Tuesday, November 22, 2016

It's Time to Wake Up!

Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:36-44)
This weekend, the First Sunday of Advent, I have no sermon to write. I am looking forward to an extended Thanksgiving break with family. Nevertheless, I have been pondering the text above, the appointed gospel for this coming Sunday, alongside other eschatological and apocalyptic texts that show up in Advent in both the Old and New Testaments.

Advent is not primarily a nostalgic look back to the first coming of baby Jesus in first-century Bethlehem. Rather, it is a hopeful look ahead, to Christ's SECOND Advent, It invites believers to reflect on the deep truth that out of endings there really are new beginnings, (See, for example, Isaiah 11:1 which is read on the Second Sunday of Advent - "...out of the stump of Jesse, a shoot...") We look toward that day when there is no longer pain or sighing or tears, and there are people singing, from every nation, tribe, people and language (see Revelation 7:9)

The gospel is not a "spiritual" matter. Christianity is a fleshy- faith, not a gnostic sect. The weeks of Advent are a time for us to prepare to welcome Emmanuel, God-with-us, in the midst of it all. That's not just for an hour on Sunday mornings or the quiet of our hearts. It's about the world we live in - shepherds and politicians and cab drivers and midwives. It's about healthcare, and how we treat our neighbors fleeing persecution. The election is over but the work of the Church continues.
We know how the story ends. The work to which we are called, in the meantime, is to do all that we can to move toward that vision, not as idealists but as realists who believe that is the dream that God has for this world. And to resist all that works against that vision. This is not about partisan politics. This is about fidelity to the gospel.

There have been lots of words written since election day. Truth be told the anxiety level is high. But it's hard to stay calm when the President-elect is so good at feeding our fears. Will this nation be a place where people from every nation, tribe, people and language can sing the Lord's song? Or is the way "to make America great again" code language for turning the clock back, by undoing the gains that have been made for women, people of color, and LGBTQ people? Only time will tell.

It's almost cliche for clergy-types to put down consumerism as we seek to carve out space for Advent. I surely get that. But a real Advent message has come to us this year from, of all places, Amazon.com. I think this ad points to the work of the Church in these dangerous times, and is a sign of the in-breaking Reign of God. How can we channel this vision, not to sell a product but to convey the good news of the dear Savior's birth, and to work for reconciliation, justice and peace?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Crucified God: A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Today on the last Sunday of the Christian calendar, I am with the good people at Christ Church in Fitchburg. As I said to them, it's fun from time to time to be invited to be a "supply priest" - meaning I'm there because the rector needed a substitute this weekend, and not there to talk about clergy transitions. This allows me to focus in more specifically on the readings of the day, which can be found here.  They videotape their sermons at Christ Church, so you can watch my sermon above; or you can read the manuscript below if you prefer. (If you follow along while watching you will notice I have a tendency to deviate a bit from my script, from time to time!)

I’m grateful to be with you today at Christ Church and also grateful to be here with no official diocesan business. This parish is not one of those in the midst of a clergy transition! Ben and Carolyn are just taking some much-deserved time away and I got the call to pinch hit today. What that means is that I get to just focus in on the texts for today, as we celebrate the Feast of “Christ the King” – or we might say, “The Reign of Christ.” It has been 27 weeks since Pentecost. For over six months we’ve been moving through “ordinary time,” methodically hearing bits of Luke’s Gospel week after week. Next week the cycle begins anew and our attention will turn to Matthew’s Gospel as we journey through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost – and then week after week of ordinary time until we again come to Christ the King Sunday.

What exactly does it mean for us, as Christians, to say that we worship a king? And not just any king, but one who was executed as an enemy of the state between two criminals? In a nutshell, that is the great paradox of our faith in full view today. We come here to worship the king, and perhaps looking for Jesus to set things right in our world, or at least to calm our nerves. And then we get a gospel reading that seems to be misplaced – a Good Friday text of crucifixion. It’s powerlessness, not power. It’s about weakness and vulnerability, not yet triumph. 

And yet most of the images and language we use today, including our hymns, point us toward the future, to the culmination of human history. That focus that will continue next weekend as we enter once more the Season of Advent. We look toward Christ’s victorious return, in glory, to set things right: to the time when every knee shall bend and proclaim Jesus as Lord, and the captives are free, and the powers of this world are subdued once and for all. That is all about the power of God and peace on earth and good will to all…

And yet this Good Friday gospel calls our attention not to the Second Coming in triumph but to the end of the first coming on a cross. We are at the place of a skull, Calvary, where this “king of the Jews” is executed between two criminals, one to his right and another on his left. Here the cry, “hail, king of the Jews” is not a cry of the faithful but an abusive taunt from an angry mob. The crown of thorns on his head has been put there to mock him, not worship him. And yet this plea from one of the criminals: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Remember me.

