Thursday, May 29, 2014

Spanish Language and Hispanic Ministry Intensive

This week I have been in residence at The Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, for a program sponsored by the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest. It has been a really enriching and exhausting experience - as cross-cultural experiences usually are. We have been learning liturgical Spanish, so that we can (with God's help!) make our way through the Eucharistic Prayer, for example, en espanol. But even more importantly (at least for me) has been the cross-cultural learning about things like the story of the Alamo (with an accent, i.e. told from the other side) and of entering into the liturgical year from a Latin@ perspective and re-materializing what has so often been spiritualized about the Christian faith - which is after all, about birth and life and death. We've talked about border crossings, literal and metaphorical, and done a "case study" of a new church start called San Gabriel.. We've talked about the Virgin of Guadalupe and tomorrow on our last day we'll talk about the Dream Act and Interfaith Public Policy matters. 

But for me, the highlight was today, with Fr. Al Rodriguez, who talked about "New Generation Latin@s." (That is not a typo, by the way - I've learned that you can be inclusive by writing Latino/Latina as Latin@!) First he told us that by 2050, thirty percent of people who live in the USA will be Latin@s. Most of that growth is not through immigration but birth rates. But the chart above also shows the way that already breaks down, with new immigrants being the smallest group (shown in yellow) and more than half of the Hispanic population in the US already being second and third and fourth generation people who speak English (and some of them don't speak Spanish!)

Yesterday's speaker, the Rev. Jesus Escamilla, a former U.S. marine and Mexican-American, spoke about teaching his granddaughter Spanish so she does not forget where she has come from. And in so doing, some lady came up to him in the grocery store where he was doing this and saying, "here in America, we speak English!" That's a whole other post! But the point here is that this immigrant pastor was inadvertently setting us up for today's conversation and that is that for his children and grandchildren the traditional approach that churches have taken to Hispanic ministry are not going to work going forward. And of course this is the age-old problem for immigrants: the first-generation tends to have some level of homesickness, the second-generation tends to become fully enculturated, and the third-generation tries to figure out how to appropriate the stories of their grandparents with the new world that they fully inhabit.

It was in this context that Fr. Rodriguez noted that going forward it is not Spanish proficiency that clergy and lay leaders need, although some Spanish clearly helps. But rather, what we desperately need is cultural competency and awareness at a much deeper level of our neighbors. He spoke about the third-generation immigrant named "Brad Gonzalez" who is already our neighbor.

For me, as a church leader, there are implications here for congregational development. But as a human being the lessons here go much deeper. I have been reflecting on my old neighborhood in Westport, Connecticut, at the end of a little lane where there were four houses. We were the mainline Protestants, I was a fourth or fifth generation American whose people had come to this country from Germany, England, and Scotland. Next door was a Muslim family from Egypt. The parents spoke with accents but had lived in the US a long time. The children, however, were fully enculturated into the United States; the youngest daughter was one of our first babysitters. Across the street were Italian Roman Catholics - probably third-generation. And next to them were Jews who had moved to Westport from Brooklyn.

We were not close but of course like in most neighborhoods there were events that brought us together. It is just the world we live in. It is hard to get to know our neighbors, but this is a human challenge -and for Christians it is even a commandment: "to love our neighbor as self."  First thing, though, is to get to know our neighbors.

In my work as a member of the Bishop's staff, I drive to a different congregation each week. As I follow my GPS I am driving through neighborhoods and trying to pay attention. One throwaway line that really struck me today, that my clergy colleagues might not all appreciate (but do need to hear) is that too often we Episcopalians have been like bankers - waiting for people to come to us to do their business. And we need to learn to be entrepreneurs, i.e. to go out into the streets, and neighborhoods, and soccer fields (and here in Texas, rodeos!) to pay attention to the neighborhood, and to ask the question of how we can be better neighbors. Not to grow the church, not to increase the pledges (although perhaps in the long-run these things may happen) and not out of a sense of desperation, but simply because this is where we meet the living, resurrected Christ.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Opening the Bible

This week I am at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas for an intensive week of Spanish language and culture. And it is in fact intense!

I took four years of French in high school and two semesters of it in college - thirty years ago! As for Spanish I learned the word for beer when I traveled in Nicaragua in the early 1990s. (So did I mention that this is intense?!)

But also a lot of fun. In addition to the language, focused mostly on liturgical language to help us pray and lead worship in Spanish - there are lectures on culture including one today on "Remembering the Alamo with an Accent." The opening line of the lecture went like this: to really understand Germany, ask a Pole. To really understand the English, ask an Irish person. And to really understand the United States, ask a Mexican. So his "remembering of the Alamo" was from the other side of things, from the underside.

Perspective. And context. These are so very important to remember when studying history, written by the victors. They are also important skills in reading the Bible. Too often, however, we forget this and we do so at our peril. Where we stand matters. And we need to learn to hear how others hear "familiar texts" from their own angle. So one example that came out in his second lecture today, about the holy family "immigrating" to Northern Africa after the birth of Jesus. Just that word reminds us about perspective and context, and how a Mexican reader of the birth narrative will hear that story differently from someone who is settled in a certain place with all the privileges that accompany citizenship.

As I get ready for A Journey With Matthew and prepare to welcome others along on this trip, I am thinking about these things. I am thinking that it helps to know something about Matthew's perspective and context, in contrast say, to Mark's or Luke's or John's. What is it that Matthew sees in Jesus that he wants to convey as "good news?" How does his angle on the birth of Jesus through the eyes of Joseph (rather than Mary) shape not only him (or more accurately his faith community) and us, as readers?

And what can I see, and hear, as a straight white male ordained person that others may not see and even more importantly what am I not able to see, or hear, that a gay Latina lay woman would see so clearly?

Unless we are reading in Greek, every Bible is a translation and the language we are reading also shapes this seeing and this hearing. Yesterday we heard the familiar Pentecost story from Acts 2 in Spanish and then we translated it verse by verse. It forced us to slow down; it also revealed new layers of meaning that are not so obvious in English. It served as an important reminder to me that one important practice in reading and marking and learning and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture is to slow down. And not to assume we know the story but to read it with fresh eyes and inquiring and discerning hearts. And to be humble, knowing that every text is multivalent - which is to say, it has multiple layers of meaning.

This is why reading texts together is such a rich experience, because in community we see and hear things we would otherwise miss.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Authority of Scripture

The image to the left comes, not surprisingly, from a Baptist Church. It's the claim made underneath the sign that I find interesting - "A Bible-Believing Church." 

That's a loaded statement. And while I cannot know for sure the heart of the congregation that makes such a claim it feels a bit like a gauntlet: that they are what they claim to be in contrast, let's say, to the congregation across the street that has a statue of the Virgin Mary or the one around the corner that has a sign that says, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.' 

