Sunday, December 28, 2014

Holy Innocents

Icon commissioned in 2010 by Church of the Holy Innocents in Atlanta
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Christmas is not over yet.  In spite of popular opinion and a culture that ramps up toward December 25 and then suddenly stops, for those who mark liturgical time, Christmas Day is the beginning of a twelve-day season. On January 6, we'll celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany—the arrival of those wise guys from the east. St. Matthew will tell us (and James Taylor will remind us) that they went "home by another way." (For those who may not remember, the reason they do this matters.)

Today marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day that challenges all of our sanitized and idealized visions of what Christmas is all about. (Technically speaking, since December 28 falls on a Sunday this year, the feast will be transferred to tomorrow; so I'm a little bit early.) The gospel reading for today picks up where that Epiphany gospel will leave off, telling us that while the magi found their way home and the holy family escaped to Egypt, the children who lived in and around Bethlehem were not so fortunate. (See Matthew 2:13-18.) According to the story, Herod is a cruel dictator - hardly the first or the last in the Middle East or in the world. And he’ll do whatever it takes to hold on to his power. 

Two years ago I was serving as a parish priest when these readings came up not very long after the tragic shooting deaths at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It was the first and only time in my life as a parish priest where these words seemed to hold within them, if not exactly "good news," then at least some deeper understanding of what it means to claim Jesus as Emmanuel, God-with-us. It was the first time that I was able to see that this story of Herod’s rage can be a kind of vehicle for exploring the mystery of the Incarnation and offer a way of hearing the familiar Christmas story at a much deeper level. 

Most historians agree, by the way, that this probably didn’t happen - at least not in the sense that historians mean "happened." From an historian's viewpoint, the far more likely scenario is that nobody really noticed when Jesus was born, at least nobody important. Maybe a few unnamed shepherds and a few odd stargazers from the east. The earliest of the four gospels (Mark) doesn’t even have a birth narrative and the last one (John) opts for a theological prologue. The birth narratives that Luke and Matthew construct for us decades after the crucifixion and resurrection to “fill in the blanks” do not claim to be eyewitness reports of Jesus' birth. 

The larger point is this: at the actual time of Jesus’ birth the government probably wasn’t too worried about the government being on the shoulders of a nobody from a small town on the outskirts of the empire. No one expected the king of kings to be found in a manger. It was only much later—after he was all grown up—that he started making the powers-that-be nervous.

So if it didn’t happen, this rage of King Herod, then we might assume it isn’t true. But here is the thing: stories can be true even if they didn’t happen historically. In fact, this is what great literature does over and over again. We go to see a play or we listen to a song or we read a poem because it conveys a deep truth and invites us to ponder our own reality in deeper ways. I have always appreciated the insight of Marcus Borg about the Road to Emmaus story; Borg concludes: "Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens." I think this is the same kind of story.

Over the years I've done a fair amount of interfaith Bible study with Christians and Jews. I can't speak to what it is that Jews might learn from Christians but I can say that the most important thing Jews have taught me is about how midrash works. Sometimes to get at the truth you need to tell a story and then sometimes even another story about the story. Something does not need to have happened for it to convey truth and meaning. (Jonah does not have to have literally lived in the belly of a whale, for example, for that story to convey a deep theological truth about inclusion and the breadth and depth of God’s love for all people, even Ninivites.) Jews just seem more practiced at embracing this reality than most Christians are; but we are getting better at it with a little help from our friends. 

In this case, Matthew’s Gospel (the most Jewish of the four gospels) wants us to know that Jesus is a kind of “second Moses.” And every Jew knows the central story of the faith is the Passover story—the journey from slavery to freedom as told in the Book of Exodus. Part of that story is about how old Pharaoh refused to let God’s people go. Part of that story is about how the male babies in Egypt were killed, but Moses was saved when he was placed in a little ark (that’s the precise Hebrew word, the same word used in the flood narrative.)  Moses is put in that little ark/basket and placed safely where Pharaoh’s daughter goes to bathe and then...well, you know the rest of the story...

If we read these verses from the second chapter of Matthew as midrash, then Herod is playing the part of Pharaoh and Jesus is playing the part of a new Moses, sent to free God’s people. Joseph, the father of Jesus is warned in a dream to take the family to Egypt—reminiscent of the original Joseph in the Book of Genesis who was also a dreamer and whose many dreams led the Hebrew people into Egypt in the first place.

Now maybe it all happened that way and maybe the History Channel will some day find evidence of the holy family escaping to Egypt in just that way. I am not insisting that it didn’t happen, only that it isn't necessary to prove that it did. Either way, our work is to ask what it means. And I think the reason Matthew goes there is because it is true that the birth of Jesus does in fact threaten the powerful and does confront evil head on. Always. And when the powerful are threatened, almost always it is the innocent—especially the young and the vulnerable—who suffer. This we know and see, because it plays out again and again in our own world. A corporation chooses profit over the sanctity of human life and starts dumping toxins in the water - and children die. Congress lacks the political courage to act because they are afraid of the NRA, and two years after Sandy Hook there have been 95 school shootings across 33 states. 

Matthew is right to include this part of the story because it keeps us from sentimentalizing the Incarnation. It reminds us that the world that Jesus comes to save is not ready for salvation or for the costs of discipleship or for the justice that is required if there is to be peace on earth. I find this commentary from theologian,Rita Nakashima Brock incredibly helpful: 
If children are the heart of the meaning of Christmas, the message of the full story of Christmas is what adults must do to keep children alive and help them thrive. If we had the moral courage of mothers, we would not only stop gun violence, but also guarantee universal health care, assure parents living wages for all work, provide excellent schools for every child, and care for families struggling with mental illness. Without the message of Christmas for the world, its meaning for children is thin and hollow.
This, I believe, takes us very close to the true meaning of Christmas which is not a warm feeling in our hearts, but that Christ is born in our bodies again and again until we say yes. Until we really do get what John of Patmos got in his Revelation: that we are part of a people who follow the One who will ultimately wipe away every tear from every eye. And that in the meantime, we are called to be a people who sit with those who weep and help wipe away those tears and then get up and act in ways that imitate Christ. The Christmas story is not some fairy tale, but a truth that keeps changing us and demanding action on our part. The point here is the same as in John’s Gospel: God has become human so that human beings can remember that we have been created in God’s very own image, and then live like we believe that is true. 