So what can we say about this “kingdom?” There are two very different responses when we think about how that kingdom connects to the kingdoms of this world. Some—and versions can be found both on the left and on the right—think it is their job to bring their version of Christian power to bear on the world. The thing is that this has been tried in Christian history, as in the Holy Roman Empire. Unfortunately when Christians had all the power, they misused it as much as any other kings. The crusades and the inquisition bear witness to the fact that power can corrupt Christians as much as it corrupts anyone.

On the other end of the spectrum is an entirely different approach that keeps “heaven” and “earth” far apart. Faith becomes privatized and spiritualized, a matter only for an hour or so each week. A “wall of separation” develops within us that leads to a kind of spiritual schizophrenia. We can be pious in church, and “realists” in the workplace. Some people would call that hypocrisy

I want to point to a third way by way of quoting a German theologian by the name of J├╝rgen Moltmann, from a book called The Crucified God. I’ve been ordained long enough to know that this is usually not the way to lure people into a sermon. Jokes, funny stories, personal antidotes usually work much better than German theologians. But I pray that you’ll stay with me anyway. Here goes: 

The God of freedom, the true God, is... not recognized by his power and glory in the history of the world, but through his helplessness and his death on the scandal of the cross of Jesus.

Now hold that thought for a minute or two…

National elections come and go which means that presidents come and go. Even nations come and go. But in the meantime, in the ordinary times of our lives (and in extraordinary times, too) we are called to be the Church. We come here today to worship the living God and we leave here to go back to our homes and our places of work and play to follow Jesus the Christ, whose will it is (as we prayed today in our opening collect) “to restore all things in your well-beloved Son.”
We surely need this restoration! We know what it means to be peoples of the earth divided and enslaved by sin. What’s hard to imagine is what freedom in Christ looks like – what it means to be brought together under Christ’s most gracious rule.  Not forced, but invited to come and see. I think we come to a place like Christ Church to get a glimpse of it. We come here to practice: Republicans and Democrats and Independents and even the 43% of Americans who didn’t vote in the recent presidential election. All are welcome at one table where there is one bread and one cup and one Lord.

We come here to practice praying for our president week after week. For some among us it may have been really challenging to pray for our president, Barack, over the past eight years, while others were filled with joy. For some among us it will be really challenging to pray for Donald, our president-elect, even as others are filled with joy. But we are able to come together to do this because we know that our true allegiance is not to party or president or even nation, which all need our prayers. Our true allegiance is to the king of kings, and the lord of lords. His gracious rule binds us together through Holy Baptism.

This brings me back to Moltmann and The Crucified God and to those words I shared earlier. If you hear nothing else I have said or will say today, I want to commend his insights to you alongside this gospel reading from Golgatha, the touchstone of our faith, at the place of the skull where our king and our lord is executed on a tree between two criminals.  

The God of freedom, the true God, is... not recognized by his power and glory in the history of the world, but through his helplessness and his death on the scandal of the cross of Jesus.

God is not a coercer. The Church sometimes is. Pastors sometimes are and yes, even canons and bishops and lay people sometimes are. We lord it over one another with our ideologies, our certitudes. “It’s my way or the highway” we say or maybe we don’t say it with words but our actions belie our intentions. “I’ve been a member here for my whole life; if you do that, I’ll take my pledge and go somewhere else!”

But the God of freedom, the true God, the God revealed to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, is not about that kind of kingdom or that way of lording it over one another. The true God, is recognized through his weakness and helplessness and his death on the cross. This is the scandal that binds us together regardless of who we voted for: that we dare to see the face of the crucified God in the face of this man from Galilee who was executed between two criminals.

Now here’s the thing: while we know that is not the end of the story, while we know about the empty tomb and all the rest – that doesn’t change Good Friday. It doesn’t change the way Jesus died or how God is revealed in the world.

What I think this means is that our work is first and foremost to pay attention to those places in this world where there is weakness and helplessness and death. It’s not political to say that we have an addiction problem in this nation, in this Commonwealth, in this county - and that opiods are killing our young people and we need to pay attention to that. It's not political to say that might be among migrant workers who may or may not have all of their paperwork in order. It’s not political to say that it might be among refugees fleeing persecution and violence in Syria. It’s not political to say that it’s in visiting those who are in prison or those who are in a VA hospital. It’s gospel work to care for those on the margins, because it is on the margins that we find God and discover our shared vocation. That’s where we see the face of Christ in our own world.

God has given us this work to do in order to be the Church. Sometimes that will make us good citizens and sometimes that work will cause us to protest. And here’s the thing – we may not all agree on which is which on any given Sunday. That is why we need each other and need to continue to be formed, daily, by the God who is revealed in Jesus, who challenges all of our ideologies.

I was saddened to hear from at least two people recently that they were cancelling Thanksgiving because they couldn’t do it this year because of political divisions in their families. This breaks my heart. But here is what I know – even when blood ties are strained, the ties that bind us together in Holy Baptism are stronger still. We come here to say our prayers and to offer the Great Thanksgiving and to glimpse the truth that we are called to respect the dignity of every human being. That we are called to just do two things: love God and love our neighbor. And that in so doing, we become a witness to the world. In so doing we become salt, and light, and yeast that changes the world.  

