Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Beautiful Questions

This week I've been attending a symposium put on by the Episcopal Church Building Fund. There has been much here to ruminate on, in particular the keynote speaker, Ron Finley, whose TED talk can be found here.

While I am still processing the symposium itself (and will probably post about it soon enough) on my way there I read an article in the on-air magazine of Southwest Air, Spirit, that you can read here.

Knowing that I am that I am one of those people who does not always click through to the hyperlinks when I'm reading a blog post, I really do encourage you to read the article (even if you don't click on those first two links at this time.) The article is way better than any ruminations I have to offer below...

In summary, the article is about a man who lost his leg in a water skiing accident at 21 and then went on to invent those new prosthetics that you see runners wearing. But the focus is on asking questions, because that is what innovators do. Specifically: Why? What if? How? This cycle needs to then be repeated.

I think the Church needs to be a place where we are learning to ask and re-ask these same questions. Often congregations jump right to the third question, which leads to technical answers to old questions. How will we pay the bills? How will we find new people to serve in this ministry?

But the "why" questions are critical, in congregations and in our lives. Why does this situation exist? Why does it present a problem? Why hasn't this problem been addressed? To linger on "why" gets those creative juices flowing, and can lead to a whole new set of "what if" questions. What if we came at this from a different direction? What if we try a whole new approach? What is this like - and are there analogical insights to be gained here?

Now if we stop there we can fall into the problem of just dreaming but never acting; of perpetual "discernment" without moving forward. "How" questions are practical and actionable. If we start there, as mentioned above, we just keep doing the same old things. But if we return there after asking the other questions, we are now forced back on the ground: how can we this get done? Who needs to be at the table? What are the first steps? And if this fails, what can be learned so that the cycle can be repeated? Beautiful questions.

In The Book of Common Prayer, each time Holy Baptism is celebrated, the celebrant prays that the baptized might be given "an inquiring and discerning heart." We are meant, I think, to live into the questions because they represent the lure of the Holy Spirit.

The questions unleash missional energy, in our personal lives and in communities of faith. So again, in this great convergence of "coincidences" this conference has been bringing to me, I read this article on the plane and then heard the "gangsta gardener" talking about how he came to do what he has done in South L.A.  He didn't phrase it the same way but this is what he did: he chased after those beautiful questions. Several times the other night he said "it was no big deal." It was no grand epiphany. But it was, I think, a revelation in the deepest sense, the kind that comes when we pay attention and learn to ask why, what if, and how.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Trusting Thomas

In some circles this Sunday after the crowds have come and gone on Easter morning is known as "Low Sunday." But my Bishop prefers to call it Momentum Sunday - reminding us that Easter is not a day but a fifty-day season that culminates at Pentecost. (You can see his Easter Momentum challenge here). 

So on the day formerly known as Low Sunday, I find myself at Trinity Church in Shrewsbury. Last Sunday was their rector's last Sunday with them. While their spirits are no doubt pretty low at the moment, with the future unclear, it seems to me that this puts them in precisely the right place to hear the good news of this day, and to begin to find the courage and strength and hope to begin again, and to trust the momentum of God's Holy Spirit to guide and lead them in the weeks to come. In truth, wherever we are in our journey, this is all we ever have; one day at a time.

The star of most homilies on this Second Sunday of Easter is good old “doubting” Thomas, at least in congregations that use the lectionary, which is to say most mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics. In some of the homilies preached across our diocese today, Thomas will be scolded by the preacher for being such a doubter. (Although notice that he is not scolded by Jesus). The message to the congregation is clear: Thomas doubted, don’t be like him!  For others (and I think this is far more likely to be the storyline in most Episcopal congregations)—Thomas will be raised up as the “patron saint” of doubters everywhere. This version of the story suggests that doubt and questions are good and when expressed can lead us to faith. So here, too, the message to the congregation is clear: Thomas doubted, do be like him!

This works (on both sides) because we tend to associate faith with belief. We tend to think that what we think about our faith—our belief system—is the same as faith. That idea grows directly out of the Enlightenment, which means it’s been around for a while, longer than most of us who are here today. But the Church is way older than the Enlightenment and we need to go further back than the eighteenth century if we want to make sense of Thomas.

Personally, I think the Church as a whole got confused along the way. Fundamentalists, and the liberal theologians who call themselves the Jesus Seminar (as well as those atheists who are certain God doesn’t exist because we’ve been to space and heaven clearly wasn’t “up there”) are all in their own ways still stuck in the eighteenth century. They continue to fight old battles about why Jesus died, or whether or not his body was literally raised or about the right way to read the Bible or about who can get married—and then think that their beliefs are what make them Christians. (And those who disagree, of course, not Christians but heretics.)  

