Friday, January 23, 2015

Ten Year Old Ordination Sermon

My friend, Phil LaBelle, posted on Facebook today that it was ten years ago that he was ordained to the priesthood. His oldest son, Noah, was baptized in the context of that same liturgy. I remember the day well - in the midst of a winter storm -  at St. Luke's Church in Darien, CT. But like most ordination sermons I couldn't remember anything at all of what the preacher said. Since that preacher was me, however, I looked it up. It is reprinted below for anyone who might be interested. The sermon texts were Isaiah 6:1-8 and Philippians 4:4-9.   

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What does it mean for us today that Noah James LaBelle will be baptized in the context of this afternoon’s Eucharist—before Philip Noah LaBelle is ordained to the priesthood? I realize that there are of course practical considerations—family and friends are all in town and so forth. But sometimes profound theology grows out of practical considerations and maybe it’s even a truism that it’s the primary way that we Anglicans are prone to do theology.  

I propose that we are put in mind today of the fact that before anyone utters the words “Father LaBelle” Noah has made you a “daddy.” And that prior to your priestly ministry you, too, have been “sealed and marked and claimed as Christ’s own beloved”—forever. You, too, have been called to live your life as a response to that love through the Baptismal Covenant. With Melissa you have shared a life together in both marriage and ministry among God’s people long before today. Nothing we are gathered here to do today undoes or “trumps” that call that came to you and to each of us in Holy Baptism.

We talk a lot about lay ministry in the Church today. And yet it has been thirteen years since Verna Dozier published The Dream of God about a Church where all the baptized understand themselves as called to share in the work of ministry. We aren’t there yet. But the ordination liturgy for a priest in our Church does (as I read it) call upon us to remember that dream and to live into it, and the fact that Noah is baptized today only heightens our awareness of that reality. Priestly ministry is meaningless until we have some understanding of what baptism really means.

But if all the people are ministers, then what exactly is priestly ministry about? I want to insist that it is far more than a black shirt and a collar! The catechism suggests that all of God’s people are called to “represent Christ and his Church” and that what distinguishes priestly ministry from the other three orders is that we do this by proclaiming the gospel; administering the sacraments; and blessing and declaring pardon in the name of God. The Examination that the Bishop will give expands on these three but it is at its heart exactly the same—so if you listen closely you are sure to “ace” that exam!

First: you are called to preach the gospel. There are many in the Church today (on all sides of the theological debates we are engaged in) who are so desperate and so scared that we are in danger of suffering from a kind of spiritual amnesia about what that true calling is all about. As preachers we are not called to defend an ideology (either on the right or on the left) but to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.

Do so with courage and conviction, trusting that it really is the path toward abundant life. Too many preachers are afraid to trust the gospel because it will upset the status quo. Fear is the greatest enemy of the gospel: fear of lost pledges, fear of empty pews, fear of disappointing the bishop. Don’t be afraid to trust the good news, and know that the true measure of your “success” will not be found by how full or empty the pews are or how well the annual pledge drive goes or what your colleagues say about you.

Consider Isaiah of Jerusalem and today’s Old Testament reading. Remember that for all of his enthusiasm and skill, his preaching and ministry fell on deaf ears. “Here I am, Lord,” we heard him say. “Send me!” But Isaiah’s skill and his commitment to God could not compensate for the hardness of heart and the deafness of the people of his day, as we discover if only we read just a few verses beyond where we stopped this afternoon. We didn’t hear that part because the lectionary committee (in their infinite wisdom) only gave us the nice part (as they are wont to do.) But I would urge you as a preacher not to get caught in the trap of reading lectionary pericopes. Keep reading the Bible…and pay extra attention to the verses that tend to get omitted as well as the books of the Bible that tend to get shortchanged. (I think of Lamentations, and all the post-exilic stuff—Ezra, Nehemiah, Ruth, Jonah; texts that could be essential resources to a post-Constantinian church and yet we largely ignore them.) There are no easy answers, but they could help us to ask better questions. So keep reading the Bible—and encourage those among whom you serve to do the same.