We come here to remember that Jesus really is Lord and king of kings – and that our allegiance to him helps us to do this work with gratitude and hope, until he comes again. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Prophetic Imagination

It's been a challenging week. I don't feel much better, but I do feel a little less numb. Reality is settling in. There have been lots of prognosticators and lots of words. That great line from Amadeus comes to mind: "too many notes." Too many words. I am a slow processor. I've been trying to listen and to pay attention, but while there is some helpful stuff out there, there is an awful lot that is not helpful. Too many posts!

I've been teaching Amy-Jill Levine's book, Jesus: The Misunderstood Jew to a group of about twenty-five Jewish, Christian and agnostic seniors through the Worcester Institute for Senior Education (WISE) at the Jewish Community Center in Worcester - a five-week class. Today I began the class with images of hatred that are popping up all around us, including the one shown above which was reported by The Episcopal News Service. I don't need to repeat them all but clearly there are some very deplorable behaviors emerging among some of those who supported the president-elect of this nation taking place at elementary schools, college campuses, houses of worship and elsewhere that intend to instill fear and perpetuate violence. This is not who we are, and I for one will not step aside. The conversation today seemed welcome: that room became a place where people could speak out of their own experience as we tried to uncover ways that we might create safe places like the room we were in where people of different faiths can learn and grow from each other. It matters.

Walter Brueggemann has rightly noted that the prophets are poets, and I find myself needing to turn to some of the great poets who say more with less. They cultivate imagination which I, for one, need more of right now: to imagine an alternative narrative than the one we seem to be writing. I'll find my voice again, but in the meantime there is W. H. Auden, among many others - who once wrote:
For the garden is the only place there is, but
you will not find it
Until you have looked for it everywhere
and found it nowhere that is not a desert. 
That rings true for me. With Advent just around the corner, I do want to believe that (eventually) the desert shall rejoice and blossom as a rose.

What poetry is giving you hope these days?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Remember. Consider. Hope.

My view of the 10 a.m congregation at St. John's
Today I was at St. John's in Williamstown, MA.  The readings for this 26th Sunday after Pentecost can be found here. Last Sunday, the rector who faithfully served St. John's for thirty years retired. While the national election from this week was no doubt on everyone's mind, including my own, I focused on the more local transition that lies ahead for St. John's than to say too much directly about national issues. 

My name is Rich Simpson. While I’ve known your former rector for almost two decades, and I’ve been getting to know your vestry and especially your wardens over the past six months or so, this is the first time I am meeting most of you. It’s an honor to be here.

I serve as one of two Canons to the Ordinary in our diocese. I am not going to quiz you all on this odd title, but whenever I do and I ask congregations who “the Ordinary” is, they think it’s them. But I always tell them that they are in fact rather extraordinary – the baptized, the beloved of God. And while I am here to serve you as you navigate this season of transition, and walk alongside you, I don’t work for you! I work for Bishop Fisher. He is the “Ordinary” – a word with a Latin root that means “overseer.” It shares the same root as words like ordination and ordinal. A canon is a person who hangs around a cathedral – in our case we have canons on the first floor and on the second floor of Christ Church Cathedral, where our diocesan offices are. So, as you all know Episcopalians love this sort of thing: we’d rather speak of the narthex than the lobby. But basically I am an Assistant to the Bishop, although that doesn’t sound nearly as glamorous. My primary area of responsibility is in helping congregations deal with transitions like the one you have now embarked on.

It’s been three decades since this parish faced a clergy transition, so you might be a little rusty. A lot has changed in the past thirty years. And maybe some of you are feeling a little scared, too. In fact, if you remember Elizabeth Kubler Ross and the stages of grief – the truth is that you are probably all navigating Peter’s departure at various speeds, and it’ll take a while to deal with some of those emotions.

St. John's, Williamstown, MA
This is why we need to catch our collective breath and enter into an intentional interim time with the Rev. Libby Wade before we go blazing full speed ahead. It’s not wasted time, or holding still time – but clarifying time. What does God have in mind next for St. John’s? We may all have our own ideas about that, but what we need to do together is enter a time of listening and of learning and of discovery. The better that goes, the deeper that goes, the easier it will be for me to identify strong candidates for this position who can lead you in the next chapter of the life of this congregation. So be patient, and kind, and gentle along the way.

But all that in due time. I’ll be glad to outline the process and answer any questions you may have after this liturgy. But we are here today in this holy place to do something that is more timeless, even as we recognize that time like an ever rolling stream is moving along, and that transition is an inevitable part of our life together in Jesus Christ. We gather here on this 26th Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost not to worship clergy, as much as we may adore them, but to worship the living God, as followers of Jesus. We look to Holy Scripture and the traditions of our faith, and reflect on our own experience – to remind us of who we are, and whose we are – and that there is work to be done.

