Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Sermon for the Last Sunday of Epiphany

Today I am the guest preacher at the Church of the Nativity, in Northborough. One of the main parts of my work is clergy transitions and I worked with Nativity in the months leading up to their previous rector's retirement, through a lively interim period, and now six months into the arrival of their new rector. They are a great parish. The readings for this day, the last Sunday of Epiphany, can be found here.

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One important part of the search process for a new rector – and maybe the most important part - is the prayer and discernment that lead to the production of a parish profile. Essentially it’s a job description, but it’s more than that: it’s also an affirmation of faith and a vision statement. It’s in the parish profile that God’s people articulate their hopes and dreams for the future and then look for an ordained leader who shares that vision and who is willing to walk the journey together with the congregation toward God’s future. In your parish profile, you all wrote:

What We Know: In preparation for our search for a new rector we engaged well-known church consultants to help us answer the questions, “What’s important to us?” and “How ready are we to accept change?” About 130 parishioners — almost 100% of our average worship attendance — responded, most taking the time to write comments about their hopes for and concerns about the future of our church and the next person called to be our spiritual leader. The members of our parish told us their top four goals: 

  • Make necessary changes to attract families with children and youth to our church. 
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to reach new people and incorporate them into the life of the church. 
  • Strengthen the process by which members are called and equipped for ministry and leadership. 
  • Develop ministries that work toward healing those broken by life circumstances.
Make changes. Reach and incorporate new people. Empower and equip lay leadership. Heal the brokenhearted. And then you wrote this:

Who Will Help Us Get There? We seek a turnaround agent, a unique spiritual leader whom we believe, even now, is being prepared by God to lead Nativity and guide us in achieving our ambitious goals. We, in turn, are prepared to support our next rector spiritually, financially, and communally. We believe our next leader will strive to possess the attributes of 1 Timothy 3. 

  • Be a person of prayer and integrity, constantly seeking God's vision for our church and its ministry. 
  • Be a risk taker for God’s sake, willing to take on challenges and face failures, being led by the Holy Spirit. 
  • Lead and inspire us with humor and open communication to face our challenges and follow God's leading. 
  • Preach Bible-based sermons and lead Spirit-filled and joyful worship. 
  • Understand our desire to build God’s kingdom and equip all of us to evangelize and disciple those around us.
Today we come to the end of the Season of Epiphany; this season about light that shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it. On Wednesday your new rector, Fr. Chad, will invite you to journey into the holy season of Lent, your first together. Chad is no Moses, and you are not the ancient Israelites. But Chad is your duly elected and installed rector and you are God’s people. The forty days is an invitation to journey together toward the empty tomb and the promise to be God’s Easter people.

So why am I here today? Well, I missed you! It’s true that your search process is in the rear-view mirror. I’m here at the invitation of Chad and the vestry to check in with them after worship today, to see how things are going, to ask them what it’s been like so far and how our bishop and how I can be praying for you as the journey continues. I also want to remind all of you that the process of transition that began when Len announced his retirement is not yet over. Clergy transitions don’t end when the moving truck arrives from Colorado, or when the ministry is celebrated by the Bishop and parish. You are still in transition – still coming to grips with the ways that Chad was the answer to your prayers. To some extent what I’ve come to believe is that our whole lives, and the lives of congregations like this one, are about transition; when that stops we are no longer alive, because part of what it means to be alive is to be changing. And here’s a heads up: it won’t be over on Easter morning either. But as each day unfolds, Chad is less and less “the new rector” and simply your rector here at Nativity.

Today we gather together on the Mount of the Transfiguration, the culmination of this leg of the journey we call the Season after Epiphany. As you may recall, we began about seven weeks ago—on January 6—as we marked the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem, bearing their gifts for the newborn king. Since then we’ve remembered the Baptism of our Lord and in so doing, our own baptisms, because the Voice of God that claimed Jesus as “beloved of God” at the Jordan River also claims each of us and then seals us as “Christ’s own.” Forever. Over the past few weeks we’ve listened again to words of Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount, reminding us that we who have seen the light are called to be the light for the sake of the world. To let the light within us shine forth. That’s what this liturgical season has been about.