Judged by the standards of this world (and even, dare I say, sometimes the standards of the institutional Church) Isaiah of Jerusalem was a failure. People did not have eyes to see or ears to hear what he had to say, and the exile did come, and Jerusalem ended up as a city in waste and without inhabitant. The temple was destroyed and the people were in danger of forgetting to sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign land. Isaiah of Jerusalem reminds the Church in every generation that we are called to be faithful, not successful, and that is especially true for those of us who are called to be preachers. It is so tempting to be cute or funny or relevant or passive-aggressive. But our work as preachers—as priests—is to preach the gospel, and leave the rest to God.

Remember that even though the Exile came in spite of Isaiah’s preaching, God was still God—all the way through the Exile. Remember that God had a plan even if it wasn’t yet clear to God’s people—a vision of a highway in the desert that would be left to another “Isaiah” to preach—a “deutero-Isaiah” as they like to say at Yale and Berkeley. In ministry there is always someone who has gone before us and someone to follow us; we don’t have to do it all, we cannot do it all.So we just have to try to be as faithful as we can in doing the work God has given us to do.  Remember that the greatest learning of the Exile was that God couldn’t be confined to the Jerusalem temple in the first place—that “God-with-us” meant (and means) just that—God-with-us even in the midst of Exile, God-with-us even in uncharted territory, God-with-us in the midst of struggle and uncertainty. Remember too that the Holy Scriptures got formed and shaped by the waters of Babylon, not when all was well in Jerusalem, but in Iraq when the future was uncertain. God’s greatest gifts seem to come to God’s people in the midst of what we see initially as finality and great loss. Why? Because God is in the business of doing new things. But after centuries we suffer from amnesia, and so it is your job to keep bringing God’s people to remembrance.

Walter Brueggemann says our job as preachers is to “re-script” God’s people away from the script of our consumeristic militaristic unimaginative world (that sees us all as merely “customers”) and toward a new script where we are learning to be disciples of Jesus Christ and witnesses to the Resurrection. He says that is more akin to the work of scribe than anything else, that we are called to be people who are inscribing the text on our own hearts, and then upon the hearts of the people whom we serve. That doesn’t happen overnight. And you and I are called to be preachers in a time of profound Biblical illiteracy. But we begin again at the beginning…and our shared calling as preachers is simply to keep the texts alive in and through God’s people, and when necessary to re-introduce the forgotten ones, because most of us in the Church have a pretty small canon. That should be work enough to keep us busy for some time.

As a preacher, the bishop will soon remind you that you are called also to fashion your life according to the gospel’s precepts. Or as Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco likes to remind preachers: “you are a word about the Word before you ever open your mouth.” Or as the original “San Francisco” put it: “preach the gospel at all times; when necessary use words.” That is to say, your life—who you are as a person—is meant to be “good news.” If the words you proclaim from the pulpit bear no connection to the way you are living your life then it will be that much harder for the Gospel to be heard through your lips.

But I want to offer this word of caution: there is a fair amount of false piety in the Church masquerading as “good news.” There will be some who have very definite ideas of what a priest is supposed to look like, about how a priest is supposed to behave and so forth. Very often it will have little to do with the Gospel, and less to do with who God has created you to be. It may well be about their own unfinished business with a parent or some other authority figure or with some former beloved (or despised) priest in their past—or who knows what else.

Fashion your life not in accordance with other people’s projections, but according to the precepts of the Gospel. But to do that—I repeat what I said earlier: keep reading and meditating on God’s holy Word, not just combing it for material that can preach, but rather seeing in it a mirror that nurtures your own soul and forms you into the priest God intends for you to become.