But that approach keeps us stuck. As we remembered again just ten days ago, on the night before he died for the sins of the whole world, Jesus took a towel and washed the feet of his disciples, telling them (and us) that the world would know we are Christians by our love and by our willingness to be servants in a world bent on the misuse and abuse of power. You will know Christians not by their words so much as their actions, by their practices, by how they treat each other and especially by how they treat the poor. It does not say anywhere that I can find in the Bible that “you will know they are Christians by their doctrine.” St. Paul told those first-century Christians in Corinth that in the end our doctrinal certitudes and orthodox beliefs are nothing more than clanging cymbals if we don’t have faith, hope and love. But especially love.

So what does all this have to do with our friend, Thomas? As the story is told by John, a week has passed since the Spirit first came to the disciples last Sunday night, Easter Sunday. Thomas wasn’t with them, so this is round two.  I want to teach you just one Greek vocabulary word today, which is the language of the New Testament. It is the word pistis, which refers not to the content of faith—to what we think we know, but to something far more primal. Pistis is not about doctrine or a belief system, but is really best translated as “trust.”  And trust is a much better synonym for faith than belief is.

I think that the key to understanding Thomas is about whether or not he can bring himself to trust Jesus again, the one on whom he had previously staked his life, but then who went and got himself killed. Thomas is not struggling with his doctrine of the resurrection. Nor is he asking (so far as I can tell) whether or not God exists. He’s wondering whether he can still trust God after all that has happened. He’s trying to figure out what is really real.

Remember that we’ve heard from Thomas on two previous occasions in John’s Gospel. In the eleventh chapter, when Jesus decides to go back to Judea to raise Lazarus (even though it is clear at that point that the authorities are out to get him) it is Thomas who says to the other disciples: “let us go with him that we may also die with him.” (John 11:16) So he is willing to follow Jesus to death; to stand in solidarity and to become a martyr if necessary. That is very brave. But the Easter question before him and us today is an even harder one: is he willing to risk the new life Christ brings? Is he willing to live for Christ? That will require buckets of trust.

And then in the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel we get one of my favorite Thomas moments, almost as awesome as the one before us today. Jesus is talking about his impending death. He is telling the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled. But their hearts are troubled. He tells them that it’s going to be alright, because he is going to prepare a place for them and that in God’s house there are many dwelling places. And then Jesus says, “and you know the way where I am going.”

Do you remember? That is when good old Thomas pipes up and asks the question that all the disciples are dying to ask but are too scared to ask. It’s like men and directions: Jesus is saying “you know the way” and everyone is nodding, oh yeah, we know how to get there, we don’t need no stinkin’ GPS! But it is Thomas who says, “excuse me, Lord but no…actually we don’t have a clue where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) That’s when Jesus tells his disciples: keep your eyes on the prize…keep your eyes on me! Don’t lose me, I’ll get you there. I promise. “I am the way, the truth, the life.” Those words are not a threat to unbelievers; but a promise to those who put their trust in Jesus. So Thomas the twin, as he is remembered in the fourth gospel, is the one who is not afraid to ask the hard questions. He’s not afraid to die. And he clearly loves Jesus. I don’t think he is looking for proof today so much as the fact that his sense of trust has been shaken. His world has been rocked and he is wondering as anyone would wonder: is Jesus still the way, still the truth, still the life, or just another dead martyr?  

So literally, the Greek should be translated like this: when Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds, what Jesus says in response is this—do not lack trust; trust. I submit to you that these words are good news on this second Sunday of Easter around the globe and across this diocese, from Williamstown to Westborough. But they are especially important words here, today, in this place. Because that one word points the way to the work that lies ahead for all of you. Trust. Trust God. Trust each other.

Do not lack trust. Trust. Trust is the way forward when we are stuck and our faith goes nowhere until we figure that out. Some people will struggle with trust issues their whole lives. But we cannot mature in faith, personally or as a congregation, until we work through those issues. And that is what is going on in today’s gospel. Nothing else can really happen in the spiritual life until we begin to learn to let go and let God.  Thomas shows us what “an inquiring and discerning heart” looks like. Do not lack trust…trust.

Now that is my standard Thomas sermon. If it is not obvious to you, I love the guy. His questions lead him to deeper faith and I think it can be the same for us. And I hope that you hear some good news in these words. But now I want to shift our attention just a bit, because I think we can become over-focused on Thomas, whose role is like all the saints, is to point us this risen but scarred Jesus who shows us the living God. So let’s step back and check out the whole room before we call it quits on this sermon.  Let’s go back one week to last Sunday night when Jesus first appears in that room to meet the other ten disciples.