As we embark upon a new year of grace, we are reminded that the God we get at Christmas is not an interventionist God who waves a wand and makes the world a better place to live. The God we get is Emmanuel: standing with us through it all, so that we never walk alone. God-with-us as we seek to be repairers of the breach; and instruments of God’s peace in a broken world. 

Step one is in acknowledging that the world is indeed broken, and needs us to be the Body of Christ.
Like the holy family and the shepherds and the wise men and yes, the parents and children in and around Bethlehem, we need to find our way into the Christmas story again.

Every year during the twelve days of Christmas I return each day to this prayer from the late Howard Thurman, who was Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953-1965. There he played a role in shaping the spirituality of a young doctoral student named Martin Luther King, Jr. These words continue to challenge God’s people to enter into the pain and brokenness of this world—wherever holy innocents are suffering—as instruments of God’s peace.
When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among people, To make music in the heart.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sing Gloria!

The Rev'd. Edmund Hamilton Sears was a Unitarian pastor who lived in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was born in the Berkshires on April 6, 1810 and during his ordained life served congregations on Cape Cod and in Central Massachusetts. He wrote “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” in 1849.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old;
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold.
“Peace on the earth good will to men,
From heaven’s all gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Sears suffered from depression, or as it was called in the middle of the nineteenth-century, “melancholy.” At the time he wrote this hymn the world was a mess: Europe was at war with itself, and the United States was at war with Mexico. Of course that was nothing compared to the deep national divide over slavery and the Civil War that was lurking over the horizon. Sears was feeling that the world was “dark and full of sin and strife” and that as such the world was unable to hear the song of the angels. 

The way he wrote the poem makes more sense to me than the version as it appears in The Hymnal 1982, which for some inexplicable reason inverts his second and third verses. He wrote it like this: 
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled,
Two thousand years of wrong.
And man, at war with man, hears not,
The love song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

Still thro’ the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heavenly music floats,
O’er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

And then perhaps the most poignant and pastoral stanza—one omitted in The Hymnal 1982. It is addressed to all who feel personally exhausted and worn out at this time of year—all who feel just plain tired and lost. But you get the sense that like most preachers, Sears is talking first and foremost to himself.

All ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low;
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow.
Look now! for glad and golden hours,
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing.

Even in the midst of gloomy times, the poet is able to keep the larger vision of Christ’s second Advent in his sights. The mystery of our faith is not only that Christ has died and has risen, but that Christ will come again. Even now—even on this holy night when we celebrate our Lord’s nativity—we remember that promise.  Our hope as Christians is not limited to this night or even to the year ahead but to a larger and more cosmic vision and purpose.

For lo, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold;
When with the ever circling years,
Comes round the age of gold.
When peace shall over all the earth,
Its ancient splendors fling;
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Some have criticized Sears’ poem as being too unscriptural. Others have criticized it for not being Christ-centered enough, pointing out that the Christ-child is not even mentioned. Fair enough. But we should note that in his personal life Sears was very intensely Christ-centered. While nineteenth-century Unitarians challenged the doctrine of the Trinity, they still saw themselves as deeply loyal to Jesus and to the Incarnation. “The word of Jesus opens the heart,” Sears told his congregations, “and touches the place of tears.”

As for scripture, the story as Luke tells it features angels from beginning to end. Literally angels are God’s messengers: they deliver a word between from heaven to earth. And so an angel comes to Elizabeth and Zechariah to announce that she will bear a son in her old age. So, too, the angel Gabriel comes in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy to Nazareth to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, announcing to Mary that she is pregnant. And on this holy night the angel speaks to the shepherds, announcing the birth of the Savior and sending them to Bethlehem to see for themselves. And then there is a multitude of angels praising God and singing: “Gloria in exgelsis deo…”

Sears is claiming that we must be still enough to listen for that song, which goes on and on throughout the ages, but mostly goes unnoticed. It goes unnoticed because the drumbeat of war and strife drown out the song of peace on earth and good will to all. Hush the noise, the poet says: hush the noise ye people of strife and hear the angels sing. They sing Gloria.

Our job—perhaps the first work of Christmas—is to be still enough to hear that angelic song so that we do not lose hope, so that we trust the God who is still at work in the world and in our lives. From there we can take it one day at a time. The poem is addressed to the faithful and those who doubt - challenging us all to listen, and in so doing to enter more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation. 

It’s far too easy to be living at this moment in human history and to feel the same kind of melancholy and even despair that Sears felt at this time of the year. It's been a tough year from Ferguson to West Africa. It’s easy to feel that we don’t quite measure up, or that the world is falling apart. It’s easy to feel discouraged and then in response to try to numb it all. 

But the word from heaven on this holy night is that a child is born, a Son is given. The good news on this holy night is that the angels sing Gloria, delivering the message of Emmanuel—God with us right smack dab in the midst of all that other stuff. The angels sing “Gloria” and then invite us to join that song. 

The Church’s mission is to keep singing Gloria because the song truly does have the power to heal and transform us and the neighborhood. The prince of peace is born; but the angels’ song calls us to be peacemakers and agents of God’s healing and reconciling love in the world. 

Until when? Until all creation joins the song. Until all creation becomes the song. Until all the world sings Gloria, giving glory to God in the highest heaven and there is peace on earth and good will to all. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Late Advent Meditation

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 823) 
For more than twenty years as a parish priest and particularly as a preacher, I felt like I was in an extended conversation with the congregations I served. My sermons emerged in that intersection between the Word of the Lord that I was trying to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, while at the same time paying attention to what was happening in the world and in the neighborhood - and in my own soul and those among whom I served. Through this practice and discipline of preaching, I figured out (always with God's help) what I thought, believed, cared about, and considered true. And when I got it wrong, I had enough trust within the congregation to be pretty sure that someone would correct me. Hopefully in the midst of all that, the Good News was proclaimed.

