Sunday, August 28, 2016

One More On Faith (Still Pondering the Epistle of Hebrews!)

Today I was with two congregations that chose to worship together this summer: St. Christopher's in Fairview and Grace Church, Chicopee. Today we were at Grace. The readings for the day can be found here.

It is really, really good to be with you all today and can I just say this – I hope in a way that does not sound patronizing: I am so proud of St. Christopher’s and Grace. You have taken this summer as an opportunity to get to know each other better. You are trying to discern the next steps in God’s call to your two congregations. I was privileged to be with you at the beginning of the summer at St. Christopher’s and now here at Grace. I suspect a lot has happened since then and I am looking forward to hearing about it from you at coffee hour today.
Here is the thing I want to say about that and then I want to turn with you to today’s epistle reading. There is an old saying about parenting that I used to have in my office in Holden – about how the two gifts you give to your children are roots and wings. My kids have now flown from the nest – and are amazing adults at 26 and 22. But I think about that often and I think it’s true for the Church and I think it’s true for congregations
We need roots that go deep, into the well of life. Roots that provide nourishment and bear fruit. You all know this just by paying attention to your gardens, especially in a summer like this one with so little rain. Tradition isn’t really the right word – we need traditions but more importantly we need roots. Traditions can calcify. The surest sign of death in a congregation are the words “we’ve always done it this way.” But knowing our history – our story – that to me is different.
But I think we Episcopalians do roots better than wings. The Holy Spirit has been sent to teach us new things. The Holy Spirit, often depicted as a dove, is about learning to fly. It’s about asking what’s going on in the neighborhood, about what has changed, about what we can do to respond to those changes.
So I return to where I began – after Scott and Donna’s retirements, your leadership has shown some courage. You’ve tried something new this summer and I hope in hearing one another’s stories you have been changed for good. That spirit of learning to fly will serve you well as we continue to move forward, guided by the Holy Spirit.
Now, back to our previously scheduled program. Have you noticed that our epistle readings all month have been from Hebrews? Just a few chapters – chapters 11 to 13. But they are all about faith, about what faith looks like. Back on August 7 we heard that
…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
For me, these are among the most important words in the Bible. Right up there with the Easter Gospels at the empty tomb, or John 3:16 about how God so loved the world, or the story of the Prodigal Son, or the Sermon on the Mount. These words remind us that faith is about where we put our trust. The opposite of faith is not doubt; it’s fear. Faith is about letting go and letting God. Faith, we might say, is not only about roots, but about wings.
Two chapters later we’re still talking about what faith looks like. Let’s recap: faith is about love. Loving God and loving neighbor. Let mutual love continue.
What does that look like? We heard it today. It means showing hospitality to strangers. Because when you welcome the stranger you might be welcoming an angel of God. It means visiting those in prison. As though you were in prison with them. It means that we remember those who are being water boarded. As if we were being water boarded. It means we honor marriage and support those who have committed themselves to one another in marriage. It means we resist making money into our god – that we learn to be content with what we have.
It means that we try to be a little less afraid.
It means that we pray for our leaders - for our Presiding Bishop, Michael and for our Bishop, Doug - and for clergy and wardens, and for political leaders, too - because they most definitely need our prayers!
Are you with me? I am NOT making this up! That is what Hebrews says today. There is a Word of the Lord for us here. It’s what faith looks like. Doing good, sharing what we have – this is what God asks of God’s people.
And it’s hard. It was hard when those words were written two thousand years ago and it’s hard today. It’s hard because we would rather be right than faithful. It’s hard because loving God and loving neighbor takes work.

But Jesus never said it would be easy.

Now let me say that I am only beginning to get to know you all, and you are still getting to know me. Preachers can push things further when there is a relationship – and this is a new one. But I get around the diocese, so let me make a more general statement and you all can figure out what is helpful to you and what is not.

As I said earlier, the opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s fear. And when congregations get afraid, they become less faithful. This is why angels show up all the time in the Bible to say to people, “do not be afraid.” Because when we face our fears – overcome our fears – then new life is possible.

