Wednesday, May 27, 2015

"None of the Above" - What Does It Mean for the Church?

If you follow religious trends at all, you've probably seen the latest from The Pew Research Center about the rise of the "nones."

In my work, I pay attention to these kinds of studies. I find two basic reactions on two extremes that raise the anxiety level in the larger system. On one end are the chicken little types who have been saying for a while now that "the sky is falling." On the other end is another bird (if we are sticking with that metaphor) - the ostriches with their heads in the sand.

But I believe that the simplest, clearest, and most honest commentary on what the Pew Study means for those of us who care about the Church, is "none of the above." My own views are most closely articulated here.

Please click on that hyperlink before reading any further. I'll wait...

When I arrived in Holden as a brand new rector in 1998 (that's almost twenty years ago to use the language from the link!) - I passionately, sincerely, humbly talked about the end of Christendom and what it meant for a Church that meant to become more missional. I actually did adult studies on how Constantinian Christianity was coming to an end. We talked about the challenges faced by the once and future church.

This is not meant to be a trip down memory lane! Rather, my experience as a pastor and now in diocesan ministry bears out what many of us have known about for a long time. We are not surprised, and we need not panic. There is no longer any cultural "advantage" in being a Christian.This is actually not bad news (or even surprising news) for the Church, but potentially (very) good news that helps us to get clearer on who we are, and whose we are.

I remember being at a conference once with the late, great, Krister Stendahl who told us, "look, Jesus told us to be salt of the earth. He didn't say to make the whole earth a salt mine." Amen. Again, I say, "amen!"

Constantinian Christianity mistakenly thought the great commission was about making the earth a salt mine. It is not. It is about carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth, about living the mission of Jesus, about bearing witness to the love of God for the world, about taking up our crosses. It is not for the feint of heart. It's about being salt, and light, and yeast, for the sake of the world.Just a little bit is all it takes to flavor things, to shine in the darkness, to leaven the whole loaf.

What does the Pew Study mean for 21st century Christians? It means, "get busy living." It means, get busy preaching the gospel at all times, and when necessary with words. It means doing justice, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. It means doing what we were called to do in the first place - and just forgot about somewhere along the line when we got enamored with power.

It means that the 1950s aren't coming back, but the way forward is to get clear about the mission - which is to seek and serve Christ in all persons and love neighbor as self. If we stay focused on these things, I can't guarantee we'll fill the pews. But we'll know we are being faithful, even if we aren't successful.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Feast of Pentecost

A prayer from Walter Brueggemann: To make new things that never were

We name you wind, power, force, and then, imaginatively, "Third Person." We name you and you blow...
blow hard, blow cold, blow hot, blow strong, blow gentle, blow new...
Blowing the world out of nothing to abundance,
blowing the church out of despair to new life,
blowing little David from shepherd boy to messiah,
blowing to make things new that never were.
So blow this day, wind, blow here and there, power, blow even us, force,  Rush us beyond ourselves, Rush us beyond our hopes, Rush us beyond our fears, until we enact your newness in the world. Come holy Spirit, come. Amen. 
(From Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, for Pentecost.)

+     +     +

Today is the feast day upon which we celebrate the arrival of this "Third Person" of the Holy Trinity—perhaps the most elusive one. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and Son is worshiped and glorified.

Listen with me for a Word of the Lord from the readings that are appointed for this day. The reading from Acts speaks of the Spirit like the rush of a violent wind. We know how powerful the wind can be—and while the Spirit may sometimes feel like a cool summer breeze that’s not how it’s described in Acts. It stirs things up, pushes people out of their comfort zones, whirls about like a tornado, before there is a kind of United Nations’ experience of many different languages being spoken. The Spirit brings understanding, breaking down walls that divide. Imagine the many different “tribes” where there is conflict in our time and you have a sense of what that first reading is about. Think Palestinian and Israeli, North Korean and Taiwanese and Chinese and Iranian and Iraqi and American and Sudanese and Liberian and Chilean—all in one place. Move beyond tribe and race to consider young and old, male and female, gay and straight, Democrat and Republican. And then imagine a process of reconciliation where each is heard sharing his or her dreams and visions, as the Spirit beckons to the dawn of a new day and new possibilities.

