Friday, March 31, 2017

Religion and Politics

This is my first post from day one of a three-month Sabbatical. I'm going long on this one - that's a football reference if you are not a sports fan!

I have jokingly said to friends asking me what this Sabbatical will be about that it's like Seinfeld, which was a "show about nothing." But I say this in jest, in part because I know that groups like Lily will give grants to people who have great "themes" and I don't have one, not really. My Sabbatical will include daily prayer as well as some more structured retreat time at the Society of St. John the Evangelist, It will include family time (in Scotland) and some fun at "preacher camp" (aka the Festival of Homiletics) in San Antonio, Texas,  I don't know how or if all those connect but I'm looking forward to all of them.

But I've also got a reading list - a pretty long one in fact. And I may work out some of that reading on this blog over the course of the next few months as I process it. It probably does have a theme: religion and politics. Or more accurately how can the Church be faithful in a time of political crisis? Because, make no mistake about it, unless one's only source of information is Fox News, more and more people are realizing that our country is in serious trouble right now and needs our prayers and our faithful resistance to policies that are already endangering the poor, the earth, women's health, our LGBTQ neighbors, Muslims, immigrants, refugees...

Sometimes I hear people say that they don't go to Church to hear about politics. But here's the deal: the Bible is about politics. More on that below. But also, early on, the Church defined Gnosticism as a heresy. In short, the core beliefs of the Christian faith are about a real birth - of the Word-made-flesh - and a real death, and a bodily resurrection. None of the post-Easter experiences with Jesus are with a ghost: he has wounds in his hands, breaks bread, eats fish. The early Church insisted that matter matters. The good news of Jesus Christ is not about being "beamed up" to heaven but about the New Jerusalem. To say Jesus is Lord is a political statement; it means that Caesar is not. 

So here's a quick run through the Bible for those who think you can separate religion and politics. Start at the beginning. Start in the Garden where Adam and Eve are asked to care for God's good creation. (Not to dismantle the EPA!) Abraham and Sarah go when God sends them out as refugees in Genesis and they are promised descendants and land. They eventually get both, but the land is contested to this very day. Land is a political matter. If you don't believe me, book a flight to Tel Aviv and go see these places with your own eyes.

Exodus begins with a new Pharaoh in Egypt who did not know Joseph. A pharaoh is a king. Kings are political. This Pharaoh oppresses the people. God hears and sees what is going on and, through Moses, God acts as liberator. Liberation is a political word. The Exodus story is about a group of refugees in search of a better life. If you don't believe me, attend a Seder sometime with Jewish neighbors. What kind of Church ignores oppression in our own world as "too political?"

At the end of the Torah, after forty years of wandering around the Sinai Peninsula, the people are about to enter the Promised Land - without Moses, of course. The leadership "baton" is passed to Joshua who will soon fight the battle of Jericho. The Book of Joshua reads like a military history. Not political? Tell that to the people who were living in Jericho when the walls came tumbling down!

Judges is all about politics, akin to the early days of the United States after 1776 but before 1789. Skip Ruth for now (which is very political) and jump to First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, First and Second Chronicles. Israel wants to be like all the other nations. They want a king. They get Saul, then David, then Solomon. Religion and politics come together, including a big scandal when David sees a lovely woman out sunbathing and invites her over while her husband is off fighting David's war. He has the man killed because he can...because he has power over other people's lives.

Then the monarchy falls apart and the Babylonian army marches in and destroys Jerusalem and the Temple: war is political. Some of the leaders become refugees in Babylon (Iraq) where they lay up their harps and weep and dream of the old country. I don't imagine them as so different in some ways from the Cubans who settled in Miami in another time and place, to pick just one contemporary analogy.

The prophets. Pick one. Any one. Other than those lines from Isaiah that you can't read without Handel's Messiah going through your head, it's hard to think they are about "predicting Jesus." Read Jeremiah. Read Amos. They are about class warfare. They are about God taking the side of the poor. Read Amos 6.

Ah, but all I've talked about so far is the Old Testament, right? I mean it's only 75% of what Christians call "The Bible." But what about the New Testament? How about this? "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled..." (Luke 2:1) Who was Pontius Pilate again? King Herod? The whole story is told in the midst of the presence of a foreign occupying power, the Roman Empire. You can't read the New Testament without the politics - you'd end up with confetti if you tried to cut it all out!

How about Paul's epistles from prison, or his plea to Philemon and Apphia and Archippus to release a slave named Onesimus? How can people who love St. Paul not care about  mass incarceration of people of color?

Or how about the Book of Revelation which borrows language and imagery from the Old Testament to describe how imperial power operates but also imagines a New Jerusalem, a holy city coming down from heaven, and a God who again pitches tent among mortals? Behold, the God who makes all things new!

Too strong? Too snarky? Hey, I'm on Sabbatical! But I am also so very weary of people saying that religion isn't about politics. That is heresy! Religion is always enmeshed with politics and you can't preach from the Bible without going there. As Ghandi so accurately put it, "those who say religion has nothing to do with politics don't know what religion is!"

The question is: whose politics? And should it be partisan? That's a different question. But we need to be more precise. We don't preach pie-in-the-sky "spirituality" because that isn't what the Bible is about. Yes, preachers do need to be careful about misusing their own power to preach their own politics to a captive audience. Yes, preachers should be careful about naming politicians from the pulpit or endorsing one candidate over another, but not necessarily because the Bible prohibits that. It turns out that the IRS isn't so keen on it. But here's the thing: there are costs to discipleship and maybe there are some things more important than tax-exempt status. In any case, an argument can be made that we avoid partisan politics in Church, but we cannot (and must not) avoid the great political questions of our day about violence, poverty, injustice, healthcare...