Too many congregations, not just in the Episcopal Church but across denominational lines, get stuck in thinking that their mission is survival. Our mission is not survival. Our mission has something to do with roots and wings. Our mission has something to do with being faithful in this time and place. And further reflection on these middle chapters of Hebrews is a good place to start this kind of conversation. What does love of neighbor look like here in Chicopee, in the neighborhoods around Grace and St. Christopher’s? How will a new priest help you to look outward and behold your neighbor, so that mutual love can continue? How can you show hospitality to strangers and in so doing entertain angels even without knowing it? Are there ways to reach out to those in prison, to speak out against torture, to support married people, to help you all become more faithful stewards and be content with what you have?

Now here is why this matters as we look down the road a little ways. You don’t need a priest who is superman or superwoman to come in here! Every congregation tells me they want to grow. Most of them look to the clergy to make that happen. But let me tell you what I know. Growth is hard if we aren’t ready to change. No, I want to say it more strongly than that. Growth is impossible if we aren’t ready to change.

But more than this, it is not charismatic clergy that grow congregations. Dead clergy can kill congregations – that much is true. But at best charismatic clergy help congregations grow faster, and unfortunately that sometimes happens without deep roots, and things can shrink back again when they move along to their next gig.

What we need – not just here but across this diocese – are clergy who are faithful. Clergy who are partners in ministry. Clergy who will tell the truth. Clergy who are not afraid.

And here’s the thing – we need lay people who will roll up their sleeves and work with those clergy to be faithful partners in ministry, to speak the truth, to not be afraid.

We need to find ways, together, to embody what we read about today in Hebrews 13. So that they aren’t just words in a book but words written on our hearts. Words we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest – so that we become a word about the Word. So that people look at Grace and St. Christopher’s and they say, those are places where love is made manifest, with God’s help. Those are places where love is in the air. 

This is what I pray for, as you walk together into the next chapter of the story. Roots and wings. Peace and all good as it unfolds, and the journey continues. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

What is Faith?

Tonight, the plan was for me to be with the good people at The Cuttyhunk Union Methodist Church. Plans don't always work out, however. As readers of this blog know, that plan got changed last Saturday morning when my stepfather passed away. Life happens in the interruptions; I suppose that death does too. I am glad I was able to be with family and friends in my hometown to celebrate the life of a good man this week; no regrets. But I did miss out on being in a beautiful place with my wife and kids. Here is what I would have said to those gathered tonight in Cuttyhunk if I'd been there. The text that I would have preached on was Hebrews 11.

This is my second summer with you all here on this beautiful island. In my experience, second things are very different from firsts, whether you are talking about a second year in college or a job or an anniversary. Last year Hathy and I didn’t really know what to anticipate when we stepped off the ferry and were met by Tim and Judith and Ned and Bev. And I’ll confess that by the time we got to Sunday night last summer, I was still a little bit nervous about whether or not anyone would show up, and if they did about whether or not we’d connect.

This second year, Hathy and I have been anticipating coming back to be with you for almost exactly fifty-two weeks. All by way of saying “thank you” for the invitation and for another wonderful week on this beautiful island.

For those whom I have not yet met, my name is Rich Simpson. I’m an Episcopal priest who spent the first five years of my ordained life in an ecumenical ministry on a college campus in CT (as a United Methodist pastor) and then, after moving into the Episcopal Church, the next twenty years as a parish priest in two places: Christ and Holy Trinity, Westport and St. Francis. Holden.

Three years ago my bishop asked me to serve as Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, which is basically all of Massachusetts west of 495 to the New York border. Episcopalians love fancy titles, but what this means is that I work for the Bishop as a member of his executive team. I’m now in a different congregation every week and one area of great interest to me in this work is that I work closely with our congregations that are in the midst of clergy transitions.

Just one brief comment about this work and what I’m learning in it and then we’ll get to the work that is before us tonight. Regardless of denomination, what I learned as a parish priest over two decades is that you are “on the ground.” You are close to the action. Ministry happens in the details. What I love more than anything else about parish work is that you are in the midst of people’s lives from baptism through confirmation, to marriage and burial. You get to know people’s stories: their joys and hopes and dreams and struggles. You realize that life is complex.

It’s not that you lose that as a Canon, but my focus now is more on larger patterns now; on how congregations work. Which are, of course, made up of people. But I’ve discovered that congregations are bigger than the sum of their parts, as I’m sure this one is too. It’s more than those gathered here tonight. They take on their own character and their own personality, even. Founding pastors and long-serving pastors and members leave their mark, long after they are gone. There is a shape to congregational life that makes each one unique. I’m not going to talk much more about any of that other than to say this is where I come from now, a part of who I am a based on the work I do and what I’m learning. Parish life is wonderful, but parish life can also become parochial and insular. Diocesan life part of a larger narrative and seeing that there are patterns to our life together.

