Saturday, November 30, 2013

Seeing Gray

Recently a friend gave me a copy of a book published in 2008 by Adam Hamilton, called Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality, and Politics. Hamilton is a United Methodist pastor, and the book is published by Abingdon Press, the United Methodist Publishing Company. So far I've only skimmed the book so I'll stop short of "reviewing" it here. But I like it that Jim Wallis wrote the Forward and I like the Introduction, "Are Jerry Falwell and John Shelby Spong Our Only Options?" The book is about the fact that the writer thinks there is a third way.

I also like this quote, from that great Anglican priest, John Wesley:
"Would to God that all party names and unscriptural phrases and forms which have divided the Christian world were forgot and that we might all agree to sit down together as humble loving disciples, and at the feet of our common master to hear his word, to abide in his spirit, and to transcribe his life in our own.
There is a prayer worthy of Advent new beginnings, I think. But as I said, I don't really want to talk any more about a book I haven't yet read. Rather, I want to reflect on Black Friday, from the perspective of this Saturday morning.

Let me first put a few things on the table that most who know me well, or even not-so-well, know about me. While I think life is too short to drink cheap wine, when it comes to shopping for material things that cannot be put on the table to be consumed, I'm not a very good capitalist. I hate shopping and I cannot imagine why anyone would go out on the evening of Thanksgiving or early the next day to save a few bucks. I think it is terrible that stores cannot take a break and therefore disrupt sacred family time on what is truly a national holiday. It makes me a little queasy, in fact. So it would be very easy for me to write a blog condemning "Black Friday" (even the way it's marketed doesn't make sense to me!) since it is not even a remote temptation for me to shop for Christmas before Advent begins.


I came across this blog post posted by a friend of mine on Facebook, and as I read it I found myself wishing I'd written it. I commend it to you. I think she is right that there does seem to be a tipping point (in both extremes) this year - the over-the-top marketing of "Black Friday" and the self-righteous resistance to it - what Weinstein calls "the social justice arugula of the season." (That's just great writing!) Her more serious point is this: there is a lot of classism in this issue.

So from the perspective of this Saturday - this Sabbath Day - I wonder if there isn't another way to look at this. While I personally hate shopping I have to admit I have a stake in the shopping habits of others. What if everyone stayed home not only on Black Friday, but all month? Just stopped buying anything at all? The already fragile economy would slip back further. My retirement funds would decline! Whether we choose to admit it or not we all have a stake in an economic recovery, and higher employment, don't we?

On the other hand, we all need Sabbath. The economy is not God. I have also begun reading Walter Brueggemann's Disruptive Grace: Reflections on God, Scripture, and the Church. One of the chapters in there is a lecture on Sabbath, that I will need to ponder further. In fact you may be hearing lots more about the book in future posts here but for now the point is that Sabbath is a gift we've lost, and Black Friday does seem to be a kind of "tipping point" since Thanksgiving is one day that people of all faiths and no faith share in common and now it is in danger of becoming "the Eve of Black Friday."

This post requires a bit more pondering and reflection on my own part. It's not finished. But maybe that's the point. We need times in our lives for rest, and reflection - for ruminating. Without them we lose all perspective. We need such times to explore the grays and go deeper than "gut response." If we mean to pursue social justice like the prophets did, then it can't just be the "arugula of the season." We need conversation, dialogue, reflection, even argument - because none of us possesses the whole truth.

I wish I had a simple answer on how to get there, but maybe the fact that it isn't so simple is the point.

Monday, November 25, 2013


While I guess it is, technically speaking, a "secular" holiday, I think that gratitude takes us to the very heart of religious faith. Among other things, I am grateful for the interfaith nature of Thanksgiving. The Gospel Reading for Thanksgiving Day is John 6:25-25

At the beginning of the sixth chapter of the mystical fourth gospel, Jesus feeds a large crowd of thousands with a couple of fish and five barley loaves. This "feeding of the 5000" is a favorite of my boss, the Rt. Rev. Douglas Fisher, Bishop of Western Massachusetts. So I hear about it all the time.(And I do mean ALL the time!) It is a story found in all four gospels, each with its own tiny little nuanced differences. Only in John’s gospel do the fish and loaves come not from the disciples, but a small boy, suggesting that his willingness to share the lunch his mother packed for him is an integral part of the miracle.

The common thread in all four tellings, however, is that it is so clearly a Eucharistic story. Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and gives the bread. Those four verbs are meant to trigger the imagination of God’s people from one generation to the next, because in a very real way we re-tell the story of the feeding of the five thousand every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, i.e. "make Thanksgiving."

There is more than enough. There is always room for one more at the Table. In this taking, blessing, breaking and giving we see Jesus for who he really is. We see God for who God really is, the maker of all things, the giver of abundant blessings. 

As John tells the story of the feeding of the 5000, it is immediately after this that the crowds try to make him a king. We are reminded of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and the danger of being able to perform such great signs. People often flock to miracle workers, missing the deeper meaning. So Jesus withdraws to the mountain to be still, to be with his Abba in prayer. The disciples get back in their boats and cross to the other side of the lake. That’s when Jesus comes to them, with another sign—walking on the water, and calming the storm as they cry out in fear.

The next day some persistent “groupies” find Jesus and the disciples on the other side of the lake. They want him for the miracles he can do. They want more magic. But Jesus pushes them to go deeper…to look for the true bread, not the bread that perishes. And then when they ask for that true bread, he says “I Am.”  I am the bread of life.

Once more, John is teasing us with Eucharistic language; sacramental language. Our culture (not just our so-called secular culture but even, very often, our church culture) has a hard time with this kind of talk. We lack the imagination for it. So we hear people say, “well, it’s just a symbol.” But anyone who says “just” when they talk about symbols doesn’t understand symbols. 

Can you imagine anyone saying, “it’s just a wedding ring?” Or it's just the house where we raised our children? Or it's just the church my parents were buried from or where my grandchildren were baptized. It's just silly to use the word "just" when talking about sacramental truths - outward and visible signs that convey something deeper, something more.

Such talk assumes that only literal truth is real. But the facts can never convey the deepest truths of our lives—what we care about, how we love, what we dream of and yearn for. One of the great gifts of our Anglican heritage to the wider Church is our profound respect for mystery and for sacramental language. Water and oil, bread and wine convey profound truths about what is really real. You can touch and taste and smell and see them, and yet what they convey goes deeper—to the heart. Outward signs convey inward, spiritual truths. So Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” And he really means it. It's really true. Week after week we are invited to test that reality by "tasting and seeing."