We – the Church – are called to be light and yeast and salt in a broken world. Our work didn’t end with a national election this week; it continues as we double down on prayer - this work of binding up the broken-hearted and of working for justice and reconciliation, this work of listening to those who don’t have a voice or who are drowned out by the powerful or who voted differently from us.

Horton, in Springfield, MA
Behind my office at the Cathedral in Springfield is the Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden. It’s hard to pick one favorite sculpture back there, but Horton (the one who hears a Who) is very near the top of my list. “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” It seems to me the work of the Church – of speaking up on behalf of the widow and orphan and the most vulnerable members of our society is a constant, even and especially in the midst of political transitions like the one we now embark on.

I have been scheduled to be here today for quite a while but when I finally looked at the readings and saw the text from Isaiah 65, I had to smile. The time when those words were written was a time of huge transition for God’s people. Let me see if I can remind you of the whole trajectory of the Old Testament – the book that Jesus simply called “the Bible” – in less than thirty seconds. Ready?

Creation. It’s good. Human beings. Very good. Broken, yes – imperfect to be sure, but still very good. Then there is the call of Abraham and Sarah to go to a new land. Trust me, says God, nor for the last time in the Bible. And then slavery in Egypt and a God who sees and hears their cries and then sends Moses to tell old Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Trust me, God says. King David – a good but flawed and all too human leader. The fall of Israel and the destruction of the temple, followed by the Babylonian exile. By the waters of Babylon God’s people lay up their harps and weep because it seemed like the end.

And it was the end. Yet in every ending, God is already working on a new beginning that God’s people are called to attend to, and embrace, and nurture. Even at the grave we are a people who make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, because we are a people who trust that life is changed, not ended. Transition.

Early morning in Williamstown
That brings us to Isaiah – the one the scholars call third Isaiah because it’s written over a long period of time and the first part is before the Exile and the second part is in the midst of it, and the last part – the part we read from today – is on the brink of heading home and rebuilding the Temple and the city and peoples’ lives. “Don’t get stuck in the past,” God says. “I’m about to do a new thing,

Are you still with me, St. John’s? As I read the Biblical narrative, related to time – there is an overarching connective theme that is caught up in the Paschal mystery:

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

We say it so often, but notice those verb tenses. Past tense. Present tense. Future tense. We remember. We remember that even in the wilderness, even in exile, even in the valley of the shadow of death, even when we grieve or hurt, that God was with us. So we remember.

But if we mean to not get stuck there, if we mean to avoid nostalgia for the past, then we need to consider. That’s the word Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount. That’s the word he uses when he says “consider the lilies of the field and consider the birds of the air.” When we consider we are trying to be fully present to the sacredness of this moment which will never come our way again – to all that we think and feel in this singular moment in time. The present is where God meets us – here and now on this fall day in this town, in this place.  Only too often we miss it because we are stuck in some past moment or worried about some future moment that may or may not happen. Quite literally perhaps some of you are still thinking about Peter’s last Sunday or when this sermon will finally end or when this process will end and a new rector will be called here. But we are here today, NOW, in a time and place where the risen Lord deigns to be our guest. Christ is risen! Consider!

And Christ will come again. The future is in God’s hands and that, I hope, is a great comfort not only as we reflect on what the next year or so will bring to this parish but also to this nation. The testimony of Scripture is that love wins, that we need not be anxious about tomorrow. The new thing, the new creation, may feel far away at this moment. But it’s what gives us hope to let our light shine today and to be present to this moment.  Hope is not wishful thinking. Hope is not passive; it’s active, even proactive.

Now here is what I think: if I had one sermon to preach, it is this sermon about the Paschal mystery as it takes hold in a particular time and place. It’s that God isn’t finished with us yet and that we are called to share the work with God by remembering, and considering, and hoping. And here is what I’ve learned as Canon to the Ordinary in all this work on clergy transitions over the past three and a half years: this transition time is potentially a time for incredible spiritual growth. It is a time for us to have eyes to see and ears to hear.

And yet it is also a time when fear can get the better of us. Do you know that every time an angel shows up in the Bible they begin the same way? They are one-hit wonders, these angels! They say, “do not be afraid.” They say it day after day – someone has counted and said that it comes up 365 times in the Bible – one for every day. Do not be afraid…do not be afraid…do not be afraid.

Fear can paralyze us, and it can blind us and it can make us deaf to what God is up to in our lives, in our world, in this congregation. So we need to counter fear with laughter, and light, and joy, and hope, and faith, and love. And prayer. And when we do, transition becomes a rich season of possibility.