In my role on the bishop's staff, however, I am an itinerant preacher - which is to say that I am on the road. I still know what's going on in the world - I read the news. And I still meditate on Holy Scripture. But what I don't have is that same depth of relationship with congregations, and so practically speaking my preaching is different. Very often I'm in a congregation because they are in the midst of a pastoral transition and so my attention turns toward the thoughts and feelings parishioners may be having about saying goodbye or hello to a priest.

I've spent this entire Advent season in the pews rather than the pulpit and that has been a welcomed change. But going through Advent and very shortly Christmas without writing a sermon is a disorienting experience, at a time when there is a lot going on in the world. Even so and even now, the light shines in the darkness...and the darkness has not overcome it.

Even as I continue to process the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two New York City police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, have been gunned down. People like Rudy Giuliani can't get on television soon enough to tell us that this is the fault of the current mayor of New York, or the protesters, or the Attorney General, or even the President. It is hard for me to understand, quite frankly, how the act of a deranged man is the fault of people who are working for racial justice, but I realize there is much I do not understand. I read a lot, yet even in the letters being written by bishops and clergy in my own denomination I think myself thinking, "yes...but." I tend to agree with about 80% of what the wisest of my friends are saying but then there is that last 20% that seems to expose some blind spots. Why is it that so many pro-police people sound racist, or at the very least in denial about what it is like to be black in America? And conversely, why do so many people working for racial justice seem to be suggesting that all cops are racists?  It honestly is beyond my comprehension that the mayor of New York City, who has a black son and has talked about that experience, is being asked not to attend the funeral of two police officers in his city because they feel in speaking up about racism he is against cops? Can we really be this polarized?

This is why I love the image shown above of a Richmond police chief holding a sign that says "black lives matter." It strikes a chord for me, and represents to me the place where I might begin to make sense of this past year and this Advent season in particular. It is an icon of sorts into the depth of what this December has been like. Life is complicated, and at best we see through a glass darkly. But I yearn for more cops to stand up and say "yes, black lives matter." And I yearn for more activists to say, "yes, most police officers are decent people who are trying to serve and protect, and who put their lives on the line every day."

This is one thing I do know: the Brown and Garner and Liu and Ramos families are all grieving this Christmas. And grief can take us in two very different directions. We can get stuck in our hurt and pain and turn to blame. Or it can bind us together, and help us to reach out to others who are hurting.

For many years I served as the volunteer police chaplain in the small town where I served as a parish priest. This included, but was not limited to ride-alongs with officers, and the hard work of making death notifications, and various social events with officers and their families. I got to know and to enjoy the company of the police officers in my town, and to engage in more in-depth and honest conversations with at least a few of them than the average person does. Cops don't, as a rule, talk much about their "feelings." But it doesn't mean they don't have them, so if you hang around for a while you hear some things.

I have a friend who is a member of the NYFD - his father was a NYC cop. He has some theories around the major difference between cops and firefighters. While both groups are made up of imperfect human beings, firefighters fight fire, which as my friend points out, is always bad. If a building is burning, the mission is clear. But the mission of police officers to protect and serve is way more complex. They see the worst in human beings far more often than they see the good and that can leave some cops jaded. It's true they fight crime, but it isn't always clear in an instant who the criminals are. And it's not always clear in a moment when or how a potentially violent situation might be de-escalated.

Like most clergy I know, police officers live in a world of grays. One big difference is that very often they are forced to make life-or-death decisions that do not allow time for careful reasoning. And so in those moments they must rely on instinct and training. To say this is stressful is an understatement. Based on experience, personality, and a whole host of other factors, some officers simply make better choices than others. But on the whole my experience was that most cops are among "the good guys" who are trying to make the world a better and safer place. Most, but not all.

So this month in Rolling Stone Magazine there was an article entitled 6 ideas for a cop free world. And then there is this piece, from Salon, on police brutality. These are hard to read, especially if you like and care for those who protect and serve as I do. And yet, while I surely don't think either of these articles are the final word, I think we dismiss them at our peril. There is at least some truth in them - and it is a hard truth that those who do love and care for police officers need to address. The "thin blue line" can't be so deep into denial (as former Mayor Giuliani seems to be) as to say that there is not a problem, and that the only problem is the criminals.

Most white people, even those who have had bad experiences with the police, don't worry when their teen-aged kids are out late that they will be shot and killed. By the police. More and more black people in our society, from all classes and educational levels, carry that burden however. And a society where that is the case has some work to do. It's the place, I think, where a far more serious and intentional conversation needs to begin or continue about race in America. And perhaps here in particular there is a role for the Church - where we are called to a ministry of reconciliation.

We would do well to back up and remember that racism and prejudice are not synonyms. On all sides of our national conversation it is incredibly unhelpful to forget this. All of us have prejudices and biases and blind spots. We begin to overcome those as we learn to listen to the experience of others; and conversely we get more entrenched, literally, when we dig in and ignore the experience of the other. All human beings are susceptible to this. But racism is about prejudice plus power. White racism is about how we got to a place in our society where on average more of the cops in a city are white than the population - and more of the criminals are black. Figuring all that out may be complex, but recognizing that the "system" is broken seems to be an important first step toward healing. 

I remember once being at a concert in New York City where Bruce Springsteen sang American Skin (41 Shots). He got some boos from those who felt he was criticizing all police officers. I think we have to figure out how to respect the vast majority of cops who put their lives on the line to protect and serve enough to hold those who fail to do that accountable. That isn't easy. But it is why we have laws in the first place, and no one must be above the law.

Black lives matter. All lives matter, but at this point in time, in the history of a nation whose national sin is racism, white people need to say it, and mean it. White congregations need to say it and and act on it, until there is peace on earth, and good will to all.