The Bible challenges all of our ideologies, but not because it is neutral. The Bible, from the first words to the last is about a God who takes sides. Read the Sermon on the Mount. God takes the side of the poor again and again, in both testaments. Does that mean the rich are all going to hell? No, I sure hope not since I live a secure life in the richest nation in the world. But Jesus did say it would be harder for a rich man (or woman) to enter the Kingdom of heaven than to get a camel through the eye of a needle. As my old friend Darrell Huddleston used to say, you can do it, but it makes a helluva mess!

During the next few months, I want to focus in on Revelation for a number of reasons. Watch this blog for more in the coming weeks. My guides into this strange bit of writing will include William Stringfellow, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Walter Wink, and Michael Battle, among others. But I wanted to write this post first. I do hope that most of my faithful readers reach this point and say, "amen." But I also hope if you see this and have yourself said you don't like mixing religion and politics that some of what I've said here will encourage you to rethink that.

Let me be clear: I do not believe that God is a Democrat or a Republican. While I do have partisan views and I do belong to a political party, I have good friends who I know to be people of faith across the aisle who think I'm totally wrong about lots of things. And I may be. Truly. I do believe that people of faith can disagree on political issues and particularly on political strategies. But not on the larger principles. To use one example: people of faith can never turn a blind eye to the challenge to make healthcare affordable for the most vulnerable of our neighbors. We might well disagree on the specifics of a particular plan. But merely moving money from the poor to the rich? That's an offence to the living God. It is simply not an option for people of faith to show neither mercy nor compassion to our neighbors. Go back and read Amos again if you don't believe me!

Religion is all about politics. The harder part is figuring out what God is calling us to do in a particular circumstance. To figure that out we do well to pray for wisdom and courage and humility and also to keep engaging those whom we know to be faithful people who see things differently from us. If we do that we may yet find a way forward, with God's help.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

On Becoming a "Protestant Jesuit"

In June 1988, just a couple of weeks after graduating from Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey with an M.Div. degree, I was ordained in the Wyoming Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church at Elm Park United Methodist Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I was twenty-five years old. Having spent my undergraduate years at Georgetown University, I had told the Board of Ordained Ministry that I thought I heard a call to become a kind of "Protestant Jesuit" but I wasn't quite sure how that might be lived out over time. It's part of the story I've been telling myself and others ever since in trying to make sense of my vocation to serve the Church as an ordained person for these past twenty-nine years.

The pilgrimage from that day to this day has been a winding road. After ordination I served a small United Methodist congregation in rural New Jersey for a year as I studied at Princeton Seminary for a in Church History. That was the last year of so-called part-time ministry, which then as now is really almost always full-time ministry for half-time pay. In 1990 I landed at Central Connecticut State University as the Protestant Campus Minister. Although I had flirted with the Episcopal Church in seminary (including a stint as the seminarian at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison) I arrived in New Britain as a United Methodist. Soon, however, Hathy and I (and our first-born son) made our home at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in New Britain. It was from that launching pad that I finally took the leap (and they took the leap of sponsoring me) toward ordination in the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Connecticut. Five years after I had been ordained in Scranton (almost to the day) I was ordained to the transitional diaconate at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, and then eight months later, I was ordained to the priesthood at Christ and Holy Trinity in Westport, where I had begun to serve as their Associate Rector. This move to the Episcopal Church could be understood in part as a way to further embrace this call to become a "Protestant Jesuit."

I recently celebrated my 54th birthday. After almost three decades of ordained life, at this point, I don't really have a back-up plan anymore. I once thought I might do a PhD so I could teach, but instead I decided early on as the rector at St. Francis Church in Holden to study for a D.Min. at Columbia Theological Seminary in  Decatur, Georgia. (For those not aware, D.Mins are the preferred choice for those who are committed to parish work, rather than PhDs which are really requisite if you want to teach in a college or seminary.) I received that degree in 2005 - a dozen years ago now.

This post isn't meant to rehearse my spiritual autobiography, much of which readers of this blog already know (more or less) anyway. Rather, it's really all preface to reflecting on an upcoming Sabbatical, which begins at the end of this week, on April 1. Sabbaticals give one an opportunity to step back and stand on the balcony and look out on the dance floor; to ponder anew what the Almighty can do (and has done) through all these years. And to wonder what it is that the next chapter(s) might look like. So I'm in a reflective mood as I prepare for that time...

Sabbaticals (or renewal leaves) are meant for big questions and for rekindling the fire of one's call. Mine was to become a "Protestant Jesuit" - by which I think I initially meant that I was quite certain that I was not called to celibacy or to Rome,but that I admired the depth and integrity of the Society of Jesus and I thought Protestants could use a dose of that. The Jesuits are both priests and teachers and I've seen my calling as a way of integrating that work as two sides to the same coin.

