Sunday, March 15, 2015

In the Wilderness

A photo I took in Israel in 2010, in the desert
This weekend we are celebrating my fifty-second birthday a little bit early and both of my sons are home. This morning we are all going to sit in the pews together; a great gift. So I'm not in the pulpit. But I offer this sermon, preached three years ago on this Fourth Sunday in Lent at my former parish, St. Francis, Holden, on March 18, 2012. As most readers of this blog know, I love preaching on the appointed text from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and this sermon expresses as well as any why that is so. That appointed text is from the 21st chapter of the Book of Numbers, verses 4-9.

The most important books of the Hebrew Bible are the first five, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And the key event in the Torah is the Exodus story. It is the story of God’s liberating acts on behalf of a bunch of slaves who cry out to God for help. When they do, God hears, God sees and God acts by sending Moses to confront Pharaoh to tell him: “Let my people go!”  

The telling of this story each Passover is central not only to Jewish identity, but by extension to Christian identity as well, since the events of Holy Week that we will soon be remembering again are set in the liturgical context of Passover. And of course every celebration of the Holy Eucharist is a kind of “riff” on the Passover Seder meal.

The crossing of the Red Sea happens just a little over a third of the way into the Book of Exodus and the rest of the Torah (all the way to Deuteronomy) is about the journey over the course of the next four decades. If you sit down and read the Book of Exodus from beginning to end, it takes you basically through the first year of that forty-year journey through the Sinai Desert. That journey then continues into the Book of Leviticus where the details of the Torah are unpacked and then into the Book of Numbers. Finally you get to Deuteronomy which is set on the plains of Moab near the end of that fortieth year. They have almost made it to the land of milk and honey but before they go in, Moses has a few things to get off his chest and a lengthy sermon to deliver.

Think about that. Deuteronomy ends with God’s people almost there, but not quite—basically 39 years and eleven months and change into the journey. As a metaphor, this seems to suggest that the journey from slavery to freedom is a rather circuitous and arduous one. And yet gifts are given even in the wilderness: including daily bread, water, and the Torah—all of which are intended to form a people after God’s own heart, a people who live life one day at a time.

Today’s Old Testament lesson takes us into the heart of the fourth book of the Torah, the Book of Numbers, which in Hebrew is simply called “in the wilderness.” As it begins, the people are continuing to journey by stages toward the Promised Land and a census is taken on “the fifteenth day of the second month of the second year after Moses led the Israelites out from Egypt, and across the Red Sea, and into the wilderness.” So we haven’t gotten very far yet.

For us, parts of the Book of Numbers may be like watching too many slides of a friend’s trip to a part of the world you know little about. It can be a difficult book to follow because it sometimes reads like a travelogue: then we went from Etham to Phahiroth and from there it was a three-day journey to Migdol and then we went on to Etham and so on and so forth. But underneath the place names and the census figures—underneath all those “numbers”—there is a story. Numbers is brutally honest about the fact that the people did not do so well when they were tired and hot and hungry and thirsty. But through it all, God continued to provide. Very briefly, that is the background for the first reading we heard today.  

From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. But the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food."

Don’t you love it how they say "there is no food" when in fact there is food? They sound like the kid who comes home from college and looks in the refrigerator and the cupboard, but not finding what they want, what they crave, they say: “isn’t there anything to eat in this house?”

But there is food! It’s miracle food - whatchamacallit bread that at first seemed really cool. But cream of whatchamacallit three times a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year for nearly four decades gets old pretty fast. So there is no food—or rather what food there is, is detestable. And there is no water. We are going to die. Why did you bring us out here to die, Moses?

Moses is the leader. But as you recall, he wasn’t exactly looking for this job. He was out minding his own business, taking care of his father-in-law’s flock, when God came looking for him at a burning bush. And when Moses resisted, God insisted all the more. God made him do this, even though Moses knew he was not equipped for such a hard job. And let’s be honest: surely he must be feeling as tired and cranky out there in the Sinai as anyone. Surely he, who has probably given up more than anyone else as a former prince of Egypt, must miss not only the leeks and melons and cucumbers of Egypt, but also the lamb kebabs and the stuffed grape leaves and the vintage wines.

The truth is that they are in the desert and while there are not leeks and melons, there is food enough and water enough. It’s just that it comes one day at a time, and it isn’t much. But it is enough. At least that’s how the story goes. Dayenu. God provides manna one day at a time and water from the flinty rock. Depending on their own state of mind, they either see those provisions in the wilderness as a miracle and gift, or as "no food at all." Oh my God, no food, no water, we are going to die! Why did Moses bring us out here to die? Were there not enough graves back in Egypt?

Now I don’t like what happens next in this story. It doesn’t fit very well with my image of God. So I’m not going to try to explain it to you. But what the narrator says is that God kind of loses it. God is so sick and tired of all this whining. When are we going to get there? Is there nothing to eat? Why did we have to go on this trip? And so…

…then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.

Yes, it’s a little over the top. What I do want to say is this: it’s a reminder that the wilderness is a very dangerous place. The poisonous serpents are a part of that world. Death really is a part of that world. It’s like at Creation where God orders the primordial chaos: the point is that there is primordial chaos that needs to be ordered. And it is true that when there is no food, when there is no water, when there is no divine protection, the serpents will get you and people will die. It’s just part of the world, part of the circle of life.

