Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"Poppy Cox"

After forty years of ordained service to the United Methodist Church, the past thirty-one as Pastor of the Hawley United Methodist Church, The Rev. Martin Luther Cox, Jr., retired this past weekend. I was asked to share some thoughts at the celebration to mark this momentous occasion.

I grew up at the Hawley United Methodist Church, leaving for college in the fall of 1981. After college I ended up at Drew Theological School. As a few of you here know, I worked during my middler year at Drew for a guy named Doug Miller in Demarest, New Jersey. This experience drove me to the Episcopal Church—where I was ordained to the priesthood in 1993. 

I know that most of the people here, even most of my family, have known Marty as their pastor. But the pastor I knew growing up here was Gail Wintermute, who retired the summer before my senior year of high school. A guy named Edgar Singer came to Hawley for a year to do a kind of interim—rare in United Methodist circles, but essentially that is what it was. And then I headed off to college. So Marty arrived in Hawley right as I was leaving, thirty-one years ago. 

So I have just one story for you about Marty as my pastor. When I came home from college for Christmas break in December 1981, I was invited along with a half dozen or so other college students to come up to the parsonage to meet the new pastor. I remember that Marty was playing a Billy Joel album—I think it was The Stranger but I wouldn’t swear to that. An album with a needle and everything in those days, and I thought he was pretty cool…for a minister. 

Notice that qualifier: cool, for a minister, which is not in the same as, say, cool for a firefighter or Major League ballplayer. Even so, I did think that Martin seemed “cool, for a minister.”  That was my first impression.

I could not know at the time that Marty would soon become part of my family. Four months later, in April 1982, my father died very suddenly. And a year and a half after that—just as I was getting ready to head off to St. Andrews, Scotland for my junior year of college—Peg and Marty were married.But Marty was wise enough to know, especially early on, that a twenty-one year old kid who has just lost his father is not really looking for anyone to replace their dad. And I think my siblings would have said the same thing thirty years ago. We all love Marty dearly, and we all loved our dad. We have never confused the two. 

What I think we would all add, however, is this: we have always known that Marty loved Peg, and he has treated her well. He is not a handyman and he doesn’t mow the lawn. He is a decent cook and his soups are “alright”—if you add a little salt. But he has always treated our mother with love and respect and kindness and the truth is that is all any kid can ask of the man who marries your mother.

Marty never forced himself on any of us, as stepparents are sometimes tempted to do. He gave us space and that proved to be very wise. What happened, over time, as we each in turn married and became parents, is something I had not foreseen. He became the grandfather to our children.

It still makes me sad that my kids never met my dad. Early on, I might have even said that they never met their “real” grandfather. But it didn’t take very long to realize that was not the right way to put it. When Graham was born in 1990, it changed who Marty was in our family. He became “Poppy.” (More specificially, Poppy Cox.) And for sure he became, and has always been, a very real grandfather to the whole Simpson clan, even giving those whose parents would allow it their own nicknames. He has been everything and more than we could have asked for in a grandfather: attending our kids’ concerts, plays, madrigal dinners, sporting events, and graduations along the way. 
For this I know that my siblings and I—and our spouses and our children— are profoundly grateful. 
The best part of Marty retiring, then, is that we—the Simpsons—don’t lose that. In fact we get more of him.  For those of us who live a bit further afield from Hawley—in Highbridge or Holden—we hope that Marty will be able to drag Peg on a few more road trips and wander a bit further away from Hawley. I realize that for Jim and Susie and their families it’s more complex, because they are also losing a pastor, but speaking for the Holden crew, this is pretty much all gain.

Obviously this is a sad day (or at least a bittersweet day for members of the Hawley United Methodist Church) and as a pastor myself I get that. Literally this is the end of an era and in true Methodist fashion, a new chapter begins next weekend. But it will take some time for the congregation to adjust to a new leadership style and preaching style. I just want to say that since this will always be my “home congregation” you will be in my prayers as that unfolds.

On a more personal note:  Marty has been a mentor and a friend to me over the past 25 years since I have been ordained. Marty has always been there as someone I could turn to. And even when I decided that I felt called to return to the tradition of the Wesley boys and become an Episcopalian, Marty was there as someone to help with that discernment, even though he did try to talk me into staying in the United Methodist Church.

When I went off to seminary, some people assumed that Marty was a big influence on my call to ordained ministry. He wasn’t, mainly for the reasons I began with: he was not really my pastor as I was sorting all of that out, and only very recently my stepfather. But what I can say is this: over the past 25 years, he has been a huge influence in my formation as a pastor. He has helped to shape my understanding of ministry and of who I am as a parish priest in ways that I cannot even begin to enumerate. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then I can truly say that as I have embraced my own call to a long term ministry in the parish—something I never imagined I would be doing—I have continued to look at how he has led the Hawley United Methodist Church by always staying engaged and adapting to a changing world while remaining true to his core values.

