Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sent

This is the third post in a three-part series, a sermon originally preached on Trinity Sunday, 2010, at St. Francis Church in Holden.

At the heart of our life together is the Eucharist. Though we are many, we are One. So we have spent some time over these past couple of weeks reflecting on the shape of the Eucharistic liturgy as we are gathered, fed, and sent.

We began with the Collect for Purity, in which we pray that God’s Holy Spirit might inspire and cleanse our hearts so that our worship can be focused on the love of God made known in Jesus, and that we might in turn respond to that love as Mary did by worthily magnifying God’s holy Name.

And then last weekend we focused on how we come with joy to meet our Lord, forgiven, loved, and freed. We spoke about this shared meal which has a past, present, and future tense to it, as we remember Christ’s death, proclaim his resurrection, and await his coming in glory. As we proclaim this mystery of faith, we are mindful of  both Good Friday and Easter. We are also learning to entrust our future to God, in hope, confident with Julian of Norwich that “all will be well and all manner of things will be well.” Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

I wonder if the reading we heard today from the eighth chapter of Proverbs might provide us with a “hook” to this third and final meditation on worship, as we turn our attention to the post-Communion prayer to reflect on being a sent people?

                    Does not wisdom call,
                            and does not understanding raise her voice?
                    On the heights, beside the way,
                            at the crossroads she takes her stand;
                            beside the gates in front of the town,
                            at the entrance of the portals she cries out…

Where do we find God the Holy Trinity? Not just in Church, but in the streets. We are sent from here into the world because God is not confined to this building. We find God already present at the crossroads of the cities and towns from which we come, at the mall and in our schools and on the soccer fields and dance studios and black box theaters and police stations.

It has become a familiar rallying call of preachers of all stripes to critique the dominant culture and I know I’m no exception to that rule. Liberals tend to be more comfortable critiquing corporate greed and the military-industrial complex, while conservatives tend to be more comfortable critiquing Hollywood’s values and the erosion of the nuclear family.

But in fact, the Church is part of the very culture we critique. Moreover, the culture is complex. Even when mainline Christians feel more and more like we are on the sidelines, we need to be careful about making blanket indictments. We are part of the culture. What we need as Christians is wisdom and discernment so that that we can faithfully attend to the alternative narrative that this Eucharistic Prayer invites us to live: the narrative of being a gathered, fed, and sent people.

We can’t do that if we are trying to run away from the world! Our work, as the Church, is to leaven the culture, illuminate it, and make it a little bit saltier. Our work is to become a people who are sent into the world—God’s world—with a mission and a purpose. We are sent from this place knowing in advance that God has already gone ahead of us. What we need are eyes to see and ears to hear.

There are two post-communion prayers we try to use more or less in balanced ways over the course of the year. While the words differ slightly in each of them, the themes are pretty much the same. Both prayers thank God for having gathered and fed us.  And then both prayers remind us that the ball is in our court as we are sent into the world to do the work God has given us to do. We have been graciously accepted as living members of Christ’s Body; now we are sent into the world in peace. We go knowing full well that the world can be an unsteady and confusing place. That is why we ask God for strength and courage.

In Holy Baptism we promise “to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ”—a promise we regularly renew several times a year. That will take a different shape for each of us, but I think we can all agree that if we go into the world and are total chameleons that blend in so well with the world’s values that one would be hard pressed to see how our faith has transformed our lives, then we probably have some work to do. We are meant to live our lives so that Christ’s light shines through us.

We are sent out of this place to be salt, and light, and yeast. Each of those metaphors, by the way, reminds us that it doesn’t take a lot. The late Krister Stendahl used to joke that Christians have sometimes acted like our commission is to make the whole world into a salt mine! But just a little bit of salt on our steak makes it taste even better. One small candle gives off enough light in a dark room for us to find our way. And it doesn’t take very much yeast to make a bowl full of dough rise. I take each of these Biblical metaphors of what the Church is for, given to us by Jesus himself, as encouragement. It really doesn’t take much, and we can very often do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. We just need to try.

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, after reading Blink earlier this spring. Gladwell's thesis is that a few committed people can do a lot in the world, and there is a "tipping point" toward change that is the goal; not getting everyone to agree to a change! This is a good reminder of what we are sent into the world to be about as Christians. What are we sent to do? To love and serve God with gladness and singleness of heart. That’s it: we are called to be faithful witnesses in the world. Since God is not locked in the Church, but can already be found at the crossroads and city gates and in the mall and on the baseball fields, our work is to look for God in the face of our neighbor. And we need to do our best to let our neighbor see the face of God in us.

I bet we can all agree that if we are out of control and yelling at our teenager, or yelling at our parent or our boss or our employee or at Town Meeting or at vestry—then we are probably not bearing witness, with courage, to the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Less obvious are all of the passive-aggressive ways that can yield the same result of fanning the flames of anxiety and fear. But when we are doing those things, we can be pretty sure that we are not serving God with gladness and singleness of heart.

Beyond those obvious ways, however, it is sometimes difficult to know when to speak and when to be still, when to embrace and when to refrain from embracing, when to protest and when to live to fight another day. We want to be instruments of peace, but sometimes it’s hard to know what is required. This, I think, is why we need one another; why we need community and prayer and friends in Christ. This is why we pray for strength and courage before we were sent out into the world to do the work God gives us to do. Because sometimes it’s hard to know what the right thing is, even if we have the courage to do that thing.

The post-Communion prayer found on page 366 of the Prayerbook thanks God for assuring us in these holy mysteries that we are living members of the Body of [Christ] and heirs of [God’s] eternal kingdom. That’s a very powerful statement. Most of us carry around lots of messages, some healthy and some not so much, about who we are and about who we are supposed to be. Some of us may feel we are sent out in order to do it all—in order to save the world. But my friends in Christ: that job is taken!

Our work is not to save the world! It is to live knowing the world is already saved. It’s to participate now as heirs of that eternal kingdom. As we are sent, we are reminded that we live in Christ and therefore need to let our words and actions and gestures reflect that reality. To leave here and love and serve God, is to live in a way that points others to the One who is the source of that full and abundant life.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of becoming the kind of person who says, “I wish I lived in a neighborhood where people behaved like neighbors.” When we find the courage and strength to be better neighbors, it really does rub off. Not on everyone perhaps, but neighborliness is as contagious as anxiety is. The neighborhood will be better when we are good neighbors. I guarantee it.

Last Sunday afternoon I was at the Big Y and there was this old guy who was two persons in front of me wearing a Veterans cap. He was in no rush. He made his purchases and the bill was $3.09. He had three ones, and begin to hem and haw a bit. It became clear to me at least that he wasn’t short of money; he just didn’t want to break a twenty. The guy between us told him not to worry; that he would cover the dime. The guy in the cap was clearly grateful, handed over the three ones and started to leave.

