Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Speaking truth to power

Last week my Facebook page was filled with posts from fellow clergy, across denominational lines, trying to find ways to preach in the aftermath of the events that we all watched unfold in Charlottesville. I was one of those clergy who was re-writing my sermon as late as Sunday morning, trying to speak a word of "good news" in a world that seems to be coming unglued. I saw some fine sermons posted and it made me grateful for this vocation to preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary to use words.

But such times are also fraught with danger. In the opening essay of Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, Dr. Brueggemann writes about "The Preacher as Scribe." (For those who don't own a copy of this great book, I encourage you to buy it! But in the meantime he says some of the same things in an essay entitled "Where is the Scribe?" that was published in the Anglican Theological Review and can be found on-line here.)

Brueggemann is not exactly easy reading, but he has such amazing clarity. In "The Preacher as Scribe" he explores four scriptural confrontations that he says might be construed as truth speaking to power: Moses addressing Pharaoh, Nathan addressing David, Elijah addressing Ahab, and Daniel addressing Nebuchadnezzar. He then notes how problematic these examples are for preachers and that the model can be overly simplistic. Brueggemann writes about what every preacher struggles with at one point or another when confronting this question:
When we preside over institutions with programs, budgets, and anxiety-filled members, we are not likely to practice, with any simplicity at all, the notion of truth-speaking-to-power - not if we want to keep our jobs. Certainly there are occasional dramatic moments when truth can and must be spoken directly to power. But on the whole, the model of truth-speaking-to-power is not possible in our society, particularly in local congregations where one is cast as preacher and administrator. It is utterly impossible to be charged with both truth-telling and maintenance. (page 10)
Moreover, in a post-modern era we know the words "power" and "truth" are, as he puts it, "endlessly subtle and elusive."

What then to do? Cower in silence? No. Brueggemann reminds us that the goal isn't to get behind the texts to the historical Moses, Nathan, Elijah or Daniel but to remember that we are a people who have inherited the texts and who claim to hear a Word of the Lord here. Hence the preacher as scribe, the one who stands with her or his congregation to enter more deeply into these ancient texts. Not to preach the "headlines" of the day but to hold these texts up imaginatively and creatively so that God's people might hear an alternative narrative that has the potential to transform our lives and the world; to become people who together do justice and love mercy.

"The text is a voice of truth, albeit an elusive one." As humble scribe, the preacher is not asked to be Moses or Nathan or Elijah or Daniel on any given week but, to use Brueggemann's image, to function more like a pastoral therapist who "seeks to let power of illusion and repression be addressed by old, deep texts that swirl around us." And then this:
Like a therapist, the Preacher-Scribe does not own the text; the text lives in, with, and under the memory of the community. So the Preacher-Scribe gets out of the center and out of the way. The Preacher-Scribe trusts the text to have a say through the power of the Spirit rather than the power of the preacher; trusts the listening congregation to make the connections it is able to make; and trusts the deep places of truthful power and powerful truth that draw us in and send us forth in repentance, a turn that makes all things new. 
This work is not easy, to be sure. But as a preacher trying to be a more faithful Preacher-Scribe, I find the reminder helpful for the living of these days.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, Take II

I tend not to be a Saturday night sermon writer. In fact my sermons are usually written by Thursday afternoon so I can enjoy my day off on Friday. Such was the case this week and at 5 a.m this morning a post went out from this blog of the sermon I had planned to preach this morning at Grace Church in Oxford, Massachusetts. But the events unfolding this weekend in Charlottesville, VA led me to radically re-write that sermon early this morning. Below is my re-worked manuscript and the sermon I plan to preach in a couple of hours at Grace Church.

We are told that the setting for today’s gospel reading is that there is some weather: the waves are bashing the boat and the wind is kicking up. And when people are in a boat during a storm they get scared – even salty old fishermen.

I remember being in a plane just about a month after 9/11 and smoke was coming out of the bathroom. It turned out to be an electrical problem and not an act of terrorism, but at the time that wasn’t clear to anyone, including the flight crew. As the plane that had just taken off from Worcester airport bound for Atlanta made a quick up and down emergency landing in Hartford their faces said it all.  

The Bible is more like poetry than prose and more like our real lives than a documentary. I can’t tell you that it happened exactly this way in today’s gospel but I know how stories work. We tell stories to make sense of our lives. We tell stories like this one to remind ourselves not to be afraid. Perhaps you’ve had the experience (as I have) of people telling the same story and remembering different details and even learning different lessons from it. Here is what Matthew wants to make sure we understand from today’s Gospel reading: whatever we face, and however fierce the wind is, and however much we are battered by waves, Jesus still says to us:  “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”

In fact, maybe the whole gospel could be summarized with just those nine words: Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.

Maybe this doesn’t happen to you all, but I am prone to lose heart. When things don’t go my way or when my job feels impossible or when it feels like the nation is on the wrong path, I lose heart. I get discouraged. I am generally very much an optimist by nature, but when I feel like something is broken I have some old tapes that tend to make me think it’s my job to fix it. So when I hear those words, “take heart” I am encouraged. I pay attention.

It is I. Jesus is with us. On the land and on the sea and in the air. On mountaintops when we totally know that to be true and in the valley of the shadow of death when we may be prone to doubt it. In just three words, this is the mystery of the Incarnation – of Immanuel – of God-with-us through thick and through thin. Wherever we are in our journeys, we can count on Jesus being there calling us to move forward and not to be paralyzed, because we do not walk alone.

Do not be afraid. Those words may be the most frequently uttered words in the Bible. Bishop Fisher tells me they appear 365 times, once for every single day of the year. I haven’t counted but that makes good theological sense to me even if the math might be off by a couple. The angels sing it all the time; they are like one-hit wonders. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to live your life, the one to which you are uniquely called. Do not be afraid to show kindness and friendship to the stranger. Do not be afraid to open your heart to your neighbor. Do not be afraid to speak the truth you know and live the life that God calls you to live.

Thich Nat Han, a wise Buddhist monk, has taken today’s gospel to heart and come up with his own midrash when he writes, “the real miracle is not to walk on water but to walk on this green earth dwelling deeply in the present moment and being fully alive.” I don’t think that’s counter to what Matthew conveys to us today, I think it goes right to the heart of it. Good for Peter in trying to walk on the water toward Jesus. And poor Peter, who always screws it up, reminding us that Christian discipleship relies more on God’s mercy than our perfection.

