I am coming up on two and a half years as Canon to the Ordinary in The Diocese of Western Massachusetts. I'm still a newbie but I'm beginning to get a handle on the work after almost twenty years as a parish priest, and four years as an ecumenical campus minister. I often say that my initial calling to campus ministry has shaped my entire ministry - what I care about, and what I'm passionate about. I began with people who were "spiritual but not religious" before that was even a thing! I listened to and walked with young people who are now in their forties and raising children of their own. Some of them are ordained and others of them continue to serve the Church as lay people. They do me proud, and they make me feel old.
I served four years in a wonderful parish, Christ and Holy Trinity in Westport, Connecticut, where I learned how to be an Episcopal priest. My campus ministry experience was ecumenical, but I was a United Methodist Pastor during that time, formed in a United Methodist Seminary. Christ and Holy Trinity gave me the space, and the love, to embrace the denomination I chose as an adult- the place where I could continue to live out my commitment to the vision of the Wesley boys.
And then I was blessed to be called to serve as rector of St, Francis, Holden in 1998, and then stayed on for more than fifteen years. Hathy and I raised our two sons there. I got to take two sabbaticals at St. Francis - almost unheard of these days because clergy rarely stay in one place long enough to take even one sabbatical. Those sabbaticals kind of marked "chapters" for me in that ministry - chapters of entering, of growing together, of putting down roots. The challenge with long term ministries - or more accurately ONE of the challenges is that deep roots make it hard to pull up and leave. I am so grateful that St. Francis continues to roll along after a healthy interim time and the call of a wonderful rector to lead them in the next chapter of their life together.
I review all of this not out of nostalgia for the past but because these particular experiences (and not other ones) have shaped my understanding of ministry, along with a doctorate in ministry at Columbia Theological Seminary focused on "missional church" before it was cool - and on the complex ways that gospel and culture intersect. I could not know at any point along the way but feel it now in a deep, almost mystical way: that all of these experiences helped shape me for the work I am doing today, and have been doing for these past two and a half years. It was these places - and not the calls I didn't get, or didn't explore - that have left their mark on me.
As a parish priest I often felt out of step with diocesan ministry and with most of what has been called "the church growth movement." I felt too often that the programs being suggested by those "in the know" didn't match up with my own experience. I didn't want to say they were wrong, although perhaps once or twice I did say that. Mostly I wondered if I was wrong - or more accurately what my own experience meant. It just seemed like much of what was being proposed was rooted in anxiety: if the Episcopal Church could just copy Willow Creek (or Starbucks); if we would focus on traditional Anglican music or start a praise band - the list is long. But what these things had in common was the belief that if we did a, then b would surely result...
But I found that in parish ministry sometimes we tried a and something unexpected happened. Mostly what I found is that relationships mattered more than anything else. I served a purple town (politically speaking) in a solidly blue state. While the parish I served was not as diverse as any of us would have liked racially or even economically it was (and is) incredibly diverse politically and theologically. I haven't looked recently but while I was there the town itself was roughly half independent, a quarter Republican, a quarter Democratic. Speaking about social justice issues required a lot of patience - not cliches but deep relationships and a whole lot of trust. I felt that over time I got to speak in my own voice, true to myself. But on any Sunday I'd be doing that among people with very different perspectives on a whole lot of things. Nevertheless we were able (as time went on) to tackle bigger questions because we worked (and I do mean we, not I) at creating space where people felt that they could listen, and speak, and be heard. This was holy work for me - and in some ways hard to leave behind.
Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Slow, Patient Way of Jesus. It is not written by Episcopalians, but it speaks to my experience of the Church in ways that make me experience some holy envy: I really wish I'd written this book. I commend it to you and won't offer a review of it here, but want to steal two important ideas. I hope you've read along this far to get to them!
First, this work of ministry takes time. This is a particularly counter-cultural truth in this time and place, but it means we need to slow down and put down some roots. The writers speak of the McDonaldization of the culture and the church.They take their title and their metaphor from the slow-food movement as an alternative way to be in the world, insisting that ministry is more like a slow simmering stew in a crock pot than a burger in a bag at the drive-through. Indeed. And yes, the critics are right: Yes, we live in a culture where this work is nearly impossible. People are so busy. But with God all things are possible. Christians are formed in crock pots..
