Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Labyrinth in the Desert

Well, I have known for some time now that I am in a season of transition in my vocational life. I am now in the final weeks of my ministry as the fifth rector of St. Francis Church, where I've served for more than fifteen years. The goodbyes have begun and they have not been easy. Hellos have also begun as I begin to look toward a new ministry as Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts.

It is, however, not only vocational transition: this year Hathy and I became "empty nesters" and I have turned fifty. (She is not very far behind!) We just signed a purchase and sale agreement on our first home, having lived for all these years of our adult lives in church-owned housing. So there is lots of change...

In preparation for my new job, I am in Scottsdale, Arizona this week at a Franciscan Renewal Center (how providential is that - my old friend "Frank" - he is everywhere!) for "Fresh Start" Training with my new colleague, the Rev. Pam Mott. Fresh Start is a ministry of the Episcopal Church Foundation that takes as a core value the idea that transitions, while challenging, also hold within them the possibility for spiritual growth and transformation. 

For many years I have found walking a labyrinth to be a helpful spiritual practice for me and an apt metaphor for the spiritual life. I can and do meditate but a "walking meditation" - whether in a labyrinth or along the beach or through the woods just works better for me than sitting still. A labyrinth is pretty amazing, but it's NOT a maze. There is one way in and one way out. So you "go with the flow." You don't think; you just put one foot in front of the other. You trust that the path you are on is the path you are meant to be on.

For many more years even than I have been walking labyrinths I have have been attracted to the solace of the fierce landscape of the desert. I know little about deserts in fact other than what I've read in the Bible but whenever I am in a desert the Scriptures come to life for me. I think of the gifts of manna and water from the flinty rock; the desert holds for me the key to understanding twelve-step spirituality: that we can only live one day at a time and it is illusion to think otherwise.

My biological clock is still on east coast time and Arizona apparently doesn't do "daylight savings time." So there is a three-hour difference this week between what my body says and the clock says. Waking very early, however, has been such a gift: to walk the labyrinth as the desert wakes up. I returned this morning after saying my prayers for all who are on my heart and I said to another early riser, "this is what heaven looks like." And she replied, "yes, and sounds like." Indeed...I'd noticed that too, even if I do tend to be a more visual person. 

We walk by faith. And in so doing we learn to trust that all shall be well and all manner of things will be well. In the midst of all my doubts (how much of of my "skill set" of being a parish priest will be remotely relevant to a diocesan ministry?) these walks in the desert reinforce the core message of "Fresh Start" - to simply try to pay attention to the Spirit more, and seek to control less. (With God's help!)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)

In the beginning, the Scriptures tell us, God created the heavens and the earth. And God saw that it was good. All of it: sun and moon and stars and all the living creatures of land and sea and sky; human beings, male and female in God’s own image. God saw that it was very good. And then God rested. 

Jon Levenson is a Biblical scholar who teaches at Harvard. In his book, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, he argues that while this is indeed the beginning of the story, it is clearly not the end. The art of creating is about ordering the chaos, but it’s not a static thing. After God rests, there is more creative work to be done. And in fact after that first week God decides not to go it alone. Human beings, male and female, are invited to share with God in that creative work. Or not. Human beings are also free to work against the Creator. And so Levenson’s title: creation and the persistence of evil. Think of C.S. Lewis’ The Narnia Chronicles or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. Lewis and Rowling are so clearly shaped by the Biblical narrative in the way they tell their stories.

In all three cases there is so much to tell—volumes to tell—because the main story line is not that “God created… and they all lived happily ever after” but that God created and yet evil persists. But it will not prevail. In the end, life will triumph over death. In the end, good will be shown to be stronger than evil.  

In the end, love wins. That is what the Book of Revelation is about. It is a complicated and highly coded book for sure, that like all of Scripture needs to be read with an understanding of its historical and cultural context. It is not a prediction about some future expiration date of the world. There is no rapture in Revelation; I promise you, it’s just not there. Rather, the Revelation to John on Patmos is about the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer—our prayer: thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. It book-ends the Book of Genesis. And so today we heard these words on the Fourth Sunday of Easter from the seventh chapter of the Book of Revelation
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."  

