Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, at Christ Church Cathedral

Today I am preaching and presiding at our diocesan cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral, just downstairs from my office in Springfield. The readings for this ninth Sunday after Pentecost can be found here.

As this nation continues to mourn the loss of life of those who are victims of gun violence in this nation, and as this city mourns, in particular, the life of Marine Gunnery Sergeant Thomas J. Sullivan, I invite us all to a moment of silent prayer. I pray that the profound sense of loss and mourning that touches this city on this day and affects all of our lives will translate into a renewed resolve to do all that we can to enact meaningful gun legislation in this nation. Amen. 

For those who don’t know me, I’m one of the tenants who work upstairs in the bishop’s office. My name is Rich Simpson, and I’m just a couple of months into my third year as Canon to the Ordinary. While my primary region of responsibility is Worcester County – this cathedral has a unique role in the diocese and I’m grateful to be with you again today.   

Since I was last with you, you have said goodbye to Dean Jim Munroe. Those goodbyes have accelerated a process of transition – or (dare I say this word out loud among Episcopalians?) of change.

It is of course an illusion to think there is anything else in this world. What is alive is changing. Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all our years away. Jim came here as dean within a month or so of my arrival at St. Francis Church in Holden, in early 1998. Over longer ministries that last fifteen or sixteen or seventeen years there are lots of changes, but they usually tend to come as little ones along the way – more evolutionary than revolutionary—and therefore they are experienced more gradually and sometimes even imperceptively.

Yet when clergy retire we are no longer under any illusion that things will stay the same from one day to the next. As the players change, as even the sound of the voices up front changes, some embrace the new and others feel some internal resistance kick in. So you are all in our prayers. We on the bishop’s staff pray regularly for both the cathedral and for all of our congregations in transition – now we have you covered at least in those two categories! As Tom Callard leads you through this season as priest-in-charge, some things will definitely change down here, as they changed upstairs a few years ago when a new bishop walked on the floor. While we know that can create some anxiety, we are also witnesses that there is new and even abundant life on the other side of change. I hope we can remind you that it can all be a kind of adventure and a lot of fun, too: just buckle up like you are on a roller coaster and enjoy the ride. And also remember the one constant in our life-together, Jesus Christ – the Church’s one foundation. Be patient and kind and gentle with each other as you try to listen for the lure of God’s Holy Spirit and this next chapter of your life together unfolds.

Alright, let’s talk about today’s gospel reading. The lectionary has taken a sudden turn away from Mark’s Gospel, from which we’ve been reading for some time now, to a little five-week detour into the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. Five weeks focused on just one chapter! It’s incredibly important stuff and one of the most carefully crafted chapters in the whole Bible; an outline of John’s Eucharistic theology.  

The whole thing is held together by this claim: Jesus is the Bread of Life. The sixth chapter of John gives us a chance to reflect on what we do here every week when we gather to break the bread and share the cup. This chapter begins, as we heard, with the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Next week Jesus will be talking about the manna in the wilderness and then he’ll say that his flesh is food indeed – that it is the super-manna that will let them live forever. And finally, that those who eat his flesh abide in him and he in them and that yes, this is a difficult complicated and dense teaching that is fraught with misunderstanding and leads to all kinds of theological arguments. It’s not literal language, but it’s more than metaphor: it’s mystical, sacramental language that invites us to reflect on this notion that we are what we eat, that we are called to become the Body of Christ, broken and shared for the life of the world. As St. Augustine once put it at the fraction when bread and cup are held up before the assembly: behold who you are; may we become what we receive.

So John begins with the story of the feeding of the five thousand, which is found in all four gospels, suggesting that this miracle occupied a central place in the imagination of first-century Church. (Even the birth of Jesus is told only in half of the gospels – Matthew and Luke!) The gist of it remains the same across all four gospels: it’s about God’s abundance. It’s about how there was enough and even more than enough; about how everyone was satisfied and there were even leftovers. But there are some interesting little differences, too, and it’s in the little details that each gospel writer makes his own theological point-of-view clearer.