I was led (or driven?) to Campus Ministry initially, I think, because I thought that was one way to live that calling out. And it was. I was led (or driven?) to The Episcopal Church because this more liturgical, sacramental "middle" way denomination felt more like the "home" out of which I could continue to explore and deepen this vocation as a "Protestant Jesuit."  Early on, in Westport and then for fifteen years in Holden, it became clear to me that my gifts and passions were in the area of Christian formation and of the need to form disciples for the work of building up the Church. I've always seen the teaching, rabbinical side of the work as essential and even now in diocesan ministry I've tried to embrace those teaching opportunities and invitations. Just this Lent I've been teaching a three-week study on the Psalms at All Saints Church in Worcester; doing so makes me feel alive and "called" and helping to further the Reign of God, at least in some small way.

This is one of the gifts the Jesuits gave me in the classroom and beyond at Georgetown: a gift of loving the questions and of introducing me to spiritual practices that have sustained and deepened my faith and helped me to grow a bit more into the full stature of Christ. The current pope embodies for me much of what I first loved and still love about the Society of Jesus.So I continue to embrace this narrative, this metaphor, of living out my vocation as a "Protestant Jesuit" even if I don't talk like that so often these days.

Several friends of mine have posted the words or similar ones on Facebook before, and I "like" the post, even if it is a "bumper sticker theology." But like all bumper sticker theologies it doesn't tell the whole truth. It's a good reminder, to be sure. And  I've been ordained long enough to know how clerics and vestries can get stuck on "church" - on budgets and roofs and all the rest. We can find ourselves getting "churchified," we who make our living in the Church. Yet we are called to be part of the Jesus movement, to be and to help form followers of Jesus. So all this is true and the reminder is important, especially for people like me who work one step removed from the life of congregations. And yet, the Church is not just another "institution." The Church's one foundation, we sing, is Jesus Christ her Lord. The Church is, as a beautiful prayer in The Book of Common Prayer puts it, "that wonderful and sacred mystery." The Church is two or three gathered together, in Jesus' name, where God has promised through God's well-beloved Child to be in our midst.  In other words, my vocation (and our shared vocation as members of the Body of Christ) is to build up the Church, not dismiss it. We just need to remember that the Church is not a building, but a mystic sweet communion of saints who are called to follow Jesus.

When I accepted the call to serve as "Canon to the Ordinary" (a churchy title if ever there was one, and surely one that I imagine would have puzzled Jesus of Nazareth) I worried about the danger of being a middle manager; a "bureaucrat." So again, this is why I resonate with the post: more than ever I am trying to keep my eyes on Jesus. But I live that work out, now more than ever, by building up the Church, hopefully for Christ's sake.

As I get ready for Sabbatical I'm wondering: how specifically can a Canon be a "Protestant Jesuit?" What does it look like if that is still the calling? Is it time to let the metaphor go or embrace it even more? As a parish priest, no matter how many vestry meetings might make you pull out your hair, someone is born and then baptized and two someones ask you to officiate at their wedding and then someone dies and you offer the prayers of the Church and trust with God's people that in death "life is changed, not ended." On occasion these things happen over the course of a couple of days. You are intimately connected to the circle of life as a parish priest.

The work of a canon is a bit removed from these more intimate pastoral responsibilities. I work to build up the Church: helping clergy and congregations through conflict and through transitions and encouraging lay and ordained leaders to focus on the real work, and not get bogged down in the crap. (That's a technical word, translated directly from the Greek.)

In 2003 and 2004, I took a Sabbatical in two six-week segments to focus on that previously mentioned D.Min. at Columbia Theological Seminary. I was in a program called "Gospel and Culture" and I had a chance to study with amazing people like Walter Brueggemann and Barbara Brown Taylor and Anna Carter Florence. I studied hard and read a lot of books on homiletics (aka preaching) and we were talking about "missional church" long before it was "cool." I hope my preaching improved in the process, but even if it didn't I do believe it got more focused, and intentional. I got clearer about what preaching was for. And what it was not for. It was a great gift to have that kind of focused energy on preaching after having been at it for fifteen years or so - rather than just one or two classes in seminary.

In 2008, I took a second Sabbatical (this time in one three-month segment) at the ten year mark as rector of St. Francis Church. At the time our sons were 17 and 14. The four of us traveled out west and saw some of this country's great national parks as a family and I traveled up and down the east coast with my eldest (and sometimes my youngest) looking at college campuses as he got underway with his own process of discernment to find the college where he might be challenged and grow. It was a wonderful break from daily work, and rightly that Sabbatical focused primarily on my vocation as spouse and parent probably more than as priest. It was a holy and good time.

In 2013, I was due to take my third sabbatical from St. Francis. With the support of my vestry, we wrote a grant proposal with the Lily Foundation who give significant grants for Clergy Renewal Leaves. I was focused on Scotland where Hathy and I first met as undergraduates, at the University of St. Andrew's on a Junior Year Abroad. But I didn't receive the grant from Lily, and in the meantime it became a moot point when I was asked by Bishop Doug Fisher to join his staff as Canon to the Ordinary. I joined that team; the Bishop promised it would be "fun" and it has been, most days.

Four years later, twenty-nine years as an ordained person, fifty-four years old, I will begin a three-month Sabbatical at the end of this week. My spiritual director gave me a good piece of advice: to let Sabbatical work on me rather than needing to have a master plan. I am open to that. The first two Sabbaticals were clearer: academic work in the first and family time in the second. We are now empty nesters and I now have four years under my belt of trying to wrap my head around diocesan ministry. Like the television show, "Seinfeld," this is a Sabbatical about nothing!