This is the challenging context into which preachers must speak this Christmas as we pray for both peace and justice, and as we look to the God who is with us through it all: Emmanuel. Our work is not to return to first-century Palestine to celebrate a birthday, but to be open to the ways the the living God takes on flesh to be among us right now.

Here is a prayer that still seems as relevant as it was in 1966: Silent Night/7 O'Clock News. We won't make things "calm and bright" by drowning out what makes us uncomfortable or challenges our firmly held "positions."  We need to go more deeply into the pain of it all, and we need to listen to the experience of both police officers and of African Americans. We can pray for the Brown, Garner, Liu and Ramos families - and for all who experience loss this holiday season. God is with them all, and we should be too. Come, o come, Emmanuel. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014


One of my favorite things about going on retreat at the monastery of St. John the Evangelist is that most days one is read to at lunch. This is a wonderful thing that has, over the years, given me many tips on books - even over the course of forty-minutes or so somewhere in the middle of the narrative there is often enough of a "hook" for me to go chase down the book and read it.

Today one of the brothers was reading from A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. I don't yet know if I'll read the book or not but the context for what I heard today was in the wilderness of Alaska, about a Presbyterian missionary, and the comment that struck me was that as he entered that context he "knew he had a lot to learn, and even more to unlearn."

As I return from a brief Advent retreat, I bring these words with me. I have always considered myself a life-long learner, but I realize somewhere deep in my brain is a bias toward learning as "cumulative." That is to say, everything I learn (regardless of whether I can remember it or not!) gets filed away into some category in my brain. We keep learning because there is so much more to learn.

But unlearning seems counter-intuitive. I think in context the point being made here is that what this missionary thought he knew about faith, people, culture not only needed "more" but needed "less" - some things needed to be unlearned to be open to the new experience. And I think this is right, but I also think it's much harder than learning.

How do we know what we don't know and how do we know when what we know is no longer relevant? How can we unlearn those things that need to be unlearned, in order to open ourselves up to a new thing that God may be doing in our lives?

It's be easy to say that this is limited to the bad habits we've picked up along the way - we need to unlearn racism and nationalism, for sure. But I wonder if it isn't deeper than that. The book I am reading right now is called Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People. I may have more to say about that in days to come, but it fits here in this sense: sometimes we may learn the wrong lesson from an experience and then turn it into a "universal truth" that blocks us from learning anything that runs counter to that "experience." But what if we had the experience and missed the meaning? How does our "meaning" get unlearned - even when the experience cannot be undone?

Deep thoughts for a cold and rainy New England day, but thoughts that I think have big implications for the work I'm engaged in these days. What unlearning do congregations and clergy and dioceses and bishops need to do, in order to be open to new learning that draws us in the Spirit's tether?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Reflections on the First Sunday of Advent

This Sunday's readings can be found here. As Christians we begin again on the first Sunday of the liturgical year, lighting that first candle of our Advent wreaths to get ready to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

I am not preaching anywhere this weekend, but I have been praying with the readings anyway, and located the sermon below that I preached six years ago in Holden. I've edited it to reflect a different time and place, including the references to Ferguson. But the basic point I tried to make then and now is the same: Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

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The first words of this Advent season and a new liturgical year come from the prophet Isaiah, a desperate cry for help addressed to God: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…

Have you ever prayed such a prayer or stood with someone who has? Perhaps it was at the grave of a loved one who died before her time. Or maybe you have gone through a rough divorce or lost your job right before the holidays. I think about the people in Ferguson, Missouri who might be praying this very prayer as Advent begins - and of Michael Brown's family as they carve the turkey without him at their table. 

It’s hard enough when your life has come unglued. But you can pretty much get through anything if you feel that God is with you, if you feel that God is your rock or the good shepherd who walks with you through the valley of the shadow of death. Even if we know it will be another six months or a year that we have to face chemotherapy or until we find new employment or love again, we can "fake it 'til we make it" if we have hope. And we can make it if we feel that God is working through it all to bring about something good.

Our deepest fear is that maybe God is not with us. And if you keep reading from that Isaiah text, this is part of what he is also wrestling with - the idea that God is the source of his pain, that God has reneged on God's promises. 

For Isaiah, it isn’t personal suffering like we see in the Book of Job but a national tragedy that gives us these first words of Advent. He speaks on behalf of an entire nation, out of the pain of the Babylonian Exile and the feeling of having been betrayed by God. Isaiah poses a profound theological question, perhaps the most serious theological question any of us will ever ask: given God’s past marvelous deeds, where is God now? If God could do all those wonderful things “back in the day” (like bring the slaves out of Egypt and defeat Pharaoh's army at the Sea of Reeds) then why isn’t God doing something about the Babylonians and King Nebuchadnezzar now

This question is along the lines of asking why God didn’t intervene to stop six million Jews from being killed in the middle part of the twentieth century or stop those planes from crashing into the towers in lower Manhattan, or why there seems to be a war on so many young black men in our cities.  

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…

It may seem like an odd way to begin Advent—like a strange way to begin our preparations for Christmas. We bring ourselves to church after all, in a month when it is all too easy to feel off-kilter, so that we can regain some sense of balance - so that we might feel more grounded and centered than when we came in. One of my former parishioners used to remind me from time to time that the world can be pretty tough, and he came to church to hear good news preached, to have his wounds bound up. I sympathize completely and for what it’s worth, sometimes my week is no picnic either. Clergy are not exactly insulated from "the world." 

But my experience as a pastor and preacher (and above all as a fellow traveler) is that sometimes the good news isn’t immediate. It's not a quick fix. And if you are in a place where you can identify with where Isaiah or Job are and you find yourself yelling at the heavens, then a pastor who says, “there, there” is not much of a pastor. The theologians call it “cheap grace.” So I tend to get drawn into texts like this one from Isaiah because they keep us from shallow trivialities and invite a deeper transformation that takes work, and time. 