The Psalmist speaks in a more existential way: our very breath is of God. When that breath—that ruah of God is taken away—we die. It is as simple as that. The difference between life and death is in our breathing. And so as Anna Nalick puts it, “cradle your head in your hands [and] breathe—just breathe.” If you want to find God then you don’t have to look far; look within. Learn from the Buddhists who also remind us to just breathe—in and out. That same Spirit of the living God, says the Psalmist, is at work in the creation as a whole, not just in each creature. The Spirit is unleashed and springtime comes and the face of the earth is renewed. The Spirit hovers over all things to make them new again.

St. Paul reminds us that it is the Spirit who helps us in our weakness. When we can’t pray (or feel that we can’t pray) and are out of words and maybe even out of hope,the Spirit is there. The Spirit intercedes, to use the big theological word. The Spirit acts on our behalf when we are paralyzed, calling us back to the God who has created us in love as Abba and who has redeemed us in love through Jesus.

Finally, in John’s Gospel, the imagery used comes from the legal profession. The Spirit is our Advocate, Jesus says. The Advocate leads us into the truth. Notice that Jesus is clear: while he is no doubt the Way, the Truth, and the Life we always see that Truth through a glass darkly and the journey is a kind of never-ending story. God is not finished yet—not with us, not with the Church, not with creation. Those who claim to possess the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (and by implication suggest that those who disagree therefore have no truth) delude themselves and miss this point. At best we are moving in the right direction, guided by the Spirit. We seek this Truth who is a person, not a set of doctrines, not in isolation but within community where we are both loved and challenged.

While there are no doubt connections between these four readings—these four ways of speaking of the Spirit—there are not all identical. One of the most important lessons we can learn in reading the Bible is to see and to celebrate that it represents a community of voices—that the “Word of the Lord” is not one-dimensional, flat word but a pluralistic, diverse, and multi-cultural Word. It’s like a chorus singing four-part harmony: they are all singing about the Spirit, but they aren’t all singing the same notes.

That realization, when it comes to us (or comes to us again) can be liberating and beautiful but it can also be a little bit scary, too. There is a part of most of us, I suspect, that wants to know the “right answer” and check off that box.

So does the Spirit come as comforter, or as the one who pushes us out of our comfort zones? As Mighty Wind or as Gentle Breath? What if the answer is in fact “all of the above?”

That makes community messy. I just laugh when people talk about “organized religion” because I don’t really have any experience with what they are talking about. Most faith communities I’ve been a part of really haven’t been all that organized and are often chaotic. They often take one step forward and a half-step back. They begin to move this way and then a new vestry comes in and there is a mid-course correction. Someone suggests a new hymnal and there is experimentation with new music and then someone else says “can’t we have a little more of that old time religion?” And so it goes…

The only way any of it makes any sense to me whatsoever is to say that somehow the Spirit is at work in the midst of all the mess—all of the chaos—ordering it when necessary, but just as often stirring the pot when things get too settled and comfortable. My experience of the Spirit is that She never rests. Above all, She keeps life interesting—keeps the Church ever new—keeps it alive, gives it its breath—keeps us moving toward the dawn of a new day.

I have a little framed card in my office, given to me by the head of the pre-school my oldest son attended when I was the Associate Rector of Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, CT. That card is now twenty years old, and my sons are adults, but it pretty much sums up my philosophy of parenting: 
There are two things parents can give their children—roots and wings.
I wonder if that isn’t true about the Church’s vocation as well: the Spirit works in ways that give us, as both individuals and as congregations, roots and wings. We teach our children the stories of the faith and we ground them in a tradition that goes back not only to the communities we read about today in Jerusalem and in Rome, but back further still to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—back to the very beginnings of God calling a pilgrim people. The Church is a place with very deep roots.

But the Holy Spirit—sometimes imagined as a dove—reminds us that discipleship is about learning to fly. Following Jesus is about learning to trust God enough to soar like an eagle, knowing and trusting the wind to blow us where She will, to blow us where we need to go.

