Sunday, February 23, 2014

Be Perfect - A Sermon for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany

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Today I am at The Church of the Reconciliation, in Webster. They are served by the Rev. Janice Ford, rector. Below is my sermon manuscript for the day.

Today is the seventh Sunday after the Epiphany. We don’t get to say that very often; in fact almost never. Without going all liturgical on you, the reason for that is that Christmas is a fixed feast day and Easter is a moveable feast day. Christmas always falls on December 25, but Easter falls on the Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox.” (BCP 880) So Easter can be as early as March 22 or as late as April 25.

Are you still with me? This year Easter falls almost as late as it can – April 20. So the space between the Feast of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday gets filled with more Sundays than usual; in other words, a very long Epiphany season. Next weekend we will finally reach our destination, the same place Epiphany season always ends - on the Mount of the Transfiguration. So next week’s readings will be familiar ones because they come up every year, whether Epiphany season lasts four weeks or eight.

Alright: that liturgical lesson is free of charge, but it also doesn’t count against my preaching time. But if we are all on the same page, then let me say again: today is the seventh Sunday after Epiphany. One almost never gets to say that! And it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that we are having such a long and brutal winter; it’s just that Easter is late. It means that we very rarely get to hear these readings together that we heard today.

Now on top of all that, we Christians very rarely read from Leviticus. And when we do, we don’t much know what to do with it. It tends to be focused on ritual laws like circumcision and keeping kosher and no tattoos. But today we turn our attention to a core text from Leviticus which takes us to the heart of what it is meant to be about: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

Now flash forward to this Jewish rabbi we claim is the Christ, who well knew Leviticus, saying in the most Jewish of the Gospels, Matthew, these words we heard today:  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Now I’ll come back to those two words, holy and perfect, in a few moments. First, though, I want to linger with you on this radical idea that we human beings are being challenged in both places to be like God. And it’s something that most of us, particularly if we were raised in more Protestant traditions, are resistant to. We are worms and no man (or woman) right? We are sinners. We are “but flesh.” That’s what we’ll say in just ten days: we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are absolutely positively not God! And confusing ourselves with thinking we are God is the worst kind of pride, right?

And yet, there is another strain of thought within the deep and broad Christian faith, found particularly in Eastern Christianity, that says that God became human so that humans might become divine. One of the early church fathers put it just that way. It’s ironic that in an especially long Epiphany season, which is the season when we reflect on the incarnation and all the ways that God is made manifest in our lives, that we have at long last come to these two verses in Leviticus and Matthew because they give us a liturgical context. The fact of Jesus coming into the world is not only to save sinners but to transform sinners. It is that we might have full and abundant life. It is that we might live as not only witnesses to God’s love but as sacraments of that love – as outward and visible signs of that love to the world. Just a couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus talking about our vocation as the Church to be salt and light. I think it’s all of a piece. We are made to become holy…Or as we put it in the Baptismal Covenant, we are called to grow into the full stature of Christ.

The word “perfect” in English, however, is incredibly unfortunate, especially for the perfectionists among us. Trying to be perfect very often works against holiness. So let’s remember that every translation distorts the truth, as anyone who has ever travelled in a foreign land holding a dictionary in hand knows. In Greek the word here is teleios. It is not about being perfect in some abstract or mystical way. It does not mean making straight A’s or never making a mistake. It’s a more functional term that refers to something realizing its purpose. Telios means purpose or end or goal. It’s about becoming who you were meant to become.

I’m not making this up! God knows who God is, and God gets to be God. So that job is taken. We get to be who we were created to be. So it doesn’t make sense for Janice to try to be Rich or for Rich to be Janice, or for either of us to think there is one right way to be priest and that we both have to perfectly conform to that cookie cutter way. We are different people with different stories: the goal is for each of us to become fully who God made us to be. The challenge (as Richard Rohr and others have pointed out) is that we are tempted to live into a false idea of self rather than our true selves, the unique person God created us to be.

When you die and go to heaven, St. Peter won’t ask you why you weren’t Mother Theresa or Martin Luther, King, Jr. or Bishop Fisher.  Or your father, or mother. The question is: were you truly yourself?

Now think about that for just a moment and all of the implications of that and all the sermons that could be preached on it and also all the ways that perfectionism ironically, and tragically, keeps people from that very truth. That is the great irony here. If parents are living their dreams vicariously through their children both are diminished and kept from fully becoming who they were meant to be.

And you could say the same of a Christian community. The goal for Reconciliation, Webster is not to be “perfect” as some ideal congregation in our heads would be perfect. The goal is not to become All Saints, Worcester or some other parish. The goal—the end, the purpose—is for this congregation to live more fully into God’s call for you to be uniquely who you are, in this place and time: to be a congregation that is sharing in God’s mission to reconcile the world to God’s self.