Now, to the text at hand. Which might not yet seem to have anything to do with all of this, but I think it does. Rehearsing the history of a people – whether it’s a religious tribe or a denomination or a congregation or a family -  reminds us not only where we’ve come from but who we are and where we are going. You’ve heard a long reading from scripture tonight that I take as my sermon text tonight – all of Hebrews 11. In fact this reading was read over two weeks - the first and second Sundays in August – in denominations like mine (and others) that use the Revised Common Lectionary. So perhaps some of you have heard it quite recently in other contexts. But I have been on vacation and so I decided to save these two readings up for you and put them together tonight.

What is faith, the writer asks? How’s that for a lighthearted easy topic for an August night?

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
Notice that the writer doesn’t suggest that faith is best understood as listing the seven doctrines you need to affirm to be counted as “in” some club. In fact, I invite you to notice that in this way of thinking about faith, faith and belief are not synonyms. They may be cousins, but they are not the same. Beliefs matter, but beliefs change over time. Sometimes very sincere people tell me that they aren’t sure they are really Christians because they either don’t believe (or maybe even understand) what it means to say the words of the Nicene Creed, that the Son was “begotten, not made and of one Being with the Father” for example. Let me be quick to add these are questions a parish priest gets – and in the past three years no one has come up to me on a Sunday morning to ask me about this. These days the questions I get are usually related to something the bishop has done!

But it is a serious misunderstanding of faith to think we have lost our faith when what we are in fact doing is questioning our beliefs. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. Faith, in other words, is about trust. Trust is in fact the closest synonym I know for faith. The opposite of faith is not doubt – it’s fear. When we are afraid we feel like there is no tomorrow – or that what is coming tomorrow will be our undoing. Faith is about trusting in the assurance of things hoped for, it’s about the conviction of things not yet seen. It’s not primarily about what’s in our heads or even our hearts, but in our bellies.

So tonight we heard a litany of saints- those who lived in ages past who showed faith—who did this in large and small ways. They were lights in their generations. Some of them are huge names and familiar to all of us. Some have stories we have forgotten. If I were to preach on this entire text tonight we’d be here at least until sunrise which might be beautiful for us to do, but I think it’d be quite safe to say that my second time here would also be my last time here.

So tonight I want to focus on just two of those names. One is, I am guessing, very well known to you and the other one less so. One is male and the other is female. One is Jewish and one is Canaanite. The two are Moses and Rahab. Let’s start with Moses.
By faith, Moses was hidden by his parents; by faith, Moses (when he was grown up) refused to be called son of Pharaoh’s daughter; by faith, Moses left Egypt unafraid of the king’s anger, by faith he kept the Passover, by faith the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea…
Whether we first heard the story from The King James Bible or Good News for Modern Man or from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, most of us know something about Moses and the Exodus. It’s a story immortalized on film by Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments and more recently in the animated film The Prince of Egypt (which I personally like better.)

A new Pharaoh arose in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph, the dreamer… And that new king became nervous about a political uprising. He did what dictators always do when they get scared; he flexed his muscles and started coming down on hard on the Israelites until finally he started ordering the deaths of male children. The people cried out to God and God heard and God saw their misery. And then God called Moses. You remember at the burning bush, how Moses turned aside and encountered I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? God said, “I’m sending you to tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.” And so the story goes...

We learn something about God in this story, and we learn something about faith as the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not yet seen. God cares about the plight of all people, but especially people who are being oppressed. All lives do matter to God, because God remembers creating us all of the same earth, and breathing God’s own breath into us. We are all created in God’s own image. So says our sacred text. So Egyptian lives do matter. But the problem was this: in Cairo at the time everyone knew that Egyptian lives mattered. Pharaoh’s entire economy was built on this premise and Hebrew slave lives were seen as means to that end. So God takes sides. God always takes sides because when the world says all lives matter, God insists that slave lives matter too, that refugee lives matter too, in the New Testament that Samaritan lives matter too and in our world that black lives matter, too. God cares about justice for all. But God refuses to ignore the injustice that hurts some more than others. That’s what the Moses story is about and that’s what it tells us about the living God.

