to be interpreted; God's ways are revealed based on what T. S. Eliot once called "hints and half-guesses." We throw the word "discernment" around in the church a lot these days, but the fact of the matter is that true discernment takes a lot of work and is at best an imperfect science. Sometimes I think the more certain we are that "this is God's will" the more likely we are to be wrong, and with great consequences.
Real discernment begins with seeing rightly, which requires great discipline and effort. It requires that we see our own complicity when things go wrong, which it seems to me is one of the things we can work on in Lent. God is in the midst of it all to be sure, not just the joys and celebrations but the scandals and shame-filled press conferences too. God is there - in the fasting and the feasting, in the wilderness as well as the promised land. But it's not always clear how, or why, things happen when they happen nor is it always apparent where God is leading us next.
Whatever we make of the Joseph saga, and whatever crazy circles these ruminations may be running in, we do well to remember where the story goes next - the one the Biblical narrators and editors have in fact given us, I mean. Joseph ends up in jail for a long time. He'll have a lot of time to think back on what happened and whether or not he was complicit or completely innocent. The Joseph we finally see when he has become Secretary of Agriculture in Pharaoh's administration, the Joseph who forgives and welcomes his brothers seems to be a wiser, more faithful, and even more likeable person than he was as a kid. Amazingly, he does not seem to have allowed his travails to leave him bitter, but instead to have allowed them to lead him to growth.There is something to be said for that.
I wonder, if he ever ran into Mrs. Potiphar at a cocktail party: would he be as gracious to her as he was to his brothers?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


O God, the maker of heaven and earth, who gave to your venerable servant, the holy and gentle Polycarp, boldness to confess Jesus Christ as King and Savior, and steadfastness to die for his faith...
Polycarp, who was Bishop of Smyrna, was burned to death on this date in 156. As he waited for the fire to be lighted he prayed, blessing God.
Smyrna is one of the seven churches of Asia named in the Revelation of St. John, in present day Turkey. In the Revelation it is identified as a church undergoing persecution. Polycarp would later become bishop there and tradition says that he was instructed in the faith by the apostle John and that he, in turn, helped to form and shape Irenaeus who would become Bishop of Lyons.
What strikes me as I reflect on Polycarp's life and witness is that this is how apostolic faith works, to this very day. I care less about the literal nature of "apostolic succession" and whose hands were laid on whose heads than I do about a holy, catholic, and apostolic faith which is about passing on the traditions but also allowing and encouraging each new generation to allow the gospel to come to life in a new context. From first-century Palestine to western Turkey to France...eventually to new worlds and back again. Someone telling someone who tells someone else. But more than telling, and more than words. Actions and deeds, reflections and stories and sermons and mission projects that nurture and encourage and shape faith. I am mindful on this day of the many people who shared the good news with me: grandparents and parents, pastors and Sunday school teachers, friends and colleagues near and far...and knowing it's still not finished. And in turn, I hope in some small way I've been able to pass that on, also knowing that as the gospel takes hold in someone else's life it takes on a new shape, and is no longer mine but new again. There is a temptation to think that someone the gospel is lost in this passing-along-process and that somehow it was "purer" for Polycarp than it is today. I think that is nonsense; and that the truth of the matter is that everytime it is passed along and received it is new again, and the living Christ is in the midst of it all to the end of the ages.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Fathers and Sons

Earlier this month (on February 4) I wrote about the death of Sarah. ("Taking Care of Business"). On February 8, the Daily Office Lectionary reading was from Genesis 25:19-34. What was skipped over between those two readings was Genesis 25:7-18. (When the Daily Office lectionary skips over a text you know it is a neglected part of Scripture!) Almost seven years ago I preached a sermon in the chapel at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, where I received my D.Min. degree. Below is an edited version of that sermon: my text was Genesis 25:7-23.

One of the most fascinating things I get to do as a pastor, is to preside at funerals. Whether the deceased is a long time parishioner or a person who hasn’t been to church in decades, I try to follow the same pattern. I sit down with the surviving family members, and I ask them to tell me about the deceased.

It’s a kind of practical exercise in post-modern epistemology, because very rarely do the stories I hear fit neatly together. What we know is so profoundly shaped by where we stand. Two children grow up in the same household, and yet have very different experiences and memories about what that was like. Even if they are now in their forties or fifties, there are glimpses of what it was like for that person to be twelve, or six—just in the telling of the stories. I love it when an oldest child tells a story that the younger ones may never before have heard, or known; or at the other end of that continuum, when a youngest child can speak of those moments in the kitchen, late at night, after all the older ones had all gone off to college or gotten married. I never cease to be struck at what a great mystery we are to one another, even (and maybe most especially) among those you would think would know us best.