This prayer of Isaiah's, as I hear it, expresses extraordinary grief and loss and a sense of betrayal that grow out of his first-hand experience. He needs to take that to God, whom he feels has been M.I.A. He needs to be heard and acknowledged before he can get to hope. I read one commentator on this text who said that “God hides in order to deconstruct a distorted faith.” Now that sounds like the kind of thing a theologian would say! But it also happens to be true, I think, and it does evoke good theology: God hides in order to deconstruct a distorted faith.

God is beyond all of our language, beyond all of our images. I don’t mean only our false idols. Of course God is not a golden calf or a little statue or a 401-K. But I also mean that God is beyond even the most helpful of icons: beyond “father” and “rock” and “light.” At the burning bush when Moses wants to know God’s name, God insists, “I am who I am.” At best all of our words and all of our images for God—even our very favorite ones—can only point us toward the Inscrutable One who is beyond our understanding and comprehension—the One Tillich called “the God beyond God.” We need human words. But we must always be careful about confusing our words for god with God. They are not the same. God is always bigger. And God is not our pet. 

So when someone tells me that they don’t believe in God I never feel like it is my job to convince this "atheist" why they are wrong. I just ask them to tell me about this god they don't believe in. And usually, if they are willing to humor me and talk about it, what I discover is that they are actually beginning to deconstruct a distorted faith. Or to say it another way, I don’t believe in the god they don’t believe in either! 

All of us need to let go of the old images that keep us from encountering the more mysterious but living and real God. The crisis of faith is real, for sure. But that crisis also represents not only danger but an opportunity. And I think that is why these words of Isaiah may be a very good place to start our Advent journey.

Let me be specific. We talk of “father God” so much we may actually begin to think that God is an old man with a gray beard sitting up in space. We go along, often unquestioning, because as long as life is good it’s just fine for God to be “the big guy up there”—not all that different from Santa Claus or a kindly old grandfather. Until one day chaos breaks in and we find ourselves really hurting. Sometimes it takes an exile, or a crisis in faith, or a recession, or the death of an unarmed teenager to bring us to our knees. Suddenly we find ourselves vulnerable and frightened and we cry out for God to make it all better: to put a band-aid on our boo-boo or to fix the ozone layer or clean up the oceans or zap away weapons of mass destruction and bring about peace on earth: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”

And when nothing happens, we start to convince ourselves that we must therefore be atheists; since God clearly hasn’t done what we asked. We stand with Isaiah at a crossroads in such moments, however, And what in fact needs to go is not our faith, but those old images we’ve been carrying around that are now keeping us from a renewed faith and an encounter with the true and living God. Make no mistake about it; this is very hard work. And most of us don’t like that place of unknowing, that place of painful uncertainty and anxiety. We just want God to fix it all.But if we are willing to work though all of that, we may discover that we are being transformed and even born anew. 

If it is about nothing else, this season of Advent is about birth—certainly the child whose birth we are preparing to celebrate, but also the new birth that each of us must go through to discover authentic faith. Yet here is the thing: the process of new birth is always painful. And paradoxically it is always also about death and loss. Before there can be the new life that this long-awaited birth brings, there must first be the death of our old worlds, our old certitudes, our expectations. Sun and moon and sky need to darken before we can let go of our false faith, and prepare ourselves for a king of kings and a lord of lords. And then what we get is a tiny little baby who needs his diaper changed. We find ourselves kneeling before a manger and a child who needs to be fed and cared for and loved. Come, let us adore him!

What if, as my scholarly friend says, such moments of crisis in our faith represent an opportunity rather than an obstacle to faith—a chance to deconstruct a distorted faith in order to become free to reconstruct a more incarnational faith, so that God can meet us right where we are?  

What if Christmas is an invitation to stop looking up to the heavens for a magical God who fixes things to come down and make it all better,and instead is an invitation to open our eyes to see God-with-us, making all things new. A God who says, “I’m right here, now …wherever and whenever two or three gather together.” A God whose most important name is Emmanuel. 

The truth is that this prayer has been answered: the heavens have been torn asunder and God has come down to dwell among us, very God of very God, begotten not made. The Word that was with God and was God has become flesh to dwell among us and we have beheld his glory, full of grace and truth.

But not as we expected.  The God we get comes to us as a little child who grows up and dies on a cross. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus lead to new and more profound questions before offering us easy answers. Questions like the ones Brian Wren raises when he asks:  "Can this newborn mystery, an infant learning to feed, defeat the grim and chilling powers of domination, death and sin?"

Can he? Is this little baby the best God can do? This One with the tiny little hands and fingers—He is going to defeat the powers of domination, death, and sin? 

Wren’s poem is (as the Church has come to expect of him) very good theology. But let me give away the ending: the answer is Yes. The mystery of this newborn child, this infant learning to feed, is Yes: He is the Way and the Truth and the Life, and He is victorious over the chilling powers of domination, death, and sin. No matter how bad this week was for any of us, that is good news. 

Christ before us, Christ behind us, Christ beside us, Christ beneath us, Christ above us. Christ here and now, among us. Don’t look for the skies to be opened up—just open your eyes and look around you. And light a candle. Come, O come, Emmanuel! 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Remembering C.S. Lewis

On this day, fifty-one years ago, within a few hours of each other, President John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis all died. In the calendar for Holy Women, Holy Men, we give thanks for the the life and witness of Clive Staples Lewis on this day. A brief biography and the readings appointed for the day can be found here.

This weekend the Standing Committee and Diocesan Council of my diocese went on a working retreat at the Barbara Harris Center in Greenfield, New Hampshire. At this morning's Eucharist, it was my privilege to preach the sermon commemorating Lewis, which follows here. 

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O God of searing truth and surpassing beauty, we give you thanks for Clive Staples Lewis, whose sanctified imagination lights fires of faith in young and old alike. Surprise us also with your joy and draw us into that new and abundant life which is ours in Christ Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I was once in a book discussion group among the faculty and staff at Assumption College—a Roman Catholic college in Worcester. We were reading The Weight of Glory and all those Roman Catholics kept speaking of him with such great affection that I just had to say one day, “you all do know he was an Anglican, right? Just checking…”

But the truth is that Lewis doesn’t really belong to us either. He was an ecumenist before that was cool; keep in mind he died in 1963, just as Vatican II was opening the door to new possibilities. He continues, I think, to call us to go beyond (or beneath) our ideologies and denominational biases to point us to Jesus, because his interest was in what he called "mere Christianity." 