It turned out he “won” one of those silver coins they give out at Big Y, however. So he turns and hands it to the guy behind him! Now the guy in front of me has his order rung up and the kid is doing the checking (who hasn’t really been paying very close attention to what is unfolding before his very eyes) asks the man if he has a silver coin. Which of course he now does. He and I both watched as $3.10 came off of this second guy’s order!

I have no idea what he had purchased in there that got his silver coin to take that much off but I swear I’m not making this up! I watched it all with amazement, feeling like I was standing on holy ground.

I’d like to say that if I’d been behind the guy who didn’t want to break his twenty that I would have covered his dime. But I’m not sure that I would have. Honestly he seemed a bit like a grumpy old man and a part of me would have liked to have seen him dig deeper.

And I have no idea if the guy in front of me was a confessing Christian or not. But you know what? I went through the rest of that day feeling a little bit more neighborly and generous. I watched a brother quite literally spare a dime, an act which in this day and age really is not even remotely a big deal. Just a little light, a little yeast, a little sprinkle of salt. But it rippled down the line; magnified many times beyond its value, in the blink of an eye.

Wisdom is calling…and not just at the Big Y, either! Go find Her!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Fed

This is Part II in a three-part series. You can find Part I here. This sermon was originally preached on the Feast of Pentecost, May 23, 2010, at St. Francis Church in Holden, MA

This weekend, with Christians across town and around the world, we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. Unlike Christmas and Easter, when we are enmeshed in secularized versions of these holy days, I have seen no Pentecost displays at Big Y or CVS.

But here at St. Francis, it’s a big weekend with lots of seemingly disparate things happening, all of them connected by that same life-giving Spirit that we heard about in today’s reading from Acts. On Saturday night: the celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism as Paige Nicole Parker is welcomed into the household of God. On Sunday morning: the celebration with our young people who have gone through our Eucharist Instruction program. Across town at the Lutheran and Congregational Churches (and in many denominations that don’t require the bishop’s presence) Pentecost includes Confirmation, which we celebrated just two weeks ago. This weekend we also will mark the graduation of those who have completed four years of study in the Education for Ministry program.

All of these are the work of God’s Holy Spirit by which we are claimed and sealed and marked as Christ’s own, forever, in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Baptism is not magic. It’s not like getting our kids vaccinated or buying fire insurance. Rather, it’s is the beginning of a journey with the Holy Spirit and with God’s people, the Church.

Sometimes that Spirit is experienced as a Comforter—like a gentle summer breeze. And sometimes that same Spirit is like a mighty wind that stirs us from complacency. Sometimes that same Spirit is like a flickering flame that illumines the darkness and sometimes like an all-consuming fire. Episcopalians tend to like the kinder and gentler ways that the Spirit works and you probably know Christians who experience the Spirit as louder. But it’s all the work of the same Spirit. We may choose to ignore the work of that Spirit for months or years or decades at a time, but we cannot negate the Spirit’s presence in our lives.  The journey toward more mature discipleship that leads us through Church School and Rite 13 and J2A and Confirmation and EfM is ultimately about learning to trust that Spirit to be our guide as we continue to grow into the full stature of Christ.

It is important for us to be clear that we aren’t making Paige into an Episcopalian this weekend. That may or may not happen at some point down the road. But she is not being baptized as an Episcopalian. We at St. Francis Church are acting on behalf of Christ’s one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As we do that, we pray not only for her and her family, but for ourselves, so that we can be the kind of faith community that will make it apparent that the Holy Spirit is at work here and is present in our worship and is forming us as Christians and in our sense of purpose and mission in the world. We are trying to become what C.S. Lewis once called “mere Christians” and we pray this weekend that we might be the kind of faith community that is focused on making faithful disciples.

Baptism is a lifelong journey that begins at the font, but it doesn’t end there. Each week we are invited to come to the Table to become what we eat by renewing the promises that were made at Baptism, because Baptism is a two-way street and it calls for a response in us as living members of Christ’s Body. For most of the young people who have gone through our Eucharist Instruction program, therefore, this weekend is not their first Communion: they have been receiving the Sacrament for various lengths of time, some for as long as they can remember. But over the past few months, with their parents’ help, they have been reflecting more deeply on what it means to be part of a Eucharistic community, what it means to be fed and nurtured by God as we become what we eat—the Body of Christ.

Last weekend we reflected on how we are gathered as God’s holy people when we pray the Collect for Purity. Today we turn our attention to the Paschal mystery in order to consider what it means to be fed. At the heart of the Eucharistic Prayer, we proclaim this mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to bake the bread for this weekend’s services with this year’s class. As we taste and see today that the Lord really is good, this Pentecost weekend gives all of us a chance to step back to reflect on what we do and why we do it when we celebrate this Eucharist together.
We come with joy, with Christians far and near, to find as all are fed, the new community of love, in Christ’s communion bread.
If we understand that much about the Eucharist—if we understand enough to respond, “thank you God” –then we understand plenty. The heart of what this meal is all about is gratitude, for the Greek word ευχαριστεο literally means, “to give thanks.” With the Psalmist, we look to God to satisfy our hungry hearts. And God does. God feeds us with God’s own Body, and being fed we offer our sacrifice of thanks and praise.

Depending upon which Eucharistic Prayer we are using on a given week, the words change slightly. In Eucharistic Prayer B we say: we remember his death, proclaim his resurrection, and await his coming in glory.  But it’s the same claim that is made in all of them, regardless of the wording: namely that we have a past, present, and a future with Christ. And behind these words are stories: particularly the narratives of Good Friday, Easter Day, and the Last Day.

First, the Eucharistic Prayer invites us to remember Christ’s death. Every time we gather to celebrate Holy Communion, we remember those three holy days that began in an Upper Room: Jesus and his closest followers are in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, and it came time for the Seder meal. Jesus, as he is portrayed in the gospels, spends a lot of time at table. But this meal will turn out to be the last supper that he and his friends will share together.

You don’t have to listen very closely to any of the Eucharistic prayers to find this thread running through all of them. In fact, for many of us who are older than forty or so, it was almost exclusively this thread we were taught to think about when we were children, regardless of whether we were raised as Baptists or Episcopalians or Roman Catholics. The focus was on what happened the next day, on the death of Jesus and the Cross. And so we pray: He stretched out his arms upon the cross and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

This is a vital part of the story, but it’s not the whole story. When we celebrate the Eucharist we are not simply continuing the practice of sharing a Seder meal. We are also proclaiming Christ’s resurrection: Christ is risen. And that verb tense matters. We don’t say that Christ was risen, but that He is. Every Eucharist is a recollection of Christ’s victory over sin and death that calls us to new and abundant life. As Brian Wren puts it in one of his great Easter hymns:
Christ is alive, let Christians sing! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine he comes to claim the here and now!
When we break the bread and share the cup we are not going back in time to an Upper Room: we are “on the road to Emmaus” (or on our way to Worcester or the prom or a new job or to the hospital.) We are asking for God to open our eyes and ears and hearts and minds so that we can see that Christ is here, among us wherever two or three gather together in His name. And so we pray: risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread! The Eucharist is not just about remembering that Christ died on the Cross; it’s about celebrating the good news of Easter that even now, Christ is with us.