On occasion, I have presided at the funeral for a family where one or more members of that family have been estranged from one another, perhaps for years or even decades. It’s such a hard thing to bear witness to, as people choose different corners of the room, or cross their arms, or perhaps speak to one another by directing their comments through me.

It’s with these eyes especially (more than with the eyes of a great Biblical scholar) that I come to the text before us today. I find myself watching Ishmael and Isaac, these two grown men who have come together to bury their father. The last time we saw Ishmael he was a teen-ager—being sent away with his mother. We know only a little more about what has been going on in Isaac’s life—our only real encounter with him—the one we (and surely he!) can never forget was on that horrible day when he and his father climbed Mount Moriah.

And so I catch myself watching these two brothers—wondering what it would be like to be their pastor in this moment. Looking for clues about the kind of men they have become. Wondering whether this shared grief will bring them together or whether it will re-open old and painful wounds. Wondering, even, if they are yet able to grieve, given the terrible memories each has about his relationship to this father, a man larger than life who staked his life on the Voice. (If you think it’s hard to be a “preacher's kid”, just try to imagine what it would have been like to be Abraham’s kid!)

I find myself looking for a gesture: does one or the other put an arm on his brother’s shoulder, or is that simply not possible? Do they gather back at Isaac’s tent afterwards for hummus and olives and pita and wine—or is that invitation not extended to Ishmael?
I have no way to answer these questions, of course. All any of us can say for sure is that as far as the Biblical narrative is concerned, Ishmael disappears after the funeral. The future belongs to Isaac, and to his son, Jacob, and to his twelve sons. He’s the one whom we are told is “blessed by God.” He’s the one we tell our children and our children’s children about in Sunday School.
I do realize that the narrator’s questions aren’t necessarily mine. And yet there’s no getting around the simple point that Ishmael is there. That the narrator makes a point of telling us he is there—even when it would have been easier to just say: “Abraham died, after a good long life, and he was buried in the cave of Machpelah.” But the narrator tells us that both of Abraham’s sons were there. And then, as so often happens at weddings or funerals when we see long-lost relatives we haven’t seen for years, the narrator turns to us, almost in a whisper, to say: "You remember Ishmael…the one whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s slave-girl, bore to Abraham..."

And then, before the story can continue, before the narrative can move forward to those twins in Rebekah’s womb and to the twelve sons of Jacob who will be called Israel…these twelve sons of Ishmael are named:

…named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemeh, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes. (This is the length of the life of Ishmael, 137 years of age…[his people] settled from Havilah to Shur, opposite Egypt, in the direction of Assyria.)

You could go to Church your whole life, and if like mine the lectionary has virtually succeeded in replacing the Bible, you will never hear this text read aloud—never hear about all those cousins who settled opposite Egypt, in the direction of Assyria. In fact, it took a journalist named Bruce Feiler, in his remarkable book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths to get me to even take a look at this text.

Before I traveled here for what has been my last required course for a D.Min from this seminary, I sat one morning and did my best Karl Barth imitation: the Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other. On the front page of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette that day were two photographs that I’m sure you all have seen, whether these or ones like them. One was of a group of Palestinians grieving the death of a child killed by the Israeli government. And the other was of a group of Israelis grieving the death of a child killed by a suicide bomber. Grief and fear were so apparent in both pictures, and I could only imagine what it be like to sit down in a room with any of them to plan a funeral.

Once upon a time these photos would have felt very foreign to me. But since 9/11, if is very easy for me to imagine a third photo next to the other two—one taken, perhaps, at Ground Zero on that clear September morning in lower Manhattan. So that the looks on the faces in all three pictures are virtually indistinguishable, all these children of Abraham, separated by fear, and by fundamentalisms of various flavors, and by terrible grief and violence.

After centuries of estrangement from one another do you think these children of Abraham—Christians, Jews and Muslims—will ever find the path to reconciliation? Or will an “eye for an eye” make the whole world blind? Surely the covenant God has made with us in Baptism compels us to be peacemakers—to enter into conversations that may yet lead to forgiveness, and healing, and hope. Surely it matters, now more than ever, how we speak in our congregations, and how we who are pastors (or are training to become pastors) help our congregations to speak.