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
This is what Easter looks like in full bloom. We’ve just peaked at the end of the story. Often we hear these words at funerals, in times of devastating loss, because they insist that death does not get the last word. And because they remind us when we hurt that God is not the One inflicting the pain, but the one who wipes away our tears. These words point us to the Lamb at the center; to the One who is with us, and through us. 

And yet, we live in the meantime. We live not in the Garden of Eden, nor in the New Jerusalem, but in a world where evil persists, a world where there is heartache and pain and struggle. We live in the meantime, where a moment of joy can turn so quickly on a dime into a moment of great tragedy. Monday’s events at the finish line of the Boston marathon felt like they unleashed chaos. It felt, at least to me, like the persistence of evil... 

We live in the meantime when there are tears to shed, tears not easily wiped away. Tears for those who lost their lives on Monday in Boston: Matthew Richard and Krystle Campbell and Lu Lingzi and for their families. Tears for the MIT police officer Sean Collier, who lost his life on Thursday night in Cambridge. And tears for so many others who lost so much this week, including the Tsarnaev family.
Yet even in the midst of our grief, we are driven back to wise guides like Fred Rogers, whose words were shared again this week as they were after Sandy Hook in the social media.  They are words not only for our children, but for all of us who in some ways are pushed back in time and feel like lost and scared children, vulnerable in the face of so much evil. And so these words, if you have not seen them before, from Mr. Rogers:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.
This week in Boston, the helpers were everywhere. In the midst of the chaos at the finish line at the Marathon it was unmistakable: not only were firefighters and police officers running toward the blasts but ordinary people were running toward the devastation, to help others. 

One of those helpers was Tyler Dodd, who was on his way to Back Bay station when he turned around and ran back toward the finish line. He told Piers Morgan on CNN this week when asked why that he tries to live by a set of principles, and that when he wakes up in the morning he says a little prayer to be God’s instrument in whatever way he can. He wasn’t preaching; he was only responding to the question from the reporter. His preaching of the gospel had already happened, without words, when he turned back to help others. And then he said (and I find these words as incredible as his actions) - “I saw humanity at its finest.” 

Another helper was Carlos Arredondo. Some of you may have seen the image of Carlos wearing a white cowboy hat and pushing a man whose legs had been blown off in a wheel chair. He had gone to the marathon to honor his own dead sons by handing out 200 American flags. His oldest son, Alexander, was a U. S. Marine killed in Iraq and his younger son, Brian, took his own life. Carlos shows up at the Marathon each year to honor and support others, as so many do including those from this congregation who run to support Best Buddies or to end Alzheimer’s.

But as the week unfolded, it seemed easy to feel as if we could just get the bad guys, and then all would be right again. Justice would be served. I hate hearing the word “closure” used when it comes to any tragedy or loss, because people seem to think they can get to closure quickly. My experience tells me that life goes on, but closure is an illusion. But it’s a word the media loves and I’m sure we’ll hear it a lot in the week ahead, now that one perpetrator is dead and the other is in custody. I agree, of course, that life goes on and that it must go on. I agree, of course, that we must not let our lives be defined by fear. But that’s not the same as putting it all behind us.

For me, at least, and perhaps for some of you as well, as this week unfolded it got more and more difficult to make any sense out of it. Especially after we learned that the perpetrators were a couple of kids, the youngest of whom in particular seemed like a normal teenager:  a wrestler, a college student with lots of friend.  . The media tried to make this nationalist: he must be a “Chechnian rebel.” Sounds bad, doesn’t it. Except that these young men weren’t really even from Chechnia and certainly had not grown up there. And Chechnian anger is directed at Russia, not the United States. No matter: “Chechnian rebel” helps us think we understand. Or the media made it religious; clearly these two were “Islamist terrorists.” We think we understand what that looks like too and then before you know it people are going out and beating up Arab Muslims. We expect, I think, to see someone who looks like Lord Voldomort; not like our own kids. So when we see a college kid from UMass Dartmouth on our televisions and his friends all keep insisting that he’s a great kid and they’ll be there for him to testify on his behalf, it is almost too much to take in and to bear.