But even with an open heart, I do have some plans in place; I can't help myself. I'll spend Holy Week at the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge and then the last week of June at SSJE's other retreat house, Emery House in West Newbury. Framing this time away in prayer and specifically being in those two places that have been so important to my priestly formation as part of the Fellowship of St. John will be a great gift. In between those two retreat times, I'm working on a cookbook for my kids, and I have a long reading list, and I may also do some blogging and even more intentional writing. Oh yes: and we will finally be going back to Scotland, for the first time since Hathy and I returned there on our honeymoon. This time we'll take our adult sons along with us and see some of our old "haunts" and discover some new ones. I'm also going to attend the Festival of Homiletics in San Antonio, which is like "camp" for preachers - and there I hope to reconnect if only briefly with three of those CTS profs: Walter, Barbara, and Anna.

If you've read this far, I commend you: it's a bit like reading someone's diary over their shoulder, I imagine. Ruminations to be sure, but if you have come this far I have a request: your prayers. My own prayer is that this time away will help me to deepen and strengthen my sense of vocation and to tap into that fire as I enter the next chapter in my ordained life and head into my thirtieth year. Scary, I know! I seek to follow Jesus more clearly, nearly, and dearly but I do that as a member of the Church - the Body of Christ. So I ask your prayers as I seek, always with God's help, to continue to grow into what it might mean to be a "Protestant Jesuit" in this new time and place.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

We aren't blind, are we?

This morning, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, I am at St. Michael's Church in Worcester. My sermon manuscript follows: 

Good morning St. Michael’s! It’s been a while, and you should know that at the end of this week I’ll be heading off for a three-month sabbatical, during which time I won’t be preaching anywhere again until July 2. So today and since I love you, you all get a bonus: two sermons for the price of one! The first one is short and straightforward, the second one is longer and more complex. Ready?

Here is sermon one: Rabbi, who sinned here? This man or his parents? In one form or another, human beings have been asking this question throughout history. Even when we know in our heads that this isn’t quite the right question, there is some part of us that assumes life is supposed to be orderly and predictable and make sense. We sometimes forget that God is still ordering the chaos of this world. So when something goes wrong with our bodies or an automobile traveling too fast over black ice or when someone is diagnosed with cancer, we want cause-and-effect answers to the very difficult question of human suffering. Who is at fault here? Why was this man blind? Who is to blame?

Notice that this question doesn’t come from the crowds, but from Jesus’ own disciples. It’s posed by those who have left all things behind to follow him. Like Job before them, they are committed people of faith. And there ought to be a reward for leaving all to follow Jesus, don’t you think? A reward for showing up in church every Sunday morning or volunteering for Marie’s Mission or at Laundry Love. It is people of faith, not atheists, who want to know where God is in the midst of human suffering. Atheists assume that “bad stuff” happens even to good people. It’s people of faith who ask why bad things happen to good people.  Why was this man born blind?  

This is one of those very rare cases where Jesus does not answer a question with a question and that’s worth paying attention to because Jesus always answers questions with questions. It’s totally his very favorite and preferred pedagogical style. So when he’s asked who sinned, this man or his parents, we should notice that he responds clearly and directly: neither this man nor his parents sinned. Jesus rejects the notion that disease is a punishment for sin. Why was this man born blind? We don’t know. But it’s not because of his sin nor his parents’ sin. That much we can settle.

What we can say beyond that is that in this man’s healing, God’s glory is revealed for those who have eyes to see. The healing itself occurs in a fairly straightforward matter: Jesus spits on the ground, makes a little mud pie from the sand and his saliva, spreads that mud on the guy’s eyes, and then tells the man to go wash it off. He does so. God’s grace is so amazing that this man, who once was blind, now sees. End of sermon one.

This leads to sermon number two, however, because the healing story is quickly left behind and what we now have to unpack is the conflict over the practice of how to keep the Sabbath holy. I don’t know what your practice is here at St. Michael’s but in some places, including the parish I served for fifteen years, we recited the Decalogue at the beginning of the liturgy during the Sundays of Lent. There, as you will remember, we are reminded that Sabbath-keeping is on God’s “Top Ten list.”

One of the challenges with the Ten Commandments, however, from the time when the Israelites were busy making a golden calf even as Moses was still on the mountain, to the time of Jesus and right up to today, the question remains. How do you enforce them? What should the punishment be for coveting your neighbor’s new Audi? If someone isn’t worshipping the Lord their God with all their heart and mind and soul, should they go directly to jail and not pass go and not collect $200? Be stoned?

Sometimes when people talk about the Ten Commandments and then insist the world would be a better place if everybody just did that, I wonder if they’ve actually ever read them. Yes, the world would be a better place with less stealing and murder, for sure. But most of the commandments are not meant for civil law; they are practices for people of faith. And they are impossible to keep perfectly. What would it look like to keep the Sabbath holy? A return to blue laws? Well, don’t forget that for Jews (and therefore for Jesus and his family and his friends) the Sabbath began when the sun went down on Friday night and ended when it went down on Saturday night. It means no soccer games on Saturday – not Sunday! What should be the accepted norms around keeping the Sabbath holy? It turns out that’s not a simple question and that’s what’s precisely what’s at stake in today’s Gospel reading.

The poor guy who was blind and now sees finds himself at the center of a media storm and ultimately a criminal investigation. One can only imagine if cable news had been around how this scandal would have unfolded with a twenty-four hour news cycle. As it is, we get to see that even without modern technology; Middle Eastern villages in the first-century do just fine at passing along the big story of the day. No one wants to believe this guy who now sees is the one they’ve all known to be blind from birth. “I’m the man,” he insists. And they keep asking him, “but how did this happen?” Notice his frustration as his voice gets lost. Notice how his parents get dragged in and interviewed by Wolf Blitzer. Notice that the guy’s whole life is disrupted as Jesus becomes the story.