The great privilege of priestly ministry, of presiding at the Lord's Table, is to take and bless and break and give the Body of Christ to the Body of Christ. Doing that stretches my faith—inviting me to see how the Body of Christ is not just to be discerned as present in the bread, but in the people of God—the Church—that continues to be formed and transformed around that Table: male and female, young and old, gay and straight, traditional and progressive. One Bread. One Body. Taken, blessed, broken and given for the world. 

A decade or so ago, I read one of those books that stays with you for a long time: a hard book about Pinochet’s Chile called Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ, written by William T. Cavanaugh.  “Torture,” Cavanaugh writes, “creates victims.” But we might just as well say that fear creates victims. Family strife, wars on terror, consumer society gone astray all create a society of victims that desperately search the self-help section of the bookstore looking for easy answers to profound questions.

In response to that harsh reality we live toward a deeper truth: Eucharist creates witnesses. We gather to tell stories about a boy who opens his lunch box to find a couple of barley loaves and five fish that he is willing to share. We remember how he took the risk of offering them to Jesus. We remember the manna in the desert—daily bread for a people in search of the Promised Land. We point especially to this One who is the Bread of Life—the One who satisfies our hungry hearts and quenches our thirsting souls. The One who takes, blesses, breaks, and gives. In so doing, witnesses are formed—a people who can share the story of God’s love (sometimes with words) to the world.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Sermon for Christ the King, Trinity, Shrewsbury

Today, on Christ the King Sunday, I was with the people of Trinity Church, Shrewsbury. Their rector is the Rev. Erin Kirby. The assigned readings can be found here.

As that great theologian, Mel Brooks, once said: “it’s good to be the king.” Or how about that preacher from Gainesville, FL, Tom Petty, who sings:

  It’s good to be king, if just for a while
  To be there in velvet, yeah, to give ‘em a smile.
It has been a long journey since Pentecost Sunday: twenty-seven weeks to be precise of what we sometimes call “ordinary time.”  Six months later we reach the end of that long stretch as we celebrate this last Sunday of the church year: Christ the King Sunday, or if you prefer, the Reign of Christ. Next Sunday will mark a new beginning as we light the first candle of our Advent wreaths and begin preparing for the dear Savior’s birth. As is the case with every transition, in other words, an ending leads to a new beginning. I love this cyclical nature of the liturgical year, of endings and beginnings, beginnings and endings that mirror our own lives and our own seasons of transition.

In any case, today is Christ the King. I am always reminded on this weekend of that exchange in Wonderland between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. Do you remember it?
Humpty Dumpty: When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.
Alice: The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.
Most of us have some idea in our heads about what a king is, and how kings reign. What, then, does it mean to say that this man, Jesus, who died on a cross, is a king? 
And not just any king, but the king of kings? How can one word mean so many different things? That is the big question before us today.

Kings are powerful, and almost always willing to do whatever it takes to hold onto their power and even to extend that power when possible. Some of the more triumphalistic hymns from the 1982 Hymnal seem to suggest that Jesus was that kind of king: 

  • Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne...
  • Rejoice, the Lord is King! Your Lord and King adore…
It’s good to be the king! Yet it’s pretty clear today in Luke’s Gospel as we are taken back to that hill outside of the city gates called “the Place of a Skull” that we are using the word “king” in a very different way. It’s one thing to go there as the culmination of the whole season of Lent: at least then it feels like we have a whole forty days to get ready. But on Christ the King Sunday? It feels like this claim comes out of nowhere. How can one word mean such different things? What do we mean when we use the word “king” to speak of a Galilean rabbi executed between two common criminals? Instead of zapping them with his superpowers or turning the world back in time to avoid dying all he can say is “forgive them.”  

Yet the truth is this: if we mean to understand who Jesus is then always we must return to the foot of the cross. We are a people called not just to be fans of Jesus, but his followers. And to do that means that the path is always the same for us: this Way of the Cross. It is that path that reveals the way of this particular king who chooses the power of love over the love of power. That is the great mystery set before us on this day and in a real sense every day of every week of our journeys in Christ. To claim Jesus as king is not about power over others, but about the healing power that forgiveness unleashes.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. We are sometimes tempted to think that the work of the Church is to bring our version of Christian power to bear on the world. It’s easy when you read church history to see that “mistakes have been made” whenever and wherever Christians in authority have tried to do this. Sadly, the Christian record of using power well is no better than that of anybody else. It seems that when Christians get all the power we are as inclined to misuse it as anyone else.  The Crusades and the Inquisition bear witness to that.

But we don’t need to look so far away, do we? We can look into our own hearts to see how that same will to power works. We don’t like to talk about it much, but as a relatively new Canon to the Ordinary in this diocese I am learning in new ways what I learned over twenty years as a parish priest: we can do a number on each other in congregations. We may not mean to, but we do. We can use our power—or for that matter our perceived powerlessness (which is really just the other side of the very same coin)—to hurt, gossip, throw our weight around. Show me a congregation in this diocese – pick any one—and you will find case studies of conflicts: rectors and their staffs, wardens and vestries, altar guilds and men’s ministries all have to negotiate their way through these very same challenges: who has authority and how should that authority be exercised? And when we get it wrong—which we will—do we have the strength to forgive?

Jesus lived in the context of Roman imperial power and of Caesars: that word shares the same root as Czar and Kaiser—which is a pretty good reminder that by many names this story keeps getting played out again and again in human history. In English whenever we hear this word “king” or “lord” we are taken back to feudal England and to words that seem to suggest the Christian strategy for using our power is like that of King Arthur: for might to make right. Over and against this narrative of domination, however, Christ the King reveals a different way that leads to peace among nations as swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Peace emerges not when someone acquires the most swords or the most spears or the most semi-automatic rifles, but when war is studied no more.

When Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God, then, he means something very different from the power of ancient Rome or medieval England or U.S. global dominance. Instead, he talks about mustard seeds. Remember? How the tiniest of seeds, watered and nurtured and pruned can become something much larger than anyone could possibly imagine. In such a seed we glimpse the Kingdom of God, even if just in the tiniest of ways. Jesus tells stories about finding something of great value—like a pearl—and knowing that it matters more than anything else in our lives, so you sell all you have to have it. He reveals the Kingdom of God every time he kisses a leper clean or makes a blind man see or speaks with a woman at a well and validates her as a human being or feeds thousands with a just a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread.

All of Jesus’ little stories about the Kingdom of God are taken from the “real” world—from daily life. They are not a denial of the real world but a deeper dive into it. It may not be fully here yet but we do get glimpses, if we only have eyes to see. If you want to see the Kingdom of God breaking in, then go to the Mustard Seed in Worcester or the Community Harvest Project in North Grafton. Because Christ isn’t dead on that cross! Christ is alive in the world and making all things new. It’s not always easy to see or to believe because the world is still in so many ways a mess. But in the midst of that mess God is present, making all things new.