But there is also a future-tense to this meal: it’s a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. The Eucharist anticipates the culmination of human history—we await Christ’s coming in glory when every tear is wiped away and pain and grief are no more. At some level that first Pentecost in Jerusalem, even without bread and wine, is a glimpse into what that end looks like: a place where each can speak in her own native tongue and be heard, from many tribes from many nations. (Heaven is not an English-only place!) This yearning for God’s future kingdom is also woven into the fabric of the Eucharistic Prayer: we are called to serve Christ in unity, constancy and peace until “…at the last day, we are brought with all the saints into the joy of God’s eternal kingdom.”

All of this raises the question of how we should pray the Eucharistic Prayer: what posture should be used? Traditionally, one stood for praise and thanksgiving and knelt for confession. So if the Eucharistic Prayer is understood to be primarily about penitent hearts and forgiveness, then kneeling seems to be the right answer. We gather to remember Christ’s death upon the cross, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world, as the older liturgies put it (BCP 334) We kneel, mindful that we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under the table. (BCP 337) Which is true; but it’s only about one third of the truth.

We come with joy because we are forgiven, loved, and free. We have been delivered from evil and made worthy to stand before God (BCP 368)—which is simply to say that Christ’s victory on Easter morning is a cause for celebration! Christ is risen! You don’t kneel at a party where the fatted calf has been killed and the table is set with veal picatta and a lovely Tuscan red wine! And beyond that, we look over the horizon to the Last Day, which is often compared in Scripture to a wedding feast. Most wedding receptions, including the one Jesus attended in Cana of Galilee, are joyous celebrations meant not for kneeling but for dancing!

Now the Prayerbook doesn’t order us to stand, and let’s be clear, neither does the rector of St. Francis Church! There may be times when the only posture we can take is to be humbly kneeling. But over the past thirty or forty years (since the revisions were being considered and then made to the Prayerbook in 1979) standing has become the preferred posture, not only in this parish but in the wider church, as it was the preferred posture in the earliest centuries of the Church’s life. In part this change is rooted in the recovery of these other dimensions of the Paschal mystery. Standing is therefore encouraged, and when we stand we stand together it is also a good reminder that we are not Christians alone, but in community.

Whether we choose on any given week to stand or kneel, we all proclaim with one voice the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. As we try to envision the day when every tear is wiped away, it is in that imaginative enterprise that we begin to discover the work God has given us to do, and then we are sent out to do it. But that’s for next weekend…

Two weeks ago, I began a three-week preaching series on worship with the reminder that the Latin phrase lex orandi, lex credendi provides a pretty good window into how Episcopalians do theology. Roughly translated, that phrase means that “the law of prayer is the law of belief.”

To put it more simply: Episcopalians don’t tend to do theology by making dogmatic pronouncements or formulating new credal statements. We pray together. Common prayer is about forming a listening community: a community that is listening to God and to each other. So when someone asks, “what do Episcopalians believe, anyway?” we try to step back and reflect on what it means for us to pray these words week after week, until by the grace of God we start to believe them.

And then the words become something more than printed pages in a book; they begin to take hold in our lives as we begin to live them one day at a time, and always with God's help.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Gathered

One of my Sabbatical projects has been to begin to organize my old sermons, going back a dozen years or so as files on my computer that have been "passed along" even when old computers died. (Before that I think sermons I preached were on floppy disks or something and I think they've been lost to the mists of time.) But having sermons from about 2004 or so on, and having preached about forty or so times a year, has made this an interesting project to begin. 

I want to share three of those sermons here, beginning today, that were originally a three-part preaching series on worship and faith, entitled lex orandi, lex credendi. I preached this series in 2010 at St. Francis Church in Holden. The three parts were entitled Gathered, Fed, and Sent. It was a kind of extended "Eucharist Instruction." The first meditation was focused on the Collect for Purity, the second on the Paschal Mystery, and the last on the Post-Communion Prayer.

Loosely translated, the Latin phrase, lex orandi, lex credendi means “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” For Episcopalians this means that if you want to understand what we believe, then you need to come and pray with us. Our theology is discerned by paying attention particularly to the Book of Common Prayer, and even more especially to the Eucharistic-centered worship that is at the heart of that common prayer. 

While these sermons were enmeshed in the context of congregational life, as you'll see, I think they translate reasonably well to other contexts. I'm sharing them as I found them - not trying to update them in any way other than to correct an occasional typo! I'm not sure I'd say it all the same way seven years later, but truthfully my theology of worship has not changed that much. I hope you enjoy! (RMS) 

Part I – "Gathered." Preached on Ascension Sunday, May 16, 2010

It has been said that if you want to know what Episcopalians believe, then you need to pray with us. But it is more than just being present for worship, because sometimes we can worship, even for many decades, without ever really stopping to reflect on what we are doing. We can have the experience and miss the meaning. If we mean to internalize our prayer, then we need, from time to time, to step back and reflect theologically on what we are doing and why we are doing it.

So beginning today, and continuing through the end of this month, I want to offer three meditations to explore three “moments” in our worship together that we may take for granted. They happen to come at the beginning, middle, and end of the liturgy. Today we’ll explore the Collect for Purity, next weekend the Paschal mystery, and then we’ll conclude on Trinity Sunday with the post-Communion Prayer. For the sake of easy reference I want to call these three meditations: Gathered, Fed, and Sent.

Each week we come into this room from many different places: all five of the Wachusett towns and further afield as well, from places as different as Worcester and Hubbardston. Our workplaces are even more spread out, not only geographically, but in the work that we do. Yet here we are gathered in, gathered together to ask the Lord’s blessing, bound up together as one people. Our worship begins each week with us praying the Collect for Purity.

This prayer dates back as far as the eighth century, in other words long before the English Reformation. It became part of what would be known as the Sarum Rite in England: basically the Mass as it was prayed (in Latin) in Salisbury, England during the Middle Ages. What is interesting to me is that this prayer was originally prayed by the priest before the Mass begin, as part of his private preparations and meditations in the sacristy.

