Thursday, December 10, 2015

In Our End Is Our Beginning: An Advent Reflection

I was asked to make a presentation today to the "New Calls" Group in the Diocese of Massachusetts - the Episcopal congregations east of the diocese where I serve as Canon to the Ordinary. I agreed to talk about the canticles that are appointed during this lectionary cycle as part of our Advent worship. The "audience" are all Episcopal clergy who have been serving their congregations less than two years. 

These reflections are ridiculously long for a blog post! But I've been in the pews every Sunday of this Advent season and therefore quiet on this blog, without any sermons at all to post. Preaching is how I think theologically - and without being in the pulpit, this "lecture" represents the way that I have been able to reflect upon some of the things that have been happening in our world as this year comes to a close - as we get ready once more to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation. 

What does it mean to say that God is with us in this particular time and place, not just "once upon a time?" 

While the work with the clergy in the Diocese of Massachusetts focused on the last two canticles and a conversation among us all - the notes below is where we began in our time together, words I hope were helpful to them as they continue to lead their congregations through this holy season. By posting these notes here, perhaps they will be of some help to others as well.  (Rich) 

Let us pray with the words that Jesus has given to us:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever, and ever. Amen. 
These words kind of roll off of our tongues, don’t they? We pray them at every Eucharist, and most of us pray them at least once a day if we use some version of the Daily Office to guide our prayer lives. These words unite us as followers of Jesus, as members of the Body of Christ.

I love it when little children blurt out certain phrases louder than others in corporate worship. And I stand in awe when called on to offer prayers for someone who is struggling to take their last breath in this world, but still mouthing these words as family and priest gather around their bedside. They hold tremendous power.

This is no “innocent” prayer to reinforce Christendom; it’s a radical, bold Jewish prayer that means to change the world. So if it’s true, lex orandi, lex credendi – then what do these words teach us to believe?

When Phil asked me to do this we agreed upon a topic and it was not an afternoon spent on the Lord’s Prayer. We’ll get to the canticles of Advent – but I have chosen to begin here today as a way into this topic: at the core of Jesus’ teaching ministry is this notion of the Kingdom of God, or since kings mostly belong to another time and place, the Reign of God.  The BASILEA of God as it is rendered in the documents we call the New Testament.

Thy basilea come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

These radical words are affirmed by the seer on Patmos who (like Jesus) did not imagine a few, proud, “real” Christians being beamed up to heaven to leave all the sinners behind at the end of human history, but rather imagined that the work begun by a first-century Galilean rabbi in Palestine would one day reach fruition: God’s reign, God’s will, being done on earth as in heaven.

We are a long way from that, to be sure. But this is our hope and this is the promise given not just to the Church but to the world – a promise the Church is meant to bear witness to in the meantime. Jesus spent much of his time teaching his disciples how to develop eyes to see signs of that basilea’s presence.  A lot of them are small, so you have to learn how to look: mustard seeds and buried treasure and a foreigner helping out a local mugging victim and a lost son finding his way home to a celebration of veal piccata for everyone. You know the stories – parables meant to prod us toward eyes that see and ears that hear the ways that this basilea of God is already present, at least proleptically.

If you are going to teach your congregations one theological vocabulary word in Advent, proleptically is as good a word as any: a proleptic eschatology is one that sees signs of the reign of God here and now, in our midst, and trusts that those "mustard seeds" are glimpses of what will one day come to full fruition.

Pay attention to the fig tree, Jesus says.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Or as an even earlier poet put it centuries before John of Patmos:  

He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.

Again, I want you all to know I read the newspapers and I see all the stuff on Facebook – I know about Paris and San Bernardino and the demagogues running for President of this great nation and the racial divide in Ferguson and Baltimore and Chicago and pretty much everywhere. We are a long way from God’s Reign, or at least it feels like that. Yet still, we pray day after day: thy kingdom come on earth, as in heaven. And in Advent we perhaps add for good measure, “come quickly Lord Jesus.”

We know how the story ends. We know the final chapter and as in The Narnia Chronicles or Harry Potter, knowing how the story ends is meant to inspire us for the work we are called to do in the meantime. Unfortunately, we’ve mostly ceded eschatological and apocalyptic talk to the fundamentalists. It’s long past time that we rescue the Bible from that narrow understanding. Too often as we have come into the time of transition from Last Pentecost / the Reign of Christ to that First Sunday of Advent, we’ve punted.

Thankfully, however, this is beginning to change. Our times demand this because no trytophanic stupor can numb us from the fact that there are signs of endings all around us. The Rt. Rev Marianne Budde, Bishop of Washington preached a sermon on the First Sunday of Advent entitled Advent: Our Hope Lies Where it Always Has. Her primary text came from the day’s gospel, from the twenty-first chapter of Luke:

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."  

In the opening words of Bishop Budde’s sermon she asked the congregation, “In these fraught times, where do you look for strength and hope?” And then this: our calling as followers of Jesus is to keep standing when the dominos around us begin to fall.   

What is our shared calling? To keep standing when the dominos around us begin to fall. To blow the trumpet in Zion, to keep awake, to await the bridegroom, to not lose heart. We are called to not let fear undo or paralyze us, but to “fear not” – which I know is way easier said than done. As preachers I think we are called to hold up these proleptic signs of God’s Reign: not because we are in denial or because we are cockeyed optimists but because we are in the business of cultivating hope, and hope inspires action.  

We know how the story ends: with every valley lifted up and every mountain made low and the crooked places straight. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, no matter how hard the NRA resists that vision. We know how the story ends: with justice rolling down like a mighty stream, even if we can only see it proleptically from where we stand right now. We know how the story ends: with people from every tribe and language and people and nation singing around the Lamb who is at the center. We know and we believe and we proclaim it in the words of our liturgy and in the words of the Creed and in the words of the prayer that Jesus himself gave us and therefore we know that our work is to keep standing when the dominoes around us begin to fall.

But it’s very hard work, isn’t it? And so we keep praying: thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Come quickly Lord Jesus.