At a bare minimum, we need to find ways of getting re-acquainted with these long lost cousins, these children of Ishmael who settled “from Havilah to Shur, opposite Egypt, in the direction of Assyria.” One of these “distant cousins” of ours whom I am only beginning to get to know is the 13th century Sufi mystic, Rumi, who was born in what we would call Afghanistan in 1207. I decided earlier this week to “Google” Rumi—looking for a way to conclude this sermon. Among other things, I found myself “surfing” to a twelfth-century “illumination” on one of those sites dedicated to Rumi. It was an image of “Father Abraham,” and he had all of his children—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—sitting on his “large enough for all” lap. It’s that image of hope that I want to define the kind of Christian I am becoming—not those three photographs of Christians, Jews, and Muslims separated by their fear and their grief.

We gather, in just a few moments, at the Table of our Lord. As we share bread and wine we participate in one of the two sacraments that most uniquely defines us—as “separate from” the rest of the world—that makes us different from Muslims and Jews, a people called to be salt, and light, and yeast. We claim through this sacrament that this Jesus is alive, and here—now, in our very midst. We remember who we are, and whose we are.

And yet—and for me this is one of the great mysteries of our faith—our host is the very One who ate and drank with just about anyone who wanted to come—even the “dogs” who wanted only to gather up the crumbs under the table. He reached out his arms of love not just to the Church, but to the world, that all might come within the reach of his saving embrace. The paradox, I think, is that what makes us most unique is also that which makes us most radically aware that the resurrected Christ cannot be contained by us or by our theologies.

If that is so, then perhaps it is not to dishonor Christ but to claim his truest nature by looking for his face and listening for his voice wherever our travels take us in this mysterious and broken world—even beyond those who claim his name. I offer in that spirit the words of one of our long-lost cousins, the Sufi poet, Rumi, in bidding us to gather and to be fed yet again:

Come, come, whoever you are.

Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come, come.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lent Begins: The Wilderness

The Judean Desert

We are all caught up in Sin. But what does that mean? I worry about that language and how we understand that word: on the one hand are those who are tempted to see human beings and the world as morally depraved and say that we have no health whatsoever within us. That is not the Biblical story, however. The first chapters of Genesis make it clear that before Sin there was, and is, Original Blessing. We are created in the image of God, male and female, and God calls us "very good." In reaction to those who are fixated on Sin and the wrath of God, however, are those who think it is all a matter of will: a kind of boot-straps theology where we just need to say “no” to temptation and “no” to Sin. In place of forty days of Lent we might offer a one-week self-help seminar and the world would be made right.

I believe that most of our Sinning is rooted at a very deep level in our wounds, our brokenness, or dis-ease, our fears, our insecurities. The language of addiction is enormously helpful here because I think that most of the time we “miss the mark” not because we are bad, but because we are broken. Very often what angers us most in someone else are those very same things that we don’t like, and have not yet integrated, about ourselves. Mother and daughter fight not because they are complete opposites but because they are so much alike. When we feel most afraid, most anxious, most vulnerable—very often that is when we can become paranoid—literally we are “out of our minds.” And our judgment is distorted when that happens and our decisions are not sound and even our perceptions of reality (including our self-perceptions) become unreliable. We can get off-kilter and headed in the wrong direction. It seems to me that our deepest insecurity is that we are not good enough or loveable enough, and sometimes it is out of that insecurity that we tear others down.

Lent can be seen as an invitiation to take a good hard look in the mirror—an honest look, a real look at where you are in your journey with Christ. Not to do that in a shame-filled way or in a despairing way but in a way that takes stock—a way that takes an inventory of where you are and where you want to change, with God’s help, in these next forty days. But please hear these next words: I think too much of what passes for Lenten discipline is really unhelpful spiritually. I don’t think we glorify God by beating ourselves up. We need to linger at that mirror long enough to sing with the psalmist:

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away! (Psalm 32:1)

We need to pray that psalm until we believe it, because it goes to the very heart of what this forty-day journey is all about. In the early Church the connections between Lent and Baptism were quite explicit and we do well to remember that as we enter into this wilderness season. We can’t forget the end of the story: the last night of Jesus’ life in the upper room, his death at Golgatha, and our songs on Easter morning about new and abundant life. We participate in that mystery with Jesus and through Jesus. Our sins are already forgiven: that is the work that Christ has done. What we are invited to do in Lent is wake up to that reality.

