Friday, February 27, 2015

Urgency and Patience

The most profound theological truths are paradoxical truths. Is Jesus human or divine? The answer is yes. Is God three, or one? The answer is yes.

Christian theology in general, and perhaps in a heightened sense the Anglican way of doing Christian theology, insists on both/and rather than either/or. This is not just true when exploring the Trinity or the two natures of Christ. It's true in pastoral ministry as well: when a relationship ends in divorce, there are always (at least) two sides to the story.

It seems that our society has a heightened pressure, however, toward either/or - and an impatience with nuance. This leads to polarities like Fox News and MSNBC where too often there is more heat than light. We no longer even seem to agree on the facts, but if we could, we no longer seem to be aware that the deepest truths require dialogical thinking, conversation, and prayer. Oh yeah, and humility too.

Lately I've been thinking about how this affects the tension between urgency and patience. What happens when we are pushed to either/or, rather than both/and, in this creative tension?

Urgency without patience is sometimes a peculiar sin among the young, and perhaps patience without urgency is more a sin in people my age and older. But there are notable exceptions I've been very aware of recently. When it dawns on us that Selma happened fifty years ago, it is tempting to think in the wake of recent history that "nothing has changed." The fact is (as I see it) much has changed, and not enough has changed. But baby boomers who perhaps expected social justice to be further along by now may be tempted toward a sense of urgency without patience that leads all too quickly to despair.

Urgency without patience is like the bumper sticker that anxiously states "God is coming, look busy!" It's sometimes present in those who rightly see the need for us to do something about climate change but then tell us it's already too late, or it will be if we don't act this very minute. To do what exactly? That gets more complicated...

On the other side, patience without a sense of urgency leads nowhere; it is the very picture of complacency. Since there is nothing new under the sun anyway, we wait, for what we are not sure? There is no vision of the Reign of God that beckons us to keep our eyes on the prize, and to strive for justice and peace among all people. This is sometimes a luxury afforded only to the privileged, and sometimes it looks a lot like denial. It leads to a worldview that may never cry out for justice -  "how long, oh Lord?" and instead insists that "whatever is, is best."

What I want in my own life, and in the Church I love, is a creative, dynamic tension between patience and urgency; a both/and truth that recognizes that there is much that needs to change, and that humans can only bear so much reality at a time. I want a sense of purpose, and a willingness to take the long view. Because real change takes time. It requires strength and courage and hope for the long haul. Decades, not days.

I think of two prayers that I find helpful in trying to find the balance. The first has been on my outgoing mail for a while now, by a Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It comes from a book called Hearts on Fire, and it's called "Patient Trust."
Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages.We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you;your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on,as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you,and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.
The other is an old Pete Seeger song born out of the civil rights movement. But of course as much as I love Pete Seeger, my favorite version of this comes from Bruce Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions." It goes like this:

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Yesterday was a "Top Ten" day in my vocational life as Canon to the Ordinary in Western Mass, as the ordained and lay leaders from the five Worcester parishes gathered together at All Saints Church to discuss the work we are called to do together, as The Episcopal Church in Worcester. It was a joyful day for me - and to my knowledge this is the first time something like this has happened. It also comes at a time when I've developed close bonds of affection with those parishes, and am particularly getting to know those in the midst of clergy transitions - which includes three of the five parishes:All Saints, St. Luke's, and St. Michael's on the Heights.

Have I mentioned I LOVE living in the second largest city in New England? Today and next Sunday I am with St. Michael's - who in just two weeks will welcome The Rev. David Woessner into their midst as deacon (then priest)-in-charge. 

Lent is a holy time of preparation: forty days mirroring the time that the ancient Israelites, and then prophets like Elijah, and Jesus, spent in the desert. The readings for the day can be found here. What follows are my notes for today's sermon at St. Michael's. 

The “Cliff Notes” version of today’s sermon (for anyone who may check in and check out along the way) can be summarized in three words: Baptism, Testing, and Proclamation. And in fact, while I’ll be with you all again next Sunday – I’d suggest these three words will get you all the way to Easter.

Lent begins where it will end at the Easter Vigil: with the waters of Baptism. This is the first we see of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, which includes no birth narrative, but simply an introduction that “in those days he came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized…”

So we are all gathered at the Jordan River, when suddenly the heavens open and the Voice says: “you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

I think about that same Voice calling Abraham and Sarah to journey to a new land. Or that Voice calling to Moses from the burning bush. Or that Isaiah with his unclean lips heard asking “whom shall I send?” Or that led Ruth to covenant with Naomi and to promise that wherever Naomi went she would go. I think of the Voice that Esther trusted even when it meant her own life was endangered. “You are my beloved,” the Voice says to Jesus at the Jordan River – and to all the saints who lived not only in ages past but whom you can meet in shops or in lanes or at tea or at Dunkin Donuts. There are hundreds of thousands still, including those twenty-one Coptic Christians killed recently in Egypt, and each of us as well who have been claimed and marked and sealed as God’s own, forever, in Holy Baptism.

Mark’s Gospel is sparser on details than the other three; there is in it a sense of immediacy and urgency that shuns details. So we don’t get the specifics about Jesus’ wilderness experience. There are no temples he is tempted to jump from; nor is he promised the kingdoms of the world. We are simply told that he was tested there in the Judean Desert. That he faced his own time of trial. But with or without the details this is a reminder to us that Jesus was like us in every way save sin. It is a reminder of his full humanity. To be tested is to face the possibility of choosing otherwise. Jesus resists Satan but like us, he was free to have chosen otherwise. If we lose that detail we fail to grasp who Jesus truly is.

In this sparse gospel, however, there is one word about Jesus’ time in the wilderness that we must not miss. In Matthew and Luke we are told that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. In Mark, however, Jesus is driven there. He is pushed. That suggests at least some level of resistance on his part—which again forces us to confront him in his full humanity.