Before we turn our attention to the Advent canticles (which I promise we will) I  want to consider a lament song written by a more contemporary theologian, Bob Dylan, which goes like this:

Shadows are falling and I been here all day
It's too hot to sleep and time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun didn't let me heal
There's not even room enough to be anywhere
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there
Well my sense of humanity is going down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin' what was in her mind
I just don't see why I should even care
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there
Well I been to London and I been to gay Paree
I followed the river and I got to the sea
I've been down to the bottom of a whirlpool of lies
I ain't lookin' for nothin' in anyone's eyes
Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there…

As much as I am a fan of Dylan, and as much as I love that song (and as much as I have showed you much kindness in not singing it to you!) and as much as I think this poem speaks to people who feel the world is coming unglued, I want to propose to you all in the Diocese of (EASTERN) Massachusetts today that what we need to proclaim to the people God has called us to serve is an alternative vision of hope that goes something like this: it’s not light yet, but it’s getting there. This is the good news we’ve been entrusted to proclaim not only to our congregations, but to the world.

"Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God." Abraham Joshua Heschel once said. Amen. It’s not light yet, but it’s getting there. We can say this as a people who have walked in darkness, as a people who have seen a great light.

Advent is not little Lent. The primary Biblical metaphor for Lent is about that forty-year journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. And so Elijah and Jesus and we go into the wilderness to make our forty-day pilgrimage. But Advent draws primarily on another time and place from the OT canon: it’s about exile. It’s about grief and loss: loss of the temple, loss of innocence, loss of trust, loss of hope. It’s about hanging up harps and weeping, for how could we sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign land? It’s about dried up bones! And yet it is also about learning after many lamentations, to in fact learn some new songs!

Imagine that! Now that’s a real Christmas miracle!  Songs like:
  • Comfort, oh comfort my people, saith your God and
  • O come O come Emmanuel, to ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the son of God appear and
  • It’s not light yet, but it’s getting there.

LITERALLY, by the way - it really is getting lighter, or it almost is. Last year was a cold dark brutal winter and I pray that in the midst of climate change and all the challenges of our world that God hears my personal selfish prayer for the city I live in: Lord, let Worcester lose its claim to fame as the snowiest city in the United States this year!  Give that one back to Buffalo! Amen.

But whatever this winter brings (and you all know the worst is yet to come in terms of snow) here’s the thing: in just eleven days we’ll come to the shortest day of the year. And from December 22 forward, we’ll begin to add minutes to each day. Spring will come again and then we’ll spring our clocks ahead which will help out even a little more. Long summer days on the Cape will come. It’s not light yet, but it’s getting there.

And so we move toward that light and like the people in Susan Cooper’s poem about the shortest day we light those flickering candles on our wreaths, praying for our dearly loved friends, and for peace. As we light those candles we do so with a sure and certain (and perhaps even defiant) hope: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. With Rabbi Heschel, we, too, trust that prayer is a way of seeing the world in the light of God. It’s not light yet, but it’s getting there.'

There is a line from T. S. Eliot – from The Four Quartets – that says, “in my end is my beginning.” In OUR end is OUR beginning. And this is good news for our congregations and for the world. We know how the story ends. It is the mystery of faith we proclaim when we break the bread and share the cup week after week: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We may believe it completely on some days and we may doubt it on others. But it is the faith of the Church that the story ends with the kingdom on earth as in heaven and with the tears of everyone from Sandy Hook to San Bernardino wiped away.

As you know, this weekend is the third anniversary of that terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook. But how do we even mark that day in our congregations when there have been so many dead since then? Can we even remember back that far? It feels like the dominoes are falling and we stand in our pulpits like fools for Christ. But what we preach also happens to be true: fear not! Fear not that it’s dark, fear not when the dominoes fall: stand tall and light a candle because in our end is our beginning.

Signs of endings all around us, darkness, death and winter days
Shroud our lives in fear and sadness, numbing mouths that long to praise.
Come O Christ, and dwell among us, hear our cries and come to free.
Give us hope and faith and gladness, show us what there yet can be.

And then this haunting, daring question:

Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create?

Yes. Yes. Yes. This is why even at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Because with sure and certain hope in the resurrection we dare to say not only with our lips but our lives, we believe; help our unbelief. Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. 

If we define our work by taking the long view and by seeing the finish line – the telos- then each working day is framed in that way and by God’s grace we get glimpses of the kind of wisdom that Wendell Berry speaks of in The Mad Farmer Liberation Front: 
Ask the questions that have no answers.Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
So it is not that there is nothing to do but wait passively for Jesus to return. It is that in taking the long view and trusting the end to God, we get some clarity about the work that God has called us to do right now, which is to seek out those proleptic signs of the Reign of God and tend to those. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with us...
So, Phil – what did we agree that I would talk about today? Oh yes, canticles! We learn how to do exegesis because these songs have an original Biblical context – and we learn how to do hermeneutics because these songs have a socio-political context in the United States in December 2015. But we sing these songs within a liturgical context as well, in this season of hope and expectation. How does our new PB put it? We are meant to awaken to the dream of God, from the nightmare that this world too often is for too many.

This summer, on the fiftieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels, I traveled with some others from my diocese on a pilgrimage led by Episcopal Divinity School, which as you know was Jonathan’s seminary at the time he took a leave of absence to go join the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. I came back from that pilgrimage with a t-shirt that quotes Jonathan from his writings: “We are indelibly, unspeakably, ONE.”

This is what the martyrs bear witness to against all the evidence. I came back from my pilgrimage in some ways more discouraged than encouraged – because fifty years later how far have we come, really, in terms of race relations? It’s harder than ever to be a person of color in your American skin. Forty-one shots, sixteen shots—too many shots in a world that does not yet seem to believe that black lives really matter. 

And yet – Jonathan Daniels knew how it ends and I think we are called to trust the same. We are indelibly, unspeakably ONE.  Not the same (as another poet has put it) but ONE nevertheless.

And I looked and I saw those ransomed for God from every tribe and language and people and nation and they had become a kingdom of priests serving our God.  And they kept on singing with full voice: blessing and honor and glory and praise...

In the meantime we get weary and so do the folks among whom we serve: weary and angry and frustrated and discouraged. We feel weak, and perhaps sometimes (or even often) on the brink of despair. What does it look like to stand strong in such times as these, knowing we have a calling that puts us at odds with a dominant culture focused on violence? But it makes all the difference in the world if we can remember how the story ends: love wins. Swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and we will study war no more. So what one visible step can your congregation, your diocese, our beloved Episcopal Church take this Advent toward that telos? And how can we partner with our friends who are part of this holy, catholic and apostolic faith so that together we might do infinitely more than we can presently ask or even imagine?