One of the core values of the Protestant Reformation was the notion of the “priesthood of all believers.” So along with that Reformation idea and the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 was the thought to include this prayer, in English, for everyone, rather than just among the priest’s private prayers in the sacristy.

Nevertheless, even as late as the 1979 Prayerbook (the red one in our pews today) the rubric still has the Celebrant praying this prayer on behalf of the assembly. In many of the newer liturgies, however, it is a prayer that the gathered assembly prays in unison, which is why for a couple of years now that has become our practice here at St. Francis. We have been deliberately and systematically breaking a rubric to make that next logical move, almost five hundred years after Cranmer’s bold decision! Sometimes these things take time! But in truth, it makes sense for us to be praying it together if we really do believe in this radical notion of the priesthood of all believers. There is nothing in this prayer that ought to be reserved exclusively for the ordained.

What, then, does it mean to begin our worship with this prayer? Let me remind you first of all what it says and as I offer it again try to hear the words anew:
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy Name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This little prayer is packed with meaning. I suppose depending on the week we’ve had, these words can sound either very comforting or like an invasion of privacy. Maybe it’s always a little bit of both. We come here to remember that there is no place we can go to flee from God. (That, too, can be either a comforting or terrifying thought or a little of both.) We are being reminded, that here in the midst of God’s people, this is too important a time and space to play games. We can fool others some or all of the time and we can fool even ourselves sometimes, but God knows our hearts all of the time. God knows our hearts even better than we ourselves know them. So here in the presence of God and God’s people, we gather together to open our hearts to the One from whom no secrets are hidden.

Sometimes during the week, in our homes or workplaces or over coffee with a friend, we will act with the best of intentions and yet be misunderstood. At other times we will act with the most manipulative of intentions and get away with it. But here, as we come into the presence of God, we come before the One who knows our hearts before we ever open our mouths to pray.

Worshiping God the Holy Trinity, the God made known to us in the Old and New Testaments and revealed in and through Jesus Christ, is not the same as worshiping some generic “Unmoved Mover.”  This God invites us to radical intimacy. Our worship is a matter of the heart. When our hearts are feeling hardened or divided, we become separated from God, our neighbors, and even our own truest selves. So we begin our worship by asking for God’s Holy Spirit to move through us and to cleanse what is not clean, so that God can be praying through us.

Implicit in all Anglican theology is the creation story and God’s original blessing. The very first question asked in the catechism is this:“what are we by nature?” The response is a bold and Biblical one: “We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.” (See BCP 845 and Genesis 1.) Sin distorts that reality, but it does not ever negate it. The whole point of these fifty days of Easter is that in Christ that original blessing is being restored and renewed.

We are made, in other words, to perfectly love God. Now that is a very dangerous word, especially for the perfectionists among us. It makes it sound like we have to get it right; that we better not get it wrong or we’ll be in big trouble. And sometimes people have been taught to think of prayer that way; that we need to find a special voice or tone or some magic words in order to be heard by God. But that is clearly not what this prayer means to suggest. When speaking to the God who already knows our hearts and our hearts’ desires—the God with whom there is utter transparency and from whom no secrets are hid—we don’t have pretend to be anything other than who we are. Perfect love isn’t about perfectionism. It’s about remembering that the goal and purpose of our worship is God’s perfect love for us and then wholeheartedly responding to that love.

St. Augustine once said that we are created with a God-sized hole, each of us, in our souls. And we try to fill that God-sized hole with all kinds of things: power, wealth, status, booze, sex—the list is pretty long. And none of them fits, for one very simple reason: because none of them are God.  The only thing that can fill a God-sized hole is God. Our souls, Augustine said, are restless until they rest in God.

Even those of us who have come here from the healthiest of families have been loved less than perfectly. Yet we come into the presence of the One who knows our heart’s desire. We come in order to be in touch with that love by which we were formed and created. And every now and again, by the grace of God, we glimpse that perfect love working in us and re-forming us and healing us. It’s truly an amazing gift. Perfect love casts out shame and guilt to bring new and abundant life and when that happens, Easter happens.

We are called to respond to that love by magnifying God’s holy Name. These last words of the Collect for Purity recall Mary’s prayer when the angel told her that the God-sized hole in her body was being filled with Jesus, the Christ and that she would bear the holy child of God into the world. Mary, as you will recall, responds by saying: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:46b-47)

In so doing, Mary is the first disciple, the model above all others. She allows her heart’s desire and God’s heart’s desire to meet, so that Jesus can be born into a broken world to bring healing and hope. This is our call, too; to follow Mary’s example by letting Jesus be made manifest in our own lives by coming into the world through us to bring healing and hope to our homes and workplaces and neighborhoods. When we say “yes” to God we, too, magnify God’s holy Name.

Today’s epistle reading comes from the first chapter of Ephesians. We heard St. Paul addressing the first-century community of Christians in Ephesus and telling them that he has heard of their faith and love and that he gives thanks all the time for them.  That is what Christian community is for and why common prayer is so essential to our life together. We don’t get it right all the time; no community of human beings ever does. Yet still, there is faith and love here that are worth attending to and worth thanking God for; and love covers a multitude of sins.

As we gather each week for common worship we offer all of that to God, the God who already knows our heart’s desire. We listen so that we can better know our own hearts, and we pray that God would fill us with the cleansing power of love and then use us to magnify God’s holy Name, not only in this room but in our daily lives. I think Paul’s words to that first-century congregation are words for us in the twenty-first century as well. He tells them that he is praying that God might give to them (and to us) a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know Christ, so that, with the eyes of our heart enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which we have been called and what are the riches of this glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of Christ’s power for all who believe.

I don’t know what Scriptural words the Latin writer of the Collect for Purity had in mind back in the eighth century, but these words provide as good a Scriptural under-girding for the Collect for Purity that I can think of.  May “the eyes of our hearts be enlightened” as we gather together—may our hearts be open in love to the One who formed us in love.

May we then be fed by this same God, and sent with courage into the world to do the work we have been given to do: to worthily magnify God’s holy name.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Festival of Homiletics

This week, as part of my Sabbatical time, I'm in San Antonio for something called The Festival of Homiletics.. There are 1800 people here, and while sponsored by the Lutherans I've met Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ folks, and one person from the holiness tradition. (As well as Lutherans!) It's like a music festival in this way; there are different venues - "stages," if you will - and so there is a lot going on that begins at 8:30 each morning and goes to the night. There is no way to do it all, so you pick and choose the preachers you are interested in, or want to hear more from. Most speakers preach a sermon in the context of worship and offer an hour-long lecture in another block. So far, after day one, I've heard Walter Brueggemann (twice), Anna Carter  Florence (twice), Rob Bell (lecture) and Nadia Bolz-Webber (preach.)