But I’m neither Jesus nor Peter. I’m trying not to walk on water so much as to walk on this good earth, with God’s help. Trying to keep on living fully into this moment in time which will not come our way again. Nostalgia and anxiety work against us being fully present to this unique moment in time and it happens to individuals, to families, to congregations. Even sometimes to nations. We can get stuck.

As a nation, there are places where we’ve gotten stuck. Race relations is one of those places. Slavery is this nation’s Original Sin and it is not going to go away. We make some gains and we celebrate and then racism rears its ugly head again and tries to pull us back. This week we see it all playing out on television in Charlottesville and it pushes all those old buttons.

One of the clergy standing against the bigotry and racism of those waving Nazi flags is David Stoddart, who used to the rector of St. Luke’s in Worcester. He welcomed me to this diocese twenty years ago when I arrived at St. Francis, Holden and took me out to O’Connors for my birthday just six weeks after that. 

When David left Worcester to accept a call to serve as rector of Church of our Savior in Charlottesville I lost track of him. But this past Wednesday on Facebook I came across a blog post of his that I want to share with you all. I share it not because it “says it all” but because David is a trustworthy witness and a faithful pastor writing to an Episcopal congregation in the midst of all this madness. 

What does it mean for us to claim Jesus in this time and place? What does it mean to be people who have promised in Holy Baptism, and who reaffirm every time we gather to share the bread and the cup, we will “strive to work for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” What does it mean that we have promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons and love neighbor as self? As David puts it, we don’t simply stand against any truncation of that vision but for this witness of the love of God that embraces all people, and the reign of God in which every single person can experience the abundant life God created everyone to enjoy – no exceptions.

When we stand for something like that we can be sure to meet with resistance. People died yesterday for standing up for this inclusive vision. I think Jesus says to us, to the Church, to the gathered community that we are still in the same boat and the waves may be strong and our fears may threaten to undo us, to keep on listening for the voice of the One who still says:  Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.

Let us pray:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ("For the Human Family," The Book of Common Prayer, page 815)

Monday, July 31, 2017

Limping Through Life

One of my recent posts was entitled Finding Ourselves in Genesis. If you preach (as I do) in a liturgical church that uses the The Revised Common Lectionary, this year has an option to be reading through some great texts that come from that first scroll of the Bible. But the ninth Sunday after Pentecost (which would normally fall this coming Sunday) gets benched on August 6 in order to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. On August 13 we will return to our regularly scheduled program for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, having skipped over this wonderful story of Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok River in Genesis 32:22 - 33:11. 

Don't tell the "liturgical police" but if I were in a parish this coming weekend I'd suggest that we since we remember the Transfiguration every year on the Last Sunday after Epiphany and we get Genesis 32 only once every three years that it's too great a text to miss and the preacher's prerogative might be exercised in order to be sure this reading is heard in the assembly. Twelve years ago, on July 31, 2005, I preached a sermon on this text. I've very slightly edited that sermon below for any who may be interested in what we'll be missing this week. I've kept the cultural references in tact, however, to a novel I'd just finished at the time (The Kite Runner) and to a "new" song I'd recently heard by Tracy Chapman, as well as to the work of Miraslov Volf, whose book I returned to once again during my recent Sabbatical and still commend to all. (RMS)

As the Genesis narrative has unfolded this summer, here in a nutshell is what we know about Jacob:

·        The narrator has suggested that Jacob was ambitious from the day of his birth—that he was a “heel-grabber” who finally tricks his father into blessing him in his old age; that, of course, comes at the expense of his brother Esau;
·        Immediately upon so doing, he runs for his life to his mother’s brother’s house, that is, to Uncle Laban;
·        There he meets his match as the “trickster” is tricked into fourteen years of labor to marry Laban’s two daughters: the younger one whom Isaac wanted to marry and the elder one, Leah, whom he didn’t really bargain for.

We picked up the narrative today as Jacob is heading back home after these many years away. He is accompanied by his two wives, his two mistresses, and a ton of kids—eleven to be precise. And yet, as he crosses the Jabbok River, he is all alone.

Think about that a moment. It suggests to me that no matter how big a family we come from, when we face our past and when we try to work out family-of-origin issues we can be supported by others but ultimately it is “our” work. A therapist or pastor or twelve-step program or a spouse can help us identify the issues and can support us in the struggle, but in the end they cannot do that work for us. There is some aspect of all of us that belongs to God alone.

Have you read the extraordinary novel, The Kite Runner? It’s a sad and at times disturbing read that may not be for everyone, but I really loved it. The narrator, an Afghani living in San Francisco, reminds me in some ways of how I imagine Jacob. The crux of the story is a return home: in this case to Taliban-occupied Afghanistan where he must confront his past, a past that cannot be changed but might be redeemed. That is all that any of us can ever do with our past: we can’t change it, we can only confront it and with God’s help redeem it and pray for the healing that makes new life possible. That, however, takes courage, and risk, and trust. It is the work of faith.

Yet it may be that it is in precisely such moments, when we feel most alone, that God meets us where we are. Or more accurately, it is in such moments that we become more deeply aware of God’s presence in our lives.

What happens on the banks of the Jabbok River is that Jacob has a divine encounter, which is immediately followed by a very human encounter with his estranged brother, Esau. The divine encounter leaves Jacob with a limp; the human one is characterized by an embrace. I want to suggest the two are connected: that divine encounters change us, and demand of us that we chose to live otherwise, as people who are open to the possibility of healing and reconciliation.

Notice first, that this divine encounter is characterized by wrestling; that it leaves Jacob with a new name and walking with a limp. Most of us I suspect prefer our divine encounters to be tame and calming and leave us with a sense of peace. I think of that “still small voice” that comes to the prophet Elijah, for example. The Spirit can and does work that way, to be sure. But far more numerous in the Bible are divine encounters that leave us stunned and even wounded.

·         I think of Moses stuttering at the burning bush;
·         I think of Isaiah of Jerusalem with a hot coal burning his unclean lips;
·         I think of Jeremiah, accusing God of having “ravished” him;
·         I think of St. Paul knocked off his feet and blinded on the  Damascus Road;
·         I think of our Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane;
·         I think of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost like a mighty wind, and like tongues of fire—disrupting old patterns and breaking down walls.