And as we heard today, Thomas wasn’t there. (He’d gone out to Dunkin Donuts or something because as everyone knows, grieving people drink a lot of coffee.) What I want you to notice is about the other ten disciples is this: the doors are still shut one week later. The Spirit came, and breathed on them, and the risen Christ came through doors that were locked, but they were still afraid. So we have spent a lot of time thinking about Thomas today but here’s a question I want to ask: why are those doors still shut? I think the answer is that the remaining ten disciples are the ones who don’t yet get it. They had the experience, but they missed the meaning. Fear is still keeping them from trust. Good old Thomas gets it, bless his heart, the first time around. And he is the one, again with the questions, who helps the others to finally see.

When Jesus walks into that room, he is there to transform fear into trust. It is always that way and you know it’s the Holy Spirit at work when fear is cast out and trust replaces it. John says the Spirit helps us to loose sins; that is to forgive. Forgiveness is a huge part of navigating trust: because we have to let go and forgive in order to move on. If we don’t do that, then we are doomed to keep repeating the past. We stay stuck. We let people take up residence in our head rent-free. The Spirit helps us with that work, casting out fear in order to make room for faith, hope, and love.  The Spirit comes to empower and equip us for mission. But all of that begins with trust. And none of it is possible without it.

How many churches keep their work focused on what happens behind closed doors? And maybe here that has been a little bit true here in the midst of mistrust and uncertainty—a circling of the wagons, a looking inward. And yet while that is understandable from a human perspective, it is not the way forward. The point of Easter is that we are called to “go and tell.” We are called to open the doors, and are sent into the world where Christ has already gone ahead of us. God has a mission and is already at work in the world. So the Spirit comes into that room and into this room today so that we will open the doors not only so others can come in but so that we can go out. Easter is about flinging the doors wide open—about rolling away all of the stones that keep us entombed.  And then making sure that those doors stay wide open. We are sent out of this place to do the work God has given us to do, not to hide out here in fear.

We get a glimpse of what that looked like for First Parish, Jerusalem in the readings that we’ll continue to hear throughout these fifty days from the Acts of the Apostles.  We see a people on the move, a people clear about their mission. The work of ministry only becomes possible, however, when God’s people trust the resurrected Jesus enough to head back to the streets. That is where we begin to gain momentum.

I love Thomas. But the good news here is that Easter lasts for a season, not just one day. And that gives us time to breathe in the Spirit as we uncover the true meaning of Easter. That is the work that God has given you all to do here at Trinity, Shrewsbury. It’s not work that can be delegated to the bishop or to his canons, or to a departed rector or parish administrator or wardens or the vestry. It is the work of God’s Easter people: to overcome your fears and trust God and in so doing to find your voices. It’s about flinging the doors wide open. Do not lack trust; trust!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Sermon of St. John Chrysostom

Below is the Easter sermon of John Chrysostom, an early church father who lived from 347-357). Some church people (including clergy) can get "snooty" about Christmas and Easter Christians. For my own part I say, welcome back. Whether one has kept the Lenten fast or snuck in behind the Easter procession - all are welcome, and the Table is set. Let no one go away hungry! Happy Easter!

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Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Mandatum Novum

This is my first Holy Week since 1993 in a non-parochial ministry. From 1989-1993 I was a Campus Minister. But from 1994-2013 I was, like most parish priests, immersed in Holy Week liturgies from Palm Sunday and into the Triduum and Easter Vigil and Easter morning. Now, as a member of the Bishop's staff, I find myself with a quiet week for prayer, reflection, and worship - without all that worship planning or sermon writing. It has been a very different experience. On Palm Sunday I had a rare opportunity to sit in the pews with my wife at All Saints Church in Worcester, and on Easter Sunday we'll be together again with our kids and my extended family in Pennsylvania - an ecumenical opportunity to proclaim the resurrection among the United Methodists. My sole liturgical duty this week: preaching tonight at St. John's, Sutton and washing feet there with the rector, The Rev. Lisa Green. I am grateful for her invitation to spend this Maundy Thursday in Sutton. (And for those wondering, the picture below was taken earlier this fall - when the liturgical color was still green!) 

Do you all remember Gary Larson? There’s an old "Far Side" cartoon that I am always reminded of on Maundy Thursday. God is in the kitchen cooking up the world. He’s got all kinds of ingredients to sprinkle over the globe, which is in a skillet on the stove. There are birds, and trees and reptiles; light-skinned people and medium-skinned people and dark-skinned people. But the “spice” that Chef God is holding in his hands says “jerks.”  And the caption reads: “…just to make it interesting…” (See the image here). 