So let me begin with and end today with Lewis’ own words, from Mere Christianity:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. 

That is a pretty good metaphor for the scandal of the Incarnation: the God who has come to pitch tent among us means to live in us, and through us. (Our congregations too.) God desires to pitch tent among us. This God of searing truth and surpassing beauty deigns to be our guest – today, here, as we break bread together but also as we leave to go back to our homes and workplaces and congregations.

Lewis lived what he wrote about. He changed his mind (in the academy no less, where such things are very hard to do) as he journeyed from (as the little bio in Holy Women, Holy Men puts it) “…atheism to agnosticism to theism and finally to faith in Jesus Christ.” You get tenure by making your point and sticking with it, but Lewis went on that hard journey and for my money, this is where his light shines most brightly. He was surprised by joy, and in that joy he invites us to share his joy. And then after all that, he was nearly broken by grief, and yet in “A Grief Observed” he shares that pain with us as well.  

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says he that he goes in order to send another. That other - the Holy Spirit - is sent to guide us into all Truth, because God wasn’t finished with the Church or the disciples yet. And God isn’t finished with us either. More than any other truth, I think Lewis bore witness to this reality and lived his life committed to it. Some of us yearn for an idealized version of the past. Others of us crave for things to be settled – to reach the destination, to become what we are meant to become. But that tendency blocks the work of the Holy Spirit – always meaning to take us by the hand and lead us into deeper truths, one step at a time. We cannot bear much more than that...

As the great Nelle Morton once put it, the journey is home. We are invited to trust that Spirit to keep leading us on an adventure as exciting as the journey through the wardrobe into the world of Narnia – this is the journey of faith.

To make such a journey requires hope.  There is so much in that one little verse we heard from Proverbs today:

Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off. 

Because we entrust the future to God, because we dare to hope, we are freed to be courageous and to do this work that God has given us to do. We have nothing to fear – not even death. We don’t have to hold on for dear life to what is, because we trust God with what will be. Do you remember how it ends in The Last Battle – the seventh and last book of The Narnia Chronicles? Lewis writes:
…for us, it is the end of all the stories and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
We might add, "where every tear is wiped away –and crying, and pain, are no more." 

I think that what the church needs most in our day is not innovation, but imagination – or to be more precise, as we prayed earlier, for the “sanctified imagination [that] lights fires of faith in young and old alike.” We don’t need new technical fixes or programs, but real, adaptive change that is leading us into all Truth, and bringing us to a place where we have eyes that see and ears that hear what God is up to in the world.

Underneath all the talk about healthy congregations and ASAs and buildings melting icebergs and all the rest – important stuff to be sure,--we do well to remember that there is a larger mission of a Bishop and Diocese that we share with one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. In the midst of all of our plans and our agendas we must never forget that. Jesus didn’t come into the world to pitch tent among us so that Christians could be fussy about the liturgy or argue about which instruments the hymns should be played on, but so that our lives might be changed for good and so that we could then be sent out into the world to do the work God has given us to do. The challenge is to live like we believe that.

So I promised you I’d begin and end with Mere Christianity and hopefully if you don’t know it you’ll take this occasion as a recommendation to read it, perhaps this Advent, or to read it again. The last word to Lewis:

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

We must be hatched or go bad. That about sums it up. Stasis is not an option. Transformation is the invitation. And then Lewis goes on to add this – which is where I will stop:
This is the whole of Christianity. There is nothing else. It is so easy to get muddled about that. It is easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects - education, building, missions, holding services… [but] the Church exists for nothing else but to draw people into Christ, to make them little Christs. If [we] are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Poem for the Day

I am at an ecumenical gathering for denominational leaders - most of whom (like me) have made a transition in the past few years from congregational leadership to diocesan/conference/synod work. We are meeting at a beautiful spot - The Aqueduct Conference Center in Chapel Hill, NC. The program is through the Leadership Education Program at Duke Divinity School, and supported by a Lily Foundation Grant.

I may post something more about my learning but even if there is nothing more than the poem I heard today, it would be enough. Dayenu. 

I'm providing a link directly to it so as to avoid inadvertently breaking any copyright laws. I am grateful to have come across it:  The Book of Hours by Joyce Sutphen

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Rev. Dr. Darrell K. Huddleston, RIP

With the Rev. Darrell K. Huddleston
The Feast of St. Francis, 2004 (Blessing of the Animals)
It was my great honor to be asked to preach at the Memorial Service for my friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Darrell Huddleston, today at St. Paul's Church in Concord, NH. Below is the manuscript from that sermon.
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Darrell planned this liturgy very carefully. Far be it from me to mess with that but I want to add just one more reading that I think really fits this occasion - a poem by Wendell Berry called: Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. (You can read it here.) 

Darrell Huddleston was my very favorite mad farmer. In his living and in his dying, he practiced resurrection.

Six weeks ago, I drove up here to the Concord Hospital where I had one last chance to visit with Darrell and Bunny. I gave Bunny a hug in the hall while the nurse was finishing up with Darrell and then walked in. He got right down to business:  “Rich, a long time ago I asked you to do something for me, do you remember?” I told him I did. But he continued anyway. “I want you to preach at my funeral – are you still willing to do that?” I told him I was. He seemed relieved, and then came the instructions: “I want someone who can maybe say a couple of nice things about me, but who I can also count on to preach the gospel…”

To his family and friends gathered here today, I want to tell you what I told Darrell. Those are not really two separate tasks. Because Darrell practiced resurrection – inside of the church and outside of it—and because his life pointed to the One he sought to follow as Lord so consistently, my work here today is relatively easy. There are lots of nice things I could say about Darrell, and he was a great person. But more than that, he was a light in this generation - one of the saints. Not perfect, but faithful. His living and his dying bore witness to the One he faithfully served.