My experience of the living God—the God of the Bible—is that more often God challenges us or if you prefer to say it this way, “pushes us out of our comfort zones.” 

Wrestling with God becomes a vital metaphor for the way that Jews, and later Christians, are called to relate to God. It’s not an easy relationship! Episcopalians for the most part embrace that notion. We refuse to limit faith to a creed or to a Church Council, or to a formula or even to the Bible itself. We are always trying to remember that all these things point us to God, but are not in themselves God. To experience the living God, the God of Israel and Abba of our Lord, is to experience something like wrestling that may well leave us walking with a limp rather than feeling all warm and fuzzy.

Encounters with the living God change us, and then they call upon us to live differently.  

Tracy Chapman has a new song out I heard for the first time this week. It begins and ends the same way:
                  If you knew that you would die today,
                    If you saw the face of God and Love,
                   Would you change? Would you change?

Now that said, let’s be honest: it is Esau who really initiates the act of reconciliation here and we know nothing about what his faith life has been like over the past fourteen years or so. Jacob gets up the next day and continues to journey home and it is Esau who runs toward him. It is the wronged brother who makes the first move. Nevertheless, Jacob is open to that possibility, knowing that with God all things are possible, including new life. Including reconciliation. Without that openness, change is not possible.

I’ve talked in the past about an amazing book called Exclusion and Embrace, written by native Croatian theologian named Miraslov Volf who now teaches at Yale Divinity School. He says that an embrace—which is the symbolic act of reconciliation—is a four-part drama. All of the “steps” are required as each needs to be met with a response. (1.) The opening of arms (2.) Waiting. (3.) Closing of arms. (4.) Release.[i]

It may happen faster than that, but anyone who has ever tried to hug a person who doesn’t want to be hugged (or who is being hugged by someone you wish would rather not) understands this drama of embrace. Always an authentic embrace is an invitation that cannot be coerced. And at any point the “drama” can break down. When it works, it is because each step is mirrored. Only then does it function as a kind of sacrament for healing and reconciliation—literally an “outward and visible sign” of something that has happened within. It can only happen when both parties are ready, because reconciliation and intimacy can’t be forced.

Anyway, that is what happens between these two brothers in Genesis. It brings to mind the New Testament story told by Jesus, of that father who is "soft on sin" and runs out to embrace his “prodigal” son even before the kid can get through his well-rehearsed apology.

In general, my style of preaching is that I tend to tell the story, and leave it for people to make their own connections. I don’t usually finish with “and this is what it means for our lives.” That is because I think that our lives are so rich, and our lives so complicated. Where are you this week in your own journey? Are you Esau or Jacob, Rachel or Leah? What you need to take away from the story this week might be quite different from what someone else needs to hear. So I trust the Spirit to guide us, as we come to the story and draw our own conclusions. I figure if the story is told in such a way that it can be heard in new ways, then you will in a sense each write your own sermon. At least that’s my goal…

But that said, it seems obvious to me that this story is our story in a much larger sense, and that at least is worth highlighting. Jacob gets a new name out of this: Israel. That is, he becomes a representative of the faith of Israel. As Christians we claim to be part of an extension of that same covenant and so the metaphor fits for us, too. We have experienced God in and through the Cross, in and through the Passion of Jesus. That leaves us, too, “limping through life.” Everyone who has struggled at all with their faith knows what it is to wrestle with God. Anyone who has experienced loss knows what it means to grieve broken relationships. And anyone who, by the grace of God, has experienced the healing of an embrace that represents new life knows what it means to celebrate the resurrection.

This is, I believe, a gospel story. There is good news here for us. I hear in it a call for us to become more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Henri Nouwen would say we do that “as wounded healers.” The narrator of Genesis might say as people who are limping through life. Either way, our limps—our wounds—may well be signs not only of divine encounters but invitations to be ambassadors of reconciliation, which is always gospel work.  As we keep limping on, the challenge is to do so with open arms: arms that keep the possibility of embrace always before us. Regardless of whether we initiate such embraces or respond, these moments represent our highest calling as Christians, as people who are always ready to allow for the possibility of reconciliation that shows the world why faith really does matter.

[i] For anyone interested in more detail on this, see Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. It is truly an extraordinary book. The pertinent section here is on pages 140-147, entitled “The Drama of Embrace.” Volf writes: “for embrace to happen all four must be there and they must follow one another on an unbroken timeline; stopping with the first two (opening of the arms and waiting) would abort the embrace; and stopping with the third (closing the arms) would pervert it from an act of love to an act of oppression, and paradoxically, exclusion. The four elements are then the four essential steps of an integrated movement.”
(pg. 141)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Kingdom Scribes

Today I am preaching at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Worcester. This Sunday, July 30, is the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture readings for today, as appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary, can be found here. 

"Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks.

Not all that many verses earlier in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was saying that he taught in parables to keep people on their toes, because some would listen and not hear and some would look but not see. Parables take some effort to understand; a bit like interpreting a poem. They are not immediately accessible, and rarely is the meaning self-evident.

And so Jesus asks those first-century hearers and us, gathered around this text as twenty-first century hearers, “have you understood all this?”

And they dutifully nod their heads like lemmings. Yes, we understand, Jesus. (But I suspect they don’t really.) I think they are like men when someone is giving them directions and then the person says, “you got it?” and you respond, “yeah, I got it.” But in truth you aren’t sure if you are supposed to take that first right or that second left after the gas station…

And then these words - the last words I just read from today’s gospel - enigmatic words to be sure from the fifty-second verse of the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the most Jewish of all the gospels:

Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

What is a scribe, anyway? In the New Testament they often get lumped in with the Pharisees and then caricatured as opponents of Jesus. But apparently, just like there are good priests and bad priests, good lawyers and bad lawyers, good presidents and bad presidents, so also there are good scribes and bad scribes. Jesus refers here to kingdom scribes, those who are in service to the Church or the Jesus’ movement or whatever we may call it.

Scribes like Baruch, who made the book of Jeremiah possible by writing it all down and passing along the wisdom of Jeremiah. Scribes like Ezra, who helped to (as Walter Brueggemann puts it) “reconstitute the community of Judaism” after the exiles came home and gathered at the Water Gate in Jerusalem. (Not to be confused with the hotel in Washington that became famous in the 1970s.) There, at the original Water Gate, the Levites helped the people to understand the Torah, so they read from the scroll with interpretation and gave the sense so that the people understood the reading. (See Nehemiah 8:7-8) [1]

This is what scribes do: they help the people to attend to the text and to listen for a Word of the Lord. That is never immediate. As one of our prayers in The Book of Common Prayer puts it, we “read, mark, learn... [so that we might] inwardly digest” and so that we might become what we eat: a word about the Word before we ever open our mouths.