But what has happened in today’s story is that the people have seemingly forgotten and lost all perspective. So it is as if God is saying, “let’s see how this works if you are on your own.” And the truth is, not so well. Now that may not be enough of an explanation, but that’s the best I can do for today. What I do want you to notice though is what happens next. Clearly it works. Clearly it wakes the people up, who repent. They…

…came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people.

To my ear, this is the “good news”—the best news—in this strange text. Moses is no doubt upset with God for his own reasons. And he has every reason to feel defensive and vulnerable about these annoying people who keep blaming him for everything that goes wrong. Yet he keeps on interceding with God on their behalf. It is that line that I want us to notice with some joy and curiosity: Moses prayed for the people. Maybe even by name, and maybe even starting with the biggest loudmouths. Significant change never comes easily or quickly. God’s people have to keep discovering (and rediscovering) again and again and again that (a) God has their back and (b) that they really do need each other. They have to learn to stop thinking like slaves and start thinking like a neighborhood.

Moses didn’t lead them out into the Sinai to die. But it feels like that for a while to people who are scared. And in those moments, what Moses has to do is learn how to pray. To pray for them by name even when he may be secretly hoping the serpent will get them next. Moses prays for the people—and infinitely more than they can ask or imagine becomes possible. Moses prays for his people and God in turn equips Moses to do that work to which God had called Moses in the first place. 

It’s all pretty wild stuff: ancient totem poles, a God who sends serpents, so much magic in a desert halfway around the world that may seem far from our lives. And yet we gather around this strange old text, listening for good news as the journey continues by stages as we move through so many transitions in our own lives and once again through this Lenten Season, when we are trying with God’s help to orient and reorient ourselves to God and neighbor. Among other things we ask for grateful hearts that help us to be thankful for enough, rather than whining about what we lack. Among other things, as we prayed tonight in the opening collect, we know that Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: “Evermore give us this bread, O God…that he may live in us and we in him…”

When we get hungry and cranky and tired, we too are tempted to say: we’re tired. There is nothing to eat. We detest this miserable food. We are going to die.

But here’s the deal: the journey from slavery to freedom is not supposed to be easy. Sometimes along the way we are going to have to face down a few serpents. Always we must remember that real change, lasting change, will be met with some resistance. Over the centuries in Church and synagogue and in town politics and in businesses that are trying to change their culture, these dynamics play out over and over again. They play out in our personal lives too when we try to change old destructive patterns that enslave us to embrace the practices of people who are trying to embrace the freedom and life that Christ offers.

In the midst of such times, we can pray for one another by name. We can love God and tend to the neighborhood, and keeping journeying by stages, holding hands and putting one foot in front of the other as we make our way toward the Promised Land. We can come to the Table to receive the bread of life, trusting that it really is enough to sustain us, enough for us to remember that Christ lives is us, and we live in Christ. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Strangers Now Are Friends

What follows will, without a doubt, be the longest post I've ever made on this blog! My diocese gathers the lay and ordained leaders from east and west and north and south each year at the American International College in Springfield while their students are on spring break. We gather for a leadership development day that this year included a morning plenary by our bishop and an afternoon plenary on the ministry of hospitality by yours truly, with workshops in between. This post is offered for the benefit of those who wanted to be present but could not, hopefully to spark vestry conversations across our diocese about how we can improve in this area of our life-together. And for anyone else who may be interested...

Since those who sing, pray twice and since sometimes we have to pray something for a long time before we believe it (and even longer before we live it) I want us to begin this time by having us stand and sing a hymn that I imagine is familiar across the diocese. (I realize in my travels that there are in fact very few hymns from that blue Hymnal that one can say that about, because our musical traditions across this diocese are pretty diverse. But I think I can say it about this one, which is called, I Come With Joy. There are copies of it in your packets today. The poem was written by Brian Wren, who was born in 1936 and the tune is called Land of Rest. Since no one wants me to lead this, I have asked Cricket to get us started…

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So the title of this afternoon plenary comes from that great hymn. Whatever else I say today (and I have lots to say!) I hope you will take away that phrase as a kind of mantra as this Lenten season continues to unfold. What does it look like when our congregations are intentionally places where “strangers now are friends?” Hold that thought…

Recently I had occasion to meet with the vestry and interim at Trinity Church in Ware. It was (I know that you will find this hard to believe) a snowy night. I pulled in on the street to park, a bit worried about if my car was close enough to the curb. But of course the snow was out from the curb so there was no choice. I pulled in behind someone I would learn very shortly was on the vestry at Trinity and I said, “am I ok here” and he assured me I was. And then this other woman, clearly unknown to him and shoveling some snow – directly across from the church—asked him this question, “what kind of church is this?”

I heard him say, “we’re an Episcopal Church” and I could tell even as I stepped out of my car that she was not going to have any idea what that meant, and he would need to dig deeper. He did not disappoint. And so he, and then a few minutes later I, began to engage her in conversation. She shared a lot in a short time with us: that she was in recovery, that she’d been raised Roman Catholic, but was now attending, or had been attending, a charismatic church. But she was still looking, still searching and so she was wondering, “what kind of church is this?” And he told her it was the kind of place where she would be welcomed, and that he thought might be what she was looking for, and he invited her to “come and see.”