We should note that this time of trial—this period of testing—comes right on the heels of his baptism. It is as if to say that the wilderness is where all is stripped away so that only the Voice of Baptism remains: “you are my beloved.” All else is exposed as deception and distortion. That is the only truth in Jesus life—in spite of what others say about him and project upon him. The wilderness is not "punishment" - it's where we find clarity. I think of Wendell Berry's words, in "The Peace of Wild Things," which go like this: 
I come into the presence of still water.And I feel above me the day-blind starswaiting with their light. For a timeI rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
So Jesus is driven into the wilderness, I think, to gain that kind of clarity and after it is done, he begins his public ministry. He proclaims in word and deed the good news of the kingdom of God. He heals, teaches, challenges the authorities, and ultimately he dies and is raised again. The destination for this Lenten journey we embark on takes us to Holy Week: to Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday and Good Friday and ultimately to the empty tomb.

Baptism, testing, proclamation. This pattern isn’t only about Jesus, however. It represents the pattern for the Christian journey of faith as well. Substitute your own name for that of Jesus, or the name “St. Michael’s on-the-Heights” and you get a pattern for ministry. You are God’s beloved, claimed in Holy Baptism and this same Voice calls St. Michael’s to mission in this city of Worcester. You don’t have to do it all; in fact you have some wonderful partners, Episcopal and ecumenical. But you have a role to play – and pretty soon a new ordained leader to walk this journey with you. Not to do ministry – that is the work of all the baptized. Not to be the hired help either; but to be a partner in this journey, in this next chapter of your life-together. Exciting times lie ahead in this Lenten season and beyond, to the proclamation that begins at the empty tomb that Christ is alive, “…no longer bound to distant years in Palestine, he comes to claim the here and now…daily in the midst of life, our Savior with the Father reigns.” (Hymnal 182)

Baptism is not fire insurance; nor is it an inoculation against struggle. In fact, this pattern of wilderness and testing is as central to people of faith as God’s love is. We are not driven (or led) into the wilderness as a punishment. Rather, we are driven (or led) into the wilderness because that is where we discover for ourselves what matters—who we really are, what we are called to do with these lives of ours. In the Sinai Desert for forty years God’s people were transformed from a band of ex-slaves into a chosen people with a mission. After the exile, Isaiah announced the construction of a highway in the desert—a way home through the wilderness. So here, too, Jesus is in the wilderness not only to be tested, but to clarify what kind of messiah he is called to be. The desert mothers and fathers in the history of the Christian church who likewise went out into the desert did so in order to find faith.

What happens to us when we begin to see Lent as a time to do the same: not as a time for punishment or shame, but as an opportunity to be with the wild beasts, to be ministered to by the angels, to encounter the living God again. What if we see Lent as a gift which allows us to re-discover the meaning of our baptism, and to re-claim our several callings as God’s people in mission? And for St. Michael’s in particular, to begin to claim your own unique mission and ministry to do the work God has given you to do in this time and place?

Forty days is not enough time to figure all that out, but it’s as good a place as any to begin. To see Lent in this way is to see these forty days as a gift from God that lead directly into the Great Fifty Days of Easter. Together these next ninety days reveal to us the heart of the gospel and what it means for us to be a people who take up our cross to follow Christ.  

I pray then that this Lent will be a season of intentionality. For the most part I think we Episcopalians do Lent pretty well, but along the way we’ve also picked up some bad habits. One of those is that we tend to get so introverted in our Lenten practices – so internally focused—that we are in danger of forgetting that we are living members of a Body. The practices of Lent – prayer and reading Holy Scripture and almsgiving, that is to see the poor in our very midst and to hear the prophet’s call for justice—these practices remind us that the work of Lent cannot be done in isolation from our neighbor or apart from the community.  True repentance includes repenting from those practices that are little more than narcissism masquerading as Christian spirituality.

True repentance isn’t about feeling badly; it’s about turning around to re-orient our lives. That often begins with a change of heart, or a change of mindset. Most of us don’t like to change our minds. We prefer our certitudes, our particular pundits, our sense of moral superiority. But in the wilderness all of that is stripped away. In the wilderness we truly need one another—we need the gifts of hospitality, we need to help one another and focus on God and neighbor.

The wilderness can bring authentic humility and an awareness of our creatureliness, of our common humanity. We really are dust, and to dust we shall return. This awareness leads us to acknowledge our dependence upon God alone. Prayer and fasting, study of Scripture, a focus on the needs of the poor can bring us to a new sense of our own spiritual poverty and the need we have for one another.

I pray that this is a holy Lent here at St. Michael’s, as always, with God’s help.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Heart of the Matter: A Homily for Ash Wednesday

"Remember that you are dust..."
Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the forty-day season of Lent. I begin this holy season with the congregation at Christ Church Cathedral at noon - just downstairs from my office at Diocesan House. And then I'm at St. Luke's in Worcester at 7 p.m.

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The Hebrew and Greek words for “heart” are used 814 times in the Bible to refer to the human heart and 26 times to refer to the heart of God. Five of those uses come up in today’s readings. In Greek it’s cardio, a root familiar to anybody who has ever had a cardiogram or been in a cardiac care facility or who spends time getting their heart rate up for at least twenty minutes, three times a week, to avoid needing a cardiogram or a cardiac care facility.

In the world of the Bible, the heart was seen as more than a pump. It was the center of emotions and feelings, of moods and passions. Some of that carries over to the Hallmark holiday we celebrated last weekend on Valentine’s Day. The heart is capable of both joy and grief. So in Acts 2:26 we read: “therefore my heart was glad,” while in Psalm 13 the psalmist asks “must I have sorrow in my heart all the day?” The heart can be a source of courage as it is in II Samuel 17—“the heart of a valiant man that is like the heart of a lion.” Or it can be the source of fear, as when Joseph’s brothers discover their brother is still alive “and their hearts failed them and they turned trembling to one another…”  (Genesis 42:28) The heart was also seen as the center for decision-making, and so we listen for God’s still small voice with the ear of our heart. 