So each week as we gather in congregations like St. Mark’s and across this diocese and across this nation and around the world we are fed with Bread and Wine - the body and blood of Christ. We pray that our eyes might be opened to perceive the living, risen Christ in our midst. But before we get to that part of the liturgy we hear these ancient texts that feed us in a different way. We read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them as “kingdom scribes” because we trust that there is a not just a history lesson here but a living Word of the Lord, addressed to us right now in this time and place.

Developing eyes that see and ears that hear, however, requires a deep dive, and no small amount of imagination. It means that we can’t keep coming and doing it the same old way or preaching the same old sermons because always we are trying to discern what is new and what is old. That is our tradition: not mere repetition of the past as if curators of a museum, but discernment of what needs to be kept alive as well as making space for the new thing God is doing. Kingdom scribes are like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

So let’s back up and try to do this scribal work together. Jesus is on a roll with the parables and gives us four parables that seem straightforward. But with Jesus it’s never that simple. Parables are meant to leave us scratching our heads and maybe with our mouths open. They are meant to startle us and even stun us a bit. They are meant to make us think. We’ve heard so much about mustard seeds and yeast - metaphors of smallness that are meant to inspire small congregations like this one to remember that the work of the kingdom is not always about becoming a megachurch. And that’s good, and that’s true.

But Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels and Jesus was himself a Jew, not a Christian. He speaks in a context in which mustard is seen more as a weed than the source of Grey Poupon. Everyone knows the kingdom is supposed to be like a cedar tree; now there is something large and glamorous and beautiful. The prophet Ezekiel foretold that God would plant a great cedar on the mountain of Jerusalem and the birds of the air will come and nest in its branches. (See Ezekiel 17:23) So Jesus is making a kind of parody here, and a subversive parody at that. He’s taking something old and making it new. Perhaps he is suggesting that if you sit around waiting for that splendid cedar you might miss the signs of God’s kingdom right in your midst, even if it looks like a weed or at best a bush and only grows to about five feet or so. Birds of the air can still come and make their nests in its branches. Consider that. Consider those birds, those nests, those mustard seeds.

Do you all know what a measure of flour is? If we don’t know we miss how funny Jesus is: a measure is about twenty pounds. So three measures is about sixty pounds. Again, Jesus is messing with us: imagine a woman goes into Stop and Shop and buys twelve 5 pound bags of flour. She has to ask the person at the checkout to not make the bags too heavy because they’ll break and she has to carry them from her driveway to the kitchen and she’s not quite as strong as she once was. Sixty - 6-0 - pounds of flour! And she gets a little yeast and mixes it in and it is all leavened. A little yeast goes a long way, Jesus says.

Now I don’t know how long it takes and I don’t know if Jesus was a good baker or not or if his mother would have said to him, “Jesus, you can’t just use a little yeast with all that flour. What I know, though, is this: if the metaphor for the church is to be like that yeast, just a little bit of faith can make a big difference. I see it in my work across this diocese: how faith makes room for congregations to keep what is old and embrace what is new. Faith is like a tiny mustard seed or a little yeast in sixty pounds of flour or faith or like a little congregation in Main South in the second largest city in New England, and faith can move mountains.

Do you believe that? I’ll be honest: some days I do, with every fiber of my being. Some days I consider the birds of the air and I see those mustard bushes and I experience the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread and I know that with Christ all things are possible.

And other days I wonder if there really is a balm in Gilead, and if there really is a reason to be hopeful when the obstacles to faith loom so large and the Church seems to belong to a different era.

Jesus isn’t done: he says there is a treasure in a field: one pearl worth everything to a pearl merchant. And then there is that net thrown into the sea which catches every kind of fish, both kosher and non-kosher, so they have to be separated out to what can be eaten and what needs to be discarded. Again with the sorting and the discernment of what serves God’s reign and what needs to be discarded. None of these parables or any others prescribe what it means to be the Church in a particular time and place. Rather, they describe the work – they point us in a direction. They ask us to imagine what is possible.

And they subvert our preconceived notions. They make us think and wonder and ask questions. The scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven ask even now, in this time and place: what that is old needs to be carried forward? And what that is new needs to be born and then nurtured and tended to.

Sometimes people think that the bishop and his staff don’t know anything about what’s happening in congregations and other times people think we have all the answers and we just need to issue marching orders. Neither of those are true, however. At best we ask questions and walk with God’s people. We try to tell the truth and offer another perspective and we try to listen which is what I’ll try to do when I meet with your vestry today after worship. I am very clear that I’m not “the Shell Answer Man.”

In my role as a member of Bishop Fisher’s staff, I’m prepared to listen with you and work with you as the next chapter of your life together unfolds. Father Don Chamberlain served not only this congregation but this diocese faithfully for many years. There is reason to give thanks for those many years of service. And for this interim time of discernment and asking what comes next, Father Bob Walters is on hand to walk with you as well and to share his gifts and I give thanks for that as well. This season gives you all an opportunity not to become complacent but to ask some of those big questions about vision and mission and the future and then find mustard-sized ways of implementing that vision. I know that Don cared a great deal about being a witness and presence in this neighborhood and I know that many of you do, too.

Let me just say in conclusion: the goal isn’t for this or any congregation to “keep the doors open.” The goal is to move out of those doors in order to be light and yeast and salt and little mustard seeds that are signs of God’s kingdom. The goal is to figure out, with God’s help, what is old and what is new, which is to say what will serve God in this time and in this place and what needs to be left behind. How do we answer this kind of question? Keep reading and marking and learning and inwardly digesting the Word of God and remain open to the ways that God keeps on showing up and surprising us with signs of the Kingdom in our very midst.

[1] I am indebted in this sermon to Walter Brueggemann and in particular to his essay in The Anglican Review 93//3 entitled, “Where is the Scribe?”

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Finding Ourselves in Genesis

For those Christians who use The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in worship (which is a plan for reading from the Bible over a three-year cycle) this summer offers an option for those using "Track 1" to be reading through some amazing stories from the scroll of Genesis. 