That is God’s Mission. And the great wonderful frightening privilege of being the Church is that we are called—you and I—to follow Christ the King and to share in this work. Not to reinvent the wheel or carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. We don’t have to bring peace on earth, that job is taken. But we do have to, with God’s help, embrace our calling to respond to that vision by singing, “let it begin with me.” We are called by virtue of our baptism, to be instruments of peace. That is just the deal we signed on for: to share in this ministry of reconciliation. If we are to move closer to the promise of good will to all that we’ll be singing about in a month, then we have to learn how to show good will to our neighbor.

So on this last Sunday of the church year we find ourselves once again at the foot of the cross where Jesus forgives the soldiers who mocked and killed him and the religious authorities who betrayed him and turned him over to the Romans because he unsettled their doctrinal certitude and where he forgives the criminals. And where we, too, are forgiven.

We should not be naïve about just how difficult it is to embrace this calling. We may talk of putting on our Sunday best but the fact of the matter is that we bring our wounded selves into congregations like this one and sometimes we act out and act up, based on our fears and our hurt—real and perceived. Sometimes people gossip and speak untruths and hurt each other on purpose, and sometimes without knowing what they are doing. And still Christ the King says: “forgive.” That is the key, I think, to this way of the Cross—this counter-cultural road we are on together. That is always the way forward. We are not called to be perfect, but to forgive as we have been forgiven, seventy times seven if necessary.

And you all know where all that forgiveness at the foot of the cross leads, right? It unleashes the power of new and undending life. It leads to an empty tomb at Easter dawn, where all things are possible again.

Last Sunday I was at Church of the Good Shepherd in Clinton. A church school teacher there handed me a piece of paper with these words on it:
I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy. 
I’ve been carrying those words with me from last weekend into this one, and it seems to me that they sum up pretty well the kind of people we are called to become, with God’s help. Christian communities like this parish, which is part of this diocese, exist to keep that wisdom alive in a dog-eat-dog world. We don’t come here to lord it over one another and we are not sent out to lord it over others. In a world that says “it’s good to be king,” we respond: “it is a joy to serve.”

Truly this is a different kind of king, one worthy of dominion and honor and praise. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Does Your Church Have a Soul?

My last post was a book review/recommendation of a book entitled Like Dating, Only Worse: Rethinking the Ministerial Search Process. I alluded in that post to the third chapter of the book, which asks the question, "Does Your Church Have a Soul?"

The epigraph that follows clearly comes from someone who has been blessed to be part of a congregation that can answer that question in the affirmative. A "grateful parishioner" writes, "when I first arrived, I had lost everything - my husband, my job, my health. This church saved my life." What a testimony that is! A church that claims Jesus as Lord and lives like we mean that continues the same healing ministry that Jesus began by the shores of the Sea of Galilee two millennia ago.

Durall offers what he calls a rubber-meets-the-road observation for search committees and ministerial candidates alike. Ready? "A low-expectation church is unlikely to be anything more in the future than it is today." For a congregation to have soul, it needs to raise expectations. What does that look like?

Here is Durall's very practical list, found on pages 21-22:

  • Lay leaders who believe they are actually leading the church somewhere, rather than serving as overseers of finance, administration, and committee work;
  • A belief that the church should always be a place of respite for those who need it  but also a place of embarkation for new ministries that serve the world;
  • Fiscal responsibility but also a willingness to take some risks and not be bound by the debilitating tyranny of the operating budget- a constant reminder of all those things we cannot do;
  • Awareness of the untapped giving potential of the congregation. It bears repeating that middle-class Americans could double their charitable giving to all causes, and notice little difference in their day-to-day lives. Most churches could double their annual pledges drive with ease;
  • The funding of mission and outreach programs that equals or exceeds ten percent of the operating budget;
  • A music program that is not amateurish or "garage band" in nature;
  • Continual efforts to achieve a well-functioning educational program for people of different generations;
  • A well-maintained physical plant with preventive maintenance funds budgeted annually;
  • Groups that attract members for study, prayer, and mission that are not closed to newcomers. Nothing communicates that new members are unwelcome more than closed groups;
  • A culture of volunteers who feel empowered to initiate new ministries;
  • A competent staff of non-clergy employees;
  • Competitive compensation with health and retirement benefits. 
Durall points out that many congregations might not get there on all of these things and small congregations may find some of these goals especially challenging. On the other hand, with God's help we do well to remember that we can do far more than we can ask or imagine. Conversely, it is a form of "functional atheism" when we assume that what is is all that will be. So it is a sign of trust, and of health, to strive for such goals even if we are not yet there. Conversely, unhealthy low-expectation congregations put all their hope on the ordained leader, passively waiting after a call to see what he or she is going to do. (And then they can sit back and evaluate whether they approve or disapprove.) Passive congregations that "hire" clergy to do ministry do not have a soul! 

He concludes the chapter by reminding his reader that no successful organization functions on the basis of low expectations. No one wants to send their children to a school or be admitted to a hospital or root for a sports team that says "we don't expect much." Why then do we settle for this when it comes to church? "Churches," he writes, "should get out of the low-expectation business once and for all. This will require courageous ministers, search committees, and congregants alike."


Friday, November 22, 2013

Like Dating, Only Worse

Last week in my mailbox at 37 Chestnut Street in Springfield I received a free copy of this book, written by Michael Durall, with the very provocative title: Like Dating, Only Worse: Rethinking the Ministerial Search Process. It was sent to me because one aspect of my work as Canon to the Ordinary is to work with congregations in transition. When a rector leaves, in my denomination a congregation gets to have a huge say (in consultation with the Bishop and the Bishop's Office) about discerning who will be called to serve as the next rector. It's exciting and scary all rolled into one.

Yet very few congregations feel equipped to do this work alone, which is where the Bishop's Office comes in. Many lay people aren't really even sure what it is clergy do during the week, other than Sunday mornings, which is why I thought that perhaps the most valuable chapter in this book may be chapter two, "Sizing Up the Ministerial Candidate," which attempts to take a Search Committee inside the head of a potential candidate (now how is that for a scary thought?!) and even more concretely to address the question of what exactly it is that clergy do when they aren't leading public worship. If you don't have a sense of that, then how can you possibly find someone with the gifts for that work?

This is not a hard read. Nor is it a practical how-to book. If someone is looking for a step-by-step process to guide them through the Search Process, this is not the book. But the good news is that there are other books that deal with the technical side of things. This book is more focused on the adaptive change side of things. Toward this end, another very helpful chapter is chapter four, "The Greatest Peril of All." It begins with a quote from a minister who departed from a congregation after eighteen months because he took at face value this claim by the Search Committee: "they told me they wanted change."