Christ Church Cathedral, Springfield
As we begin our Lenten journey together, we are invited by the prophet Joel to “return to the Lord with all your heart.” What would it take for us to give God all of our hearts for the next forty days, or even the next forty minutes? What holds us back from that radical a choice? Joel also says: “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” In Biblical times, to show remorse and grief, people tore their clothes. Joel seems to suggest that God desires a ripped—or torn—or broken heart. What might that be about?

We also heard Jesus saying in today’s gospel reading: “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If our focus and our energy are on the concerns of this world, then that is where our heart is going to be as well. To put this in a positive way, as Jesus does in another place: seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all the rest will fall into place. And then in Psalm 51 (which we will come to after the sermon today, as part of our confession) we’ll pray: “create in me a clean heart, O God.” There, too, we’ll note that the heart that is acceptable to God is a broken and contrite heart. Again we might ask: why does God want our hearts to be broken rather than whole?

What are we to make of all this talk about matters of the heart? What is the ‘heart of the matter’ when it comes to keeping a holy Lent?

Remember that the forty days of Lent are patterned after the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, following his baptism in the Jordan River. And remember that those forty days were patterned after the forty years that the Israelites spent in the wilderness of the Sinai Desert, after escaping from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea. In both cases the time in the wilderness is about prayer and learning to trust God, about temptation and spiritual growth—about the journey toward freedom.

In that Exodus story, so central to shaping Jewish and then Christian faith, do you remember how Pharaoh’s heart was hardened? His government was oppressing these Hebrew slaves, but he didn’t want to change. He refused to let God’s people go. Actually he didn’t believe they were God’s people at all, he thought they were his slaves. And where his “heart” was, there his treasure was also: namely with all those pyramids and all the economic wealth that was being built on the backs of slave labor. And so he could not see (or he would not see) the pain that his economic plan was causing those at the bottom rung of the social ladder. His heart was hardened  to their plight and things went down hill from there for him.

It reminds me of a poem by Mary Oliver called, Of the Empire.

                   We will be known as the culture that feared death
                   and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
                   for the few and cared little for the penury of the
                   many. We will be known as a culture that taught
                   and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
                   little if at all about the quality of life for
                   people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
                   the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
                   commodity. And they will say that this structure
                   was held together politically, which it was, and
                   they will say also that our politics was no more
                   than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
                   the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
                   was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

St. Luke's,  Pleasant Street in Worcester
What then is Lent for? Perhaps we can say it this way: it is the antidote to ending up with small, hard, mean hearts. It’s about the invitation to move, like the Grinch, from a heart “two sizes too small” toward a healthy heart that loves God and loves neighbor.  

Here is the thing, though: larger, softer hearts will inevitably be broken. I think to grasp what is at stake here, we need to understand first that the prophet and the psalmist both imagine that God’s own heart is a large, soft, and broken heart, torn by what humans do to themselves and to one another. Sometimes people ask “why does God allow suffering in the world?” But while that is a fair enough question, I think there is another one that is at least as important and maybe prior to the “why” question. Where is God in the midst of wars or cancer or divorce? We dare to suggest after coming through Christmas and Epiphany and down from the Mount of the Transfiguration that God is right there in the midst of it all. Emmanuel—God-with-us—means just that. God with us through all of it. Not standing somewhere high above and detached, but right in the thick of it, in both the joys and in the sorrows of whatever life brings. It is hard to imagine, once you accept that faith claim, that God’s heart could be anything other than a broken heart. To see how people behave, and treat one another, sometimes even in God’s own name, must surely break God’s heart.

I think that what is being suggested in these texts is that if we mean to approach God, then we need to allow our own hearts to be broken as well. We need to become vulnerable, both with God and with one another. Love is not possible without vulnerability. Indeed, that is very much the message when we come to the end of this holy season, in the upper room where Jesus gives a maundatum novum—a new mandate that we love one another, and then he models a way to do that by becoming a vulnerable servant and washing his disciples’ feet.

To pay attention—to be alive—to care about a world beyond our own ego-centric realities is almost certainly to have our hearts broken. We are tempted to “harden our hearts” (as Pharaoh did) and call that survival of the fittest. Or we are tempted to give our hearts away to idols: to money or to security or to pride of nation.

But Lent offers us another way, a way that draws us closer to the heart of God. The heart of the matter is that there are tried and true spiritual disciplines—we might call them practices of faith or even cardio exercises to help us to do this work. We will name them in the invitation to a holy Lent that follows this homily. They include:
  • Fasting—or some version of fasting helps us to be disciplined with our bodies, and to tame our desires.
  • Meditating on God’s Holy Word and studying the Scriptures feeds us with food that really does sustain and nurture us, in body, mind, and spirit.
  • Alms-giving forces us to see the poor and the suffering in our midst.
  • Prayer, especially in the form of confession, cleanses and heals us and opens the door to reconciliation with those whom we have hurt. 

These ancient practices push us out of ourselves, in order to glimpse the world if only just a little bit from God’s perspective. The heart of the matter in Lent isn’t about shame or fear or beating ourselves up. Rather, it’s about learning to care, learning to hope, learning to love. It’s about asking God for a heart of flesh, and knowing that unlike a heart of stone, a heart of flesh can be torn. Yet that is precisely the kind of heart that God can use.     

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Last Sunday after Epiphany: Transfiguration

I've been snowed out! Today I was supposed to be at St. Luke's Church in Worcester. But they wisely cancelled services, in the midst of yet another snowstorm in central Massachusetts. Last weekend the parish said goodbye to a rector who faithfully served them for seven years, and in two weeks they will welcome an interim. So part of my job was to be there "in between" that time. While I have missed that opportunity, below is what I would have said had I been among them today. The readings for this day can be found here. I do look forward to beginning the Lenten journey with St. Luke's on Ash Wednesday.