Priestly ministry is of course about more than the call to preach but it is never about less than that. But we are Episcopalians for a reason. The genius of our liturgy is that it connects us with the most ancient practices of the earliest Christian communities—with a global and apostolic faith—that is always inviting us to come to the Table of our Lord. As preachers this is very good news for us and for our congregations because it means that we never get the last word. Always our job is to point people toward the Table and to invite them to taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

As priests we have the great responsibility and privilege of taking ordinary gifts of bread and wine and using them to offer God’s people the bread of life and the cup of salvation—inviting them as St. Augustine said to “be what they see” and to “receive who they already are.” That isn’t about having “magic hands”—it’s about the hard work of calling God’s people to discover the holiness of the ordinary and about continuing to find ways to call attention to the ways that the holy is hidden in the midst of the ordinary. Outward and visible signs are just that: signs of an inward and spiritual grace. You are entrusted with administering the sacraments in order to cultivate a sacramental vision of the world, so that people can find God at work in places where they had previously not thought to look.   

In a world where everything is tolerated nothing is forgiven. But the gospel offers us a different vision—an alternative “script” to use Brueggemann’s language. The Biblical narrative suggests that we have not lived up to our calling as people created in God’s own image, that we have fallen short and “missed the mark.” And yet we are forgiven and restored and reconciled through the Cross of Jesus Christ anyway—not by our own merit—but because God’s grace is simply that amazing.

The biggest hindrance to full and abundant life in Christ as I perceive it is that people get stuck. And so it is your job—a part of your priestly ministry—not only to administer the sacraments but to pronounce God’s forgiveness and God’s blessing to the people among whom you serve. That is not the same as the work of a therapist. Rather, it is the bold claim that the keys of the kingdom are found in the Church, so that what is “loosed on earth” is “loosed in heaven.”

As we share with all the baptized in a ministry of reconciliation, our peculiar task as priests is this calling to keep uncovering God’s abundant blessings as a counter-testimony to the culture’s insistence that there isn’t enough to go around, and therefore we have to get what we can and hold onto it. It is our job when things get stuck for individuals and for congregations to proclaim God’s forgiveness as the path through which new life becomes possible.

Even in the midst of our sometimes chaotic confusion, we Episcopalians are deeply rooted in one holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. But always that is an Easter faith. We see the tradition as roots for a living church, not as a relic of some distant past. We trust the living Christ as we strain always toward an ever-unfolding Pentecost and the gifts of the Spirit that help us to be unafraid of change and growth and the new life to which we are called, the new life that the risen Christ brings to our tired lives and to our broken world.

How we sort through all that is never an easy or simple matter. But if we are to stay true to Richard Hooker’s sensibilities—if we keep looking to Scripture, Reason, Tradition (and Experience)—then all will be well. It will be messy, but all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. The Spirit will be with us, guiding us into all Truth. As a priest it is your job to keep that vision alive, even when it comes under attack by well-meaning people who want simple answers to difficult questions.

Most of all, “Rejoice!” St. Paul tells the Church in Philippi and Christians from generation to generation:  “rejoice, again, I say, rejoice! He writes those words as you know, from prison. And what I want to say is that if Paul can rejoice in prison, certainly God’s people in Darien can find joy in each day, no matter how bad things may sometimes be.

C.S. Lewis reminded us that joy is neither happiness or pleasure—and that in fact at times it is even experienced as unhappiness or as suffering. That is the great paradox of our faith. But joy goes deeper—to the heart of life and to the mystery of faith. Joy, as Lewis puts it, is not an emotion, but a person—the person of Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to be one who is able to “rejoice” even from a prison cell. It is to be able to stand with a parishioner at the graveside of their loved one but even there—even at the grave to make a song.

When a parishioner walks through the valley of the shadow of death and they do fear evil, it is our awesome task as pastors to walk with them, powerless almost always to change the circumstances, but to walk nevertheless (with God’s help) as icons of joy. Even where there is unhappiness or suffering, it is to be an instrument of God’s peace and a light in the darkness, bearing witness to the power and love of God in Jesus Christ. That is never easy work but it is incredibly rewarding work that I know you will do with gentleness and faithfulness.