The truth is that if a congregation says to any potential candidate "look, we are petrified to change and we want to stay exactly as we are (or get back to where we were fifty years ago)" then the healthiest clergy will run for the hills. Most clergy who feel called to hospice care would rather, well, be hospice chaplains. And make no mistake about it: a congregation that is not changing is a congregation that is dying; this is true of anything organic.

So everyone knows that the "right answer" for a congregation is to say that they are ready for change.But most aren't. And some really aren't. New clergy find this out as soon as they initiate the most basic of changes. So this chapter is a good reminder on both sides: for congregations it is a reminder that the transition process really does need to be a time for tilling the soil and asking questions and preparing for the work that lies ahead which will always include change. And for clergy it is to be mindful that while most congregation mean it when they say they are ready for change, there is never unanimity in any congregation about what that change should look like and when it comes, in big and small ways, there will always be push-back.

So who should read this book? I think clergy who are in the midst of looking or getting ready to look for a new call would benefit from this book. There is a line that no one with the possible exception of Supreme Court Justices gets scrutinized more than clergy in a search process; I don't know if that is true but it is definitely about way more than a "job search" and it is helpful to get clear about that sooner rather than later. But this book's primary audience is lay leadership in congregations that are in the midst of transition: wardens, vestries, members of the profile and search committees and other interested lay folks who just have "inquiring and discerning hearts."

Here is something to ponder even for leaders in congregations that are not yet searching for a new rector or pastor: Durall notes that "some churches are clergy healing and some are clergy draining" and then adds: "I hope your church understands the difference and opts for the former."''

In the congregational development side of my work, this is something I hope to continue to work with vestries on because if they are the latter than their clergy will leave sooner rather than later. I think it may deserve another blog post to ponder and ruminate on the differences and maybe even how a congregation moves from draining toward healing but what I know, firsthand, is that I was blessed to serve a church that has a soul (the title of chapter three of this book asks that question, "Does Your Church Have a Soul?") and I don't know how anyone could serve in a place for fifteen months let alone years in a church that does not. And some, sadly, do not.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Ordinary Time

This coming Sunday the Church will celebrate the Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday. If we continued to count it as we have been counting "ordinary time" then it would be the twenty-seventh Sunday after Pentecost. Six months. Half a year.

It was on Pentecost Sunday that I said goodbye to the people of St. Francis, Holden after fifteen years as their rector. This past six months (and in truth the six months leading up to it) has been a season of change and transition. Most of the changes (new house, new office, new commute, new role) have happened, but this time of transition continues to unfold. Even so, it feels like something approaching a new normal is on the horizon. Transition involves both loss and gain, which means both grief and celebration.

People keep asking me how I like the new job. I try to gauge when I am asked this question whether they are just being polite, like when someone says "how are you doing?" and you know that they don't really have a half hour to listen to how you are doing. So I usually say "fine" and that's true: I do like the new job. But like all transitions, it's complicated.

What I really do like is the adventure of it all. I like learning new things. I am the kind of kid who liked going back to school because I have always liked learning new things, and this new job is inviting me to not only add a whole bunch of new skills to my "bag of tricks" and of course navigate the challenge of meeting a lot of new people week after week in congregations, but more than that it is an invitation to see the world (or at least the church in the world) through a different pair of eyes. It's an invitation to stretch. I have always been a part of a team in ministry but for the past fifteen years I'd been the "captain" of the team as rector. (Or at least they let me believe that.) Now I'm part of the supporting cast, and that's a change but it's one I've welcomed.

In fact, if I can stick with a sports metaphor a bit longer, it feels a bit like moving from being a player to being a coach and more accurately part of the coaching staff. If I was "calling the plays" before as a quarterback/rector, then now the bishop is something like the head coach and I'm the canon managing the offense or the defense or maybe the special teams, depending on the day of the week. That move from being on the field to coaching is a tricky one to navigate, and not every great player makes a great coach; and some mediocre players end up finding their vocation there. I guess one could use the same kind of metaphor from the education world and say that it's a bit like (I imagine) the move from classroom teaching to administration would be.So that is what it feels like and that transition, while exciting to me, doesn't happen over night. Six months is just a beginning...

I like being in a different congregation each week and seeing the rich diversity of the diocese I serve. I like seeing how people face the common and unique challenges that are shaped by contextual issues of a particular time and place. Surprisingly, I like the travel, at least so far. I may not feel that way when January and February roll around but for now it is a kind of reflective time between work and home that I never had when I lived 100 yards or so from work.

I keep telling people that the rhythms are different from parish ministry. Advent coming up around the corner is hardly on my radar, at least in terms of needing to do any planning for it. I look forward to the first Christmas Eve ever (and I mean that literally) where the four of us in my family can go to church together and sit in the pews. (I've had duties on Christmas Eve since I was a second-year seminarian, which is it's been twenty-six years since Hathy and I went to St. John the Divine in New York City together, and that was before either of our kids were born.

And I loved every minute of that, truly, which is why that reality provides a nice segue - although I must say I don't miss the anxiety of planning for a live nativity pageant that includes donkeys and sheep in church on Christmas Eve! While I'm excited about a different kind of Christmas Eve I know that at some point during the liturgy I'll be writing my own Christmas Eve sermon from the pews; hopefully not being overly critical of the one being preached from the pulpit.

The preaching is in fact one of the things I miss as well, even though I've been in pulpits virtually every week of this "ordinary time." But I've been there as a guest, not as someone in an ongoing relationship and conversation with a congregation. I got to a point in Holden where I could "think out loud" - where I was working out my own salvation at some level (with fear and trembling) through the work of preaching. I am not yet sure even that every congregation I visit knows when I am joking. In Holden they almost always laughed at my jokes.

I miss celebrating too, that is presiding at the Eucharist since mostly I am coming into congregations where a rector is in place as preacher, not doing "supply work." I miss the birth-to-life part of parish ministry and those weekends when one literally might have a baptism, wedding, and funeral all in the same weekend. Not every weekend was like that but enough months were and some weekends literally were as to remind me that a parish priest is privileged to walk with people from cradle to grave.

The losses are real and whenever I share these thoughts with my wife she says, "do you wish you were still in the parish?" And the answer is truly, no. Even as I list these things I miss, I do not feel particularly sad. Only that these things are definitely in the loss column and I know that when I was doing them, I rarely missed an opportunity to be thankful for them. If anything, what I feel is deeply appreciative of the wisdom of good old Qoheleth, the Preacher/Teacher who gave us the book of Ecclesiastes. For everything there is a season...