In today’s Old Testament reading, we have a story about a transition in leadership. Now let me be really clear here: I love Warren, but Warren is no Elijah, and so far as I know, he has not departed from here on a chariot of fire. And I love Mark, who will arrive as your interim in two weeks, but he is no Elisha, either.

Even so, it’s interesting to me that we get a transition story today. And there are plenty of them in the Bible. In my travels as Canon to the Ordinary I’m more in tune with such stories.  I think of old Isaac blessing his son, Jacob, even if he is tricked into it.  And there is the story of Moses passing the baton to Joshua, son of Nun as God’s people stand on the brink of entering the Promised Land. And there is the story of King Saul and King David and then David and Solomon. And there is this story of Elijah and Elisha. And in the New Testament the really big transition story that comes after Jesus death and resurrection, and ascension, where he passes on his authority to the twelve who are waiting for the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. We get a preview of that transition this morning on the Mount of the Transfiguration, where both Moses and Elijah make cameo appearances.

Transitions. In December I met with your vestry and we talked a fair amount about this day and the time that lies ahead for you as a congregation. It’s never as clean as it sometimes comes across in the Bible – although if you read between the lines in today’s reading you can pretty much sense that Elisha definitely has some anxiety about what lies ahead. I think we need to own that, because there is a part of us along the line that got mis-educated in the Bible and in the faith. In the swirl of changes we experience in the world, there is a part of us that wants Church to stay the same. But I submit to you that the whole point of this Epiphany season and of the Incarnation that culminates on the Mount of the Transfiguration is that we are in the change business. We are meant to be changed from glory to glory as we prayed today. The God who has taken on flesh to dwell among us enters a world where the only constant is change. And the gift of Christmas is Emmanuel – God-with-us through all the chances and changes of this earthly life, not a God who holds time still.

And that is the good news I hope you hear today, and not that you simply trust me about this but that as we come down from the mount and begin the journey toward Lent, that it will be a season for you to renew your trust in the living God. And if you hear nothing else at all today, that will be enough.
In just a couple of weeks you will have an interim here who is a faithful priest, but the real work that lies ahead is not for him to do alone, but for all of you to share. What is this work God has given you, St. Luke’s, to do at this moment in your history? 

It is most definitely not to turn the clock back to the glory days of Anchutz or Elvin or Stoddart or Hicks. Nor is it to fast-forward to the arrival of a new rector. It is, rather, to be fully present right now and in this next year or so to the work God gives you to do, as individuals and as a Christian community, in service (as your website puts it) in the heart of the Commonwealth. What are the opportunities? What are the challenges? There is an invitation to be really real about all of that before anything else happens.

Let’s start with what can go wrong before we dream of what can go right. We’ve been reading through this Epiphany season from Paul’s Letter to the Church in Corinth – four weeks in a row the epistle came from Paul’s first letter to the early Christian community in Corinth and today it comes from his second letter to that same group. The context of that letter is that the believers in Corinth were being pulled in a hundred different directions based on their own ego needs. Paul’s message to that congregation is consistent: you are one Body, with many members. So act like it! The eye cannot say to the ear, I don’t need you. When you pursue your own agendas, he says, you sound like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. So focus on faith, hope, and love – especially love. What does that look like? More patience and more kindness and more gentleness. Not so much the arrogance and being rude. The real danger for any congregation, with or without a rector in place, is to allow things to be “rent asunder.” That is what can go wrong.

The opportunity – and the invitation—is to come together for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of Jesus Christ; it is to choose love! It is to embrace your baptismal ministries and to work together through this season of change.

Yet because we are human and no one will get it right every day, this season of change is a season for forgiveness. Bishops and canons and rectors and interim rectors and wardens and vestries are not perfect, and because sorting through complex issues like music ministry is always hard (and harder still in times of transition) it means that you will need to embrace that call of the gospel to forgive. How many times? Well, you remember what Jesus said…way more than seven.

Since I have mentioned music, let me say just a word about that knowing that there is a danger of moving from preaching to meddling here. It has been said that the one who sings, prays twice. Music is a form of prayer – and it touches our souls. But music in the Church is as often divisive as inclusive. What we like is different. My I-Pod has a lot of Bruce Springsteen on it and very little country music. Yours might be different. It is the same with sacred music. Who decides what is sacred and which instrument should be used and which book the hymns are to come from? A gentle reminder in this season of change that the goal here, as well, is to praise God from whom all blessings flow – not to make sure our favorite hymns are the ones that are sung. This, too, requires faith, hope, and love, and especially love.

And this, I believe, really is the gift: that this season of change and maybe even some holy chaos gives all of you an opportunity to be transfigured and to grow closer to the risen Christ. For it is the risen Christ we serve, not ourselves. As Paul put it in today’s epistle reading to the baptized in Corinth:  For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

So today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. That word, epiphany, comes from two Greek words: epi-phanos; literally it means “to shine forth.” The Light of Christ has come into the world so that we might allow that light to shine through us. And not only within the walls of this little church with the red doors on a Sunday morning, but at our dinner tables and in our classrooms and at the vestry meetings and in your workplaces and out on the streets of Worcester. 

Epi-phanos. Shine forth! For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Liturgically, we are about to transition as well. Transitions all around so get used to them! Embrace them! I will be blessed to be with you on Wednesday evening as this Lenten journey begins – so I’ll save my Ash Wednesday sermon for then. But beyond Wednesday, and into the Second Sunday of Lent when your interim rector begins and then beyond that to the empty tomb, we will find ourselves reflecting on the wilderness. It’s all over the Bible, you know: 80% of the Torah takes place in the Sinai Desert. Exodus. Leviticus. Numbers. Deuteronomy . Four/fifths of the Torah is about what it means to have left the leeks and melons and slavery of Egypt behind in search of the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. If that isn’t transition, I don’t know what is!