He did great, and I pray that every Episcopalian in this diocese (and especially every vestry person) is able to respond as gracefully as he did. It helps us to have a kind of three-minute elevator speech, I think. I brought the question inside with me and we continued that conversation a bit with the whole group: what kind of church is this? And the follow up: what kind of church are you becoming, with God’s help? Avoiding the insider language that the average person does not necessarily understand, how would you answer that question? What kind of church are we? And how do we translate that in a way that is both accessible to the stranger, and still true to our core values?

I submit to you that if you don’t yet have a good answer to that question, then perhaps Brian Wren’s hymn is as good a place as any to start. It’s focused on Jesus. It’s Eucharistic. It’s about hospitality to the stranger. It’s about our call to be ambassadors of reconciliation. It’s about our call to go into the world so that the service can begin, and to spread the good news, sometimes even with words. What kind of church are we? I pray we are a place where strangers are becoming friends.

We live in a world that often says, from the time we are children, that the stranger is to be feared, not loved. We live in an increasingly xenophobic culture. This is not the place to insert my political views about immigration policy but let me just say this: the tone of our rhetoric (ironically in a nation of immigrants) is shrill to say the least. However we deal with the challenges politically, as Christians we have a voice: we believe the stranger is not to be feared, but is a disguise that Christ wears. Our work includes seeing the face of Jesus in the face of the other, the stranger, and then welcoming that person into our midst by loving that person as we love Jesus. To do this is to be a Church where “strangers now are friends.” And that unleashes missional energy. It’s not only an imperative of the gospel but it provides an antidote to being focused on the past.   
I come with joy to meet my Lord, forgiven loved, and free / In awe and wonder to recall his life laid down for me.
Our faith is deeply personal and God calls us by name, and then claims us and seals us and marks us forever. So I come, but never alone:
I come with Christians far and near to find as all are fed / The new community of love in Christ’s communion bread
Dayenu. This would be enough. But there's more. We come to communion to discover community and the promise that where two are three are gathered in his name he is there, among us, with us, through us. Even in Lent, the Risen Christ deigns to be our guest. And then gives us the work of reconciliation.
As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends. / That love that made us makes us one, and strangers now are friends.
And thus with joy we meet our Lord, his presence always near / is in such friendship better known, we see and praise him here.
Together met, together bound, we’ll go our different ways / And as his people in the world, we’ll live and speak his praise.
Now here is my question for you this afternoon. Do you believe all that? And if you do believe it, then here is an even harder question: is what you sing with your lips being made manifest in the life of your congregation? Are we acting in ways that make this prayer’s claims real? Is it the kind of place where strangers are becoming friends? 

Most of my time is spent with the congregations in the eastern part of our diocese. One weekend I arrived at Grace, Oxford and the sign outside said, “Welcome Canon Simpson.” The whole neighborhood knew I was there! And while I have known the priest there for many years, most of the people there were strangers to me. But probably more than any other place I have visited, there seemed to be an intentionality to build relationships and to welcome me – for strangers to become friends—and for that I remain grateful.

But I also need to say that is not the norm. I think we “frozen chosen” are better than we once were, but we have miles to go before we reach our destination. There is lots we can do, and need to do and even in Oxford there are “next steps” to take. Always with God’s help…

I know that there is some percentage of us here today that are in recovery from one addiction or another, and still more of us who come from families where addiction has left a mark. I’m not asking for a show of hands, but my guess is that it’s a fairly high percentage. Many of us find the “twelve steps” to be a vital resource for our spirituality, and we rely on those steps as a way to the higher power we name as God the Holy Trinity.  

So I would wager to say that most of us here today are familiar at least with step one of the twelve steps, but for anyone who is not, it is about admitting that we are powerless over alcohol or whatever it is that we are addicted to, and that our lives have become unmanageable. In other words, step one is about admitting that we have a problem.

I hear it again and again in my travels (and I know the bishop and my canon colleagues hear it also) – “Canon Simpson, this is a friendly congregation. We are like family. We welcome everybody.”  

Now without shaming anyone, I want to say that we are by and large in denial about this problem we have when we continue to say we don’t have a problem. Step one for us is to admit that this has become unmanageable for us. Berkshires, Pioneer Valley, Worcester County: we do not, as a whole, do a very good job at welcoming the stranger into our midst. So let’s just admit that and work on it. People do walk in on a Sunday morning and no one says hello to them and they are not invited to coffee hour, and then they leave disappointed and they never come back. Strangers do not become friends. And we miss the living Christ in our midst.

Is this too strong an indictment? I have worried a bit about what I knew I wanted to say today; like most clergy I like to be liked. I want to tell the truth and still have you smile and say, “you know he’s right…” without having this come across as if I’m judging your congregation or you. I’m just trying to say what I see.  And a lot of this is cultural. There is a reason why people don’t tend to talk about northern hospitality. I have a theory about this. We have these long, cold winters, and they take a toll on us. Hathy and I moved a year and a half ago into a new neighborhood, without young children because we are now empty-nesters. In the summer we see our neighbors out in the yard and we smile and wave. But for like nine months a year as the snow piles up we hibernate. To be hospitable to the stranger, for the most part in this part of the world, is a countercultural act. We have to learn how to do it. We have to practice it. With God’s help.