One aspect of my work is in clergy transitions. For many reasons, not the least of which is an inability for clergy and congregations to work through conflict, the average stay for a rector is less than five years. But in five years you don't even know what you don't know yet - about the congregation or about the community. I hear it all the time when calls fail, especially when they fail really badly. Members of the congregation tell me, "all s/he ever talked about was his or her old parish." Yet I have this sneaking suspicion that this would startle members of the former parish who would probably say the same thing. Clergy can be so "on the move" (upward sometimes, but sometimes just running from themselves) that they only figure out what they learned after they leave. So they spend five years or so talking about that and then they move on - presumably to talk about what they learned in their next parish. (And to be fair, the same can be said on the other side - sometimes congregations can't stop talking about the last rector either!)
If I was granted just one wish by the church genie for making parishes flourish it'd be for good matches in the first place and then long ministries - at least a decade, and perhaps longer. Not three decades; that is often much harder to pull off and God help the person who comes in next! But slow, steady, patient work of listening and learning and intentionality that leads to growth, sometimes even in numbers. How can we create the space for that to happen more often?
Ministry is not a bag of tricks! I learned about OPATCO from David Graybeal three decades ago: On Paying Attention To COmmunity as ministry. He was right. I think back to my first Town Meeting in Holden back in 1998. God, I hated it! I thought that it was the dumbest form of government I'd ever witnessed - giving voice to the dumbest and least informed members of the community. Not like we did it in Pennsylvania!
And you know what? I am still not crazy about Town Meeting. But you cannot understand Massachusetts without some understanding of this curious cultural phenomena. And it's not enough to just criticize it. When someone stands up at Annual Meeting or Diocesan Convention in a Church which has a very different polity to make a speech, it helps to at least understand that it's "in the water." And you don't understand this from a book. Ditto with shoveling snow, eating in local restaurants, standing on the sidelines of a soccer game where everyone is drinking Dunkin Donuts. At some level we clergy have to "go native" if we mean to be missionaries. We need to learn the local language and customs; not tell them how our old parishes "did it right."
And this takes time. A precious commodity we often believe we don't have. It takes slow church...
The ministries that I see flourishing have no magic formula, no silver bullet. They just are building relationships and putting down roots, and taking the long view. (See Jeremiah's Letter to the Babylonian Exiles).
Anyone still with me?
The second thing and this too is all over Slow Church, although because they are not Episcopalians they make the point much more subtly than I will: we need to rediscover our calling to serve the parish and not just congregations. By which I mean, the "parish" of my former calling was the town of Holden and one could argue since there were not Episcopal congregations in any of the other Wachusuett Regional School District towns it included Rutland, Sterling, Princeton, and Paxton too. In other words not just the folks who self-selected and came to worship with us in the congregation. (See C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, who recognized that parishes are about unity of place, not likings, and how congregations can so easily become "clubs.")
I am sure I was guilty of this to some extent, maybe even a big extent but in my diocesan ministry I want to encourage clergy to let go of the idea that they are "managers" of a diocesan "franchise." The job is not about what happens inside the walls. This is part of it, of course. Running a good vestry meeting, preaching and presiding at the Eucharist - making sure Christians are being formed and then sent.
But the call is to a community, not a congregation. Sometimes in our confusion over what it means to be in a post-Christendom context I hear colleagues complain that they will never speak at a Baccalaureate service or do weddings (or even funerals!) for non-congregants. (I use that word with care; because it's not accurate to say that those folks are not "parishioners' if we take on that broader and deeper meaning of the boundaries of the "parish.") I served as volunteer chaplain to the Police Department and I received WAY more than I gave in doing that work because I came to better understand my community in so doing.
Each of us will find our own ways of doing this but too many clergy reinforce the message that we are called to serve the forty or fifty or couple of hundred people who come to worship. This is wrong and we need to change this. We need to find ways of reaching the neighborhoods. Funerals and weddings and baptisms are not just for "our people" - they are ways we share the Good News of Jesus Christ. I don't mean to say that those people will be back on Sunday to "check us out." I mean that if this Jewish-Christian wedding is the only time this congregation will gather this way, what we say there and how we act there matters more for Jewish-Christian dialogue than anything we might ever say at a Conference. It takes hold locally...