Just breathe.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

One More Takeaway from Denver (Part III of III)

This is the third post in a series; if you want you can read the first one here and the second one here before reading the concluding post below. 

One of my friends who had previously attended The Festival of Homiletics likes to call it "preacher camp." It's a good analogy, but I want to say a word about the festival part of that title. Six years ago I went with my oldest son and a good friend to an outdoor music festival called Bonaroo. There, as at the Festival of Homiletics, you just can't do it all. There, as at the Festival of Homiletics, there are different venues and so things are happening at the same time and you literally have to pick and choose. The days are long and sometimes you need a little break - even when it's all good it's just filling. So you can go with a friend and still have very different experiences.

I've tried to capture and share some of what I bring home with me in the first two posts, which alluded to insights gained or remembered from the lectures and homilies of Brian McLaren, Anna Carter Florence, Walter Brueggemann, and Nadia Bolz-Weber. As Jews proclaim at the Seder, dayenu - this would have been enough! But there was way more...

Bishop Michael Curry, Diocese of NC 
While an ecumenical event, the Episcopal Church was well represented by Bishop Michael CurrySara Miles, and Diana Butler Bass. I was also very impressed by Barbara Lundblad, who gave a great lecture entitled, "I haven't been to the mountaintop - what's a white person to do?" In that talk she challenged the "white church' to find our voices and some courage to talk about race in America. For readers of this blog interested in recordings of some or all of the talks referenced here, they can be ordered here.

One that I think I will order for myself is the lecture by Craig Barnes, who is the President and Professor of Pastoral Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is a person I didn't know very much about before attending this festival, but he left a big impression on me. His lecture was entitled, "The Soul of the Preacher." He outlined some things which are toxic to the preacher's soul and some that are generative - I need to find someone who took better notes and get that list, or wait until I get my podcast. (One of the toxic dangers that I do recall is believing when parishioners tell us, "oh pastor you are the best, this church would be no where without you, yada yada yada...")

In the meantime, however, here is the big takeaway, almost a throwaway line in a lecture about clergy wellness. He said, "there is no such thing as a healthy congregation with an unhealthy pastor....there are unhealthy congregations with healthy pastors, and those take a toll but there are not healthy congregations with unhealthy pastors." That struck a chord that connects deeply to my work, and to my commitment to clergy well-being. And it rings true to me. Unwell clergy can really do a number on congregations; they may not mean to, but they do. The goal, of course, is to support healthy ordained leaders and to build up the health of the whole system. I read a blog post by Laurie Brock today on this very topic, which I commend to you,that suggests that congregational growth is not our ultimate goal; congregational health is. Where there is health, growth will come in its own organic way.

Preaching is more than technique. It's more than a particular skill-set to be developed; it comes out of the preacher finding his or her voice, and that is a never-ending journey. I am reminded again of what Alan Jones likes to say: "you are a word about the Word before you ever open your mouth..." This conference was about preaching, but ultimately it was about ministry and proclaiming the good news, sometimes even with words. I return home ready to double-down on helping preachers do the soul-work they need to do that supports congregational health and vitality. Maybe in a roundabout way, this festival was about congregational development after all!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Another Takeaway from Denver: Preach the Text

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)
This post is the second in a series; it might make sense for you to read part one here before continuing, if you've not done so already.

I arrived at the Festival of Homiletics on Monday afternoon and then went to the gathering Eucharist where Nadia Bolz-Weber preached. She was one of the big draws for me to this festival, a person whom previously I had read and seen on video but had not heard live. Her homily was great, but not in the way that makes you think "what a great preacher." Rather, it was great in the way that makes you want to be an equally close and authentic reader of the text. She preached on the story of the disciples on the way to Jerusalem with Jesus, when they are arguing about who is the greatest. She did all the solid exegetical work and it was a good solid sermon. But then she looks up and says, "I think you all already know this. You are preachers. You've preached on this text. But as I lived with this text this week, I thought that maybe we don't always need to be compared to the disciples who never get it right. Maybe we could find our way into this text through this little child whom Jesus holds before us..." And from that point to the end of the sermon was pretty brief, and very powerful. She talked about why it is that anyone argues about being the greatest or having the largest congregation or not being good enough - that child within us that does not feel loved but is, in fact, beloved of God.