Our friend Elijah goes out for forty days in the wilderness and it’s there that he hears “the still, small voice of God” – or if you prefer the newer translations, “the sound of sheer silence.”  It’s out in the wilderness that Jesus goes to be baptized and as we’ll hear next weekend, where he will be driven by Satan to be tested for forty days and forty nights. And it is into the wilderness that we are getting ready to journey through the forty days and nights of Lent. Like the Israelites, I pray that you will find surprising gifts along the way: daily bread, and water enough. Like Elijah, I pray that you will listen for the still small voice of God. Jesus, I pray that you will be ministered to by angels. The wilderness is not a punishment – it’s where God finds us.  

Many of us tend to prefer mountaintops. That, I think, is why those disciples are tempted to build three booths there. We like the vista, the clarity, the air, the proximity to God. But Moses and Elijah and Jesus aren’t looking for booths because they cannot be confined. All three are wilderness people – people who trust that when all is stripped away, there is only God; or more accurately, God and the companions God gives us along the way to love.

May you be ministered to by angels in the days ahead – and find that there is water enough for each day and daily bread and miracles to pay attention to and to give thanks for. All of these are sure signs of God’s presence in your midst. There may be some circling about and getting lost and doubling back; after all it took forty years for the Israelites to find their way to the Promised Land.

So be not afraid. Keep your eyes on the prize and put your whole trust in the living God, the one who points us to Jesus, the beloved. Listen to him.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

On this snowy Fifth Sunday after Epiphany I am, once again, at All Saints Church in Worcester. Below is my sermon manuscript for the day.

Most of us in this room have not experienced war first-hand; but no doubt some among us have. Yet I trust that all of us know that war leaves an indelible mark on soldiers – sometimes in obvious external ways like the loss of a limb and sometimes in less obvious ways that are more internal in nature. But you also know that the casualties of war extend far beyond the battlefield. When you get rid of the infrastructure of a country and there is no clean water or the food supply is limited because there are no bridges or trains left, or there is no basic healthcare (and often all of the above) then you don’t need to be an economist to know what results from this loss: poverty, disease and famine. It takes a long time for a war-torn nation to recover from that.

So what I want you to know as a matter of context is this: only a decade before Jesus began his public ministry, there was a Roman-Jewish war that Palestine facing these post-war realities, especially those who lived in rural areas like Galilee. The reason I want you to know that is because it situates all those healing stories we find in Mark’s Gospel into a socio-political context. Sometimes we tend to skip over those healing stories as if they are just personal. Or maybe they even embarrass us a little bit, because we read about something like that man “possessed by a demon” and we have more sophisticated ways to speak about mental health issues; so we may be prone to dismiss the New Testament language. But I want to say that we need to see these stories within that political, post-war context.

A few years back I read an extraordinary commentary on Mark’s Gospel by a guy named Ched Myers entitled:  Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. (Orbis Books, 1989.) Myers helped me to see all these healing stories in Mark’s Gospel as signs of God’s Reign breaking in.

Providing healthcare is a political act. Regardless of your party affiliation, I suspect there is not a person in this room who does not know that after watching the politics around the Affordable Care Act play out over the last six years or so.  What I hope you will notice with me is that in that first-century post-war setting, healing people is also most definitely a political act. And if you take nothing else away from this sermon I hope that you take this at least: that the key to understanding all of these healing stories in Mark’s Gospel (including the rather innocent looking one we heard today) is that Jesus is doing the work of restoring people in a war- torn land to dignity. As he heals the physical bodies of men and women and children, he is also beginning to heal the body politic and building the City of God. As another scholar puts it:  “Jesus was not a healer who found out he had something to say, but a teacher who found it necessary to heal" (Leander Keck)

So this is how Mark’s Gospel opens:  the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As the gospel writer sees it, Jesus’ public ministry marks a new beginning - a new era - not just for first-century Jews but for the world. Mark doesn’t tell us about Jesus’ birth or childhood. For him, this new beginning takes place out in the Judean wilderness where we are introduced to John the Baptizer, who is quoting from the prophet Isaiah. (In fact it’s from the very same chapter that we heard in today’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah 40.) John is out there in the desert preparing the way of the Lord and reminding people of the prophets of old as he proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

In those days,” Mark goes on to tell us, “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” As he comes out of the water, he is identified as God’s own beloved. And then immediately he is driven into the wilderness to be tested by Satan. There the angels minister to him. (Remember that little detail because it will be on the quiz that is coming later in this sermon.)

And then, just after John the Baptizer is arrested. Jesus comes to Galilee to proclaim the good news of God, saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."  

Two weeks ago, still in the first chapter of Mark, we heard about how Jesus passed by the Sea of Galilee and called two sets of brothers to follow him; they were fishermen. He tells Simon and Andrew and the Zebedee boys that he is going to teach them to fish for people. And then last weekend while I was busy focusing on Paul and the early Christian community in Corinth, our gospel reading was again from the first chapter of Mark: Jesus and his disciples were in Capernaum. There, on the Sabbath, he enters the synagogue to teach not as the scribes, but as one having authority. He silences an unclean spirit and calls it out from a man, which leaves everyone totally amazed. Word spreads quickly in a small town like Galilee when something like that happens.

So we come to today’s Gospel reading – yes, we’re still just in that first action-packed chapter of Mark. Still part of this beginning of the “good news.” To recap: a great deal has already happened. Jesus has been baptized in the Jordan, he has announced that the time is at hand, he’s called the first four disciples, he’s preached in the synagogue, and he’s silenced an unclean spirit. As Myers puts it: Jesus has announced a new Way of being in the world and he is now in the process of summoning others to follow him and join him in that Way.