The same is true when we dare to find ways to connect at a public high school when invited to speak. To say "I can't do that in good conscience without telling them everything I know about Jesus" is a cop out! We are a word about the Word before we ever open our mouths and the ability to model an inclusive, loving, honest witness with integrity may be a challenge - but we need to rise to it. We need to seek the welfare of the city where we find ourselves. We need to be building, and planting.
I'll close with this thought: I mentioned "chapters" in my time in Holden. Now I'm in a different place every week. But there are chapters in the life of every congregation. Often they are defined by the tenures of rectors, but not always. Sometimes there are key defining moments that ripple through time: good ones and bad ones. Misconduct, and violation of pastoral boundaries on one side of things: new life and energy and vision on the other. It's not all about the clergy, but it's hard to work with clergy who are more focused on their previous (or next) call than on doing the work God has given them to do today.
I don't know if any of this makes sense to others; sometimes I worry I'm becoming an old curmudgeon. The truth is that I'm more hopeful than ever about the future of the Church and I am so encouraged by a new generation of ordained clergy coming up. I worry about the danger of universalizing my own experience as a parish priest and I get it that my understanding of diocesan work is both rooted in and limited by the experiences I did have. This is why I began where I did: because I recognize those limitations. Nevertheless, my hope here is that it helps (and not just in my diocese) to share some observations. If I'm right it means Search Communities don't need to look for Superman or Superwoman to be their next rector; just a slow, patient, human being capable of listening and learning and loving. That will be enough; dayenu.
There is an old poem I learned from my grandmother - not the kind of poetry I learned as an English major at a Jesuit University but nevertheless true, and I find I'm learning this lesson as well in diocesan ministry - a lesson for ordained and lay alike. It's called, It Isn't The Church, It's You. And that's all I have to say about this for now!
Sunday, November 8, 2015
The readings for this twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost can be found here (track two). Today I am at St. Thomas in Auburn.
The Law and the Prophets use the phrase “widows and orphans” nearly a hundred times as a kind of code-language to speak about the most vulnerable members of society. So in Exodus 22 we read: “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.” And today we prayed the words of Psalm 146, including these:
The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger;
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
the LORD cares for the stranger;
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
This, in a nutshell, is another way of summarizing what the God of the Bible is up to – in both testaments. God is turning the world upside down, to make it right side up, as our new Presiding Bishop said in his sermon last weekend at the National Cathedral.
In Biblical times, becoming a widow put one at great risk economically. While Social Security and life insurance policies and gains made for women in the marketplace have all helped to alleviate the profound economic dangers that women and children without a male bread-winner face, the grief of losing your life-partner has not changed. There was an op-ed this week in The Washington Post entitled: "The Condolences End. Being a Widow Doesn't" written by a young widow whose husband died tragically at 34 – just nineteen months after they were married. Listen to what she had to say:
In the first year, people check in constantly. They call, text, bring food, plan girls’ weekends and excuse — even support — the shuffling around in pajamas crying each day as we wait for the black, hollow feeling to lift. The Year Two widow, however, is comparatively abandoned to the continued reality of a new and unfamiliar life. We are among the “walking wounded,” those largely without outward signs of trauma (weight regained, estate settled, tears more easily stifled) but who are still under equal, if different, strain. I had an idea that passing the one-year mark meant the hard part was over, like crossing the finish line of a particularly grueling marathon, or getting to the front of the line at Target on a Saturday. But it is not over.
So I want to talk with you today about three widows. The first two come from today’s readings: the unnamed widow in Zarephath and then the unnamed woman from today’s gospel reading. And then I also want to tell you about a twentieth-century widow named Margaret.
While the commandments are focused on showing mercy to the orphan and widow, in today’s Old Testament reading we see a widow who has very little who is willing to share that little bit with the prophet, Elijah. They are living in desperate times, in the midst of a famine, and she has carefully measured out the flour she has for her daily bread. And then Elijah shows up asking for something to eat.
What to do? The Lord helps those who help themselves, right? Actually that’s not in the Bible! That’s more Ben Franklin – more American individualism. The truth is that God helps those who can’t help themselves. God helps the widow and the orphan. But how interesting when the widow and orphan are the ones who turn around and show generosity and extend hospitality even with the very little they have. So the woman welcomes Elijah to her table. And there is enough.God provides.