The thing about Nadia is that she may not look very orthodox, but her theology is actually very solidly Lutheran: God's grace is sufficient. Period. It's all about the grace...

In just about everything I've read by her and what I heard this week, it's the same. What is so compelling about her is not her theology, but the truthful, honest, authentic witness she brings into the room. She believes what she is saying, apparently to the bones. She trusts the text to lead her to good news. In her lecture the following morning she unpacked this: "I always believe that I need to find the good news in the text for me. I'm not there to scold people, but to proclaim the good news." She also rightly pointed out that the preacher needs to be in the sermon - but from our scars, not our wounds. We need to be vulnerable, but not put our "shit" out there for everyone else to deal with. That's sometimes a hard distinction to make, but a good one to articulate. (I once heard Alan Jones say in a similar context, "don't inflict your psycho-drama on your congregation!)

Walter Brueggemann -well, he was Walter. What else can be said?  Those who are readers of this blog know that I've read just about everything he's written. Walter was one of my teachers at Columbia Theological Seminary, an institution that granted me a doctorate in ministry degree exactly a decade ago. He's ten years older - aren't we all? But his passion, his energy, his prophetic voice - his hope - amazes me. It truly just amazes me. But again, part of what I love about him is that he's the real deal and he isn't going around doing his greatest hits. He remains such an imaginative and close reader of texts.

His lecture was entitled "Fidelity Amid the Seductions of Certitude." Again, though, he was inviting us to read the texts - and not just the lectionary texts, to discover there the layeredness and depths of God and of God's people that can never be reduced to easy answers. His argument is that in the midst of empire, the Church may be the only place left where we can resist certitude and wrestle with the hard questions. While even the Church may resist this at times, because it's hard work not only for the preacher but those in the pews, this is the work God has given us to do...

And finally (at least for this post) - it was great to see my DMin advisor at Columbia Theological Seminary, Anna Carter Florence. Her sermon was on one of Phyllis Trible's Texts of TerrorJudges 19. ( A warning to my readers, none of whom I imagine is under eighteen - this text is rated R, or perhaps even X.) Before she read it she spoke about why she was preaching on it - and of course it goes without saying it's not a text that ever comes up in the lectionary. It is hard, using Nadia's hermeneutic to find "good news" or to imagine ever wanting to preach on this text but like Trible before her, Anna made the case as to why we cannot silence these texts either.

Both Anna and Walter reminded us to pay attention to the verbs in texts - this text includes verbs like seizing and raping and cutting up. And as she noted, all these verbs assault us daily on the evening news - it's not like we don't hear them. But we tend to lock them out of the Church.

Prior to those verbs of seizing and raping and cutting up, Anna noted it all begins when "he took to himself a concubine." It's a one-way relationship in terms of power and she challenged us to see that we participate in those kinds of relationships whether we want to admit to it or not. We use people and when you use people it very often ends violently. We take people, and things, to ourselves, for our own purposes - which has nothing to do with loving neighbor.

Many years ago I did a week of continuing education with Phyllis Trible herself, at a program that no longer exists at the National Cathedral called "The College of Preachers." I came back determined to preach the four texts of terror and did so as a young, naive associate rector in Westport. It was really hard in a parish and I'm not sure I'd do it again - and certainly not now as a visiting preacher. And I am not sure Anna was urging us to all go home and preach on this text. But she did say this: if it cannot be preached among preachers, where would it be preached? It is part of the Bible - in fact when she finished reading Judges 19 she concluded, "The Word of the Lord." Only a few, perhaps out of habit, offered the liturgical response, "thanks be to God."