So he leaves that synagogue at Capernaum with his four fishermen/disciples– same day, still the Sabbath – to enter the home of Simon Peter. There we learn that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. So they tell Jesus about her at once. And Jesus takes her by the hand.

In doing that, he violates two religious and cultural norms at once. First of all, it’s still the Sabbath day. Even though this is in the privacy of Peter’s home, it’s a preview of conflicts that will become quite public. Later in his ministry, when he’s confronted about healing on the Sabbath, he’ll defend his actions by saying “look - the Sabbath is made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” But for the keepers of the religious status quo, it’s hard to understand why Jesus won’t just wait a couple of hours until the sun goes down…

Second and I think more importantly, Jesus touches this woman. Since she is not his wife or his sister or his mother, this is taboo: first-century Middle Eastern men are not supposed to touch first-century Middle Eastern women to whom they are not related. But Jesus takes her by the hand. Mark is putting us on notice that Jesus is willing to push the buttons of the keepers of the religious status quo. And what he does here in private will also soon become a public expression of his ministry, which will bring him into conflict with those who don’t like their boats rocked.

So the fever leaves this woman and then - remember how I said there would be a quiz later in this sermon? She began to serve them. In English that sounds kind of sexist, doesn’t it? Like Jesus and his friends are lazy men who can’t cook their own supper, so Jesus does a little magic and heals Peter’s mother-in-law because they are hungry. But the Greek verb here is exactly the same word that Mark used just eighteen verses earlier. Remember? It was used to describe what the angels did for Jesus in the wilderness when he was being tempted by Satan for forty days.  It’s the Greek root word diakoneo, yes, the same word from which our word “deacon” is derived.

Mark is suggesting that Peter’s mother-in-law is like an angel! That she is a deacon! This verb goes to the very heart of who Jesus is and what he is about. In the ninth chapter of Mark he is trying to get these male disciples to recognize that the whole point is for them and all who mean to take up their cross and join in this Way is to be like deacons, to be servants of all. It will take them much longer to get it than it took Peter’s mother-in-law.

But that’s not all!  When Jesus “lifts her up”—that’s how we heard it in the NRSV today—it could just as easily be translated, “he raised her up.” It’s the same verb we’ll see again in just eight weeks, on Easter morning. It’s what God does to Jesus on the third day: raises him up. This little healing story, in other words, is an Easter story. Already in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, this woman shows us what discipleship is about and that Jesus is about is Easter and that his followers are called to be Easter people. She got it that the Paschal mystery requires a response from her; so she accepts his call to share with him in the ministry that he is in the world to do. Jesus has announced the beginning of this new Way of being in the world and is summoning people to join him in this work, and she says “here I am!”

By getting up and ministering to him she shows that she is light years ahead of her son-in law and his pals, whom it will take until Pentecost to figure this out! So who knows, maybe she does make some hummus and pita, but it’s not because she had to. It’s not because of social convention. Social conventions are being turned upside down here, so it would be ridiculous to make this story into a defense of the status quo. If she does make supper, then it’s only because she has accepted the call to share in the very same work that Jesus will take on on the last night of his life he washes his friends’ feet: she is responding to the love of God as an equal participant in this new household of God, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.

We see in today’s reading that Jesus is about to take this message public. He is about to head out into this first-century Palestinian context to ask still others to join him in this work of being instruments of peace in a warring world. Eight more will be called to join that inner circle, but countless others will accept the call to be his followers and to share with him in this work as they join him on the Way. After his death and resurrection they will continue that work and invite still others to join them, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus has announced a new Way of being in the world and he is now in the process of summoning others to follow him and join him in that Way. And somebody told somebody, who told somebody, who told you and who told me. We are indebted to all those saints who have gone before us and now it is our turn: all saints, this is the work God has given us to do: to be healers who assist in binding up the brokenhearted. And to study war no more. 

We are somewhere still in the midst of it all, and we remain a long ways from the end of the story when every tear is wiped from every eye and death is no more and mourning and crying and pain are no more. But here and now we are a people who have been called by Jesus and raised up to share in this work of ministry. May we, with glad hearts, heed this call, and join him on the Way.  

Lord, make us instruments of thy peace. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Welcoming a New Rector

This coming Sunday, I will be leading the Adult Forum at All Saints' Church in Worcester. I have been asked to speak about welcoming a new rector into their midst - which they anticipate doing in the next few months. I decided to crowd-source the question, asking a half dozen or so clergy who have recently accepted new calls in our diocese to help me compile this list. This is what they said; I just organized and edited their responses. I am very grateful for their help and wisdom. Perhaps this can be helpful to others, and if you have responses to add, or other thoughts, I'd love to hear from you.  

Welcoming a New Rector
Some things to be done, and some to be left undone

Entering a new system
  • It’s great to invite the new rector (and their family) over to your house for dinner, but try to coordinate it so not everyone is doing it at once. Even better, try to do some events that include smaller groups of 6-8.
  • If there is a staff, let the new rector know when everyone eats lunch and what’s expected: together, separate, going out regularly, etc. The etiquette of eating lunch together is sometimes hard to understand.  More generally: convey expectations and be flexible; unspoken expectations are impossible to meet.
  • Put together some kind of orientation binder or list that includes tips of lots of local things to do, pictures with names of active members or at least the Vestry members, and some gift certificates to local restaurants, names of people who plow, plumbers, auto shop, dentist, doctor, RMV information, etc.  
  • Remember that you have called a rector, but often there is a family in tow that is also trying to find their way in a new community. If the new rector has school-aged children, help them with schools ahead of time.  If the new rector has a spouse and that person is looking for work, see what resources are available in the congregation to help with this.
  • One person noted: “…it was very helpful for me was that the Executive Committee committed to staying in their roles for my full first year.  Having competent generous people around me has made my transition very smooth.”
  • Give the new clergy time to become accustomed to this new parish.  Have four or five different people take the new person on a tour of the city, go out to lunch, and tell them about their experiences and perceptions of the place. Having members of the Search Committee and other members regularly check in lets the priest know that s/he is not alone, and is much appreciated.
  • Remember that being kind to the new rector is not a betrayal of the former rector.