Wow! It's a lot to take in, which is why I've learned (this is my second festival) to have a plan and to pace myself. You just can't do it all! And two people can come and have completely different experiences.

Although it's all been good so far, I have two big takeaways to share. Both come from former professors of mine at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, where I received a Doctorate in Ministry degree.

First, Walter Brueggemann. Most people who know me know that I'm a big fan - it's a toss-up between him and Springsteen for who gets quoted more in my sermons. I love Brueggemann as a Biblical scholar and as a keen observer of society. But to be honest there are two more personal reasons I'm such a huge fan that go beyond his obvious gifts as a Biblical scholar. First, he hasn't stopped thinking. I had a chance to have a personal conversation with him to "catch up." I never know if he really remembers me as a student in his Jeremiah and Psalms classes but he always pretends that he does and the fact that I'm an Episcopalian who spent time at a Presbyterian seminary helps, so maybe he does. In any case he told me in that conversation, "you know, I'm 84 now." It was so sweet! But my response to him was that he has not just taken the "greatest hits" on the road. He's always thinking. He has more to say. He also is the only presenter I've seen at the two festivals I've attended who shows up at other people's events, as he did yesterday at Nadia's sermon and the evening before for Rob Bell. I commented about this to the Methodist pastor from the Bahamas who was sitting next to me and is attending his seventh festival and he said, "I know, I've noticed too..." He is a rock star in my field, but he encourages the next generation and I love that about him.

Related to this: he loves the Church, in all of it's complexity. His father was a pastor in a small-town and Walter really does like pastors. He knows how hard the work is. So he does this amazing lecture with seven theses, two Biblical texts, and four "case studies" in 55 minutes and then he concludes by saying, "we are in a Barmen situation, and the great temptation for pastors is to be chaplains to the old order." And then this: "I know it's hard in congregations and I know you can't just say everything I've just said in just this way in all those places. I get that. But even the people who resist you the most know in their bones that something isn't right, that the old order is coming apart, and they need for you to find courage and to also preach hope. I know this is hard, but I believe it's the task before us all."  Amen.

Second, Anna (who served with Barbara Brown Taylor as my two readers for my final DMin project) really has come into her own. When I was at CTS she was brand new and of course there were all those rock stars like Walter and Barbara on the faculty. But now she's come into her own and found her own voice. She spoke about paying attention to the verbs in Biblical text and while I won't do justice to it here I write it down because I think it's so helpful, not just to preachers but to readers of the Biblical text.

Here it is in a nutshell. First, she noted that as with all good writing, Biblical texts move. There are more verbs and nouns than adjectives, as there should be. But the challenge with Biblical nouns is that they are from Bibleland. We can't pronounce the names of people, places, and things. What's a cubit? Where is Nineva? Who was Gideon? We are always doing translation work which reminds us that those people lived a long time ago and we live now and that keeps us, as readers, distant.  They also keep us fighting and arguing about meaning.

Anna suggested we learn to focus on verbs which haven't changed. Men and women, young and old, gay and straight basically live with the same verbs: we are born and live and lose and hope and grieve and die.  Anna walked us through Genesis 3:7-8 and the verbs found there; just the verbs. [Adam and Eve's eyes] were opened. (Passive voice.)  They knew. Sewed. Made. Heard. Hid.

I can't do justice to the way she unpacked those verbs but the main advice was to study texts, with lay and ordained, by paying attention to the verbs. She told us in one of her M.Div classes she brought in some fig leaves and needles and thread and had her students try to sew themselves some garments. It didn't work well. Leaves don't keep their shape very long. They rip! It's an act of desperation, rooted in fear and shame. Most people have some experience with this, even if they don't know all the nouns in this or other texts!

The verbs draw us in. They take us somewhere. I think that'll preach! Now I'm off to hear some Brian McLaren, Lisa Thompson, and Otis Moss. I don't know the latter two but yesterday, among the 1800 folks gathered here, I sat at a table to eat lunch with Lisa Thompson's proud mother, who is a lovely person. I look forward to hearing what her daughter has to teach me.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Overcoming Fear

On the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon in Berlin just before Adolf Hitler came to power. The sermon can be found in a collection of Bonhoeffer's sermons that I've been re-reading, entitled, The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The editor, Isabel Best, notes that it was a time of incredible tension and widespread fear in Berlin.

And so, of course, Bonhoeffer preaches a sermon about overcoming fear. Reading it more than eighty-fours years later, it still rings true for me. He takes as his text for the vespers service at which he preached this sermon, the story of the disciples in the boat with Jesus when a storm arises on the Sea of Galilee. But Jesus was asleep. They are afraid, but Jesus wakes up and to their amazement he calms the storm. (See Matthew 8:23-27) This is how Bonhoeffer begins:
The overcoming of fear - that is what we are proclaiming here. The Bible, the gospel, Christ, the church, the faith - all are one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings. Fear is, somehow or other, the archenemy itself. It crouches in people's hearts. It hollows out their insides, until their resistance and strength are spent...
Nevertheless, in the midst of every situation, he insists, there is reason to hope. Jesus is, after all, "in the boat with us." Christ is in the boat. And in the nave of the church where he is preaching, Bonhoeffer says. Christ is still calling us to find a little faith, to counter our greatest fears. "Learn to recognize and understand the hour of the storm, when you were perishing. This is the time when God is incredibly close to you, not far away," he tells that community of frightened Christians gathered in Berlin in the early 1930s. He reminds them that the cry, "Lord save us," is faith in the midst of fear, because we learn to  recognize "from whence cometh our help..."

He goes on to say that the flip side of the coin is also true and at least as important to remember:
...when Christ is in the boat, a storm always comes up. The world tries with all it's evil powers to get hold of him, to destroy him along with his disciples; it hates him and rises up against him. Christians surely know this... 
I re-read this sermon (and most of the sermons in the collection), on a flight yesterday from Boston to Dallas, the longer leg of my journey to San Antonio for The Festival of Homiletics, an amazing event organized by Luther Seminary. This week I'll have an opportunity to do a lot of thinking about preaching. The theme of this year's conference is "Preaching on the Borders."

I believe that good preaching matters. I'm thinking about a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the pulpit that night in Berlin..Clearly his own preaching changed his own heart. Bonhoeffer faced the coming Nazi Regime with courage and actions that embody the cost of discipleship, and for him the price was his life. And that sermon (and others) continue to encourage others decades later. But of course the reason Bonhoeffer's sermons live on is because of the witness of his life. And because Hitler proved that there was good reason to be afraid in 1933.

Bonhoeffer and others, like Karl Barth, committed themselves to the Confessing Church at a time when the German Church literally sold it's soul to the Nazi regime, forgetting that Jesus is Lord. In another sermon in that same collection, preached after Hitler came to power, Bonhoeffer preached on Gideon (see Judges 6-8.) The sermon is entitled, "Gideon: God is My Lord."