During this Epiphany Season our Epistle readings (until today) were coming from Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth. They were a challenging bunch there, in Corinth and by comparison they made Northborough look easy! By all accounts they were profoundly gifted and cosmopolitan. So when Paul tells them about spiritual gifts he is talking with people who have lots of them. The challenge they face, however, is that they are going in a hundred different directions. So Paul counsels them to remember that they are one body and then he reminds them, as I’m sure you all recall, that without faith, hope and love (and especially love) their gifts are nothing more than noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

So here we are, once more on the Mount of the Transfiguration. Here we get a glimpse of Jesus in his full glory, fully human but also fully divine before coming down the mountain to journey into Lent. On the Mount of the Transfiguration, God is made manifest in Jesus, the Light of the world. God very often speaks on mountaintops in the Bible, maybe for the same reason that so many of us feel closer to God when we hike up a mountain and look out over the vista. We speak of “mountaintop experiences” as a metaphor for our spiritual epiphanies because the landscape itself very often helps to open our eyes to see God’s hand at work in the world around us.

In such moments we may have the experience of knowing God more fully and of being more fully known by God. So it’s not only Jesus who was transfigured on the Mount of the Transfiguration. God seeks to change us too. Like those first disciples called by the Sea of Galilee, and like those early followers in Corinth, you and I are called to seek and serve Christ in this time and place and when we do that, we are changed. Transfigured.

There is a shadow side here, however; or at least a temptation. Such moments are fleeting. It is tempting to want to try to hold onto them forever, and maybe even of trying to make them normative. I think that is primarily what is going on in the disciples’ desire to build booths on the Mount of the Transfiguration. In truth, every moment is fleeting. The good times, the hard times, the times of saying goodbye to a former rector and of saying hello to a new one: time is an ever flowing stream. Mountaintop moments in our lives are precious and a gift, for sure. But the journey of faith is not one long extended mountaintop experience. We are called to listen to the Voice of God in this story, which makes clear that we are called to listen to and then follow Jesus by putting one foot in front of the other. The challenge of faith is to live each moment; not to stay on a mountaintop in booths. We are a people of the Way, part of the Jesus Movement. And specifically we are called to be a people who are following Jesus on the Way of the Cross.

So liturgically, the wisdom of remembering the Transfiguration today is to prepare us to take the next steps in the journey of faith into Lent. Did I mention that begins this Wednesday when your rector will “…invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent…” Whether or not you’ve made that day a part of your spiritual discipline in the past I encourage you all to show up this week as this congregation and your neighboring congregations across this diocese and across ecumenical lines resolutely set our faces toward Jerusalem.

Now there is one caveat I need to share with all of you. What I have said to you so far today is shaped by the Western Christian liturgical calendar. While there may be differences between Methodists and Lutherans and Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, we all follow this same basic path: from the arrival of the wise guys on Epiphany to the Jordan River and Jesus’ baptism, and then through some call stories and reflections on early Christian communities like the one in Corinth and then ultimately to the Mount of the Transfiguration. And then we come down from the mountain to Ash Wednesday and ultimately to Easter morning where “cross and Easter day attest, God in flesh made manifest.”

My own experience of the Christian tradition has been quite ecumenical but it has mostly been very western. I’ve now had three opportunities, however, to travel to the Holy Land, where I am especially reminded of the rich traditions of Orthodox faith that are rooted in the Church’s experience in the east: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox... One of the surprises was the ever-present reminder that Christianity is, at its roots, an eastern religion that spread to the west. You feel that and you can smell the incense when you walk into a place like the Church of the Nativity- the original one, I mean, in Bethlehem!

