Friday, October 26, 2012

Election Day Communion

Over two decades ago, when I was serving as the Protestant Campus Minister at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut, we welcomed George McGovern and William F. Buckley to campus for a political debate. I had the great privilege of sitting with Senator McGovern for a more intimate conversation before the public event. I will never forget him telling us that his best friend in the U.S. Senate was Barry Goldwater. Rarely did they vote the same way, but very often after a vote they would go out for a beer to continue the conversation, regardless of who had come out the victor that day. He also noted (this was in the early 1990s) that this almost never happened anymore. If anything, things have gotten much, much worse. I was saddened to learn of the death of Senator McGovern; the loss of giants like him and Edward Kennedy and Arlen Specter marks the passing of a generation of people who could disagree and yet still find common ground toward a common good.

Recently the Episcopal Bishop of Maryland, the Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton, wrote a pastoral letter to his diocese. He has taken public stands on three important ballot questions that his state is facing, but he also wanted to be clear that he does not speak for all Episcopalians in his diocese: Bishop Sutton wrote:   

In all of these matters, I want to assure you that The Episcopal Church considers what and who you vote for in an election to be an act of your personal choice, an expression of your responsibilities as a faithful child of God as well as an informed citizen of the state. We have too much respect for you and your conscience to tell you how you should vote; that to us would be an abuse of power that does not honor the way of Jesus.

It is in that same spirit that St. Francis Church in Holden, the parish that I have served for the past fifteen years, recently engaged in a series of political conversations this past October. On four Tuesday evenings, I led a discussion group on the topic of “faith and politics.” Twenty-five persons representing different points-of-view participated. We began by setting down some simple ground rules for these discussions, beginning with some conversation about our own families of origin and where we get our information. (My theory is that in an age where there is so much information, very often we are fighting about which set of “facts” we accept as “true.”)  From there we turned to the topics of how our core spiritual values shape our hopes and dreams for foreign policy, the economy, and social justice.

One outgrowth of this conversation is that St. Francis Church will participate in an ecumenical, grass-roots program that has caught fire from sea to shining sea on Election Day. As of today 559 congregations in 48 states and the District of Columbia are participating in offering an Election Day Communion Service: More than twenty-five of these services will be offered in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, including one at St. Francis Church on Tuesday, November 6, at 7 p.m. As the website for this event puts it: 

During the day of November 6, 2012, we will make different choices for different reasons, hoping for different results. But that evening while our nation turns its attention to the outcome of the presidential election, let’s again choose differently. But this time, let’s do it together.

Whoever is elected to serve us, we live in a democracy. They will be our President and our Senator—regardless of whether or not we voted for them. This is how democracy works. And they will need our support and our prayers to tackle the difficult array of challenges that lie ahead. All of us have a stake in supporting our elected leaders in their work, and also in holding them accountable to a commitment to finding bipartisan solutions to very difficult problems. 

So we will gather at St. Francis on Election Day to break the bread together and share the cup. The service will be no longer than a half hour or so in length, but it gives us a chance to catch our breath and to remember that there is more that binds us together than tears us apart. All who wish to join us are welcome, regardless of political or denominational affiliation.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Just As We Are

The hymn, "Just As I Am, Without One Plea" (pg 693 in The Hymnal 1982) is often associated with the Rev. Billy Graham, who used it for decades as a kind of “theme song” for his altar calls. 

But the hymn was actually written by an Anglican woman in 1834 named Charlotte Elliot, who was granddaughter of a priest of the Church of England. She wrote more than 150 hymns in her lifetime, but none perhaps more well-known than this one. From the age of 32, Ms. Elliott was home-bound. She wasn’t able to attend church services anymore, which sometimes left her feeling depressed and doubtful about her own usefulness and ultimately about her faith.  

Her brother, the Rev. H.V. Elliott, had this plan for St. Mary's Hall at Brighton: to build a school that would offer (at a nominal cost) an education for the daughters of clergymen. To support this work, the parish was in the process of holding a fair. 

Different century to be sure, but as I imagine St. Mary’s Hall in the week before the fair I suspect it looked something like the parish I serve looks right now as we get ready for the Church Mouse Fair this Saturday. Such events require a lot of volunteer hours and hard work. St. Mary’s was no exception: everyone was preparing for it as the "church mice" were all scurrying to and fro, and baking pies and making crafts and all the rest. 

Everyone except Charlotte Elliott, sister of the vicar, who was physically unable to help.

The night before the fair she tossed and turned all night, unable to sleep because she was feeling so useless. It became for her a dark night of the soul. As she wrestled with all of these emotions, however, she eventually came to the realization that God’s amazing grace and steadfast love were for her too, even in her isolation.  