Williams College, Center for Development Economics
And so today I made a very bold decision for a visitor. Please don’t think I have anything against St. Paul. You have the insert so you can go home and read the text from Thessalonians. But Paul is always writing to congregations: to the Church in Thessalonica, or Galatia, or Corinth, or Rome. And I wanted to offer a word to the Church in Williamstown today – a parable that may not be in the Bible but that I think is quite Biblical in its orientation. This parable of the trapeze makes the claim that transitions are filled with possibility. That they let us be really real. That this time between the trapezes is a time when we are called to not be afraid, a time when St. John’s might learn to fly.

I don’t say this lightly, nor do I pretend it will be easy. Following Jesus is most definitely not the easy path. Libby isn’t Peter and whoever comes as your next rector won’t be either one. Each will be their own person and they will preach and act and even sound differently from Peter as I no doubt do today as well.

Some of you may know that I followed our previous bishop in Holden, at St. Francis Church. He’d been there for fifteen years before he was elected bishop of this diocese. They went through what I can only say to you was a terrible interim period. They survived it, but the person serving there was no Libby Wade. It was a hard fifteen or sixteen months and then I arrived and I was just thirty-four years old. On the one hand I was what every parish says they want: a young guy with a lovely church-going wife and two boys in tow who were seven and three at the time.

But on the other hand, I was a rookie, following a guy with a gray beard who was now our bishop. I made some rookie mistakes. When Gordon arrived in Holden he was in his thirties too, but they’d forgotten that. Some of you may remember Gordon has a slow cadence. People told me I talked too fast. (They had not yet heard Doug Fisher talk!)

Here’s what I think: because they missed some opportunities for learning in during the interim, my first two or three years became the interim. It took a while for things to settle down. But fast forward: when I left that parish myself – fifteen years and four months later – they had a wonderful interim and I think that in part has made it much easier for my successor to come in and pick up with that wonderful parish.

I pray that your experience this time around will be more like what St. Francis has gone through this time around rather than what they went through before I arrived. But I’m going to be honest: there are no guarantees. I trust and adore Libby. But the work will be challenging. Three decades have passed since Peter himself arrived here with a different-colored beard. I’ve seen the pictures!

A good interim period is characterized by lots of questions. Channel your inner Colombo; remember him? Don’t blame. Don’t point fingers. Ask questions. Notice when things get interesting, even as some balls will drop and you discover, “well, Peter did that, I guess!” It’s what comes next that really matters. Blame and shame are temptations to resist. Instead say, “What did we just learn? Where are we being called? What needs to die? Do we need that ball anymore? What is yearning to be born here?” 

Remember the living God who still says:

…I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
but be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating…

Remember, and consider, and hope. I invite you to roll up your sleeves and join in. Christian faith is not a spectator sport. Don’t stand on the sidelines and cheer on or critique the interim and the wardens and the vestry. Pray for them all daily. And enter in more deeply to the new thing God is doing here. Listen for a Word of the Lord to encourage you to step up, and lean in. Remember, consider, and hope. In the name of the living God. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

On the Eve of an Election: Just Breathe

So, tomorrow is the big day. It's been a very long and very divisive election season. I heard this morning that it was on November 8, 1860, that Abraham Lincoln was elected president of these United States. We say that with ease - "these United States." But the nation was on the brink of Civil War that election year (even without the "help" of cable news) and the notion that we would remain one nation under God was fiercely contested.

I am not usually prone to hyperbole; I tend to have a fair amount of Qoheleth in me, believing there is not very much new under the sun. (See Ecclesiastes 1:9.) But as I said in my sermon yesterday for All Saints Sunday, this is the most divisive and polarizing election in my lifetime. I would add today that it may well be the most polarizing one since 1860. Even so, what I hope the good folks in the pews at Church of the Good Shepherd heard me say yesterday was this: whatever happens tomorrow, the Church is called to be the Church on Wednesday morning.

Last night I joined a public witness of our diocese, led by our deacons, at City Hall in Worcester. That brief liturgy concluded appropriately with the prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Whatever happens tomorrow, I will be praying "Lord, make us instruments of thy peace" on Wednesday.

At that prayer service, my boss, Bishop Doug Fisher, quoted his brother bishop to the east. The full text of Bishop Gates' Convention Address to the Diocese of Massachusetts can be found here and I commend it to you. But it's the last portion of that address that Bishop Fisher referenced and that I also want to share with readers of this blog - a quote from the late John Snow's book, I Win, We Lose: The New Social Darwinism and the Loss of Love. Here is what Professor Snow wrote:
Metanoia is the Greek word that refers to a change in mind, a different way of thinking.  Metanoia is the opposite of paranoia.  We cannot seem to learn the basic lesson of the New Testament and of history that fear is the cause of paranoid behavior.  At its heart, it is the assumption that each person is a potential adversary of every other person. … The more I imagine this anger in another, the more my behavior becomes defensive and hostile towards others, and the more that that happens, the more frightened and angry others become toward me.  Paranoid feelings are apt to cause runaway escalation. … Only love can cast out fear and allow us the luxury of metanoia. [p. 101]
This contrast between paranoia and metanoia resonates deeply with me on this eve of this election. There is paranoia all around us. It's anger and a huge helping of fear and pain on steroids. The more paranoid we become, the less able we are to be reasonable. And more importantly, the less able we are to love our neighbor. As Professor Snow puts it, only love can cast out fear. Usually in the New Testament the word metanoia is translated as "repentance." But that's a loaded word in our context. Using the Greek word helps us to remember that we are called to a change of mind and a different way of thinking and then being.