The second widow I want us to notice is the one Jesus himself points out in today’s gospel reading. He is criticizing the rich because they think that their giving ought to buy them power and respect and prestige. Their giving comes with a quid pro quo. Jesus calls our attention to this widow who walks up and gives two small copper coins, about a penny, commenting that…
…she has put in more than the rest, for they contributed out of their wealth but she gave out of her poverty: she put in all she had, everything she had to live on.
It always kills me to see this story be twisted, especially by well-off persons who say, “see, it doesn’t matter how much you give.” I’ll just continue to live in my fancy house and drive my fancy car and leave a small tip at church….
My sisters and brothers: that is absolutely not the point of this story. Jesus is saying just the opposite: it does matter how much you give. If one of those rich people went up and put two pennies in the plate Jesus would definitely not be pointing them out in a positive light. But the issue here is about whether or not our giving is sacrificial and intentional. The wealthy ones whom Jesus is criticizing can afford to write out big checks, but relative to their wealth they aren’t doing that. They may feel they are paying their “fair share” but they aren’t giving in a way that takes account of the fact that to those to whom much is given, much is required. (That is in the Bible, by the way – see Luke 12:48!)
This widow, like the one who lived centuries before her and found room at her table for Elijah, is generous with the little she has. She is easy to miss because she isn’t driving a fancy car to temple or going home to a big house. She’s on a fixed income. Yet she is faithful. Her giving back to God is a priority in her life—in fact it is the priority of her life. If you reflect on Jesus, the Jewish rabbi, then you can see how he is turning the table by pointing to her. For centuries his people have been taught to care for widows and orphans. While necessary, and a commandment, it can also be patronizing at some level. The poor can become invisible except as some generic “category.” But Jesus suggests that they need to see the widow before them – that one over there who is so faithful. To really see her and to look to her as their model for generosity.
As a parish priest I came to believe these two stories about widows quite literally because I got to see it unfold year after year. It was amazing to me how often women (and sometimes men) on fixed incomes were committed to making their giving come first rather than last. One such witness in my own life brings me to my third widow this day: my grandmother, Peg Miller. Her husband, my grandfather, died just before Christmas, when my mother was still a little girl. So I never met him. My two uncles had already left home at the time of my grandfather’s death, which left my grandmother on her own to raise my mother as a single parent. My grandmother never re-married. When I say she had next to nothing I mean it quite literally; she had only a small social security check each month to live on and in the long cold winters of northeast Pennsylvania she kept the temperature in her house cool, so the oil bills wouldn’t be too high.
Yet she was one of the most generous people I have ever known. I never heard her complain about money, except on the rare occasions when she would give one of us a gift at Christmas or on our birthdays and say something like, “I so wish it could be more.” Never, however, did I hear her complain about money for her own sake. The only reason she ever wished she had more was to be able to share it.
We worry about all kinds of new strands of diseases in our time, and that is understandable. But my grandmother lost a brother in the prime of his life to the Influenza of 1918, which really was a pandemic that took somewhere between twenty and forty million lives. We worry about the economy and we should, but she quit school to help her mother out during the Great Depression. We worry about the endless wars in the Middle East, and rightly so; but she lost two brothers in the Great War that was supposed to end all wars. That war finally ended on 11-11 at 11, as we will remember this coming Wednesday. Let’s remember it not by looking for yet another excuse to go shopping and find a bargain, but to remember all who have served this nation in wartime and to recommit ourselves to be instruments of God’s peace.
All of those difficult experiences could have broken my grandmother. But amazingly they left her stronger and more courageous and generous and optimistic. The thing that amazes me is that while I obviously loved my grandmother very much, she was not completely unique. I bet even as I speak of her you all have someone in mind in your own life – perhaps a mother or grandmother, perhaps someone in this parish. My grandmother got up every morning and counted her blessings and that practice changes how we live.
We can choose to live our lives with faith or with fear. We can choose to covet our neighbor’s stuff or we can count our own blessings. The focus of this sermon is on three widows and there is a reason the Bible speaks of widows, along with orphans, as people who experience life as precarious. I don’t mean to suggest that generosity of spirit is limited to widows and the Bible doesn’t either. It’s just that there is no substitute for experiencing our own vulnerability, which then leads us to acknowledge our utter dependence upon God. That, I think, is the common thread here. As long as we hold onto the illusion that we are in control, we live as if all that we can hold onto is “ours.” In fact, all things come of God – and when we give it back to God we are acknowledging it was only ever on loan in the first place.