Do you remember that great rendition of “Silent Night” that Simon and Garfunkle did, juxtaposed with the 7 o’clock news which was the real news from August 3, 1966? As they sing those words about how all is calm and all is bright we hear the news of the battles on Capitol Hill over Civil Rights legislation and hearings for the Committee on un-American activities, of the death of Lenny Bruce to a drug overdose, of a bunch of nurses strangled and stabbed in their Chicago apartment, of former vice-president Richard Nixon saying that people who did not support increasing the war effort in Vietnam were not real Americans, of Martin Luther King Jr. saying he would not cancel a Black Lives Matter march because of pressure from white folks. Same news that could be ripped from the day’s headlines and truth be told it probably goes back way more than fifty years ago. When exactly were the “good old days?”

And yet, all the time Simon and Garfunkle keep on singing about that holy infant, mother and child…silent night, holy night. I think the canticles function like this too. And I think it's also what we preachers are striving for on Christmas Eve as well: we can dim the lights and try to shut the world out for an hour or so and sing Silent Night and it can be so beautiful. But in the background, racing in our own heads (as well as those of our parishioners) are all those reasons we so desperately long to welcome this Prince of Peace into our lives, into the little town of Bethlehem, into our world because we yearn for peace on earth and we hunger for justice. All is not yet calm and all is not yet bright. It’s not light yet. But it’s getting there.

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man. 

Alright, then: let’s do some work on some canticles! Last Sunday as people gathered across this Commonwealth to pray not only in our Episcopal congregations but in all the ones that use the Revised Common lectionary they met this old man who has in his old age has become a new daddy. He’s a strange dude with an even stranger son. (Elizabeth seems nice though.) I want us to hear it again while it’s still ringing in our ears – perhaps some of you even preached on it – and try to hear it within this context on this day and perhaps some of what I’ve said helps us to hear it in fresh ways in this place.  

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

When we know how the story ends, we can be people who dare to sing this kind of song, people who seek out those places where the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, people who walk in the way of peace in the midst of a warring world.

Zechariah didn’t sing those words (or we seminary-trained folks might say that Luke didn’t put these words on the lips of Zechariah) because all was well in the world in the midst of a declining Roman empire. Zechariah (or at least Luke) had this sense that his son was called to prepare the way for something new. Would that every child had a parent to sing this song to them, to remind us all that there is a highway in the desert that isn’t finished yet and like the Baptizer we too must go out into those wilderness places to become part of a highway crew.

But I also find it interesting that Zechariah didn’t just dream this song up from scratch. He was part of a tradition and shaped by that tradition as a priest. John the Baptist (wild rebel of a PK that he turned out to be) was still the old man’s son – and Elizabeth’s too. To be a voice in the wilderness he had to first encounter the prophets in the songs and stories of his parents, before he could make it is own and add in the fine delicacies of locusts and wild honey.

Alan Jones, retired dean from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, likes to say that we preachers are a word about the Word before we open our mouths. I think groups like this (and colleagues in ministry beyond our new calls) help us to remember that the work of preaching is less about exegeting a text or crafting a hermeneutically sound sermon as it is to work on the preacher. We are called to preach the gospel at all times – sometimes even with words. And the words are always hollow if they aren’t working on us first.

So I invite you in this place and in the time we will share in small groups now to let go of the need to impress each other, and to ask a simple question of these songs we’ll explore together in the time we have remaining: where is there good news here for you, not yet as preacher but first as a beloved child of God? How does this text help you become a more faithful follower of Jesus? What hooks you toward that end? How does this text help you to develop a more inquiring and discerning heart among the people with whom you serve the living God?

Maybe this has never happened to you but it occasionally happened to me when I served as a rector, especially when I was leading a Bible study. Parishioners thought I was the expert. They thought I had learned in seminary the answers in the back of the book. Sometimes they might try to play stump the rector but more often they were sincerely looking for those answers themselves and they thought I must have gotten them in seminary. Trying to explain to them that texts are polyvalent, that they generate multiple interpretations because there are no innocent readers of texts – often this response would be met with some bemusement. But I really do believe that and I suspect most of you do too and one of the great gifts of colleagues if we dare embrace it and be vulnerable with one another is that we don’t need to be the experts here.

I was listening to a piece on NPR a week or so ago –a report from their social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam posted on December 2. It was about how being labeled an expert can make you close-minded. It’s a fascinating study I commend to you but for this work we are doing today it suggests that the more we think we know the less we can learn. The premise (with some evidence to back it up) is that when people start to believe they are experts on something they stop listening. I think this has some application to us as preachers. We went to seminary, we have studied eschatology and apocalyptic literature at the feet of other experts, we can use words like proleptically without even blushing. We know mostly what is wrong with Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind series even if we aren’t sure how to offer our people a viable alternative reading of these texts.

But the danger for us in Advent and throughout the year is that we can become immune to the “inquiring and discerning hearts” we asked God to give us in Holy Baptism and throughout the journey. So I invite you to let go of any lingering need to be experts today as we explore just two canticles together in the time remaining: to come at them with fresh eyes and ears, to be surprised by them, and to be drawn in by them.

My hope is that we might come to them with curiosity – not as experts but as explorers.

The First Song of Isaiah    Ecce Deus                             
Isaiah 12:2-6
Surely, it is God who saves me; *
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *
and he will be my Savior.
Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *
from the springs of salvation.
And on that day you shall say, *
Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;
Make his deeds known among the peoples; *
see that they remember that his Name is exalted.
Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, *
and this is known in all the world.
Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, *
for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.

The Song of Mary Magnificat
Luke 1:46-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
    for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
    the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
    in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
    he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
    and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
    for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
    to Abraham and his children for ever.

Monday, November 9, 2015

What I'm Learning In Diocesan Ministry

I am coming up on two and a half years as Canon to the Ordinary in The Diocese of Western Massachusetts. I'm still a newbie but I'm beginning to get a handle on the work after almost twenty years as a parish priest, and four years as an ecumenical campus minister. I often say that my initial calling to campus ministry has shaped my entire ministry - what I care about, and what I'm passionate about. I began with people who were "spiritual but not religious" before that was even a thing! I listened to and walked with young people who are now in their forties and raising children of their own. Some of them are ordained and others of them continue to serve the Church as lay people. They do me proud, and they make me feel old.