This is always a dance, of course. The Christian Century has run a series over the years entitled “How My Mind Has Changed,” written by various theologians. I’d love to see Marty write for that series. Sometimes you meet clergy who have not had a single thought since graduating seminary and you can pretty much narrow down which seminary they went to and what decade it was by listening to a few sermons or watching them lead worship. In contrast, sometimes you meet clergy who are always chasing the latest fad; clergy who have no core theology at all and always think the next thing is right around the corner. What is harder and more authentic, is to keep open, to keep journeying, to know that theological truth is always at some level autobiographical and always evolving: because it is shaped by our continuing relationship with God and God’s people. Marty has embodied this truth, I think and his mind has changed over the years—and I think this is a very good thing.

A couple of years ago, Marty and I travelled with a friend of ours, a UCC pastor, to the Holy Land. We three pastors journeyed east, like the magi—three wise guys in search of the Christ. It was quite an adventure.

I realized on that trip that Marty really is a rare bird. Now I knew this before, but I mean—halfway around the world, I got even clearer about that. On free time he’d be up on the roof in our lodgings in Jerusalem smoking his pipe and reading a book…just being himself. Or sitting out looking at the Sea of Galilee, on a chair, smoking his pipe. And here is the thing: we could have been anywhere in the world:  in Chicago or on the back porch at “832”—or in Duck, or on the back decks in Holden or Highbridge.

He’s one of a kind. It’s hard to describe. I mean, we all are who we are, wherever we go. But there is very little “veneer” to Marty. Maybe none. He is the real deal. What you see is truly what you get. He is authentic.

Part of what I saw, with deep appreciation, was how he related to the seminarians on that trip; there were a half dozen of them from Virginia Seminary. And so Chris and Marty and I were the seasoned veterans, the longtime pastors. Without a touch of condescension, I saw Marty encouraging, engaging, teaching—in ways that I have pretty much taken for granted for three decades. And yet like all great teachers, an inquisitive and curious learner himself. I saw him mentoring others as he has mentored me, in his own unique way. And then it dawned on me, he was actually kind of cool in the way he did this. At least for a minister.

Those here who are pastors will especially appreciate what I am trying to say, knowing that this is not always how older clergy behave with younger ones. Burnout is more normal, I think, and sometimes even resentment—or a know-it-all attempt at mentoring which is not helpful. Marty is a pastor—and a pastor’s pastor. In fact, while I know he never aspired to it, he would have been a very good D.S. I think, at least to the extent that that is part of the job. Or a seminary professor. He’s a fine Biblical scholar and theologian, for sure. But parish ministry has suited him because all of those gifts are all directed toward the goal of helping to form disciples, both lay and ordained. Marty doesn’t wear that mentoring role on his sleeve, but it goes to the core of who he is with other pastors—as I witnessed in Israel and as I have experienced firsthand.

Under Marty’s leadership, the Hawley United Methodist Church has gone from one third of a three-point charge to one of the thriving congregations in the Conference. He’s done that not by chasing after fads on the one hand, or being a rigid traditionalist on the other: but by finding that balance—that “middle way” as we Episcopalians like to say—of being a leader and a pastor who is open to Spirit-led change. He’s done that with a great deal of integrity. He’s not done that alone, because ministry is never a lone-ranger thing. It doesn’t work that way. But clergy certainly can help mess things up. So Marty does deserve credit for having led the Hawley United Methodist Church to this new place in its life in Christ.

When Marty and I are together in Hawley or Holden or the Holy Land, we tend to more often be talking about the grandchildren or politics or our shared love of cooking at least as often as we talk theology. But when we do talk theology, it is never ethereal: it is always grounded in the life and mission and witness of God’s people, gathered together to hear the Word proclaimed and to break the bread and share the cup. It is always ultimately about what it means to be the Church, which is about what it means to form more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. As I continue to grow in this work, it seems to me, that is what it is all about.

I began with Billy Joel; let me end with Springsteen, and then I’ll sit down. I was listening to my I-Pod a couple of weeks ago, on shuffle. (Even on shuffle a lot of Bruce Springsteen comes up on my I-Pod!) In this case, it was an extra track on the Magic album, probably not familiar to most of you unless you are a real hardcore fan: a bonus track called “Terry’s Song.” The song was added after the death of Springsteen’s longtime assistant, Terry Macgovern, as a tribute to his life. As a side note, it was first sung by Bruce at Terry’s memorial service on August 2, 2007, at the United Methodist Church in Red Bank, New Jersey.  