It’s like when somebody’s telling a story and her spouse, or brother, or a friend interrupts to say, “no, that’s not exactly what went down. You are forgetting about this detail, or that…”  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, for example, the disciples distribute the bread to the crowd. It is as if Jesus is training them for ministry, teaching them how to be servant-leaders. That’s a powerful message. You give them something to eat! And maybe that’s a good message to hear for a congregation in transition – that Tom isn’t meant to pick up everything Jim did, because Tom and Jim are different people. Rather this time of transition is an invitation for all of you to reflect in new ways on what you are called to do, and what this cathedral will be about in the twenty-first century. You give them something to eat.

But in John’s Gospel, the one that is before us today, Jesus himself gives the bread because for John Jesus is the Bread of Life. Jesus gives us his very life, so that we might live. He gives himself to the crowd even as he continues to give himself to us today: behold who you are; may we become what we receive.

John also gives us a liturgical context: it’s Passover, the same liturgical context that the other gospel writers give to the last supper. It’s like code-language; John is saying, pay attention – this is really important, this is Eucharistic language. And then he speaks about how the “fragments are gathered up” after everyone eats their fill. In one of the earliest Eucharistic prayers of the Church—even before the gospels became written documents—the community gathered and prayed this prayer in the Didache:

As this fragmented bread was scattered upon the mountains, but has been gathered up to become one; so let the Church be gathered up to become your kingdom.

And then there is this “lad.” John is the only one who remembers a boy there who was willing to share his lunch. And that adds a lot to the story for me – making it my own personal favorite version. Because I think that we, the Church, are lot like that boy. As we heard in today’s epistle reading, God is able to accomplish “far more than we can ask or imagine.” But only when we say yes to sharing what we have. And too often what holds us back is fear. Fear especially that there is not enough, or worse still that we are not enough.

This boy shares what he has, as we are called to do. I can’t explain to you the rest of the miracle. Maybe others were simply inspired to share what they had as well. I’m not trying to reduce the story here, or Jesus’ miraculous powers, but simply want to suggest that even if the miracle was only about sharing it’d be a great story. Think of it this way: we have enough bread in the world to feed everyone. The problem is not that we don’t have enough; the problem is in the distribution. The problem is that some people have way more than they need, in a world where the most vulnerable will go to bed hungry. So I think that it would be pretty miraculous if we all learned to share what we have. But however it happened, the big point all four gospel writers make is that when we bless what we do have and share it—even though we may feel small or insignificant—God uses that to change the world. God does God’s multiplying thing with what we have.

It’s possible that John is remembering the story from II Kings about Elisha and the man who came from Baal-shalishah with twenty loaves of barley bread. In that earlier story, Elisha tells the man to give it the crowd to eat, but the man objects: “how can I set this before a hundred men?” Elisha insists that it will be enough and in fact that it will be more than enough, that there will be leftovers. (See II Kings 4:42-44)  So this bread thing isn’t just a New Testament thing: God has been in the bread business for very a long time, in the abundance business, in the sharing business. In both that Old Testament Elisha story and in John’s inclusion of this boy with the loaves and fishes to offer, the point is that when we offer what we have, God fills in the gaps.

Too many of us have been taught that what we have to offer isn’t good enough. We may worry about our ability to parent, or to be a good friend, or to get good grades in school, or to play a musical instrument or to sing in a choir. We are sometimes almost embarrassed that we seem to have so little to offer. What, this? It’s nothing, really… I think this vignette remembered by John about this boy is akin to Jesus’ reminder not to let our light be hidden under a bushel basket, but to let it shine. When we take the risk of sharing what we do have (rather than insisting it is nothing, not nearly enough) then God blesses the gift and stretches it in ways that go far beyond what we can imagine. An act of kindness to a stranger, an ice-cream cone for a sad Little Leaguer, a casserole dropped off at a friend’s house whose husband of forty-seven years just died—these are not no-things. They may be little things but it is little things that change the world, and it is little things that often mean the world to someone.