I believe that twenty years in parish ministry and four in campus ministry is good preparation for the work I am now called to do. Unlike people who end up in diocesan ministry after a couple of years in a parish, I know what it's like in all of its complex glory and so I know at a deeper level the challenges that parish clergy face and that congregations as a whole face. I think that makes me better able to do the work I am now doing because it is not "theoretical" for me. So far, while I have no easy answers, I've not faced one challenge with a single congregation that I haven't been through myself: discerning a future missional direction, financial challenges, conflict over leadership style...etc. I understand what stewardship season is like and the anxiety it often produces, even though it is no longer a concern of mine (at least in the vocational sense) I appreciate what it means to be facing personal/family/health challenges and still trying to be authentic and yet not an emotional mess as the leader of a congregation.

In fact perhaps the part I am enjoying the most is the role of being pastor to pastors. Co-mentoring a "Fresh Start" group for new clergy and clergy in new positions reminds me of what I've learned and also of what I never learned so well. I'm thinking a lot about conflict these days and that it is unavoidable wherever two or three gather together, but that when we gather together in the name of Christ it is possible to embrace healthy conflict that leads toward reconciliation and healing, rather than the old tactics of shaming and blaming. Quite frankly it is easier to see how change always meets with some resistance that leads to some level of conflict from the sidelines, where you can see the whole field and are generally a bit less likely to be the one being hit, or doing the hitting. (Sorry, again with the football metaphor and I never even played anything but touch!)

And so it goes. I don't usually say all of that when asked how it's going. But that is, in part at least, how it goes. Life is good, and every day I am grateful not to be bored: to be challenged by work that I think matters, to be learning and growing in my faith, to have extraordinary colleagues, and to be seeking and serving Christ, with God's help.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sermon for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost - Church of the Good Shepherd, Clinton

This morning I had the good fortune to be with the people of Good Shepherd, Clinton. Their rector is a dear friend, the Rev. Dr. William Bergmann. Yesterday at our cathedral, the Rev. Beatrice Kayigwa was ordained to the diaconate. While Good Shepherd is her home parish, I have known Bea for many years through an EfM group at St. Francis, Holden that I used to mentor. So I got to be on the altar with her today too, as well as Deacon Donna Kingman. What a great day! Today's readings can be found here. I chose to focus on the gospel, from the 21st chapter of Luke. 

Once upon a time, in a not-so far-away land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree.  Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy; and since they were midlife, baby-boomer acorns, they engaged in a lot of self-help courses.  There were seminars called “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell.”  There were woundedness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree.  There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.

One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped “out of the blue” by a passing bird.  He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns.  And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale.  Pointing upward at the tree, he said. “We … are … that!”

Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded, but one of them continued to engage him in conversation: “So tell us, how would we become that tree?” 

“Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground … and cracking open the shell.”

“Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid!  Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns anymore.”

I love this modern-day parable from Jacob Needleman, who teaches philosophy at San Francisco State University. It has taken on new meaning for me since moving this past summer to a home in Worcester that is surrounded by huge oak trees.

That move came about after Bishop Fisher invited me to join his staff, which meant saying goodbye to a parish I loved in Holden, St. Francis, where I served for over fifteen years as rector. Leaving was, in its own way, a kind of personal story of death and resurrection—as every transition is. But that story will have to wait for another time. During the time served at St. Francis, this extraordinary woman from Uganda, by way of Clinton, joined our Education for Ministry group. She brought with her a deep and abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. What a privilege, yesterday morning, to be at Christ Church Cathedral for Beatrice’s ordination to the diaconate. It is an honor for me to be here today among you all as she begins this new ministry and this time of transition.

Needleman’s parable about the acorns and the oak tree takes us, I think, deep into the very heart of what it means to follow Jesus by way of the Cross, whether our particular vocation is as bishop or priest or deacon or layperson. It speaks to the mystery of faith that we proclaim each week when we gather, but that we need to discover and rediscover again and again for ourselves in the world, in our living: we are an Easter people. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. In a nutshell (do I dare say it that way?) this is what we are about. It’s who we are.

In these last weeks of November, as the days are getting shorter and darker in the northern hemisphere, our attention in the appointed readings this week and next week when we celebrate Christ the King Sunday and then into the first week of Advent—again and again we hear about the signs of endings that are all around us. Yet for an Easter people, signs of endings potentially awaken hope, not fear—because even at the grave we make our song—alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. It is from endings that we discover new beginnings. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s also true: you don’t get to be a mighty oak unless you are willing to die to life as an acorn.

In today’s gospel reading we hear Jesus talking about the end of the Temple. It was an impressive site to be sure, adorned with all kinds of beautiful stones. But it’s more than beautiful architecturally: it is where God’s people encounter the sacred. Of course they know God is everywhere: in the rising and setting of the sun and in the mountains and at the seashore. Like us, they worshipped God the creator of the heavens and earth. Even so, places matter and the Temple mattered a great deal to first-century Palestinian Jews.

It’s a tricky business, isn’t it? Here we are, next to the icon museum. That word icon—the Greek word for “image” is an invitation to see through something into what is holy. Icons are like windows: and so we try to see through bread and wine to the Body and Blood and through the words printed in a Bible to the Living Word, Jesus Christ. Same thing is true for temples made with human hands: to glimpse through them to eternity. But that’s hard to do sometimes, isn’t it? We can get stuck on the things themselves. We get attached to them, quite literally. So I don’t think Jesus is making a prediction about the future in today’s gospel—not about when the temple will in fact come down or about the end of the world as we know it. Rather, I think he means to remind those with ears to hear that nothing lasts forever. The definition of any created thing is that it has a beginning and an end; no exceptions, save for God alone.

Six centuries before Jesus’ birth, the people of Jerusalem had felt invincible. And then the Babylonian army had marched into town and reduced their big buildings to rubble. That event, of course, marked the beginning of the exile. What they discovered in Babylon was that God was still God—even there, even after they laid up their harps and wept. Eventually they did learn to sing the Lord’s song in a strange and alien land. And eventually they came back home and under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah they rebuilt that temple. The old-timers insisted that it was not as grand as the original but, well, people are like that sometimes. It was still pretty special. All this happened 5 centuries or so before the birth of Jesus. So this second temple had been there for a while now. It seemed pretty permanent. And since it feels like it has been there forever, it also feels like it will be there forever.  And I imagine that must have felt pretty reassuring: in the midst of a changing world to trust in those things that will remain rock solid.

And yet Jesus says that such trust is misplaced; he is the rock, not that temple. And in fact, only about fifty years or so after this conversation took place, the Roman army will in fact march into Jerusalem and destroy this second Temple just as the Babylonians had destroyed the first one. That second Temple will never be rebuilt, and all that remains to this day, two thousand years later, is the west wall—the one also known as the Wailing Wall. Judaism didn’t die though: it reinvented itself as rabbinic Judaism. Or maybe we should say that God kept working through it all to bring good, and the story wasn’t over and the people weren’t over even when the Temple was reduced to a wall.