Too many people think the Bible is like a cookbook, and if we just follow the recipes, add water, and stir we'll end up as "good people." Or worse, a rule book - and the Almighty is "keeping score."  The truth is that when we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest these old texts - even the terrible ones - they have the power to lead us to hope, to everlasting life - to the Word-made-flesh, Jesus. I leave here reminded in new ways to resist the temptation toward easy answers - not just in sermons but as we try to articulate an ecclesiology of hope in desperate times. I leave here with a renewed commitment to fidelity, even in a context that seduces us with certitude.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Some Takeaways from Denver - Part I

This past week I've been attending something called The Festival of Homiletics, which was held this year in Denver, Colorado - a great city that I had never before been to. I confess that while I was very excited about coming here for a time of continuing education, there was also a little voice inside of me that was trying to make me feel a bit guilty. "This is for preachers," the voice said. "You now work in diocesan ministry and while you do still preach, you should probably do some CE in congregational development, or church growth, or transition ministry - something that is actually part of your day-to-day work now. This is for preachers..."

Lucky for me, I didn't listen to that voice. Instead I listened to the voice that said, "you are still a priest, ordained to preach the gospel and to celebrate the sacraments, and the narrative matters..." As it turned out, I made the right decision: I feel like I've been to a revival this week. It has been soul work - and I have to believe that soul work is good for all people, even canons to the ordinary.

One of the best takeaways came from the last speaker I heard, Brian McLaren - who preached a homily with the title, "Good News: Christianity is Pregnant." In the lecture that followed, he unpacked this notion and offered three potential futures for Christianity: (1) decline continues and we need hospice care and then we die; (2) there is a fundamentalist resurgence; (3) something new is born.

He argued, and I agreed, that while there has been denial about mainline decline for decades, the problem is that this has become our narrative, even long after it's pretty hard to deny. The evidence is clear about the decline, to be sure. But it's now pretty hard to ignore. If we make that our narrative, then we might as well pack it in right now.

In my work I hear it too often from diocesan and national church leaders; it's almost like, "hey, last person left, turn out the lights!"

McLaren challenged us to imagine something new being born - and to entrust some leadership to the next generation of leaders. (Actually he was pretty honest about this; saying that baby boomers are in denial that they are old and that it's not ultimately their work, but to partner and ally with the next generation of church leaders who do see new possibilities. Again I wanted to shout, "amen!")

A second takeaway is that this kind of ecumenical event is also good for my soul. I LOVE being an Episcopalian. But our world can be too parochial, too small. When I do CE with Episcopalians I know the language, and the blindspots. Being with Methodists and Lutherans and Presbyterians and United Church of Christ folks - with a few Episcopalians thrown in is VERY good for me personally. It's more than just saying, "hey, we're all in the same boat!" It's seeing what others are trying, sometimes with success - of being open to the fact that the Spirit can and does move outside of denominational structures.

The big takeaway: I leave Denver energized and hopeful. I want to write another post or maybe even two about some specifics, mostly as a way to take some notes for myself that others perhaps will want to look over my shoulder on. But for this post, this is enough. Tomorrow I head back east - but I do so encouraged and renewed, for which I am grateful.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Today’s reading from the eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles represents a key moment in the life of a congregation we might call St. Swithin’s, Jerusalem. If you have never sat down and read Acts from beginning to end, I encourage you to find some time to do so. Acts is a sequel, written by the same writer (or community of writers) who brought us Luke’s Gospel, which ends with the Ascension; forty days after Easter, Jesus departs, promising to send the Holy Spirit to lead and guide that beleaguered bunch into all truth. Acts begins with Jews from all over the Mediterranean gathered in Jerusalem and waiting. Right on cue, on the fiftieth day, the Holy Spirit arrives like “tongues of fire” and among a “great rush of wind.” This happens in chapter two of Acts. By the end, the gospel is spreading like wildfire to the ends of the earth. (That’s what happens when you combine wind and fire!) By welcoming the stranger, the Jewish-Christian community becomes a Gentile- Christian community. The story about the Baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch represents a key turning point in that transformation.