I served four years in a wonderful parish, Christ and Holy Trinity in Westport, Connecticut, where I learned how to be an Episcopal priest. My campus ministry experience was ecumenical, but I was a United Methodist Pastor during that time, formed in a United Methodist Seminary. Christ and Holy Trinity gave me the space, and the love, to embrace the denomination I chose as an adult- the place where I could continue to live out my commitment to the vision of the Wesley boys.

And then I was blessed to be called to serve as rector of St, Francis, Holden in 1998, and then stayed on for more than fifteen years. Hathy and I raised our two sons there. I got to take two sabbaticals at St. Francis - almost unheard of these days because clergy rarely stay in one place long enough to take even one sabbatical. Those sabbaticals kind of marked "chapters" for me in that ministry - chapters of entering, of growing together, of putting down roots. The challenge with long term ministries - or more accurately ONE of the challenges is that deep roots make it hard to pull up and leave. I am so grateful that St. Francis continues to roll along after a healthy interim time and the call of a wonderful rector to lead them in the next chapter of their life together.

I review all of this not out of nostalgia for the past but because these particular experiences (and not other ones) have shaped my understanding of ministry, along with a doctorate in ministry at Columbia Theological Seminary focused on "missional church" before it was cool - and on the complex ways that gospel and culture intersect. I could not know at any point along the way but feel it now in a deep, almost mystical way: that all of these experiences helped shape me for the work I am doing today, and have been doing for these past two and a half years. It was these places - and not the calls I didn't get, or didn't explore - that have left their mark on me.

As a parish priest I often felt out of step with diocesan ministry and with most of what has been called "the church growth movement." I felt too often that the programs being suggested by those "in the know" didn't match up with my own experience. I didn't want to say they were wrong, although perhaps once or twice I did say that. Mostly I wondered if I was wrong - or more accurately what my own experience meant. It just seemed like much of what was being proposed was rooted in anxiety: if the Episcopal Church could just copy Willow Creek (or Starbucks); if we would focus on traditional Anglican music or start a praise band - the list is long. But what these things had in common was the belief that if we did a, then b would surely result...

But I found that in parish ministry sometimes we tried a and something unexpected happened. Mostly what I found is that relationships mattered more than anything else. I served a purple town (politically speaking) in a solidly blue state. While the parish I served was not as diverse as any of us would have liked racially or even economically it was (and is) incredibly diverse politically and theologically. I haven't looked recently but while I was there the town itself was roughly half independent, a quarter Republican, a quarter Democratic. Speaking about social justice issues required a lot of patience - not cliches but deep relationships and a whole lot of trust. I felt that over time I got to speak in my own voice, true to myself. But on any Sunday I'd be doing that among people with very different perspectives on a whole lot of things. Nevertheless we were able (as time went on) to tackle bigger questions because we worked (and I do mean we, not I) at creating space where people felt that they could listen, and speak, and be heard. This was holy work for me - and in some ways hard to leave behind.

What I see now is that this is not always the case and this brings me to what I feel I can say. at least now on a November day two and a half years into this work. I have just finished reading a book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Slow, Patient Way of Jesus. It is not written by Episcopalians, but it speaks to my experience of the Church in ways that make me experience some holy envy: I really wish I'd written this book. I commend it to you and won't offer a review of it here, but want to steal two important ideas. I hope you've read along this far to get to them!

First, this work of ministry takes time. This is a particularly counter-cultural truth in this time and place, but it means we need to slow down and put down some roots. The writers speak of the McDonaldization of the culture and the church.They take their title and their metaphor from the slow-food movement as an alternative way to be in the world, insisting that ministry is more like a slow simmering stew in a crock pot than a burger in a bag at the drive-through. Indeed. And yes, the critics are right: Yes, we live in a culture where this work is nearly impossible. People are so busy. But with God all things are possible. Christians are formed in crock pots..

One aspect of my work is in clergy transitions. For many reasons, not the least of which is an inability for clergy and congregations to work through conflict, the average stay for a rector is less than five years. But in five years you don't even know what you don't know yet - about the congregation or about the community. I hear it all the time when calls fail, especially when they fail really badly. Members of the congregation tell me, "all s/he ever talked about was his or her old parish." Yet I have this sneaking suspicion that this would startle members of the former parish who would probably say the same thing. Clergy can be so "on the move" (upward sometimes, but sometimes just running from themselves) that they only figure out what they learned after they leave. So they spend five years or so talking about that and then they move on -  presumably to talk about what they learned in their next parish. (And to be fair, the same can be said on the other side - sometimes congregations can't stop talking about the last rector either!)

If I was granted just one wish by the church genie for making parishes flourish it'd be for good matches in the first place and then long ministries - at least a decade, and perhaps longer. Not three decades; that is often much harder to pull off and God help the person who comes in next! But slow, steady, patient work of listening and learning and intentionality that leads to growth, sometimes even in numbers. How can we create the space for that to happen more often?

Ministry is not a bag of tricks! I learned about OPATCO from David Graybeal three decades ago: On Paying Attention To COmmunity as ministry. He was right. I think back to my first Town Meeting in Holden back in 1998. God, I hated it! I thought that it was the dumbest form of government I'd ever witnessed - giving voice to the dumbest and least informed members of the community. Not like we did it in Pennsylvania!

And you know what? I am still not crazy about Town Meeting. But you cannot understand Massachusetts without some understanding of this curious cultural phenomena. And it's not enough to just criticize it. When someone stands up at Annual Meeting or Diocesan Convention in a Church which has a very different polity to make a speech, it helps to at least understand that it's "in the water." And you don't understand this from a book. Ditto with shoveling snow, eating in local restaurants, standing on the sidelines of a soccer game where everyone is drinking Dunkin Donuts. At some level we clergy have to "go native" if we mean to be missionaries. We need to learn the local language and customs; not tell them how our old parishes "did it right."

And this takes time. A precious commodity we often believe we don't have. It takes slow church...

The ministries that I see flourishing have no magic formula, no silver bullet. They just are building relationships and putting down roots, and taking the long view. (See Jeremiah's Letter to the Babylonian Exiles).

Anyone still with me?

The second thing and this too is all over Slow Church, although because they are not Episcopalians they make the point much more subtly than I will: we need to rediscover our calling to serve the parish and not just congregations. By which I mean, the "parish" of my former calling was the town of Holden and one could argue since there were not Episcopal congregations in any of the other Wachusuett Regional School District towns it included Rutland, Sterling, Princeton, and Paxton too. In other words not just the folks who self-selected and came to worship with us in the congregation. (See C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, who recognized that parishes are about unity of place, not likings, and how congregations can so easily become "clubs.")