A few years back The Alban Institute published a little book for clergy and lay leaders with the title “Never Call Them Jerks,” which was about dealing with difficult behaviors in congregations. It’s a good book and I think the title is right; it’s a little like a mother saying to her child, “I don’t want to hear the word ‘hate’ in this house.”

So we won’t call anyone a jerk. But here is the thing: the fact that a book needed to be written on this topic about the challenges of congregational life make the point that it’s not always easy. Sometimes in the midst of our own disappointments and conflicts and hurts, we are tempted to see those who stand in our way or who hurt or disappoint us as “jerks.” And if you become involved at any level in congregational life, then it’s fairly certain you will be hurt or disappointed sooner or later. And to be fair, sometimes we don’t bring our best selves to church. Behaviors that would never be tolerated in the workplace and more closely resemble a two-year old tantrum are all too commonplace in congregational life.

Now here is the good news that I want to share with you tonight: it is precisely at that moment in time that the true journey of the spiritual life really begins. It is precisely at this moment that we need tonight’s gospel reading and that we need community, and that we need to know that it has ever been so. It is precisely at this moment that I recommend two books by two giants of the Christian tradition: C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.  In the fifteen years that I was the rector in Holden, I read each of those books probably a dozen times and every time I realized anew that the biggest challenge I faced was, to put it as Bonhoeffer puts it, to let go of my own idealized “wish dream” for Christian community and give thanks for what was, even in all of its messiness.
With the Rev. Lisa Green, Rector of St. John's Sutton

Because people are a mess. And because authentic communities of faith are messy. It’s a whole lot easier to be spiritual, but not religious and to go for long walks on the beach than it is to be part of a community of faith. But this is what Baptism into Christ demands of us. We are called into a communion of saints. And here is the thing: every saint is also a sinner. And sometimes sinners behave a lot like jerks. But at least it keeps things interesting…

As these three days unfold, we see Judas betray not only Jesus but the rest of the gang too. And Peter, who denies the faith that is in him. “I do not know the man.” And all of them who fall asleep even after Jesus pleads with them: can you not stay awake with me for one hour? Sometimes Christians get it wrong. Let’s be honest – we get it wrong more often than we get it right. And sometimes Christians run away in fear. The question is this: what happens next? What do we do when we are hurt or disappointed—when we learn that this congregation like all congregations in our diocese and across the Church is not perfect and cannot fulfill our own personal “wish dreams” of what a congregation is supposed to look like? Easter is a time for new beginnings.

And tonight  is, as I read it, an invitation to find a way forward. As you heard, we are commanded to love one another. This day takes its name from the Latin words mandatum novum—a new mandate that we love one another. That is strong language. These words represent Jesus’ final instructions to the Church before his crucifixion. In John’s Gospel he will reiterate this commandment from the Cross by telling the beloved disciple and his mother to love one another like parent and child. And then his work will be “finished.”

The Word became flesh and pitched tent among us not so we could all like each other and not so that “jerkish” behavior would be eradicated from the planet. According to that theologian Larson, that is what makes life interesting. So tonight’s gospel isn’t first and foremost about the people we like or already feel committed to or who always get it right. Tonight isn’t Hallmark card love on Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day. Nor is about giving people a free-pass or not holding them accountable for their actions.

But in the end, tonight’s gospel is far more radical and scary than that. Jesus acts out a parable that is incredibly relevant to the Church in our time and in every time. It invites us to transform the way we talk to one another and about one another not just face-to-face but in the parking lot and when we are whispering. To enter into the mystery of what our Lord does on this night is a hard and difficult path. And not because we are embarrassed that we didn’t get a pedicure before church, but because such an act really does require risk and vulnerability and intimacy that most of us are scared to death of.

This is a hard saying and a challenge to so much that we believe we stand for—so much we want to stand for. But notice Jesus’ posture on this night. He isn’t standing, but kneeling at the feet of his friends. As the African folk song puts it: Jesu, Jesu, kneels at the feet of his friends. Silently washes their feet. This king of kings and lord of lords and very God of very God (begotten not made)—humbles himself in the form of a servant, and gets on his knees and takes a basin and a towel and washes his disciples’ feet. All of them, including the betrayer, and the denier and the sleepers. In that vulnerability—all the way to tomorrow’s conclusion at Golgatha, he gives us this mandatum novum to love one another.