Alexander Schmemman was the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York, a leading liturgical scholar in Orthodox Christianity in the twentieth century. A few years ago I read his little book on Orthodox Lenten practices, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha.  As much as I love the Epiphany season and find this journey we have been on makes so much sense to my western mind, reading Schmemman’s book changed the way I think about preparing for Lent. In Orthodoxy, the weeks leading up to “Great Lent” are very different from what I have been describing to you. In the five weeks before Lent, the Orthodox focus on five themes: Desire for God (the story of Zacchaeus), Humility (the Publican and the Pharisee), Return from Exile (the parable of the Prodigal Son), Last Judgment, and then finally, Forgiveness Sunday. The Orthodox are clearer than we have been in the west that Lent is not a time to wallow in guilt or shame, but is rather an invitation to enter more deeply into the mystery of God’s abundant love which then allows us to more fully embrace the Paschal mystery by becoming instruments of God’s peace and ambassadors of reconciliation as we participate in Christ’s victory over sin and death. Sin is the experience of division, opposition, separation, and hatred. The first chink in the armor of the mighty fortress of sin, Schmemman says, is forgiveness, which opens a pathway to unity, solidarity, and love. It is a breakthrough to a new reality, to God’s reality. “To forgive,” Schmemman writes, “is to reject the hopeless dead-ends of human relations and refer them to Christ.”

Orthodox Easter usually falls on a different day than our western Easter but this year the calendars will coincide. We’ll sing our alleluias together on April 16 and for a moment we’ll know that in Christ there really is no east nor west, in Him no south or north either. So today, in Orthodox congregations, it is Forgiveness Sunday (or Cheesefare Sunday as it is also called.)  On this last Sunday before Lent begins, there is an elaborate liturgical dance where each person in worship says to every other person there, “Forgive me, for I have sinned.”

Now I am not going to ask you to dance although I know that of all the congregations in our diocese, if I did, you’d be on your feet. But I want you to think about that for a moment: what it would be like today for you to ask each person here today for forgiveness. Each person. And then those beyond this room whom you have hurt as well.

Now I don’t need to tell you how hard it is to forgive someone who has hurt us very badly. But at the very least, even when we aren’t yet able to forgive someone, we can remember that God forgives all who confess their sins and are truly penitent. So the correct liturgical response to the one who says, “Forgive me for I have sinned” is not I forgive you”—because, to be honest, that just might not yet be true. Rather, the correct liturgical response is this: “God has forgiven you, be at peace.”  

Forgive me, for I have sinned. God has forgiven you, be at peace.

The spirit of Lent, Schmemman says, is an invitation to experience that mysterious liberation that makes us “light and peaceful,” by illuminating an inner beauty that he compares to “an early ray of the sun which, while it is still dark in the valley, begins to lighten up the top of the mountain.”  Can you picture that? Still dark in the valley, but the top of the mountain is light. Maybe that image gives us a connection between east and west. Maybe that is where the Mount of the Transfiguration converges with Forgiveness Sunday and takes us, as theologian Don Henley once put it, to “the heart of the matter”—which is indeed about forgiveness.

For today, I invite you to take a moment to reflect on what it is like to be on both sides of that liturgical response. To say those words to someone whom you have hurt: Forgive me, for I have sinned. And to hear those words spoken to you by your neighbor: God has forgiven you, be at peace. And then reflect on someone who has hurt you, and imagine them saying to you, Forgive me, for I have sinned. And even if you do not yet have it in your heart to let it go, at least imagine yourself saying to that person, knowing for that person, that God forgives them and desires peace for them.

Maybe during the forty days of Lent you will find that you need to go say these words for real to someone in person, or in a letter. We come here, after all, to do liturgy together as practice for our daily lives.  Forgive me, for I have sinned. God has forgiven you, be at peace.

May this simple prayer of confession lead you into a holy Lent as God’s faithful people here in Northborough and beyond, the light of the world and the salt of the earth, until once again on Easter morning we make our song at the grave, all of us together, from east and west and north and south, one great fellowship of love. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Friday, February 24, 2017

A Conspiracy of Goodness

God of grace, and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power. Crown thine ancient Church's story; bring her bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour. For the facing of this hour.
If you don't already know the story about the Christians in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in 1940s Nazi-occupied France, please take some time to learn about them, starting with this link. Years ago, when I was still a young campus minister, I came across the extraordinary documentary by Pierre Sauvage, entitled "Weapons of the Spirit" which (according to this website) is being re-released. Check it out. A clip from the film can be found here which I am sure will whet your appetite to learn more.