One of the challenges I found in parish ministry, however, was in managing vacation schedules (people aren't in church every Sunday to hear the story unfold) and also the fact that the RCL, in an effort to keep the readings of a manageable length, has to make some editorial decisions and sometimes loses the flow of the narrative. So we jump from snippet to snippet. One can rectify this by going back and reading the actual narrative from a Bible (or an online version like this one from, say from Genesis 21 or so (the birth of Isaac) to the end. It won't take that long and it's rich, interesting stuff.  

The story of God’s people and particularly the story of God’s encounters with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their families is a story not so different from our own lives. As it unfolds we get birth and marriage and death and all the stuff in between. Sometimes it reads like a soap opera because sometimes our lives are like that. It’s not just about the good stuff, but the very real challenges of being a family not in some idealistic way but in the midst of sibling rivalries and generational conflicts that all families navigate. 

The names may be familiar or unfamiliar to us and for most of us the places are unknown and hard to pronounce in the same way that people who live outside of Massachusetts seem unable to pronounce "Worcester" correctly. This summer at the Festival of Homiletics I went to a lecture by one of my former professors at Columbia Theological Seminary, Anna Carter Florence. She encouraged preachers to "pay close attention to the verbs" because we can get stuck on the nouns, but the verbs draw us in. 

Take for example, the portion of Genesis assigned for this Sunday, from Genesis 25:19-34. If we aren't careful we readers and preachers might get bogged down on wondering about "Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean..." We think the story took place in Bible Land a long time ago and has nothing to do with us. But notice just some of the verbs here that advance the narrative: 
Prayed. Was barren. Conceived. Struggled. Gave birth. Grew up. Loved. Cooking. Ate. Was famished. Sold. Despised.
The story moves and as it does, most of us can identify in one way or another with those verbs. We are a people who pray, who sometimes struggle with getting pregnant, who do sometimes conceive, who struggle, love, eat, despise...

Along the way we may find ourselves identifying with one or more of these characters and perhaps one or more of the characters will remind us of others, including in our own families, who have hurt or healed us in our own journeys of formation and deformation. 

The Genesis story began with Abraham and Sarah, whom God called to leave behind their old country and set out for a new land, a promised land. The nouns may change but most of our families, especially in the United States, include stories about someone who left one place in search of a new life in America. Regardless of when that happened or where they came from, we can relate to the verbs. 

God promised Abraham a heritage, that he would be the father of many nations. And so the story unfolds from there as these strangers in a new land celebrate, finally, the miraculous birth of Isaac in Abraham and Sarah’s old age. And then the testing of Abraham on Mt. Moriah and the casting away of Hagar and Ishmael (see the image shown above, and notice Sarah looking on.) And then Isaac grows up and marries Rebekah and they have two boys of their own, Esau and Jacob.

In two weeks we hear one of my favorites in scripture - the very definition I think of karma, when Jacob the trickster is himself tricked by his Uncle Laban. (See Genesis 29:15-28.) If we hear this story in isolation, as if nothing had happened before and nothing will happen afterwards, then we might find ourselves saying, “poor Jacob.” He falls in love with a beautiful girl and agrees to work seven years for her hand in marriage. He shakes on it with the father-of-the-bride (who also happens to be his mother’s brother) but his uncle tricks him, making s a last minute switch on the wedding day and instead of Rachel, Jacob finds himself married to Leah. 

Now this moment could generate countless sermons including feminist critique sermons that employ a hermeneutic of suspicion about all of this. The narrator, however, is ridiculously direct: the marriage feast happens, there is apparently lots of drinking involved, the marriage is consummated and then this simple declarative statement: “when morning came, it was Leah!” 

Jacob has been tricked! Poor Jacob! Unless you’ve been paying attention to the narrative. Then you will recall how he came to be at his uncle’s house looking for love in the first place and the story from this week and then one the RCL unfortunately omits from Genesis 27, when Issac is on his deathbed. Esau is out hunting because his dying father has one last request—some of that delicious stew he is so fond of—the manly chili with lots of meat and hot peppers and very few veggies. Just the smell of it will make dying a little easier. But while Esau is out trying to meet the old man’s final request, Jacob and his mother collude to trick Isaac, cooking up some stew just the way Isaac likes it. And because Jacob is a soft-skinned mamma's boy they put some animal skins on him to make him seem hairy like his brother and unbelievably it works. The old man is deaf and blind and he blesses Jacob moments before Esau arrives home out of breath and hauling a dead animal with him. Seriously, it's all there - check it out!

And what happens next? Brave Sir Jacob runs away. His mother slips a few bucks in his pocket and sends him off to live with her brother, Laban, so that Esau won’t kill him. In any case, there is so much here worth paying attention to. Don't get stuck on the nouns. Pay attention to the verbs and how the narrative moves forward. This is how families work: what is not transformed gets transmitted from generation to generation.

Yet there is, to my mind, also a certain kind of grace in all of this because in spite of it all these are God’s people, just as we are God’s people. The stuff of their lives and ours—the good, the bad, and the ugly—that is where God continues to find us. And that is where we find God. Not in some distant heaven far away but taking on flesh—incarnate among, and in and through us.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Some Summer Reading Recommendations

Composing lists is always a dangerous thing. This is not so much a Top Ten reading list as it is, perhaps, something like Rich Simpson's "Greatest Hits." These are books from which thoughtful Christian leaders, both ordained and lay, have something to learn, and writers with whom we ought to be familiar. It's clearly not exhaustive, but it's a place to start. All of these are books that I'd enjoy discussing over a beer, or a cup of coffee. All of them have left a mark on me over time and have been read from cover to cover more than once. I think I've read Life Together a dozen or more times by now; I used to sit down and read it as a parish priest whenever I felt that my "wish dream" for the Church was overwhelming my gratitude for the complex fleshy reality of the congregation that I'd been called to serve.

My criteria is not only that they have all "stood the test of time" but that they seem particularly relevant today to our current context and therefore deserve another look. They all have gravitas. While I am fully aware that as soon as I publish this list I'll easily think of three or more books I should have added to this list, I think it's safe to say that as long as my list might get I can't imagine excluding any of these writers even if one might quibble over which of their books to begin with. 