I think of our old friend, Frederick Buechner, who as you know defines “vocation” as that place where one’s “deep gladness” meets “the needs of this world.” Surely that is what we—the Church—have affirmed in you since you first began to hear God’s calling to this ministry. I pray that always for you there will be “deep gladness” in this work, for we are all too aware that the needs of both the Church and the world are very great indeed.  

I remember when I was ordained that the saddest moments for me were when these older priests would say, “if I had it to do over again I’d find something else.” I know far too many clergy (and you probably do too) who are depressed and unfulfilled in their work. They are not bad people, but they are sad people with long lists of grievances.

So let me say in closing—as an “old veteran” priest—that there is nothing I would rather be doing with my life than to be a priest in Christ’s Church and in particular to be an Episcopal priest at this time in our still unfolding history. There is no doubt that the work is at times difficult and challenging, but it comes with its own rewards.

And the joy we share with all God’s people goes deeper still than anything else—leading us beyond the Cross and to the empty tomb and to a person—the One whom we keep meeting on the Road to Emmaus, or the Road to Darien. The One whose voice we hear when our hearts burn, and we encounter the Word of the Lord in Holy Scripture. The One whom we beg to stay with us and eat, for evening is at hand. The One whom we see revealed in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.

So keep your eyes and your ears and your heart wide open! And keep pointing to Jesus in your work as preacher, pastor, and priest. Keep pointing to Jesus, and all will be well.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany

On this Second Sunday after Epiphany I am with the good people of  The Church of the Nativity in Northborough.  Last Sunday their long-time rector, the Rev. Len Cowan, announced that he will retire from parish ministry this summer. Helping shepherd congregations through seasons of transition is a big part of my work as Canon to the Ordinary in Western Massachusetts - and one of the parts I like best. 

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Today is the second Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany. That word, epiphany, comes from two Greek words: epi-phanos; literally, “to shine forth.” The Light of Christ has come into the world, not just so that we might let that light shine in our hearts or within the walls of this building, but out on the streets of Northborough and the surrounding towns from which you all come. These six weeks between the arrival of the magi and Ash Wednesday can be summarized succinctly in the popular hymn, “I Want To Walk as a Child of the Light.” That’s the Cliff Notes version of what this liturgical time is all about:  “we want to see the brightness of God… we want to follow Jesus…” Epi-phanos. Shine forth! Today’s opening collect reinforces this point in the language of The Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.

I came to this diocese to serve as the rector of St. Francis Church in Holden in February 1998, almost exactly seventeen years ago this week. At one of my earliest clergy gatherings in this diocese we prayed for the Rev. Bob Brandt, who was the rector here at Nativity at the time. We clergy all laid hands on him. I was new, but for those who’d been around a while, the death of Bishop Denig was still raw and even as a newcomer I could see it in their eyes. Bob’s illness and subsequent death surely had an impact here at Nativity, but it also was felt across this whole diocese, because when one part of the Body hurts we all hurt. A year or so later, Father Brandt joined the saints triumphant.

Recently I was perusing your website and under the heading “Heritage, history” there is a summary of what those next couple of years after Father Brandt’s death were like here. I’m not sure who wrote these words but they say it better than I ever could:

In the almost two-year interim, the parish grieved, struggled, but continued its mission and ministry under the guidance of its leaders, the diocese, and the Holy Spirit.

I encourage you to meditate on those words – as a “word of the Lord” rooted in your own experience as a parish. In the last clergy transition this parish faced, you grieved and struggled, yet you continued to focus on the Mission of God that is bigger than any rector. How? Under the guidance of your lay leaders, the diocese, and the Holy Spirit. While the circumstances are very different this time around, I submit that this is still and now again the work that God has given you to do.

I was not quite an old-timer by February 2001 when Father Len left Agawam to become your new rector. But by then I knew enough about him and enough about this parish to sense this was a good call for everyone. To say to you that he has been a good and faithful colleague to me as a neighboring priest for the next dozen years would be an understatement.