Whatever the claim means to suggest, I think it is very unlikely that one would find such a claim made outside of an Episcopal Church. Yet we are, in fact, also a "Bible-Believing Church" even if the interpretation of these ancient texts is contested. 

My favorite collect in The Book of Common Prayer is this one, appointed for use on the Sunday closest to November 16: 
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
It is a more nuanced, but no less powerful claim about the authority of Scripture. Theologically, the catechism draws these conclusions from this way of living with and ingesting Scripture:
Q. Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?  
A. We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible?
Q. How do we understand the meaning of the Bible? 
A. We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.
The Lectionary is a three-year plan, used by Roman Catholics and most mainline Protestants, for reading the Bible. Each year (A, B, C) features one of the three synoptic gospels with John's Gospel mixed in along the way, mostly in the year when Mark is read (since Mark is shorter than the other two synoptics.) It's a good plan that covers a lot of ground and as a preacher I tried to draw on the whole lectionary which if used to its fullest is a twelve-year plan for preachers since once can choose from the Old Testatment reading, Psalm, Epistle, or Gospel each week. (In point of fact most Episcopal preachers function like Marcionites, an ancient heresy that ignores the Old Testament but I'll save that for another post.)

Right now, the Church is in the midst of Year A, which continues through the last Sunday of Pentecost - which this year falls on November 23. The following week, Advent I, marks the beginning of Year B, when our attention will turn to Mark's Gospel.

It should be noted, however, that the lectionary doesn't in fact cover all of the Gospels - not to mention all of the Old Testament or Pauline Epistles. Preachers (and parishioners) need to keep reading the Bible, not Scripture inserts. That is why I have invited readers of this blog to join me on a journey with Matthew's Gospel.

One more word about what I see a gift about using a lectionary. I sometimes hear those from a more "free church" tradition claim that they don't want to be bound by the lectionary. And as stated, I do see it's limitations, especially when the texts other than the gospel reading are ignored. Nevertheless, the lectionary does two things at least: (1) it invites preachers to deal with texts they'd rather ignore and (2) it creates an ecumenical community of learners to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. For years while I was a parish priest I was part of a lectionary group which not only studied together but prayed together and supported each other in the hard work of ordained ministry. And recently I joined a Lutheran group which was studying Matthew together. In a future post I want to share some of what I learned from that day.

But for now I want to put in another plug to invite you to consider reading Matthew in fifty days, starting on June 1. Reading it as a whole will help those who do worship in lectionary congregations to get the flow of the whole, so that in these summer months and into November the gospel readings will be situated (rightly) within this larger narrative context. That's a good thing!

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Journey With Matthew

For a while now, I've been intrigued by a ministry called The Bible Challenge, a ministry started by an Episcopal priest named Marek Zabriskie. Recently, though, I came across a 50-day challenge entitled A Journey With Matthew that is a part of the same ministry. I've decided to jump in and see how it goes and I want to invite others to join me.

The book is published by Forward Movement, a ministry of The Episcopal Church. All of Matthew's Gospel (NRSV) is in this little book published by them, divided up into fifty days worth of reading. So day one, is, for example, Matthew 1:1-25. And then there is a reflection that follows, written by a terrific group of people that includes Fred Borsch, Barbara Crafton, Michael Curry, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Mark Portaro and others. One page. And then a question and a prayer.

I am going to do this, but I want to invite friends to join me - whether or not you happen to be an Episcopalian or even a Christian. Many years ago I taught an Elderhostel class on the Four Gospels that included both Jews and Christians, an almost equal mix of each. It was a rich experience for all of us. Matthew in particular, the most "Jewish" of the four gospels, would make for an ideal interfaith experience.

I can't promised I'll blog every day, but I'll blog more often, even if just a brief comment or reflection. I am going to start on Sunday, June 1 and read for fifty consecutive days.

Here is one nice thing for Episcopalians and others who are part of congregations that use the Revised Common Lectionary: we are currently in Year A, which is the year dedicated to Matthew's Gospel. So we have been and will continue through the summer until we get to the first Sunday of Advent on November 30, be reading from Matthew's Gospel on Sunday mornings. So the experience of taking this fifty-day challenge will enrich our experience of common prayer as well.

Who's in?

You can read the post for Day 1 by clicking here.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

I am, once again, with the good people of Trinity Church, Shrewsbury during in a time of transition there.The readings for this fifth Sunday of the fifty-day Easter Season can be found here.

It has been my privilege to be with all of you for three Sundays of this Easter season.  As some of you will recall, we began with Thomas on the second Sunday of Easter and today we see Thomas again. Maybe this is a sign that we should pay attention to him? 

As you may be aware, these fourteen verses from the fourteenth chapter of John's Gospel are often read at funerals, and I think chosen by families because these words bring great comfort to people who have put their trust in Jesus as the way, and the truth, and the life. In the context of John’s Gospel, this is the beginning of what the scholars call the “farewell discourse.” It is the last night of Jesus’ earthly life—Holy Thursday—and that is why the disciples’ “hearts are troubled.” Anyone who has ever kept vigil with a dying loved one knows something of the emotional energy of that Upper Room, of wanting to say goodbyes and of trying to take care of unfinished business.

So Jesus is giving instructions to the disciples on how to carry on with the work he has begun after he is gone. He is summing up what his life has been about and pointing the disciples to a way forward. He is explaining what it means to be the Church. I always think of the ‘farewell discourse’ as similar to the Book of Deuteronomy, where (as you may remember) Moses is giving his own farewell discourse. God’s people are preparing to enter into the Promised Land after forty years in the wilderness but Moses won’t be going with them. So he gives this long sermon – what we call the Book of Deuteronomy- which reiterates the lessons of the wilderness as he hopes they will remember them, because Moses knows that in the Promised Land they will tend to become forgetful. They will get there and say things like, “this is mine, I earned this.” So Moses keeps saying: remember the lessons of the wilderness – the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. And you will do better together than divided, so you must learn to share. You must learn to live one day at a time.

I love the Book of Deuteronomy but that’s not the text for the day so that sermon will have to wait for a future visit. The point, though, is that for those Jewish followers of Jesus, listening to him give his farewell discourse, there are clearly echoes of Moses. At the heart of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14-16 is a lived-out parable –do you remember? It’s the main action for us on Maundy Thursday: Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and calls them his friends and gives them a new commandment, “to love one another as I have loved you.”