We are sometimes tempted to say, “what is this in the midst of the enormity of pain and hurt in the world? Some barley loaves and a couple of fish in a starving world? It’s nothing!” But the miracle pushes us back to insist: “just offer it and let God bless it and see what happens.” You may just be surprised by how far it goes, and by how far God can stretch it…

This story and our Eucharistic life are reminders – outward and visible signs—that ministry is about doing “mini” things—little things—that have the potential, with God’s help, to bring about maximal effects.  

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. .

Come then, to eat this bread and drink this cup – they are strength for the journey. As you do so, ask God to open your eyes to see, and your heart to love, and your hands to serve – especially as this next chapter in the life of this cathedral begins to unfold. Help write it! And know that the risen Christ gives us his own body as food for the journey. Know that there is enough, and more than enough. 

Behold Jesus, the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation. And then dare to become what you see, Christ’s Body, broken for the life of the world; Christ’s blood, shed for all. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

I am with The Church of the Nativity in Northborough for the second week in a row. The gospel reading for today is from the sixth chapter of Mark. Nativity records sermons, so you can listen to this sermon here or read the manuscript below.

At the beginning of the sixth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is going about all the villages around the Sea of Galilee doing this thing: through his preaching, teaching and healing ministry he points people toward the Kingdom of God. He is not asking them so much to believe something in their heads or even in their hearts as to see the world through new eyes, and to hear it with new ears. So he invites them to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air and the mustard seed. And to notice how that lady, who lives down the street and suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years, was healed. He tells all kinds of stories that stay with you – the kind of stories that encourage love of God and neighbor, like the one about the son who lost his way, but then was found, and there was veal piccata for everyone. (Or at least for everyone willing to come in from the porch and eat!) Then there is the terrorist who stopped by the side of the road to help a person in need, even when the man’s priest walked by.

Back at the beginning of the sixth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is going about the villages and doing all this amazing work, when he calls the twelve and he does something even more amazing. He tells them it’s their turn. He sends them out two by two and gives them authority over the unclean spirits. He says, in effect, this isn’t about me, it’s about us. It’s about how we are going to change the world together. He says, I’m not going to do this alone. I give you authority, I give you work to do in the world – so get to it. I’ll be with you.  

He gives them instructions to travel lightly: “take nothing for the journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.” Just wear sandals and the clothes on your back. Don’t just travel lightly but be light – don’t get too bogged down. If someone doesn’t want you around, move on. Find a place that will welcome you and offer you hospitality. Proclaim the good news. And they do. I mean they are people like us – beginners in the school of the Lord’s service. They aren’t called to build a building and then stay inside of it; they are sent out into the world – two by two – with a message to share.

So that’s the back story to today’s gospel reading – interrupted (as we heard last weekend) by the beheading of John the Baptist. The apostles now come back to Jesus and gather around to reflect on the practice of ministry. They tell him what they have been out there doing. This is a very simple but effective model for learning that I remind you of in this time of transition at Nativity. Things do not go “on hold” until an interim arrives, and then a new rector. The work of sharing the good news is your work – our work as the baptized. Your task is to keep becoming the Nativity that God is calling you to be.

My youngest son is studying to be a Civil Engineer at Northeastern University. He has embraced their style of learning, which is a five-year program that includes three six-month co-ops. You study and then you go out, you go out and then you study, you go back out and then you return. I was a deputy last month to General Convention, the triennial gathering of our church’s bishops and lay and ordained leaders; we met in Salt Lake City this year where, as you know, the Church of Latter Day Saints has a strong presence. They take this text very seriously: sending out their young people two-by-two on mission as a rite of passage into adult faith. We may not agree with the Mormons on every theological point, but I admire that part of their practice. And I wonder what it would look like if Episcopalians were to go out two by two into the world to listen and learn and grow in faith by commending the faith that is in us? Some of you may know that part of the process of preparing for ordination is something called Clinical Pastoral Education – CPE. You work in a prison or a hospital – not a church – and you follow this same model that Jesus taught the disciples. You go out and visit people who have cancer and you listen to their stories, or you spend time in the ER, or you listen to a prisoner who was a good kid until she got into drugs. And then you come back together and you reflect on what you’ve learned.