I've been thinking a lot lately about a "conspiracy of goodness." My boss, the Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher, likes to remind groups across our diocese about the meaning of the word conspiracy, literally, from the Latin, "to breathe with." He asks the congregation to breathe in and breathe out - and then says, "you've just breathed with one another, and breathed in God. You are now part of a conspiracy."

If you Google "conspiracy" (as I just did) you will find that he is right (he usually is) about this root meaning. But you may also notice that the word has been hijacked (as so many words are) in a negative sense. The primary meanings have become negative, including "to make secret plans jointly to commit an unlawful or harmful act."

But what if the law itself is unlawful, and harmful? You can study this kind of question in an Ethics class at seminary. But it is a question that most people of privilege like myself (a mainline, straight, white, male pastor) have only needed to entertain in an abstract way - at least until pretty recently. Now, it's starting to feel real.

I remember being in Amsterdam and walking through the Anne Frank House and literally asking myself: would I have had the courage to make my house a sanctuary to such a family? If I were the pastor of a congregation in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the 1940s, would I have had the courage to risk preaching a sermon which might lead a parishioner to walk out because I'd gotten too "political?" Even more scary, they might be walking out not only with their pledge, but to report me to the authorities.

More recently, I attended the Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage in Hayneville, Alabama in 2015, fifty years after Jonathan's death. If you click on this link and watch the video you will see some cardboard icons of martyrs who, along with Jonathan, gave their life to be part of a "conspiracy of goodness" during the Civil Rights Movement. I got to carry one of those icons as we marched through the streets of Hayneville and then into the "roll call of martyrs" during worship. (That video is also in the article; it's the third video down. If  you watch the Roll Call. you will learn about ordinary people, men and women, black and white, young and old, who were part of that conspiracy of goodness. At 9 minutes and 10 seconds you will see me announcing the Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Minister from Massachusetts, as "present" in the great cloud of witnesses, shining in glory as we continue to feebly struggle.)

It was a powerful experience that I will never forget. But right up there with it, just a day earlier, I sat at a table at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Selma with a man who was a member of the vestry who conspired with Jonathan Daniels and others to integrate that church at a time when 11 a.m on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. (How much has this changed?) He kept bringing it up at vestry meetings and it was voted down but he kept at it, month after month, until (like the persistent widow in Jesus' parable) he wore that vestry down and they finally voted yes. I can't remember how many months it took, but I found myself wondering as I heard this story about if I had been the rector at that time, in that place. Would I have persisted with this vestry member, or tried to "keep the peace" with those who counseled, "these things take time?"  Would I have had the stamina as each month passed, and my spouse politely asked, "how was work?" to not lose heart when the honest answer would have been, "well, we had the same vestry meeting, again, but we're no where!" Or after it did finally pass and then the biggest pledger walked out, taking his pledge with him and creating a budget deficit. What then?  (That part of the story is true also, of course, but anyone who's ever been involved in congregational life already knew that part of the story was coming.)

I've been ruminating on all of these things as I begin to lean into a sabbatical that will begin on April 1. If you've been reading this blog lately, you will know I've been reflecting on what it means to be the church in this time and place. The fancy theological word for that is "ecclesiology." You can Google that one on your own but it's interesting to me that Blogspot insists I've misspelled the word and suggests anesthesiology instead! I think this may be the problem; a Church that is too often asleep. It is time for Sleepers to Awake and to be the Church; to be part of a conspiracy of goodness.