Living and work spaces: 
  • Make sure the rectory is ready to move into – as if you were about to sell it or rent it on the market. Avoid uncomfortable conversations about what does or does not need to still happen at the rectory. One priest commented: “when we moved into the rectory it was completely ready. Everything that needed fixing was fixed. It was clean (so clean our in-laws could have visited). There was a basket of local goodies to greet our family. Children's books in the room they knew we'd use as a playroom.  It was a great gift.”
  • Offer to paint the office.
  • Don’t give plants. Not everyone likes plants. Again, more generally: check your assumptions!

Dealing with disappointment and conflict (or, what not to do when you discover that your new rector isn’t the second coming of Christ):
  • If you are unhappy with some aspect of the new leadership, do not leave anonymous notes in the collection plate, under the rector's door, or anywhere else.  Do not leave anonymous notes. Not ever.
  •  Avoid triangulation: if you have an issue, take it to the clergy directly.  Don't gossip and don't ask someone else to be "the bearer of bad news."  Refuse to be a party to anyone who wants to use you to say at a vestry meeting or elsewhere, “people are saying.” Own your own concerns. 
  •  Do not say over and over again, "Well, now that you're here, things can get back to normal."  While it's true that new clergy may bring stability that has been lacking in the interim time, we do not move closer to the Kingdom of God by going backward or by trying to find some mythical state of homeostasis.
  •  Do not assume because something is different that it means the rector is implementing a new policy. Sometimes it just means that no one told him or her what the tradition is.
  •  Do not judge your new priest's spouse or expect a specific kind of relationship with her/him.  The parish/clergy spouse relationship is challenging enough; please don’t add pressures or expectations. You don’t get “two for the price of one!” You have hired a priest, and their marriage is their business – and the spouse’s participation (or lack thereof) is their business.

The work God has given us to do (together):    
  • Verbally offer (and then make plans to follow through) to support new clergy by designating a "transitional team" for the new clergy. One priest noted: “Meeting fairly regularly with parishioners who help me learn about what has gone before so that I can learn about the community has been very helpful.”
  • Find a way to convey some of the biggest and most pressing pastoral needs early on – perhaps a notebook or verbally, through the interim or wardens. Include names and brief bios of those who are homebound, in nursing homes, or chronically ill.
  • Emphasize that the ministry ahead will be a partnership: you are not going to leave it all up to your new clergy person. Ministry requires the gifts of all of God’s people and all hands on deck; it is not something you’ve “hired” the priest to do.
  • It is exciting to be among people who have a willingness to be part of something new. The Church is changing, and the culture around us is changing at warp speed.  One of the greatest gifts to a new priest is a willingness from the entire parish to be part of this new thing God is doing, rather than longing for the leeks and melons of the past.: Being willing to go somewhere new together, instead of expecting to do things the way they always have been done is an inspiring way to begin our work together. This is a time to shake things up and explore new opportunities together.
  • Be realistic and generous with your expectations: that long-standing issue that you've all been avoiding for years will not be painlessly fixed in six months.  
  • Pray for your rector. Daily. Even when they disappoint you, and especially then. One priest noted: “What has taken my breath away are the couple of members of the community who regularly call or email me to tell me they are praying for me and that they love me.  WOW!!” 
  • Honor and encourage a day of rest as a way of helping your priest know that you care about their well-being, and they need to put on their own oxygen mask before they can be of any help to others.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

This morning I was with the good people at All Saints Church in Worcester on this Fourth Sunday after Epiphany.  I preached on the epistle reading, from Paul's Letter to the first-century Christians in Corinth. My manuscript follows.

On this fourth Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany I want to return to something I said when I last stood here on the first Sunday after Epiphany: this word, epiphany, comes from two Greek words: epi-phanos. Literally it means “to shine forth.” This is the work that God has given us to do, not just in these six weeks between the arrival of the magi and Ash Wednesday, but all year long. The Light of Christ has come into the world so that we might allow that light to shine through us, not only within the walls of this extraordinary building on a Sunday morning but at our dinner tables and in our classrooms and workplaces and out on the streets of Worcester.  Epi-phanos. Shine forth!

Within this liturgical context, I want to talk with you today about St. Paul. I’ve always found him difficult to preach on, and the main reason is this: it always seems like we are somewhere in the middle of something with Paul. It’s hard to situate him. Instead of a parable or an encounter we wonder: who is he talking to? What’s he really getting at? Where did we leave off last week and what’s he going to say next week? He’s often misunderstood, I think, and sometimes people “love” or “hate” Paul for all the wrong reasons. So I hope you will indulge me today and bear with me for what will be a rather long-ish Bible study, followed by a very short homily. (I’ll alert you when I’m close on that “good news” part in case I lose you the way or you decide to check Facebook.)

After the death and resurrection of Jesus, those first Christians took seriously their responsibility to “go and tell.” They didn’t sit and wait for newcomers to walk through their doors—they didn’t have buildings, let alone doors! The twelve focused on going and telling their fellow Jews about Jesus. But Paul went to the Gentiles- that is, to the goyim, which is to say, everybody else. And the gospel spread to the east and west and to the north and south. Eventually this good news spread to places like Corinth.

So where exactly is that? Well, it’s approximately forty miles south-southwest of Athens, on the shoulder of an isthmus. As an ancient city, Corinth was extremely important because it was strategically defensible. In Paul’s day, it had become a commercial hub known for its artisan products, esp. pottery and earthenware. It was religiously diverse: a “cultural crossroads” where people from different places came and settled, bringing their own unique religious practices with them. There were Greeks and Egyptians and Romans and Jews.  Politically, Corinth was a colony within the Roman Empire; that meant that Roman law ruled and that Latin was the official language, although Greek was spoken too. Taxes were paid directly to Rome, and in some ways it was more politically connected in the first century to Rome than Athens was. And Corinth was a sports town: every two years they hosted the “Isthmian Games”—second in importance only to the Olympics. Huge crowds came into Corinth for these games.