We don’t need more shame or guilt in Lent. What we need to do is repent and in the Bible repentance is very concrete: it means to turn around. It means to change our patterns. It means that we need to get busy living, as forgiven and beloved people. The end of that same psalm counsels God’s forgiven people to “be glad and rejoice in the Lord and to shout for joy.” That is where Lent leads.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

In his introduction to The Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel asks, “what manner of man is the prophet?” He then goes on to write these words:

A student of philosophy who turns from the discourses of the great metaphysicians to the orations of the prophets may feel as if he is going from the real of the sublime to an area of trivialities. Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums. The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the whole world were a slum.

The prophets take us by the hand and lead us from the suburbs to the slums. They make us look, and ask those with eyes to see, to see.

As we embark on our Lenten journey, the prophet Isaiah has moved from preaching to meddling, making it clear that it is not enough to have our foreheads smudged with ashes and abstain from eating today. It is too easy for our fasting to become a form of narcissism: We live in a world where children will die today because there isn’t enough food or clean water in their neighborhood; to give up chocolate or wine or meat in such a world can seem trite. That is not an argument against fasting; it is simply to insist that fasting is not about feeling better about ourselves because of our piety or worse about ourselves because of our sinfulness. It is an invitation to see the world from another perspective. If we can imagine (even if just for a few hours) what it means to be hungry in this world not by choice but necessity that may lead us to act differently. To “give something up during these next forty days” is not about fulfilling some religious obligation—“such fasting will not make our voices heard on.”

But if that awareness in our own bodies of what it means to be hungry leads us to make changes in our lives—then it serves a purpose. Lent is about repentance and repentance is about change. So if our fasting leads us to “share our bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into our homes and to cover the naked and to make ourselves available to our own families”—then it is holy and good. If our fasting leads us to identify with the poor and to rebuild ancient ruins and to raise up the foundations and to repair the breach by restoring streets where kids can play “kick the can” and not worry about being shot by a drug dealer then today matters. It puts us back on the right path.

The point of these next forty days is not to feel bad; but to do good. Now is the acceptable time. Now is the time for repairing the breach and for restoring streets worth living in. Now is the time to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Bright Sadness of Lent

Alexander Schmemman was the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York and one of the leading liturgical scholars in Orthodox Christianity in the twentieth century. I’ve been re-reading his book on Orthodox Lenten practices, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. In the weeks immediately preceding Lent, the Orthodox focus on five themes before they begin the Lenten journey: Desire for God (the story of Zacchaeus), Humility (the Publican and the Pharisee), Return from Exile (the parable of the Prodigal Son), Last Judgment, and then finally, Forgiveness Sunday.

Lent is about being liberated from sin. The triumph of sin, Shmemann writes, is the experience of division, opposition, separation, and hatred. We know that triumph far too well. The first chink in the armor of the mighty fortress of sin is forgiveness, which opens a pathway to unity, solidarity, and love. It is a breakthrough to a new reality, to God’s reality. “To forgive,” Schmemman writes, “is to reject the hopeless dead-ends of human relations and refer them to Christ.”

A friend of mine, a Syrian Orthodox priest in Worcester who was a student of Schmemann’s once described to me how this works. The liturgy for this day involves an elaborate dance as each person in worship is able to say to every other person there, “Forgive me, for I have sinned.” Now most of you know how hard it can be for us to forgive someone who has hurt us very badly. But at the very least, even when we aren’t yet able to forgive someone, we can remember that God forgives all who confess their sins and are truly penitent. So the liturgical response to the one who says, “Forgive me for I have sinned” is not “I forgive you” because, to be honest, that might not yet be true. Rather, it is this: “God has forgiven you.” Even as this dance is unfolding the choir is singing Easter hymns.

There is an atmosphere created in Lent, Schmemman says, a state of mind that our worship creates. The spirit of Lent, he says, is meant to help us to experience a “bright sadness” which is the message and the gift of Lent. We are invited to enter this season of “bright sadness” in order to experience that mysterious liberation, a liberation that makes us “light and peaceful” by illuminating an inner beauty that he compares to “an early ray of the sun which, while it is still dark in the valley, begins to lighten up the top of the mountain.”

The theological point, whether one is shaped by eastern or western Christianity is the same: Lent gives us forty days to work on forgiveness and reconciliation. But there is something sensible to me in beginning with the reminder that God arrives there before us. When we confess our sins, the good news of the Christian faith is that God does indeed forgive us. Lent, then, becomes a time for us to try to live more fully into that reality—a journey toward Pascha. It gets us to, as Don Henley once put it, to “the heart of the matter...which I think is about forgiveness.”