Whatever else it means to be the Church, to be his followers, this takes us to very heart of it. In the early centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection, people in the Roman empire could not make much sense of Christian beliefs. All that talk about body and blood made people think that this new “sect” were a bunch of cannibals. But what they could not deny was that they loved each other and that they showed that love to the poor and the hungry and the sick. “See how they love one another,” they said. More than anything else, that was a powerful witness to the world that attracted others.

As we heard in this same farewell discourse, Jesus is explaining that he must go to prepare a place for them. But they should not let their hearts be troubled, because they know the way to where he is going. It’s like a preacher rolling along in a sermon, or a professor who is gaining momentum in her lecture—only everyone listening is starting to get a little bit lost. It takes that one student who is willing to raise his hand and say, “excuse me professor, can we back up?”

And guess who that student is? It’s our friend, Thomas. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. So how can we possibly know the way?"

Don’t you love that? I said this on the second Sunday of Easter but it bears repeating: Thomas shows us how to be people of faith and that we should never, ever fear the questions. The questions, and even our doubts, lead us to the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. If we sit on our hands and just nod our heads we don’t deepen our faith. If we pretend it’s easy, we don’t grow. Questions, uncertainty, confusion – these are all actually gifts of the Holy Spirit because they lead us into deeper conversation with God and with each other.

Whenever I lead a Bible study and someone says, “sorry, I know this is a dumb question, but…” I always say “stop there! No dumb questions.  Really!" The questions are good because they make it real, they help us find a way in. At Holy Baptism we pray that the baptized will have an “inquiring and discerning heart.” When a person raises her hand, asks a big question, we should give thanks because it is a sign that this prayer is being answered.

So Jesus says to the disciples: “you all know where I am going…” and Thomas says:

…um, Lord, no we don’t. Maybe I’m the only one here, but maybe I speak for all of us when I say, we have no idea what you are talking about or where you are going. So how can we know the way?

And it is in response to that question that Jesus says: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” It is so important for us to hear those words in context: Jesus is essentially telling the disciples that he will be their GPS, that he will lead them where they need to go, that he will be with them throughout the journey—however long it takes and wherever it may lead them. He is not uttering these words as a threat to Muslims or Buddhists or atheists. He’s not saying (although I saw a billboard recently that misquoted Jesus) I am the only way, the only truth, the only life. Everyone else goes to hell - does not pass go, does not collect $200. 

So this is probably not the best text to help guide our interfaith conversations with people of other faiths. Or maybe it is, but not in the way we might think. But it is most definitely not some threat to hold over their heads: people don’t come to God by fear, they come by the way of love.

Where this text is helpful is for the beloved community - we who have been claimed already by Jesus - to remember who we are. To remember when we are lost, or confused, or our hearts are troubled, or the future of our congregation is unclear that we don’t have or need all the answers. We just need to keep our eyes on Jesus, who is the way to the truth and the life and to the living God. 

How can we know the way? We can trust that Jesus will not let us down. We may not be able to see the end of the path, but we can keep our eyes on the one who is trustworthy and will get us to where we need to go. That, I think, is the good news of these words from John’s Gospel. They are words addressed to his us and a reminder that we can carry on. Knowing this, and living this, is what it means to be God’s Easter people. Our work is to keep putting our trust in this risen Christ, as we learn to live one day at a time, embracing each new day as sheer gift.

“So not let your hearts be troubled.” I will see you again in the fall but in the meantime I leave you with these words from our Lord: do not let your hearts be troubled. Keep your attention focused on Jesus, who is the way, and the truth, and the life. Whatever may come your way, we are all stronger and better off to be close to him as our guide than we are relying on our own abilities.

And keep asking questions, like Thomas. The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is fear. Because fear paralyzes and immobilizes us. And because fear divides us. The opposite of faith is that which separates us from God and each other.

Doubt is ok – it’s normal and healthy, especially when it leads us to articulate a really good question. And there are no dumb questions! Congregations and people who have all the answers are not life-giving in my humble opinion. In large measure because even if the answer worked once before, when things shift and the context changes it’s no longer the right answer. There is nothing sadder than a Church offering answers to questions no one is asking. 

So congregations and people who are alive learn to ask better questions. We need to keep asking the questions a two-year old asks, and maybe that’s what Jesus really meant when he said we must become like a child to enter the Kingdom of God. Why is the sky blue? Who said? What if? When? Where? How come?  

And in our faith journeys, it is a good and holy thing to ask questions like: where did that belief come from? Even if it was once true for, is it still? What does it cost me to hold onto that? Where is God inviting me to let go of something that I’ve held onto for too long?

And in a congregation like this one, how about these Thomas-like questions to explore for a while: I wonder what God is up to right now? How can we develop eyes that see, and ears to hear that new thing? What will need to change in us to embrace that and move forward? What is God asking of me in the midst of all this change? How might this congregation more faithfully serve the living God in this community and beyond? 

Give us, O Lord, inquiring and discerning hearts. Give us better questions that lead us to you: the way, the truth, the life. Amen.  

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

So, what do you hear in these words? Where is the good news? First of all, it’s about the baptized. That’s all of us here, unless someone here has wandered in today and has not yet been baptized, in which case "come on down" and we can take care of that! 

The point here is that it’s not the clergy, or the bishop, or the canon, or the starting five, or the captain of the ship who does the work. It is not just the loudest praying members. Those who had been baptized all played a role, because this is the work of a whole community. In my former parish we spelled it out on our bulletins every week and it was not just a slogan, we really meant it. And we really tried to live into it, with God's help. It said:  The Rector – the Rev. Dr. Richard M. Simpson. The Ministers – All the people. So that even when I left last year and through an interim time, the work of ministry continues.

Do you believe that? Do you believe that you are not just a bystander here but one of the ministers here– not just the people who have to try to hold things together in the absence of a rector, but that you are called to ministry, as the baptized, right now? If you don’t yet believe it, and live it, then our work begins right here. And sometimes what we say with our lips we are not quite so sure we are ready to commit to with our lives. But here we are.

What is that work? Well, this isn’t the only verse in the Bible. So there are other texts for other days. But there is a thread that runs through the whole of the Scriptures as I read them, and that is that the work is to love God and to love neighbor. The work is to seek Jesus in the face of the stranger. It is to share in God’s work of redeeming the world.

Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? Sounds like an impossible dream. So hold that for just a moment and notice that what the ground work is, the first step: all the baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.Three things to focus on: apostolic faith, the breaking of the bread, and prayer. Let’s take them each in turn but also aware that they are all connected, all part of one whole,

Apostolic teaching and fellowship is an extension of the work of Jesus who called the twelve to follow him. Jesus didn't do this work alone; he formed leaders. Remember the feeding of the five thousand? It was more than a miracle. You give them something to eat...