Now I want to let you in on a secret. Just like sometimes people have a conversation and remember things a bit differently, the same thing sometimes happens with Jesus. Some of you may remember that old Monty Python scene at the Sermon on the Mount when the people in the back row don’t hear blessed are the peacemakers, but blessed are the cheesemakers. And more recently I saw a meme on Facebook where Jesus says, “now listen up, I don’t want four versions of this…”

Well, it’s pretty funny. But something like that does happen in the gospels all the time and it happens with this passage between Matthew and Luke. Because Luke doesn’t use the word teleios at all; but another word that we translate as merciful. Instead of asking us to be perfect, Luke hears Jesus say: be merciful as your Father is merciful. That word is connected to the word for womb so we might even be so bold as to say, merciful as your Mother is merciful. God feels deep compassion and love for Her people as if we were God’s own children; because we are. And we are to emulate that womb-like compassionate love for each other. Be merciful, as God is merciful. Forgive, as you have been forgiven.To be like God, Luke says, is not to always get it right. It is not to be perfect. It is to forgive seventy times seven times if necessary.

So, this brings us back to the original text, from Leviticus: be holy as God is holy. Our little tour through Luke and Matthew and the Greek language brings us back to a very big question: what does holiness look like? It, too, is a very tricky word: most of us don’t feel called to be “holier than thou.” Sometimes Christian piety and religious piety in general can feel judgmental and arrogant. This is why so many people claim to be spiritual and not religious, because the holiness they see doesn’t make them feel welcomed or included.

But in both the Old and New Testaments, God’s holiness is rooted in covenantal love. Again and again, God forgives. Again and again, God shows mercy. Again and again, through thick and thin, God says “I love you.” I love you Rich, I love you Janice, I love you Reconciliation, Webster. I love you for whom I have made you to become, not to try to be anybody else.

God’s holiness is expressed in God’s amazing grace. And you and I are called to be more like that. To live more like that.

I have a friend who has a bumper sticker on his car that says, “wag more, bark less.” Now I realize that is a theology of be like Dog, rather than God! But even so…more wagging and less barking is, I think, also the way to God.

Next weekend I won’t be with you, but our Epiphany journey will culminate on the Mt. of the Transfiguration.
Manifest on mountain height, shining in resplendent light,
where disciples filled with awe, his transfigured glory saw.
When from there he leddest them (and us) to Jerusalem,
cross and Easter day attest, God in man made manifest.
Jesus keeps leads us through Epiphany and down from the Mount of the Transfiguration and into Lent. He keeps inviting us to take the next step, and then the next one: to live one day at a time and to become more fully whom we were made to be. Be holy, like God. Be perfect, like God. Be merciful, like God. Let your little light of Christ shine, shine, shine…

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Family

The Daily Office Lectionary provides a way to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" Holy Scripture a bit at a time. It's a way to move through the Bible over the course of a two-year cycle; not all of it, but a lot of it.

Today's reading is from the thirty-first chapter of Genesis. If you don't already know the story it's worth backing up, but the short version is that Laban is Jacob's uncle - his mother's brother. And the two seem to be cut from the same cloth. Jacob tricked his brother out of his birthright and then ran to his uncle's home. In turn, his uncle tricked him into marrying not only the daughter that Jacob loved (Rachel) but her sister Leah as well. So finally, Jacob decides to head home. What is awaiting him, by the way, is one of the most poignant reunions in the Bible - right up there with the return of the prodigal son. Jacob will soon confront his brother, Esau, whose birthright he "stole." While that encounter could go a lot of different ways, what happens is an embrace of two brothers amid many tears of joy. (See Genesis 33, it comes up as the reading this Friday.)

Anyway, here is the reading for today:

Genesis 31:25-50

Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsfolk camped in the hill country of Gilead. Laban said to Jacob, ‘What have you done? You have deceived me, and carried away my daughters like captives of the sword. Why did you flee secretly and deceive me and not tell me? I would have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre. And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? What you have done is foolish. It is in my power to do you harm; but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, “Take heed that you speak to Jacob neither good nor bad.” Even though you had to go because you longed greatly for your father’s house, why did you steal my gods?’ Jacob answered Laban, ‘Because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force. But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live. In the presence of our kinsfolk, point out what I have that is yours, and take it.’ Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods.*

So Laban went into Jacob’s tent, and into Leah’s tent, and into the tent of the two maids, but he did not find them. And he went out of Leah’s tent, and entered Rachel’s. Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel’s saddle, and sat on them. Laban felt all about in the tent, but did not find them. And she said to her father, ‘Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.’ So he searched, but did not find the household gods.

Then Jacob became angry, and upbraided Laban. Jacob said to Laban, ‘What is my offence? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me? Although you have felt about through all my goods, what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my kinsfolk and your kinsfolk, so that they may decide between us two. These twenty years I have been with you; your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks. That which was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it myself; of my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. It was like this with me: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. These twenty years I have been in your house; I served you for fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear* of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labour of my hands, and rebuked you last night.’