It would be more accurate to refer to “The Acts of the Apostles”—as “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” because without a doubt, it is the third person of the Trinity who is the star of the show; the apostles are, at best, supporting actors.  Luke is very clear that whenever the apostles do something really good, it is not because they are acting out of their own agendas but at the urging of the Spirit.  Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch have roles to play in the story we heard today, but what is clear from beginning to end is that the Holy Spirit is prodding them to act as they do. In every generation we would do well to remember this truth: that it is not us, but the Holy Spirit, who is in charge of congregations, leading, prodding and guiding us into all Truth.

One thing seems very clear: the Spirit isn’t interested in building a club of like-minded people. She keeps pushing the apostles outward from Jerusalem, beyond their comfort zones to encounter “the other.” The Spirit doesn’t seem to just tolerate diversity but to crave it, breaking down barriers so that (as Paul will later famously put it) “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.”  As you will recall, before he could make such a bold claim he was traveling on the way to Damascus where he was blinded, in order to see. With a new name to represent his new life and calling, he becomes Paul and is received as one of these apostles. Through him, Gentiles from as far off as Corinth and Ephesus and Galatia and eventually even Rome become part of this Jesus movement. All of this seems to be part of what the Spirit is up to as the church is enlivened and the face of the earth is renewed.

So, as we heard today, we are out on the Gaza Strip when Philip encounters this eunuch, court official of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia. He probably comes from what we would call the northern Sudan today. From the perspective of the Middle East, that represents just about the edge of the known world—it’s far away. It isn’t just that his skin color is different and darker than the olive skin tones in the Middle East. In contrast to these Galilean fishermen, this is a well-connected member of the Queen’s cabinet, the Secretary of the Treasury if you will. He moves in important circles.

And he is a eunuch. Since this is a family show, I’m going to leave that one for you to Google when you get home, if you aren’t quite clear what that means. When I taught undergraduates at Assumption College I always expected them to blush when we read this story, but mostly I got used to blank stares when I asked them if they knew what a eunuch was. It is important to understand that this Ethiopian eunuch is doubly outside of the Covenant: first because he is a goyim and secondly because he is a eunuch. It doesn’t matter that he is a V.I.P. with the Queen of Ethiopia! The Bible says that “eunuchs are not to be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” (See Deuteronomy 23:1; the Word of the Lord/Thanks be to God?)

So this guy is different from Philip. He’s different racially. He’s different socio-economically. He’s different in terms of his educational level. He’s different religiously. He’s different sexually.
Have you all met the Rev. Laura Everett? She’s the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Every year when she is invited to our Diocesan Convention to bring ecumenical greetings, we give her the dreaded post-lunch slot because it doesn’t matter: no one will feel sleepy when Laura Everett opens her mouth! This week I came across a powerful sermon she preached on this very text at a preaching conference, where she told preachers this: to fully preach the gospel, we need to sit side by side with people wildly different from us.

Amen. Only given our context today, I want to expand that to say that to fully hear the gospel and to really live the gospel, we all - clergy and laity - need to sit side-by-side with people wildly different from us. I want to even insist that this is what the Church is for. This is how the Holy Spirit does Her best work. This is how transformation happens. This is how strangers become friends. This is how we do the Lord’s work. We have been taught to fear, and sometimes even to hate the stranger, but the work of reconciliation that the risen Christ has entrusted to us is about learning to love the stranger, and that begins by sitting side by side with people wildly different from us.

Before accepting my current position on the Bishop’s staff, I served as the rector of a suburban parish for fifteen years. A few years after my arrival there, we hired a Music Director from Nigeria; a dark-skinned man working in a very white congregation in a very white suburb. Sometimes on Sunday mornings he’d be late – later than I appreciated as his boss. But he was embarrassed to tell me why until I pushed him, and then he admitted that he needed to allow more time because very often on Sunday mornings he was getting pulled over by the police. Not once or twice. It had become more of a regular thing: driving while black in a white suburb where it was being made clear he didn’t belong. Eventually I intervened with another parishioner and we went to see the Chief of Police and we got things cleared up for him, although of course didn’t solve the larger problem.