So it's a list of some of the recommendations that come to my mind in this moment in July 2017 for summer reading. Admittedly, most of these books were published a while ago, but in a sense this is the point. They are "classics" that people interested in Christian community should be familiar with, and for me, at least, they have stood the test of time. They deserve a first, or another, look in this time and place. They are for people who are interested, as I am, in the mission of the Church and some of the issues raised in fulfilling that mission; I think regardless of denomination or even of whether one situates oneself to the right, center, or left of the theological spectrum. None of them will be found in the self-help section or even in the "spirituality" section of a bookstore (if those even still exist!)

There are two Jews on this list for Christian leaders: Edwin Friedman and Amy-Jill Levine. If this list was fifteen recommendations I am certain that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would make the list and maybe he should be on this list (I'm just not sure who to drop!) Heschel's book on The Prophets and his work on Sabbath have left big marks on me. Friedman, Levine, and Heschel should be familiar to Christians who have too often forgotten our own heritage and our enormous debt to Judaism. 

There are three African-Americans on this list. As mentioned below, James Cone could also be on this list as well and if I added him at #11 it'd probably be God of the Oppressed. Each of them have helped introduce this white boy to the spiritual depth and prophetic power of the Black Church. In these difficult times I need to return to them and others since I have been shaped by and live and work in a predominantly white context. 

There are four women on this list and many more who have reminded me how "male" the tradition we have inherited has been and the enormous debt I owe to feminist theology. I was truly blessed by teachers like Jouette Bassler at Georgetown (before she left for Perkins School of Theology) and Catherine Keller at Drew who didn't ever make the men in their classes feel less than human even as they challenged the systems of male domination and privilege that continue to make women feel that way. There is a book written by Brian Wren entitled What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology that expresses well the sense of gratitude I share with Wren for the women who have both challenged and encouraged me in my journey so far. 

What's not here? There isn't any Queer Theology and I need to rectify that so my list a decade from now reflects that learning. In seminary (1985-1988) and in my subsequent ordained life since then, I've been an advocate for full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the Church,especially around ordination and marriage equality because I've learned so much from the gifts that LGBTQ persons have so graciously shared with me and the Church along the way, in spite of the abuses they have suffered at the hands of other "Christians." And yet, my theological education has not caught up with that commitment and experience. So I'm open to suggestions on where to begin, since I know there is lots out there. I need others to add to my own reading list for this summer and beyond.

OK, then. Let me just say these are ten really great books you won't be disappointed in if you read them. They may not be light beach reading, but they are all worth the time.
1. Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I would recommend anything by Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison are also both excellent. But for my money, Life Together hits all the main points of why Bonhoeffer's resistance to the Nazis and his commitment to shaping a church that understood the costs of discipleship is crucial. This is a little, but dense, book about learning to be an underground church and a prophetic witness to the light.

2. A Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine. Again, Levine has lots of good stuff but this is my personal favorite. What is so important (especially but not exclusively for preachers) is that Amy-Jill knows Judaism (as a practicing Jew) and the New Testament (as a Biblical scholar.) She situates Jesus in his Jewish context and offers a counter to the heresy of Marcionism, which for my money remains the most dangerous heresy the Church still faces.
3. An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, by William Stringfellow. Readers of this blog know of my recent interest in Stringfellow who wrote this book in 1973. He was an Episcopal layperson; and as a priest myself, I think it's important that he was a lay theologian. His reading of the Book of Revelation and how the powers of this world seek to destroy the creatures of God is extraordinary.
4. The Dream of God: A Call to Return, by Verna Dozier. (Amazon has a preview of Chapter 1 of this classic here to whet your appetite.) Speaking of Episcopal laypersons, I am amazed at how many people a decade or more younger than I are not familiar with Dozier. Twenty years ago, I had the amazing privilege to sit next to Ms. Dozier at the College of Preachers at an event being led by Phyllis Trible on Texts of Terror that included about a dozen of us. What an extraordinary person of faith; I felt all week that I was listening to an amazing scholar and sitting next to a living saint while doing so. The Dream of God is a clarion call for a less clergy-centered Church focused on the mission of God and the work of all the baptized. We take this language for granted these days (even if we have not yet lived into this dream) but Dozier wrote this book over twenty-five years ago.
5. An Altar in the World: a Geography of Faith, by Barbara Brown Taylor. (Here is a link to an Amazon preview.) There is a movement out from church buildings and into the streets: ashes to go, public liturgies, and the like. I support all of that. But Taylor give us a theology to undergird why. As an old hymn puts it, "This is my Father's world..." BBT looks for the holy in those places where we live and move and have our being, and helps us to do the same. (Leaving Church is also a "must read.")
6 Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America, by Cornel West. When I was studying for my Masters in Divinity from 1985-1988, there were two black theologians who left a huge mark on me: James Cone and Cornel West. Both are worth reading. In differing ways each of them challenged the white left-of-center United Methodist theology I had grown up with. In spite of them both, I have continued to be surprised at how segregated Sunday morning remains in America and how far we have to go. When I hear people say that "they don't see color" or respond to the Black Lives Matter movement with the smug "all lives matter" I want to refer them to West (or Cone) before engaging in any further conversation.
7 Trouble With Jesus: Women, Christology, and Preaching, by L. Susan Bond. This summer I was at the Festival of Homiletics and I was talking with a young PhD who studied at Vanderbilt. I asked her if Susan Bond was still there and she said she was not, that she thought she'd left academia. I was sad to hear that, because when I was studying for my D.Min. degree and had a long reading list on preaching from Barth to the current day, this was one of the most important books I read. Specifically I love it because she offers a thoughtful atonement theology that is grounded in the tradition and not focused on "the blood of Jesus shed for me." More generally, she offers a feminist theology of preaching that recognizes the limitations of a focus on Biblical texts, insisting that preachers need to be doing theology as well as Biblical interpretation in their preaching.
8 Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ by William T. Cavanaugh. (Amazon has a preview here.)This is a hard but important read focused on being the Church under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile from 1973-1990. Cavanaugh sees torture as a social-political strategy for control, and Eucharist as what the Church has to offer the world as a response: the broken tortured body of Jesus that offers an alternative vision of life and hope for the world. This is not an abstract book on Christian worship; it's about why the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup matter in a world where people are tortured and disappeared. 
9 Friedman's Fables by Edwin L. Friedman. There are lots of ways one can go with Ed Friedman. Probably both Generation to Generation and A Failure of Nerve could vie for this spot and on another day of the week I might suggest just that. All three should be read and marked and learned and inwardly digested. Friedman wrote as a rabbi and a therapist, but what he understood is that systems operate like families. Understanding those dynamics is enormously helpful. For my money, the fables are a lot like the parables of Jesus in that they are wonderful for group learning and conversation and they tease out meanings that are less "academic" than the other two books but still hit you right between the eyes. There is even a study guide available. (Here is a link to a previous post of mine on Friedman that includes within it a link to one of the parables, "The Friendly Forest.")
10.Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation, by Walter Brueggemann. Anyone who knows me knows that this list would not be a "Rich Simpson list" without the amazing Walter B on it! And he's written so many books - it's hard to know which one to point people toward to begin. I have used his Message of the Psalms for numerous adult formation classes and it's one of my favorites but I think this book undergirds, in some ways, almost everything else WB has written: the prophets are understood best not as fortune-tellers or even social critics but as poets, who are able to imagine the world otherwise. The Church is called to participate in articulating that vision, for the sake of the world. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Give Grace to your servants, O Lord