But God doesn’t do any of these things by waving a wand. So we also learn something about ourselves and about what it means to be a person of faith from this text. Because in Egypt and in the world today, when God sees and God hears, the next thing God does is to call people like Moses and Aaron and Miriam to act. They are asked to become instruments of God’s peace. They are asked to bring about the change God desires in the world. God hears and God sees, and then God sends.

The story of the Exodus and the subsequent time in the Sinai is a long one; in fact it takes up four of the first five books of the Bible. All those plagues and Pharaoh’s hard heart, a heart that would not be softened with reason, is only the beginning. An escape filled with intrigue and followed by four decades in the wilderness. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not yet seen. Or to say it another way, faith must always take the long view, because when there is an easy answer or a short-term fix it doesn’t require faith as much as a good engineer. Faith requires a long-term commitment. It’s a story passed on to children and grandchildren, a story relived by every generation. Faith like Moses and those Israelite refugees and you and I gathered here tonight requires patience and courage to see beyond one election season.

Perhaps not everyone here remembers who Rahab the prostitute was. After forty years in the desert, after the death of Moses, his assistant, Joshua, became the new leader in the sixth book of the Bible, appropriately named the Book of Joshua. Joshua’s ministry is very different from that of Moses. Moses led the people out of Egypt; Joshua will lead them into the Promised Land. Their gifts are different and their leadership styles are different because the work they are called to do is different. Joshua will fight the battle of Jericho because as it turns out, the Promised Land isn’t an empty parking lot; there are people living there (the Canaanites) and it turns out they like living there. So the long battle begins, a theological and political conflict that has still not been resolved thousands of years later. (But we’ll leave this for another time.)

Whose land is it? The theological answer the Bible gives, of course, is that it is God’s land and at best humans are called to be stewards of it. But nonetheless, the writers of the Bible believed that God promised the Israelites would take care of it and not the Canaanites. And so they take to battle because when you want something that someone else has,  it doesn’t usually work to tell them, “God said you should give it to us.” Before Joshua ‘fit the battle of Jericho, there is reconnaissance work to be done. Even if you believe God is “on your side” that doesn’t mean you forsake good military practices.

So Joshua sends some Navy Seals into Jericho to see what they are looking at. And they head to the home of Rahab, the prostitute. I won’t belabor the fact tonight that this is a pretty good cover. Suffice it to say that somebody sees these foreign men at Rahab’s house and they don’t look like the usual clients. So someone calls the police, who promptly show up at Rahab’s door.

She’s savvy, however. And she sees which way the wind is blowing. So she lies to the police. She tells them that the men were in fact there, but they’ve left and if they head out really quickly they might be able to catch them. In fact she has hidden the spies on her roof. (Now having spent some time in the Middle East, let me just add that middle eastern roofs are not sloped because they have no worries about snow; they are flat and often have little terraces where you can go and sit and drink and smoke.)  So it’s a credible escape.

The main point here is that if Rahab is caught, she is guilty of treason. She has hidden two enemy spies who are in her city doing reconnaissance work, spies who intend to destroy her city and conquer it. She tells them all she wants in return is for her life and the life of her family to be spared. She tells them the whole city is worried, but she heard about their God and about what he did to the Egyptians and she’d rather be for ‘em than against them.
By faith, Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. Because she knew (even if she didn’t say the Nicene Creed) that faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not yet seen.
Now with no disrespect intended to good old Moses, I worry a bit about hero worship that paralyzes ordinary people from being faithful in ordinary ways. When we turn people into superheroes we tend to worship them, rather than emulate them. I love St. Francis of Assisi and for fifteen years served a parish named for him. But he is the most revered and least emulated saint in the Church! Don’t forget that before he started talking to birds he stood stark naked in the public square and gave away all of his money. In our own day, Martin Luther King, Jr. gets a holiday, no doubt well deserved. But King was like Moses, and if that’s the case then maybe Rosa Parks is something like a modern-day Rahab, an ordinary woman who just got tired of being told where she could sit. She wasn’t a superhero; just someone who said, “enough is enough already.”

Now I don’t want to push the comparison too far. But I do want to push the notion that you can find saints anywhere you choose to look and if you are only looking for Moses and Martin you will miss the most amazing people who cross your path every day. You can meet them at work or at school or at tea or over coffee, and sometimes even at Church. We need Rosa and Rahab and I bet you could add a whole list of people who have born witness to the living God in your own life – people who were lights in their generation and who inspired you to be something more of an instrument of peace.