So that is the model. That’s what’s going on in today’s gospel reading: the disciples have been out there putting their faith into practice and now they’ve returned to reflect on it, and Jesus says to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." This is, of course, the purpose of a retreat – not to run away from the world’s needs, but to re-fuel for the work God has given us to do.  If we aren’t careful in ministry we can start running around doing and doing and doing, with no time even to eat. And so the disciples go away on a boat, to a deserted place by themselves, to reflect and rest and re-charge their batteries.

Here is the thing though: when followers of Jesus are on fire with the good news that spreads. It’s contagious. The crowds follow, the momentum is building. Jesus has compassion for the crowds because they are like sheep without a shepherd, and then I hope you will notice something – the lectionary skips over a whole bunch of verses (verses 35-52). Want to know what those are about?
The feeding of the five thousand. Actually, in this case their decision seems reasonable because the same story will appear next weekend from John’s Gospel. It’s a story that appears in all four gospels – as our bishop loves to remind people. You can tell he’s not on the lectionary committee because it if was up to him we’d read this story EVERY week. But since I won’t be with you next weekend let me preview it with you, because this is where it fits in as Mark tells the story.

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.”

The disciples, even these disciples who have been out on mission, who have been preaching and teaching and healing and participating in the Reign of God – even these disciples are stunned. “You give them something to eat,” he says.

At the top of our bulletins when I served at St. Francis, Holden, it said, the rector, Rich Simpson. But above that it said, “the ministers of St. Francis Church – all the people.” Those words were on the bulletins before I arrived and as far as I know they are still there today. The names of the rectors changed over the years: Whepley, Scruton, Simpson, Perkins. But the ministers are still “all the people.”

You give them something to eat. You go visit the sick. You go serve the hungry at Worcester Fellowship or Mustard Seed or down the street. You go out, two by two whenever possible because ministry is always easier with a partner, and do the work God has given this parish to do. If there is one message I want to leave you all with this summer in this in-between time before your interim arrives it is this: you are not “on hold.” You are still and maybe more than ever in a time of potential spiritual growth, called to grow and serve and love and heal and teach and be the Body of Christ. Rectors are important, but probably not so important as we sometimes like to think. The health of a congregation is not primarily about the rector, but about the people of God and the work God gives us to do. The big problem with clericalism is that we can get over-focused on the priest.

So go. You give them something to eat. Continue, if you’ve been active here, to do what you have been doing. If you’ve been on the sidelines, step up and ask, “how can I be of assistance?” Where are the gaps? We should take some comfort in the fact that the disciples said to Jesus, “what? Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”  They were as unsure of themselves as we often are. But do you remember what Jesus says? Basically it is this: do an inventory of what you have. Don’t focus on what you don’t have, focus on what you do have and let me work with that. Five loaves and two fish. Good enough. Plenty, even. I can work with that! Because that is five more loaves than zero and two more fish than zero. So don’t say “we have nothing to give them.” Give them what you have.

Give what you have, my sisters and brothers. Share what you have, and let God fill in the rest. Give thanks for what you do have and sit down and break it and give it and let God do God’s abundant multiplying thing with it. You may well be surprised that there will not just be enough, but that there will be leftovers.

Back to our previously scheduled gospel reading. I was channeling my inner +Doug Fisher there, and couldn’t resist the feeding of the 5000! As I said, you’ll hear the story again next week, or at least John’s version of it. In any case, after all that and this incredible story of abundance, they cross over to Gennesaret and moor the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized Jesus and of course they start rushing about and bringing the sick to him on mats because people see that something is up. People were healed.

This is the amazing thing about Jesus. He doesn’t collect sick people. He heals them. He doesn’t foster codependence. He tells them to take up their mats and walk. He says “follow me.” Sometimes we want to say, “I’m not good at that, I’m too weak, too bruised, too hurt, too scared, too timid, too shy, too sick…” And Jesus says, “Take heart. Get up. Follow me.” And then he sends us because at least in part the good news is that together, as the whole people of God, we can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. With God’s help.