Now, as Len and Hallie prepare for retirement and the next chapter in their life together, this chapter in Nativity’s history which has brought about so much healing is coming to an end. A new chapter will be written, a chapter that will surely build on the good work that Len has done here. I stand before you today to let you know that the people of this parish are close to the heart of your bishop and me, and you will be in our prayers as this time of transition unfolds. I cannot tell you with certainty how long this interim time will last, but I encourage you to remember and to hope, to stay focused on the mission and to trust your leaders, the diocese and above all the Holy Spirit. Let the Light of Christ keep shining and all will be well.   

Clergy are invited into people’s lives and entrusted with a level of intimacy and care. And then that chapter comes to an end, one way or another. Sometimes those endings are really good, and sometimes they are really painful. Most are a mix. This transition will be different from the last one: retirement is obviously very different than a battle against cancer. Even so, some of the same emotions will be present this time around, especially for those of you who were here when Bob died. Along with other emotions, there will be grief and struggle as this transition unfolds, even if you feel genuinely happy for Len and Hallie. My job as a member of the bishop’s staff is to be honest about all that and to trust that if Nativity could do it before under much more difficult circumstances, that you are poised right now to do it again, and that this in-between time that lies ahead will be a period of spiritual growth and renewal – a time for the Holy Spirit to get busy.  I know that many of you are eager to talk about the technical aspects of all of this – the details of search committees and of finding an interim rector and I promise we’ll get there a little bit today after this liturgy and a lot more as the next few months unfold. For today I want to simply offer two words of advice which I hope are, for now, enough.  Say thank you to the Cowans, and pray without ceasing.

You have five months to say thank you and goodbye to a rector who has served you well. Thirteen years is a long chapter in the history of any congregation and this particular fourteen years has not been the easiest. Not only is it always challenging to follow a rector who has died while serving, but the past decade or so has been an unsettling time in our world and in the Church. Through it all, you have been led by a faithful pastor. This is worth celebrating.

But you will not ever bond with Len’s successor until you let Len go. This is sometimes a difficult thing to understand. It’s tempting to see the diocese as rigid or legalistic, but the truth is that it’s about how pastoral relationships work. I followed a beloved pastor in Holden. If he had not kept strong boundaries, who would ever have asked me to officiate at their wedding, when it was he who had seen them grow up? Or baptize their child, when it was he who had been there when the parents exchanged vows. Or asked me to preside at a funeral, when it was he who had visited them when they were sick? You get the point… pastoral ministry is about relationships. But while friendships last forever, pastoral relationships have a beginning and an end. I’m now at the other end of that myself – as former parishioners near and dear to me begin to bond with their new rector. Clergy are stewards of God’s amazing grace and privileged to be invited into a congregation’s life for a season. But for everything under the sun, there is a time and a season…

I recently had a doctor retire on me. My first reaction was anger. Really. I’m not proud of that, but it’s honest. I loved her and she knew me and not me alone; she’d been with me and with my two sons as we have struggled with Crohn’s Disease over many years now. And now I have to bond with a new GI doc? How could she do this to me? I’ve mostly gotten over it, but it took some time. I thanked her because she was a great doctor and because deep down I knew she deserved to retire and that’s it’s not all about me. I’ve since found a new doc who is a great guy and young, because I am not going through this again! But I’m still in the process of bonding with him. He doesn’t know me yet and thankfully my health has been good so I’ve not yet needed him.  That will take time.

Are you still with me?  Let those with ears to hear, listen! Your immediate work in these next five months or so is to find ways to say healthy goodbyes as a community and not just individuals. Include your young people. Celebrate. Shed a few tears, too. Give thanks for what has been and for what is, in order to open your hearts to what will be in the next chapter in the life of this congregation, a chapter that you will help to write.