Now I want to invite you to think about one other Christian—ideally in this congregation but if you just love everyone here at St. John’s to pieces it’s ok to look beyond these walls. But it has to be someone you really do not like. And it can’t be some caricature of evil like Adolf Hitler. It has to be a person you know, a person who claims to be a Christian, a person who is sometimes kind of a jerk even if we aren’t supposed to say that in church. Maybe it is someone who has served on the vestry with you or sung in the choir. Or maybe she just rubs you the wrong way because—well you know because you were in that Bible study together that time and she did all the talking. Or none of the talking. Or maybe at coffee hour two years and seven months and four weeks ago he didn’t speak to you. Or maybe it’s someone who wanted to spend money you felt this congregation doesn’t have, or maybe it’s because they have no clue about how a church is supposed to operate or at least how things run here, because they are from away. The reasons don’t matter much. Just picture that person—one real person (not a composite of your own anxious projections)—with a story and real hurts and real joys and real questions and real problems.

And then imagine what it would be like for you to wash that person’s feet tonight. Imagine praying for that person in all of her vulnerability. Imagine what it would be like to listen to that person’s life story, not from the position of power but of vulnerability and weakness. And then imagine what it would be like for you to have the grace to let that person be your servant, too, and to wash your feet. And to reverse positions so that the shoe, as it were, might be placed on the other foot and they would hear your story, and they could pray for you.

Now as a parish priest I had this experience more than once, because when you are a parish priest in a congregation of strong-willed people there are ample opportunities for hurt and misunderstanding. So I’m not in those relationships here. But this liturgy remains for me one of the great gifts given by Jesus to the Church, and this is why I basically invited myself here tonight – because I needed someplace to be where I could be reminded (even in a diocesan job) why it is I am a priest. And what I can tell you is this: you can wash a person’s feet and still get up and still disagree about many things. In fact that’s probably a given. You can even get up and still not want to invite that person to your home for your next dinner party. That’s ok too. But it is very difficult, and maybe it’s even impossible, to hate a person after you have allowed yourself to be vulnerable to one another in this way. It’s very difficult to ever again call them a jerk.

I am convinced that the God who sprinkles all these different kinds of people into the world and into our congregations and into our lives is a God with a terrific sense of humor. So I expect that at the Great Banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven, the seating arrangements may well be such that we have to continue to deal with people who get under our skin. As it turns out, they really do make life interesting and among other things they help us to figure out a great deal about ourselves and to glimpse the kingdom of God which is much bigger than any of us can imagine on our own. And I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this or not, but sometimes the traits that most irk us in others are ones we possess ourselves. It turns out that sometimes it is in fact easier to see the splinter in their eye better than the beam in our own.

This is no cure-all for conflicts and disappointments in the church or on how to deal with bullies. But the mystery of the commandment given to the Church on this night is that it invites us to see one another differently—to look through a different set of lenses than we are used to. It asks us to look for the face of Jesus in one another, and to be servants to one another in love. To love and to serve one another as we have been loved. And that has the potential to change us for good. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Holy Tuesday

So great today to be at our cathedral with the clergy of the diocese, a tradition in which bishop and priests and deacons renew their ordination vows and the bishop blesses the oils used in the diocese for baptisms and anointing the sick and dying.

The leader for our morning meditations was Brother Curtis Almquist, SSJE - a person of whom I am very fond. In his invitation to embrace silence, he offered this prayer, which I take with me through the rest of this week and toward Easter. The poem is called "Clearing" and is written by Martha Postlewaite.

Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create 
a clearing
in the dense forest
of your life 
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worth of rescue. 

Friday, April 11, 2014


Have you seen this video? I've seen it on Facebook posted by a half dozen or more friends. Here is something very interesting to me about the comments: so far as I can tell, lay people (across generational lines) seem to think this is really cool. And clergy (across generational lines) seem to feel a bit queasy watching it. What gives?

Maybe I'm overstating this and let's face it, the comments on a half dozen posts are hardly a scientific sample. So I invite feedback and comments here because I am genuinely very curious. But here is what I think...

Lay people like it because the priest seems real. He seems authentic. He seems to like the couple. He's not just going through the motions. He is not grumpy-cat-priest. The bride and groom seem happy with it, so he knows them and has made a connection.Over the years I've heard horror stories about clergy who are obvious about their disdain for officiating at weddings, have a list of "no-can-do's" and who seem to preach a homily that is canned with "insert bride's name here" depth. So a priest who is having fun, and has taken the time to personalize the song...he seems real.