I take great comfort in knowing that in all four gospels the disciples get it wrong as often as they get it right, but Jesus doesn’t give up on them. He likes risk takers. He encourages boldness. This week I sat with the vestry and the profile and search committees for more than two hours. But the gist of what I said is this: encourage each other, find your voices, claim your ministries. This season ahead is not a passive waiting time for a rector to come and save you, but is more like Advent: a time of hopeful, watchful expectation. This is a season to identify or re-identify the work that lies ahead, and from that place to then seek a rector to join you who can help you in that work. The last fifteen years or so have brought you to this point and Len deserves your thanks for having labored in this part of God’s vineyard. But the next fifteen years doesn’t require Len; they will require someone else with different gifts. Open yourselves to that next chapter, not by sitting by idly, but by laboring on and by working together.

You give them something to eat. And may God bless you abundantly in so doing. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost

This Sunday I am with the people of the Church of the Nativity in Northborough - just a short time after they have said goodbye to their longtime rector. Helping congregations to navigate seasons of transition, especially clergy transitions, is a part of my work that I enjoy the most as Canon to the Ordinary. I also LOVE preaching on Old Testament texts that have been neglected almost to the point of being unknown by Christian congregations, which I think is probably the case with the sixth chapter of Second Samuel. An audio version of the sermon can be found here. The manuscript is found below.

Since I was last here with you, you have said goodbye to Len and Hallie. Goodbyes are always accompanied by an array of emotions, and people move through those emotions at their own pace. Be patient and kind and gentle with each other.

We belong to God and so we sing that the God who was our help in ages past will be our help for years to come and we trust that this is true. Part of my job as the bishop’s representative is to come here today to reassure you that all will be well and to remind you to put your whole trust in God’s goodness and to be honest and patient and kind with each other through this wilderness season. Remain open to the fact that God isn’t finished with the Church of the Nativity yet, and like the miracle at Cana in Galilee, the best is yet to come. OK?

So let’s talk about the Bible. And in particular, let’s talk about today’s Old Testament reading which we Christians too often ignore. Taken as a whole, the two Old Testament books we call First and Second Samuel represent a period of radical social and political transformation in ancient Israel.
Let me try to clarify what I mean by that. If you read through the Book of Judges, what you will find there is a pretty unstable tribal life, and at times even barbaric. It’s the stuff that people think of when they say, “I hate all that holy war and violence in the Old Testament.”  But if you keep on reading all the way to First and Second Kings you get to a strong, centralized monarchy where all the political and religious power converges in the holy city of Jerusalem. Now all that power in one place creates other challenges, and it does not last forever - but that’s a sermon for another day. At least the trains run on time!

First and Second Samuel come quite literally in between those two bookends – between barbaric tribal life and royal social order. The sixth chapter of Second Samuel takes us right into the heart of this time of social and political transition. David is bringing the ark of the covenant (which is part of that old order going all the way back to Mount Sinai) into his new capital city of Jerusalem. Back in chapter seven of First Samuel that ark was put into storage in the House of Abindadab; but then it was forgotten about for twenty years or so. David now recognizes the power of using old religious symbols to consolidate his newly claimed political power, however. So out comes the ark.  Are you with me?

David brings the ark to Jerusalem and there is this huge celebration that includes dancing and singing and eating and praying, all of them part of David’s plan to legitimize his new capital city. Some interpreters see the dancing as negative: as Canaanite, as sexual. Others see it as a normal part of worshipping YHWH, as liturgical dance. The text itself is ambiguous, so we’ll let the scholars fight that out. But what is very clear is that this is also very shrewd politics that benefits the monarchy in general, and David in particular.