So it was that at the age of 45, thirteen years after being confined to her home, she wrote this poem as her own way of preparing for this church fair. In it she expressed her faith that God’s grace was stronger than her fear and that she was accepted and beloved of God, just as she was. 

Just as I am, though tossed about, with many a conflict, many a doubt; fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come. I come. 

Her biographer has noted that “though weak and feeble in body, she possessed a strong imagination and a well-cultured and intellectual mind...”  Indeed she did. May her prayer lead us to courage and hope, knowing that we are beloved of God just as we are.

Just as I am, thy love unknown has broken every barrier down;
now to be thine, yea, thine alone, O Lamb of God, I come. I come.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Zebedee Boys

Once again, in today's gospel, from the tenth chapter of Mark, Jesus insists on a radically new understanding of power. It is not devoid of power—not simply the absence of power. Sometimes people confuse Jesus for that, as if to follow Jesus we need to become doormats. But I think that is a misreading of the gospel, which is not about being powerless. Rather, it is about unleashing the liberating power of God, which is never coercive power over others. It requires us to let go of the will to domination that seeks to control and to manipulate—or as the Biblical language puts it “to lord over others.”

Instead, Jesus calls us to choose power through. Power that comes through God’s Holy Spirit to raise up, to heal, to persuade. This is the power of one. This is the power of two or three people gathered together in Christ’s name to do justice and to love kindness and walk humbly with God.  This is the power that helps us to discover that with God’s help we can do infinitely more than we could previously ask or imagine, as the risen Christ brings new life working through us. The power of Jesus is not about who gets access to power on the right or on the left, but about equipping and empowering all of God’s children through love.

Jesus has to keep saying this over and over again because we, his followers, are slow learners. And also, I think, because we spend six days a week out in the world where the messages we receive are about taking care of number one and getting ahead, and how there is no room for second place and how we need to hold on for dear life to what we worked so hard to get. And then on Sunday mornings we gather together to try to recall a little piece of an alternative vision about how to be in the world. 

I have been haunted this week by a piece written by Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times about his college roommate, who had no health insurance and died recently of prostate cancer. After telling this story, Kristof wrote a follow-up piece entitled "Scott's Story and the Election." In it he spoke about the “savagely unsympathetic” responses to the story, including one guy who wrote on Kristof’s blog:

Not sure why I’m to feel guilty about your friend’s problem. I take care of myself and mine, and I am not responsible for anyone else.

At some level I suspect that there is a small part of us all that may feel that way. But I hope and pray that it is a very small part, and that that we know it is not of our better angels. Even when we may disagree about how to best provide healthcare for all of God’s children (and we are all God’s children) we as Christians must never be devoid of compassion, which as Kristof points out is “not a sign of weakness but of civilization.” I would simply add that it also takes us to the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We come to worship to remember this, and to let it sink in. The world would harden our hearts, and tell us we have no neighbors. We come together on the Lord's Day to rediscover glad and generous hearts through the risen Christ that help us to see our neighbor through the eyes of love.

We gather to remember that as John recalls the events of the last night of his life, Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist and washed his disciples’ feet, doing the work of a slave, and commanding us who claim to love him to do one simple thing to show it: to love one another.

We come together week after week to remember who and whose we are—and to remember what it means to be a Church that is on the Way. As we see Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly we begin to live, always with God’s help, as Jesus taught us to live: with a servant’s heart.

Friday, October 19, 2012

God Speaks

This weekend's reading from the Hebrew Scriptures comes from the thirty-eighth chapter of Job, where God speaks from the whirlwind. In fact it is the third week in a row that our readings come from this fascinating book. Three years ago, I preached on these Job readings. (This time around, I'm focused on Mark.) So below is a slightly edited version of the sermon I preached three years ago, on October 18, 2009.
Last weekend we heard some tough words from Job. You will recall that Job was a guy who had it all: beautiful wife, well-adjusted kids, great job, good health, and plenty of friends. And then the bottom fell out. He lost it all practically overnight. It sounds a bit like a fairy tale and maybe it is just that. We don’t need to go on a quest for the historical Job to find truth in this story, however, because I think what is so scary about the Book of Job is that it can and does happen just this way in real life to good people far too often. In pastoral ministry and in my everyday life I meet people who have way more than their share of troubles, very often because of circumstances way beyond their control. And once things begin to spiral downward it is difficult to turn all of that around. What is amazing to me, and scary to me, is just how quickly a well-ordered life can unravel. All of a sudden the economy takes a nose dive and the company we worked for is closing its doors to open a plant in China. Gone is the salary we had assumed would cover college tuitions and the mortgage on the summer place. Before you know it your marriage is falling apart and the kids’ grades are dropping…