That song could easily have been written to describe “Poppy.” And so I’ll close with these words by a great American poet:
Well they built the Titanic to be one of a kind, but many ships have ruled the seas
They built the Eiffel Tower to stand alone, but they could build another if they please
Taj Mahal, the pyramids of Egypt, are unique I suppose
But when they built you, brother, they broke the mold

Now the world is filled with many wonders under the passing sun
And sometimes something comes along and you know it's for sure the only one
The Mona Lisa, the David, the Sistine Chapel, Jesus, Mary, and Joe
And when they built you, brother, they broke the mold
When they built you, brother, they turned dust into gold
When they built you, brother, they broke the mold

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mustard Seeds

Below is the sermon preached at St. Francis Church for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 17, 2012. The sermon text is Mark 4:26-34

Starting last Sunday, and continuing through to the end of November, the gospel we will be reading from each weekend is Mark. There is one slight digression: we’ll spend four weeks in late July and August on the sixth chapter of John, where Jesus explores the metaphor of what it means to call him “the Bread of Life.” But other than that, we’ll be spending time with Mark, the earliest written and the shortest of the four gospels: no birth narrative, a very terse Easter narrative, and yet with a clear focus on Jesus as teacher, healer, and suffering servant.

As we embark on this journey with Mark, I want to (very briefly) re-cap where we are in his gospel, before turning to today’s reading. We began in the Judean wilderness where we were introduced to John the Baptist and his diet of locusts with wild honey. We then met Jesus, who comes to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Immediately afterward, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. When he returns, he calls his first disciples, performs an exorcism in the synagogue, and heals a leper. All that in chapter one!

Mark is fond of the word “immediately”—his writing style is more Ernest Hemingway than Jane Austen. So Jesus returns home to Capernaum in chapter two and immediately there is controversy with the religious authorities, followed by more healing, more callings of disciples, and more conflict. By the time we get to chapter three, He has re-defined family in a way that is dramatically counter-cultural—not only to the norms of the culture of his day but of ours as well. Those who would speak for Jesus about “family values” in our day need to pay close attention to what he does and does not say in those verses. In the Kingdom of God, according to Jesus, “family” isn’t a mom and a dad and 2.2 children living in the suburbs. “Who is my sister and brother and mother and father?” Jesus asks. The answer is simple and concise: “the one who does God’s will.” Jesus’ biological family thinks he has gone crazy.

This makes it quite appropriate to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Baptism this weekend and welcome Abigail and Colin into the Body of Christ, for Baptism too is about insisting that “Christian family values” are not about our ethnicity or gene pool, but rather about the new community that Jesus calls together through the waters of Holy Baptism. We are here today to bear witness to the truth that for those who put Jesus at the center of their lives and seek to do God’s will, “water is thicker than blood.” Baptized with Christ, we become sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers to one another.

In chapter four of Mark, Jesus begins to teach this new family of God about what he calls “the Kingdom of God.” Through the healings and exorcisms we’ve already seen signs of that Kingdom. But now Jesus turns to stories—parables. This is important. He doesn’t offer a catechism or a creed or dogma that defines who is in and who is out of this new family he is forming. He doesn’t say you must read the Bible this way or that way, or how the Church must be organized as an institution.
Instead, he tells parables that challenge anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear to imagine the world in new ways.

“Eschatology” is not a word that Jesus used; it’s a theologian’s word. But it’s a good one that simply refers us to the end of human history, and Jesus’ teachings are set in the context of the end times. I suspect that most of us can go weeks and even months without using the word “eschatological” in polite conversation. But whether or not we use the vocabulary, it’s important to know that most of us probably do think eschatologically when we think about the Kingdom of God. In other words, we tend to focus on the end result. We tend to focus on the end of the world as we know it. We tend to focus on heaven.

So what will the Kingdom look like? Will the streets be paved with gold? Will the lion and the lamb lie down together and a little child lead them? What will it look like when every tear is wiped away and they study war no more and they do not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain? What will it look like when Christ is all in all and the world is restored to unity and every knee bends and proclaims Jesus as “king of kings and lord of lords?” The mystery of our faith is that Christ has died/Christ is risen/Christ will come again. Eschatology is about that last part—about the end of human history when Christ will come again.

And yet, we live “in the meantime.” We live in the mystery of that place between Easter morning and the fulfillment of human history. We live with unemployment and an economy that has taken a huge toll on the poor and on the middle class. We live with forty percent of school children in Springfield—the home of our church’s cathedral—living below the poverty level. We live with AIDs and civil wars in Africa. We live with deep divisions in our nation and in the church and in our community. The widow and the orphan have not fared well and the Bible is all about keeping us focused on how they are doing. And it feels like we are a long way from “peace on earth and good will toward all.”

So how do we live in such a world as followers of Jesus Christ? How do we live with hope and with patience and with perseverance in the midst of all of that? What does it mean to be an Easter people who carry with us a vision of the kingdom and yet not who will not live in denial about all the hurt and pain and suffering of this world? What does it look like for us to live faithfully in the days between “Christ is risen!” and “Christ will come again?”