Whatever his personal and political motivations may or may not be, however, this occasion also functions theologically as a desire to once more place God at the center of communal life. This is presumably a good thing. Back in the good old days, God could be encountered in the tent of meeting, moving along with God’s people on that journey through the wilderness. But now God’s people are settling down and growing up and becoming like all the other nations and they have a king and now the king has a capital city. So at one level, it makes sense to bring the ark to one central place. Eventually, David’s son, Solomon, will bring this ark into the inner sanctuary of a newly built temple, into the holy of holies. But that, too, is a sermon for another day…

So the sixth chapter of Second Samuel is really important in understanding the Old Testament because David is so successful, and Jerusalem becomes the holy city of God. Think of all of those references in the psalms about pilgrims coming to Temple. Think about Jesus riding into this same city on a donkey and taking on the religious authorities and dying on a cross on a hill outside of the city gates. Think about what is happening there even today, in a city that is considered holy by all three Abrahamic traditions, and yet sometimes one definition of holiness means that there isn’t room for the others. Think about how the New Testament ends with all that talk in the Book of Revelation about the “New Jerusalem.”  None of that happens if David doesn’t choose to make Jerusalem his capital city and bring the ark to the city to make it a religious center as well and that is what is going on in today’s Old Testament reading. So it’s a very big deal.

But all of this is really background to what I want to say to you today because in the midst of this really big stuff there is this fight we witness between the king and queen.  

As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.

This little glimpse into David’s unhappy home life in the midst of this political celebration makes it seem more Game of Thrones or House of Cards than the Word of the Lord. This marriage appears to be not much more than a political arrangement. Like so many women in the Bible, Michal is hardly ever referred to by her given name: she is alternatively “David’s wife” or “Saul’s daughter” and given the political climate of the day, it is virtually impossible for her to be both at the same time. (Think Maria Shriver when she was still married to Arnold Schwarzenegger: was she a Kennedy Democrat or Arnold’s loyal Republican wife?)

When Michal sees her husband leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despises him in her heart. But then there is a direct encounter between David and Michael which the lectionary did not bother to include today, but I commend it to you and you can look it up this afternoon. The narrative continues in verse twenty like this:

20David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” 21David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord. 22I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.”

It’s a tough conversation to overhear - like two people going through a divorce who are trying hard not to fight in front of the kids. It’s no wonder the lectionary wants to keep this private encounter from us. But here’s the thing: the Bible includes it, and on this July day I want to ask, “why?” All along, all of our attention has been on David, from the time when we first met him as the youngest son of Jesse and then as a giant killer. He’s been larger than life, and the whole narrative has been moving toward this great king in this great city. But we get a whole new angle just from the face of Michal looking out of the window, and then in the verbal exchange that follows. It makes us wonder: beneath all of those official press releases about how great King David is, might there be another story waiting to be told. If only for a moment, the text points us that way and inquiring minds want to know: what more would Michal say if ever she got the chance to sit down with Barbara Walters!

Michal, this daughter of Saul and wife of David, is not a passive pawn caught between two powerful men. In the sixth chapter of Second Samuel we learn that she has a voice and that she has her own opinions. Of course she does. But the point is that in that moment the narrator knows it too and if we read the Bible (and not just the lectionary) then we know it too. She has a name and a story to tell, even if the dominant narrative doesn’t go very far down that road.

Michal suggests an alternative narrative apart from David’s propaganda machine. We’ve been rolling along and rolling along and then all of a sudden, this encounter invites a double-take. Wait, what? It may even invite us to what the feminist scholars call a “hermeneutic of suspicion”—to go back to the very beginning of the whole unfolding story we’ve been hearing to ask: who is telling us this story? What is their angle? To linger on this scene invites us more deeply into the complex world of the Bible.  Learning to read and mark and learn and inwardly digest the Word of God in this way may even give us the skills to read our own lives in the same way. Or maybe even our congregation. A lot of us here were taught to read the Bible in a straight line. But the truth is that the big story – what the scholars like to call the meta-narrative, has all kinds of little detours like this. And I think that gives us not just permission, but encouragement to read our own lives, and even the life of a congregation, in a similar way.