This morning as I worked out on the elliptical at the YMCA, I watched a piece on CNN about people preparing safe, hidden, sanctuary spaces in their homes for their neighbors and friends who may not have all the paperwork our government now requires of them. This has all become very real very quickly. And I thought about the Biblical mandate to care for the stranger in our land, to love that person, no exceptions. And I thought about the people who hid Anne Frank, and the people of that congregation in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, and Jonathan Daniels and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Rev. James Reeb and that vestry member at St. Paul's in Selma. And the rector there at the time. And the biggest pledger who walked out, too.

And I breathed in, and breathed out. Trying to be part of a conspiracy of goodness, with God's help.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Heart of the Matter

I've been tryin' to get down / To the heart of the matter / But my will gets weak / And my thoughts seem to scatter / But I think it's about forgiveness / Forgiveness  (Don Henley) 
The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. (Gandhi)
Through most of my growing up years and in the 28 years I've served in ordained ministry, I've been committed to ecumenism. I was raised a Methodist, attended a Jesuit college, one Methodist seminary and two Presbyterian ones, served an ecumenical campus ministry for four years and as an Episcopal priest have relied upon ecumenical friendships throughout my ministry, including now in diocesan work. This year the theme for The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was on reconciliation. My own two cents is that we've been doing a pretty good job at this work at least among Western denominations since Vatican II.

The biggest and earliest divide among Christians happened long before Martin Luther tagged his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church 500 years ago, though. The schism between East and West happened in 1054 and it's one of the reasons that Orthodox Christians and Western Christians almost always celebrate Easter on different days.I'm not sure it's reconciliation so much as the need for re-introductions that is needed in these relationships.  

A few years ago I encountered Orthodox Lenten practices through a conversation with a Syrian Orthodox priest and a book he recommended to me by Alexander Schmemann called Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. Schmemman was the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in CrestwoodNew York and one of the leading liturgical scholars in Orthodox Christianity in the twentieth century. From him I learned that the Orthodox focus on five themes before they begin the Lenten journey: Desire for God (the story of Zacchaeus), Humility (the Publican and the Pharisee), Return from Exile (the parable of the Prodigal Son), Last Judgment, and then finally, Forgiveness Sunday. I have been immersed for my whole life in the western liturgical calendar and until I read this book I was aware of these differences. You can see an Orthodox calendar by following the link here.

This year Forgiveness Sunday (also known as Cheesefare Sunday) will fall on February 26, just a few days before western Christians celebrate Ash Wednesday and on the same day that western Christians will climb the Mount of the Transfiguration for the Last Sunday of Epiphany.

In spite of some popular piety, Lent is not intended in east or west as a time to wallow in guilt or shame, but as an invitation to enter more deeply into the mystery of God’s abundant love, which then allows us to more fully embrace the Paschal mystery by becoming instruments of God’s peace and ambassadors of reconciliation. It is not meant to be a private time, even if confession is personal. Lent is about being liberated from sin and freed to embrace God's call to become an Easter people.  

The triumph of sin, which we all know too well, is the experience of division, opposition, separation, and hatred. The first chink in the armor of the mighty fortress of sin, however, is forgiveness, for it opens a pathway to unity, solidarity, and love. It is a breakthrough to a new reality, to God’s reality. “To forgive,” Schmemman writes, “is to reject the hopeless dead-ends of human relations and refer them to Christ.”

Here is how the Orthodox liturgy for Forgiveness Sunday has been described to me: it involves an elaborate dance as each person in worship is able to say to every other person there, “Forgive me, for I have sinned.” Most of us know how hard it can be for us to forgive someone who has hurt us very badly. But at the very least, even when we aren’t yet able to forgive someone, we can remember that God forgives all who confess their sins and are truly penitent. So the liturgical response to the one who says, “Forgive me for I have sinned” is not “I forgive you” because, to be honest, that might not yet be true. Rather, it is this: “God has forgiven you.” Even as this liturgical "dance" is unfolding the choir is singing Easter hymns. It's a reminder of where Lent's journey leads; to Pascha.