And then the risen Christ sends the Holy Spirit so that the work can continue. We are his Body now on earth – the Body of Christ. We are Peter and Mary and the beloved disciple and all the rest. Two thousand years later the world has changed a lot since first-century Jerusalem; but the work of being God’s own beloved has not changed. Apostolic faith means it is not me and Jesus, and you and Jesus, and somebody else in Jesus each doing our own thing. It means we are called to be members of one another, part of one fellowship divine as Charles Wesley once called it. It means the faith of our fathers and mothers is living still, and that to really live it has to be enfleshed so we can pass it on to our children and our children’s children. It’s not a commodity, not a product. It’s a never-ending-story, a narrative that holds us together.

Do you remember that story about Thomas we talked about when I was here two weeks ago? The disciples were locked away in an upper room. They were afraid. They were huddled together. And Thomas helped them to see that what they needed to do was to trust God again, and each other, and themselves and when that began to happen, trust became stronger than fear and the doors opened up.

Well what we see today is how that work continued. Apostolic faith is not afraid of change. When new people come by they are welcomed in as Christ himself, not ignored as a threat. Hospitality is a huge practice in apostolic faith and goes to the core practice of the Church from generation to generation, because a people locked up together in fear and trying to survive will die. But a people who are open to the gifts of the stranger will be made new again.

The people of St. Swithin’s, Jerusalem broke bread together. They did what we will do in a few moments– they did what Jesus did, not only in the Upper Room on that Thursday night but what he did on that Road to Emmaus on a Sunday night and what he did when he offered up those few loaves for a multitude. He took and blessed and broke and gave the bread and when they did so their eyes were opened and they saw it was true; that he was revealed to them in the breaking of the bread. The community needs to come together so that we can be fed this living bread and so that Christ can be made known in the breaking of the bread.

And the prayers. This brings us back full circle, because the prayers are not just when we come here for an hour on Sunday morning, but to pray without ceasing. To pray with the book and without the book. To pray with words and without words. To pray in ways that both articulate to God what we need, and then listen for the ways that God might be saying, “I’ll be there with you but I send you.” I think sometimes the reason we do so much talking in our prayers is that we are afraid if we are still God might in fact send us. That we might be the answer to someone else’s prayer.

Who is sick in this congregation and not able to be here? There is no rector right now who is going to visit them today. Nor is the canon. Who has been missing and needs to be invited back to become part of the new Trinity? I am not going to call them, I don’t even know their names. Let me ask an even harder question: because it takes money to do ministry (and if you do keep on reading in Acts 2 you’ll see that they were a community not afraid to talk about money) so who is going to be a good steward of your resources – time, talent and money? Not the imagined magical people who will come in next week to fill out a pledge card to deal with the financial challenges here. But the baptized who are here, now – this holy catholic and apostolic people gathered here now to break the bread and to offer our prayers. How is God wanting to use us for the work that lies ahead?

Before we pray the Creed, I want us to take just a couple minutes for silent reflection and listening: what is the work God gives you to do?

This is a slightly edited and abridged version of my sermon today at Trinity Church in Shrewsbury. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Buildings and Ministry, Part IV

This is the last of four posts on this topic (but by no means the last word) growing out of a symposium I attended recently that was hosted by Buildings for Tomorrow/The Episcopal Church Building Fund. (I expect that once they are edited the presentations will be posted here, on the BFNT website. The background for this fourth post can be found here:
Buildings and Ministry: Part I 
Buildings and Ministry: Part II 
Buildings and Ministry: Part III
On Monday, April 28, I arrived in Fort Lauderdale with my bishop and two canon colleagues and thirteen other ordained and lay leaders from our diocese. I had high hopes but not clearly defined expectations. On the inside cover of the Agenda and Worship booklet we received at registration I read these words:
The Episcopal Church Building Fund is dedicated to making BFNT a cutting-edge gathering of people who are ready to move their house of worship forward, to help it thrive and grow. God is doing a new thing...can you not perceive it? Together, let's get ready! We hope your experience here will encourage you to Plant...something, to think about houses of worship and land in new ways, as conduits to enhance relationships in your community. 
That first evening we heard Ron Finley speak about Prospects for a New Tomorrow: View from the Garden. Ron challenged us church people not to have meetings about meetings to consider how we might one day plant something but to go out and plant something. "Just plant some shit," he urged us. We got literal seeds at registration (I took some carrot seeds) to reinforce the point. He talked about the space around many churches and especially the spaces around churches that are in food deserts as places that can transform hearts and minds and put nutritious food in the bellies of those who are hungry. But of course the whole time he spoke I was thinking that he sounded a lot more like Jesus than a theologian or church person. He didn't talk with insider language about theology. Rather, he talked about seeds and growth and the good earth and pruning and beauty. We had much to ponder as we took our rest and called it a day.

Over the next two days we did what Episcopalians do at this sort of thing: we prayed together and we went to workshops and we enjoyed one another's company. Here are the workshops that were offered, with the ones I attended in bold:
The Beauty, Glory, and Joy of Mergers and Closings: An IntroductionProperty Deals in the Old Dominion
Pilgrimage to the Boiler Room
Facing the Facts: Strategically Mapping Canada's ChurchesBishops PanelCompost, Churchyard, Chow
Open Forum on Mergers and ClosingsDitching the Buildings
The Positive Power of Being Strange
Repurposing Your Buildings and Landscapes to Align With Your Mission and Vision
It was all good and there was a lot of food for thought - some of which I've shared indirectly in the first three posts of this series. And other stuff is still percolating and will, I suspect, for a while. While it may emerge in other posts I think four posts on this topic is plenty for now!

This conference came at a great time for me, almost one year into my new work on the bishop's staff. When people hear about closing churches, they tend to think of the Roman Church where very often buildings emerged around ethnic identity. If a Roman Catholic were to do what I did in this first post you would find (at least in this part of the world) that the history of Roman Catholic congregations in places like Worcester followed the patterns of immigration. So there were French-Canadian congregations and Italian congregations and Polish ones and Irish ones and Hispanic ones and so forth. Those congregations served not only as a way of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, but of helping immigrant communities transition to a new place, often as places where the language of the old country could linger on a while as a way to alleviate homesickness.

But the problem for third and fourth generation immigrants is that this mission plan is unsustainable. What happens when an Irish Catholic marries an Italian Catholic? Whose parish becomes home. Of course the past few decades have seen far more radical changes than this of people marrying "outside of the faith." But the point for here is that no one can seriously doubt that there are more Roman Catholic buildings than needed in places like Worcester; they face the same problem we Episcopalians do. The big difference, however, is in our polity. When the Bishop in the Roman tradition wants to close a congregation he can just decide to do that, in the same way that a CEO might close certain branch offices of a company to consolidate things.