Many of us live valuing security above all else. I know this is my own temptation. I am not a person who values fancy cars or clothes very much and am fortunate that my nature is to be pretty content with what I have. (I do, admittedly, think life is too short to drink cheap wine and I enjoy good food a little too much.) But more even than those things what I want is to make sure things are covered, and my ducks are lined up: getting my two kids through college and then planning for retirement and making sure my wife and I have healthcare as we grow old. There is a part of me that figures if I can control those things all will be well.
But that is an illusion and the truth is that goal is elusive to say the least. What is enough? That’s not an argument not to be prepared or to not do some financial planning. But we deceive ourselves when we begin to believe that we are in control. We cannot number even the hairs on our head. When the illusion of security is stripped away (as it was, by the way, for the Israelites over forty years in wilderness of the Sinai Desert, and as it is for people who are living the twelve steps in recovery) then there is an opportunity to re-discover a profound truth that goes to the heart of our faith: what we get in this world is one day at a time.
Every time we gather together for the Eucharist we pray the prayer our Lord taught us, rooted in the experience of Sinai and the life of widows everywhere: give us this day our daily bread. And then help us to remember to say thank you when it is provided .
Posted by Rich Simpson at 8:30 AM
Sunday, November 1, 2015
Feast of All Saints I have been invited to be the preacher at St. John's Church in Sutton as they welcome their colleagues in ministry, the good folks from St. Andrew's, North Grafton to a joint worship service. These two congregations have been finding ways to work and pray together for some time, and I'm honored to be with them on this great day of new beginnings. Below is the manuscript for my sermon.
All Saints’ Day is about our past, our present, and our future as the Body of Christ. It is about our past because we gather here profoundly aware of all the saints who have gone before us, the ones who from their labors rest. That includes those “capital S” saints that we share with the one holy, catholic and apostolic faith: people like Peter, Paul and Mary (the originals, not the band!) and John the baptizer and Andrew the fisherman. And down through the centuries, people like Julian of Norwich who lived through the plague and still insisted that “all shall be well,” and Francis of Assisi who lived during the crusades and kept on praying, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” We sometimes feel like we are living in challenging times and we surely are. But is there really anyone here who considers the days of John and Andrew, or Julian or Francis, to be “the good old days?”
All Saints’ Day is about our past because it also gives us a chance to remember our own personal small “s” saints as well. We have already named some of the members of this great cloud of witnesses and no doubt recall some happy memories and maybe also a few loose ends and unresolved conflicts too, because life and death are rarely as tidy as we wish they would be. For most of us there is some stuff we keep working on long after our loved ones are gone. So we remember them on the day of their birth, and on the day they died, and on Christmas morning and lots of moments in between, including this thin, holy day. They are still part of the fabric of our lives- our lives are knit together, as today's collect puts it and our relationship with them is changed, not ended, by death. This is why even at the grave we dare to make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
St. Andrew’s and St. John’s have some interwoven history and some saints in common, going all the way back to 1825 when the Rev. Daniel Goodwin held the first services at the Rising Sun Hotel for what would become St. John’s. As far as I know he was not related to the Rev. Laura Goodwin! In the 1880s, St. John’s established missions in Millbury and North Grafton, in Barker’s Hall and in people’s homes, planting the seeds of what would eventually become St. Andrew’s. Fast forward about ninety years or so, to the 1970s (because things don’t usually move quickly in the Church!) when these two congregations shared a priest.
I mention these things because we are tempted in the church to have very short memories about tradition, which should not be confused with nostalgia. Often when we speak of tradition what we really mean is how we remember things being done when we were growing up and those memories are often skewed by nostalgia as we remember a past shaped by our present yearnings. In fact, the presence of the Episcopal Church in Sutton and in North Grafton has taken various shapes over the past two hundred years or so, which in God’s time is but a blink of an eye, worshiping in homes, in secular buildings, and in several different church buildings.
Our presence here today, together, reminds us that while All Saints’ Day is definitely about what has been, it’s also about what is, and what will be. As the song we’ll sing when we leave here today puts it:
…they lived not only in ages, past…there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the saints of God!