That, I think, is the place where we need to try to stand to make sense of these two parables before us today about seeds, from the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. It’s relatively easy to paint a picture of the Kingdom of God when it comes to fruition. But how do we develop the kinds of eyes that can see the seeds of that reality already in our midst today? Where is the Kingdom already present, even if only in mustard-seed-like ways?  

I’ve been wearing glasses since second grade for near-sightedness. I can still remember the feeling on the first day of wearing those glasses that there was a whole world out there I hadn’t been able to see before. And then when I turned forty my optometrist told me I needed progressive lenses; trifocals so I could have some help seeing not only those things far away but increasingly teeny, tiny print of the newspaper.

I think that the parables of Jesus are above all else about helping us to see the world from another angle, through a new right set of lenses. We tend to hear “Kingdom of God” just as the people of Jesus’ day did. We tend to look for the big things—for things you can’t miss like a mighty sequoia or redwood in our midst. (The Biblical equivalent, by the way, is the cedar of Lebanon: something grand and unmistakable.) Yet if our glasses are just for seeing big things far away, it’s very easy to miss the mustard seeds that are already in our midst—right up close. And I think that Jesus is trying to get us, his disciples, to look at the world close up.

So the parable of the mustard seed is not only about hope for the future; it’s about patience and endurance for the present. The theologian’s word is to speak of the Kingdom as present proleptically—which is an even better word to use at a beach party than eschatological if you are hoping to impress people. But in the end its meaning is quite simple: literally “to anticipate before.” We live into, toward, the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. We live it now, anticipating it’s fulfillment.

Or to put it in more practical terms: for there to be peace on earth it has to begin with me and with you. For the Church to focus on God’s mission, it has to begin in parishes like this one. For the world to simply live, you and I must learn to live more simply. The “cedar of Lebanon”—the big hairy audacious goal—is to eradicate world hunger, but that begins at places like the Mustard Seed in Worcester on the second Wednesday of every month when somebody goes and buys the chicken and pasta and frozen broccoli and shredded cheese and cream of something or other soup, and somebody else opens all of those cans and mixes it all up and puts it in the oven and another bunch of somebodies stop by here and drop off desserts, and somebody else comes by to pick it all up and deliver it and serve it to a whole bunch of somebodies with real names and real lives and their own stories, who put this food into their mouths to fill empty bellies. And some other congregation takes care of the second Thursday of the month and somebody else takes Friday and then it starts all over again and before you know it it’s the second Wednesday of the month again and it’s our turn again.

It’s almost kind of boring and tedious, and we’ve been doing it for something like forty years now. (Every thirty years or so we do change the menu up!) Little tiny seeds—barely visible—especially if you don’t know where to look. But you don’t feed the world by waving a wand. You do it one plate of chicken and broccoli casserole at a time. And maybe along the way somebody begins to ask a question about the roots of hunger. Maybe somebody else wonders what it would take to deal with underlying causes of poverty; to move beyond charity and to look at the root causes of social and economic injustice. In such moments, the Kingdom of God is very near indeed. And wherever seeds are being planted and nurtured, the Kingdom of God is present in our midst—here and now—even if the harvest remains in the future.

That truly is good news. It sustains us as we do the work God has given us to do. It means that we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the enormous scope of the challenges that face us, but that like that guy walking along the beach and throwing the starfish back in the ocean we do what we can, one at a time. We do not lose heart. We entrust the future to God—the shade of the mustard bush where the birds of the air come to find peace and refreshment. The work we are given to do is to keep on planting the seeds.

I imagine it was hard for the first hearers of Mark’s Gospel to be patient and hopeful: a tiny, fragile community standing against the entrenched imperial power of Rome. And yet they persevered. And we are the beneficiaries of their perseverance.  I know that it is hard for us—increasingly aware that the mainline churches are sidelined from the power structures of our society. But maybe that isn’t all bad news. Maybe it is as a tiny, fragile community that we are better able to bear witness to the love of God we have known in Jesus Christ. Maybe our work really is about taking the long view, as we keep tending to the Kingdom in mustard-seed like ways here and now—so that Abigail and Colin and their children may one day enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Unpreached Sermons (1 Samuel 15:34-16:13)

It happens to me once or twice a year, perhaps: I get to about Friday morning with a text, a sermon feels in some ways like it is just "out of time." I have done my homework, my exegesis, and try to follow where the text leads me. In this case, this week, I've been focused on the unfolding narrative in First Samuel from which we will continue to read over the course of this summer in the Revised Common Lectionary. (Is it track one or track two; I always get confused about that!)

I believe no work in Scripture is ever lost, and some of this may come back again, and maybe even in three years this sermon will be "ripe." But I decided early this morning to scrap it and move on over to the Gospel Reading from the fourth chapter of Mark, and the parable of the mustard seed. 

So what to do with all this work? Well, I'm glad I have a blog! 


Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. Notice that Samuel is not grieving over Saul because he has died; the problem is that he is still very much alive! Samuel is grieving because Saul has turned out to not be a very good king, and he (Samuel) was the guy who anointed him.  He is grieving because he feels responsible for the way things have turned out. 

Saul has been a huge disappointment as king. It would be as if Samuel had run a presidential election campaign and got his guy elected, and now he can’t sleep through the night because he realizes the person he helped to elect is completely incompetent. So that’s where Samuel is emotionally. He is grieving, because he was the one who helped Israel transition from a period of judges to a monarchy. While he was personally against the idea from the beginning, he finally got on board and anointed Saul as the first king. And it has turned out to be a disaster.  

The Lord is disappointed with King Saul as well. But the Lord is ready to move on. And as is always the case, when the Lord decides to act, helpers are required to be God’s hands and feet in the world. So once again Samuel is being called upon to act. “Go to Bethlehem,” YHWH says to Samuel, “and find me a new king.”
Now here is the thing: what YHWH is asking of Samuel is treason. Because, as I said, Saul is still very much alive. There is no vacancy on the throne! If Saul gets wind of this plan, Samuel will be executed as an enemy of the state. So Samuel isn’t too sure he wants this job. But YHWH insists, telling Samuel, “if anybody asks, just tell them that you are in Bethlehem to worship me. (Which of course is technically true, because to worship me is to do what I ask, and I am asking you to go to Bethlehem now to find me a new king!)” 

And so, Samuel arrives at the home of Jesse. Jesse has seven sons—a perfect number in the Bible, a full complement of sons—and they all pass by Samuel. Yet none of them is the one. What next?

Well, it turns out that Jesse actually has eight sons. The suspense is killing us, yes? But who would have thought to bring in the youngest who is out keeping watch of the sheep, the baby of the family? Samuel figures he has come all this way to Bethlehem, however and so if he is already there they might as well wait. They remain standing, however, because this shouldn’t take very long. And then the kid walks in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. He’s the one! Anoint him now!

And then, finally—for the first time in the Bible—we hear the kid’s name. This story is told like those videos we’ll see later this summer at the two political conventions when the candidates are introduced. We will see footage of Obama and Romney as little kids, now fulfilling (or so the videos will suggest) their God-given destinies. This story from the fifteenth chapter of First Samuel is like those videotaped intros and this kid from that little town of Bethlehem is a political consultant’s dream: shepherd, giant killer and very handsome. (There will be rumors of womanizing, but that won’t be made public until much later, when the story of Bathsheba-gate breaks.) Finally, at the end of this long introduction, his name is spoken: this is David.

The fifteenth chapter of First Samuel is about the transfer of political power; it’s about God’s politics. It’ll take a long drawn out coup before Saul is in fact dead and David finally ascends to the throne. But as readers we now know where it is all headed. We’ll be hearing lots more about King David over the course of the next six weeks or so as this summer unfolds, until finally in August we’ll hear about how the second son of David and Bathsheba, Solomon, becomes the third king of Israel. But all of that in due time.

For today, I want to focus on Samuel, for whom this scroll is named, since he is about to fade into the background. As I said, Samuel is breaking the law and committing treason because he believes that this is what YHWH is asking of him. That’s not something to be done lightly and it doesn’t make a very good defense in any court of law if you get arrested and tell the judge, “I did it because God told me to.” The best you may hope for is that you’ll end up in the mental hospital rather than the big house!

Most of us will never have to make a decision with as much at stake as what Samuel had to face. And yet there may in fact be times in our lives when fidelity to God will make the neighbors and maybe even our families think that we are crazy. But all of us have to make choices in the midst of our daily lives. And sometimes the faithful choice is the hard one that goes against the grain—and may even get us into trouble with the law—or at the very least proves to be unpopular.

From the perspective of Samuel, then, I think this is a text about discernment: how do we know what is really the voice of God in the midst of all the other competing claims on our lives? We do well to remember that Samuel didn’t just wake up one day and know how to know that. It’s a learned skill. In fact, if you are reading along in the Book of First Samuel it’s like a scrapbook of his life and it goes by so quickly: in chapter one he’s born after his mother prays to God for a son and by chapter three God is calling. But at first Samuel thinks it is Eli, the priest, who is calling him. Remember? So he keeps getting up and waking Eli up: “did you call me?” No, it wasn’t me, Eli says: go back to bed! It turns out it was God who was calling Samuel, but he didn’t yet recognize God’s voice. So he had to practice listening and praying and trusting until he was able to discern that particular voice in the midst of all of those other voices in his life. By the time he’s an old man that we see before us today, Samuel is pretty well equipped to know what is of God and what is not because he’s been at this for a while.