I am sure I was guilty of this to some extent, maybe even a big extent but in my diocesan ministry I want to encourage clergy to let go of the idea that they are "managers" of a diocesan "franchise." The job is not about what happens inside the walls. This is part of it, of course. Running a good vestry meeting, preaching and presiding at the Eucharist - making sure Christians are being formed and then sent.

But the call is to a community, not a congregation. Sometimes in our confusion over what it means to be in a post-Christendom context I hear colleagues complain that they will never speak at a Baccalaureate service or do weddings (or even funerals!) for non-congregants. (I use that word with care; because it's not accurate to say that those folks are not "parishioners' if we take on that broader and deeper meaning of the boundaries of the "parish.") I served as volunteer chaplain to the Police Department and I received WAY more than I gave in doing that work because I came to better understand my community in so doing.

Each of us will find our own ways of doing this but too many clergy reinforce the message that we are called to serve the forty or fifty or couple of hundred people who come to worship. This is wrong and we need to change this. We need to find ways of reaching the neighborhoods. Funerals and weddings and baptisms are not just for "our people" - they are ways we share the Good News of Jesus Christ. I don't mean to say that those people will be back on Sunday to "check us out." I mean that if this Jewish-Christian wedding is the only time this congregation will gather this way, what we say there and how we act there matters more for Jewish-Christian dialogue than anything we might ever say at a Conference. It takes hold locally...

The same is true when we dare to find ways to connect at a public high school when invited to speak. To say "I can't do that in good conscience without telling them everything I know about Jesus" is a cop out! We are a word about the Word before we ever open our mouths and the ability to model an inclusive, loving, honest witness with integrity may be a challenge - but we need to rise to it. We need to seek the welfare of the city where we find ourselves. We need to be building, and planting.

I'll close with this thought: I mentioned "chapters" in my time in Holden. Now I'm in a different place every week. But there are chapters in the life of every congregation. Often they are defined by the tenures of rectors, but not always. Sometimes there are key defining moments that ripple through time: good ones and bad ones. Misconduct, and violation of pastoral boundaries on one side of things: new life and energy and vision on the other. It's not all about the clergy, but it's hard to work with clergy who are more focused on their previous (or next) call than on doing the work God has given them to do today.

I don't know if any of this makes sense to others; sometimes I worry I'm becoming an old curmudgeon. The truth is that I'm more hopeful than ever about the future of the Church and I am so encouraged by a new generation of ordained clergy coming up. I worry about the danger of universalizing my own experience as a parish priest and I get it that my understanding of diocesan work is both rooted in and limited by the experiences I did have. This is why I began where I did: because I recognize those limitations. Nevertheless, my hope here is that it helps (and not just in my diocese) to share some observations. If I'm right it means Search Communities don't need to look for Superman or Superwoman to be their next rector; just a slow, patient, human being capable of listening and learning and loving. That will be enough; dayenu.

There is an old poem I learned from my grandmother - not the kind of poetry I learned as an English major at a Jesuit University but nevertheless true, and I find I'm learning this lesson as well in diocesan ministry - a lesson for ordained and lay alike. It's called, It Isn't The Church, It's You. And that's all I have to say about this for now!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Three Widows

The readings for this twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost can be found here (track two). Today I am at St. Thomas in Auburn.

The Law and the Prophets use the phrase “widows and orphans” nearly a hundred times as a kind of code-language to speak about the most vulnerable members of society. So in Exodus 22 we read: “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.” And today we prayed the words of Psalm 146, including these:

The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger;
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.

This, in a nutshell, is another way of summarizing what the God of the Bible is up to – in both testaments. God is turning the world upside down, to make it right side up, as our new Presiding Bishop said in his sermon last weekend at the National Cathedral.

In Biblical times, becoming a widow put one at great risk economically. While Social Security and life insurance policies and gains made for women in the marketplace have all helped to alleviate the profound economic dangers that women and children without a male bread-winner face, the grief of losing your life-partner has not changed. There was an op-ed this week in The Washington Post entitled:  "The Condolences End. Being a Widow Doesn't" written by a young widow whose husband died tragically at 34 – just nineteen months after they were married. Listen to what she had to say:

In the first year, people check in constantly. They call, text, bring food, plan girls’ weekends and excuse — even support — the shuffling around in pajamas crying each day as we wait for the black, hollow feeling to lift. The Year Two widow, however, is comparatively abandoned to the continued reality of a new and unfamiliar life. We are among the “walking wounded,” those largely without outward signs of trauma (weight regained, estate settled, tears more easily stifled) but who are still under equal, if different, strain. I had an idea that passing the one-year mark meant the hard part was over, like crossing the finish line of a particularly grueling marathon, or getting to the front of the line at Target on a Saturday. But it is not over.

So I want to talk with you today about three widows. The first two come from today’s readings: the unnamed widow in Zarephath and then the unnamed woman from today’s gospel reading. And then I also want to tell you about a twentieth-century widow named Margaret.

While the commandments are focused on showing mercy to the orphan and widow, in today’s Old Testament reading we see a widow who has very little who is willing to share that little bit with the prophet, Elijah. They are living in desperate times, in the midst of a famine, and she has carefully measured out the flour she has for her daily bread. And then Elijah shows up asking for something to eat.

What to do? The Lord helps those who help themselves, right? Actually that’s not in the Bible! That’s more Ben Franklin – more American individualism. The truth is that God helps those who can’t help themselves. God helps the widow and the orphan. But how interesting when the widow and orphan are the ones who turn around and show generosity and extend hospitality even with the very little they have. So the woman welcomes Elijah to her table. And there is enough.God provides.

The second widow I want us to notice is the one Jesus himself points out in today’s gospel reading. He is criticizing the rich because they think that their giving ought to buy them power and respect and prestige. Their giving comes with a quid pro quo. Jesus calls our attention to this widow who walks up and gives two small copper coins, about a penny, commenting that…

…she has put in more than the rest, for they contributed out of their wealth but she gave out of her poverty: she put in all she had, everything she had to live on.

It always kills me to see this story be twisted, especially by well-off persons who say, “see, it doesn’t matter how much you give.” I’ll just continue to live in my fancy house and drive my fancy car and leave a small tip at church….