It doesn't work that way in my denomination. There is a lot more authority in the pews, and those who serve on vestries are elected by their peers to have these challenging conversations. People like me, who work for the bishop, are there to cajole and prod clergy and wardens to start having these difficult conversations.  I am glad for all of that and glad we have the polity we do. But it takes more time, and more effort, to effect change. Struggling congregations rarely are eager to face the challenges or even sometimes equipped to do so. Emotional attachments like those I've tried to name here trump thoughtful reflection.

But we need to have these conversations. Denial is not just a river in Egypt. Sometimes even people who no longer attend a church building or support it financially still feel invested in the building from an historic or even nostalgic perspective. And when these hard conversations begin, people come out of the woodwork.

It is irresponsible to put our heads in the sand and the fact is that we can no longer afford to do so. I see the way forward as a process that begins with developing deeper relationships and partnerships. Parishes that focus on their mission do some things well, but cannot do everything. I am starting to see in my new work that congregations can and do come together. Recently several congregations shared the liturgy of the Easter Vigil. The Vigil is a beautiful liturgy but it comes in a week jam-packed with worship and in most congregations it is not as full on Saturday night as on Easter morning. So what a great opportunity for collaboration! Some congregations combined Lenten programs and recently the bishop and I joined a group of youth from all the city congregations and beyond at All Saints Church for an overnight. Mission trips for youth and adults from these congregations are also happening.

When these things happen, clergy and lay leaders begin to move out of their "silos" to ask questions about what we can and need to do ourselves and what can we do better together? That takes time of course, and we do not have all the time in the world. But it is work that God has given us to do. And perhaps these seeds will grow into something more. Imposed mergers just don't work. But if two congregations are stronger together than apart, there is a story to be told and some of those have already happened in my diocese. We need to share the good news of these successes.

I leave you, then, with this thought, from Elizabeth O'Connor:
When the church starts to be the church, it will constantly be adventuring out into places where there are no tried and tested ways. If the church in our day has few prophetic voices to sound above the noises of the street, perhaps in large part it is because the pioneering spirit has become foreign to it. It shows little willingness to explore new ways. Where it does it has often been called an experiment. We would say that the church of Christ is never an experiment, but wherever that church is true to its mission it will be experimenting, pioneering, blazing new paths, seeking how to speak the reconciling Word of God to its own age.
God is doing a new thing. What will it take for us to perceive it?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Buildings and Ministry: Part III

This is an extended reflection. If you have not seen the previous two "chapters" of this four-part post, then it makes sense to read them first. You can find Part I here, and Part II here.

I want to outline, very briefly, the Biblical narrative. Or, more accurately, I want to offer a theological reflection on the Bible from the perspective of buildings. I want to think about worship in the Bible, and begin with Abraham and Sarah. After God calls them to "go to a place that I will show you," they worship God on the way. There are not permanent buildings for a pilgrim people but that doesn't mean that sacrifices are not offered or covenants made.

And then in Exodus we also have encounters with the Holy One, but it's on a mountain and then in a tent-of-meeting. And again the tent keeps moving - leading the way. I love the great Lenten hymn that says:
Eternal Lord of love, behold your Church
walking once more the pilgrim way of Lent,
led by your cloud, by day, by night your fire,
moved by your love and toward your presence bent. (The Hymnal 1982, page 149)
That takes us through the rest of the Torah. It isn't until King Solomon that we get the Temple (see First Kings 3) and then before you know it, it is destroyed. And that presents a very serious crisis in faith: how could God's people sing the old chestnuts in a foreign land, without a house of worship? Turns out there were a lot of tears and a lot of anguish but what emerged was not a loss of faith but a new thing that God was doing and some of the best poetry in all of the Bible. See Isaiah 40.

So of course they come back and they rebuild the Temple - see Ezra and Nehemiah. Lots of laughing and crying when the foundation is finally laid - see Ezra 3:11b-13.

We get to see that second-Temple in the New Testament. Jesus isn't a huge fan of it, however. Or at least, and perhaps more accurately, he is a prophetic critic of the ways it has been co-opted by the leadership. It has stopped being a house of prayer for all people, so he goes in and starts moving around the furniture, which as any Episcopalian could have warned him will be met with some hostility. It is.  (See Matthew 21:12-13) He does say this: that the Temple he will rebuild is his Body, in three days. A few decades after his death the Roman army destroys that second Temple; all that is left to this very day is the western/wailing wall. And of course his resurrected Body - the Church.

The communities that gather throughout the rest of the New Testament begin as tenants in the synagogues until they are kicked out, and have to move into people's homes. They are a people before they have buildings. They are a people on the move. See the Acts of the Apostles.

At the Building Fund Symposium (don't worry, I am going to get there in the next and last post, I promise!) one of the workshop leaders told the story of how he likes to open up the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, and turn to Revelation 1:4 and ask "what do the seven churches in Asia minor have in common?" The answer? They are all closed. Of course there is something else noteworthy in the Book of Revelation: the seer on Patmos "saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb." (Revelation 21:22)

So what does all of this mean? That we should not have church buildings? No. That is not the answer, at least not for me. We need to gather. We need holy places and sacred spaces because we are not only a spiritual people but a religious people.

But it does mean this: a building ought not to ever be confused with the living God. A building is like a Sacrament - an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. A building is like an Icon - that is to say that we need to see "through it" to the living God. Our problem is not buildings. Our problem has become our relationship to our buildings - which is sometimes idolatrous.

And so the very first place in our diocese where Anglicans got a foothold, in Congregational New England, in Great Barrington - a few years ago the wall of that building came down and not by choice but circumstance that congregation became a pilgrim people who then merged with another congregation that left their building. Together they formed a new, nomadic parish: Grace in the Southern Berkshires. They meet for worship in a pub. Their website describes them as an Episcopal "community" - I don't think that's an accident. Their identity and their sense of what it means to follow Jesus has been tested in ways akin to what it must have been like for the Iraelites who were taken into Babylon, but came back with their strength renewed, mounted up with wings like eagles.

Now here is the thing: the story isn't over. That community of faith may yet decide they need a building, and there are a variety of futures that may emerge - none of them clear to me from this vantage point or, I think, to them. They are currently searching for a new rector, a unique ordained leader who can help them to discern what comes next. But for here the point is that their journey as a people without a building has taken them deeper into the Scriptures and has led to spiritual growth - and I'm sure none of that has been easy. But their witness may be a story we need to hear, so that those of us whose walls are still in tact might at least wonder aloud: is this building serving us, or are we serving it?