Darrell practiced resurrection. We first met when I was a brand new rector in Holden, Massachusetts in February 1998. Just four months later he was ordained to the diaconate at Christ Church Cathedral in Springfield and six months after that it was my honor to preach at his ordination to the priesthood at St. Francis. There Bishop Scruton reminded this long-time United Methodist pastor to “proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to fashion [his] life in accordance with its precepts…to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor…” And then these words:

In all you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come. 
You have to say these words at an ordination – we are Episcopalians after all, and they’re in the book. But it seemed to me at the time (and even more so now) that the words were almost redundant in Darrell’s case. It’s like that line attributed to St. Francis about preaching the gospel always, and when necessary use words. Darrell embodied those words long before Bishop Scruton spoke them or laid hands on him. The words simply called our attention to what was true – and I think that something like that is the case here today, as well.

Like me, Darrell found his way to the Episcopal Church by way of the Wesley brothers. Neither of us ever felt like we were renouncing our Methodist roots when we became Episcopalians – only that we were going deeper into the true spirit of those Anglican priests, John and Charles. When he was called to serve as priest-in-charge at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Clinton, we began meeting together with some others as part of a regular, weekly lectionary group – and after he retired from Good Shepherd he came to work half-time at St. Francis as our associate. He was a mentor and friend during the most challenging days of my ministry in Holden, for which I will always be grateful.

I could tell you lots of Darrell stories but I’m only going to share one and I do so, admittedly, with a little fear and trembling because it’s an odd one. The thing is, and you all know this, Darrell knew the Bible and he had all the right credentials including a doctorate in ministry from Boston University. But he didn’t talk like an east-coast intellectual “Reverend Doctor.”  He talked like a Kansas farmer. Around the table on Tuesdays at lunch some of us in my lectionary group would start to talk about eschatology and hermeneutics and how this post-modern, post-Christendom context felt a lot like the Babylonian exile and so we needed to exegete that experience for our congregations. And Darrell would be right there with it all. But then he’d talk about a heifer giving birth to a calf and the beauty and messiness of birth.

And so this one day he told us about a rabid jackrabbit attacking him; running straight at him. I didn’t know how the story would end, but I assumed it would end with Darrell being like the jackrabbit whisperer or something – a modern-day St. Francis with the wolf of Gubbio. Tragedy would be averted, because my favorite mad farmer would save the day somehow. But that was not how the story ended. The story ended with death, because as Darrell said at the time, that’s the only way it can end with a rabid jackrabbit. What did you do, I stupidly asked? I took out my shotgun and filled him full of buckshot. There was nothing else to do, Rich…he was running right at me.

OK. I have to tell you I was stunned, in part because I’ve never seen a jackrabbit (rabid or otherwise) but I was picturing Peter Cottontail, and apparently jackrabbits are like two feet tall and when they are rabid they can be very mean.

As I said, I realize this may be a very odd story to choose about man who was gentle and kind and loved all creatures great and small. And I’m pretty certain it’s not exactly the kind of thing Darrell was thinking I’d share when he gave me those final instructions to try to say something nice about him, and preach the gospel. But I also think if I’d thought of it then and run it by him he would have said, “that’ll do…”

Because here’s the thing. I will never forget him telling that story. It got seared into my brain. And when I called the Canon to the Ordinary in Long Island to tell him of Darrell’s death, the first thing he said to me was, “do you remember that story about the jackrabbit?”  

Darrell knew about birth and death – for real, the ways that a farmer does. That not only made him a pastor who didn’t waste much time with fancy words, but a follower of Jesus who was not afraid of death. He embodied the connection between the teachings of Jesus and lessons from agricultural studies; they were in a real sense of one piece. The lessons that life itself teaches come not from a book, but from learning to pay attention to the rising and setting of the sun, and to the good earth that brings forth its fruit in due season and yes, to the rhythms of birth and death. Including the birth of a calf or the death of a jack rabbit. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

And then in the midst of it all, practice resurrection. Darrell practiced resurrection and trusted that if death has been defeated then it really has been defeated – and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Life is changed, not ended, when our mortal bodies lie in death and there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens. Darrell said those words not only with his lips but in his living – and in his dying. He never let the fear of death keep him from being fully alive, pointing us, again and again, to Jesus. Sometimes even with words.

This liturgy, from beginning to end—all these words—are about the resurrection of Jesus. This is an Easter liturgy. And if Christ really is raised from the dead, then our lives are not lived in vain. If Christ is raised from the dead, then we live no longer for ourselves alone but for him who died for us and rose again. Darrell knew that and he trusted that to the very end. He bore witness to that Truth.

And so he lived in hope, rather than fear. And in a nutshell that is the gospel as I understand it and that is the good news I stand before you to proclaim on this day – even now, in the midst of our shared grief and sorrow at the loss of our friend. Whether our faith is strong or weak this day, our hope is not in some creed but a commitment to a person – Jesus Christ – and to a way of life that goes by way of the cross, to an empty tomb. So:

Love the Lord. Love the worldPlant sequoias. Invest in the millennium.
Practice resurrection.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Jesus and Money - A Sermon at St. Stephen's, Westborough

This Sunday I've been invited to serve at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Westborough and given a specific charge: to talk about financial stewardship, a topic near and dear to my heart. Because St. Stephen's is using resources for Creation Season, the texts for the day are a departure from the Revised Common Lectionary. The gospel for the day is Matthew 28:1-10.

For fifteen years, I served as the rector of St. Francis Church in Holden. For the last five or six years of that time, I also taught on a very part time basis at Assumption College in Worcester – a required undergraduate course called Introduction to the Bible. Most of my students came into class knowing very little about the Bible, even those who had grown up in the church. What they thought they already knew about the Bible didn’t make it all that appealing, and conversely it was sometimes the most enthusiastic students who quickly became disillusioned. The Bible, I would tell them all, is a library of books – and it doesn’t have a simple storyline. Even the four gospels aren’t easily harmonized – as they disagree on some pretty important things. My goal was always the same – to invite them along on an adventure and to come to love the Bible as I do. But what this required of them was that they first let go of some long-held assumptions.  