I said I had two words of advice. The second is to pray without ceasing, starting right now. For this one I want to return to today’s first reading, to the familiar call of Samuel. Samuel is just a boy at a time, we are told, “when the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread.”  I wonder if we live in such a time ourselves? The eyesight of the old priest, Eli, has grown dim. He’s getting old, and his chapter is coming to an end; he’s way past ready for retirement. (Now listen – do not tell Father Len I came here and compared him to old Eli! This is not my point!) But here is my point: today’s Old Testament reading is a story of transition – and while the details may be different, I think it will be interesting for all of you to pay attention to these kinds of stories from Scripture in the months ahead. There are lots of them. And the point is always the same: God is with us in times of transition, calling us not back to the leeks and melons of the past but forward, to a new day, toward the promised land. God apparently likes doing new things, even when they push us out of our comfort zones.

Notice in this story that it takes Samuel some time to get it right. The word of the Lord was rare, after all, and visions were not widespread. He hears his name but he isn’t sure what to do or what it means. It’s almost comical, his waking up in the middle of the night and not knowing what is happening; except for anyone who has ever been awake in the middle of the night and wondering what God would have them do. It’s not so amusing when it’s you.

Pray – by which I mean not just asking God to do stuff for you but by listening for that voice of God that calls your name in the middle of the night. We’ll get to the new rector stuff, but for now get used to listening for the Holy Spirit. Remember that history from your webpage:  in the midst of all pastoral transitions, the work is to stay focused on mission and ministry, under the guidance of your leaders, the diocese, and the Holy Spirit. Let your light shine forth! Come, Holy Spirit!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Baptism of Our Lord

Now well into my second year on the Bishop's staff, the biggest difference I've noticed from parish ministry is that I tend to be "everywhere but nowhere." As my old Methodist friends say, I'm an itinerant preacher now. But this is a little bit less true at All Saints in Worcester - my spiritual home when I am not called to be somewhere else. It's the place where my spouse worships regularly and for most of Advent and Christmas I had the opportunity to join her in the pews. That's been a welcomed experience for me. And they have been searching for a new rector, so I've had a close relationship with them through this process of transition.  Now that we are in the season after Epiphany, today and twice more in early February, I'll be in the pulpit and behind the altar at All Saints. My ministry is itinerant, but All Saints is starting to feel a lot like home, for which I'm deeply grateful. Today the Church celebrates The Baptism of Our Lord - and at All Saints we'll also baptize Nora Jane at 10 a.m. One Lord. One Faith. One Baptism. 

Perhaps some of you here subscribe, as I do, to “Brother, Give Us a Word” – a daily on-line meditation from the monks at the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge. A little over a week ago one of the words for the twelve days of Christmas came from Brother Curtis, “Presence.” Here is what that little tweet-sized post said about “Presence:”

If this Christmastide you are asking the question, maybe desperately, whether God is with you, I suggest you rephrase the question. The question is not whether God is with you, but how is God with you?

Today is the first Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany. That word, epiphany, comes from two Greek words epi-phanos: literally “to shine forth.” These six Sundays from now until Ash Wednesday invite us to ponder the mystery of the Incarnation and the ways that God-with-us isn’t something that happened a long time ago in Palestine, but is still true today. Not whether God is with us, but how: as light that shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it. To pay attention to how God is being made manifest among and through us even now. To pay attention to the ways that God is made manifest not just inside the stone walls of this beautiful church but out on the streets of Worcester.

So hold that thought – we have six weeks to reflect on it. And it will be my great privilege to be back here twice more in February, so I’ll have lots more to say.

But for today, this first Sunday after Epiphany is called the Baptism of our Lord. The name is pretty self-explanatory, and today’s gospel reading is pretty straightforward: Jesus comes from Galilee to the Jordan River where he’s baptized by John. Soon after, his public ministry begins. We heard this same gospel (basically the same) just one month ago—on the Second Sunday of Advent. Since then, a month has passed: same text, but a new context, a new preacher, a new year.  Now the shepherds have gone back to their flocks and the angelic choristers  are back in the heavenly choir room, and the wisemen, after leaving their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh  have gone home by another way. Most of our trees have been chipped and our crèches have been packed up and put back into their boxes until next year. New Year’s resolutions have been made, and a few have not yet been broken.