But we keep ourselves from taking that risk, I think, when we claim to be “like a family.” I want to “exegete that text” and suggest that this is part of the problem. And let me just say that I love my family. But the problem with families (my own included) is that most of them have issues, even the healthiest of them. No, let me correct that: all of them have issues; some more intense than others. And even in the healthiest of families, they all have their own insider language and their own stories. Thanksgiving with my family of origin can leave me feeling about 15 or so – which makes my brother Jimmy about 14, Susie about 10 and Tricia 7. A great Thanksgiving is when no one ends up in tears! We may all be adults and more or less successful people in our communities, and we all have children of our own. But family gatherings have the potential to bring out the worst in us – and the worst in me. And it’s really not fun when that happens for any of us, but especially it isn’t fun for the in-laws and for our kids.  

Recently I was meeting with a vestry and someone said that the parish was “just like a family.” I bit my tongue and waited; I’m learning how to do that better as canon to the ordinary. And then I asked: “in what ways?” And what the person said was real, and authentic, and lovely. They said, because you can always go home, no matter what. If this is what we mean by family, that is so beautiful. If the church is ready to run out with open arms to welcome home the prodigal child, I’m there.

But of course we all know that not every family is exactly like that. As a pastor I was always amazed how many extended families have people who are estranged from the family for a whole variety of reasons. And they don’t feel like they can come home. More often, in my experience, congregations are like family in the dysfunctional ways I have named. We should ponder a bit about what it’s like to try to break into a close-knit family. Imagine attending a family reunion that has been happening every year for thirty years, in the same place – the same food, the same stories. And now you are the boyfriend or the girlfriend of a member of that family and this is your first such gathering. How does that make you feel? How does it make you feel if no one notices you for the first three hours, but they keep saying, “we’re such a close family!” How does it make you feel if the menu is always roast beef and it’s always been roast beef, and you are a vegan?

So: step one: admitting we have a problem. I think there is a reason that Wren’s poem avoids the family language and focuses instead on “the new community of love” and on friendship. And he doesn’t mean being friendly with our friends. He means creating a space where strangers now are friends.

As a general rule I think in many if not most of our congregations, the insiders see Sunday morning as a day to catch up on church business. So wardens and rectors and vestry and staff are tempted to talk with each other, not the stranger. If I had a nickel for every person who has said to me, “I wanted to talk to that newcomer but I needed to see the senior warden first.” NO! The stranger will slip away every time. The senior warden is very likely to be the last to leave!

As a rule, ushers are tempted to be engaged in conversation with the person they have known for twenty years, as the stranger slips in and is handed a bulletin with barely an upward gaze. Sometimes the usher just grunts. They seem to have been trained not to offer hospitality but to perform the menial task of handing over a bulletin which to many of our guests seems to be written in a foreign language.

On the whole, we are not very good at welcoming the stranger, and yet this is a mandate of the gospel. There are some tasks of Gospel work that are really hard. We have been focused on some of those in trying to be more vital congregations in today’s workshops. For Episcopalians, leaving the building and heading to the streets and sharing the good news – sometimes even with words – on a soccer field or a dance recital – this is really hard. That “e” word part of our Baptismal Covenant—evangelism—is surely a place for growth. So we need to remember that Jesus did not ever say it would be easy and we need to ask God to be with us through the Holy Spirit as we do that work for always we do it with God’s help.

But welcoming the person who woke up, took a shower, got dressed, and walked through the doors into our building? This is low-hanging fruit, my friends. If that person gets handed a bulletin by an usher who is deep in conversation with the junior warden and neither of them look up even to make eye contact or say “welcome” – Houston, we have a problem. If the peace goes on for twenty minutes and all that hugging among the “family” means the stranger is standing alone the whole time– Berkshires, Pioneer Valley, Worcester peeps: we have a problem.

The problem is that most of us suffer from amnesia. We are (I venture to say every single person who would attend a Parish Leadership Day – ordained and lay) all insiders. We are, dare I say it, too often more like a family, and not in the good ways. And so we forget. We forget what it is I like to be the stranger – the outsider.

Except maybe when we come to an event like this. When there are so many people we don’t know, people from other congregations. Now this is not really super threatening, but it’s a good laboratory for us. Here we are, just our little extended Episcopal “family” from this part of Massachusetts that is west of 495 to the New York border, with some Lutherans thrown in to spice it up a bit. (I love it when the spicy Lutherans are around!)

So how many new friends did you make today? Who did you meet and did you trust that they come to you bearing gifts? Or did you skip that assignment and cling to the friends you drove here with? Only you can answer that question but it’s Lent so I invite you to ponder it a bit in your own heart. This work may be easier for extroverts than introverts. But we are all called out of our comfort zones to share it, because at the heart of the Bible (in both Testaments) is the witness that strangers are not to be feared, but to be loved. That little phrase of Wren’s is deeply rooted in Scripture. Think about Abraham entertaining angels, unaware, by the oaks of Mamre. Think about those on the road to Emmaus, joined by a stranger who is made known to them only in the breaking of the bread.