And maybe that is where we begin, at least, to hear a Word of the Lord and some good news from this strange text. It’s meaning is not immediately obvious; it’s not so clear a choir of angels and archangels singing “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” But what it does, I think, is invite us to take a closer look at our own lives, including the rough places and broken relationships along the way. What are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are? And who are the Michals for us—those people who make us uncomfortable by holding up a mirror and demanding that we take a closer look?

The details are very different, but Nativity now embarks on its own time of transition. Some things will shift around here and it won’t all be easy. There is a big story here at Nativity and a movement into a future that belongs to God and it’s important to remember that story and to tell it. God will be with you. But there will also be a whole lot of interesting little encounters and detours and it seems to me that our work is not to control those or squash those, but to pay attention. And to notice that sometimes the most interesting bits are in the detours.

I’ve learned as a longtime parish priest and a still relatively new canon that when someone says, “I’m not so sure about that” or “I see it differently” or “what about this?” that this is just when the story is about to get really interesting. It’s tempting to want to silence those voices and press on. But what if we trust that the main story line will, in due time, move along and so allow that to free us to attend to some of the messy details along the way – what we might even call the counter-narrative or any number of minority reports? In so doing, we may well discover a word of grace and hope – food for the journey. We may find our voices as Michal does in this encounter with her husband, the king.

So I invite you to use this time in the life of this congregation to listen closely to each other, and especially to the voices you may not be accustomed to hearing. The temptation will be to smooth the edges and move quickly. But take the advice of Simon and Garfunkel: slow down and make the morning last. Breathe in, and breathe out. Linger a bit and ponder all of these things in your hearts. Attend to the story of what God is up to – in the Bible, in your life, in the unfolding life of this parish, and above all in the world outside of these doors, as the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

GC78- The Last Day - What We Leave Behind

One of the reasons I am an Episcopalian is that I get and need ritual as a part of my daily life. My morning routines are practically liturgical at home, and the hardest thing for me about being on the road is to have those routines, especially my morning routines, disrupted.

At home I never get my coffee out. I have two (not one nor three, but two) cups of coffee at home as each new day begins. On the road, although I prefer Peet's (which tends to be harder to find) it is generally likely that I end up at Starbucks for my daily caffeine fix. Being away for nearly two weeks, I've found myself developing new patterns. But, enough about my issues and on to the point of this blog...

This morning when I walked to Starbucks to get my large dark roast with room for cream and sugar - I had a conversation with the woman who served me my coffee that began with these words: "we are going to miss having you Episcopalians in town."

Now she may have just been being polite. But for these past eleven or twelve days, we Episcopalians have infiltrated the downtown area of Salt Lake City, which otherwise seems mostly devoid of residents. The hotels, restaurants, cabs, have been dominated by our presence. And she said she will be sorry to see us go, which sure beats the alternative: I can't wait for those people to leave town!

I grew up in a resort area in northeast Pennsylvania. While I've since come to learn that not all people from New York and New Jersey are rude, growing up I must confess that most of us locals were glad when Labor Day came around and we got our town back; although most people also knew that we couldn't have survived economically without the tourists. So it was a complex symbiotic relationship. I spent those years mostly working in restaurants and sometimes (in fact too often!)  our out-of-state guests were obnoxious and had unrealistic expectations of us.They sometimes acted like they owned the place.

The Episcopal Church recommends that at these kinds of events we leave $5/day for the hotel maids. I believe that every member of my deputation has taken this to heart and I hope that every Episcopalian here has done so. I hope that when we leave they are sad to see us go. I hope that we have all treated our servers and waitstaff and cab drivers over these two weeks with the "dignity and respect" we promise to offer whenever we renew our commitment to the Baptismal Covenant - and that we have shown generosity to them, and that they will be sad to see us go.

We have been about important work at the 78th General Convention. We have passed significant legislation that we now have to live into. But how we behave, how we relate to our neighbors as their guests, in their city is just as important a measure of our values as any resolution passed. My hope and prayer is that they have known we are Christians by our love, by our love. My hope is that when they go home at the end of the day, they will say to their own households at their own dinner tables - I'm really sad to see those people go.