Then Laban answered and said to Jacob, ‘The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do today about these daughters of mine, or about their children whom they have borne? Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I; and let it be a witness between you and me.’ So Jacob took a stone, and set it up as a pillar. And Jacob said to his kinsfolk, ‘Gather stones,’ and they took stones, and made a heap; and they ate there by the heap. Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha:* but Jacob called it Galeed.* Laban said, ‘This heap is a witness between you and me today.’ Therefore he called it Galeed, and the pillar* Mizpah,* for he said, ‘The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other. If you ill-treat my daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters, though no one else is with us, remember that God is witness between you and me.’

People ask me sometimes what I love about the Old Testament. This. Theologians, trying to categorize the Bible, tried to say the Old Testament was about "law" and the New Testament about "grace." But this characterization is a very dangerous one. It can very easily lapse into Marcionism. But even when it does not, it distorts both Testaments, which are both about law and grace. If you don't believe me then definitely come back and read the lectionary text on Friday. It will bring you to tears...especially if you have some loose ends in your own relationships.

As for today, what characters. An uncle and his nephew more alike than different, whose time has come to part. What reason does Jacob give for leaving has he did? "I was afraid..." Yet as so often happens in life, fear moves to anger. And yet they do the best they can.

And what about Rachel? In spite of (or maybe because of these two strong men in a patriarchal society) she is no shrinking violet. Laban is her father, remember. But she tells the old man she better not stand up...you understand, Dad. Truth is she is sitting on the stolen merchandise. But she thinks it is the very least her father could do for her...

Life is complicated. Families are even more complicated. In my journeys around the diocese I often hear people tell me their parish is "like a family." Really? With all the shadow that entails, right? All of the complications? The Bible doesn't pretend that "family" is easy. The relationships in this family- father and eldest twin, mother and younger twin, two estranged brothers (but not for long - come back Friday!) - uncle and nephew, husband and sister-wives, sister-wives and their father. Who needs reality television when you have the Bible?


The Bible isn't about what we sometimes think it's about and that's especially true in the Old Testament. Somewhere along the line we got to thinking that the Bible was about pastel colored characters in Bible Land who talked with Elizabethan accents. In truth it's about people who are a mess in many of the same ways we are mess. And God not only loves them anyway, but calls them - and uses their gifts as well as their shortcomings to keep bringing light into the world. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Salt and Light

Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, at Christ Church in Rochdale

It’s hard to know for sure exactly which hill Jesus and his disciples climbed for “the Sermon on the Mount.” In fact, the Sea of Galilee is surrounded by rolling hills and it could have been any one of them. And almost certainly, what we get in Matthew’s Gospel as “the Sermon on the Mount” (you may remember that in Luke much of the same material is delivered on the plain) wasn’t just all preached in one place on one afternoon anyway.  Matthew reconstructs these materials some fifty years or so after they took place. Jesus had a public ministry that lasted three years and in all that time he probably went away with his disciples to escape the crowds more than once. So maybe they went to various places around the lake. Or maybe they did have one favorite spot as many of us do, in the mountains or by the water. Either way, Jesus taught his disciples over time, and they remembered what he said.  Eventually, decades after his death and resurrection, those teachings were passed along from the first-generation of disciples to the second generation of disciples and the people (or more accurately the communities) we call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John so that generations to follow could read, mark, learn and inwardly digest these teachings as well.

Now all that by way of introduction and by way of saying that we cannot know with certainty where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, or if he did it all in one day. But at least since the fourth century, pilgrims have traveled to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. A few years ago I had the chance to become one of those pilgrims and to spend an afternoon on what is now called the Mount of the Beatitudes. Whether or not it was originally the holy place, it has without a doubt become a holy place as pilgrims from north, south, east and west have gone there to pray for at least sixteen hundred years now. It is what is sometimes called in the Celtic spiritual tradition, a “thin place” where the hills are alive with the sound of music. It’s a holy place.

The current church on that site, built in 1938, is run by the Franciscans. It’s a quiet and peaceful place that overlooks the lake—which is really a more accurate name for the Sea of Galilee. As you look down the hill you can see in panorama so many of the places prominent in Jesus’ ministry, including Capernaum, where he made his home. The gardens at that Church of the Beatitudes are meticulously kept and you can walk and think and pray.  It’s quite conducive to “considering the lilies of the field” and the “birds of the air.” So whether or not it is the place, I can attest to you that it is most definitely holy ground.

On the warm afternoon I spent there about four years ago, a busload of Chinese Christians arrived. Their spirituality was not nearly so contemplative as our group of Episcopalians. In fact they were downright boisterous and at first I thought a little annoying: didn’t they know I was there to silently meditate on the Sermon on the Mount? But as I  I watched them posing for a group photo, I was profoundly conscious of the fact that it cannot be easy being a Christian in China and was even harder a generation earlier. Clearly being able to come as a group to the Holy Land made their hearts glad; and that made my heart glad too; glad enough to cut them a little slack. 