Here is what clergy seem to see: self-centered creep. Is that too harsh? Not based on the comments I've read. A wedding is first and foremost about God, the clergy say; otherwise go find a JP. While one expects the bride and perhaps the mother of the bride to compete with God for starring role, one does not expect the priest to insert himself at the center.

Underneath the joy and the snark, it raises some theological questions for me. Most clergy I know would rather do five funerals over one wedding. They talk with each other about this but rarely express those feelings, I think, when setting wedding guidelines in their parishes. It is true that weddings have been taken over by the wedding industry and are great examples of consumerism-gone-wild. On the other hand, I am not so cynical as to believe that people only want a church wedding because it makes a nice "set." While I have made those same comments about preferring to officiate at funerals over weddings, over the years I have found the preparation with couples in particular to be a real joy of pastoral ministry, and couples who do want a church wedding mostly get it that the wedding is an event but a marriage unfolds over a lifetime, and that the wedding industry is interested in the former but the Church cares about the latter. We do, after all, proclaim our faith in an incarnate God, and God's love is made manifest in the love that two human beings profess for each other. Ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est. 

There is a middle ground here; I'm just not sure yet what it is. But I think this priest exposes the fault lines, which perhaps makes a more serious conversation about weddings and marriage possible.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Public Prayer

What should clergy do when asked to offer public prayers at various events? My colleagues tend to have strong opinions on opposite sides of this question. Some feel that they are being "used" - or that it is part of an old Christendom model of being church to offer invocations and benedictions at public gatherings. Others feel it is a time to proselytize; so they will only pray if they can do so in the name of Jesus.

For my own part, whenever I can accept such invitations I say yes. While my prayers are to the living God whom I know through Jesus, I don't feel like I sacrifice my integrity by letting Jesus be present more silently at interfaith gatherings; I trust that the one who washed his disciples' feet with a towel on the last night of his life doesn't need to be forced on his fellow Jews or Muslims or unbelievers to make a prayer valid. I have prayed at the dedication of a new public safety building and the swearing in of a county sheriff, and at countless high school and college baccalaureates and graduations. I have blessed the holy ground of an elementary school classroom as the teacher got ready for the first day of school and the arrival of her students in the year ahead. Today I offered an invocation at The Hanover Theater for the annual business meeting of the Worcester Business Development Corporation at the invitation of my friend, George Tetler.

I say yes to such invitations for theological reasons and for personal ones. First, I believe in the ministry of the baptized. I believe that the lawyers and business people and college presidents and bankers and public servants who were there today are doing "the Lord's work." Every week in my tradition we send the people out to "do the work that God has given us to do." There were two former parishioners of mine there today, faithful Episcopalians and two others whom I know as Episcopalians in another Worcester parish. I am certain there were many other people of faith there today. I got to hear a speaker who was a graduate of Quinsigamond Community College, a WBDC partner, speak about her work in the area of global health with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and now with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The work that she and the Gates Foundation are doing is without a doubt holy work. So personally I am enriched by being in the presence of such dedicated people.

What does my prayer do? Is God not there if I refuse to show up and say the words, but magically appear when I invoke God's Spirit? Of course not. God is at work in the world already and in the midst of faithful men and women regardless of whether or not I offer a prayer. But in my experience, such prayers are more than perfunctory nods to cultural Christianity or American secular religion. They are a way of practicing what we preach; at least it feels that way for me. A way of naming the holiness of such work.

The Episcopal Church is discovering ways to take the word into the street - Ashes to Go and Stations of the Cross and lots of other creative ways. I think we also need to be people who are committed to the dedicated collaborative work of rebuilding and revitalizing our urban centers and stand with them in that work.

Here is the prayer I offered this morning:
George Tetler, Board Chair of the WBDC

Living God, you have given us a vision of that Holy City where ancient ruins are rebuilt and the foundations are raised up: help us to embrace your challenge to be repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in. Behold and visit, we pray, the cities of this earth. Behold and visit, we pray, our city of Worcester. Strengthen and renew the ties of mutual regard which form our civic life. Give us eyes to see our diversity not as a problem to be managed, but as a gift to be celebrated, and as a sign of your presence among us. Send us honest and able leaders who will work with You and with your people to eliminate poverty and oppression, that peace may prevail with righteousness, and justice with order, until men and women from different cultures and with differing talents may find with one another the fulfillment of our common humanity. Bless the work of the Worcester Business Development Corporation and strengthen the ties of collaboration between public and private resources, that together we might seek the common good for all your people. Grant us wisdom and grant us courage for the facing of this hour and beyond as we aspire to do the work that you have given us to do. In your holy name we pray. Amen.