I can also tell you that this is true of congregations too – which as a rule do better with smart, capable, healthy clergy leading them. But superhero clergy are not only a challenge to find but even when they are successful the success is often fleeting if there aren’t a whole lot of Rahabs in the altar guild and in the choir and serving on the governing board and handing out bulletins to newcomers. Are you with me?

Now I don’t want to go all political on you tonight – we’ve got almost three months left until this next election. And I don’t want to remind you that summer will soon be coming to an end, but you know that as I do which is why we savor every day in August. So let me just say this: sometimes I worry that we focus too much on the top of the ticket and not enough on who is in Congress. And we focus as a nation too much on who we send to Washington and not enough on governors and state houses and mayors and town councils. If we want to imagine a renewed nation and a renewed commitment to democracy that truly moves closer to justice for all, then we need to stop worrying only about identifying the next Moses and start seeking out the Rahabs among us.

Biblical faith, according to the writer of Hebrews, is not about certitude, nor is it about telling others what they need to believe. It’s about believing that another future is possible than the one we are on a trajectory towards and then finding the courage to do what we can in the circumstances in which we find ourselves to move toward that future. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.

And faith is a journey. There is no more Biblical statement about faith that I can make than that. From Genesis to Revelation, God’s people are a pilgrim people, a people “on the way.” Come, and follow me. Faith begins when ordinary people are willing to put their trust in the living God. Faith begins when we entrust the future to God, so we are freed to listen for God’s call to each of us to live one day at a time.

If faith is something we discover, and uncover, along the way in our journeys, then that suggests to me that the Church is more like a community of explorers than anything else, that our work is to try to create a space where we can become the people God means for us to become. There are ups and downs, uncertainties and questions, along the way.

Again and again we are called to remain open, to keep discovering, to keep growing, and to follow the Way which unfortunately isn’t always so clear as a Yellow Brick Road. With God’s help, we continue to follow the One who is the Way, the One who is the Truth, the One who is Life. And if we follow him, then we don’t need to worry about getting lost, because He is with us along the Way. That, I think, in a nutshell what faith is about. And I think that it’s good news that is worth sharing with the world, news the world desperately needs.

Faith compels us to better learn the story of God’s people. We cultivate faith when we pay attention to the births and marriages and deaths that are part of our extended lives in community. When we pay attention to that first day of college or the last. And better still, to all those parents’ weekends in between and the challenges with a roommate and the giddiness of a new romance. When we pay attention to changing a diaper or teaching that same child to hit a golf ball or to drive. When we unload the dishwasher or take a long walk along the beach or pick up our kids from summer camp and can see it in their eyes, they have been changed somehow. Changed for good. And by God’s mercy, so are we.

We are part of a pilgrim people—a communion of saints, a great cloud of witnesses. And I think the journey itself is home, which is to say that it is along the way that we discover the God we seek. By faith we, too, do the best we can and by faith we sometimes even do great things. By faith we discover and rediscover that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not yet seen. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Faith in Action

One week ago, I was sitting in my mother's living room in Hawley, Pennsylvania with my family to help plan the funeral of my stepfather, The. Rev. Martin L. Cox, Jr. I blogged about that experience here.

Time is a funny thing when someone close to us dies - it seems to move both faster and slower at the same time. Since last Saturday we've made a return trip to Massachusetts, and then back to Pennsylvania for calling hours, burial, memorial service - and now we're back home again. The past week has been packed full of tears and laughter. There have been lots of stories and memories shared. People have seen rainbows and spotted cardinals and all the rest! (I think we mostly agree that these "outward and visible signs" are probably always around us, but when death comes close, we tend to be more attuned to these signs of God's presence.) How to stay in tune as life returns to normal, or finds a new normal?

A week later, I am filled with gratitude. I realize that while I have a lot of experience with death and dying as a pastor, it's been some time since I stood in a receiving line for hours on end, or gathered at the graveside to commend someone to God not as the officiant but as someone who needed to be ministered to.

I've been thinking of all the ways that my family and I have been ministered to in the past week and for those who "don't know what to say or do" when someone is grieving, here are a few thoughts I'd like to share.