I think that Jesus is inviting his followers in every generation to consider the fact that nothing lasts forever. Big buildings make us think we are secure and maybe even invincible. But we know better, don’t we? The biggest of buildings, whether in first-century Jerusalem or twenty-first century lower Manhattan, can come down before our very eyes. And when that happens, when things we thought were “permanent” are exposed as transient, they can leave fear and terror in their wake. And certainly grief. What do we do with such emotions? What do we do when the very foundations of our faith are shaken?

What Jesus does in today’s gospel reading, as I hear him, is to re-frame that question. Endings, he insists, always hold within them the possibilities for new beginnings. By your endurance you will gain your souls.That is not an act of denial; it’s a leap of faith. The loss that Israel will experience with the destruction of the temple is real. Yet Jesus says that we can choose to see that loss as “birth pangs” of a new creation. Instead of a Temple made with human hands, he points toward a community that will be his resurrected Body. But to get there will mean going through Good Friday. Acorns need to die if they are to become mighty oaks.

I don’t know about you, but left to my own devices, I tend to prefer security to faith. We think we can be kept safe. But that is an illusion. It is a lie. And it is also a form of idolatry that keeps us from putting our whole trust in God’s love. In the absence of absolute security there is a clear but difficult choice: we can live in fear or we can live in hope.  I think that in today’s gospel reading Jesus is inviting us to embrace our vulnerabilities, and then to live by faith.  

It seems to me that all of this is immensely important wisdom for the Church in our day. Over the past few decades, the institutional church has experienced quite a few hits. It sometimes feels as if the foundations are shaking and the buildings may yet come crashing down. At least one congregation in our diocese, in Great Barrington, has literally had that happen to them. But guess what? It wasn’t the end of them. In fact it led to new life and ultimately to a merger with another congregation and on this day they continue to meet in a bar on Sunday mornings. They discovered new ways of being church, together—and always with God’s help.

All of this is pretty scary stuff: scary for bishops and priests and deacons and lay people. It’s hard to let go of the old and embrace the new. But that is how we discover and rediscover our true faith in the living God: when we put our trust in the One who has come into the world to make all things new: the one who says that even when it seems as if the world is coming unglued, it is possible to view that as a transition. What is true on a macrocosmic scale is just as true in our life stories. Someone we love dies and our faith is shaken. Or we go through a painful divorce that we think will never end. It is hard in the midst of such life experiences to see them as birth pangs that are leading to something new when we feel weary and disillusioned and in pain. Yet we are an Easter people, and to be an Easter people means that we are a people who believe in the resurrection not just of Jesus 2000 years ago, but in the ways that old things are being made new even today—even now, before our very eyes. From death comes new life. From the dying acorn comes the mighty oak tree.

As God’s people it is our mission and great privilege to tend to that new creation:  to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ not only with our lips, but with our lives. Before we can do that we have to begin to believe it ourselves. We have to learn what it means again and again to be a people of hope rather than of fear and anxiety. We have to be a little bit delusional, like that acorn. And like Jesus, who talks of the destruction of the temple and much worse—wars and natural disasters and famines and plagues and then says: do not be terrified. Stand tall. By your endurance, you will gain your souls.   

Sunday, November 10, 2013

25th Sunday after Pentecost - St. Andrew's, North Grafton

This weekend my journeys have taken me to St. Andrews Church in North Grafton where the Rev. Laura Goodwin serves as rector. My text for the day comes from the Old Testament prophet, Haggai, 1:15b-2:9

In L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (the book, not the film) the cowardly lion finally walks into the throne room of the great and terrible Oz. Do you remember why he has come?

"I have come for my courage," announced the Lion, entering the room.
"Very well," answered the little man; "I will get it for you."
He went to a cupboard and reaching up to a high shelf took down a square green bottle, the contents of which he poured into a green-gold dish, beautifully carved. Placing this before the Cowardly Lion, who sniffed at it as if he did not like it, the Wizard said: "Drink."
"What is it?" asked the Lion.
"Well," answered Oz, "if it were inside of you, it would be courage. You know, of course, that courage is always inside one; so that this really cannot be called courage until you have swallowed it. Therefore I advise you to drink it as soon as possible."
The Lion hesitated no longer, but drank till the dish was empty.
"How do you feel now?" asked Oz.
"Full of courage," replied the Lion, who went joyfully back to his friends to tell them of his good fortune.

Three times in today’s reading from the prophet Haggai, God’s people are given counsel to be strong and to show courage. Did you hear that?

Take courage, O Zerubbabel…
take courage, Joshua…
take courage, all you people of the land.

Interestingly, the date is quite precise. The Bible may well convey abiding truths, but those truths are conveyed through real people in particular places and at particular moments in human history. It’s the second year of the reign of King Darius, the 21st of Tishri, the last day of the Feast of Sukkot. Ponder that for just a moment. We are used to the prophets situating their word from the Lord into an historical context—in the year that King Uzziah died or in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah. But this is even more precise than that. And even if you don’t know who Darius was or have memorized the months of the Hebrew calendar or when the Feast of Sukkot is, you still hear it in those words which are as precise as November 22, 1963 or September 11, 2001 or the weekend of the twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost at St. Andrew’s Church. 

In the prophet’s case, it had been eighteen years since the Israelites had returned home after the exile. That must have been an incredibly dis-couraging time for God’s people after all that lofty language from the exilic prophet we call Second Isaiah, the one who promised that there would be a highway in the desert and the crooked places would be made straight. God delivered on that promise; the people did come back home. But almost two decades later, the temple has still not been rebuilt.

It seems that this DNA runs deep for God’s people. First you need an idea. Then you need a dozen or so vestry meetings until you have consensus and then you announce a capital campaign that you’ve been building towards and then people say “how come you never consulted us?” Almost two decades have passed, and the deal was that after coming home God’s people would rebuild the temple. Well, they’ve been too busy rebuilding their own homes and finishing their basements and setting up soccer leagues…and they forgot. It’s on the next vestry agenda for sure. It seems that they’ve gotten stuck. They’ve got no time or talent or treasure left for God at the end of the week. They are discovering that you have to be careful what you pray for because coming home doesn’t mean life is a bowl of cherries. There is work to be done but that work has been deferred.