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Question

I realize there is one thing I don't like (at all!) about blogging: unlike preaching, you can't see the faces of those to whom you are speaking. It's like preaching in the dark with the congregation gagged. (Alright, that's a really bizarre metaphor but hopefully you catch my drift.)
When I was in Israel I knew people were reading this and I had photos to post and all that. I know a lot of people were "lurking" and that was fine. But as we approach Lent my thought has been to do some blogging during the season. But like Bruce Springsteen yells before singing "Radio Nowhere" I want to shout: "is anybody alive out there?"

So, "is anybody alive out there?" If you are an official "follower" please consider posting a response to this email even if it's, "yes, I am alive..." And if you are "undeclared" then maybe send me an email? I don't want to be overly strange about this and maybe I just don't get the whole anonymity thing about blogging but if the response is underwhelming then I will find another venue for Lent...there are certainly ample opportunities.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

I preached on ministry this past weekend but only at 8 a.m. We had youth-led services which was amazing at 5 and 10; we are blessed with really great kids and I was happy to share the pulpit with them. But I really enjoyed the texts this week and have been thinking a lot lately about ministry - ordained and lay - in the church and in the world. So I was a bit sad to only be able to preach at 8.

I love the call of Isaiah and remember first reading Frederick Buechner's sermon on that text. But lately I've also been pondering the words that immediately follow Isaiah 6:1-8 that are actually a part of the call and thankfully part of the OT reading for the day; words I think we need to heed if we are honest about the work God gives us to do. So I said this:

This sixth chapter of Isaiah is familiar to anyone who has ever attended an ordination service, but I am frustrated that it usually stops at verse eight. Poor Isaiah was called to a very difficult ministry. He will speak, but people will not comprehend; they will look, but not understand. Isaiah’s task is to put the hard demands of God before a people who are not yet ready to let go of their comfortable lives. And there is nothing Isaiah can do about that except to hold the vision of the Holy God before them. That is frustrating, to say the least; but that is the work that God calls Isaiah to do. It is a reminder that ministry is about being faithful, not successful. It is a reminder that the message is what is important and it cannot be compromised to make it more palatable to a hard-hearted people in a hard-hearted time. The teacher who dares to teach, in spite of the obstacles the educational system puts before him or the doctor who dares to practice medicine in spite of the obstacles that our health care system puts before her; the junior officer who tells his general the truth and not just what he wants to hear or the mother who says no to her child even when all the other moms have said “ok”—all of them know what it is like to be in Isaiah’s shoes. All are to be commended for their willingness to be faithful in untenable circumstances, always with God’s help.

The entire sermon is on the St. Francis website for anyone who may be interested.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Martyrs of Japan

“Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.'” (Mark 8:34)

The Christian faith was introduced to Japan in the sixteenth century by the Jesuits, and later by the Franciscans. By the end of the century there were as many as 300,000 Christians in Japan. Unfortunately, this promising beginning met serious challenges brought about by rivalries between different groups of missionaries, the Spanish and Portuguese governments, and factions within the Japanese government. The end result was a suppression of Christians. The first victims were six Franciscan friars and twenty of their converts, executed at Nagasaki on February 5, 1597.

Three hundred and ninety-seven years later, I was ordained to the priesthood at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, Connecticut by the Rt. Rev. Clarence Coleridge. That may seem like a theological non-sequiter, but it is a statement of fact. In the Episcopal Church it is pretty rare (and maybe even impossible) to pick your "favorite" feast day on which to be ordained. Since I’d been ordained to the diaconate in June 1993 at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut, I was eligible to be ordained a priest anytime after mid-December; the calendars of the parish and the bishop converged on the evening of February 5, 1994. (The serendipity that it was also my mother’s birthday just made it that much easier a day for me to remember!)

Sixteen years later, twelve of them serving as rector of St. Francis Church, I feel somehow more bonded to those Franciscan friars who were martyred in Nagasaki. They were tied to crosses, the crosses were raised to an upright position, and then they were stabbed to death with javelins. It surely isn’t the way I want to go! But the gospel reading appointed for this day goes to the very heart of the gospel I’ve been ordained to preach, and the witness of those Franciscans over four hundred years ago continues to make it very real.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Putting Our Houses in Order

"Sarah died in Kiriath-arba - now Hebron - in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her." (Genesis 23:2)