1. Show up. It doesn't matter what you say, or if you have any words. There are no words. It's ok to say, "I don't have any words." Give a hug. We got lots of hugs on Thursday night. I was touched by how many people came, from near and far, to pay their respects. People came from California and Ohio and Massachusetts and from all over Pennsylvania. I was moved most deeply, however, by the high school friend of one of my nieces and her dad and two younger sisters who only a couple of months ago lost their wife/mother. Whether we are paying it forward, or back, those who have experienced the presence of others in times of loss know that this is all that is needed - and yet sometimes it is costly. Being present may re-open old wounds, or fresh ones, for us. We should be gentle with those who cannot find it in them, but we must celebrate the courage of those who do. (By the way, this showing up extends to both before and after calling hours or a funeral. My family is so grateful for those who visited Marty in the hospital and who drove my mother back and forth to New York City in the months leading up to his death.)

2. Bring food. I must admit as a long-time pastor I've sometimes teased the casserole brigade. Never, ever again - even in jest - will I do that. My family loves to cook and to eat and we are normally pretty self-reliant. But time stands still (or speeds up; again I'm not certain) in times of grief and there doesn't seem to be time to shop and cut and dice and cook. So someone shows up with lasagnas or a cold cut platter or fried chicken or cake or cookies or corn chowder or ham and scalloped potatoes or Swedish meatballs - and it is more than a gesture. It's daily bread. It's manna from heaven! I mean this. We have a big extended family - but we have not gone hungry this past week. Far from it.

3. Write a note and/or send a card. Sometimes people cannot be present, for a whole host of reasons. And some people just don't cook. Most of us can share a memory, however, and find a card. I got home today to find a mailbox full of cards and notes from friends. What a gift! Usually our mailbox has only bills and junk mail in it! I confess I'm not so good at sending cards as I want to be, but I find myself inspired to do better. My mother got so many more notes and cards, of course - but the one that touched me the most was from a quiet student of Marty's in an ethics class, who knew him not as pastor but professor. A student who said not once but twice that while she was too shy to speak up in class she wished she had done so - and that the class had left a mark on her.

All of these are outward and visible signs of faith in action. All of us live busy lives. But death reminds us we don't have all the time in the world. These sacramental acts of kindness and love are a kind of prayer, maybe the most important kind. So yes, we can and should pray for those who have died and for those who mourn their loss. But prayer isn't just between us and God. And sometimes God responds, go be with them, bake some bread, write a note - in my name.

Prayer is a way of life, and a living faith needs to be acted upon in small and large ways. Today I am offering prayers of thanksgiving for these many, many blessings in a time of loss - a loss made more bearable and meaningful because of these outward signs of a in inward and spiritual grace, and as reminders of a life well lived, that touched so many.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Practicing Faith

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1)

Early this past Saturday morning, my step-father, the Rev. Martin L.Cox, Jr., died with my mother and my youngest sister at his side. He fought a valiant battle against leukemia which included an experimental treatment at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City - about two hours from my hometown. The plan on Friday was to transport him to hospice much closer to home and so my sister and mother were going to travel with Marty in the ambulance. The ambulance was delayed, however, until Saturday, and he didn't make it through the night.

May he rest in peace, and rise in glory. He was a good man and a gift to our family. But this post is not a eulogy. There will be time for plenty of "good words" about Marty, from many directions.Most of them I think will boil down to this: "well done, good and faithful servant."

This post, however, is a rumination on the faith of my family, from generation to generation - and what that means to me in a time of loss. Faith is not, as I understand it, primarily about a set of "beliefs." Over time, beliefs change - if we remain open - based on new information and on new experiences. But over time, faith deepens. It matures like wine. Faith is not a list of beliefs, but an assurance and a conviction, according to the writer of Hebrews. I think the closer synonym to faith is trust - not belief. And trust is the antidote to fear.