Based on “A Prayer for Cities” from The Book of Common Prayer pg. 825; Isaiah 58:12; and the Mission Statement of the WBDC.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Signs of the Kingdom

Jesus also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’ (Mark 4:30-32) 
The lines above are among my favorite in Holy Scripture. Sometimes when we are looking for signs of God's Reign we want to see big things; if not peace on earth then maybe at least in Afghanistan. If not good will to all, then maybe at least some good will in our congregation. We expect to see "cedars of Lebanon" and then we'll know that God is at work. But Jesus teaches us to look in smaller places, with eyes that see.

No doubt the work of ministry includes watering such seeds and tending to them so they can grow up and put forth large branches. But we need to train our eyes to look for what is right before us and easily missed.

Signs of God's reign were before me all this weekend. On Saturday during the day I participated with the bishop and other members of his staff at a training for new wardens and new treasurers in our diocese. Their energy and commitment inspire me to do the work God has given me to do.

On Saturday night I joined the bishop and twenty-three high school students and a half dozen or so adults at All Saints Church in Worcester. The youth came from different congregations, many of them smaller congregations. But together they were a mighty force to be reckoned with. They were black and white and brown. They were shy and outgoing. They acted out this week's gospel reading, the raising of Lazarus, with keen theological insights. They give me hope in the present and future for the Church.

And then today I preached and celebrated at Christ Church Cathedral in Springfield. As was the case last night at All Saints, I looked out on a multi-racial congregation. They may not have come from every tribe and language and people and nation but their smiling faces nevertheless conjured up that image of John's on the island of Patmos for me.

And then at 12:15 I preached at the Spanish-speaking service. Over ninety people gathered in that same cathedral to make a joyful noise to the Lord, and to break the bread together and share the cup. I've been making the rounds lately in my new job and I value the work in every congregation I've visited. But the joy and love and inter-generational experience of being part of that worship this afternoon was one more mustard seed in a weekend where they abounded.

I am grateful for signs of God's presence, and for the gifts given to me this Lent.

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral, Springfield, MA
This week my journeys take me to the "home office" - to Christ Church Cathedral. (The diocesan offices are located on the second floor of the cathedral.) The readings for this fifth Sunday of Lent can be found here. CCC records sermons, so an audio version of this sermon can be found here.

It was my privilege to begin this Lenten journey right here in this cathedral as the preacher and celebrant at the noon Ash Wednesday liturgy.  Today as we come to the fifth Sunday of Lent, it is an honor to have again made that long, arduous journey downstairs to be with you all today. I appreciate the dean’s gracious invitation on behalf of all of you. 

Let’s begin at the beginning. Let’s see if we can do a history of the Old Testament in the next two minutes. It will not be thorough. But here goes: in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And it was good. And God created male and female, in God’s own image, God created them. And God saw that they were very good. And then God rested.

And then things began to unravel. Adam and Eve trust the serpent more than they trust their Creator and eat of the forbidden fruit. Brother kills brother. Flood and then rainbow. (Apparently there is a new film out starring Russell Crowe about that part of the story.) At the end though not much has changed; same old stuff from human beings. And so God says to Abram and Sarai: Go. Go to a land I will show you. You will have descendents numbering like the stars. And they go, and Abraham and Sarah have a child, Isaac who marries Rachel and they have Esau and Jacob, and Jacob has a whole bunch of kids by four different mothers and one of those kids is Joseph, whose brothers sell him to a group of Midianite traders and tell old Jacob that his favorite son is dead. And that is how the people end up in Egypt.

How am I doing on that two-minute history? We have made it through the Book of Genesis. So maybe we need to pick up the pace. Passover, Exodus, manna and water in the wilderness, Torah on Mt. Sinai, four decades pass and then a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. God says “don’t forget where you came from” but – well, people being people they do forget. They forget God and they forget their neighbor. They start to say things like “I worked hard for this, it’s mine” even though the whole point of the book of Deuteronomy is that we are called to be stewards of God’s abundance. And so God sends prophets to say, “care for the widow and the orphan.” But it turns out denial is not just a river in Egypt. The people decide they want to be like all the other nations: “give us a king,” they say. And so they get King Saul, King David, King Solomon, a whole bunch of less famous and less faithful kings, divided kingdom, the fall of the northern kingdom.

Alright, this is where we needed to get: six hundred years before the birth of Jesus. A people who have a long history, a God who has been faithful. Promises made and renewed on God’s side; promises made and broken on Israel’s side. In the midst of the ups and downs a holy city claimed by King David and a Temple built by his son, King Solomon. The place where God’s people could come and know that they were loved. Kind of a like a cathedral. But more than that even. More even than a place like the Vatican. A holy place for a holy people, a place for sacrifice, a place to encounter the living God. A place where you knew who you were.