As for me, however, I'll admit it - while our hosts have been gracious, there is no place like home! I can't wait to sleep in my own bed again, and return to my normal routines.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The 78th General Convention - Day Eight

Our deputation with the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, PB-elect
Today is officially the eighth day of the 78th General Convention. But most of us, including me, arrived a couple of days early as committee work began. So we've been here a while, and most of us are ready to head home. For me, that time comes late tomorrow night on a red-eye from Salt Lake City to Boston.

The days here are long - some days begin at 7 a.m with legislative hearings or committee meetings and some days don't end until after 9 or 10 at night. Some wish that General Convention was shorter - I am among them, but it's hard for me to imagine how that would happen and what would need to give. The fact is that this work by nature takes time, and prayer.

Today is a bit of a slower day for me, however, as things begin to come to an end.The first thing on my agenda is worship - at 9:30 a.m Mountain Time. It could be a long day at the other end, however; depending on how much work we get to today, there may be an evening legislative session tonight. So we'll see what the day brings and how many "amendments to amendments" are suggested.

My name tag - with three of the many buttons available at
General Convention: Integrity, Ministry to the Deaf, and
Bishops Against Gun Violence ( 
Today I wrote the post for our diocesan blog Conventional Wisdom where my intent was not to report the news but to dig a bit deeper. There is no much information these days, especially on social media, that I'm sure no one reading this blog needs to rely on me to "report" the news. Even so, if you are at all interested in church matters, I hope you have seen through our own blog, and through diocesan and national media, and on Facebook and Twitter the history that has been made here. First, the House of Bishops overwhelmingly elected the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, Bishop of North Carolina, to serve as our first African American Presiding Bishop - and the House of Deputies confirmed that selection almost unanimously. When I was called to serve as the rector of St. Francis Church in Holden, a woman on the Search Committee whose name was Jane Wilson liked to say, "we get the rectors we need for the times we need them." I think that was very wise, and God is good.The past nine years really needed the steady, non-anxious leadership of the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts-Schori. She has guided our church through these times with grace, agility, and courage. Last week in her sermon on the healing of Jairus' daughter and the woman with the hemorrhage she played with the number twelve - the woman had hemorrhaged for twelve years, and the little girl was twelve. Playfully she spoke of The Episcopal Church which may be ready to move forward after twelve years of "finger pointing" and of consulting all kinds of doctors - but ultimately of coming to Jesus to touch the hem of his garment. It was a powerful sermon - as was the sermon we heard yesterday from the Rev. Becca Stevens of Thistle Farms - another extraordinary witness to the gospel.  You can listen to both of them (and others too, as well as an interview with Bishop Curry here.)

The other piece of "numerology" here has been to play with a far more familiar Biblical number: the number forty. This year, Integrity has turned forty and at the Integrity Eucharist we celebrated the witness of Louie Crew Clay. Forty long years in the wilderness. But this week we can see the Promised Land, at least from Mount Nebo: as we have gathered in Salt Lake City the Supreme Court of the United States has stated that when it comes to marriage, "all means all" and we in the Episcopal Church agree - both in the House of Bishops and as of late yesterday afternoon, with a strong amen in the House of Deputies.

The big news before this Convention was about TREC about re-imagining the Episcopal Church and about structural re-organization. So far we have been rather cautious (some might say timid) about radical changes to structure. We've taken some steps in that direction, but probably it was naive to think we'd get very far on that this time around. But I think we have done something far more important: we are finding our voice again, and our vision. In this sense we are moving forward in the re-imagining process. Our new Presiding Bishop loves Jesus, and will be an articulate spokesperson for the Gospel going forward. (Sometime after tomorrow morning when it is uploaded, check out that link above and you will see what I mean if you don't already know, after he preaches at our Closing Eucharist. Or you can watch it live with us there if you are free then.) After twelve years of hemorrhaging, we seek the healing power that Christ offers. After forty years in the wilderness, we reaffirm that "all means all" and that all the baptized really are beloved of God.

It's been a good week or so for us who call The Episcopal Church home. The work is not done - far from it. But I think we've turned a corner and I return home excited about the work that lies ahead.