Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Cross of Christ - MacLeod

I joined the clergy of my diocese today at our cathedral in Springfield to renew my ordination vows, an extraordinary way to begin this holy week. While there I came across the following in the literature on one of the tables in the cathedral, from Lord George MacLeod (1895-1991) He was a Moderator of the Church of Scotland and a restorer of the Iona Community (at least that is what the literature at the cathedral said about him). His words about The Cross of Christ will help to guide me through these next few days:

I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the market place, as well as the steeple of the church.

I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles...

...but on a cross between two thieves;

...on a town garbage heap;

...at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek;

...and at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble.

Because that is where he died, and that is what He died about, and that is where Christ's men and women ought to be, and that is what church people ought to be about.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Those who pray The Daily Office (you may be interested in http://satucket.com/lectionary if you don't!) know that the Old Testament readings for this week began at the Burning Bush, and ended today with the hardening of Pharaoh's heart and the first Passover. It is critical for Christians who wish to understand the final week of Jesus' life - Holy Week - to return again and again to the Exodus story, and to teach it to our children and our children's children.

In the events that begin on Palm Sunday, we remember that Jesus and his friends have come to Jerusalem along with other religious pilgrims to celebrate Passover. The synoptic gospels connect the last supper that Jesus shares with his friends to a Passover meal, while the fourth gospel sees Jesus as the Passover lamb who takes away the sins of the world.

The story inspires those who are enslaved in every generation (literally and metaphorically) to not only dream of freedom, but to work for social justice by standing up to Pharaoh and against all that destroys the creatures of God, especially oppression and violence and degradation. It reminds us of God's liberating love. This is the context in which Holy Week unfolds. One week from today, at "The Great Vigil of Easter," we'll hear once again the story of how God tossed the Egyptians into the Sea, and the waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers and the entire army of Pharaoh. (Exodus 14:27-28) And then the Israelites sing and dance on the other side: free at last, free at last.

I appreciate the old Hasidic tale, which tells of the Hebrew children dancing to the beat of Miriam's tambourine when the angels in heaven notice that the Creator is weeping. They ask God, "why are you weeping in the midst of this deliverance?"- to which God responds: I am weeping for the dead Egyptians on those shores, who are somebody's sons, and somebody's husbands, and somebody's fathers.

I love that story for two reasons. First, it reminds us that the rabbis knew that stories generate more stories, not dogma. Christians would do well to remember this as we enter into Holy Week. But secondly, I think we need to remember that freedom does not come easily, and always there are costs. Even when one is on "the right side" of justice, there is loss that should be grieved, and in the week that lies before us we do well to remember that triumphalism of any kind is not what God's people are all about.

Friday, March 26, 2010

On not losing heart

"Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart." (2 Corinthians 4:1)

In the epistle reading appointed for this morning, Paul lays out the great paradox of ministry - both ordained and lay. On the one hand, we carry this treasure in "clay jars" (or as the Revised Standard Version has it, "earthen vessels.") That is where Lent begins and ends: with this great reminder that we are dust, formed of the same clay from which the potter makes a jar. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

And yet, we are called to let our little lights shine in the darkness - as we profess not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as slaves for His sake. (2 Corinthians 4:5-6)

It is a tricky thing, I think, to hold these together, especially for ordained leaders. It isn't only about getting clearer about our own ego needs, which would be more than enough to spend a lifetime sorting through. It's also about sorting through all of the projection that clergy are subject to. Those who have buried their charisms deep within those "clay jars" so that nothing seems to shine, for a whole host of reasons, don't tend to instill health in congregations. On the other hand, the experience of bright, gifted clergy creating congregations in their own image, that will topple over of their own weight when that cleric leaves, or falls down off a perch, are too many to number.