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter - Grace Church, Oxford

This weekend I am with the Rev. Al Zadig and the people of Grace Church in Oxford. The welcome sign shown to my left is a first for me - something like 27 congregations in the past eleven months, but now at last I'm famous!

While the gospel for today is one of my very favorites (the Road to Emmaus) I have preached on it many times, and decided on this third Sunday of Easter to focus on the  reading from Acts, which can be found here, from the second chapter.

It is an honor to be here today, among all of you at Grace Church, Oxford. Do you know that you are one of five parishes in our diocese called Grace? The other four are all west of us. In the Berkshires, there is Grace Church of the Southern Berkshires in Great Barrington, and Grace Church in Dalton. And then moving east to the Pioneer Valley there is Grace Church, Chicopee and Grace Church, Amherst. But here in Worcester County there is just one: Grace Church, Oxford.

I want to share with you a poem by Luci Shaw, that comes from a collection entitled A Widening Light: Poems of the IncarnationThe particular poem I want to share is called “Judas, Peter.”

because we are all
betrayers, taking
silver and eating
body and blood and asking
(guilty) is it I and hearing
him say yes
it would be simple for us all
to rush out
and hang ourselves
but if we find grace to cry and wait
after the voice of morning
has crowed in our ears
clearly enough
to break our hearts
he will be there
to ask each again
do you love me

Did you hear that? We would despair of our own lives, because of our own choices, but if we find grace to cry and wait after the voice of morning has crowed in our ears clearly enough to break our hearts, he will be there to ask again, do you love me? There is that word, grace, for all of you. The reference at the end of course is to that lakeside encounter between Peter and risen Christ. Do you remember? Jesus says to Peter, do you love me? Yes. Peter, do you love me? Yes. Peter, do you love me? Lord why are you asking me this three times, you know that I love you? Oh yeah, now I remember. Because I said I do not know the man. I do not know the man. I do not know the man…

Grace, after our biggest failures—grace to cry and wait. Amazing grace that breaks our hearts and gives us second and third chances.  Because our betrayals and denials are never the end of the story. That’s why Peter matters so much for us. Because he didn’t always get it right. What he did do, again and again, is to put his whole trust in God’s love.

Notice, then, with me, that Peter, that Good Friday denier, has something to say in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. He is a new man, a man who has learned to love again. He has found his voice:

Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the multitude, "Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "Brothers, what should we do?" Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him"… So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.                                   

That is what Easter looks like when it takes hold of our lives! Amazing grace, how sweet the sound! And this has everything to do with the grace being made manifest here in Oxford and the new life that is continuing to emerge.

This third Sunday of Easter and the Easter life I see here at Grace Church suggest two things to me which are really two sides of one Easter coin. One is about God and one is about us. First of all, our God really is a god of second chances. The whole point of Easter is that death does not get the final word. The whole point of Easter is that even at the grave we make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Three times! The whole point of Easter is that forgiveness trumps vengeance and love triumphs over fear. Always , because God does not desire the death of sinners, but that they might turn and live.

This is not just a New Testament idea—it’s a thread through the whole of what we call the Old Testament. Really, it’s there. Ask your rector! But it culminates in the Easter story. It culminates in the story of this rabbi, this messiah, who is victorious over the grave and who reveals to us who God is: the God who brooded over creation in the beginning, and the God who even now has begun making new heavens and a new earth, and wiping every tear away. We aren’t there yet, for sure. There is work to be done including a role for us. But Easter is about that new beginning and new life.

This leads to the second side of the coin, and that is what Peter models for us what it means to be the Church together - what authentic faith looks like in every generation. It is way too easy in this life to get stuck, and when we get stuck it can lead to despair. Judas hangs himself because he cannot imagine that God will really forgive him or make things new again. And despair is always a threat for us as well, even when the end is not so tragic or dramatic. It is easy in this life to get bound up in fear and guilt over what we did in the past and unable to imagine the possibility of what God may yet use us to do a new thing. So Peter is not a saint because he always gets it right. The Scriptures are very clear that he does not get it right very often, in fact. But he trusts that God is a God of second chances and of new beginnings. He trusts Easter isn’t just about what happened to Jesus’ dead body but about what happens to us. That rooster’s crowing becomes a lesson in humility that leads to new life, rather than a humiliation that leads to death.

This takes us to the very heart of the good news: we are not called to be perfect, but to live as a forgiven people. We are called, with God’s help, to repent and return to the Lord when we mess it up, and to begin again and again and again. To learn that, and to live it, is to enter into more fully into the Paschal Mystery – and it is to become the “Easter people” God means for us to become. Grace in action. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Buildings and Ministry: Part II

Yesterday I wrote a post on this blog entitled Buildings and Ministry: Part I. Part II, found below, probably won't make much sense if you have not yet read that previous post, so I encourage you to go back and read that before continuing...

I ended that post with some  "why?" and "what if?" questions. Why is it that the Church mostly remains "stuck" in a bygone era - at least in terms of our buildings? Might it be possible that the buildings themselves are keeping us from becoming the Church God is calling us to be? I don't presume answers to these questions for every place in our diocese; context matters. But we must not be afraid of the questions. The biggest one of all is this: does it serve God's reign of justice and mercy when we begin to serve the building (and all of our energy and resources are focused on it) rather than the building serving the God's mission? On this one I do have an answer: no. When this happens, and we worship what is not God, the tradition calls that idolatry. 

Yet it's very rare in the church that we ask these hard missional question from a place that is not laden with emotion. And I get that. I was a parish priest for two decades. We are a people of the Incarnation. Buildings matter to us because place matters to us; our faith journeys are not "generic" but specific and tied to people and places along the way. We don't worship a God confined to the heavens but a Word-made-flesh who has dwelt among us.

So that font matters. I mean that one right there in this congregation. Even when we know that we are being baptized as living members into a living Body that is ecumenical and diverse, the particularity matters. And we should own that. When we were incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ at that font ninety years ago, we were held there by parents and godparents and a beloved rector who are now part of that great cloud of witnesses. If we close our eyes we can still see it all very clearly. Our church buildings  matter to us for the same reason that our homes do. I have had more than one parishioner who has told me of a home where they have been settled for forty or fifty years, "I'm going out feet first." Telling that person that they would have community and care in an assisted-living facility doesn't easily trump those connections - even when that is the right decision.  

So people want to be buried from that same building where their journey began, and has continued, places filled with memories and stories. And there is more than nostalgia here; places of prayer become "thin" places - sacred spaces. And I truly do get that. And we should all get that. 