We have to admit that we have a problem embracing this work. I know we have a problem because even with a collar on and a fancy job title I walk into congregations and you know what happens? I say, “Hi, I’m Rich Simpson.” And you know what happens far too often? Well, watch…
Hi, I’m Rich Simpson. (Pam: I know who you are…) 
Hi, I’m Rich Simpson (Steve: Yeah we’ve met before…) 
Come on, Bishop – show us how it’s done:

·        Hi, I’m Rich Simpson. (Doug: Hey, welcome, I’m Doug Fisher. I hear you are a fan of The Boss…)

Those first two responses put the burden back on me and whether intended or not, they put me a little on the defensive. We may well have met before, but if it was in line at church or at Leadership Day, I was probably meeting a lot of new people then. The third response offers an opening – an invitation. A welcome. We can move forward. A wall has not been erected… We can begin to engage, and maybe strangers will become friends.

I didn’t make up these responses you know. The first two are more common than the third, no lie. Notice I said, “hi, my name is Rich Simpson.” I did not say, “Are you new here?” I did not say, “I don’t think we’ve met” – precisely I know that maybe we have met three times already. I’m trying to get a name out of you, because if I had it on the tip of my tongue then I’d say, “Hey Pam…or hey Steve…or hey Doug.”

We are not alone. When I told my canon friends across New England over lunch that I was going to do this I got an earful and could not shut them up and they all told me I could use their congregational stories anonymously when I said I didn’t want to name congregations. Each of them had the same stories I have about walking into a congregation with their collars on where they had just preached and celebrated minutes earlier, representing the Bishop, and then went to coffee hour and stood there all alone. It does make one wonder, doesn’t it, that if this is how the collars from the bishop’s office get welcomed, then what it’s like to show up without a collar on and try to break into coffee hour.

One of my colleagues from a diocese that will not be named told this great story of being all alone in coffee hour and then seeing someone else all alone and going over to talk to them. It turned out they were a newcomer! So they chatted and then my colleague introduced the newcomer to the senior warden, who did take it from there and then later said, “that’s a little embarrassing…” Yes. It is.
I know a lot of people don’t go to church when on vacation or business, but I urge you to do that. Go into a congregation not your own and see what happens. If they are really good at welcoming the stranger, then you have some ideas to take home. And if they are really bad at it, then you will have had the experience of what that’s like, so that maybe the next stranger who walks into your congregation will catch your eye. We have to hold each other accountable for doing this work better. We have to be intentional. We need to expect guests.

Let me be really clear: I don’t say this to shame anyone – please, we don’t need more shame in the church. Not ever. I say this because I don’t think that anything I have to say today will have any meaning at all in transforming your congregation unless we admit that we have a problem – as New Englanders generally and as Episcopalians in particular. If we can admit that we have a problem, then by God’s grace, we can come to believe that a power greater than us can restore us to sanity and that we can do this, one day at a time, with God’s help. So I’m pushing this hard, like an intervention – because I want us to break out of denial, which is not just a river in Egypt!

Where to start? Let’s start with what not to do. I want to shamelessly steal from a blog written by a guy I don’t know, but this came to me by way of Facebook and I liked it. (Literally.) The guy’s name is Thom Rainer. The post can be found here.

Take what is useful there and leave the rest. But here is the challenge I want to set before you: how can you go back home and go to Church tomorrow and try first just to see it through the eyes of a first-time guest? If you are just too churchy to do that then take that list of new friends you made today and let’s create a collaborative project. Find three people to come and visit your Church on a Sunday morning in cognito – no lying, but they don’t need to walk in and say, “hey I’m the senior warden at St. Swithin’s and I’m here to do some undercover work!” Or next time you have family or friends in town, go in two separate cars and ask them to be honest about their experience in your parish.

Take it all in as data – no judgment. But invite them to tell you what they saw, what their experience was and ask them to be brutally honest. Ask them if anyone said hello to them. Ask them to report back on the website, the service, if anyone told them they were in the wrong pew, if they could find coffee hour, if anyone spoke to them there. And then maybe they will invite you to return the favor and do same in their congregation. Find some twenty-something friends to do this and then have a conversation with them about why young people aren’t flocking to our congregations and what you can do about that. I think you will be surprised.

This raw data needs to be interpreted. Part of what’s hard is that some people want to be recognized in worship and stand up and say their name, but in my experience most do not want that kind of attention the first time they are in a place. And in my humble opinion that is a cop out; it turns the tables on the stranger and puts the burden on them. I’m an extrovert and I would never go back to a church that made me feel I needed to do that and I assure you my introverted wife wouldn’t go back. Rather, we need to find ways to become more intentional. At the very least we need to talk about this at vestry. We need to be strategic and purposeful We need to find the people who have the gifts for hospitality and use them as greeters. We need to look around in the pews to see who we don’t know and go talk to them.

We have to make a fearless inventory of our congregations, so that we can make the corrections we need to make. You know we often say these days that the days of people just walking in through the red doors are over. And I agree, mostly. We have to do more. But listen – some people do come through those doors! Lord have mercy on us if they take that risk in this day and age and leave feeling that those Christians were “like a family reunion” that wanted nothing to do with them…

Some people do come through those doors. Why? What got them to do that? They just moved to a new community? They left another denomination? They just went through a personal epiphany or a faith crisis? I was recently in a parish in Worcester on Ash Wednesday when this twenty-something couple came in and as a visitor myself it was obvious they were visitors. I engaged with them after the liturgy; she’d grown up Episcopalian and while they’d been worshiping recently in an emergent kind of house church, she felt drawn on that day, the beginning of Lent, to touch base with her roots. 
I don’t know where that will lead if anywhere but I talked for about twenty minutes with this young, engaged twenty-something couple who had a story to tell.