Whether or not you’ve had a chance to travel there, I want to invite you to go with me in your mind’s eye and to remember that the teachings of Jesus are rooted in a real place and time, among people who fished for a living and collected taxes, women and men who didn’t know they were going to become part of the Bible—but who were simply trying to be faithful to God and who saw this Jesus as the Promised One, whom they were willing to follow even if it led them on the way of the Cross.

As Matthew tells the story, Jesus saw the crowds and was trying to get away…so he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. It is to them—and by extension to us—that this sermon is delivered. Last weekend if the Feast of the Presentation had not trumped our regularly scheduled program, the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany would have been those familiar blessings Jesus spoke of, that we call the beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

Today’s gospel reading is a continuation of that time apart, as Jesus goes on to say the words we heard today:

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

You are salt. You are light.” Elsewhere, he will use the image of yeast as well, the Church as leaven that makes the whole loaf rise. Notice that all of these are little metaphors, metaphors of smallness. If you want to make a loaf of bread you don’t just start opening up cakes and cakes of yeast. It doesn’t take that much. A little bit of leaven is all it takes in some warm water, with a little sugar or honey to get it going.

We all know the health problems that too much salt can cause us. But in the ancient world, before refrigeration, salt quite literally helped to preserve life. Low sodium diets are good and smart and healthy today. But you can’t live with zero sodium. You will literally die trying. In addition to being a preservative, salt just tastes good—as long as it’s used in moderation. The late, great Lutheran Bishop, Krister Stendahl was fond of saying that Jesus told the church to be the salt of the earth, not to make the whole world into a salt mine! His humorous words suggest that our mission is not to make every person on the planet a Christian. Rather, Jesus challenges those of us who do claim Jesus as Lord to act like we mean it; to be practicing Christians. Because “if salt loses its taste, then what good is it?”

Perhaps the most powerful of these metaphors, at least for me personally, is our vocation to be light. The Church is called to be a light that shines in the darkness as a beacon of hope. You don’t need me to tell us about the darkness of this world. This world is God’s world and it is filled with beauty. But it can also be a pretty scary place:  a place or wars and rumors of wars, of violence and degradation. Sometimes it can feel like someone has shut out the lights. Even darker still is the dark night of the soul. There are times in our lives when the darkness seems too overwhelming; and it’s not that external darkness, but the internal kind, that we most fear.

And yet, we have two choices when the world is dark: we can curse the darkness or we can let our little lights shine. And even though we are prone to forget it sometimes, one little candle in a darkened room really does change the whole space. What was scary and dark can, in an instant, become a holy and luminous place. One tiny little flickering candle can guide us on our way, and helps others find their way as well.

We are called to be salt, and light, and yeast. These are metaphors of smallness, and I think that is truly good news. Even in that first setting, Jesus is away from the crowds and with just the twelve. Jesus doesn’t start a mega-church; rather, he forms a dozen disciples. Don’t ever doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. The fact that you and I are here today is proof that it can be done, and it isn’t done with smoke and mirrors. It’s done one little step at a time. From day one of his public ministry around that Sea of Galilee, from the moment he called Peter and Andrew and James and John, Jesus asked a small group of ordinary people to do extraordinary things, with God’s help. He called them apart to teach them how to be light and salt, and yeast.

So here we are, in this small but beautiful and historic parish of our small diocese, part of a small denomination.  What can we do? We can do what the Church has always been called to do: we can be yeast, and light, and salt for the sake of the world. That work that Jesus and his disciples began on a hill overlooking the lake continues to unfold, here and now, in this place, among us. That is the message, the “good news,” that we are entrusted as members of Christ’s Body to pass along to our children and our children’s children.

We are witnesses to the wonder and gift of smallness. We are called to be faithful, one day at a time, one step at a time, in small ways that really do make a huge difference in this world.

We live into our calling to be salt, and light, and yeast every time a Sunday School teacher prepares a lesson, and then welcomes a new child into the room with a smile. It happens when someone knits a prayer shawl or sends a card to a shut-in, or picks up the phone to reach out to someone who needs an encouraging word. You and I are not called to do great things. We are called to small things well, the things that are right before us. Jesus talks in the Sermon on the Mount about the Church’s vocation to be salt, and light, and yeast. Elsewhere he talks about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed. They are of a piece. When we live these words, the Kingdom of God is very much in our midst: and we are transformed and healed and strengthened for the journey. By God’s grace, that mustard seed grows into something larger, but the work to which we are called is about the little stuff, the stuff it’s easy to overlook.