This guy was blind from birth. Why couldn’t Jesus wait just a few hours until the end of the Sabbath to quietly work this healing within the system and without ruffling any feathers? The Pharisees’ are a bit like people who work in the Bishop’s Office – people like me – people with legitimate concerns for best practices and encouraging their constituents to color within the lines. If you start healing on the Sabbath, then before you know it you’ll make other allowances for work; just a few hours here and there on the weekend to catch up. And before you know it the malls will be open and hockey and soccer and dance lessons and all the rest will want the Sabbath and it will not stand a chance and before you know it, it will be no more. Right? So don’t be too dismissive of the Pharisees. It’s not that they are legalistic; it’s that they see where this thing might be heading…

If we dismiss the Pharisees concerns out of hand, we miss the larger point. This is not a spirit-of-the-law Jesus versus legalistic Pharisees although I know many of us were taught to read the story that way. Rather, this is an ongoing conversation among faithful Jewish people about how to practice their faith and also how to build community. And Sabbath-keeping is right at the heart of the Decalogue. And Jesus knows that. The Ten Commandments aren’t just about not murdering or stealing. They are about keeping God and only God, the jealous God, at the center of our lives and making space for that God in the midst of each and every day but especially for one holy day of each week. The Big Ten are about love of neighbor as well as God and that means all of them: Samaritans and Ethiopian eunuchs and Mexican immigrants and Muslim neighbors.. 

So here’s the thing: Jesus is pushing buttons in this text and we should not miss that. We have become overly enamored with “meek and mild” Jesus, but the Jesus in this text and in much of the gospel narrative seems to enjoy rocking the boat. He is saying that doing the work of the Kingdom takes precedence over everything else, even Sabbath rest. Jesus is reminding us that anything can become an idol: the Sabbath, our preferred liturgical style, our church building, our denomination, even the Bible itself. Even our families. These things are all good, but they are given to us to make life more abundant, not so that humans can become slaves to those things. Only God gets to be God. Our job is to love God back and to show that we mean it by loving our neighbors. All of them.   

So the punchline comes at the end, when Jesus says that he comes to judge the world so that those who are blind may see and those who see become blind. What a statement! And then the religious leaders fall right into the trap: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Well, of course they are! Religious people (including you and me!) are always in danger of being blinded by our certitude, by our smugness, by our tidy ideologies on both the left and on the right. Sometimes we, in the name of Jesus, have blinders on about what Jesus is doing in real people’s lives.

So how do we find the truth in a society with so much misinformation and so much “spin?” Who do you trust when you try to distinguish between real news and fake news: PBS or MSNBC or CNN or Fox? We literally inhabit different worlds, different “bubbles” that tend to re-affirm what we already believe, and in the process we too often end up demonizing the other side. It’s taken us a long time to get there but that seems to be where we are.

A decade ago, I read a novel by Michael Crichton called State of Fear. I enjoyed the story. While I also had some challenges with the premise of the novel, there is a quote in there that I felt was a keeper, and so I wrote it down and I’ve kept it around all these years and it seems even truer today than it was when the novel was published in 2004. One of the characters in State of Fear says this:

We imagine we live in different nations—France, Germany, Japan, the U.S.—in fact we inhabit the same state, the State of Fear….I’m telling you this is the way modern society works—by the constant creation of fear. And there is no countervailing force. There is no system of checks and balances, no restraint on the perpetual promotion of fear after fear after fear…          

Fear destroys trust and where there is no trust, communication fails. And without communication, community becomes impossible. So we are left fighting without even an ability to agree on the facts. And in the midst of all the pushing and shoving and shouting we find this state of fear more and more “normal.”  

In the Bible, the angels are always showing up and telling people to “fear not.” But even more than that, the Bible itself actually does offer us an alternative source of information. We make the bold claim as Christians that it conveys the Word of God, that it conveys truth that shatters all of our ideologies, that it is good news. Trustworthy news. We claim that it offers each generation a reliable and credible witness: a trustworthy account of reality that shapes us and forms us to live in the world as friends and followers of Jesus. So when we ask with Pilate the question we’ll revisit in Holy Week: “what is truth?” we have an answer: Jesus, the Incarnate Word to whom the Scriptures point – He is the Way, the Truth, the Life.

So I would tell that character in Crichton’s novel who says that there are no checks and balances and no restraint on the perpetual promotion of fear after fear after fear that in fact the “Word of God” is a lively and real and hopeful countervailing force, because it calls together a community of people with different perspectives who look to a higher authority. That doesn’t mean we will all agree or that we will easily find common ground on any given Sunday. But it does mean that we refuse to give up hope. It does mean that we look to a higher authority than PBS or CNN or MSNBC or FOX.

In today’s gospel reading there are a whole lot of competing agendas and that is sadly all too familiar to us. While it would be easy for us as Christians to caricature and scapegoat the Pharisees, the truth is that they are sincere people trying to keep the faith. We are they. Their sin is the same one that we and all people of faith are always in danger of falling into: in our certitude we think we know and see all that there is to see. And that blinds us to other stories, and other truths. And other people.  
Today’s gospel reading is only initially about the healing of a blind man, which is why you get two sermons and not just one today. In fact, the healing of the blind man becomes a way of exposing the idolatry of religious certitude, of the kind of faith that makes us blind.