What this means, I think, in our day, is that we are called to love our neighbor with the Trump signs and our neighbor with the Hillary signs. And the neighbor I overheard at the YMCA yesterday who said he couldn't choose between "the wicked witch and the fool." Whatever happens tomorrow, we can pray not only for a peaceful transition of power, but for more metanoia and less paranoia in our communities. We can seek to be instruments of peace who value understanding more than being understood, and loving our neighbor more than needing to be loved by our neighbor.

A friend asked me recently if I was "holding my breath" until the election. I told him,"No, I'm trying to just breathe." I didn't mean to be funny. I hope that it is clear to anyone who has read this post this far that regardless of my personal partisan positions, I really do believe that God will still be God on Wednesday morning. If the apocalypse is not ushered in on Wednesday, then the work that the living God has given us to do is to breathe and to pray and to choose metanoia over paranoia in order to be instruments of God's peace. That might keep us busy for quite a while.

For those readers of this blog who don't own their own copy of The Book of Common Prayer here is a link to an online version. I have been praying "The Prayers for National Life" which begin on page 820 with some regularity, and I'll continue to do so. These prayers include a prayer "For an Election" that I commend to you who are reading these words.

But I'm even more drawn to the litany on page 838 under "Thanksgivings for National Life", entitled, For the Nation, because it reminds us of the work that lies ahead. It goes like this:
Almighty God, giver of all good things:
We thank you for the natural majesty and beauty of this land.
They restore us, though we often destroy them.
Heal us.
We thank you for the great resources of this nation. They
make us rich, though we often exploit them.
Forgive us.
We thank you for the men and women who have made this
country strong. They are models for us, though we often fall
short of them.
Inspire us.
We thank you for the torch of liberty which has been lit in
this land. It has drawn people from every nation, though we
have often hidden from its light.
Enlighten us.
We thank you for the faith we have inherited in all its rich
variety. It sustains our life, though we have been faithless
again and again.
Renew us.
Help us, O Lord, to finish the good work here begun.
Strengthen our efforts to blot out ignorance and prejudice,
and to abolish poverty and crime. And hasten the day when
all our people, with many voices in one united chorus, will
glorify your holy Name. Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

For All The Saints!

Today I am filling in at The Church of the Good Shepherd in Clinton. Today is the Sunday after the Feast of All Saints, and the readings being used today are those appointed for November 1. They can be found here.

While there are older oral and written traditions behind the final copy of what we now call the Book of Daniel, this “final draft” that has made it into our Bibles is most likely the newest document in the Old Testament, probably coming from a time less than two hundred years before the birth of Christ. To use a rough American analogy: if Jesus was born today in Clinton, Daniel takes us back to a time when James and Dolly Madison were in the White House, give or take.

It’s a rather strange book that wrestles with a very serious question: how can God’s people survive as a religious minority living under foreign rule? The narrator knows that there will be trials and tribulations when living in dangerous times, that there will be “costs of discipleship.” It includes the humor of a folktale set in a much earlier time period with the strange challenges of apocalyptic literature like John’s Revelation on Patmos.  

So even though we heard today that Daniel has these dreams and visions in his head during the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, we are not getting a contemporaneous report. The narrator is asking new questions by using old stories. It’s sort of like Arthur Miller’s play, “The Crucible;” set in the time of the Salem witch trials, but written in the 1950s as a commentary on the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Miller’s play, of course, meant to suggest that Senator Joseph McCarthy was on a witch-hunt. The Book of Daniel functions in a similar kind of way: seeing hints and clues taken from a more distant past of the Babylonian exile as a way to reflect upon and interpret the challenges that God’s people were facing in a new time and place.

Are you with me? Like anyone who lives in fearful times, Daniel is trying to sift through both his dreams and his nightmares. On the one hand, always there is the lure of God’s lasting vision of shalom: peace on earth, swords beaten into plowshares, the fatted calf killed and the wine poured and the table set, a table where all are welcome and where the lion and the lamb lie down together. On the other hand are the recurring nightmares that the beasts of imperial power leave us with and those demons that come out to haunt us late at night, manifested in opioid addictions and racial violence and the hurt and destruction that continues to unfold even on God’s holy mountain.