There is still so much we do not know about these two brothers and along the way on Friday there was a lot of bad information and false information put out there. For me it was a reminder of the shadow side of 24 hour news; half of the time is spent correcting what was inaccurately reported earlier.  But we get sucked in, don’t we? So this week maybe we need to step back and give as much time to prayer as we gave to the media this past week. We don’t know, and we may never know, what really happened. Why does one person allow their pain to turn them to inflict more pain on others, while someone like Carlos Arredondo channels his pain toward the good? I wish I could answer that question definitively and write a book with seven habits or ten rules.

Here is what I do know: when we dare to use words like good and evil we must realize those are forces at work in all of our lives and that life is a daily practice of learning to turn toward the light. We cannot divide the world into the good people and the evil people; it’s just way more complicated than that. Our children do most definitely live in an unsteady and confusing world; we all do. It is a world without easy answers, a world where religion itself can be so quickly corrupted and manipulated and turned and used to perpetuate violence and fear and terror. I don’t want people to define my faith by the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, as I’m sure our Muslim neighbors do not want their faith defined by the actions of a few bad apples who manipulate the teachings of the prophet. 

In moments like this, words fail us and all of our theologies are exposed as inadequate. And yet in such moments, what remains by God’s mercy, is love. That is the deep truth of Easter: that love really is stronger than death. In the beginning, God created in love. In the end, God will wipe away all tears, in love. 

In the meantime, we have been commanded to love one another, with God’s help.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Unpreached Sermon

As anyone who knows me at all will tell you, I'm a planner. I am a Myers-Briggs "J." I like checking things off my list. This year I took two weeks off after Easter Day. So of course I used some of that time to "get ahead" and write my sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday. It was all set and ready to go on Monday morning this week so that I might focus on other things. And then the unthinkable happened in Boston...

So the circumstances of this week have caused me to write a completely new sermon, focused on the reading from the Revelation of St. John. I will preach tonight and tomorrow morning. It just seemed that the news of the day required a different angle. As has often been noted, preaching happens with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other hand. This sermon (prepared in advance of the Boston Marathon bombings) just didn't seem like the "good news" that needed to be proclaimed this weekend. So I'm not going to preach this sermon.  

And yet, while that image of the newspaper and Bible in each hand conveys something true about preaching, one might argue that in another sense the Biblical narrative (and in a liturgical church like mine, the unfolding of that narrative in liturgical time) grounds us in a reality that truly is a "firm foundation" that trumps whatever may be happening in the world at any given time. Or to say it another way, Jesus is the Good Shepherd even in (and especially in) weeks like the one we have just lived through. In any event, here is my unpreached sermon. Tomorrow morning, I'll share the one that I am preaching.
Today is the fourth Sunday of the fifty-day Easter Season—so we are a little just about halfway there. This particular Sunday is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday” as today’s opening collect and the twenty-third Psalm make clear. Over the course of three years, the gospel reading comes from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel which is all about the sheep and shepherd and how they relate to each other. In the middle of it all at John 10:11 Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” 

Given the journey we are on this Easter, as we are preparing to bid each other farewell, I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to remind you that I am not the good shepherd. Just in case anybody is confused. Nor are you looking to hire a good shepherd when I leave. (By the way, our Bishop, Doug - even though he carries a shepherd’s staff as a symbol of his office – he isn’t the good shepherd either.) 

Like that book, “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” you could say the same holds true in congregations like this one: everything we really need to know we learned in Sunday School. Transitions drive us back to the basics, the essentials, to what C.S. Lewis once called Mere Christianity. Believe it or not before I came here my role as Associate Rector at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, Connecticut included leading children’s chapel in the pre-school both of my kids attended and I remember singing with those kids: we are the sheep and he is the shepherd, his banner over me is love. (There were hand motions to go with it for anyone who is interested.) 

Hold onto that: because the point is that there is one shepherd - Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Bishops and clergy are at best faithful sheep dogs. Or to change metaphors you might say that the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord and bishops and clergy and laypeople are all builders working to build something on that sure foundation. 

That’s really all I want to say about that. But I think it is important to say it out loud and as we begin to wind down our time together; it is essential for all of us to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest that. No one should minimize the fact that transitioning from one rector to another is a big deal; it is. Or that there are a variety of emotions we feel when we say goodbye. But it helps to stay clear, at least, on the much bigger deal stuff: namely that we are called to serve Christ together, and through every transition in life - personal and congregational and diocesan – we do have a Good Shepherd who is with us. Thanks be to God for that! 