This is why the Church doesn’t need superheroes, just saints—the kind you can meet in shops and in lanes and at tea, the kind who are fishermen and doctors and teachers and classmates and snow plowers and insurance salesmen. The ones who are our neighbors. Did you all hear about that school in Salt Lake City, Utah that threw out that food rather than feed it to kids whose parents were behind in paying for their lunches? Well, in the aftermath of that, you perhaps you also heard about the "lunch angel" from Houston, Texas who paid off all the elementary school lunch debts in a school where he tutors. It cost him $465. He didn’t appear to be a particularly wealthy person, but his comment was that it was the best money he ever spent. No big deal.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Don’t worry about doing big things. Let God worry about the big stuff. Just pay attention. Just keep listening to Jesus, who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. Just keep on doing the work that God gives you to do today, wherever you may find yourself. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Ruminating

So, I think when I first began writing this blog I didn't give a whole lot of thought to the name. Rich's Ruminations was probably chosen as much for alliteration as to make some deep theological statement. Even so, as I have written in the "About Me" part of this blog, it is a place where I try to "think out loud" about Christian faith and life in the twenty-first century. So I looked up "ruminate" because I like words and maybe to help me remember what I wanted to do in this blog. Here is what I found: "to think deeply about something" and then the second meaning (of a ruminant) "chew the cud." I like that one. Synonyms: contemplate, consider, meditate on, muse on, mull over, ponder, chew on, think about...

My context for doing that has significantly changed in the past year - away from parish ministry and into diocesan ministry. While there is continuity, there are definitely differences. I realize I have gotten into the habit of mostly just posting sermons on this blog - not really writing for it but using it as a venue for sharing those sermons.

Which I guess is ok. But I realize that part of the changing rhythms of this work in which I am now engaged is that I always feel like I'm running to catch up. Now that may be because it's still new. I think in most jobs, getting through the first year is a milestone because you've been through everything once. And I've not yet hit that milestone as Canon to the Ordinary. Or, alternatively it may be because this work will never get caught up and that will mean that I need to be more intentional than I was as a parish priest at finding time to ruminate.

I think one of the challenges of being a parish priest is that one can get parochial. One can turn inward. I see it more clearly now then I did when, well, when I was doing it myself. We can lose sight of the big picture. I really love diocesan ministry because it is all about seeing something larger. The harder challenge may be in going deeper, but it's most definitely a wider vision...

So from this vantage point, here are a few things everybody knows, liberal and conservative, about the Church in our day.
1. Our context in North America has shifted away from Constantinian Christianity (Christendom) to a new post-Christian context. Simply put, Christianity has lost its place of privilege;
2. Denominational loyalty truly is a thing of the past.
3. Consequently, there is a shift away from dogmatic theological differences and toward practices of faith, such as hospitality, peace-making, Sabbath-keeping, etc.
4. People don't just "show up"anymore; so we have to "go out." Ashes to go and worship among the homeless in the city square are examples of trying to live this out;
5. Collaboration and not silo ministry is the way forward.
6. None of this is easy. 
Here are some things I knew but have had confirmed in the past eight months or so:
1. There are no technical fixes to what ails us. Chasing after the latest, greatest program is not going to take the Church "back to the future" of the 1950s;
2. What is required is adaptive change - which is to say deeper change in the way we worship, make decisions, and are the Church together;
3.What is required is leadership - both ordained and lay. I have yet to see a thriving congregation that does not have a shared vision. Sometimes the cleric is "the problem" (or part of the problem.) Sometimes the laity are "the problem" or part of the problem. Getting stuck in conflict doesn't help. But where there is leadership, health and growth do happen - not always numerically but in the work of the Kingdom which is about making and forming disciples.
4. The Bishop's Office (which includes me) cannot issue decrees to make the Church healthier. But we can point the way. We can live it in hope, and model it for our clergy and lay leaders (collaboration, formation, trust in God, etc.) With God's help, I see the team I am a part of - starting with our Bishop - doing just that everyday. It makes me more hopeful than ever before about the future of the Church. 
Now for the hard part: here is the biggest thing I did not want to believe but have discovered first-hand in my journeys:
We think we are more welcoming than we really are. (I'm talking about Episcopal congregations here, I can't speak for others.) We are organized, mostly, like families. Worship is like a family reunion and being a newcomer in most of our congregations is a lot like being the significant other who is being dragged along as a date on a family reunion...only worse. "Everybody" knows which door to come in and "everybody" seems to hug at the Peace. (Has it really been only one generation since Episcopalians resisted even shaking hands?) These things reinforce who is in and who is out. We think they are welcoming but in truth we are most welcoming to ourselves, not to the stranger.
Now we can have a good fair fight about strategies for overcoming this. Do we print every word and hymn in the bulletin, for example, or do we teach our new folks how to use the Prayerbook? I don't really care so much; either strategy could be effectively implemented if we could admit to ourselves that we are, for the most part, just not very good at making people feel welcomed in. Starbucks has a lot of code-language but if you just want a medium coffee you can usually figure it out. I went into Best Buy the other day to buy a CD and there was an employee standing there to say "welcome" as I walked in. Some ushers that I see in my travels barely look up from the conversation they are engaged in with a fellow parishioner when a new person coming through the doors. Since they are the first person a newcomer sees, they need to know this ministry matters and be intentional about it.