As we gather here today, perhaps dislocated from our normal pews by strangers who are becoming friends, look around you and see God’s beloved – claimed and marked and sealed as Christ’s own forever. Conventional wisdom uses the word “saint” to mean somebody who is holier than thou. But that is not what I mean and that’s not what the Church means by this word. I mean the baptized, these companions God has given to us along the way, these fellow witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ with whom we walk this road as followers of Jesus. These saints teach church school and sing in the choir and go out and flash-mob and do messy church together and make sandwiches for Worcester Fellowship together. They say prayers for us when we are experiencing joy or carrying heavy burdens, and they sit at vestry meetings when there are probably twenty-three other things they would rather be doing. Some of them will even go and sit at Diocesan Convention on our behalf this Saturday. Now that is true love!
If the saints around us are only those who lived in ages past and we are not finding ways to be faithful today, then we misunderstand what this communion of saints is all about. Then it’s just about ghosts. Rather, we are called to ministry, together; to be what in the old days they used to call “the church militant.” That metaphor is problematic for me and I’m not suggesting that we revive it. But the point of that old language was to remind the Church that there is work to be done today and while the saints triumphant cheer us on, they had their turn! The work that God gives us to do is ours, here and now, and if we don’t take up that mantle then we are always in danger of becoming a museum and not the Church. We need all hands on deck.
So I love All Saints Day, because it reminds us not only of our heritage but because it also calls us to fidelity in the present. But there’s even more: this is such a thin place that we also get a glimpse into the future. While we give thanks for those who have gone before us and celebrate the saints in our midst, we also try to peer beyond this moment to the culmination of human history. Even as we shed a tear or two for those whom we love we see no longer, we recall God’s promise to wipe away every tear. We reflect on the banquet where all of God’s children are fed and there is always room at the table for one more. Where the wine is beyond to die for, it’s to live for. And the roast beef is done to perfection. That is what Isaiah is talking about. Can you not perceive it? We reflect on the table where all of God’s children will gather—and they are all God’s children, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, from every tribe and language and people and nation. That is where John (not your baptizer but the seer from Patmos) picks up where Isaiah left off: imagining a world where there is enough for all. Enough food, enough wine, enough healthcare, enough hope, enough faith, enough joy, enough peace, enough love.
There is enough. But one thing the visionary on Patmos does not see are church buildings – because once they have fulfilled their mission there is only the Lamb at the center, only the risen, victorious Christ. As I interpret this it simply means that the mission is always first and whether we are worshiping at the Rising Sun Hotel or in Barker Hall or out at the Brigham Hill Community Barn or in people’s homes or at St. Andrew’s or here at St. John’s, these are all means to an end because the church is not a building, and the church is not a resting place, and the church is not a steeple. The church is a people! The church is the communion of saints. Christian faith is about the hope that inspires us to join in the adventure that is headed toward that future day. This is our work, to participate in and to cultivate God’s mission taking hold in this world and to live the words we join with Christians throughout the centuries in praying: thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
Now let me move from preaching to meddling. Johnny and Drew—do you mind if I call you Johnny and Drew? I feel like we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well over the past couple of years. You have some past shared history as mentioned and even some shared clergy in the not-too-distant past. Like all relationships with some history there are some happy memories and perhaps some old wounds too. That’s life. These are not really my stories to tell, they are yours. But it is important to remember rightly and honestly, for in coming to terms with your past new possibilities for tomorrow may emerge.
What is mine to share is how I have been seeing in recent months some of the leadership from both of your congregations working with consultants from the Church Building Fund and with the three canons on the Bishop’s staff. Along with some folks from St. Stephen’s in Pittsfield and St. James in Greenfield, they have been working hard to focus on how they might recast their assets, that is to say in regular language how to use the gifts God has given to each of them to do the work God calls each of them to. The faithful people doing this work are trying to imagine new ways of doing this mission, of finding ways to partner for the sake of the gospel and to ask some questions together about what the future might look like – about where the Spirit is blowing. Along the way they have discovered that St. John’s and St. Andrew’s are remarkably similar congregations; not the same, but nevertheless facing many of the same challenges and opportunities.