I have been trying to find the words to pray for this nation at a time when it seems to me that we are in crisis; the most serious in my lifetime and I would argue the most serious since the Civil War. I have hardly hidden my personal and theological and political objections to the forty-fifth President of the United States, but it may be less obvious that I do pray for him on a daily basis and for this nation. I understand the sentiments of those who say things like "not my president" and "I don't want his name uttered in Church" but I strongly disagree with those friends just as I did when others said the same about the forty-fourth President. I believe that with God all things are possible, perhaps even a change in heart. I believe that whatever prophetic words I might ever have to share must be rooted in prayer. 

Having said that, and praying with sincerity for the President's heart to be softened, I am not holding my breath either. It feels to me as I watch tweet after tweet coming from the White House in the early morning hours something like Pharaoh hardening his heart against the ancient Hebrew slaves in Egypt. I joked recently when we had swarms of gypsy moths and then hailstones the size of golf balls in Worcester that the plagues have begun. (I was joking, mostly.) But I do believe that we reap what we sow as individuals and as nations and what is being sown right now is fear and division that will yield more violence and degradation. If the Christian witness is about love of neighbor toward the "healing of the nations" then we are headed in the wrong direction.

In any case, it seems to me that one can pray for the President and tell the truth about the real harm he is causing to our nation. During my Sabbatical I re-read some Dietrich Bonhoeffer and both read and blogged here about the community at Le Chambon that practiced resistance against Nazi Germany. I remain convinced that silence is complicity and I will not be complicit as our country turns our backs on those tired and huddled masses that Lady Liberty has been inviting in for more than two hundred years. Doing so is not what makes this nation great. We have our work cut out for us, as citizens and as the Church. But the Fourth of July is as good a time as any to ponder such things and to ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country in this hour of need. Whatever else we may be called to do, I will continue to pray.

The Book of Common Prayer truly is an amazing collection of prayers that direct our attention to love of God and neighbor. One of those prayers can be found on page 821, "For Sound Government." I invite others to join me in praying it for this great nation, even those who may disagree with my politics but who also seek to respect the dignity of every human being, with God's help. Pay close attention to the words and what it is this prayer asks God to do - for both leaders and citizens. May we be blessed with wisdom, courage, understanding, integrity, and hope for the living of these days.
O Lord, our Governor, bless the leaders of our land, that we may be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth. Lord, keep this nation under your care. 
To the President and members of the Cabinet, to Governors of States, Mayors of Cities, and to all in administrative authority, grant wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties. Give grace to your servants, O Lord. 
To Senators and Representatives, and those who make our laws in States, Cities, and Towns, give courage, wisdom and foresight to provide for the needs of all our people, and to fulfill our obligations in the community of nations. Give grace to your servants, O Lord. 
To the Judges and officers of our Courts give understanding and integrity, that human rights may be safeguarded and justice served. Give grace to your servants, O Lord. 
And finally, teach our people to rely on your strength, and to accept their responsibilities to their fellow citizens, that they may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for the well-being of our society, that we may serve you faithfully in our generation and honor your holy Name. For yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Amen. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Corpus Christi

This past Thursday I was on retreat at Emery House with the brothers of The Society of St. John the Evangelist. On Thursday we celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi, a commemoration of the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Brother Curtis Almquist began his homily this way: "Maundy Thursday is complicated..." 

Indeed. There is lots going on in Holy Week and much to remember and reflect upon: washing of feet, betrayal, a new commandment, impending crucifixion, as well as the institution of the Lord's Supper. But the Feast of Corpus Christi gives us an opportunity to simply ponder this mystery which is so focused on ordinary things: bread and wine. 

In his homily, Brother Curtis read an extended portion from Dom Gregory Dix's (1901- 1952) The Shape of the Liturgy. It's a book I own, and have presumably read along the way and so I've probably come across these words before. But in that chapel, on the Feast of Corpus Christi 2017, in West Newbury, Massachusetts, these words struck me in a particular way. In the litany of places that Dix names where the bread has been broken and the cup shared, I can relate first-hand to many of them. So I share these words here for those who might be interested. They come from pages 774-775 of Dix's book:
At the heart of it all is the Eucharistic action, a thing of an absolute simplicity – the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of bread and the taking, blessing and giving of a cup of wine and water, as these were first done with their new meaning by a young Jew before and after supper with His friends on the night before He died. Soon it was simplified still further, by leaving out the supper and combining the double grouping before and after it into a single rite. So the four-action Shape of the Liturgy was found by the end of the first century.[i]  He had told His friends to do this henceforward with the new meaning “for the anamnesis of Him,” and they have done it always since.[ii]
Was ever another command so obeyed?  For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth.  Men and women have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetish because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son; for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheater; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonization S. Joan of Arc – one could fill many pages with the reasons why men and women have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them.  And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei – the holy common people of God. 

[i] The “four action shape of the liturgy”: the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of bread (i.e., the Offertory, Consecration, Fraction and Communion).
[ii] Anamnesis, the Greek word meaning “remembrance,” literally “to call to mind again,” recorded in Luke 22:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:24-25.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Some End-of-Sabbatical Reflections

While I still have two weeks left on Sabbatical (and am in no way wanting to wish that time away!) I am definitely aware that this three-month journey will soon be coming to a close. I end as I began: in prayer with the brothers of The Society of St. John the Evangelist. In April, I spent Holy Week at the monastery in Cambridge and on this spectacular late spring day in New England, I've arrived at Emery House in West Newbury to reflect for a few days on what I've learned, or perhaps more accurately remembered, about ministry during this time away.