So Lent is as good a time as any to remember this: we come here to worship God alone. When we are absolutely certain that we have it all down and that we grasp the whole truth and that we have a clear command of all the right information and that our perspective is pure, it is precisely then that we may be most blind to what is unfolding right before our very eyes, to what God is up to. We’re not blind, are we?

At the very least, this story is about calling us to humility and deeper trust in the living God. This holy season of Lent began with dust, and with the reminder that we are formed of the humus and to that humus we shall return. We are not God and we have no God’s-eye view of the world; not even when we are quoting from the Bible. Only God sees things for what they really and truly are. God knows even our own hearts better than we do. Let us pray:  

Holy God, help us to see your hand at work in the world around us, and to see our neighbor as a gift from you. Help us to keep the Sabbath holy even as we remember that it and all of our religious traditions are made for us, not the other way around. Help us to look and to listen and to be open, and to live no longer in a state of fear, but trusting only in your mercy and goodness. In so doing, show us the way to make community possible and ultimately to see Christ more clearly, to follow more nearly, and to love more dearly, all the way to the empty tomb. Amen.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Our days are numbered

"So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom."
(Psalm 90:12)

Lent began on a Wednesday earlier this month with the reminder that we are dust and to that dust we shall return. It's not a threat, it's just the truth. We do not have all the time in the world.

One of the psalms appointed for this Saturday of the 3rd Sunday in Lent is Psalm 90. It essentially offers us the same reminder as our Lenten journey turns the corner toward Holy Week and Easter. After reminding us in verse ten that since a good long life is perhaps seventy years (or if we are lucky, eighty) the poet suggests that we should use the time we are given to apply our hearts to wisdom.

A week ago, I began the journey of my 55th year around the sun on this good earth from whence we have been formed, and to which we shall all return. My father's death at 37 left a mark on me when it comes to recognizing that my days are numbered: turning 37, 38, and then 40, I was very mindful of the fact that every day is a gift. Beyond that I have sometimes felt a bit like I'm in uncharted territory, even though my mother is alive and well and healthy. I just never took it for granted that I'd turn 50, let alone 54. It seems old! And it feels great.

So here I am, and who knows, perhaps I will one day see 70, or if I am lucky, even 80! In the end, though, it's not forever and like the Lenten journey itself I am aware on this day that I'm well past the halfway point. Yesterday I paid my respects to the widow of an Episcopal priest who lived to be 100. Even then, however, I was aware that in the greater scheme of things, life is short. Teach us, O Lord, to number our days...

It seems to me the wisdom to which we are invited to apply our hearts is to be fully present to where we are. When we are fifteen, to be fifteen- not rushing toward eighteen or twenty. When we are twenty-three, to be twenty-three, and so forth: to be as fully present as possible to the opportunities and challenges that each new chapter of our lives brings our way. The danger is that we get pulled in one direction or the other. We want to go back to those "glory days" or we want to "get through" some particularly challenging stage of life so that we'll be old enough to drive, or married, or getting the kids through potty training or off to school or college or coming home for Thanksgiving.

But we can only be where we are. When we remember that our days are numbered, we can begin each day by counting our blessings and paying attention to the joys and the struggles that it brings our way. We can savor the gift of each day. Which is what the wisest people I know learn to do, with God's help.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Earlier this winter, we scheduled our cathedral's rabbi-in-residence, Mark Shapiro, to speak at our February Diocesan Clergy Day. Rabbi Shapiro was asked to speak about Sabbath-keeping.

Unfortunately we got snowed out and had to reschedule the event to today, on short notice and in the middle of Lent. We knew this would pose a real challenge for parochial clergy to come out for this make-up, but those of us who were able to do so gathered this morning at St. Mark's in East Longmeadow. We were truly blessed.

As readers of this blog know, I will be taking a three-month Sabbatical beginning on April 1. Sabbatical, of course, shares the same root as Sabbath, so my hearing was particularly keen today. Another rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, once said about Sabbath, that " is a day on which we are called to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world...the seventh day rights our balance and restores our perspective. it is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date, but an atmosphere."

Here are some other gems that Rabbi Shapiro shared with us today:

A Day
There is a day
when the road neither
comes nor goes, and the way
is not a way but a place. 
(Wendell Berry)

Imagine not that life is all doing
Stillness, too, is life;
And in that stillness
The mind cluttered with busyness quiets,
The heart racing to win rests,
And we hear the whispered truths of God. 
(Rami Shapiro)

Today I'm flying low and I'm
not saying a word.
I'm letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little, 
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.
But I'm taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I'm traveling
a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple. 
(Mary Oliver)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

I Lift My Eyes to the Hills

This Sunday I'm in Worcester, at All Saints Church. It's the Second Sunday of Lent; the readings for the day can be found here. I really do love the Gospel reading for today; and for those interested I posted a sermon here three years ago (the last time it came up) that I preached at Christ Memorial Church in North Brookfield. This year, however, since I'm leading a discussion on the Psalms at All Saints on Thursday nights, it made sense to preach today's sermon on Psalm 121. 