And then the Iraqi army comes marching in—the Bible calls them Babylonians but that’s where they come from. The Babylonians come in and destroy the Temple and cart off the bishop and the dean and the canons and the clergy and the wardens and the choirs and take them all to Babylon, where they lay up their harps and weep. For how could they possibly sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign land? How can you sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” when your life is a mess, when the bottom has fallen out, when your hope is gone, when you are cut off from the Temple—when there isn’t even a Temple and there isn’t even an organ? (Or a harp as the case may be.)

There have been dark times in human history. I commute a couple of days a week on the Mass Pike from Worcester, and one of the things I do while driving is to read books, which is better than texting. I don’t really read; I listen. Recently I listened to a thirty-three disk book on George Washington. I was reminded again as when I have read about John Adams or Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin that the people fighting for freedom in the latter part of the eighteenth century didn’t know how it was going to end. At Valley Forge it was touch and go, but if you were a betting person (if you are don’t tell the bishop!) you would probably not put the smart money on that rag tag group of soldiers trying to survive the winter without shoes.

Part of what happens in such times, or during the Civil War, or maybe to some extent in this decade or so since 9/11, is that people get disconnected from each other and polarized and cut off from the One who means for us to just do two simple things: Love God and love neighbor. In such times as maybe also in the midst of our own personal losses and tragedies – the death of a loved one or a parent who is battling against dementia, or a child who is struggling with addiction—we understand something of what it feels like to lose hope. They say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' 

So in a very real sense, all of Biblical faith hinges on this moment in the Babylonian exile. Is it the end of the story, or a new beginning? The truth is that it is the Old Testament version of Good Friday only it last a lot longer – like decades. But here is the thing. And that is the set up for today’s reading from Ezekiel: a people who have spent decades in exile, a people who aren’t sure that they even have a future and if they do, what that future will look like. A people who are bone tired. To that weary people, God speaks through a visionary, this strange prophet-priest of the exile, Ezekiel. He offers an image that seems to be a kind of premonition of St. Paul’s language that the faith community is like a body; like the Body of Christ. Only in this case the Body is dead—nothing more than dried up bones.

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know." Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord." So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act," says the Lord.

Notice the writer is clear: this is a vision. It’s not literal. But it’s like Dr. King’s ‘I have a dream” speech; it’s about hoping for what is yet unseen, because if you can hope it then you can dare to speak of it and if you can dare to speak of it, then you can, by God’s grace, start to live toward it one day at a time. So this is powerful stuff.

Ezekiel reminds us and every generation of believers that faith communities need the breath of God to live. We need renewed hope, and vision, and courage. This vision of the valley of dry bones is about how the living God really is the antidote to isolation and death—it is God who makes the Body alive and renews the Covenant. It is God who brings them home. It is God who enlivens once again the body politic and towns and cities where people can breathe and listen and work together.

The Church’s primary vocation, as I understand it, is to be a kind of icon that this is possible, to be an image of abundant life animated by God’s Holy Spirit. This cathedral exists in the city of Springfield so that people who have lost hope and feel cut off might believe that God can be trusted for guidance, and wisdom, and comfort and a Spirit of new life. Jesus put it more poetically: to be salt, and light, and yeast. That is a noble calling.

So we gather here today and we gather across this diocese on this fifth Sunday of Lent: we gather to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest these strange old texts. We encounter this living Word and we then we break the bread. Simple stuff, really. I’ve been in twenty-six different congregations over the past ten months. They don’t all do it the same. Very few of them have a music program like this cathedral does. But each in their own way gets out of bed on a Sunday morning and tries to make a joyful noise to the Lord. And during the week they feed the hungry as you do here. They send missionaries out to places like El Salvador and to places much closer to home. They organize to speak up against the powers that be and say no casinos in our city because they are not good for the poor and we are a people who speak up for those on the margins. It’s hard to be the Church, for sure and it’s easy to get nostalgic for the leeks and melons of the 1950s. But it’s also easy to mis-remember the 1950s, which were not the good old days for everyone.

Can these old bones live? Not on their own: only then and only now by the Spirit of the living God. Only by coming together, bone upon bone, sinew upon sinew, flesh upon flesh. Only by being One Bread, and One Body are we made alive and raised to Easter life, and then called to serve the world in the name of the One who is already risen—the One who even on the Fifth Sunday of Lent is alive and who has sent the Holy Spirit to vivify us and enliven us to do the work that God has given us to do, for the sake of the world.