The insight that Daniel gets is that those “four beasts shall arise out of the earth, but the holy ones of the Most High shall receive and possess the kingdom forever—for ever and ever.” The “but” is significant. There is no immunization from the nightmare that this world sometimes is. But in the end, “all shall be well.” Eventually. The point is not to make some distant future prediction. Nor is very helpful to try to match up these “beasts” with the Roman Empire or Nazi Germany or Russia or Iran or China. The point here is hope. The point is that Daniel is learning to trust God’s dream and not to let his nightmares undo him. The point is that he (and sometimes we) can vacillate between despair and hope. But the message that God gives to Daniel and to the Jewish people (including Jesus of Nazareth and therefore ultimately through him to us gathered here today) is this: hang in there. Keep the faith. Take the long-view by choosing hope, because in the end, the holy ones of the Most High shall inherit the Kingdom of God forever—for ever and ever.” (Daniel 7:18) In the meantime, you do the best you can, one day at a time.

Three times in my life now, I have stood on the Mount of the Beatitudes looking down toward the Sea of Galilee. The first time I was a twenty-one year old student studying abroad during my junior year of college and I was there on spring break. The second time was in 2006, through St. George’s College. Most recently, I travelled there again about a year ago with the Society of St. John the Evangelist. Each time I have wandered the beautiful gardens kept by the Franciscans, and I’ve sat and read the words of Jesus that we heard in today’s gospel reading. Some of us were taught from a young age to bow our heads and close our eyes when we pray, in order to try to “see” with the eyes of our heart. But in that holy place I wanted my eyes as wide-open as possible. I wanted to soak it all in: the sounds of the birds of the air and the sight of flowers and the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The smells and sights and sounds all made it clear to me that I was on “holy ground.” And whether or not it was the holy place where Jesus himself had stood, it was without doubt a holy place where his disciples continue to come in order to “consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.” And so I did that too. And there I sat and read these same words we heard from today’s gospel reading:

          Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
          Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
          Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…

At first hearing, Jesus’ words in that pastoral setting may sound light years away from the political musings of the Book of Daniel. But I want to suggest to you on this All Saints Sunday that they are cut from the same cloth. Jesus, too, was living in difficult times and trying to help the people of his own time come to grips with what it means to be faithful in the midst of Roman imperial power. What does it mean to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what belongs to God? Which is which? It turns out that isn’t at all an easy question to answer, then or now. As Jesus speaks on that Galilean hillside, his words reverberate into that larger world of Roman domination. Like Daniel, Jesus is teaching his disciples to put their trust in the dream of God rather than the nightmare of the Roman “beast.” He is calling them from the world in order to teach them how to live in the world as salt and light and yeast. He is offering them an alternative “narrative” by which to orient their lives.

Rome says that whoever has the most toys when he dies wins. Jesus says that the holy ones of God know that the poor are blessed, and that we are blessed when we accompany them. Rome teaches the love of power; Jesus preaches the power of love. Jesus asks us to view Roman imperial power – the pax Romana—from a Galilean hillside on the edges of imperial power and then to ask, “at what cost? At whose expense?” For whom is it peace?

After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the good news about this alternative script, this way of living in the world but not of it, began to spread around the Mediterranean Sea to places like Corinth and Galatia and even the belly of the beast, Rome itself. Paul captures that vision after a life-changing experience on the Road to Damascus, writing in the middle of the first century to the Church in Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey, those extraordinary words we heard today:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart   enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

That dream eventually spread beyond Rome to the rest of Europe, and to Britain, and to the shores of this new world to this very Commonwealth at Plymouth Rock—and to this town of Clinton and to the first Episcopal missionaries riding on horseback across this Commonwealth and to this parish, the Church of the Good Shepherd. On this great feast of All Saints, we remember that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses: that the “good news” we proclaim here today was passed on to us by apostles and saints and martyrs and that even now we are surrounded by these holy ones of God who have, down through the centuries, put their trust in God and hoped in a brighter future and listened to their better angels. Even as we vaguely struggle; they in glory shine. Yet all are one…

This great cloud of witnesses continues to cheer us on. Has there ever been an eve of a national election in your lifetimes when we needed this reminder more? Don’t worry – I’m not about to go all political on you. But here is the deal: next weekend across this diocese and this great nation, as we pray for our Presiding Bishop, Michael, and our own Bishop, Doug, and for our President, Barack in the final months of his time in office, we’ll also add a prayer for our president-elect. Whichever one it is. And we’ll pray for a peaceful transition, perhaps more fully aware than ever before that this is not a given. There is a lot of work to be done by whoever wins, and graciousness required of whoever loses. There is a lot of fear on all sides, and like Daniel and Jesus and Paul and Julian of Norwich and all the saints, we are called to speak a word of hope into that mix; not as an act of denial, but as a sign of our hope that all will be well. Are we up to the task?

Walter Brueggemann has suggested that Holy Baptism is about re-branding us for this work that God has given us to do. Holy Baptism makes a claim on us that is forever. It puts a mark on us that begins the process of transformation and renewal that with God’s help leads us toward the full stature of Christ. It leads us toward becoming “more fully who we are marked and hoped to be.” Each of us have been branded and welcomed into this “communion of saints” – this beloved community. We are called to be witnesses for others as we live into the promises of the Covenant that has been made, turning away daily from all that seeks to destroy the creatures of God and cause us nightmares, and to turn to the One who is worthy of our trust and praise and to live out of that new narrative, that “script” of God’s love and purpose.