So on this first Sunday after the Epiphany—this Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord—we return to these verses from the first chapter of Mark for another look. This time our focus is less on John the Baptizer, out there preparing the way in the wilderness, and more on the One who comes to be baptized by him in the Jordan River. And that Voice, speaking from the heavens:

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

We are invited on this day to hear these same words spoken to us. It is no “Messiah complex” to do so, but God’s deepest yearning as a Parent that we hear—and believe—these words. You are my Son. You are my Daughter. You are my Child, my beloved and with you I am well pleased. If Holy Baptism unites us with Christ—and of course that is exactly what it does—then I believe we are meant to hear these words addressed to each of us by name. As we celebrate the Baptism of Nora Jane today, and remember our own baptisms - whether they happened in this font or at another font in another church, or in a river; whether the liturgy was Roman Catholic or Episcopal or Baptist – it’s all the same. One Lord. One faith. One baptism.

At the Jordan River five years ago, renewing Baptismal Vows
Before anything else—before we can take up our crosses and before we can serve others or even attempt to live the ethics of Jesus—we need to soak in these words. They represent a pretty radical claim in a culture that treats us first and foremost as consumers, insisting that our identity is dependent upon the clothes we wear or the car we drive or the college we attend or the salary we take home. It represents the beginning of the faith journey and a Word we need to return to again and again in our lives.  You are my child, my beloved…and I’m crazy about you.

Before moving to diocesan ministry I spent two decades as a parish priest. If I learned anything at all from that work it is this: a lot of people struggle with self-image. Even those whom you might think on the outside have it all together very often struggle with wounds that go deep and are not easily observable to the naked eye. Even those who live in the biggest houses or drive the fanciest cars have a story -  and no matter how privileged our lives may appear on the outside, most of us are our own worst enemies on the inside. Old tapes sometimes continue to play decades after we’ve thrown away our cassette players, tapes that remind us that we aren’t good enough or thin enough or smart enough to be loved.

Please don’t mishear me: I do not believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ should ever be reduced to the power of positive thinking. Nor do I think that the gospel is the religious equivalent of “I’m ok, you’re ok.” But it is always—at the beginning and at the end—about God’s abiding love and affection for us. You are God’s beloved: male, female, transgender; young, middle-aged, old; gay, straight, or not sure; conservative, moderate or liberal, black or brown or white. Did we miss anybody? God is crazy about you. Jesus loves the little children of the world; all the children of the world. And calls us by name…

That love isn’t earned. It doesn’t require perfection. I think that’s where our theology can go askew very quickly. I love my wife and my two kids with all my heart. But it wouldn’t take me long to make a list of their shortcomings. And I know this: it would take even less time for them to make a list of mine. When we love someone, we don’t just love them in spite of who they are. We love them for who they are. We don’t just tolerate the wounded places, because each of us is a package deal. If a person is outgoing and gregarious, then there is always a shadow that sometimes she will be overbearing. If a person is quiet and reserved, there is always a shadow that sometimes he will become withdrawn. All of us have those shadow sides. There’s just no getting around that; it’s at the core of our humanity. It’s what being flesh and bones is all about.

But think about it: we don’t just love someone on the good days when they conform to our image of what we want them to be. We love them for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer. Our human love is a reflection of the divine love for each of us and God’s love is deeper and broader still. It isn’t: “I’ll love you when you stop drinking or smoking” or “I’ll love you if you lose fifteen pounds” or “I’ll love you as soon as you stop that annoying habit…” or lose that tic.  God loves us from before our births and beyond our deaths and in every moment in between and nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us from that love. “You are God’s beloved.”