The theological point, whether one is shaped by eastern or western Christianity is the same: Lent gives us roughly a tithe of days out of each calendar year to focus on forgiveness and reconciliation. But there is something sensible to me in beginning with the reminder that God gets there before us. When we confess our sins and truly repent, the good news of the Christian faith is that God does indeed forgive us. Lent, then, becomes a time for us to try to live more fully into that reality. 

There is an atmosphere created in Lent, Schmemman says, a state of mind that our worship creates. The spirit of Lent, he says, is meant to help us to experience a “bright sadness” which is the message and the gift of Lent. We are invited to enter this season of “bright sadness” in order to experience that mysterious liberation, a liberation that makes us “light and peaceful” by illuminating an inner beauty that he compares to “an early ray of the sun which, while it is still dark in the valley, begins to lighten up the top of the mountain.” 

Maybe that image gives us our connection between east and west! Maybe that is where the Mount of the Transfiguration converges with Forgiveness Sunday. It gets us to “the heart of the matter, which is in fact about forgiveness. Our Episcopal Confession of Sin and the Absolution pronounced by the priest says the same thing on behalf of God and God's people, but I think it is in more line with the ministry of all the baptized to practice this work by reflecting on the Orthodox practice. Forgive me, for I am a sinner. God forgives you, be at peace

My prayer is that this simple prayer may lead us into a Holy Lent and ultimately beyond Lent to the new, liberating life that is ours when once again we sing our alleluias on Easter morning - which both east and west will celebrate together this year, on April 16. Alleluia! 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Metaphorical Theology of Salvage

In 2005, I received a Doctorate in Ministry degree from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, where I'd had the extraordinary opportunity to study with Walter Brueggemann, Barbara Brown Taylor, Anna Carter Florence and others. I was in the "Gospel and Culture" program and focused a lot on preaching; part of that program included putting together a homiletics (aka "preaching") bibliography. During a sabbatical in 2003 I read over twenty-five books on preaching including people like Barth, Craddock, Lowery, Troeger, Tisdale and many others.

Included on that list and perhaps the most memorable book of them all for me was L.Susan Bond's Trouble With Jesus: Women, Christology, and Preaching. I was so taken with that book that I urged my lectionary group at the time to read it so we could discuss it together. But I've seen little reference to it since then and in fact either misplaced my copy in a move, or more likely loaned it to someone on whose shelf it is now buried. (Shout out to Noel Bailey who was a member of that lectionary group and recently sent me her copy, which I just finished re-reading.)

What has stayed with me the most is what Bond calls "A Metaphorical Theology of Salvage." She explores Paul Auster's grim, apocalyptic novel, In the Country of Last Things as a way toward clarifying what she means by this metaphor. Bond writes:
The metaphor that I am suggesting here is similar to the root meaning of salvation, the Latin salvare. Salvare means to save, to deliver from sin, to protect or maintain. It also has medical connotations involving soothing or remedial agents for healing. Both metaphorical trajectories, deliverance and healing, have strong associations with the tradition...the metaphor of salvage has the same linguistic source as salvation but offers a more immediate physical image...
This metaphor leads Bond to a rich discussion of Auster's book - in fact her book on preaching led me to also purchase Auster's novel which I also recommend on it's own. As Bond notes, Auster is not writing from a religious perspective in The Country of Last Things. It is certainly not a "Christian" novel. In this "country of last things" however, the world offers stark differences: one is either part of the death business, highly organized by the government and those scavengers who collect waste materials to sell for fuel, or repair and sell. The heroine, Anna Blume, is a scavenger. Bond quotes these words from Auster's novel:
As an object hunter, you must rescue things before they reach this state of absolute decay. You can never expect to find something whole - for that is an accident, a mistake on the part of the person who lost it...What another has seen fit to throw away you must examine...and bring back to life...Everything falls apart but not every part of every thing, at least not at the same time. The job is to zero in on these little islands of intactness, to imagine them joined to other such islands, and those islands to still others, and thus to create new archipelagos  of matter.
I'm not going to quote the whole book here; you can probably see where this is going. And maybe why I'm thinking about it again, a dozen years down the road from when I first read these words. Bond revisits the classic Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulen arguing for a new apocalyptic Christology rooted in the experience of the early Church. I still find her argument compelling and commend it to you but for now, just one more quote:
Success, for Auster's last country, is the resistance to death and its enterprise. The characters we grow to admire are ordinary folks who refuse to cooperate with the "kingdom of death" in any of its manifestation. They band together to devise strategies of resistance and subterfuge, refusing to grant death and its lackeys any satisfaction. Even the final death in the narrative is fraught with gospel reverberations. 
The place where this work happens is called Woburn House. Not surprisingly, Bond sees it as a metaphor for the Church, which in every generation is called to resist death and to salvage what can be salvaged of  this world. The work of those who live at Woburn House is humiliating; "they must touch and be in constant contact with the losers of the country of last things." But in so doing they embody hope.