I love Nicodemus! And if Greg will promise to invite me back three years from now when he makes an appearance next on the second Sunday of Lent 2020, I’ll mark my calendar for a return visit. But this year, since I’m teaching a three-week study here on Thursday nights on the psalms, this sermon has a secondary function: as a kind of “plug” for that class, as an invitation for you to consider the psalms as a part of this year’s Lenten journey. With this in mind… has been said that the one who sings, prays twice. The psalms are ancient Israel’s hymnal. As with our own Hymnal‘82, they are poems set to music. They are meant to be sung by both Jews and Christians for private meditation and in the midst of the assembly. The psalm that we prayed a few minutes ago is my own personal favorite in the entire Psalter, one that I have requested be used at my funeral. (Like everyone I love the 23rd psalm, of course, but, well, everyone loves and uses that one! I guess I’m enough of a contrarian to give the slight edge to 121.)

I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?” First and foremost, I love a prayer that begins with a question. One can imagine a person who has come through some difficult time in life standing at the foot of the Alps or the Rockies (or maybe even Mount Wachusett) and looking up toward the heavens: God are you there? I know you are…will you help me? The person willing to ask this question is already more than halfway there. It seems to me that it’s when we think we have things all under control that we are most in danger. Conversely, the one who lifts her eyes to the hills and looks for help is ready to respond when it is offered, not unlike the guy who walks into a meeting of strangers and says, “I admitted that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable.”

So I love that about this prayer: a person who goes outside and asks a question. And I love it that the response is claimed with boldness: “my help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” The Creator of the universe loves and cares for me. And for you. And for us. And for all the children of the world. To believe that is to face any adversity with hope and confidence and to begin to live by faith alone.

Some of you may know the poem by Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” I think it’s a close cousin to Psalm 121, and conveys the same vision:
When despair grows in me / and I wake in the night at the least sound / in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, / I go and lie down where the wood drake / rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. / I come into the peace of wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief. I come into the presence of still water. / And I feel above me the day-blind starswaiting for their light. / For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. 
The world can be a dangerous place. Even so, as another poet once put it, “this is my Father’s world…”  And God still looks and calls it good. There is a peace that comes our way just by paying attention, by considering the lilies of the field or paying attention to the place where the heron feeds or cross-country skiing on the rail trail or walking along the beach and listening to the waves hit the shore or lifting our eyes to the hills. When we do these things and I’m sure you have your own list, we are already on the mend.

Whatever has been troubling the psalmist (and let’s face it, that could be a long list too -  the end of a relationship, the death of a loved one, changes happening in their congregation, fear about where their country is headed… ) any and all of these things can disorient us and make us wonder where our place in the world is. And then we lift our eyes to the hills and ask the biggest question of all: from whence cometh our help? This is what Lent is for, to encounter the peace of wild things. The wilderness itself responds to our question: our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. God is not asleep on the job.

It’s an Old Testament prayer. It’s a prayer that Mary and Joseph no doubt taught Jesus to pray. But it is a prayer easily adapted to the lips of those who claim this Galilean Jew as the Christ, for at its heart it is the claim of Immanuel. That is, it’s a claim of “God-with-us.” It’s a prayer about putting our trust in the God who is with us throughout life’s journey, a God who loves us with an everlasting love.

Now there is a part of me that wishes that was all there was to say on this subject. But there is another psalm—another prayer—that awaits us at the end of this Lenten journey and that will take us into the heart of the three holy days. It’s a very different kind of prayer, a prayer of desperation and of lament. It is also one of my favorites. It’s a prayer that Jesus himself also prays; in fact according to two of the Gospel writers it is the very last prayer he prays on this earth. It begins like this:

          My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
                    and are so far from my cry
                   and from the words of my distress?

Now it’s difficult to say that one loves this prayer in the same way as Psalm 121. But I know that in my own journey, as perhaps in yours, there are times in our lives when we lift our eyes to the hills and we are not comforted. There are times when we do not know for sure whether or not God is with us, but it feels as if God is not. There are times in our lives, especially in times when we feel like we are traveling alone in the wilderness of loss, or addiction, or betrayal that we get lost and we feel isolated and we feel scared and it seems like we are traveling alone in the universe and that no one is listening. Not even God.

There is a word in Korean, for which there is no literal English translation. It's the word han, which is a state of soul that is about sadness, a sadness so deep that no tears will come. And yet still there's hope. I think Psalm 22 is a han kind of prayer. In the face of earthquakes and hurricanes and wars and rumors of war and acts of terror and in the face of divorce, cancer, automobile accidents and tragic loss it sometimes feels like the foundations of our faith are crumbling, and we lift our eyes to the hills and we ask for help and sometimes we hear—nothing. We experience the absence of God in those times when we most feel we need it. And we can infer that that must mean that God isn’t there at all, or doesn’t care, or isn’t paying attention.  Psalm 22 names all that. And sometimes Lent is like that for us, maybe this year it is like that for you.

Now there are some kinds of piety that don’t think we should talk like that, and especially that preachers never should. That we should be only optimistic and happy like that preacher out in Texas, Joel Osteen. There are some who say that the “absence of God” isn’t a real or legitimate experience. But I think our God is a God of truth and more than anything else I think preachers have to do their best to tell the truth, even when it’s hard. I know way too many people who have prayed this prayer at some point in their journeys, because life is very often not fair at all. And I take great comfort in the fact that Jesus prayed it, because if he could pray it then we are given permission to pray it as well.