Now the great thing about the Word of God is that it is multivalent, by which I mean that you can take a text and preach a gazillion sermons from it. There are so many directions one might go. And to be honest, if I was still a rector in the month of November, preaching on Haggai, I’d probably go from here to that great line in this text where God says “Hey—all the gold and silver is mine! So you’ve got to give some back! All things come of me, and of mine own have you given me…”

But I know you are in very capable hands when it comes to stewardship and you all get this, I’m sure. In my new ministry, what I find clergy and wardens and vestries most needing to hear is a different sermon and it is the word I hear today from Haggai: this word of en-couragement. Take courage! Be strong; God is with you, so don’t be afraid! Now get to work! Courage, it seems, unleashes energy for mission—for action—for doing what the Lord requires. And obviously that is integrally connected with faithful stewardship.

Three weeks ago I was doing this gig at Christ Church, Fitchburg. Now what on earth do they have to do with all of you? Well, for one, your rector was raised up by that congregation and sent off to seminary because of the love of God that was made known to her there. Two weeks ago I was not too far from here, at St. Stephen’s in Westborough. I know that like all of you they are doing good work with the Community Harvest Project. I know this because I heard about it at Diocesan Convention two weeks ago from Laura and the rector of St. Stephen’s, among others. My point is simply this: we all are one in mission, we all are one in call; our varied gifts united by Christ the Lord of all. That is what we just remembered again on All Saints Sunday and that is what we give thanks for at the end of this month when we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing on Thanksgiving.

I knew this of course as a parish priest and I know you all know it too. But I’ve been living it in a new way this fall in my new ministry, shifting away from a focus on a single congregation in a suburb of Worcester to this larger entity we call a diocese, that stretches from Westborough to Williamstown. What I’m learning as I drive the Mass Pike is that the links that hold us together in mission and ministry as a diocese is an insight into what it means to be the Body of Christ.

Faith isn’t something static; a creed to be memorized (or worse still) a slogan or cliché that can fit on a bumper sticker. Faith is above all else trust: deep and abiding trust that God knows what God is doing and that God really does love us. From that place of trust, it seems to me, comes an awareness that we need to trust each other if we are to accomplish great things together. We need to trust in our own giftedness and in the giftedness of others. We won’t get it right all of the time to be sure. That’s why we need patience and kindness and gentleness and forgiveness. But faith still requires action—just like in Haggai’s day it required getting that Temple rebuilt. To take action we need courage.

The “courage to be”—Paul Tillich once wrote—is itself a sign of God’s presence in our midst. Tillich wrote those words at a time that he called “an age of anxiety”—in 1952. Now if we could go back sixty-one years and talk with good old Tillich wouldn’t you want to say something like, “Paul, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”  But of course it really was a time of great anxiety. We tend to filter our memories through some old episode of “Father Knows Best” or “I Love Lucy.” But in hindsight it’s pretty obvious that the certitudes of that era were coming unglued pretty quickly—the role of women at home and in the workplace was being challenged, the Civil Rights movement was just over the horizon and the Cold War was in high gear, with school children practicing hiding under their desks. Sadly the more the world changes the more it stays the same. “Shelter in place” is not a new concept.

This is why we need the courage to be and the courage to stand and the courage to act and the courage to persevere: because all of these are signs of God’s presence in our midst. The courage to be alive in the face of death and the courage to love in the face of hate—these are outward and visible signs of God’s eternal presence in our midst and sure and certain signs of God’s Kingdom breaking in for those who have eyes to see. I have come to believe, therefore, that one of the most important things we can do for one another in Christian community is to en-courage one another. And conversely, one of the things that destroys community is when we sow the seeds of dis-couragement.

So back to that “cowardly lion.” The truth is that he was never really as cowardly as he thought he was. He mistakenly believed that courage was about not being afraid. But the fact of the matter is that true courage is about acting in spite of our fears. True courage is about facing our fears and still being strong. His friends saw bravery in him that he couldn’t see in himself—at least not until he had an outward and visible sign of it by drinking that strange elixir. In the film, as you probably remember, it’s a medal. But I prefer Baum’s original metaphor. Maybe it’s not even a stretch to think of it as sharing the cup of salvation, the wine we will pour again in a few moments—the elixir of Christ’s body and blood that gives us courage to continue the journey.  

We are already Christ’s own. We have been claimed and sealed and marked and loved from before our births. We are already the Body and Blood of Christ as we come together: two or three, or a thirty or sixty or a hundred at a time. We are already the Body of Christ but we need reminders—we need signs. We need to get that “elixir” inside of our bodies so that it can become courage for us to do the work that God has given us to do.

Take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

For All The Saints, Westport, CT

From August 1993 to January 1998, I served as Associate Rector at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, Connecticut. They have been in a time of transition since the recent retirement of the rector I worked for and will soon welcome their new rector. In this "in between" time they asked me if I might come down to preach and to see old friends, an invitation I was happy to accept. What a privilege to be there today.

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Five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Heraclitus pointed out that “you cannot step into the same river twice.”  More than two thousand years after Heraclitus, that great poet of the church, Isaac Watts, put it this way: 

Time, like an ever rolling stream bears all our years away / they fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.

My name is Rich Simpson. During the years I served as Associate Rector of this parish, I knew the people here and the joys and concerns of this parish and in turn I was known. The river has rolled along and some are gone, and those of us here are a little older and there are many faces I don't know. But it is nevertheless great to be back.  

A brief reintroduction and update on the past fifteen years: Hathy and I arrived here with a three-year old, Graham. During our four and a half years here, our second son, James was born at Norwalk Hospital and then baptized in that very font that we'll be using today. Hathy was working on a Masters in Public Health degree at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington...

This past spring, Graham graduated from Harvard College with a degree in economics. James is in his second year at Northeastern University studying civil engineering. Hathy put to good use that MPH degree and has, for the past fifteen years, been working for the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester. And until this past Pentecost I continued to serve as the rector of St. Francis Church in Holden.

Before continuing I just want to add this: the Simpsons have been very good luck for the Red Sox. My sons have been raised, not in the shadow of any "curse of the Bambino" but expecting parades like the one we had yesterday in Boston for the World Series Champion Boston Red Sox--third time in less than a decade. 

In any case, this past summer I left a beloved congregation to join the staff of our new Bishop, Doug Fisher, as Canon to the Ordinary. Hathy and I, as empty nesters, have embarked on a new chapter in our life-together. In the same year that we both have turned fifty, we purchased our very first home, having spent our entire married life living in church-owned housing.