For close followers of this blog you will note what I've been reading and thinking about lately: William Stringfellow and the Book of Revelation and Walter Wink's trilogy on The Powers which focuses on the Domination System. Recently I agreed to teach an elder-hostel class next year on apocalyptic literature, specifically the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation. I confess I was nervous in writing that description up, fearing that I'll scare away the very people I am hoping will sign up and attracting folks I'd rather not debate! But I'm going to give it a shot.

I'll be taking a three-month sabbatical this coming April, May, and June. We have some family travel plans and I'm looking forward to the Festival of Homiletics in San Antonio. My reading list is to go deeper into these questions. You might be surprised (or maybe not!) at the looks I'm getting when people ask me about my sabbatical and I tell them I want to delve deeper into apocalyptic literature. But that is the challenge, isn't it? In many ways the progressive mainline denominations have abdicated responsibility for interpreting this genre of Biblical literature. So the Biblical literalist fundamentalist pre- and post- millennialists have gladly filled that void and we get Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series. (I am NOT even going to hyperlink to them - stay away!)

In fact though, there is a reason that Daniel and Revelation are part of the Biblical canon - and when I was ordained I solemnly declared "that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation..." (BCP 526) There is that word again: salvation. I didn't cross my fingers when I said those words twenty-three years ago at Christ and Holy Trinity Church and think, "well, not Daniel and not Revelation."

I have come to believe we need that part of the story now more than ever. So this is the reading list I'm working on for the time apart that begins in just about six weeks. If you follow this blog you'll see more of this to come before and during and after my sabbatical. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Love Really Does Trump Fear (and Hate too!)

Fear is all around us. I am not a trained scientist but I find the science about the brain fascinating and helpful. Here is only one lead about the brain and fear that I, as a non-scientist, can mostly understand. (For those who don't click on hyperlinks, HEY! If I'm blogging and I take the time to put in a hyperlink, you should click on it! And read it!) But for those who did and for those who won't, here is one of my takeaways:
Fear can make you run and hide, it can motivate you to take action, and it can freeze you dead in your tracks.
I don't think most of us need science to tell us this. Nor do I think it's very controversial. Most of us who are trying to pay attention to our lives know this in our bones. When we are afraid we have three choices: we can freeze, flee, or fight. And the fighting? That can be fair, or it can be WWF "no holds barred." It gets ugly when we go that route...

I don't study the brain for a living but I do deal with people on a daily basis, as I expect every reader of this blog does. And in my work I often encounter people who are afraid. As a pastor, I encountered people who were afraid to die, or afraid of a loved one dying or afraid about their child in the grips of addiction. As a rector I encountered people who were afraid of losing the church they loved. As a canon, I encounter people who are afraid that their rector is leaving - or won't leave or that the parish they love cannot continue along the same path. As a member of the polis I find people who are afraid about the future of this country. As a father, and husband, and brother, and son, and neighbor I find people who are afraid for so many reasons, some real and some imagined. But as I understand the way the brain works it does not much matter: fear takes us, quite literally, "out of our mind." The Greek word for that is paranoia! 