Yesterday's reading - the 'Akedah (or "the binding of Isaac") - is one of the most intense chapters in all of Scripture; one that has generated much conversation and debate and ink. For me Soren Kierkegaard's brilliant analysis in Fear and Trembling remains the most profound reflection on that chapter I've ever come across. But I also remember Will Willimon noting in his haunting and inimitable way (I paraphrase, from memory) - "at least Abraham was willing to sacrifice his kid to YHWH; how many of us sacrifice our kids to far lesser gods?"
Today's Old Testament reading (from the Daily Office) is the 23rd chapter of Genesis, a chapter that no doubt has gotten far less attention from scholars, preachers, and ordinary believers than the 22nd chapter. But I wonder if it doesn't deserve at least a bit more notice and attention. The note in my Jewish Study Bible simply says this: "after the climactic episode of the 'Akedah, all Abraham's actions are in the nature of putting his affairs in order. In chapter 23 he acquires a burial plot for Sarah. In the next chapter he arranges for a wife for Isaac and in chapter 25 he decrees the distribution of his assets and passes away."

Abraham goes about the work of "getting his house in order." It sounds simple enough; we are all dust and to dust we shall all return. Yet as a pastor I'm amazed at how many loose ends--unnecessary loose ends, so many people leave when they die. It is as if they think they will be the first human ever to live who will cheat death, although I'm quite sure it's not quite that conscious. It's one thing if someone dies suddenly and unprepared in their twenties or thirties; quite another thing when people are in their sixties or seventies or eighties and still unwilling (or unable) to contemplate their mortality.

I got a call from a woman about two weeks ago who wanted to talk about her mother's burial. It's not that unusual for me to get that kind of call, but what made this call unusual is that her mother has not yet died. She does have terminal cancer and is already on "borrowed time" but nevertheless the request was not to show up and do a funeral for someone I never met, but an invitation to visit her mom and talk about the options and her desires. Since receiving that call I've visited with mother and daughter together and a second time to take her mom Communion, and we have discussed plans to anoint her before her final breath, hopefully with her children gathered around her. She is one of the many people I meet who are "people of faith" even if they are not "church people." Yet it is quite rare to meet someone who has that kind of clarity and wisdom about "putting her house in order." It is, I believe, one of the most important gifts a person can give to their children and grandchildren.

I know that the prayer I learned as a child has gone way out of fashion: "...if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to keep." I'm told that is scary for children. I guess I'm liberal enough to appreciate that, but curmudgeonly enough to wonder who is really scared of that prayer--the child or the parent? We have raised a generation or more of people who live in denial of death, and denial of death keeps us from making funeral plans and wills and living wills and all of the rest. It keeps us from making sure our houses are in order. I give thanks for the 23rd, 24th, and 25th chapters of Genesis and for those who bear witness to faithful living and dying.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


"And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord." (Luke 2:22)

Our mid-week Eucharist at St. Francis is celebrated on Wednesday nights and sometimes I play with the calendar in one direction or another. Although my liturgical calendar says that Feb 3 is the Feast of Anskar, a ninth century Archbishop and Missionary to Sweden, we are going with the readings for February 2 tonight: The Feast of the Presentation (a.k.a. Candlemas).

This feast provides a nice segue from my trip to Jerualem and back to parish ministry, for I find myself pondering with a renewed imagination what it would be like for Jesus' family to make the 65 mile pilgrim's journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem (a bit further than the trek from Holden to Boston) by foot. In my mind's eye, I can see them entering into the holy city dominated by the Herodian Temple, offering their sacrifice and being blessed by Simeon and Anna. Luke is the only one who tells us of this event but he seems to want the point out that this ritual cleansing, forty days after Jesus' birth, makes it clear that his family were devout Jews.

While it is tempting for an Episcopalian to jump right to the Nunc Dimittis, instead I find myself drawn this afternoon into Leviticus 12. My Jewish Study Bible insists that first-century Jews didn't think of a new mother as "dirty" but as ritually impure--and those aren't synonyms! As someone on my recent trip said, that the discharge of blood didn't make one unclean because blood was seen as "bad," but because it was good, because it represented the source and flow of life itself. But in the priestly view of the world, everything has it's place and the messiness of birth required ritual cleansing and sacrifice in order to welcome a new mother back into the community.

I don't pretend to grasp that completely, or agree completely with that which I grasp. But I have a deeper appreciation, I think, for what it suggests about the desire to encounter the Holy One at the Holy of Holies in the Holy City of Jerusalem. The "otherness" of God as mysterium tremendum juxtaposed with the Jewishness and humanity of the holy family making their way back home, where Jesus will "grow in wisdom and grace" invites me into a renewed appreciation and wonder for the mystery of the Incarnation.