Some of what we do is terrific and some of what we do belongs to a bygone era. It is not always immediately obvious which is which, so we need to be discerning. We need to ask questions. We need to explore. Maybe we need to go out and do some reconnaissance in other congregations and find out what they do well and where we might see our own shortcomings by noticing the splinter in their eye. Above all we need to be honest with ourselves.

Maybe as a small beginning, readers of this blog can commit to being intentional and looking around for the faces we don't yet know every time we are in worship. And then go say hello. Not "are you new?" Just "hey, I don't think we've met before..." Because where "strangers become friends," Christ is being made manifest.

This post doesn't have a neat ending. I'm still ruminating...




Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Who Moved My Feast?

Today is, technically, the Feast of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson - two very worthy followers of Jesus. But it was not always so. Up until the latest revision of Holy Women, Holy Men, February 5 was the Feast of the Martyrs of Japan, who have now been moved to tomorrow - February 6.

Normally I wouldn't care too much about such liturgical intricacies except for this: it's a bit unsettling to me personally because it was on this day, twenty years ago, that I was ordained to the priesthood. And when I was ordained at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, CT, it was most definitely the Feast of the Martyrs of Japan and not the Feast of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson! In any case, I was supposed to be the preacher and celebrant today at our diocesan staff Eucharist. But we in New England are in the midst of a big n'oreaster today and I'm working from home. Even so, I had prepared a homily for this occasion, which I am glad to share below.


This day is a day near and dear to my heart. Twenty years ago today —on February 5, 1994—I was ordained a priest at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, CT. That date did not actually mark the beginning of my ordained life however; as my brother and some of my closest friends never fail to remind me it was the third ordination liturgy that they endured on my behalf. In June of 1993, I had been ordained a deacon at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford; it's just how we do it. And five years before that I’d been ordained in the United Methodist Church in June 1988 at Elm Park Church in Scranton, PA.  I do “count” those years prior to coming into the Episcopal Church as important and happy ones in my ordained life, which means that I am now into my twenty-sixth year of ordained life. 

Even so, this day of my priestly ordination is the one that I remember best and an easy one to remember since it is also my mother's birthday!  It also gives me a chance to reflect on where I have been and where I am heading in my vocational life as a priest. And not just me (since it’s not all about me!) but a chance to reflect on God’s mission in the world and how the Church is called to share in that work, always with God’s help.

What I have come to see as the most important thing to say about those martyrs who died for their fidelity to Christ in Japan in the sixteenth century is that by all human accounts they failed. Listen again to these words in the write-up from Holy Women, Holy Men and be sure to hear between the lines:

…these initial successes were compromised by rivalries among the religious orders, and the interplay of colonial politics, both within Japan and between Japan and the Spanish and Portuguese, aroused suspicion about western intentions of conquest.

Rivalries among Christians are not new. We are very often our own worst enemies, are we not? We very often are not all on the same page within Christ’s holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We really could indeed move mountains if we could ever get two or three on earth to agree about anything, but since we carry this treasure in earthen vessels we don’t always or even mostly get it right. I was so struck last month by a piece written by Tom Ehrich in The Washington Post, entitled "Church Shouldn't Be This Hard."  He wasn’t talking about faith or our life in Christ or responding to Jesus’ call to take up our cross; that is meant to be hard. He was talking about how we treat each other and how we work together in the Church—that too often we aren’t any better than the wolves on Wall Street in how we act. But it is what it is, so in the meantime we muddle along, trying to make the best of it. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, we have to learn to deal with the Church we get in all its imperfection, rather than the wish-dream of the Church we idealistically imagine God should have formed.

By all human accounts, the martyrs of Japan failed. They fought turf battles and then they suffered and then they were killed. If nothing else it is a reminder that death is not the end, but the way that leads to new life. The Way of the Cross really is the way that leads to new and abundant life. So even at the grave we make our song. The seeds of faith were planted even by their deaths, just as the death of their Lord had done some sixteen hundred years before them. So, too with us. As one of my my favorite prayers puts it, "our failures and disappointments" can be occasions for us to put our whole trust in God. 

It is interesting to have such a day on which to reflect on one’s ministry and the wider ministry of the Church, especially since we live at a time when it is such a great a temptation to measure our dignity and worth by our successes.What does it mean to have a theology of failure, and of weakness, in a society where winning isn't everything but the only thing? I take their witness to mean, in this comparatively safe context of our diocese and in the relatively secure contexts in which my ordained life has unfolded that we must learn to measure “success” and “failure” in this work we are called to share as God’s people in very different ways than those used in the corporate world. It is tempting for us to look to some “bottom line” in our congregations: attendance figures, pledge income, enrollment in church school. All of those may well be indicators of health, but they cannot tell us about whether or not ministry is happening there. Those measures can be alluring, but we must guard against that allure.