This weekend we will baptize Colin and Abigail at the 10 a.m. service. Their lives are so uncomplicated at the moment.  But the longer I am a pastor, the more I realize how quickly their lives will fly by. This weekend I am baking bread with a group of elementary school kids who are part of the Eucharist Instruction program; it feels like just yesterday that they were being baptized. Even more amazing: I look out now at kids I baptized fifteen years ago and I feel like I just blinked, and some of those kids will be getting letters this summer inviting them to be part of next fall’s confirmation class.  I’m not trying to rush any of this faster than it will unfold. I’m just saying that time really is an ever-flowing stream. I am getting used to taking the long view when I celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. 

Along with their parents and godparents, this congregation takes vows this weekend to help raise Colin and Abigail into the full stature of Christ. As simple as their lives may be in this moment in time, we know that they will eventually face decisions and choices over the course of their lives just like Samuel did, and just as we all do. Every now and then a really big decision. But day in and day out so many smaller ones, so many small choices and decisions about friendships and relationships and school and work. Our belief—and our prayer as a faith community that today pours water and anoints with oil—is that their primary identity in life is that each of them is a beloved child of God. Each of them called by name. Our hope as a faith community is that they will never, ever forget this—no matter what and our work as a faith community is to help them to remember, always, that they have been marked and sealed and claimed as Christ’s own forever. 

And so we also pray that they will learn from us, and with us, the art of listening for God’s Word. That takes practice—especially in a noisy world. So today, we ask God to give them “inquiring and discerning hearts.” We do well to remember that this won’t all happen today. Baptism represents the beginning of a journey. Here at St. Francis, we seek to raise up Christians into the full stature of Christ—to become mature adults who, like Samuel, practice listening for God’s Word in Scripture and in their own hearts and in the midst of this faith community. 

Sometimes people want to get their child baptized as if they were buying fire insurance. And sometimes people want to bring their children to church because they want them to be more moral and ethical. While I’m all for ethics and morality, the rhythms of community life—of common prayer and weekly sharing in the Eucharist, of listening to sermons, and of opening the Bible and learning to pray—are about something greater even than morality. We do all of these things to shape and form a people after God’s own heart. And that takes time. But we keep at it, knowing that over time—over decades even—that faith, and hope, and love in the living God are deepened.  

Today in our opening collect we prayed these words:  
Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion…

As we welcome these little children with open arms, we remember again who we are as God’s beloved. We remember that we, too, have been claimed and marked and sealed as Christ’s own forever and that we have been given a mission; or more accurately that God has a mission that we have been invited to be part of. We remember that we are called to be a people, a household, where these old stories are remembered and cherished so that in the midst of our daily lives, we will, like Samuel, be in the habit of listening for God’s Word and the Spirit’s guidance every step of the way.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Remembering G.K. Chesterton

O God of earth and altar, you gave G. K. Chesterton a ready tongue and pen, and inspired him to use them in your service: Mercifully grant that we may be inspired to witness cheerfully to the hope that is in us, through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. 

Today we remember Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Apologist and Writer, who died on June 14, 1936. The full text of the homily preached at his Requiem Mass in Westminster Cathedral by the Rev. Ronald Knox can be found here. In this context I want to share just a few of what I consider to be the most interesting and relevant paragraphs. 

The man whom we laid to rest the other day in the cemetery at Beaconsfield was one of the very greatest men of his time. If posterity neglects him, it will pronounce judgment not upon him, but upon itself. He will almost certainly be remembered as a great and solitary figure in literature, an artist in words and in ideas with an astounding fecundity of imaginative vision. He will almost certainly be remembered as a prophet, in an age of false prophets. He warned us, in spacious times, that human liberties were threatened, and today, human liberties are in debate. He warned us, in times of prosperity, against the perils of industrialism, and industrialism is labouring for breath. He warned us, when imperialism was a fashion, that nationalism was a force not easily destroyed; today nationalism is the shadow over men's hearts. 

Whether he was a great author, whether he was a true prophet, does not concern him now-he lies deaf to the world's praise, and secure from its catastrophes-nor does it concern us here; we are met, as Christians, to say farewell in our own fashion to a fellow-Christian who has outstripped us in the race for eternity. The most important thing about Chesterton (he would have been the first to say it), the most distinctive quality in Chesterton, was a quality which he shared with some three hundred millions of his fellow-men; he was a Catholic. The public discovered him in the early years of the century; it was not till twenty years later that he discovered himself. ..

…the most salient quality, I think, of his writing is this gift of illuminating the ordinary; of finding in something trivial a type of the eternal. And it was a gift of vision he himself valued. In the first of his books which really made a name for him, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, the story opens at a moment when a Government clerk, walking behind two friends in town coats, suddenly sees the buttons on their coats as two eyes, the slit underneath as a nose-line; he has a vision of his two friends as two dragons walking backwards away from him. There is a law (he says in that connection) written in the darkest of the books of life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.