So after they left, if someone asked them, “what kind of church was that?” – what might they say? I hope they would say, at least, that they felt they belonged and they felt welcomed and the liturgy and sermon gave them some food for the journey, even if they never come back or even if it just becomes an Ash Wednesday tradition for them. We simply miss too many opportunities to engage with the stranger that are right before our very eyes and this much is certain: if you don’t ever say hello to the stranger, the chances of them becoming a friend are very slim. This ought to be the easy part! If someone comes in and leaves without a single hello or they walk into coffee hour and feel like they are at an eighth grade dance, we have to own that. And we have to do better…

So far I’ve identified with the help of our blogger some things not to do. But what to do?
Say “welcome.” You know, every time I log onto my computer, it says “welcome.” And every time I go the Greendale YMCA in Worcester, someone says “welcome” or maybe it’s “hey” or even a nod of the head, depending on who it is. But my arrival is acknowledged. I don’t need to be best friends, but it’s nice to be acknowledged. Every time I walk into Moe’s in Shrewsbury they look up and shout, “welcome to Moe’s!” What if our greeters and ushers did that? What if everyone in the narthex visiting before worship turned to the stranger and said, “welcome to Church?!”

On January 4, which was the Second Sunday of Christmas (even though some places rushed the wise guys in 48 hours early) Hathy and I went to church together at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Holden. I did not wear a collar. In spite of the fact that we lived in that town for fifteen years and in spite of the fact that there are deep bonds of affection between St. Francis and Immanuel, I can still sneak in there and be pretty anonymous. We went because my friend who is the pastor there does his first sermon of the year in verse, and I have always thought that’s pretty cool. So we walk in on a snowy morning and the guy walking in with us holds the door, a guy I’ve never met and he says, “welcome.”

There may be more we can do but never should it be less than this – less than what a laptop or employee at the Y or old spicy Swedish Lutheran can do. Welcome! From the Old English, wilcuma: a person whose coming is pleasing.

Does it please us to have new people in our midst? Do we expect it? Because if we do, we need to be intentional about how we’ll let them know and build-in redundancies. Don’t rely on the ushers, but do re-train them so they try. No one should be handed a bulletin without eye contact or a word of welcome, but ushers need to be partnered with greeters whose sole job it is to do this and perhaps help people find the nursery or let them know which books we are using for worship. Don’t find a person or persons who people don’t enjoy seeing. Here is the litmus test, and I say this with Christian charity and with a deep awareness that we are all God’s beloved. (God is crazy about all of us, but we have a variety of gifts.) The person who has no social skills is not your greeter. The person does not need to be a used car salesman, but does need to be someone who genuinely likes people, is warm and is willing to learn some skills. Don’t say “are you new?” Say, “Welcome, I’m Rich Simpson.”  (Only better to use your own name!) And hopefully they won’t say, “I know who you are…” And then everyone needs to be deputized to cover a pew or a couple of pews so that if someone is worshiping there and is a stranger to you, that you will not let them leave without saying “hello…welcome.”

Can we work on this together, across this diocese? We should be expecting guests every week and even when they aren’t there, practicing so that when they are we don’t feel socially awkward. This means that leaders – all of you—this is not your time to meet with the rector on Sunday at coffee hour, or with each other. Greet the strangers, even if they have been there six months or a year. If there is someone you don’t know, do NOT go up to the rector and say, “hey, what’s that person’s name?” Go up and say, “hello, my name is Rich Simpson…” Find out what they do and who they are and where they have come from. Keep practicing what we practiced today and pay attention. And listen. Act like you are welcoming them to your own home. And then debrief what you are learning about this ministry of hospitality at vestry. Not just the successes but the failures. Someone is going to forget and say, “are you new here?” and that person is going to say, “I’ve been here going to the 8 am service for forty-seven years buddy…” So don’t ask “are you new!” Practice until it becomes second nature. And keep asking, how does a stranger feel here today?

Announcements are a big one, I think. Don’t stand up and say, “as everybody knows, it’s that time of the year again...” Introduce yourself and state why you are taking time to stand up – are you the stewardship chair or is a fair coming up that folks need to bake for or is there a kids pageant? Write it out so you don’t ramble – so that you can be clear. Tell them where you will be after worship if they want to learn more and don’t say “I’ll be in the narthex” because they might not have any idea what a narthex is. (My spellchecker doesn't even recognize that word, and wants to suggest I mean "earthen!")

As we get better at making some technical changes, some very small ones, it can lead us to deeper questions and to more adaptive change that goes beyond that initial welcome. As strangers start to become friends, it means we need to allow them space to move from being guests to becoming hosts. It means making space in our buildings and in our hearts and on our vestries and in the parish hall kitchen where the same group has been cooking the same supper for thirty-seven years. And in the sacristy. I am not suggesting that when a newcomer shows up say, “hello, welcome, you want to teach Sunday School?” Not good safe church practice! But the strangers who do come have gifts and after that initial welcome we need to learn what they want to do, and how they might use those gifts for the sake of God’s mission of mercy, compassion, and hope. We have too many ministries in our congregations that seem to be like Supreme Court Appointments and if people become LEMs or wardens until they die – then you only get about as many openings as a President gets over four years in office or maybe less. This is a problem!