So last week we heard Job crying out to the God whom it is no longer clear is even there to listen. It’s just too dark for Job to tell: he looks to his right and left, in front and behind, but he can’t find God. And he needs to find God because he wants his day in court. He wants to make his argument, to make his case before the Almighty: what has happened to him is not fair. Job is no whiner and surely his complaint is justified. His questions are fair ones that go to the heart of faith: if God is just and if God is powerful then why is there so much pain and suffering in this world? If we gloss over the Good Friday stuff of our lives, then we have no business proclaiming Easter hope.

So today we continue with the narrative and God shows up like a whirlwind in the midst of thunder and lightening! Imagine that! Imagine yourself praying for a sign, praying for God to show up and it happens just like that.

Only God doesn’t show up sheepishly to be cross-examined by Job. Nor does God show up with answers as to why the just suffer or to be more specific why this bad stuff has happened to this good man. God shows up loaded for bear. God shows up with God’s own set of questions. In fact that is the first thing I want you to notice because I think it is of profound importance theologically. Job had one question for God: “why me?” God literally comes at Job with a whirlwind of questions: “gird up your loins like a man, Job and I will question you…”

  • Who is this…? 
  • Where were you…? 
  • Who determined…? Who stretched…? Who has put…? Who has given…? 
  • Can you lift? Can you provide? …Can you send…? Can you hunt…?
One interpretative trajectory focuses on the sovereignty and inscrutability of God. God gets to be God, not us. God’s questions remind Job (and more importantly the reader of the Book of Job) that we aren’t as smart as we think we are. God’s ways are not our ways. That isn’t an answer to the question of human suffering, but it’s a clear reminder that the universe doesn’t work like a clock, and God isn’t a giant engineer in the sky.

I think of the film, Bruce Almighty, which I love not only because I happen to be a fan of Jim Carrey and Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Aniston but because I also think underneath all the laughs there is a pretty serious point directly related to the topic at hand. You may recall that Morgan Freeman plays God in that film, but he’s tired and in need of a break so he leaves Jim Carrey in charge for a while. One of my favorite parts is when he just grants every prayer request as if prayer was like throwing a coin into a wishing well. Everyone wins the lottery; I mean everyone who wished they would win does win. So the “jackpot” is split so far that the winnings total about 49 cents each! Granting every prayer request leads to chaos, because most people don’t really know what is best for them but only what they think is best for them. 

So one might imagine Morgan Freeman speaking these words out of the whirlwind to Jim Carrey and essentially the message goes something like this: “Do you want to switch jobs for a while, Job? I’ll take a little vacation and leave you in charge of the universe for a week or so and we’ll see how that goes, alright? You up for that?” Gird up your loins like a man, boy!

Another interpretive trajectory starts at the opposite end—with Job. One thing about suffering—and this is an observation, not a judgment: suffering can make us very self-centered. Our world becomes smaller and smaller. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her work on the stages of grief, spoke about isolation and depression as stages one who is going through loss has to navigate. That is very real, I think, and part of what has happened to Job. Granted, his friends are real schmucks. But nevertheless, Job’s very real pain has meant the loss of family and a rift with his friends. He’s all alone in the world and worst of all it feels as if even God has abandoned him.

So the mere presence of God is a kind of grace because at least he knows that he is not alone. But God’s speech also points him outward to the natural world, that is back to the world beyond himself. I once took a Continuing Ed class on Job that was team-taught by a Biblical Scholar and a Professor of Pastoral Care. The latter insisted that we misunderstand and confuse Pastoral Care with being nice. So we think a good pastor (and by extension, God) ought to focus with Job on his loss and ask him how he is feeling about that. But in fact that kind of approach can contribute to keeping a person stuck. He argued that God is like a tough but wise therapist in this speech; a truth-teller who helps Job make a break-through to a new place. So one might hear God’s whirlwind speech as something like this: 
Job: you need to go on a whale watch and consider Leviathan that I made for the sport of it. Or take a walk along the ridge of the Grand Canyon, or hike the Rockies or camp underneath Pleides and Orion in Acadia National Park. Or consider the glorious array of maples from the top of Mt. Wachusett on a clear autumn day in New England. Sit on your porch during a lightening storm and consider. Consider the ravens and the mountain lions. Consider the lilies of the field, Job.
Now this trajectory isn’t mutually exclusive from the first one. In fact, I think they are really just two sides to one coin. The first focuses on God’s sovereignty and the second on human limitations. In both cases we are reminded that the job of being the Almighty is not open. In both cases we are reminded that we aren’t in control. I think God is saying it’s a big world out there and it’s not all about us. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about us, but simply that our measure of the universe can’t always be about what is or is not working for us at any given moment. That in no way means that our pain is less real when we suffer. But sometimes when we can transform that pain into something like service we find healing, even if not explanations.