Fast forward: some time passes and I am asked to serve as the volunteer chaplain to that same police department. I say yes and over the next few years I start spending time with the cops: ride-alongs with officers, accompanying them on death notifications, social events. Even though cops don’t tend as a rule to be very expressive about their emotional lives, through all those encounters I got to know something about them and their families, something of  what they cared about and what they feared. I grew to care for them.

To fully understand the gospel, we need to sit side by side with people wildly different from us. I am neither an African musician nor a Holden cop. But over time my relationships with both changed me for good. What I really yearn for, though, is a world where they might sit side by side for a while. I say this with zero sentimentality or naiveté. I wish I could find a way for my black friends who suffer indignities as a matter of course in their daily lives to sit side-by-side with police officers late at night when even the most routine stop can make your heart beat a little faster because you don’t know what might happen when you walk up to that car you just pulled over, but you are well aware of the worst that could happen. I wonder what might happen if they could sit side by side for a while and hear each other's stories, and what might happen if there were more of these kinds of shared experiences in Ferguson and in Baltimore and across this country, where people who are wildly different from each other could sit side by side and pray and read Scripture together and listen to one another? Crazy, right?

This sermon doesn’t have a neat and tidy ending. The world we live in is a mess. But I think that near and far this is the work we are called to do. It’s not politics; it’s ministry. It’s about our call through Holy Baptism to respect the dignity of every human being, and to work for justice and peace for all people. No exceptions. We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation. We need to sit with those we don’t understand or know and share our stories, our hopes, our dreams: Christians and Muslims, Democrats and Republicans, card-carrying members of the NRA and pacifists.  Because when that happens the world is made new, and the healing and reconciliation that come of those encounters are the surest signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit and of the risen Christ that I know of.

A friend of mine recently shared with me a bit about the journey that she, as a married lesbian priest, has been on with a parishioner who told her when she arrived as a new rector five years ago that she wasn’t so keen on having a lesbian priest. It’s not been easy for either of them, but they have hung in there and they have grown together and in the process both have been changed for good. In my experience this is how it usually works: maybe change happens quickly on a sunny afternoon on the Gaza Strip, but far more often it happens over time and along a circuitous path with its ups and downs. In any case, however, the Spirit continues to bring us into one another’s lives and we sit or we walk, side by side with people wildly different from us. And God is present, and every now and again strangers become friends. And when that happens, lives are transformed and the world is made new.

As it happens with Philip and the eunuch, the conversation eventually leads to a question: “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” It’s a question that has everything to do with this guy’s recent trip to the temple and with Deuteronomy 23:1—which seems to make it clear that this man will not be welcomed into that assembly. So what he is really asking Philip is whether or not this community that claims Jesus as the suffering servant is big enough for him. Can the risen Christ break down even this barrier? Is there room for him at the Table? The answer, of course, is that there is; and so they find some water and he is baptized…

Baptism is not a private transaction between the eunuch and God. It is not about fire insurance or about getting his ticket to heaven punched. By water and the Spirit, this  Ethiopian eunuch is drawn into the faith community and incorporated into that mystic sweet communion, that fellowship divine. And when that happens, there is no longer “them” and “us,” but only “us”trying to faithfully live into the promises we have made, or that have been made on our behalf. That changes the Body which grows not only in number but in gifts, and is stretched and transformed as new wine requires new wineskins. The community is formed not around ideology or doctrine, but around the love of God in Jesus Christ, a community where water is thicker than blood. 

Too many people (in the name of Christ) tell too many people no. No, you are not welcome here. No, you don’t belong. No, you can’t be baptized. It’s easy to tell people no. And I think there are a lot of malchurched people in our neighborhoods, maybe even more than there are unchurched folks out there, for whom that is what Christianity is. So we have our work cut out for us. 

We have good news to share in the name of the risen Christ: to be witnesses to the truth that love trumps fear; to be a cast of supporting characters who are paying attention to what the Spirit is up to as walls are broken down, and the face of the earth is renewed, and as the saints are equipped to become ambassadors of reconciliation as we sit with those wildly different from us.