Into the twenty-third year of my ordained life, and my thirteenth as rector of St. Francis, I know this is an ongoing challenge and not something that is ever "settled." Congregations like the one I serve are organic, and therefore ever-changing. There is no formula and as soon as one finds a place of "stasis" it seems that something new happens, and change brings with it the potential for new opportunities and challenges. It is easy to "lose heart," especially when I begin to think that I am "in charge." There is a vital role for servant-leaders--I couldn't disagree more with those who abdicate responsibility by saying that God will take care of it. For one thing it is to easy to hide our own ego needs within that kind of piety. For another, it just isn't the God I encounter in the Bible. When God sees and hears the cries of God's people, God sends Moses! I know too many people, including clergy (and including me sometimes) who are better at telling God what God should do than about listening for what God has in mind for us to do.

Control is an elusive, and I think idolatrous, goal. Very often I realize that when I am "losing heart" it is because I can't see where things are headed, and what is needed in those moments is not control but trust in the Spirit's guidance, the Wind of God that blows where She will.

My insight on this day at least is that I stand a much better chance at not losing heart when I am more deeply aware of this dance, more deeply connected to the Spirit of God at work not only in my life but in and through each member of the Body, a Spirit sometimes shining forth and sometimes hidden deep within a broken clay jar.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Archbishop Oscar Romero

Yesterday was a whirlwind day that did not seem to allow any time for blogging. It did include our mid-week Eucharist at St. Francis, which fell on the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. He has been on my mind a lot lately, as have the people of El Salvador. The decision by the Texas Board of Education to "disappear" Archbishop Romero from high school text books has been both stunning and unsettling for me. The point came home to me when a parishioner posted on her Facebook page last night that she was thinking about Oscar Romero and got several comments: "who is he?" (If you are reading this blog and don't know, then please Google him and get educated so you can tell your children and your children's children.)

It is up to the Church to tell his story and the story of others like him in this highly politicized American context in which we find ourselves, even if Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh call us "Marxists" for remembering courageous followers of Jesus Christ. We are living in dangerous times. It helps in such times to step back, as Oscar Romero himself understood. His prayer is one I seek to make my own as I begin this new day.

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Death and Life

I am basically part of that "Wonder Years" generation, and I while I haven't checked the exact dates I suspect that my cousin, Randy Miller, was more in synch with that than I. I mention this because if you are even close to that age then you can "remember" things through those old flickering reel-to-reel videos that my own kids don't know.

I can remember sitting in my aunt and uncle's living room after Thanksgiving Day dinner, or over the Fourth of July, and setting it all up. Not popping a disc in, but literally setting it all up: white screen and all. And watching things that at the time felt like only yesterday: raking leaves at Grandma Miller's house or playing touch football in Seelyville.

I wrote a few days ago about Randy's death, my oldest cousin. Today I sat in the pews of the same church I grew up in, not as a priest, but as a cousin in mourning, behind cousins and their kids who strangely look exactly as I remember their parents looking. (Their parents, on the other hand, just look old. I'm so glad that hasn't happened to me!) The whole thing felt at times like a flickering "reel-to-reel" and at some point I remembered us all being there years before, at least the family, to bury my grandmother.

But she lived a full life. Randy's life was cut short, way too soon. I remember being at his wedding, at least I am pretty sure it was his wedding. (Memories are funny and they do blur together.) He was five years older than I; and he and Ann married right out of high school. So I must have been 15 or 16, sitting with my parents and my grandmother and Aunt Vera. I think it was there that Aunt Vera began telling stories about Prohibition and how she and my grandmother used to sneak out to speak-easies for a drink. My grandmother totally denied it. And Aunt Vera said (this I can remember in flickering reel-to-reel for sure) said, "Peg, you remember..." And I caught my grandmother in peripheral sight shaking her head no. But of course I was old enough to grasp the truth. My grandmother had once been young and that was a very cool realization.

Randy and Ann were an amazing couple, who against all odds raised these three beautiful daughters. Ann still looks the same as I remember her; a strong, beautiful woman. Her girls look nothing like I remember them because in my mind's eye they are little children and now they are grown women with children of their own, and features and gifts from both parents.