A child is killed by a drunk driver and there is no answer to that question of why God has “allowed this to happen.” But there are other drunk drivers and there other children and when mothers get M.A.D.D. together and step beyond their own circle of pain to embrace the needs of others, both they and the world are in some real and tangible way set on the path toward healing. Or a man sits and waits for his chemotherapy and notices this incredibly brave nine-year old girl who has lost all of her hair and it dawns on him that he is not the only one fighting this terrible disease and the link between them is strong enough to inspire him to keep fighting, not only for himself but as part of something bigger than self.

Maybe Bruce Almighty really is onto something, because maybe part of the healing process is to be able to step back and laugh. Did we really think that the question of human suffering has an answer we could possibly comprehend? Are we that arrogant as to believe that a question that the greatest minds throughout the centuries have wrestled with can be answered like a simple math problem? That God can show up and say: “Well, Job, your questions are very fair so let me sit down and explain to you how this universe thing works…” There will be time at the end for further questions!

Suffering is all too real, and no light matter. But the question “why me?” may not be the best or only question for us to ask. As someone has written, “why not me?” It’s only when we can move away from being stuck on that first question that new and better questions can be asked. The Book of Job doesn’t answer the question about why the just suffer. What it does do is to point us toward new and bigger questions that have the potential to lead us to hope. New life is possible. We are, after all, an Easter people. We gather here on the Day of Resurrection to remember the Paschal mystery, which is just another way of saying that Good Friday never gets the last word. It is hope that brings us together in communities like this one, not only to share our joys but to share our sorrow and pain as well. It is into this time and this place, into our lives, that the inscrutable, sovereign Creator still speaks what I hear as good news:
Remember that you are dust. Holy, beloved, blessed dust shaped into my own image to be sure. But still, in the end, creatures and not the Creator. You are called to be human, not God Almighty.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Pietro and Francesco

Years ago I read an interview with Andrew Young, the Civil Rights leader and pastor who also served as Mayor of Atlanta and Ambassador to the United Nations. He told the story about how he and his wife raised their four children to know and to love Jesus, to read the Bible, to live responsible lives, and to be good members of the Church. And they were proud of that. And then one of their daughters traveled on a summer mission trip to Africa. It was literally a life-changing experience for her, so much so that she came home and told her parents that she wanted to become a missionary in Africa.   

I am not quite sure how the story turned out. A quick Google-check revealed to me that Ambassador Young is now eighty. But my memory of his sharing the story is that he was pretty honest about the fact that this was not what he and his wife had in mind for their daughter and they were quite frankly nervous about her going so far away, and they all had to work through it together. Even as a pastor, what he really wanted for his daughter was a kind of Christian inoculation, not that she would actually, literally, choose to follow Jesus. Of at least not follow Jesus that far away! But it turned out that God had other plans for her.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to drive from Siena, Italy, through the lovely hills of Tuscany and into Umbria, to the little town of Assisi—which sits up on a hill. It’s obvious the roads were built long before the automobile, so you park at the bottom of the hill and walk up and as you walk those narrow streets it almost feels like you are going back in time and that you might just run into good old Francis, no longer a statue but a real person in a real time and place. In 1182, as an infant boy he was baptized in the cathedral font of Assisi, one of seven children born to Pietro and Pico di Bernardone. His mother was a religious person who decided to name her son after John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for Jesus. And so he was sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever: Giovanni.  Giovanni’s father, however, was a cloth trader who traveled regularly on business to France. So he nicknamed his son the “little Frenchman”—Francesco—because of his love for all things French. The scholars think that Francesco probably tagged along with his dad on business trips to Paris during his teenage years; if so, he would have seen the first building phase of a brand new cathedral being built there that would be named for the mother of our Lord, Notre Dame.

By all accounts, Francesco was a spoiled rich kid. It can happen when parents are upwardly mobile and yet not necessarily accepted by the “old money” crowd. Francesco grew up in a privileged home and his father expected him to follow in his path in the family business. Something happened, though—it’s not exactly clear what—that led to a change in his worldview. Some say he came down with an illness that left him bedridden for a long period of time. He ended up in the military, wanting to become a knight.