But that is not the end of the conversation if in fact a building does not serve God's mission any longer; it's just the beginning of the grieving process. We don't just discard it; out with the old and in with the new. But like families that have those difficult conversations with aging parents, we need as church leaders to have these same difficult conversations in our congregations. 

My former parishioners often heard me joke that when someone says "the tradition" what they really mean is the parish as I remember it from my youth.  So let's give credit where credit is due: the people who built the buildings in Worcester in the latter part of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century were visionaries and Stephen Earle was a creative genius. But we honor them by remembering that they were a people of faith before they had buildings. They set out to praise God by creating sacred spaces set apart for Word and Sacrament and they did that well, and with love, and creating places of beauty where so much has happened.

So I am sure that at this very place in this very post there is someone worshiping in one of these hallowed places who has just stopped breathing for a moment. So let me allow my inner pastoral instincts to take over right now and say: breathe in and breathe out. 

I am, although it would surprise many, in a lot of ways a conservative when it comes to the liturgy and the tradition. Or maybe more accurately, I am a gradualist. There is so much to honor from the past; from the faith of our fathers and mothers that has lovingly been passed on to us. But that is only the first part of that song and the problem is that we have forgotten the next part. The faith of our fathers and mothers needs to be living still and it is our job as witnesses to pass it on to our children and our children's children so it can be for them, too, a living faith. 

So I don't think it would be wise to sell all the buildings and start over. Or maybe it would be wise, but it scares the hell out of me, too. All I am saying is that authentic discernment uses both our heads and our hearts to listen to the living God. And idolatry keeps us from that God. We put our trust in what is penultimate rather than ultimate. 

So it would be way easier for us if we were at square one rather than trying to do retro-fits. It might therefore be helpful to imagine for a moment that there were no Episcopalians in Worcester at all - or at least no buildings for Episcopalians to worship in. If we were simply a group of people looking for a place to pray and to do ministry in 2014, what kind of buildings would that require? I submit to you that Stephen Earle is not our guy for this work nor would the strategy emerge that would have five different buildings in different parts of the city without adequate parking. What I envy most about those non-denominational types who plant churches is that they can consider parking and solar panels and insulation. They aren't dealing with ancient heating systems and cavernous spaces. 

So it is worth asking such a question, I think. And then once we have such challenging conversations to ask: given we are at point "a" and it might be good to get to point "b," what are the next steps we could take today to move in that general direction?

When a tragedy destroys a church building - by fire or earthquake or a new highway coming through - the immediate temptation is to rebuild a museum, to make the space exactly as it was. But if the congregation has strong and visionary leaders when such things happen they resist that idolatrous temptation. They start to ask questions like "what worked and what didn't?" The end of a building is not necessarily the end of a congregation. In fact very often it leads to new life. On the other hand, I see too often how the continuation of a building "as is" becomes all consuming. There is no time or energy to do ministry beyond the four walls because it takes all of a congregation's energy to keep the heat on. And if the choice comes to whether to preserve the building or hire a full-time rector, would you believe that more often than not the decision is for the building?

So within the DNA of Worcester there in fact have been buildings destroyed: fire, interstate highways, and tornadoes have all taken a toll on buildings. It is not accurate to say in Worcester, "it has always been thus." That is an a-historical and completely false statement. Not to mention the fact that even in the buildings we do have, there have been changes along the way.

Let's consider two of those: the altar and the pews. Both can cause major fights. Any Episcopal Church built before 1979 (when The Book of Common Prayer was last revised) was most likely built for Morning Prayer three times a month and Holy Communion once a month. The altar was against the wall and the priest's back was facing the people. In the 1970's and 1980's altars moved out so the priest could face the people, and in some places (where possible) there was a subsequent move out from a few feet from the back wall to even closer to the people, often then moving the choir to a space beyond the "table." 

This isn't the place for a lengthy discussion of liturgical renewal and the reasons for these changes. But this I can tell you: it doesn't really help a priest to say that the reason we are doing this is because of "tradition" because the early church worshiped standing around a table rather than kneeling in pews and facing the priest's back. The "tradition" is how I remember the church when I was growing up! 

In my previous parish, during a time of major renovations where the altar and choir did reverse spaces and we removed the altar rail, we did not remove the pews and replace them with chairs. Nor did we cushion the pews although several people suggested we do that. I don't want to re-live that discussion here; the church was pretty bold in the changes they made at the time and they created a space that better worked for the congregation we were becoming and most congregations can handle only so much change at once. But I do hope at some future date the time will be ripe for one of my successors to guide God's people through that change. Who really likes sitting in a pew? Our spiritual forebears were clearly smaller people than we are, both vertically and horizontally!

What would happen if we removed all the pews from all of our congregations by fiat? (Don't worry, I don't think that directive is coming any time soon.) But what if it did? I suppose some people would leave because without "my" pew it would no longer be "my" church. But think of how much easier it would be, at least for a time, to welcome newcomers. No rude glare to someone who comes in for the first time and didn't get the memo that they are not supposed to sit in that third pew from the rear on the left because "everybody" knows that pew belongs to Mildred and her long deceased spouse and her three grown children who now live in Miami, Chicago, and London respectively. No matter; don't you dare sit there...

Now I know that the same could and probably would happen with chairs. But here is the thing: chairs can be moved. If there are twelve people at an 8 a.m. Eucharist they can be set up differently than on Christmas Eve. It's harder to "own" a chair than a pew. And maybe that would be good for a congregation.

Moving the furniture, especially pews and altars, is a move from preaching to meddling. I get that. And I've been there in the midst of liturgical changes as a pastor. It's painful when people cannot make that move; when they need to kneel to receive the Body and Blood of Christ and now you are the one who took "their" rail away. (Even if it was a group discernment.) Conflict-averse clergy and lay leaders cannot take the risk of making such dramatic changes. 

The point is that the building does change and if Stephen Earle walked into his three buildings in Worcester today he'd immediately notice that they have changed since the latter years of the nineteenth century. And while I did not know the man I suspect he'd be glad about that and then ask: but why haven't you changed this yet? Clearly this no longer works...

Does the building serve the larger purpose of forming disciples to bear witness to the risen Christ? Is it serving the mission of God? And if not, how might it be adopted to do so? We must dare to ask these questions, for the sake of the gospel. We must remember that we are, even in buildings we have inherited, still a people and not just a steeple. 

So we need to find ways to have these conversations. We need to move beyond the very real emotional attachments we develop and take the risk of asking: what is the mission of God here and now, and how we can develop spaces for doing that necessary work? Would we be the Church without this building? 

If you want to watch Episcopalians squirm,just try raising questions like this an an Annual Meeting. But here is what I think: we'd be better served by doing that that raising seventeen questions about the $423 more that was spent on heating oil this year than last. 