So it had a lot going on, although the social critics said that the cultural life was superficial. Such is the challenge when you aren’t Athens or New York (or Boston.) But second-biggest cities do have a charm of their own, as we all know, and Corinth had a lot going on. The Christians in Corinth came from all walks of life. Some had been raised as Jews, taught by their parents and grandparents to keep kosher and now, they claimed Jesus as Messiah. Others had not been raised that way, but they had been open to that “unknown god” and when they heard the story of Jesus, something clicked. This is a great thing, to be among people of different backgrounds. But it’s also a challenge. What is the core belief of faith? What do you have to believe to make you a follower of Jesus? How do you have to live? And most importantly, what do you do when you’ve been raised a Jew but that newcomer at church brings lobster bisque and pork souvlaki to the potluck supper? Can you even eat at the same table?

So all kinds of conflicts emerged in Corinth. There is this idea that some people carry around that if we are all following Jesus, then we’ll all get along. But from the beginning, congregations have not worked that way. Conflict itself is not bad; it’s how we deal with it, what we learn from it, and how we are changed by it that matters. Some people run away from conflict. Others pour gasoline on it. I submit to you that neither response is particularly helpful. So how can we learn to “lean into” conflict in faithful ways and work through it, and trust that when we do it can lead to a deeper kind of reconciliation? And more than that: when that happens, that the living, risen Christ is made manifest? The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. Epiphanos!

So it seems that some in Corinth were buying meat that had been sacrificed to idols. It’s hard to get at all the details of this practice, but the gist of it goes something like this: suppose a bull or a lamb is sacrificed over at the temple of some other religion and they decide to sell the meat at the public market. So you can buy your ground round for $4.99 a pound at the Corinthian version of Fairway Beef or you can buy the same basic meat for $3.99 a pound from that temple. What to do? Some of the Christians in Corinth say, “don’t do it, it’s tainted – it’s unholy—it’s polluted.” And others said, “hey, meat is meat. Go for it. We all know the god it was sacrificed to isn’t real anyway.”

And then – this is the hard thing – they would come to church together and sit in the same pews. (Alright I made that last part up to see if you are still with me – remember they had no buildings, no red doors, and definitely no pews!) But even so, the same people who were neighbors and had gone to the Isthmian games together for years now come to a vestry meeting and all hell breaks loose.  It’s like the pork souvlaki and lobster bisque thing all over again. Listen if that guy brings pastitsio to the potluck I’m not touching it, because I know where he buys his hamburger! No, more than that: I’m leaving this church if the pastor doesn’t do something about it. So what does Paul say?  

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that "all of us possess knowledge." Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "no idol in the world really exists," and that "there is no God but one." Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth-- as in fact there are many gods and many lords-- yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. "Food will not bring us close to God." We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

Ah, that last line is so crucial. Paul encourages them to remember who they are, and while there may be no specific prohibition about eating such meat, compassion might suggest not throwing it in someone else’s face. The needs of the weaker members and the real possibility that their faith may be injured should at least be considered in making this dietary decision. In other words, it’s more than an individual choice – it’s a question of how to take into consideration the whole body. Does this build up the Body in love, or does it become a source of tension that sounds like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal?

Most of us here don’t probably get too worked up first-century dietary debates. But here comes that short homily I promised. Some of you may remember, back in Lent 2007, the Presiding Bishop wrote a rather brilliant pastoral letter to the Church. At the time the Episcopal Church was embroiled in heated arguments about human sexuality. Here in part is what she said, referencing this very issue:

The current controversy brings a desire for justice on the one hand into apparent conflict with a desire for fidelity to a strict understanding of the biblical tradition and to the mainstream of the ethical tradition. Either party may be understood to be the meat-eaters, and each is reminded that their single-minded desire may be an idol. Either party might constructively also be understood by the other as the weaker member, whose sensibilities need to be considered and respected. God’s justice is always tempered with mercy, and God continues to be at work in this world, urging the faithful into deeper understandings of what it means to be human and our call as Christians to live as followers of Jesus. Each party in this conflict is asked to consider the good faith of the other, to consider that the weakness or sensitivity of the other is of significant import, and therefore to fast, or “refrain from eating meat,” for a season. Each is asked to discipline itself for the sake of the greater whole, and the mission that is only possible when the community maintains its integrity…None is complete without the others [and] God’s dream is of all people gathered at a feast, and we enter Lent looking toward that Easter feast and the new life that will, in God’s good time, be proclaimed.
Now that work far from finished, but we have come a long way in the past eight years. And thanks be to God for the faithful witness of parishes like this one that have helped lead the way. And thanks be to God for the pastoral guidance of people like Katharine Jefferts Schori. Personally, I think we are way stronger for what we have learned in this past decade or so. It wasn't easy, but we have a clearer sense of who we are...
But for today, what I want to invite you to notice is what Katharine did with that old text in a new situation, which I think was to rightly build on St. Paul by giving us a way to think about conflict and community. Justice, tempered by mercy, builds up and strengthens the Body of Christ. 
And I think this is precisely where we will find good news in this old text on this forth Sunday of Epiphany. This wisdom has implications for our families, for vestries, for Beacon Hill and Congress and everywhere else in our broken and polarized world. How can we be passionate about what we believe and still make room in ourselves for the other? How can we respect the dignity of that other human being who sees things differently from us? How can we act in ways that bring more light and less heat?
I don’t have any easy answers. So I leave you with the questions, and with today’s epistle, and with a prayer that, with God’s help, we might continue to allow our light to shine forth in the darkness.