Today, though, let’s turn our attention to this amazing Easter story from Acts. Reading Acts in Easter Season, before we celebrate Pentecost, is always a little bit tricky because we are reading it out of order. We won’t read Acts 2 until the weekend of May 18 and 19 – the fiftieth day of Easter. That is when the Holy Spirit makes a rather splashy arrival in Jerusalem. So everything else that follows, including the ninth chapter that we heard today, is empowered by that same Holy Spirit—even though we are reading it before Pentecost.

All of these texts from Acts remind us of something very important: the Church is called to continue the work that Jesus began. Let me say that again because it really is incredibly important. Jesus came to Palestine as a healer, a teacher, a sign of light in a dark world, hope in the midst of despair and ultimately as the one who showed that life is stronger than death. And then he was hung on a cross and died. 

And that could have been the end of the story. But it was not the end, but rather a transition to a new beginning. Because of the empty tomb, the story continues. And now that whole first part of the story is seen in a new light. Even though the disciples sometimes act more like the three stooges than anything else in the gospels, after Easter – after the coming of the Holy Spirit – they are empowered to do infinitely more than they could previously ask or imagine. Peter really does start acting like a rock, instead of a denier. So, too, do the others. They rise to the occasion, empowered by the Holy Spirit, as they learn how to be the Church. They continue to do the work that Jesus called them to do in the first place. 

Because that is why the Church exists: to continue the work of Jesus. Not only to preach the good news about Jesus, but to live the good news of Jesus as the Body of Christ in the world: to heal, teach, to be light in the darkness, to be hope in the midst of despair, to keep on rising from the dead to show the world that life really is stronger than death. The Church exists to keep showing the world what is possible and as an outward and visible sign of God’s Reign of justice and peace. The Church exists to be salt and light and yeast. This is a high calling and sometimes we do fall short, but even so it’s what we are called to be about. It’s our mission. It is God’s mission, continuing through us—for us to become instruments of peace as Jesus was. 

So that is the context, the lens through which we should be listening to these words from the ninth chapter of Acts. It’s not a history lesson of how First Church, Jerusalem did their work but a map on how to be the Church in every generation: guided by the Holy Spirit, empowered by the risen Christ, we are called to continue to do the work that God has given us to do. 

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, "Please come to us without delay." So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, "Tabitha, get up." Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Remember the story of the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel? About how Jesus called into the tomb and his friend came forth and they unbound him? That was no doubt pretty incredible. But Jesus was the Son of God after all – very God from very God, begotten not made. Peter is just an ordinary fisherman. The gospels have gone to great lengths to show us that Peter got it wrong as often as he got it right, that what he did have going for him was enthusiasm but beyond that it was not always clear…

Peter was eminently unqualified, as you and I are eminently unqualified. We are beloved children of God, for sure. But we fall short. And yet with God, all things are possible. As God’s Easter people, we are called to great things. And so Tabitha gets up - just as Lazarus came forth – this time not because of the voice of Jesus but because of the prayers of a disciple of Jesus. With Christ working through him, Peter can now do infinitely more than he could previously ask or imagine.

This is true for us, too. Prayer isn’t magic. Sometimes we don’t get the answer we want. Sometimes the answer to our prayer is no and sometimes the answer is, as in those Iona prayers we used in Lent – God says, “I send you.” You are the answer to the prayer you are praying. But prayer does work, and our prayers do matter.

I think back to the story that appears in all four gospels, about the feeding of the five thousand and the line when the disciples are saying that they don’t have enough and Jesus says: “you give them something to eat.” Looking back, it becomes apparent that everything Jesus was about was not just doing signs that proved who he was, but being a rabbi – a teacher – who showed the disciples how they could continue that work after he was gone. He was preparing them to continue what he started.
This, of course, is precisely what discipleship is all about: it’s like being an apprentice. Jesus models for us, teaches us, so that we can continue to be instruments of peace and ambassadors of reconciliation. So that we will become signs of the Kingdom of God, until the Kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus was never a “miracle worker” looking for more groupies. He’s not putting on a show and looking for an audience. The crowds kind of see him that way, but out of the crowds he calls followers, disciples—people with a servant’s heart. People who are foolish enough to be fools for Christ, who are willing to take up their own cross and follow him. And in so doing, people who are called to take up the work he began: to heal the sick and give bread to the poor, to challenge the powers-that-be in the way of non-violence, to model for the world the way of God’s shalom and God’s justice.