So I am so glad to be part of a tradition that is comfortable with paradox. To be clear, Episcopalians didn’t invent this! Our Jewish friends have known this for a very long time. But I find it encouraging to be part of a community that includes both the 22nd psalm and the 121st psalm, even though they express very different experiences of God. And I find that incredibly encouraging because it covers the full range of this and every Lenten journey, which is of course patterned after our life’s journey. We live in an age that expects easy answers to difficult questions. We live in a “can do” world and an “either/or” world. And when that plays out in a faith community like this one, then God can become either a kind of “totem” who always keeps us safe or who, when absent, we don’t believe in anymore. But the truth is that we are part of a faith tradition that is richer and more complex than that, which is a good thing, because life is richer and more complex than that.  

As I read the Scriptures (and especially the psalms) I read them not so much as the answers to life’s questions as they are more like mile markers or signs along the highway that help us to better frame the right questions and then listen for a Word of the Lord in community. The Bible is more like a “never-ending story” that invites us into a “lover’s quarrel” with God. We are invited into these old texts and into this holy season of Lent to remember how to let go and let God. The wilderness of Lent is a place where we rediscover, by God’s grace, who we are, and whose we are. The wilderness of Lent is a place where we can learn to pray in new ways and become more attentive to where we are in the journey and willing to live into the questions rather than to recite easy answers. In taking this journey we discover the faith of Jacob, who wrestled with God. We remember the faith of Job, who refused to let God get off the hook too easily and in the end discovered that God appreciated his honesty more than his friend’s false piety. We find ourselves closer to the faith of Jesus, tempted for forty days and yet discovering the peace of wild things that open the door to new and abundant life.

I want to be part of a faith tradition that includes both Psalm 22 and Psalm 121 because that rings true to the way that I experience the world and the way that I experience God. Sometimes people who are living in that place of Psalm 121 come up to a bump in the road, and no one has ever told them it’s alright to learn a new prayer—to be angry with God, because God can handle it!  That there are times when we need to express those emotions of betrayal and loss and hurt. Sometimes, though, people get stuck and embittered and can’t find a way forward. They pray those first few verses of Psalm 22 for years and maybe even for decades, without knowing that even in that prayer of anguish the poet does reach a point where he cries out to God as Helper. And of course the very next prayer after that one is Psalm 23. By God’s grace, we practice singing these songs together in communities like this one so that we can draw on them as our lives unfold. On this day we are reminded to “lift our eyes to the hills” because there we, and others, have discovered that the maker of heaven and earth is there for us: Christ before us and beside us and in front of us and behind us and underneath us, so that we can keep on walking toward Easter morning. One step at a time. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Remember that you are dust...

Today marks the beginning of the holy season of Lent. The readings for this day can be found here. These Biblical texts and today’s liturgy are rich, and perhaps more than any other time in the year (even Christmas and Easter) people write the sermon they need for this day. On such a day, a blog post may be redundant. Even so...

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This action of smudging ashes on foreheads is a counter-cultural act. Most of us don't like to talk about death or dying. We think we will live forever and therefore that we have all the time in the world. We do not.

Some of you may remember the journalist, Leroy Sievers, who wrote a blog called "My Cancer."  He was fifty-three years old when he died (writes the fifty-three year old blogger who hopes, God willing, to turn fifty-four in a couple of weeks). Sievers made it real, blogging about his illness and inspiring others to live each day more fully. In one of his posts, Sievers recalls that he was watching an episode of House when a character on that television show, an old man with cancer, says to his doctor, “I want to know that something is different because I was here.”

I think that prayer resonates with people of all ages, across gender and racial and political lines. I don't know what you need to give up or let go of or add in your life for that to happen. I'm still working on figuring that out for myself. Some of us need to slow down; while others of us need to get to work. Some of us need to get serious; while others of us need to lighten up. Some of us need to begin to recognize the gifts we have and claim them; others of us need a dose of humility and need to step back. Some of us need to speak up; others of us need to learn how to listen. The messages we take from this day will be particular to the lives we are living and even the "chapter" that we're on. As an almost fifty-four year old, I am not the same person I was at twenty-four. (Thanks be to God!)

But I can say this to you: we are all terminal. You don’t need a cancer diagnosis to be terminal. All of us have a limited amount of time on this earth to do the work that God has given us to do. All of us are dust and to dust we shall return. There is no negotiating on that one! So the only question left is this: what will you do with your one, wild and precious life? What is it that will be different about the world—better about the world—that others will notice when you are gone? 

And then here is the hardest question of all: how do you claim that, and then live backwards from it?  We are all marked for death, but we have been claimed for life.This Lenten journey upon which we embark today isn’t a time for self-flagellation or spiritual narcissism. It ends at the empty tomb, with the promise of resurrection and new and abundant life. Even at the grave we make our song. Listen. Be very still: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia

I wonder if maybe one of the reasons that we refrain from using that word in Lent is so that as we enter into the quiet and the wilderness we can begin to hear God already singing it in and through our lives. If that is the case then we listen now, so that we can join the song on Easter day. 

Today is truly a gift. We are all terminal. But that fact need not paralyze or frighten us. The ashes are rubbed into our foreheads in that very same spot where the priest once made the sign of the cross with holy oil when we were baptized and “Christened,” which is to say sealed and marked and named and claimed. And loved. We have been baptized into Christ’s death, and so we have also already been raised with him to new life. 

I don’t think that means that we sit around waiting for heaven. I think it is meant to liberate us so that we make each day count. So that we can live lives that matter. So that when our time comes, and the saints militant gather to remember us when we have joined the saints triumphant, our friends and family will have no problem in saying about us that something was different because we were here.