I know that lots has changed here, too. I imagine that a very small percentage of you here today remember when John arrived as your new rector from Chatham, New Jersey. But when I was here, John Branson was still the relatively new guy following the long tenure of the Rev. Dana Forrest Kennedy. And now you are in the midst of a big transition and about to welcome Whitney Edwards into your midst. Hopefully this time of transition under the leadership of Ben and your wardens has been a time of getting ready and yet knowing that there will be a learning curve for Whitney and for all of you in the months and even years ahead. Part of what I do remember about Westport is that things tend to move quickly around here and that energy and pace is part of what I loved. But transitions require us to draw on a different skill set: to be patient and kind and gentle and to wait on the Lord. You will be in my prayers as that all unfolds. So for what has been, thanks be to God. And for what is, thanks be to God. And for what will be, thanks be to God.

When I left here in 1998 and was interviewing at St. Francis in Holden, the Search Committee asked me a whole lot of questions including this one: Rich, how long to you preach? I told them, as long as it takes! Now I just want to be clear: we’ve been catching up so far and I’ve not started preaching yet. But now it's time to get down to business...

We gather here today, the living and the dead. All Saints Day give us a chance to look, if I have not pushed that metaphor too hard already, both upstream and downstream. We look back to that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and been lights in their generations and we give thanks for their witness - those figures that loom large for the whole catholic and apostolic faith, people like Julian of Norwich and Francis of Assisi. But also that cloud of witnesses that we bring with us, those who helped for form the people we have become, the ones you can meet at church or in shops or at tea. 

So we pause to look back and give thanks. We also look to the future: in a cosmic sense to that day when people from many tribes and nations will be gathered around the heavenly throne to sing, blessed is the Lamb. That vision of our future reminds us that the unhappy divisions of our time are temporary, and of the work God has given us to do to be agents of reconciliation and healing as we move toward that day.

But on this day (as every Sunday) we most fully worship the living God when we are attentive to this present moment, here and now as we listen for a Word of the Lord in these ancient texts of Holy Scripture and pour the water for baptism and break the bread, and share the cup.

The Book of Daniel is a kind of patchwork quilt comprised of older oral and written traditions that have been sewn together to make the final draft of what is the newest document in the Old Testament. The Bible emerged over time and Daniel is a kind of bridge stitched together probably only about two hundred years before the birth of Jesus. It’s a very strange book that wrestles with one very serious question: how can God’s people faithfully survive as a religious minority living under foreign rule? The narrator knows that there will be trials and tribulations when living in dangerous times, that there will be “costs of discipleship.”

So the final product includes a series of folktales set in a much earlier time period with the strange language of apocalyptic literature. The folktale narrative includes that great story about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who, for their obedience to the one true God were thrown into a fiery furnace to be burned alive. The king was so furious he turned the furnace up to seven times the normal temperature. But they survived. They were protected. The point is as obvious as it is in any fairy tale: how do God’s people survive as a religious minority under foreign rule? By being clear about who it is they worship. By being faithful to God no matter what. As the prophet Dylan once put it, "you're gonna have to serve somebody." Daniel would respond: it may as well be the Lord, then. 

Today we heard some of the apocalyptic stuff from the seventh chapter of Daniel.. He has these dreams and visions in his head during the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon. It’s important to realize, however, that we aren’t getting a contemporaneous report. The narrator is asking new questions by using old stories. It’s a bit like Arthur Miller’s play, “The Crucible”—do you remember it? Miller sets his play in the time of the Salem Witch Trials, but he wrote it in the 1950s as a commentary on the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Miller’s play means to suggest that Joe McCarthy was on a witch-hunt. The Book of Daniel functions in a very similar way and it is just as political: the writer sees hints and clues taken from a more distant past of the Babylonian exile as a way to reflect upon and interpret the challenges that God’s people were facing in a new time and place. But again the message is clear: God is a jealous God. Worship God alone. Serve the Lord. 

Like anyone who lives in fearful times, Daniel is trying to sift through both his dreams and his nightmares. On the one hand, always there is the lure of God’s lasting vision of shalom: peace on earth, swords beaten into plowshares, the fatted calf killed, the wine poured and the table set, a table where all are welcome. On the other hand are the recurring nightmares of what he calls “the beasts” of imperial power that haunt us at night—the kind of powers of this world that can disappear people in the middle of the night. The insight that Daniel gets is that those “four beasts shall arise out of the earth” –that is to say their power is for real. But…but the holy ones of the Most High shall receive and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

In other words, “all shall be well”—eventually. The point is not to make some distant future prediction. Nor is it very helpful to try to match up these “beasts” with the Roman Empire or Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union or North Korea. The point here is about hope. The point is that Daniel is learning to trust God’s dream and not to let his nightmares undo him. The point is that he (and sometimes we) can vacillate between despair and hope, and the message of Daniel to the Jewish people and through them to us who are here today is to hang in there and keep on keeping on with our eyes on the prize. It is to take the long-view and stay faithful to the end and not to be afraid. The holy ones of the Most High shall inherit the kingdom forever—forever and ever.” (Daniel 7:18)

This is a cosmic message but it gets lived out, I think, in congregations like this one and in our own lives again and again, especially in times of transition and change. It is easy in such times to lose heart, and to be undone by our fears. But to us as well the good news is to take the long view, and to stay faithful, and to not be afraid. 

So in the meantime, we gather. On this All Saints weekend we welcome the newly baptized into the household of God: William and Grayson and Brady join us in this work that God has given us to do. I know that it doesn’t seem like they can do a lot yet but trust me, parents—you will blink and they’ll be headed off to college. Between now and then the work is ours as parents and family and parish: to live the Baptismal Covenant as faithfully as we can so that they grow into the full stature of Christ. Too many of us have old tapes that play whenever Baptism is celebrated: tapes would suggest that Holy Baptism is some sort of fire insurance. But we need to let those old tapes go the same way that 8-tracks and cassette tapes have gone.

Holy Baptism is about God naming us, claiming us, sealing us—marking us as Christ’s own so that together we can confess the faith of Christ crucified and proclaim his resurrection and share in his eternal priesthood. In a world not unlike the days of Daniel, the Church must once more ask: whom do we serve? Where is our true allegiance? And do we really trust God to help us to write a new script so that we,too, might live against the grain as a witnesses to God in this world?

So those are the questions I leave you with, which I think is one of the gifts of being a guest preacher who flies in and then out again: canons to the ordinary get to ask really hard questions and then leave! The real work of ministry will be done by all of you baptized gathered here, and as a new chapter begins with your new rector, Whitney, as you embrace that core vision of shalom given to Jesus by his parents, Mary and Joseph—a vision of peace on earth and good will to all. It will be to do the work that God has given you as a congregation to do, day by day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

We pray on this All Saints Day for wisdom, for transformed minds, for renewed imagination, for courage, and for the ministry of hospitality as your new rector and her family join you in doing this holy work. In the name of Lamb at the center of the throne, the One who calls us each by name—the One who has vanquished death and in so doing given us the courage to live. 

For lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on his way. Alleluia. Alleluia.