I have no way of knowing what the hearers of those two sermons did after hearing them, but I wonder. Did they think Bonhoeffer was getting too political?  Did they join the Nazi party or become part of the resistance movement and the confessing church? Or did they politely thank Dietrich at the door, "good sermon, pastor" and then go back to their lives without another thought about his words, or how his words held within them the potential to change their lives, their nation, the history of the world?

Probably some of all the above. But it is a reminder to me that preaching is about more than good words and surely is not about "entertaining" the congregation. Preaching is about the responsibility to proclaims the gospel in a particular time and place. When the people of God hear that Word, and get up and say "amen" and then go out into the world to love and serve the Lord, no matter the cost of discipleship, then the sermon will have done what it was intended to do.

Jesus will be with us in the boat - which also means the storm is coming. But also that we are with the one who has the power to calm the storm. Lord, save us. We believe; help our unbelief.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Easter People

One of my Sabbatical projects has been to try to organize some of the sermons I've preached over the past ten or twelve years. I've been preaching longer than that, of course, but earlier sermons have been lost on "floppy disks" and other media over the years. The ones saved on my computer begin around 2006. It's an interesting process, reading old sermons, because I find that I could preach  some "as is" again, while others clearly captured a moment in time that won't come this way again. Some just weren't very good. And most are somewhere in between.

This sermon, preached on the Second Sunday of Easter in 2009 caught my attention. On the one hand it's quite specific to a moment in time in the life of the parish I was serving, St. Francis, Holden. On the other hand, though, it resonates with the work I am doing now as a member of the Bishop's staff - and in particular the work of congregations that are in the midst of clergy transitions and trying to clarify the work God has given them to do. Some congregations think their job is to "hire" a pastor to do the work of ministry. I would argue that their job is to clarify their mission and then find a cleric who can help them implement that vision. So I share this sermon here because it may function as a kind of "case study" that I hope readers may find it helpful as the fifty days of Easter continues to unfold.


___________________

I don’t know when our bulletins here at St. Francis first started declaring that the ministers are “every member of the congregation” but it predates my arrival here more than eleven years ago. And it is good theology, so I’m grateful to whoever started that. 

More importantly, I’ve found that it is something taken seriously here. These aren’t just words on a piece of paper or some abstract theological cliché. Going back to the first days of this parish’s founding, it appears to be a core value that we are intentional about trying to live out and enflesh. You see it at work in the way we make decisions and do the work that God has given us to do. It’s an extension of the claim that ministry really is rooted not in ordination, but in Holy Baptism, which means the work we are called to do is always shared

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a role for clergy or a reason not to pay my salary! But it does mean the ordained here have an opportunity to do what The Book of Common Prayer suggests that priests are supposed to focus on: preaching, presiding at the Sacraments, and providing pastoral care and oversight that helps to build up the body of Christ.  

Last fall the vestry appointed a task force with an unimaginative but descriptive title: The Discerning Our Future Task Force (DOFTF for short.) Membership in that group spans the generations from high school age to a founding member of the parish. The Rev. Paul Taylor has been helping to guide us through this process, which began with an historical reflection night last fall organized around the publication of Alice Carr’s memoirs. Then at the Annual Meeting we had table conversations to try to assess some of our strengths and weaknesses as a parish.

The committee has since been interviewing community leaders including the Town Manager of Holden, the Chief of Police, the Principal of Wachusett High School and persons who work directly with children and youth and seniors and the economically vulnerable. Two weeks from now members of the committee will be leading us in something called a “norms inventory”—more about what that means as it gets closer. Ultimately the vestry will receive a report from the DOFTF sometime later this spring that will help us to set some strategic goals. Our prayer is that those goals will keep us on track for the next five years or so. Stay tuned…

Ultimately the Church is not a building or a steeple, but a people. We need buildings to fulfill our mission and we have a responsibility to care for those buildings so that future generations can continue to be formed here. But first and foremost we are a people journeying together toward the Promised Land. First and foremost we are living and breathing members of Christ’s resurrected Body, a Body called to serve the world. (That is why those interviews with community leaders are an important part of this process of discernment.)

On this Second Sunday of Easter, what do the readings for this day suggest about how we might go about all of that?  Psalm 133 is one of the “psalms of ascent.” (What, you ask, is a psalm of ascent?) It was one of those psalms used by pilgrims traveling up to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. Here the psalmist offers two similes for healthy mission-focused communities. First, when people dwell together in unity it’s like precious oil running down the beard. Remember the 23rd psalm? God, the poet says, anoints my head with oil. Here the image is a continuation of that blessing—oil running all the way down the beard, which the psalmist sees as a good thing. The other is a more familiar metaphor for us: when God’s people dwell together in unity, it’s like dew on the grass.

It’s no fun to be in a family or a congregation that is conflicted and divided. That doesn’t mean conflict itself is bad. Sometimes I think that in our families and in congregations we make the mistake of avoiding conflict, which only allows things to fester and get worse. You don’t get oil running down the beard or dew on the ground when you settle for “not rocking the boat” or hiding stuff under the carpet.

On the other hand, though, it’s very easy to lose perspective. If you haven’t read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters in a while, then I commend it to you this Easter season. Lewis is right, I think, that the Evil One takes great delight in getting Christians to fight over petty things and making mountains out of molehills. When we are focused only on meeting our own ego needs and getting our own way then conflict can become corrosive and destructive, the very opposite of oil running down the beard or dew on the grass. The larger challenge is the point of the DOFTF: to discover our deeper shared calling so that we can keep first things first. Only then can we find the courage to work through our differences in order to discover and rediscover that deeper unity that is already ours in the risen Christ.

In today’s gospel reading we see how Christ’s resurrection can bring about hope and transformation for that kind of community. The disciples have gone into hiding after their leader is crucified. The disciples are locked in that room, scared and paralyzed; fearing that the authorities might come looking for them next. They are going through their own “Discerning Our Future” process. What will happen next?  Unlike Luke’s telling of the story in Acts, where it will take fifty days before the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, John has the Spirit coming as a new creation on Easter night. The Holy Spirit is the key to that new beginning. The first step toward that new life is to learn to put their trust in God.

As you know, the disciples didn’t do very well in Holy Week. We heard once again on Palm/Passion Sunday about their failures and about how they betrayed and denied and abandoned Jesus. When he asked them to keep awake, they fell asleep. Fortunately, however, discipleship isn’t contingent on our perfectionism, but on God’s mercy. Our God is a God of second chances. And forgiveness offers a path forward.