Today’s gospel reading puts it succinctly and also reminds us that while it is the martyrs of Japan that we remember here today, their witness and the witness of all the saints who from their labors rest point us to the one they were willing to take up their crosses and follow: Jesus of Nazareth, the one we claim as the Way and the Truth and the Life. They remind us, as he did, that we only find the life that is worth living when we are willing to lose the secure (but false) lives we are tempted to build for ourselves and hold onto. Almost fifty-one years into my baptismal vows and more than half of those as an ordained person, and now twenty as an Episcopal priest, I know I don’t have that much faith yet. But I pray with that man who said, “I believe; help thou my unbelief.”

This vocation is not only to the ordained, of course. It is God’s call to all of us and we are in this together and eight months or so into this work now here, in this place, I believe that more and more every day. As a staff we are more than the bishop and more than the canons and more than the diocesan staff. We share this work in the name of Christ as Clergy Days and Warden-Vestry Leadership Days and Convention come up and every time the phone rings or an email is sent. The work of following this way of the cross is shared by all of us and beyond this room to every congregation in this diocese. And part of what I see a bit more clearly eight months into this work than I did as a rector of one of the healthier congregations in our diocese, is that we are only as strong as our weakest link. So part of our ongoing work is to continue to build up and strengthen the whole Body.

For us, this work is nearly impossible. But with God, all things are possible. The Holy Spirit is always at work, even in the midst of what we see as our biggest failures, bringing life out of death. I look forward to watching the Spirit continue to do Her thing as we continue, with God’s help, to do the work we have been given to do. Amen.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Prophet Anna

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus, or perhaps more accurately the Feast of The Purification of the Virgin Mary. It is also sometimes called Candlemas. 

My journeys as an itinerant member of the bishop's staff take me today to St. Mark's Church in Leominster where the Rev. Jim Craig serves as rector.



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This past June, I accepted Bishop Fisher’s invitation to join his executive staff as Canon to the Ordinary. Before that, I served as the rector of St. Francis Church in Holden for more than fifteen years.

  
Just a few years after I arrived in Holden, in 2002, St. Francis celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. They had begun as a mission of St. John’s in Worcester and officially became a parish in their own right in October 1952. The young families, mostly, who began that parish did so pretty much from scratch, with the support and prayers and encouragement of St. John’s and the rest of the diocese and the bishop at the time, William Appleton Lawrence. So in 2002 when the parish turned fifty we invited some old rectors back, including my two immediate predecessors. (The Rt. Rev'd) Gordon Scruton who was then bishop of this diocese presided at the Eucharist and his predecessor, (The Very Rev'd) Earl Whepley, preached. It was a wonderful celebration. But they were not the real stars of the show. The real stars were those founding lay people, now in their seventies and eighties, who had guided a fledgling house-church into a thriving, dynamic parish.

One of the sad aspects of my time in Holden over the next decade after that celebration was to bury many from that founding generation. But one who is still alive today, now in her nineties, is Helen. Helen was one of those amazing saints that you pray every congregation has at least one of. Like so many saints she was not unacquainted with sorrow and grief; while I was in Holden we buried both her husband and her son. She was a long time choir member until she just couldn’t do it anymore. But I think her greatest ministry of all was this: she adored young people. Every time we had a baptism—no matter how loud the baptismal candidate was—Helen would say, “so beautiful, so amazing.” Every time we had the youth lead worship and would bring out the bass guitars and drums, Helen would say the same thing: “they are so beautiful, just so amazing.”

She was rooted firmly in the history of St. Francis. But she was never one to hold onto the past or talk nostalgically about the glory days. Helen was there to cheer on and encourage every change that unfolded while I was rector of St. Francis. While rooted in the past, she was always looking at our youth and seeing a yet more glorious future, embodying the Biblical witness to share that heritage with our children and our children’s children.

So here is the thing: to pass on the faith of our fathers and mothers to a new generation is to recognize that it is “living still.” We don’t pass the faith on like a carefully wrapped package. We pass on a living faith and as it is embodied in a new generation, in a new context, a new day dawns as we are guided by the Holy Spirit into all truth. When that happens it is always “so amazing and so beautiful.”

And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.

It’s tempting for 21st century Christians to see this moment as something like a Baptism : Mary and Joseph bring baby Jesus to the Temple forty days after his birth. Calling this day the Feast of the Presentation reinforces that reading. And I’m sure that’s a part of it all. But the truth is that this journey is more about Mary than it is about Jesus.  As Luke tells us, they came because of the Torah of Moses. What would happen if we called this day the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, as some Christians do?