Nothing has the potential to make us more afraid than death, our own and the deaths of those whom we love. But faith allows us to say, as "The Burial Office" in The Book of Common Prayer puts it, that "to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens." (BCP 382)

Instead of gathering the family on Saturday as planned to say our goodbyes to my step-father, we found ourselves instead sitting in my mother's living room planning his funeral. My mother was raised in the Lutheran Church, but became a United Methodist when she was married to my dad. The faith she has is strong, but it's not her's alone. It was passed on to her by her family and a community of faith. (St. Paul's Lutheran Church is in fact just across the street from Hawley United Methodist Church where we four kids were raised. )

I'm the oldest, and along the way found myself drawn to the Episcopal Church, where I have been a priest for over two decades. My youngest sister is a lay Episcopalian who is involved, among other things, with music ministries in her church. My brother and other sister are members at Hawley United Methodist Church - both sing in the choir (with my mom.) My brother is also the lay leader of that congregation. I share these bits of information not as items on our resumes, but to make it clear it's not just that Rich and Marty are pastors. Faith matters to all of the members of my family. And all of our children are, like us, "church people." So far no one in that generation is ordained. But faith matters to the grandchildren too - from oldest to youngest, and even in a world where "young people don't seem to connect to the church anymore." Our young people do!

Now faith is not about going to church every week. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. But faith has to be practiced. Over time. That requires community. You can be a good person on your own, and you can even be a not-so-good person who goes to church. But I don't know how you can be a person of faith who doesn't practice that faith and I don't know how you practice faith without a community to hold you up when you are down, and hold you accountable when you are wrong.

In one sense, you might make the case that faith is practiced over thousands of years so that when death comes to our doorsteps, that we are prepared both to grieve and to make our song at the grave, alleluia!

Sitting in my mother's living room, three generations of Christians, we suggested hymns and sang some of them. Sitting in my mother's living room we chose readings from scripture - calling them out and reading them aloud and "voting" on the ones that seemed right to this particular death at this particular time. We possess the skill set as a family to do this work with relative ease.

As a longtime pastor I know that we are not unique, but in our culture I know also that this is increasingly rare. And I don't mean the so-called secular culture. I mean the church culture that is sometimes more consumer driven than it is about making disciples. The skill set for doing this hard work is harder to find than it once was - maybe as recently as a generation ago. Finding a Bible in the house - finding the prophet Isaiah - knowing where chapter sixty-one is - these are not skills that can be assumed anymore.

There is no judgment intended in this post about those who don't possess these skills. As a longtime pastor I try to extend hospitality to all and to judge no one, lest I be judged. I don't share this post to shame anyone else or to say that my family is somehow "better." But I share it in the old-fashioned meaning of the word "testimony" - that I know what I saw on Saturday in my mother's living room and it was good.

And it goes beyond the skills for this work of dealing with the death of a loved one. What I'm trying to speak of are the practices of faith that give one something to draw on in times of uncertainty and loss. Faith isn't something we can add water to in the moment when we need it. We go to church, we connect to a community, so that we are ready - not just in the moment when loss comes to us but as members of a body who also are there for others when they need us in their times of loss.

There really is no judgment intended in this post. But I see my work as a priest to be about "equipping the saints" for ministry - and no ministry is more existential than facing death. I saw in my mother's living room a family where faith has been practiced over time - so that in this unique moment in time we have a common language (even across denominational and generational lines) and a sure and certain hope in the resurrection. That doesn't mean there aren't times of doubt. But doubt isn't the opposite of faith; fear is. Faith does mean that we can help one another to not be afraid, and remind one another of the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.

As a pastor, I can do a funeral for someone who only rarely came to church. I can do that in the funeral home if necessary. I can find readings and choose some music and hire a soloist. It's part of what the church can do for people who are grieving and it can be holy work. But it's different when families have a deep well from which they can draw, and while I love my family I also don't think we are totally unique. I've had other moments like the one I had Sunday, in other living rooms.

The Church needs to be relevant, to be sure. But the Church that seeks to be relevant to every passing fad is always in danger of becoming disconnected from the saints who have gone before us, those who from their labors rest. The Church is always being made new, to be sure. But we also have deep, deep roots that sustain us in times of loss.To notice that from time to time is a great blessing.

I think we Christians move through Lent and Holy Week and remember that we are dust, and then sing those early morning alleluias on Easter and proclaim that Christ has won the victory as practice, not unlike practicing for an Olympic sport or practicing the piano. We go to Church even in those ordinary Sundays after Pentecost and we listen to sermons that stimulate faith (as well as those that put us to sleep) over years and decades, so that when it comes time for us to sit in a living room and face death, we have something to draw on.

We don't connect to faith communities out of duty, guilt, or obligation, but so that faith can be practiced, and deepened, and strengthened, over time. So that it can mature like a well-aged wine. Always with God's help.