When someone says “Semper Fi” to you, you know that they are shaped by a whole set of values that define that person as a United States marine. And, once a marine, always a marine. Knights in the Middle Ages were something like that: the equivalent of “Semper Fi” was the medieval notion of chivalry. Two core values for knights were a commitment to largesse (i.e. to be generous) and to always be courteous. Generosity and courtesy permeate the Rule of Francis. I mention these because as profoundly as Francis was eventually shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and clearly these are also both gospel values, they were also military values that left a mark in shaping the person that Francis was becoming.

Francis had a powerful religious awakening in the church in San Damiano. While praying there, he heard Christ calling to him: “Francesco, rebuild my church.” Some might call this a conversion experience, but I think it is more accurate to call experiences like this awakenings. He had already been “claimed and sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever” at that cathedral font. But there it was his parents taking vows on his behalf. In San Damiano he began to confirm those promises and embrace them as his own. He “woke up” to what it meant to be a beloved child of God and to let that identity and that reality dictate above everything else the person he was becoming. So he began to rebuild the church in San Damiano, as well as the little chapel down in the valley called Partiuncula—or “little portion.”

As he embraced the way of the cross as the path to full and abundant life, it brought him into conflict with his father. Among other things, Francesco was becoming very generous with his father’s hard-earned money. Now it would be a mistake to think his father was not religious, but he was religious in that way Andrew Young spoke about: he wanted his child to become inoculated as a Christian, but not enough so that he would really, literally, follow Jesus. So his father called on his personal friend, the bishop, to talk some sense into the boy, hoping he’d give up his foolish ideas and enter into the family business and settle down. So there they were, out on the public square in Assisi with a crowd gathered around them, and Francis took off all his clothes and gave them back to his father, telling him that he had only one Father in heaven. The embarrassed bishop handed Francis something to cover himself up with. 

The fresco shown above is located in the upper church in Assisi; for me it captures the pathos and the sense of shame and betrayal that both father and son must have felt that day when Francis went, shall we say, “al fresco.” For me there is so much humanity in that scene, long before Francis became a statue in the garden. Even if he is an admired saint of the Church, I think we make a mistake if we turn him into the hero of this particular moment and his father into the devil. It is so much more human and complex than that. I imagine his dad as honestly wanting the very best for his son: the problem is that father and son don’t see eye-to-eye on what is best. Their core values clash. Francis chooses to embrace the life that he believes God is calling him to, rather than his father’s dreams. Ultimately I respect and admire him for that. But as a parent I can also feel Pietro’s pain and confusion and even sense of betrayal. In that moment, clearly the old man must have felt rejected and heart-broken. Relationships are complicated and parent-child relationships are no exception.

For Francis, the heart of the gospel was a call to embrace poverty as a way to share in Christ’s suffering. His father simply couldn’t understand that, after all the sacrifices he had made to make life better for his son. I wonder if this is not almost an inverted story of the prodigal son: instead of the father running out to embrace the lost son, Francesco’s father seems to recoil and pull back, even as his son feels “found” by God. It is as if he is asking, “who is this kid, and what has happened to him?” Moments like this one are so difficult and awkward—not just for father and son (and the bishop) but for all of us who are eavesdropping on a private family matter being played out publicly in the town square. So we get this very public rift in a small town. Father and son go their separate ways.

Now all of this happened a long time ago, and both father and son have long since joined the communion of saints. I like to imagine that at the heavenly banquet, Francis and his father have long since bridged the chasm that divided them in this world. I imagine them embracing and sharing the fatted calf together, because it matters less in God’s presence who is right and who is wrong than that we are all broken and that we are all loved more deeply than we can ever grasp. In God’s presence, I believe the fatted calf is killed once more and the table is set and father and son embrace, and all is forgiven.

We see our children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world, and so as parents we pray for patience and for wisdom. But maybe above all else what we need to pray for is the courage to entrust them to the God who made them and calls them by name. 

We raise our children in order for them to become adults who will find their own path to God and their own way in the world. When we baptize a child - whether in medieval Umbria or in the Jim Crowe south - we are publicly stating that we know this: that we entrust our beloveds to God. Francis is quoted as having once said: "What a person is in the sight of God, so much he or she is and no more." At the font we say that each of us is created in God’s own image; that we are God’s own beloved. Nothing more—and nothing less. Not who others want us to be, but who God has made us to be. Those of us who are called to the vocation of parenthood are called to use our gifts to remember this as our children find their own pathway to God. We do not own them. And we cannot make them walk the paths we wish we had taken, or believe they must take to find happiness. 

Parenting, I think, is an ongoing process of learning to let go and let God.It requires a lot of trust.