We gather here today to remember and to give thanks, and to renew our own promises of Baptism. We do that even on the brink of a presidential election that has raised anxiety on all sides. Especially now, because we know that this is not the first time in human history that God’s people have faced big challenges. We gather here to confront our nightmares and to re-open ourselves to God’s dream, knowing that by God’s grace and in God’s own good time, “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive and possess the kingdom forever—for ever and ever.” In the meantime, like the saints who have gone before us, we live by faith, hope, and love.

Let us then pray:

          You mark us with your water. You scar us with your name.
          You brand us with your vision, and we ponder our baptism, your water
                   your name. your vision.
          While we ponder, we are otherwise branded.
          Our imagination is consumed by other brands:
winning with Nike, pausing with Coca-Cola, knowing and controlling with Microsoft.
Rebrand us,
transform our minds, renew our imagination that we may be more fully who we are marked and hoped to be.
            We pray with candor and courage. Amen.[i]

[i] From Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

In Praise of Stability

One of the podcasts I listen to regularly (even obsessively) is Freakonomics. Almost always there is something in them that makes me think (and re-think) about something in a new way. Two recent podcasts I highly recommend are In Praise of Maintenance and In Praise of Incrementalism. I'll try to summarize my own takeaways in the ruminations below, but I encourage you to take time to listen to both podcasts yourself, as they are rich in so many ways.

As I listened, I reflected on the Rule of St. Benedict and in particular the vow to stability: that is a commitment to live in one community for life - to resist perpetual motion. The monks that I know (even the ones who are not explicitly "Benedictine") get maintenance and incrementalism intuitively. Both are pretty counter-cultural in a world and in a church that craves innovation and creativity.

There is a time and place for innovation and creativity, to be sure. In my diocese we give grants to congregations that come up with new ideas and want to try them out. I support this. I have preached numerous sermons about God doing a "new thing" and not to be holding onto the old thing as that new thing unfolds...

Yet as the podcast on maintenance suggests, it's not an either/or choice and it may be that taking care of the maintenance stuff actually frees up creativity. As a parish priest, I felt pretty clear that if we took care of the property and supported the staff to do their jobs and created a "stable" work environment that we would be freed up to actually do far more than we might otherwise imagine. Our energies would be unleashed rather than dealing with leaking roofs, peeling paint, musty carpets and the rest. Conversely, if the maintenance work is neglected it's easier to get stuck.

So too, I will admit that my marriage which is now in it's thirty-first year isn't all spontaneity and excitement. Hathy and I are pretty good partners in paying the bills on time, doing the shopping and cooking and cleaning and all the rest. Our snowblower is ready to go when the first snow comes this winter, and we have the gas! There is a lot of our day-to-day lives that is kind of boring and routine. Marriage is a bit like the vow of stability, I think. Now if that's all there was to life then maybe it would not be so praiseworthy. But it does seem to me that taking care of these things makes fuller and abundant life more possible. And with kids raised and out of the house, we are freed up to go on some adventures and enjoy the ride. But having the routines stabilized helps all that.

When I visit congregations, too often I see a lot of deferred maintenance and neglect. As someone said to me recently, churches that once smelled of incense now just smell of must and mold. Liturgies can tend to be stale and old too. (Or sometimes so "innovative" as to feel like they have been wrenched from their roots and from the sacred.)  I think there is much to be said for incremental changes over time in worship - innovation in the midst of rootedness. Traditioned innovation as some have called it.

I'll admit it: maybe these are just the ruminations of a middle aged man. The thought has occurred to me. But I also find myself wondering if Congress had been doing their job for the past forty years or so, if our roads and bridges were maintained, if our schools were working, if our water was clean, if the earth wasn't heating up because we've put our heads in the sand - in short if we'd been stewards of these gifts over time - then would we be experiencing the polarizations that now cause so much anxiety?

And in the Church, if we'd resist chasing every new idea as the one that will liberate us from the past - and instead take care of the gifts entrusted to us day by day, would we find ourselves more hopeful about the future?

Did you listen to the podcasts above? I find them compelling and I think it's right that social justice movements don't take hold overnight, and also that both the Civil Rights Movement and Gay Rights Movement that have led to Marriage Equality required a long-term plan and a lot of seeds being planted over time.

I'd just add that Jesus invited us to see the Kingdom of God not as a mighty tree of Lebanon but as a tiny mustard seed. So what are the seeds we need to be planting now - on the eve of a national election - that can lead us back to the path toward justice and peace? Tilling the soil and plucking up weeds and planting good seed can be back-breaking work - and surely is not so glamorous. But I think it's what we are called to do, with God's help, and then over time maybe others will reap what we have sown.