That is who we are, empowered by the Holy Spirit: a people after God’s own heart, a community called to work together for the sake of God’s Kingdom. I think many of us confuse humility – which is a good thing – with a denial of our own power in Christ. What I mean is that the lesson of Lent, that we are dust, is true. We are mortal. We are not called to be the Savior of the world, that job is taken. But the message of Easter is that if Christ has been raised from the dead then so are we. We are risen with healing in our wings, and called to do the work God has given us to do. We are called to let our light shine before all the world. That is equally true and we don’t serve Christ by hiding that light.
We serve Christ by letting it shine.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Twenty-five Years Later

In May 1988, I graduated from Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. I'd arrived there in September 1985 directly from college, unsure about ordination as the end result, but trusting that I was called to further theological studies and that beyond that God would show the way forward. A month after graduating from Drew I was ordained in the United Methodist Church and began serving a small-congregation in Hampton, New Jersey while continuing my studies at Princeton Seminary toward a ThM degree. From there I took a job as an ecumenical campus minister, and eventually was received into The Episcopal Church

Twenty-five years after graduating from Drew, our core group (minus one who could not make this trip due to illness) gathered together in Madison for about 36 hours that were filled with good food, laughter, conversation, worship and a slide show where we saw the images of people who looked a lot like much younger versions of all of us.

It is hard to believe that so much time has passed but it didn't feel like it had; while it may be a cliche it was also true that we kind of picked up where we'd left off. While we all went through Drew as United Methodists, four of us have since changed denominations - I became an Episcopalian in 1993, two of my friends are now United Church of Christ clergy and one is a Unitarian-Universalist lay person.

What strikes me the most as our time together comes to a close is that we are all still passionate about, and I think in a deep way hopeful for, the holy catholic and apostolic Church we love - even though the Church has left us all somewhat bruised and some with deeper scars. I think we represent an emerging Church that is more interested in ecumenism and interfaith issues, and is more radically inclusive and focused on justice for all. We see this as following the path of Jesus, and guided by the Spirit into deeper truth. I think it's also fair to say that all of us are less interested in maintaining or propping up denominational structures and old paradigms that do not serve God's reign, and have (along the way) realized that this is easier said than done. While we are all  fully aware of what we did not learn in seminary, I think we are all grateful that we gained not only the skills required from our teachers at Drew but even more importantly,  companions who challenged and loved us more fully into the Body of Christ.

For my own part, and along with Hathy, there has been a bit of nostalgia -  but not in a bad way. We began our married life at Drew after my first year of studies, living in married student housing during my middler year and off campus during my senior year. Then, as now, it was just the two of us - before children at Drew and now returning as empty nesters. I am about to make a major job change, leaving a parish I have loved (and that has loved me back) for fifteen years. On Tuesday we expect to sign a purchase and sale agreement on a house after living all these years of our married life in church-owned housing. Today, before we leave Madison I want to go by Grace Church, where I worked as a seminarian and was first introduced to the Episcopal Church. "All my life's a circle;" so said the theologian, Harry Chapin.

Or as T. S. Eliot put it, "we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of our exploring will be to find ourselves where we began, and know the place for the first time." (Little Gidding)

Yes, indeed.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Remembering Bonhoeffer

From a letter to Eberhard Bethge, written from Tegel Prison, July 21, 1944. 
(Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge.)

During the last year or so I've come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a human being, as Jesus was human - in contrast, shall we say, to John the Baptist. I don't mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness, characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection.

I remember a conversation that I had in America thirteen years ago with a young French pastor. We were asking ourselves quite simply what we wanted to do with our lives. He said he would like to become a saint (and I think it's quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. For a long time I didn't realize the depth of the contrast. I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.

I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous person or an unrighteous one, a sick or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world -- watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a human being and a Christian. How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God's sufferings through a life of this kind?

I am glad to have been able to learn this, and I know I've been able to do so only along the road that I've traveled. So I'm grateful for the past and present, and content with them. You may be surprised at such a personal letter; but for once I want to say this kind of thing, to whom should I say it?

May God in his mercy lead us through these times; but above all, may he lead us to himself.