So almost to a person, they were almost always surprised when we sat down to actually read the Bible and they discovered, for example, Ecclesiastes or the Song of Songs or the story of David and Bathsheba. When we got to the New Testament, they were surprised to see how much Jesus talks about what in translation we refer to as “the Kingdom of God” – which is at the heart of his message and is not a synonym for “heaven.”  In the very first chapter of the earliest of the four gospels, Mark, we read about how after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’”

What does that Kingdom look like? Well, it’s small – so you need to know where to look. It’s like a mustard seed, Jesus says. But if you nurture it and water it, it will grow. Perhaps some of you have served a meal at the Mustard Seed Soup Kitchen in Worcester – there you can see even today, as the hungry are fed, signs of God’s Kingdom breaking in.  Jesus teaches that the Kingdom of God is unexpected and beyond our control. It’s is in our midst even now. Perhaps you have heard our bishop talk about the Kingdom as a mission of mercy, compassion, and hope. It’s in the prayer our Lord himself taught us: thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

So Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God more than anything else. But do you know what he talked about the second most? Money.

It starts even before his birth, when we get some hints that he grew up poor. As you may have heard, his family was homeless at the time of his birth, “…and so they laid him in a manger, because there was no room at the inn.” And then when his family goes to the Temple in Jerusalem to make a sacrifice. Luke tells us that they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” But if you actually go back and read from Leviticus what is stated in the Torah, it says that a lamb should be sacrificed. And then there is a kind of asterisk – an exception if the family cannot afford a lamb, a provision to sacrifice a pair of turtledoves or pigeons. So Luke is actually telling us something about the socio-economic status of Jesus’ family very early on.

And then his public ministry begins with these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. From there, he hangs out with tax collectors. He tells his disciples to make loans expecting nothing in return. When he teaches about forgiveness, he often turns to illustrations like “…a certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more,” he asks?

In another parable about seeds he talks about what can go wrong and keep those seeds from growing. Among other things, he says, those seeds can fall among the thorns, these are the ones who hear but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life. And so they fail to bear fruit. He tells his followers to take care and to be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.  So he encourages them tosell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.”  He says, quite bluntly (and two thousand years before Bob Dylan sang it) that you are gonna have to serve somebody, and that you cannot serve both God and mammon.

I’ve often wondered what might be the connection between Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God and all that talk about money. Are they just two separate things? Bullet point one, and two, of his teaching? I don’t think so. I think they are very much connected, and perhaps it is that familiar text from the eleventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel that helps us to make that connection. Do you remember?

He said to his disciples, Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

As you continue to move through Creation Season here at St. Stephen’s, today is River Sunday. But I was invited to be here to specifically talk about Stewardship. This includes our care of the earth and its rivers, of course – as well as how we spend our time and how we use the talents God has given us. That is a part of year-round stewardship education, which is always about more than money but never less.

But I think that Jesse invited me here to be more specific than that, since it is November and here (as across the diocese) it is pledge season. Like Jesus we must dare to speak not only about God’s mission of mercy, compassion, and hope but also about money—our money—and what we do with it for the sake of God’s Kingdom. I think the reason Jesus talks about money so much is that he knows it can get in the way. It can keep us from God, because we are always in danger of not merely owning our stuff but of allowing our stuff to own us. I can’t tell you how that is for you – only for myself that it’s a real challenge to get clear on the difference between my needs and my wants. But when my wants keep me from generosity, then other people remain in need. The biggest obstacle to unleashing that missional energy is fear, which can paralyze us.

Today’s Gospel reading is of course one we usually hear on Easter morning: about how after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. Not once, but twice, they are given this message, first by an angel of the Lord and then by the Lord himself: Do not be afraid…  Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me. This is the good news that allows us to become God’s Easter people: do not be afraid, go and tell, you will see…

And that, in a nutshell, is my stewardship sermon. When Jesse returns and asks what I talked about, that’s it – not advice from me to you so much as an insight into what it means to be living the good news in our own day, rooted in the good news of that first Easter morning. Do not be afraid. Go and tell. You will see.

Sometimes I hear people complain (usually outside of the church) that the church talks about money too much. I don’t know where those places are, but it’s not been my experience – not as a parish priest, not as someone who occasionally sits in the pews, and not as Canon to the Ordinary. In fact, my experience is that we tend to be very afraid to talk about money, and almost as afraid to talk about time and talent. But when we do that we end up with passive Christian consumers – rather than disciples who are trying to follow Jesus, with God’s help.

Our biggest fear is that there is not enough. And so I think the Kingdom of God is connected to money because we learn, really learn when we choose to be generous, that it truly is more blessed to give than to receive. And that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. And that if our treasure is all tied up on Wall Street in our pension funds, then that is where our hearts will be. Alternatively, though, if it’s tied up with feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and proclaiming good news to the poor, then that’s where our hearts will be.

My mission today (as I understand it) is not to make the case for why you should increase your pledge to St. Stephen’s Church. That is the work of your rector and let’s be honest, since clergy are a big chunk of any church budget, it is more the work of the wardens and vestry and stewardship committee. I do pray that those who are responsible for this work will be frank and transparent and courageous about what it costs to run this parish and they will make that case. All I want to say about that is that I pray for them as they do that work – because it’s not easy. I don’t know what any of you give and I don’t know who is able to do more. It is not my job to judge anyone.

My job today is not to ask you to increase your pledge, but rather, as an itinerant preacher, to share the good news of Jesus Christ with you today. And that good news relative to the Kingdom of God and relative to our money is that we don’t have to let our possessions possess us. We can choose to see abundance rather  than scarcity and from that place, we can choose generosity, not miserliness. 

We can put our trust in God, who knows our needs before we ask. We can seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. And all these things will be given unto us. 

Alleluia, alleluia.