They were, after all, first-century Jews , not twenty-first century Christians. They didn’t know yet they would be the stars of something called the “new” testament; they just had The Testament – the Word of the Lord given in the call of Abraham and Sarah and in the Torah given to Moses on Sinai, and in the promise made to King David, the Word of the Lord in prophets like Isaiah and Amos and in the writings like Job and Qoheleth. And in the twelfth chapter of Leviticus it says this: after a woman gives birth to a son she is to go to the temple to be made ritually clean again and to “present a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering.” The assumption was that childbirth made her “unclean.”

Understanding that concept in English and within our Christian world-view is a real challenge. Unclean sounds like dirty to our ears, but this is easy for us to misunderstand. The Hebrew word, tum’ah, is all over the Book of Leviticus – and central to the priestly worldview. It doesn’t mean impure or contaminate or defiled, even though all those words get used sometimes in English. Without getting too crass here, it’s helpful to remember that in the Leviticus world-view, excrement is not tum’ah, for example, because tum’ah is not about dirt. It’s about “life forces.” It’s a sense that blood, literally the life-force running through our veins, when it escapes (as in birth) leaves a kind of residue behind. And before one encounters the Holy again one needs to acknowledge this ritually.

Now let me just say that I don’t pretend to grasp that worldview completely or even to share it, so it’s not the task of this sermon to defend it. But it’s a way of thinking about things that is about the call of God’s people to holiness. And in this understanding the ordinary stuff of day-to-day life—and of birth and death—leave a kind of residue behind. And so before one can be restored to holiness, and made a holy people before God, they need to be made ritually pure again in order to encounter the Holy One.

It’s not the only view in the Old Testament, however, nor in the New. In fact in his public ministry at least part of the conflict that Jesus seems to have with the scribes and Pharisees is that they seem to be the upholders of that Leviticus worldview, while he argues again and again that compassion trumps holiness. Or to say that more accurately, that an obsession with defining who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is unclean, often leaves whole bunches of people permanently on the outside.

This feast of the Presentation comes in the midst of this long Epiphany season, reminding us that we are called to let our light shine in the darkness. The problem is that sometimes we aren’t so sure we have that light, or at the very least that it’s gotten pretty dim. We may feel like we don’t bring much to the Table, or even that we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs underneath it. But here’s the deal: we are made worthy, we are holy enough, good enough, to let our little light shine in the darkness because that light of Christ refuses to be overcome by the darkness of this world.

There is a provision in the Torah for people who cannot afford a lamb as a sacrifice for this ritual: “if her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons.” (Leviticus 12:8) Since Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph took that second option, he is telling us that they couldn’t afford the sheep. He’s telling us that Jesus grew up poor, that this man acquainted with sorrow and grief did not grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. That should catch the attention of us, who are called to follow him, because when we encounter the poor in our own day we are meant to see the face of Jesus. It should catch our attention because Jesus didn’t scapegoat the poor or call them lazy; he loved them and stood in solidarity with them.  
Anyway, Mary and Joseph and forty-day old baby Jesus arrive at the Temple in Jerusalem, some sixty miles or so from home in the days before interstate highways and automobiles. And there they encounter two senior citizens, Simeon and Anna. As we heard, Simeon was “on duty” as a priest. It was a rotating job, not like being a permanent rector. So he happened to be the guy there for this event—or maybe if we don’t believe in coincidences we might say, he was destined to be the priest on duty. He recognizes at some deep intuitive mystical level that as a Jew who has spent his life waiting for messiah he can now depart in peace. This is the one. His eyes have seen.

                                Lord, you now have set your servant free
                             to go in peace as you have promised.
                   For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior
                             whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
                   A Light to enlighten the nations,
                             and the glory of your people Israel.

It’s the last prayer that we pray at the end of each day at Compline. It’s like an adult version of “now I lay me down to sleep…” really it’s almost exactly the same prayer. If we should die before we wake it is without fear, for we are a people who have seen and known and loved this Jesus and even more importantly have been seen and been known and been loved by this one whose love is deep and wide.

And there was also a prophet there: Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of great age...having lived with her husband just seven years after they were married, she was now an eighty-four year old widow who never left the temple. She was on Altar Guild, attended every Bible Study, made dinner for the homeless and casseroles for the grieving. you know her, I'm sure...

So at that very moment she came by too, and she began to praise God and to speak about this child to anyone who would listen - to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel. 

Anna is the first in a line of prophetic disciples who will preach about Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel: messiah has arrived, bringing about a new era and the dawn of a new day. This old lady in her mid-eighties - who has spent her whole life steeped in a rich tradition - this daughter of Abraham sees something new and life-changing about to happen. And so she goes and tells others what she has seen. And I wonder, if when it's all done if she doesn't turn to old Simeon to say: "so amazing...so beautiful."