My sisters and brothers: that is absolutely not the point of this story. Jesus is saying just the opposite: it does matter how much you give. If one of those rich people went up and put two pennies in the plate Jesus would definitely not be pointing them out in a positive light. But the issue here is about whether or not our giving is sacrificial and intentional. The wealthy ones whom Jesus is criticizing can afford to write out big checks, but relative to their wealth they aren’t doing that. They may feel they are paying their “fair share” but they aren’t giving in a way that takes account of the fact that to those to whom much is given, much is required. (That is in the Bible, by the way – see Luke 12:48!)

This widow, like the one who lived centuries before her and found room at her table for Elijah, is generous with the little she has. She is easy to miss because she isn’t driving a fancy car to temple or going home to a big house. She’s on a fixed income.  Yet she is faithful. Her giving back to God is a priority in her life—in fact it is the priority of her life. If you reflect on Jesus, the Jewish rabbi, then you can see how he is turning the table by pointing to her. For centuries his people have been taught to care for widows and orphans. While necessary, and a commandment, it can also be patronizing at some level. The poor can become invisible except as some generic “category.” But Jesus suggests that they need to see the widow before them – that one over there who is so faithful. To really see her and to look to her as their model for generosity.

As a parish priest I came to believe these two stories about widows quite literally because I got to see it unfold year after year. It was amazing to me how often women (and sometimes men) on fixed incomes were committed to making their giving come first rather than last.  One such witness in my own life brings me to my third widow this day: my grandmother, Peg Miller. Her husband, my grandfather, died just before Christmas, when my mother was still a little girl. So I never met him. My two uncles had already left home at the time of my grandfather’s death, which left my grandmother on her own to raise my mother as a single parent. My grandmother never re-married. When I say she had next to nothing I mean it quite literally; she had only a small social security check each month to live on and in the long cold winters of northeast Pennsylvania she kept the temperature in her house cool, so the oil bills wouldn’t be too high.

Yet she was one of the most generous people I have ever known. I never heard her complain about money, except on the rare occasions when she would give one of us a gift at Christmas or on our birthdays and say something like, “I so wish it could be more.” Never, however, did I hear her complain about money for her own sake. The only reason she ever wished she had more was to be able to share it.

We worry about all kinds of new strands of diseases in our time, and that is understandable. But my grandmother lost a brother in the prime of his life to the Influenza of 1918, which really was a pandemic that took somewhere between twenty and forty million lives. We worry about the economy and we should, but she quit school to help her mother out during the Great Depression. We worry about the endless wars in the Middle East, and rightly so; but she lost two brothers in the Great War that was supposed to end all wars. That war finally ended on 11-11 at 11, as we will remember this coming Wednesday. Let’s remember it not by looking for yet another excuse to go shopping and find a bargain, but to remember all who have served this nation in wartime and to recommit ourselves to be instruments of God’s peace.

All of those difficult experiences could have broken my grandmother. But amazingly they left her stronger and more courageous and generous and optimistic. The thing that amazes me is that while I obviously loved my grandmother very much, she was not completely unique. I bet even as I speak of her you all have someone in mind in your own life – perhaps a mother or grandmother, perhaps someone in this parish.  My grandmother got up every morning and counted her blessings and that practice changes how we live.

We can choose to live our lives with faith or with fear. We can choose to covet our neighbor’s stuff or we can count our own blessings. The focus of this sermon is on three widows and there is a reason the Bible speaks of widows, along with orphans, as people who experience life as precarious. I don’t mean to suggest that generosity of spirit is limited to widows and the Bible doesn’t either. It’s just that there is no substitute for experiencing our own vulnerability, which then leads us to acknowledge our utter dependence upon God. That, I think, is the common thread here. As long as we hold onto the illusion that we are in control, we live as if all that we can hold onto is “ours.” In fact, all things come of God – and when we give it back to God we are acknowledging it was only ever on loan in the first place.

Many of us live valuing security above all else. I know this is my own temptation. I am not a person who values fancy cars or clothes very much and am fortunate that my nature is to be pretty content with what I have. (I do, admittedly, think life is too short to drink cheap wine and I enjoy good food a little too much.) But more even than those things what I want is to make sure things are covered, and my ducks are lined up: getting my two kids through college and then planning for retirement and making sure my wife and I have healthcare as we grow old. There is a part of me that figures if I can control those things all will be well.

But that is an illusion and the truth is that goal is elusive to say the least. What is enough? That’s not an argument not to be prepared or to not do some financial planning. But we deceive ourselves when we begin to believe that we are in control. We cannot number even the hairs on our head. When the illusion of security is stripped away (as it was, by the way, for the Israelites over forty years in wilderness of the Sinai Desert, and as it is for people who are living the twelve steps in recovery) then there is an opportunity to re-discover a profound truth that goes to the heart of our faith: what we get in this world is one day at a time.

Every time we gather together for the Eucharist we pray the prayer our Lord taught us, rooted in the experience of Sinai and the life of widows everywhere: give us this day our daily bread. And then help us to remember to say thank you when it is provided . 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

For All The Saints

On this Feast of All Saints I have been invited to be the preacher at St. John's Church in Sutton as they welcome their colleagues in ministry, the good folks from St. Andrew's, North Grafton to a joint worship service. These two congregations have been finding ways to work and pray together for some time, and I'm honored to be with them on this great day of new beginnings. Below is the manuscript for my sermon.

All Saints’ Day is about our past, our present, and our future as the Body of ChristIt is about our past because we gather here profoundly aware of all the saints who have gone before us, the ones who from their labors rest. That includes those “capital S” saints that we share with the one holy, catholic and apostolic faith: people like Peter, Paul and Mary (the originals, not the band!) and John the baptizer and Andrew the fisherman.  And down through the centuries, people like Julian of Norwich who lived through the plague and still insisted that “all shall be well,” and Francis of Assisi who lived during the crusades and kept on praying, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”  We sometimes feel like we are living in challenging times and we surely are. But is there really anyone here who considers the days of John and Andrew, or Julian or Francis, to be “the good old days?”