That was what happened, when Chesterton was converted. He had looked for the thousandth time at the Catholic Faith, and for the first time, he saw it. Nothing in the Church was new to him, and yet everything was new to him; he was like the man in his own story who had wandered round the world in order to see, with fresh eyes, his own home…

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Wisdom In These Halls

The following Baccalaureate Address was delivered to the graduating class at Wachusett Regional High School on Thursday, June 7, 2012

My name is Rich Simpson. For the past fifteen years, I have served as the rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Holden. This year my congregation has a dozen young people graduating from high school, eleven of them from Wachusett. That’s a pretty typical-sized graduating class for us, so I am guessing that over the course of the past fifteen years I have seen somewhere in the vicinity of 150-200 kids graduate from here. 

This is the fourth time I’ve been asked to speak at this service and it has been a joyful and humbling experience each time. But these past two times have been particularly special for me: last time I spoke here my oldest son was a member of the graduating class of 2009, and this year my youngest son, James, is a member of this graduating class of 2012. So I am especially grateful to Mr. Beando and to those who planned this event for the invitation to be with you tonight. 

This gathering gives us all an opportunity to pause and reflect on this ending of one chapter of your lives and to look toward the next chapter. Yet even important markers like graduation are not clearly defined endings or beginnings; they are transitions. Life is about how we navigate transitions. Everyone here has a range of emotions tonight: graduates, teachers, parents, grandparents. These same emotions kick up at other times of transition in our lives: big ones like birth and death, and more intermediate ones like the first day of kindergarten or Middle School graduation or the first week of college or getting married or accepting a new job. It’s natural to feel both excited and sad; as humans we are allowed to feel more than one emotion at once and on occasions like this we usually do. 

When one becomes a teacher or a priest or a parent one may mistakenly believe early on that they now have wisdom (as if it were a commodity) to impart to the next generation (as if they were a blank slate.) If that were true then my job would be to stand up here and tell you things you don’t already know, things that I have learned in the past thirty years since I graduated from high school that, if you were to listen and I were to do my job well, would make your lives easier. 

But I think that is silly, and that Plato was right: learning is essentially about remembering what the soul already knows. We discover (or maybe uncover) the truth dialogically, in conversation. In spite of all the books on the subject you discover how to be a parent as you go, by interacting with that singular human being that you bring home from the hospital. You discover, sooner or later, that they have their own personality and their own ideas and even if their genetic makeup is half yours, they are not clones. This is why if you have more than one child you cannot parent them the same way; they are not the same people. Parenting is more like playing improvisational jazz than playing in a chamber orchestra, I think. 

Anyway, as I sat down last week to think about what I might say tonight, I began looking through your yearbook, “In These Halls.” There I read all of those little quotes you shared and I was happy to see words from St. Paul, Gandhi, J.K. Rowling, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, Wayne Gretzky, Winnie the Pooh, Professor Dumbledore, and the always provocative “Anonymous.”  I was glad to see that even Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd) got a shout out for that haunting question asked in The Wall: “How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?” 

So I want to speak to four themes tonight, using some of your own quotes as a way into this conversation—inviting us to remember together some of what the soul already knows.   

#1. Life is a journey, so enjoy the ride. Here is what I heard from all of you on this topic: 
  •  “The journey is more important than the end or the start.” 
  •  “It makes no difference how many peaks you reach if you have no pleasure in the climb.” 
  • “As one journey ends, another begins.” 
  •  “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” 
  • "Time you enjoy wasting was not wasted.” 
  •  “Let’s take the good times as they come, and I’ll meet you further on up the road.” 
  •  “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” 
  •  “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”
As a class you seem to have a very good sense of this notion. So you don’t need me to stand up here and tell you as some expert on the subject that “life is a journey.” You know this already. 

Yet there is an enormous amount of pressure in our society to forget this wisdom of the soul and to start to live as if life is about the peaks. When that happens to us we do forget to enjoy the climb. We can fall into the trap of thinking that life will begin once we get into the college of our choice, or receive that diploma or get that first job or find that right spouse or have 2.3 children or get that next promotion or when the children move out of the house or when the grandchildren come for a visit. But if we are not careful with our lives, we will always be chasing that next thing, and we will forget the wisdom that goes to the heart of every great religious tradition and to the heart of twelve-step spiritualities as well: life can only ever be lived one day at a time. It can only be lived in the Now.

So I’d like to add just one more quote to your list of insights: a rabbi once said, “consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.” I think he meant to say that we have to build in time in the midst of life regardless of what is happening—good or bad—to stop and consider and to pay attention. To pray or to meditate if that is your inclination; but if not, then at least to slow down long enough to breathe in and breathe out, to see and to hear. In so doing, we begin to worry less about where we are going and more about being fully present where we are. With all due respect to Dr. Seuss (whom I adore) don’t forget to stop and say: “oh, the place where I am!”