Here, I think we discover the roots of the issue and the reason for our denial: in my humble opinion it is about our resistance to change. We may like our congregation just as it is. It’s like a family. It’s like Cheers, where everybody knows our name. If too many new people come in, then it won’t be like that anymore. They won’t know who I am, and I may not know who they are. It might not feel like “family.” And it definitely won’t be the same. And that’s true, it won’t be. New people bring new energy and new perspectives and new possibilities…

So I want to remind you before we go our different ways today (“as God’s people in the world, to live and speak God’s praise”) that this work takes us to the very heart of the gospel. It’s not an option; it’s a requirement. And once we admit that we have a problem and we’ve been stuck, we can begin to deal with that problem. We can start to “work the program” one day at a time.

The adaptive work to which God calls us is for strangers to become friends. To do that we need to practice hospitality. Our faith, to be real, is always a shared faith. Our journey in Christ offers us companions on the way – literally those with whom we “bread with.” This is how God forms this new community of love where strangers are becoming friends. How can we better embody that reality in our congregations?

Monastic communities have much to teach us about this, and for more than a decade now I’ve been part of the Fellowship of St. John the Evangelist, in Cambridge. There is a chapter in their Rule of Life on “Hospitality” and as I close I want to share that with you.  
The source of hospitality is the heart of God who yearns to unite every creature within one embrace. Only in the fullness of time will God gather all things in Christ; yet God’s boundless welcome is something we already enjoy here and now in the Eucharist. Our life together as a community gives us a foretaste of the communion of saints. So we have the power to be a sacrament of God’s hospitality, a house of God, offering (God’s) nurture and protection to all who come under our roof. Just as we enrich our guest’s lives, so they enrich ours. We welcome men and women of every race and culture, rejoicing in the breadth and diversity of human experience that they bring to us. Their lives enlarge our vision of God’s world. The stories of their sufferings and achievements and their experience of God stir and challenge us. If we are attentive, each guest will be a word and gift of God to us.
May it be so for us.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

On this Second Sunday in Lent I am at St. Michael's on the Heights,in the Burncoat area of Worcester. Next weekend they will welcome their new deacon-in-charge, the Rev. David Woessner. Dave is a transitional deacon, which means that he expects to be ordained a priest (God willing and the people consenting) on July 11, at which time he will become priest-in-charge at St. Michael's. This is a three-year appointment, after which St. Michael's will have the option to call Dave to be their rector. Part of my work as Canon to the Ordinary is to be a little bit of a John the Baptist - to point the One who is coming. It is also to remind congregations that all who serve as deacons and as priests are servants of the One who came among us to serve, and not "the messiah" - a job that is already taken. It is an exciting time in the life of St. Michael's! Below is my sermon manuscript for this day.

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If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. We talk a lot about the cross as Christians and we talk even more about the cross during Lent. At the end of this forty-day journey through the wilderness there is an old rugged cross on the horizon.

That is not our final destination as you know, because the story will continue beyond Good Friday to the empty tomb. But you can’t “get there from here” without traveling by way of the cross. There is no Easter without Good Friday.  

My provocative New Testament professor in seminary, Kalyan Dey, liked to say that if we really wanted to truly understand the scandal of the cross in contemporary terms, then we should replace all of the crosses in our congregations with electric chairs. And then he’d laugh this wonderful belly laugh. (New Testament professors can be like that.) His underlying point was quite serious, however: Jesus wasn’t the only person to ever die on a cross. Crucifixion was the preferred method of inflicting the death penalty in the Roman Empire; it was cruel, but not unusual, punishment. Our distance from that historical socio-political context and our familiarity with polished shiny crosses made of silver and gold can make us forgetful of that, in spite of that great prayer in the BCP that notes how God has made “an instrument of shameful death” to be, for us, “the means of life.”

How is it that we dare to make such a claim? As I read the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, what I discover there is a God who will not give up on us. In the beginning, God created the world in love, and saw that it was good and that human beings were very good. Our disobedience made us ashamed to be in God’s presence, but our shame and disobedience could never negate that love. Love wins.

So God called Abraham and Sarah into covenant and would not give up on their descendants who have numbered like the stars, even when they (and we) failed to hold up our end of the covenant. Over many centuries, they (and we) began to realize that there is no place we can go in all creation to get away from the love of God. When the psalmist asks “where can I go then from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” the clear and resounding answer is, “no place.” (Psalm 139) St. Paul tells those early Christians in Rome that he is convinced that “neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny learns that there is no place he can run where his mother will not find him. She will find him because love wins.

So, too, with our God, who so loved the world that he gave his only Son. There are various theologies of the atonement which try to explain why Jesus died on the cross and some of those explanations are better than others. But none of them is complete. Some may even be harmful to your spiritual growth. I tend to find myself a bit antsy, for example, whenever I hear the cross interpreted and explained in a way that sounds overly transactional: as if an angry “father God” needed to be appeased and settle up his accounts, so he sent his Son to die in our place. What I can tell you is this: the Bible tends to resist that kind of explanation and offers us different angles and perspectives from which to view the mystery of the cross. I think all attempts to explain the cross will fall short. Ultimately the point is to come again to the foot of the cross to encounter the man who was willing to die there and to discover in his face, the face of the Crucified God.  