All Saints’ Day is about our past because it also gives us a chance to remember our own personal small “s” saints as well. We have already named some of the members of this great cloud of witnesses and no doubt recall some happy memories and maybe also a few loose ends and unresolved conflicts too, because life and death are rarely as tidy as we wish they would be. For most of us there is some stuff we keep working on long after our loved ones are gone. So we remember them on the day of their birth, and on the day they died, and on Christmas morning and lots of moments in between, including this thin, holy day. They are still part of the fabric of our lives- our lives are knit together, as today's collect puts it and our relationship with them is changed, not ended, by death. This is why even at the grave we dare to make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

St. Andrew’s and St. John’s have some interwoven history and some saints in common, going all the way back to 1825 when the Rev. Daniel Goodwin held the first services at the Rising Sun Hotel for what would become St. John’s. As far as I know he was not related to the Rev. Laura Goodwin!  In the 1880s, St. John’s established missions in Millbury and North Grafton, in Barker’s Hall and in people’s homes, planting the seeds of what would eventually become St. Andrew’s.  Fast forward about ninety years or so, to the 1970s (because things don’t usually move quickly in the Church!) when these two congregations shared a priest.

I mention these things because we are tempted in the church to have very short memories about tradition, which should not be confused with nostalgia. Often when we speak of tradition what we really mean is how we remember things being done when we were growing up and those memories are often skewed by nostalgia as we remember a past shaped by our present yearnings. In fact, the presence of the Episcopal Church in Sutton and in North Grafton has taken various shapes over the past two hundred years or so, which in God’s time is but a blink of an eye, worshiping in homes, in secular buildings, and in several different church buildings.

Our presence here today, together, reminds us that while All Saints’ Day is definitely about what has been, it’s also about what is, and what will be. As the song we’ll sing when we leave here today puts it:
…they lived not only in ages, past…there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the saints of God!
As we gather here today, perhaps dislocated from our normal pews by strangers who are becoming friends, look around you and see God’s beloved – claimed and marked and sealed as Christ’s own forever. Conventional wisdom uses the word “saint” to mean somebody who is holier than thou. But that is not what I mean and that’s not what the Church means by this word. I mean the baptized, these companions God has given to us along the way, these fellow witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ with whom we walk this road as followers of Jesus. These saints teach church school and sing in the choir and go out and flash-mob and do messy church together and make sandwiches for Worcester Fellowship together. They say prayers for us when we are experiencing joy or carrying heavy burdens, and they sit at vestry meetings when there are probably twenty-three other things they would rather be doing. Some of them will even go and sit at Diocesan Convention on our behalf this Saturday. Now that is true love!

If the saints around us are only those who lived in ages past and we are not finding ways to be faithful today, then we misunderstand what this communion of saints is all about. Then it’s just about ghosts. Rather, we are called to ministry, together; to be what in the old days they used to call “the church militant.” That metaphor is problematic for me and I’m not suggesting that we revive it. But the point of that old language was to remind the Church that there is work to be done today and while the saints triumphant cheer us on, they had their turn! The work that God gives us to do is ours, here and now, and if we don’t take up that mantle then we are always in danger of becoming a museum and not the Church. We need all hands on deck.

So I love All Saints Day, because it reminds us not only of our heritage but because it also calls us to fidelity in the present. But there’s even more: this is such a thin place that we also get a glimpse into the future. While we give thanks for those who have gone before us and celebrate the saints in our midst, we also try to peer beyond this moment to the culmination of human history. Even as we shed a tear or two for those whom we love we see no longer, we recall God’s promise to wipe away every tear. We reflect on the banquet where all of God’s children are fed and there is always room at the table for one more. Where the wine is beyond to die for, it’s to live for. And the roast beef is done to perfection. That is what Isaiah is talking about. Can you not perceive it? We reflect on the table where all of God’s children will gather—and they are all God’s children, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, from every tribe and language and people and nation. That is where John (not your baptizer but the seer from Patmos) picks up where Isaiah left off: imagining a world where there is enough for all. Enough food, enough wine, enough healthcare, enough hope, enough faith, enough joy, enough peace, enough love.

There is enough. But one thing the visionary on Patmos does not see are church buildings – because once they have fulfilled their mission there is only the Lamb at the center, only the risen, victorious Christ. As I interpret this it simply means that the mission is always first and whether we are worshiping at the Rising Sun Hotel or in Barker Hall or out at the Brigham Hill Community Barn or in people’s homes or at St. Andrew’s or here at St. John’s, these are all means to an end because the church is not a building, and the church is not a resting place, and the church is not a steeple. The church is a people! The church is the communion of saints. Christian faith is about the hope that inspires us to join in the adventure that is headed toward that future day. This is our work, to participate in and to cultivate God’s mission taking hold in this world and to live the words we join with Christians throughout the centuries in praying: thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Now let me move from preaching to meddling. Johnny and Drew—do you mind if I call you Johnny and Drew? I feel like we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well over the past couple of years. You have some past shared history as mentioned and even some shared clergy in the not-too-distant past. Like all relationships with some history there are some happy memories and perhaps some old wounds too. That’s life. These are not really my stories to tell, they are yours. But it is important to remember rightly and honestly, for in coming to terms with your past new possibilities for tomorrow may emerge.

What is mine to share is how I have been seeing in recent months some of the leadership from both of your congregations working with consultants from the Church Building Fund and with the three canons on the Bishop’s staff. Along with some folks from St. Stephen’s in Pittsfield and St. James in Greenfield, they have been working hard to focus on how they might recast their assets, that is to say in regular language how to use the gifts God has given to each of them to do the work God calls each of them to. The faithful people doing this work are trying to imagine new ways of doing this mission, of finding ways to partner for the sake of the gospel and to ask some questions together about what the future might look like – about where the Spirit is blowing. Along the way they have discovered that St. John’s and St. Andrew’s are remarkably similar congregations; not the same, but nevertheless facing many of the same challenges and opportunities.

And so in the past year or so, St. John’s and St. Andrew’s have been doing some things together and this liturgy is only the most recent example. While it’s not yet clear where this is all going, it seems to be Spirit-led or perhaps Spirit-driven. As you may recall, after Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan River by our pal John the Baptist, Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted. Mark’s Gospel says the Spirit drove him there. Matthew and Luke say the Spirit led him. In my experience, the Spirit does both and sometimes we are led by the hand, but sometimes our own internal resistance is such that we must be pushed. Driven or led, the Spirit has been at work in these two congregations for a long time. But now, driven or led by the Spirit to this place in time, new opportunities to share ministry are emerging that invite you all to do some work together and to learn and grow together.