Whether the Spirit comes on Easter night, or fifty days later in Acts 2, the point is that the Spirit shows them a way forward and equips them to be signs of God’s new creation in the world. In Acts 4 and throughout the rest of Acts, we see the disciples doing infinitely more than they could previously ask or imagine as they continue in the work that Jesus began: preaching and teaching and healing until they become themselves signs of God’s reconciling love at work in the world. We are called to nothing less.

The Spirit’s work in the early Church had profound implications for how they related to their “stuff.” I suspect this makes most of us a bit nervous. We are accustomed to thinking of our stuff as just that: that it is ours.  The key to understanding this reading from Acts 4 and taking it seriously, though, is to realize that Acts 4 isn’t ultimately about arguing for one economic theory over another. It’s not like the disciples have discovered Karl Marx. It’s that they have discovered Jesus has been raised from the dead and they really believe that and choose to live from that place rather than a place of fear. They are trying to live out the prayer: “all things come of thee, O Lord; and of thine own have we given thee.”

We live a good part of our lives not really believing those words. Our consumer culture tells us that the wealth we accumulate is due to our hard work. And if that is our premise then we may come to believe that it is prudent to share some of it with others: to those to whom much is given, much is expected, after all.  We may share a very small percentage of what has been given us or the Biblical tithe of ten percent. We may make a sacrificial offering of our first fruits or we may cautiously wait to see if there is anything left at the end of the month. We may share it begrudgingly (out of sense of duty or obligation) or with a glad and generous heart. Obviously the goal of growing in faith is to move towards a higher percentage of first fruits offered with a happy heart, but sometimes we lapse back into begrudgingly offering a lower percentage of what is left over. Life is a journey.

But there is a still more radical transformation that I think Biblical faith calls us toward. By the grace of God and through the Holy Spirit we sometimes see as the disciples did in Acts 4 that none of it is really ours in the first place; it is all gift. Whether we then keep 90% or give it all away like St. Francis did the whole approach of Easter giving is turned upside down: we begin to see that all that we have—our time, our talents and our treasure—is on loan to us. It’s been entrusted to us; but it is God’s not ours. 

It is very hard to live out of that reality and to make our financial decisions from that place of radical trust, especially in precarious economic times. Acts 4 seems very strange and foreign to us. But what I hope we can see, even if we are not yet quite ready to live it that way, is that this witness in the early Church of their radical expression of love for both God and neighbor made them especially mindful about the most vulnerable members of the community, those whom the Bible refers to in shorthand as “widows and orphans.” Luke tells us that there was not a needy person among them. That is an extraordinary statement. The temptation during our own times of uncertainty is to share less, at a time when those who are hurting are hurting more than ever. It is a powerful witness to what the Easter life is all about to allow the Holy Spirit to unleash compassion and generosity in times like these. The larger theological point (whether times are good or bad) is that you can’t separate your faith from what you choose to do with your stuff. 

Show me your checkbook and your calendar and I’ll tell you what you really believe.

Finally, today’s reading from First John gives us a glimpse at a first-century Christian community that reminds us that we are called to declare to the world what we have been told and what we have seen with our own eyes. We are called to testify, that is to bear witness, to who Christ is and why Easter matters. 

Now this may make Episcopalians even more nervous than the reading from Acts that asks us to share our money. (I remind you that I don’t write this stuff by the way; I am just trying to preach on it!) We Episcopalians don’t want to be confused with televangelists! But for most of us that’s not a very great danger. It is very true that too much of what passes for “evangelism” in our society is really about hocking a product by using the same tactics that the marketplace uses: fear and deception and false promises. But we need to reclaim that word: evangelical actually means “good news.”

We promised in Holy Baptism to proclaim the good news. In fact we are meant to become “good news” for the sake of the world: to preach the gospel at all times, and sometimes even to use words. But always we are a word about the Word, before we ever open our mouths. I think Episcopal evangelism tends to be magnetic: if we are practicing and living our faith with integrity people will see it in our eyes. They’ll get glimpses of Easter in us and as in Acts of the Apostles (or Field of Dreams) people will most definitely come. 

In a deeply divided world, it really is a pleasant thing to find a community where people dwell together in unity; it’s like oil running down the beard or Aaron or dew on the front lawn. It’s a pleasant thing to find a place where forgiveness unleashes missional energy and generosity and hope, and Easter is palpable. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

On Not Being Deceived

Yesterday, I posted some reflections that grew out of Philip Hallie's  Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and how goodness happened there. I focused primarily on the pastor of that congregation and the role he played there during World War II in occupied France.

There is one more thought I want to share, however, that connects some of what I've been thinking and praying about these past six weeks or so of my sabbatical time. Hallie quotes from Pastor Trocme's notes, where he writes: "Many French let themselves be deceived in 1942." (page 104) And then Hallie writes these words:
This is a psychologically penetrating statement. The Chambonnais under Trocme, on the other hand, would not let themselves be deceived. Trocme knew enough about Nazism and cared enough about its victims to realize that what the Germans were doing - whatever it was- was not for the good of the Jews. Perhaps he did not know more about Nazism than many other Frenchmen - Hitler's anti-Semitism was no secret in Europe - but he cared enough about its victims to realize what giving the Jews to the Germans meant for the Jews. That caring had to do in part with Saint John's commandment to love one another, but it also had to do with stubbornness, if you will, fortitude, a refusal to abjure - this crucial word again - a commitment. 
At this moment in American history, it seems to me that too many of my fellow citizens are allowing themselves to be deceived. This same notion came up in my reading of Stringfellow and of Wink. It also goes to the heart of Revelation as an "unveiling." Sometimes people simply do not have eyes to see, or ears to hear. Shouting louder is probably not the best way to get through to them! But it's also important to be able to discern when we are past the idea that people are simply entitled to have their own opinions. The holocaust happened, not only because of Hitler. It happened because too many good people "let themselves be deceived." They could not, or would not, see what was happening. There were not enough people who both knew and cared.

This is not a new problem. It's a problem we always face when battling against the Powers. But it seems to me there is great wisdom here in what Hallie sees in Trocme and the Chambonnais: they cared. It is not always more information that we need. Sometimes what we "know" is not enough on it's own.

I think of the refugees in our own day. Some people know that we need to secure our borders. Some people know that Biblical faith demands that we love our neighbors. Some people know that we (the United States government) played a huge role in creating this mess. (Some even know all of these things to be true!)