So when I hear that verse from John 3:16 which I memorized as a young child, the key words that I hear are love and gave:  God so loved the world that he gave… God is both Lover and Giver. Loving and giving converge in Jesus, who emptied himself to take the form of a servant to be with us through thick and thin. We see it in a stable in Bethlehem and in the young and fearless prophet who challenged the collusion of religious and political power. We see it in the wise rabbi who taught in parables and the compassionate friend who ate and laughed at table with all sorts of scoundrels. And beyond the cross we see it in the risen Lord who deigns to be our guest every time we break the bread together, every time and place where two or three are gathered in his name. So it isn’t only on the cross; it’s just that it is writ largest there. The lengths to which God will go to find us, the breadth and depth of God’s loving and God’s giving, are truly amazing grace.

A God confined to the heavens does us no good. We need a God with skin, so that when we are sitting and waiting for our next chemotherapy treatment or at the unemployment office or listening to our parents fight again about money or trying to do the right thing for an aging parent or standing at the grave of the one we loved “for better and for worse” for 52 wonderful years—in all of those places we will know the answer to the question that wells up deep inside of us: where is God?

Where is God? The answer is: right here and right now, in our midst and in the flesh. We know this because of the cross. So when Joan Osborne sings, “What if God was one of us?” the correct liturgical response is: Amen! Yes! Emmanuel. In his living and loving and losing and hoping and fearing and praying and suffering and in his dying we see God as one of us in the face of Jesus, and on the cross.  

During these forty days of Lent we turn our attention to the cross, and we ponder this great mystery once again. It isn’t necessary to figure it all out or to make sense of it all. It is enough to know that Jesus confronts the evil powers of this world that would corrupt and destroy the creatures of God and they push back, demanding blood. But in the end, Love wins. It is enough to trust Jesus enough to follow where he leads and to know that he is not just as a miracle worker or healer or wise teacher but more than all those, and that the Way he asks us to follow him will take us through the valley of the shadow of death to those places in our own lives and in the world where we are afraid to go, but where we must go. We are invited to move beyond just the notion that Jesus died on a cross and to hear him call us each by name as he did those first disciples by the Sea of Galilee: each of us is called to take up our own cross in order to follow him. We are called not only to bear the cross that may come our way, but to take it up and to follow.

Now this is where it gets pretty scary. No one can accuse Jesus of making this whole discipleship-thing sound easier than it is. No one can accuse him of false advertising. He puts it out there: following him is not about winning friends and influencing people. To be his disciple means nothing less than participating in the divine life of this crucified God, and that requires us to become vulnerable ourselves and to share in the work that Jesus began.

The Rev. Fernando Cardenal, S.J. 
I had a chance in the early 1990s to travel in Nicaragua, where I met Fernando Cardenal, who along with his more famous brother, Ernesto, was a Jesuit priest and liberation theologian who worked for justice in that war-torn land. I will never forget hearing Father Cardenal talk about what it means to take up the cross and saying: "Every bad thing that happens to a person is not their cross. Bad things happen to people every day and they are tragic and sad and emotional but they are the same as taking up our cross. You don’t have to go out and find your cross to follow Jesus; your cross will find you. The key is that when it does—when you are called to ‘do the right thing in the name of Jesus’ even if it is at great cost, will you be ready to take up your cross and follow him? Even if it means that you don’t get the promotion or you that you lose the admiration of the world or you find yourself at odds with your friends or that you have to risk your own life?"

So Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. These are hard words. When we accept the call to follow Jesus we should not deceive ourselves; Jesus has very high expectations. In order to stand for justice we must be willing to fight against injustice. In order to stand for the dignity of every human being, there will be times when we have to speak out against all that degrades and destroys the image of God in a fellow human being. As the Church we are called to participate with Christ in this new creation by sharing in the work that Jesus began; and sometimes that will be very costly. We are not passive recipients of God’s love and grace; rather, we are invited to allow those free gifts to heal and transform us to become followers who stand ready to serve, no matter what the cost.

I can tell you two things that I believe are good news from this hard gospel reading. First of all, we never walk alone. We walk with God and we walk with each other as companions along the way. And second, the cross is not the end of the story. In fact the ending is going to blow you away! But that part of the story in its own time, and in its own fifty-day season…and it’s only a month away.

You are about to embark on a new chapter in the history of St. Michael’s. You are rightly excited about Deacon Dave’s arrival among you, and I know he is too. Let me just say this, however: he is not the messiah. That job is already taken. He is, like all of you, a fellow traveler on this way of the cross. He comes to walk with you and to serve among you; that is the work of the ordained. And to keep pointing you toward the cross and all that it means, and beyond it to the empty tomb and all that it means. Love wins.

It is hard to be the Church, but here’s a little secret; it’s always been hard. Our idealized memories of the middle of the twentieth century when the pews were filled are too often seen through nostalgic eyes. If you don’t believe me, then try to reflect for just a moment what it was like in the Eisenhower years to be female, or a person of color, or gay. It is hard to be the Church, but this much is clear: we are called to press on toward the goal, not return to some mythological past. We are called to be the Church, here and now, and to take up our cross, and to follow Jesus, with God’s help.
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?