And so in the past year or so, St. John’s and St. Andrew’s have been doing some things together and this liturgy is only the most recent example. While it’s not yet clear where this is all going, it seems to be Spirit-led or perhaps Spirit-driven. As you may recall, after Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan River by our pal John the Baptist, Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted. Mark’s Gospel says the Spirit drove him there. Matthew and Luke say the Spirit led him. In my experience, the Spirit does both and sometimes we are led by the hand, but sometimes our own internal resistance is such that we must be pushed. Driven or led, the Spirit has been at work in these two congregations for a long time. But now, driven or led by the Spirit to this place in time, new opportunities to share ministry are emerging that invite you all to do some work together and to learn and grow together.
It’s not yet clear where this is going and there is no “master plan” being cooked up in Springfield. It just seems good to your clergy and your vestries and to your bishop and to me and we believe to the Spirit that there is reason to follow this path. Nevertheless, this is very challenging work and it can raise some anxiety, because questions about identity and of potential loss always raise concerns. And since there isn’t a road map, it’s not possible to say “here is where it is going to end up.” Or over there. It’s a bit more like wandering around the Sinai Desert for a while (hopefully not for four decades) in search of the Promised Land. But needing to get one’s bearings and sending some scouts ahead and maybe even with some grumbling going on. Manna again? Really? All we get is stinking manna! But the Spirit does indeed seem to be leading, or driving, this work. And this much I know, because I can tell you from watching it unfold: it is messy, Church. But it’s also holy, Church.
Today’s gospel reading doesn’t give us a roadmap and definitely not a GPS, but perhaps it is a kind of compass that can help us to at least get our bearings. First, notice that Jesus weeps at the grave of his friend, Lazarus. In those tears we see that we really do have a friend in Jesus, one who shares our joys and our burdens. I think it’s a good reminder that we should never underestimate loss. Someone has said that it’s not change people are resistant to, but loss. Every change that comes our way, even when it is good change, also represents some measure of loss. While some of us embrace change faster than others, all transitions involve loss and there seems to be some part of us all that would rather maintain the status quo than deal with loss. But we need to remember also that the costs of inertia are very high as well and we need to acknowledge that. Often we put enormous energy into resisting change because the costs seem too high. But I wonder what happens if we follow Jesus’ lead and weep for what is lost, so that we can then see more clearly what lies ahead? The truth is not only is the church of the nineteenth century gone, but the church of the mid-twentieth century is gone too. All those Republicans on the stage who are debating to see who is nominated for President; last I checked, General Eisenhower wasn’t one of them. The 1950s aren’t coming back!
There were saints who lived in ages past who made decisions based on the leading or driving of the Holy Spirit and they cheer us on, but it is you and I who are called to be saints in this time and place. Look around you – here we are, the starting lineup. At various speeds, congregations across this diocese are beginning to let go of the past in order to discover new missional strategies toward God’s preferred future, trusting that those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. So listen to what comes next. Listen to what Jesus says: (1) Roll away the stone; (2) Lazarus, come out; (3) Unbind him and let him go.
Roll away the stone. We don’t tend to be people who are comfortable rolling away stones. We like to leave things put: my grandmother donated that stone! Sometimes we entomb what needs to be called forth, but you know what, after a while it starts to smell when we do that. Four days, sometimes forty years or more…
But then, Lazarus, come out! Jesus doesn’t go in to get him. Nor does he send in others to do so. Lazarus needs to move away from that tomb himself and toward the One who is Resurrection and Life. I don’t think that requires a lot of words from me on this day when we stand in such a thin place. But just to be clear since we’ve come this far and I’m since I’m almost done: what might it look like to hear Jesus saying to Drew and Johnny – come out! Come out and live!
And then finally, because Lazarus has been bound up like a mummy: unbind him and let him go. There are many things that keep us bound up, to be sure. But I’m already well past the time considered reasonable in Episcopal Churches for sermon time. So I’ll let you all work on that one in the days and weeks and months ahead. Let me just conclude by saying this: I believe this work of unbinding is the primary work we are called to in the Church today. We can and should honor the past, the saints who have gone before us and the work they did. But they did live in ages past and they faced different challenges. We are the saints today. After shedding some tears, and rolling away some stones we need to come out, and we need to be unbound and press on toward the goal.
We are called, in other words, to put our whole trust in Christ’s love and to go on the adventure that the Spirit is leading (or driving) us to. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, it’s not a bad idea to bring some friends along.
Posted by Rich Simpson at 10:30 AM