What I think happens to us when we are truly loved in that way and we risk soaking it in, is that we desire to grow and learn and soften the hard edges toward growth in the full stature of  Christ. We don’t need to become perfect in order to be loved; but exactly the opposite—because we are already loved, we want to be better. We want to reciprocate that love. And we want to share it.

The beginning of faith is about hearing that Voice first and foremost over all the others – that Voice of the one who claims us and marks us forever, and calls us by name. It’s hard to hear in the midst of all the other voices giving us all kinds of different messages, but if we trust that Voice over those that tell us we aren’t good enough, then we become radically free to live against the grain and to commit ourselves to the way of Jesus and to follow him all the way to the Cross. To be the person we were meant to become.  

You all are getting closer to calling a new rector. Every time I am blessed to sit in the pews here I join all of you in that prayer during the time of transition and even when I’m not here, I’m praying not only for you to find the right rector but for you to continue to become the parish God means for you to be in this city. My dream for this parish is not that you will call a perfect rector, or that you will become the perfect parish, but that you will keep trusting that Voice of Love that has already claimed you and know that with love all things are possible. My hope for this and every congregation in our diocese is that no child—not a single one—will ever go through this church school program or this youth program without getting very clear about the fact that they are each a uniquely beloved child of God. That is what these vows you take today are about for Nora Jane and every child who has ever come to this font: those vows define who you are and who you are becoming. It is our work to model what is possible by living as the beloved community, by treating one another with love and mutual respect and kindness. This is the work God has given us to do: love God, love neighbor.

And so as we begin a New Year and celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and renew our commitments whether we are four or ninety-four – we remember that we are God’s beloved. Sin thrives when we suffer from a kind of spiritual amnesia and forget this abiding truth –when we literally forget who we are and whose we are. Compulsive behaviors and addictive behaviors and destructive behaviors all grow out in some sense from this deep-seated fear that we are not loved or that we are not worthy of being loved. Most of our sin comes most often from those places where we have been hurt or feel broken or unloved. So we can make all the resolutions we want toward self-improvement but the journey of faith is to live more deeply into the person God already loves.

Love came down at Christmas and the question is not whether or not God is with you, but how. You are God's beloved child; with you God is well pleased. The work of Epiphany is to live into that truth; this is the good news that takes us to the very heart of what the Incarnation means. Let that light shine for all the world to see.  

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Another Year of Grace

Occasionally I come across a blog post I really wish I'd had the wisdom to write - this post from the always amazing Parker Palmer really struck a chord with me. As we turn the calendar to a new year, I commend it to you. His five questions (rather than "resolutions") resonate with where I am in my life, turning fifty-two this year and trying to learn how to fall upward. Questions to live into - wherever we are in our journeys:
  • How can I let go of my need for fixed answers in favor of aliveness?
  • What is my next challenge in daring to be human?
  • How can I open myself to the beauty of nature and human nature?
  • Who or what do I need to learn to love next? And next? And next?
  • What is the new creation that wants to be born in and through me?
I also have always loved the poem, translated from an older Slovak text by a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor named Jaroslav Vajda that speaks to this day and the intersection between the beginning of a New Year and the eighth day of Christmas, the day of Jesus' bris. (See Luke 2:21.) Vajda's poem is found on page 250 of The Hymnal 1982. The refrain is a reminder to give thanks for what has been, for what is, and for what will be - and that it's all sheer grace. 
1. Now greet the swiftly changing year with joy and penitence sincere; rejoice, rejoice, with thanks embrace another year of grace.
2. For Jesus came to wage sin's war; this Name of names for us he bore; rejoice, rejoice, with thanks embrace another year of grace.
3. His love abundant far exceeds the volume of a whole year's needs; rejoice, rejoice, with thanks embrace another year of grace.
4. With such a Lord to lead our way in hazard and prosperity, what need we fear in earth or space, in this new year of grace? 
5. "All glory be to God on high and peace on earth," the angels cry: rejoice, rejoice, with thanks embrace another year of grace. 
Happy New Year!