As people of faith, we are called to metanoia - to repentance - to changed minds. Some want to get there by way of shame, but I think that shame is a close cousin to fear and it becomes a very vicious circle. (See my friend Rob Hirschfeld's helpful new book, Without Shame or Fear.)

How then do we move to metanoia? Only by love. The great commandment is to love God and love our neighbor. This is the whole of the Jewish and Christian heritage; it's in both testaments. We are commanded to love our neighbor. No exceptions. The Trump voter and the Muslim immigrant. We love them both indiscriminately. Is this hard? For sure.

But not as hard as trying to live life scared out of our minds. The Anglican priest/Welch poet, George Herbert, put it this way:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
 Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
 From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
 If I lacked anything.

“A guest," I answered, “worthy to be here”:
 Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
 I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
 “Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
 Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not," says Love, “who bore the blame?”
 “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down," says Love, “and taste my meat.”
 So I did sit and eat.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

That Wonderful and Sacred Mystery

O God our Father, source of strength to all your saints, you brought the holy martyrs of Japan through the suffering of the cross to the joys of life eternal: Grant that we, being encouraged by their example, may hold fast the faith we profess, even to death itself; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
On this day in 1597, six Franciscan friars and twenty of their followers were executed in Nagasaki, Japan for their faith. You can read their story here.  The Gospel Reading appointed for this feast day is Mark 8:34-38. One might argue that the whole of the Gospel is in these few verses: we who claim the name of Christian are not called to sit around talking about Jesus but to follow him, and even to risk all for his sake, if that is what is necessary in the time and place where we find ourselves. We are part of the Jesus Movement, and at the center of our life in Christ is the Cross. Yes, we are an Easter people. But there is no secret passageway to the empty tomb that does not go through Golgatha, the place of the skull. This is simply who we are. Jesus died once for all but as the second-century Church Father, Tertullian, put it: "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."

Three hundred and ninety-seven years after this event in Nagasaki, the Rt. Rev. Clarence Coleridge, thirteenth Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, ordained me to the priesthood at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport. It was a joyous occasion and no one died that night, although some who were with us then have since joined the saints triumphant. For me it was the next step in my faith journey, a journey that began when my parents took me to St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Hawley, Pennsylvania to be baptized by water and sealed by the Holy Spirit. There I died to sin, in order to live for Christ. There (and later at Elm Park United Methodist, and Hawley United Methodist, and Demarest United Methodist, and Grace Episcopal in Madison, and St. Mark's Episcopal Church in New Britain) I was blessed to find congregations that kept helping to raise me into the full stature of Christ. Nothing that has happened since my Baptism can top that, including my three ordinations. (I was ordained a United Methodist pastor in June 1988, and then a (transitional) deacon in The Episcopal Church at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford five years later, leading up that February evening in Westport twenty-three years ago.)

Next month, I'll turn fifty-four. I've now spent almost twenty-nine of those years wearing a collar: as a campus minister, parish priest, and for the past four years in diocesan ministry. The Church has sometimes surprised me and sometimes disappointed me over these years, but mostly it's been good to me and I have no complaints or regrets about the path that I've been on. I've had lots of support along the way, none more important than the support I've received at home from Hathy, Graham, and James.

On this day I find myself remembering the vows that I made to Bishop Coleridge and the gathered assembly that night and also the promises the congregation made to me, on behalf of the wider Church, that they would "uphold [me] in this ministry." I am grateful especially for the committee at Christ and Holy Trinity that supported me as a "baby priest" and to those wise wardens at St. Francis, Holden who taught me everything I didn't learn in seminary about how to be a rector. You all know who you are...

There is a prayer that is prayed at ordinations in The Episcopal Church that is one of my very favorites. Some parts of the Body of Christ prefer extemporaneous prayer; they feel it comes "from the heart." But I was drawn to The Episcopal Church and remain "loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them" because of prayers like this one and many others in The Book of Common Prayer that connect head to heart and get heard in new ways every time I attend an ordination, and in my current role I attend even more than I used to. It goes like this:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.