It is a strange thing to be re-connected to family and be present to the moment even as such memories wash over you. But it's a good thing. Randy is gone at far too young an age. That is tragic and sad. But he lived life fully and touched lives in ways I don't think he ever realized, partly because of his authentic humility. He was a family man--as my step-father said today in his sermon--truly a "good man." That ripples out in ways that most public figures would yearn for, ways obvious to me today as we sat and cried, and celebrated.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lucky Miss


Check this out. I don't really have anything to say at this moment except for this: one week ago a group from my parish, including two teenagers, was with Bp. Martin. My son, Graham, was there a year or so ago.

This is the same month that Abp. Romero was assasinated--we are about one week away from that anniversary.

Being a Christian, a real one, is not easy in this world.

Pray for peace.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Generous Act

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday comes from John 12:1-8. John tells us it is six days before the Passover, which in his timetable means six days before Good Friday. Jesus is about to enter into the city gates of Jerusalem amid shouts of hosanna. Mary is anointing Jesus’ feet because everybody knows he is less than a week away from dying. On the last night of his life, Jesus will anoint his disciples’ feet as he gives them a new commandment: to love one another.

Before we get there, we remember this act of love and generosity. All four gospel writers agree that the perfume is very costly and all of them agree that someone raised an objection. Why not give that money to the poor? It’s easy to misquote Jesus out of context, as if he’s saying, “don’t worry about the poor; let ‘em eat cake so I can enjoy this expensive perfume.” In fact, he’s quoting from Deuteronomy and the whole quote reads like this: “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land." (Deut. 15:11, JPS translation)

Jesus is going to die, and this moment needs to be tended to and recognized for what it is: a goodbye. And in that moment, Mary’s act is beautiful and good and generous and appropriate. The work of caring for the poor precedes and follows that act, and everytime we care for the poor we do so to Jesus himself. But that work shouldn’t blind us to the need for extravagant acts of generosity and kindness when the situation calls for those. If we aren’t careful, our “duty” to the poor can make us grim and tedious.

Life is short, and according to the fourth gospel, Jesus is just six days away from dying when this generous act takes place. The poor will always be with us and always we are called to open wide our hands. But if you’ve got a week to live, it’s not the time for hamburger helper and cheap liquor and paper plates. It’s time to bring out the good china, the best stemware, the best Cabernet you have. It’s time to kill the fatted calf and serve up veal piccata. It’s time to pull out all the stops: time to enjoy what little time is left.

This, I think, is what Mary gets. Life is short, and because it is short we should enjoy the ride. They share a meal together and she anoints his feet, and the fragrance from that pound of pure nard fills the room. It is a moment no one will ever forget.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Randy, RIP

I learned this morning that my oldest cousin, Randy, lost his battle with cancer and died last evening. He was fifty-two years old.

On the Simpson side I am the oldest of the cousins, but on the Miller side I'm third: as a little kid, Randy and Mike were the cousins I looked up to. We celebrated many Thanksgivings and Christmases and Fourth of July cook-outs with them in my most formative years of life, years that if I close my eyes feel like only yesterday. It is a strange thing when someone in your own generation dies, and I've been lucky so far not to confront that among my closest friends and relatives, even though I've helped shepherd others through those losses.

Part of my job is to help people to deal with death, and more particularly the grief that comes with it. I know and understand that role and dare say I've even gotten pretty good at it. For me the Burial Office is the most hopeful liturgy in the Prayerbook, rooted as it is in Easter morning. Even at the grave we make our song (and yes, even in Lent!) - alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Still, it is different to be in touch with my own grief, especially without a pastoral role to play. It is true that the longer I am in Holden, the fuzzier have become the lines between pastor-priest-friend. I have buried people over the past twelve years of whom I have been very fond, and whom I have counted as friends. I have therefore, even as priest leading families through their own grief, had my own share of losses. Still, this is different. It's been almost twenty-eight years since my dad died; at thirty-seven he was a decade younger than I will be in a few days. Since then I've lost all of my grandparents and Hathy's too.