Meister Eckhart once said that if the only prayer you ever say is “thank you,” it would be enough. As I enter the home stretch, my heart feels very grateful for this amazing gift of time. I am grateful to our diocese for this generous policy and grateful to my boss, Bishop Doug Fisher for his constant encouragement. I am also grateful for my canon colleagues, Pam and Steve, who picked up some of the work left in my absence and to the entire staff at “37 Chestnut,” especially Karen Warren, who serves in an administrative support role to Pam and me.

Emotional reactions to Sabbaticals vary significantly, I've found. Even when someone says, "I wish I got a Sabbatical" they can say that in a hundred different ways. Outside of academia (where there is an expectation to produce something in terms of research) they are rare. Earlier this week I was speaking with a medical doctor who said to me, "gosh I could sure use a Sabbatical!" He didn't say it in a way that begrudged me this time, but more in a tone of a kind of holy envy. I think many people would benefit from such time, but outside of the Church it's unfortunately not something we've cultivated. I do think Europeans have a healthier attitude about work and time for more holiday, which is not the same but helps. All work and no play really does make Jack and Jill dull boys and girls and Americans are expert at this. It always makes me sad when someone who gets just two weeks vacation a year says, "I don't have time to take it!" I want to say, quite literally, "for the love of God..."

According to The Book of Common Prayer, the ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. (Page 855) All of these ministers are called “to represent Christ and [Christ’s] Church.” But we live out our several callings differently. The ministry of a priest is to do this particularly “as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.” (Page 856)

A visitor outside my hermitage as I write these notes
Four years ago, my ministry context shifted from parish ministry, where I had a pretty good idea of what this commitment looked like on a daily basis, to diocesan ministry. I have a number of friends who are bishops, including our very own, and it interests me to watch them when they shift from parochial ministry to that episcopal role. But it isn’t only their “job” that changes when they do that; their order of ministry also changes. They are still called (with all of God’s people) to represent Christ and Christ’s Church, but they do it differently. And there is some clarity in that. (And for those of us who are Myers-Briggs “TJs” as I am, we do like our clarity!)

But I’ve changed contexts while still remaining a priest. And I’m still figuring out what that means! That part about administering the sacraments and blessing and declaring pardon in the name of God – I knew what that looked like as the rector of a congregation where I had many weeks where I’d celebrate the Eucharist at least three times a week. I “hatched, matched, and dispatched” on a regular basis. Now, while I’ve committed to a pretty full preaching schedule as a canon, I may go a month without presiding at the Eucharist. This has been an adjustment. It's not bad; it just raises some existential (or at least vocational) questions.

The big theological question I took into this Sabbatical was this: how is my priestly ministry taking shape in this time and place as a member of Bishop Fisher’s executive team? This has been about more than the day-to-day work itself, which I thoroughly enjoy and find meaningful and for which I think I'm well suited. Some days I’ve wondered, though, how (or if) this work would be different if I were a layperson. And in fact I have colleagues in the wider Church (including Steve) who share this work as lay persons.  Although there are lots of “other duties as assigned by the Bishop,” the piece of the work that most feeds my soul is the part that deals with clergy transitions. It’s not just about running an ecclesiastical for a congregation looking for a priest. It’s an opportunity for a congregation to hit re-set in a way and to ask bigger missional questions. There are obstacles (namely fear and anxiety) to doing that hard work, but there is also great opportunity for transformation and trusting the Holy Spirit. There is an invitation to enter a time of mutual growth and learning and this is pretty rewarding and exciting work that, as I said, suits me well. But in what ways is this an exercise of my priestly ministry? How is serving as a canon a way of living out the vows I took as a priest?

I come back to that full BCP definition which is about more than the sacraments and I wonder if in fact all of life is meant to be lived as “sacramental.” It’s not just about what happens at the altar or the font with those outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. It's about living sacramentally, about becoming more and more of an outward and visible sign of that inward and spiritual grace. It's perhaps about how we approach the work God has given us to do. This has been a discovery (or at least a rediscovery) from this time away for me. 

Also, those other parts of being a priest, like pastoral ministry and sharing oversight with the bishop, have been greatly accentuated in my work as Canon to the Ordinary. Congregations going through transitions need a pastor, even when they have an interim in place. They need someone who can hold hope for them that God isn’t finished with them yet, even when they may be scared. And clergy need pastoral support too, precisely because the work is so challenging. As a parish priest I considered myself a team player, serving in various diocesan roles over fifteen years, including as a member of Diocesan Council, and as Chair of the Commission on Ministry. But now I wake up every day and get to do something to support the bishop’s ministry. I have a voice in his role in “overseeing the Church” and quite honestly I see the Church differently than I did as a parish priest.

How so? Parishes are by definition, “parochial.” They are focused, rightly, on a specific community and the challenges that particular community faces in a place and time. Being the rector of a suburban parish in the 1950s simply isn't the same as serving an urban parish in the twenty-first century. But in the midst of the many challenges of parish ministry, clergy can lose sight of the greater vision as they wrestle with all of those local challenges. Parish ministry can become quite isolating, especially if one is not careful and intentional.

As a priest, then, I’ve been stretched in so many new ways these past four years by seeing this larger context, even beyond our diocese. I recall even now something a retired bishop said to me when I accepted this position; essentially that seeing ministry from the perspective of the diocese radically shifted how he understood the work. It has been so for me, too.  And I am very grateful for that even as I am still learning to embrace it.

Being a member of the bishop’s team also gives me a place from which to “proclaim the gospel.” (Sometimes, even with words.) So while it’s true that I don’t stand behind the altar as much as I once did, I have come to realize (and claim with renewed purpose) that this doesn’t make me less of a priest. Just as being a priest is about more than putting on a collar, so it is also about more than presiding at the Eucharist. Other aspects of my priestly ministry are in fact now being accentuated and that has been an interesting discovery for me over these past three months. And all of it is offered to the glory of God.

So I am (almost) ready to return to work with a renewed sense of purpose, and feeling restored and recommitted to the work that God has given the  Episcopal Church in central and western Massachusetts at this time and place, and given me to share in. Always with God's help.