#2. Fear paralyzes us. While there may be social pressures from the outside to tempt you into forgetting to listen to your own deep inner wisdom, the wisdom that will lead you to follow your own path, the truth is that the greatest obstacles to fully embracing life one day at a time are always the internal ones. You all grew up on Harry Potter; I refer you to it as you confront your fears—and the biggest ones are not the Lord Voldomorts of this world but the self-doubts that lie within. The biggest and most toxic threat to a life lived well is fear. In my faith tradition, every time an angel shows up, the very first words they always speak are the same: “do not be afraid…”  Once again, though, you all already know this. Here is what I read:

  • “The biggest mistake you can make in life is constantly fearing you’re going to make one.” 
  •  “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” 
  •  And this: “Always a lesson, never a failure.”
Fear keeps us from taking risks. It keeps us from trying the really bold thing that our heart may yearn for. And so we begin to settle for caution. But if we can remember that growth almost always comes more from our failures than our successes, then we will more naturally face our fears and try new things, and not be so worried about always getting it right. It is, in my experience, our failures that teach us the most about why we need family and friends, and why we do not have to go through life being so afraid. So “fear not!” 

#3. Be kind. It literally costs you nothing. And yet it seems to be in such short supply in an increasingly shrill society. Here is what I read in your yearbook:
  • “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” 
  •  “A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.” 
  •  And this: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Kindness is an extension of compassion, which is the antidote to bullying. If you realize that everyone is indeed fighting their own battles, whether obvious to you or not, then it invites gentleness and kindness with one another.

Trust me: schoolyard bullies are not limited to the schoolyard. You can find them at Town Meetings, in Houses of Worship, and on Main Street in Holden. These are the self-important people who have no problem using the right-hand lane at the jug-handle at the other end of Holden to try to pass two or three cars in their desire to get where there are going six seconds faster than the person whom they have just cut off.

Kindness and compassion and decency are the core values that show us how to be better neighbors, and better neighbors make the neighborhood a better place to live for everyone.

I don’t know how many of you read The Landmark or the Telegram and Gazette but if you read the letters to the editor sometime I suspect that you will find them, as I do, rather depressing. They do not, as a general rule, contribute to the building up the neighborhood. So it is up to your generation to try to change the tone of our civic discourse from what you have inherited—which is, far too often, about people shouting at each other until each is red in the face. You can help remind your parents and grandparents that it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable, and without demonizing the other person. I think the first step in that direction is to be mindful that we really are all carrying heavy burdens—some of them obvious and some hidden deep inside. So practice random acts of kindness.

#4. Remember to say “thank you.” I was so moved by how many of you took time in your yearbook to thank friends, teachers, coaches, siblings, and yes…your parents. We parents tried to teach you along the way to say thanks to others, but it really makes our hearts glad when you turn around and say it to us. Nothing will bring a mom or dad to tears more than those two little words.
So now let me give you one more quote, this one from a thirteenth-century German mystic named Meister Eckhart: “if the only prayer you ever say is thank you, it would be enough.”

The myth that anyone is self-made is a dangerous lie, maybe the worst lie our society tells us. We are dependent on others being there for us: on those who love us unconditionally and on those who teach us by example. You have all achieved so much, and you are right to be proud of your many accomplishments. But underneath those accomplishments is a long list of people on whose shoulders you stand: a third-grade teacher, a little league coach, a voice teacher, a dance instructor who made a difference in your lives. May this occasion be an opportunity to go back and say, “thank you.” And it’s never too late to do that, by the way. If that third grade teacher is never going to see your Yearbook then trust me, nothing will confirm her decision to pursue such noble work more than getting a note of thanks from a former student who is now graduating, especially at this time of year when most teachers are as exhausted and worn out as their students are.

Independence is no doubt an important life-lesson, something we parents and teachers have tried to teach you all along the way. We taught you to tie your own shoes and to read and to look both ways when you cross the street. We taught you to ride a bike and to drive a car. We want you to do your own laundry when you leave home, and to remember to go see a doctor when you are sick. Independence is a good thing. But as the poet wrote, “no man is an island unto himself.” Maybe an even harder life lesson is the one about interdependence.

I am sure there were other themes and much more wisdom in that Yearbook that I’ve not mentioned. But I think that is more than enough for now. I hope that these four themes will carry you a bit further on up the road, where there will continue to be so much for you to discover and to rediscover about yourselves and this amazing planet we share.

For now, I have come to the end of my time. In case your mind has wondered along the way and your parents ask you on the way home what I talked about, let me save you from an awkward and embarrassing silence. You can tell them that I simply reminded you of four things you already knew: 
  1. That life is a journey;   
  2.  Be not afraid; 
  3.  Be kind to others; 
  4.  Remember to say “thank you.”
Thank you for the privilege of being among you tonight.