And we do well to remember that the "tradition" goes back even more than two thousand years - back to our Hebrew ancestors. What guidance does Scripture offer to us in this conversation and how have we been missing it (right before our very eyes) because we have confused the "tradition" with the way we remember the Church when we were growing up, or perhaps even a little further back than that, to the latter part of the nineteenth century when Episcopalians went on a building frenzy in Worcester County?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Buildings and Ministry: Part I

I recently attended the 2014 Episcopal Church Building Fund symposium in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida with my bishop and two canon colleagues, as well as thirteen other clergy and lay leaders from our diocese, representing five of our congregations. Our hope was to begin to gain a shared vocabulary for facing some of the challenges we face as a twenty-first century diocese.

This is going to be the first of several extended reflections. I'll get to the Symposium itself, eventually, but I don't want to start there. I want to start with my own context as Canon to the Ordinary in Worcester County, and present a kind of case study of the Episcopal Church in Worcester. I'll begin with a rough outline of the history of mission here which would, I'm sure, not meet the exacting standards of David McCullough but will, I think, be enough for some theological reflection. By way of this story, I'll eventually get to what I learned at the Building Fund Symposium and why it might be relevant to the work we are doing in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. So here goes...

The story begins in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 because that is how Anglicans came to this country; the folks at Plymouth Rock were not so fond of the established church as you may recall. So the "state church" in New England was controlled by the Puritans; the reason that every town in New England that goes back to the early days before the Revolution has one of those "meeting houses" on the town green that is now usually part of the United Church of Christ. The first foothold for Anglicans in our diocese came in the early years of the 18th century in Great Barrington, but it was not until after the Revolutionary War (1784) that the Diocese of Massachusetts (one diocese) came into existence as part of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.

All Saints Church in Worcester
Now let's jump forward ninety years, to 1835, to the story I want to tell here. That is when Episcopalians began meeting in Town Hall in Worcester and talking about a church that in 1843 would become All Saints. Note this: the building came after the community formed. This is usually (always?) the case: the church is a people before it is a building. The first building for All Saints was built in 1846 and then burned down; the "new" building came in 1877. That building was designed by a man named Stephen Earle. Take note of that name; he'll reappear below.

Now before I move on to the mission parishes of Worcester let me just jump ahead to the dawn of the twentieth century. In 1901, the part of Massachusetts located west of what is now 495 (give or take a parish) became the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. (While it seems reasonable from our vantage point that the Diocese of Massachusetts should have also taken a new name in 1901 and become the Diocese of Eastern Massachusetts, if that thought occurred to anyone at the time it apparently did not gain traction.) In any case, for our purposes let me move on: the first bishop of Western Massachusetts was elected from All Saints, Worcester in 1902. His name was Alexander Vinton.

St. Matthew's Church in Worcester
Before that, the idea of planting new churches for a growing city emerged and from All Saints, in this order, the following parishes were planted: St. Matthew's, St. John's, St. Mark's, St. Luke's, and St. Michael's. One doesn't need to be a Biblical scholar to ask: why did St. John's come after St. Matthew's? The answer, I have been told, is that an influential parishioner at St. John's preferred the fourth gospel to the second one! I would have loved to have been there for those conversations.

Again, let me say there are stories and stories to be told here, to paraphrase the writer of the fourth gospel "I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." (John 21:25) And you can learn more about the parish histories on their websites. But I'm wanting to get to a place where I can speak of buildings and ministry, so let's keep going. On September 21, 1871 (St. Matthew's Day) a mission chapel for English immigrants was built in South Worcester that would eventually burn down in 1893. That chapel was started through funds raised by the women of All Saints Church. Who do you think was there to serve as the architect when construction began on a new building? None other than Stephen Earle.

St Luke's Church in Worcester
In 1894, St. John's Church began in Lincoln Square. Of personal interest to me is that in 1952 they planted a congregation in the small town north of Worcester that was by then a growing suburb - the parish that I served for fifteen years called St. Francis in Holden. Unfortunately when Interstate 290 was built, St. John's had to move their building to the end of Holden street, from Lincoln Square. They did great ministry there for some time, but after 125 years of ministry (in two buildings) they eventually closed their doors. Some of those parishioners ended up in Holden.

So as mentioned, St. John's went "out of order" in terms of the four gospels. But just four years later, St. Mark's Church began - 1898. Guess who the architect was? If you guessed Stephen Earle you would be correct. Thank you for playing.

St. Michael's-on-the Heights, in Worcester
Then in 1912, in the Tatnuck area of Worcester, St. Luke's was founded. And then in 1926, in the growing suburban area of Greendale in Worcester, out of gospel writers, the sixth Worcester congregation was founded: St. Michael's on the Heights.

So in summary: from 1835-1912, six congregations were founded in the city limits of Worcester. Like all created things, they were born. Like all created things, at some point they will all die, as St. John's did. No one likes to hear this, but the people of St. John's bear witness to the power of the resurrection and the fact that death does not ever get the last word for God's people. But in the telling of that story make no mistake about it, there would be many tears. Of the remaining five congregations, three of the buildings were designed by a single architect for a nineteenth-century mission. The other two were built later - and St. Michael's is also on their second building after the Worcester tornado of 1953 destroyed their first building.

Ponder that a moment, because it leads to mission of the Episcopal Church Building Fund: "Empowering congregations to develop or enhance their mission through the strategic, resourceful, and creative use of their buildings."  But think about how the world has changed since the late nineteenth century. Count the ways! Let me reflect on just one that has had huge implications: those buildings were built for a church that existed before the automobile. The "Model T" was produced by Henry Ford's Motor Company from 1908-1927. Stephen Earle could not have possibly been expected to think about parking lots before that, nor could the people of St. John's have envisioned a highway coming through their neighborhood. Parking remains a challenge at all of these urban parishes with the sole exception being St. Michael's. But don't blame Stephen Earle. It is the world that has changed.

And along the way, so too have other institutions. The college I attended in the early 1980s (Georgetown) looks very different today from when I was there. New dorms. Better on campus parking. I'm sure those reading could say the same about their schools and colleges and gyms. Buildings change to meet new needs. Georgetown was founded in 1789 and I love those old buildings at the center of campus but along the way the university had to develop and enhance their mission through the strategic, resourceful, and creative use of their buildings.

So why is it that the Church mostly remained "stuck" in a bygone era - at least in terms of our buildings. And is it possible that the buildings themselves keep us from becoming the Church God is calling us to be? What happens when we begin to serve the building (and all of our energy and resources are focused on it) rather than the building serving the mission of God?

But this is already a very long post. When you feel up to it, click here for Buildings and Ministry: Part II.