It’s not yet clear where this is going and there is no “master plan” being cooked up in Springfield. It just seems good to your clergy and your vestries and to your bishop and to me and we believe to the Spirit that there is reason to follow this path. Nevertheless, this is very challenging work and it can raise some anxiety, because questions about identity and of potential loss always raise concerns. And since there isn’t a road map, it’s not possible to say “here is where it is going to end up.” Or over there. It’s a bit more like wandering around the Sinai Desert for a while (hopefully not for four decades) in search of the Promised Land. But needing to get one’s bearings and sending some scouts ahead and maybe even with some grumbling going on. Manna again? Really? All we get is stinking manna! But the Spirit does indeed seem to be leading, or driving, this work. And this much I know, because I can tell you from watching it unfold: it is messy, Church. But it’s also holy, Church.

Today’s gospel reading doesn’t give us a roadmap and definitely not a GPS, but perhaps it is a kind of compass that can help us to at least get our bearings. First, notice that Jesus weeps at the grave of his friend, Lazarus. In those tears we see that we really do have a friend in Jesus, one who shares our joys and our burdens. I think it’s a good reminder that we should never underestimate loss. Someone has said that it’s not change people are resistant to, but loss. Every change that comes our way, even when it is good change, also represents some measure of loss. While some of us embrace change faster than others, all transitions involve loss and there seems to be some part of us all that would rather maintain the status quo than deal with loss. But we need to remember also that the costs of inertia are very high as well and we need to acknowledge that. Often we put enormous energy into resisting change because the costs seem too high. But I wonder what happens if we follow Jesus’ lead and weep for what is lost, so that we can then see more clearly what lies ahead? The truth is not only is the church of the nineteenth century gone, but the church of the mid-twentieth century is gone too. All those Republicans on the stage who are debating to see who is nominated for President; last I checked, General Eisenhower wasn’t one of them. The 1950s aren’t coming back!

There were saints who lived in ages past who made decisions based on the leading or driving of the Holy Spirit and they cheer us on, but it is you and I who are called to be saints in this time and place. Look around you – here we are, the starting lineup.  At various speeds, congregations across this diocese are beginning to let go of the past in order to discover new missional strategies toward God’s preferred future, trusting that those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. So listen to what comes next. Listen to what Jesus says: (1) Roll away the stone; (2) Lazarus, come out; (3) Unbind him and let him go.

Roll away the stone. We don’t tend to be people who are comfortable rolling away stones. We like to leave things put: my grandmother donated that stone! Sometimes we entomb what needs to be called forth, but you know what, after a while it starts to smell when we do that. Four days, sometimes forty years or more…

But then, Lazarus, come out! Jesus doesn’t go in to get him. Nor does he send in others to do so. Lazarus needs to move away from that tomb himself and toward the One who is Resurrection and Life. I don’t think that requires a lot of words from me on this day when we stand in such a thin place. But just to be clear since we’ve come this far and I’m since I’m almost done: what might it look like to hear Jesus saying to Drew and Johnny – come out! Come out and live!

And then finally, because Lazarus has been bound up like a mummy: unbind him and let him go. There are many things that keep us bound up, to be sure. But I’m already well past the time considered reasonable in Episcopal Churches for sermon time. So I’ll let you all work on that one in the days and weeks and months ahead. Let me just conclude by saying this: I believe this work of unbinding is the primary work we are called to in the Church today. We can and should honor the past, the saints who have gone before us and the work they did. But they did live in ages past and they faced different challenges. We are the saints today. After shedding some tears, and rolling away some stones we need to come out, and we need to be unbound and press on toward the goal. 

We are called, in other words, to put our whole trust in Christ’s love and to go on the adventure that the Spirit is leading (or driving) us to. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, it’s not a bad idea to bring some friends along. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus

The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, Harper One, 2006. 

This past summer I read this book and found it to be the kind of read that I wanted to discuss with others. Levine is a practicing Jew, who teaches the New Testament (that's right, that's not a typo!) at Vanderbilt Divinity School. I wondered what it might be like to discuss this book with a group of Episcopal clergy and some rabbi friends over lunch, and for the past two weeks we have been doing just that. We have one more week left. Unfortunately, there was only one rabbi who could make it, so she is definitely outnumbered by the dozen or so Episcopal clergy who have been attending, but she is quite capable of holding her own.

Many of us were taught growing up not to talk about politics or religion or anything that might expose difference or prove embarrassing, or worst of all, confrontational. We have paid a price and seem to be losing the art of dialogue and real conversation at a time when we desperately need those skills if we mean to keep the social fabric from completely tearing apart. The truth is that our group has been having a blast, laughing and learning together.

One of the main points of Levine's book (and her life work) is that in order to bridge the gap that has emerged between Christians and Jews over the past two thousand years,we have to re-situate Jesus in his first-century Jewish context, and not as the only "good Jew" against all those legalistic scribes and Pharisees who were taking Leviticus literally as he moved Christians toward the "spirit of the Torah." In fact first-century Jewish theology and practice was probably at least as diverse as twenty-first century Jewish and Christian theologies and practices. Who speaks for the Christian community? The televangelists? The pope? Bishop Spong?

There are clearly differences between what Christians and Jews believe. But one thing I always (re)-discover in conversations like this one is that there are as many differences within religious traditions as there are between them. What I mean is that while our understanding of who Jesus is is a pretty big difference between Christians and Jews, the questions of how we understand God, or read sacred texts, or encourage healthy congregations very often reveal greater differences among Christians and among Jews than necessarily between them. The range of view points within both traditions are remarkably similar. Moreover, the challenges of being people of faith in a culture that doesn't seem to encourage or value this invites us to learn so much from each other.

Levine's own story is that she grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts as an orthodox Jew in a Portuguese Roman Catholic neighborhood. She tells the story of how her childhood ambition was to grow up and become pope. As we gathered together, each of us shared our own stories of growing up and our exposure to people of other faiths. Some of us grew up in enclaves of people more or less like us - and we therefore assumed this was how the world was. Others of us grew up in the midst of more diversity and, like Levine, becoming aware of our own "otherness" within that larger culture at a fairly early age. In either case, this life experience clearly left a mark on all of us.

Yet the world is definitely becoming smaller. How can rabbis and ordained ministers - and the congregations we serve - become more adept at having conversations that help us all to grow in our faith? It seems to me that we need to find more intentional ways of doing just that. This doesn't make us the same; but it does lead us toward common ground. It's also a lot of fun.