Still, this is different.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Two Lost Sons

I have been thinking a lot this week about the gospel appointed for the fourth Sunday of Lent: in a Bible study we had at St. Francis on Tuesday night and in an ecumenical clergy gathering on Wednesday over lunch. I've had a chance to reflect once again on this amazing story that is sometimes called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but maybe should more appropriately be called the Parable of Two Lost Sons. (Luke 15:11b-32) I'm not preaching this weekend, but went back and found a sermon I preached six years ago on Fourth Lent; an edited portion of that sermon can be found below.

At the end of this story, the younger brother has been found, and he is celebrating. His story is like the hymn, “Amazing Grace,”—he once was lost, but now he’s found; he was blind, but now he sees. He is the recipient of an abundant outpouring of love that helps him to see the wideness of God’s mercy—as he encounters not only a father but a God with open arms, who welcomes back all the lost, all who are afraid and are ashamed. But the jury is still out on the elder brother as the story ends. Will he uncross his arms and join the party or not? Even if he does, will he be able to let go of his anger and hear the words of his father? The fatted calf awaits him, too, after all—there’s more than enough for everyone. No one has excluded him from the party. But to enter he needs to let go of that sense that his brother is undeserving. Like the scribes and Pharisees who listen to Jesus tell the story, he needs to let go of the false notion that he is “holier than thou” and risk embrace.

Whether or not we know how lost we are, Christ desires to find us all. We are all beloved of God, and there is room at the Table for all of us. If we are more like the younger brother, we need to “come to ourselves” by getting up out of the pig pen and making our way back home again. If we are more like the older brother then we need to “come to ourselves” by letting go of our resentments and grievances. The truth is though that these two have much more in common than either realizes—not just because each is lost in his own way, but because both are children of a compassionate father. So are all of us, children of a compassionate God—whose steadfast love and mercy abound. We are invited to sing and to dance and to love. Both of these brothers are in need of grace and healing and love. But as the story ends, only one of them has recognized that fact and received that gift. Only one has allowed love to heal and transform him, and to unleash the peace that passes all understanding.

Now I admit that I may be overly optimistic about this; but I like to believe that while it may have taken him a while longer, eventually the older brother joined the party. He, too, “came to himself.” Maybe he tentatively walked toward the party; hesitating at the door. His younger brother sees him and runs to embrace him, mimicking the role that the father played for him. And the tears began to flow. That is how the world will truly be made new. Eventually, I’m convinced (or at least want to believe) that the two brothers did embrace—even if it didn’t happen that day. At some point they came to see that they are more alike than different, and that they share a common responsibility that comes from being at the receiving end of such amazing grace.

But of course, we cannot know that for sure. Because the story does end where it does, it forces us to at least consider the possibility that the two never reconcile, and that the betrayal the older brother feels causes a permanent rift with his father. Perhaps he leaves home in disgust, never again to speak to his father or to his brother. We must consider that ending, because all of us know that it can happen that way, as sad as it is to admit. We are free—all of us—to refuse love; and even to convince ourselves that being right is more important to us than to love or to be loved.

Of course it’s just a story. But it is a story that leaves so many questions hanging in the air, stories those first hearers took home with them—sinners, tax collectors, scribes and Pharisees. What kind of lives would they live, after hearing such a story? So it is with us, as well. The story confronts us where we are, with our own unique ways of being lost. It leaves us pondering whether or not we will take the risk of being found. Like so many of Jesus’ great parables, the story lingers in the air, and across the centuries, still haunting us; still calling us. We oldest children and we prodigal children, we sinners and we saints, are all invited to join the party. There is enough fatted calf and cake and ice cream for everyone.