But until we truly care for the plight of that neighbor from Syria - until we see in the faces of their children a glimmer of recognition of our own children, - we will only be debating government policy. Until we care, we will not be able to use our eyes to see our neighbor. When we do, we require more than love or "goodness." We need to be stubborn. We need to persist. We need fortitude, and a refusal to abjure our commitment to mercy, compassion, and hope.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Pastor Andre Trocme

I have previously written a post about the village of Le Chambon, France and the conspiracy of goodness that happened there during World War II. You can read (or re-read) that post here. More recently, I mentioned that a friend had loaned me her copy of Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip Hallie in this post. I have found the book very helpful as part of my sabbatical reading list and in reflecting on faith communities that have learned to practice discernment and resistance.

This post is not a review of the book nor a recap of what I have previously written. Rather, I'm intrigued about the role that Pastor Andre Trocme played in that story and in the larger sense I'm pondering what good pastoral leadership looks like. What can be learned from his example for parish clergy in our own day?

In the book, Hallie writes that if you were to walk into any home in Le Chambon after the war and ask any person who had been an adult during the war years "Why did Le Chambon do these things against the government and for the refugees while the nearby Protestant village of Le Mazet did not?" that you would receive only one answer: "It was Pastor Andre Trocme." (page 46) Trocme was "the soul of Le Chambon."

What made that so? While he was considered to be a good preacher and he raised up (young) lay leaders to lead small-group Bible studies and he offered solid pastoral care, ultimately it seems to me that he had a vision of the Kingdom of God. Because he loved the people entrusted to his care, he kept pointing them to that vision. They developed a deep sense of mutual affection and trust, but it wasn't "about him." It was about Jesus.

When people insisted, after the war, that the people of Chambon had done something "good" they refused to accept praise. They insisted that they were simply doing what had to be done. "Who else could help them? Things had to be done and we were there to help, that is all!"

This reaction reminds me of my seminary New Testament professor at Drew, Kalyan Dey, who liked to remind us that nothing in the parable of the so-called "Good" Samaritan suggested that he was in fact a "good" person. Kalyan made the point by suggesting that when the Samaritan saw the man by the side of the road, for all we know he was returning from a brothel, got off his donkey, spat on the ground, and said, "Oh, shit!"

Dramatic, I know. But his read on the parable was that what the Samaritan saw was a fellow human being in need and he acted on that. Telling people to be "good" Samaritans doesn't make them good. There was a study done years ago on this very question at Princeton Seminary where students were studying the parable and told they needed to go take a test in another building on campus immediately. On the way was a "plant" - a person in need who was the real "test." Most of the seminarians passed by.

The people of Chambon were similar to the Samaritan in Jesus' story; they weren't trying to be morally good, but simply saw a need and did what had to be done. Maybe some of them said "oh shit!" when they began to realize what was required of them. But they had been encouraged in this direction by their pastor, consistently. They knew their own history as a small Protestant minority in Catholic France. They knew what the Lord required of them. And they did it.

We are called to be faithful. Not necessarily good, and definitely not successful: just to be present to the world we live in with open eyes.

Jesus put it succinctly: love God, love your neighbor. When pressed and asked, "who is my neighbor?" he told a story about a foreigner. Not necessarily a "good" one - just a fellow human being, who showed compassion and mercy to another fellow traveler. Go and do that, Jesus said.




Sunday, May 7, 2017

Fermentation

This is the second of two posts on a book by a Mennonite writer named Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. The first post can be read here if you missed it.

The word ferment can be either a verb or a noun, so I find it to be an interesting word choice for the work to which the Church is called. It can refer to the process of fermentation, as in making bread rise or turning wort into beer. Jesus spoke about yeast that "leavens the whole loaf" and also about needing new wineskins for new wine. As a verb, ferment can also mean "to incite or stir up trouble." It's interesting to think about the work of the Church in this way and we can look to ways the Church responded to the threat of Nazi Germany (in places like Le Chambon, or the Confessing Church) or in base communities in Latin America (that have so clearly left a mark on the current pope) or to the resistance in South Africa under apartheid to see how and why this "stirring up trouble" meaning of ferment matters so much.

As a noun, it can refer to both of these same things: agitation and excitement among a group of people, or as the enzyme or fermenting agent that leads to that process of fermentation.

What does it mean to imagine the Church as a "fermenting agent" within the larger cultural context in which we find ourselves? The whole world doesn't need to become light, or salt, or yeast. As the late Krister Stendahl liked to put it, the Great Commission is not about making the whole earth into a salt mine! But knowing what a little light in the darkness can do or what a little salt can add to a steak or what a little yeast can do to some flour and oil and water to  make the whole loaf rise helps to clarify the work to which the Church is called.

Alan Kreider's book is helpful in clarifying this mission. He's focused on the "why" of what we are called to be about. Quoting Michael Pollan, Kreider notes that "A ferment generates its own energy from within. It not only seems alive; it is alive. And most of this living takes place at a scale inaccessible to us without a microscope." Kreider goes on to explore the ways that the early Church focused on habits, on forming Christians, on inculturation which he notes has two aspects: the indigenizing principle by which God is found at work in the world and the culture is celebrated and the pilgrim principle by which the dominant culture is critiqued and challenged based on the values and norms of the Gospel.

Kreider is not the first to suggest that this both/and relationship to the culture makes Christians into resident aliens, paroikoi in Greek. Out of love for the culture in which we find ourselves, we also point toward the necessary healing of that culture as a patiently fermenting presence within that culture.

In my experience, this kind of nuance is often lacking in many of our congregations. Episcopalians are likely to look and act just like our neighbors; the Amish are likely to look very different. But this dynamic interplay, as Kreider calls it, gets lost. So how can we become more intentional about this? What are the indigenizing aspects that need to be claimed in our own world - those aspects of our culture that should be celebrated and claimed and seen as ways that God is already at work in the world? And what aspects of the culture need to be critiqued and challenged by a pilgrim people? I suspect that we won't all immediately agree on how we respond to such questions but they might allow the conversation to unfold in more intentionally ecumenical ways.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Patience is a Virtue

You may be heading into Lent not having had an epiphany - that is, you're not sure how God is working in your life. Don't panic. Jesus' inner circle of friends didn't understand right away either. Like the disciples, you may need to work these things out with Jesus in your prayer. Ask Jesus to shed some light in your life, to transfigure it...and then be patient. (Brother Jim Woodrum, SSJE)
Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you that patience is not a virtue that I yet possess. My two sons say that it's a toss-up between my brother and me as to which of us is the least patient person they know. In restaurants, when the wait for a table is more than a few seconds, I start to twitch.

I come by this naturally; my mother is perhaps the third least patient person on the planet and my dad was not far behind. We move quickly through the world. I've tried to work on this in my daily life - to stop and smell the roses and to pay attention to the present moment and to cut others more slack. And to cut myself some slack. Mostly, however, this is a thorn in my side that has not been lifted. Like all of us, I'm a work in progress.

But that's my personal life. Vocationally, my experience in ministry has convinced me that patience is in fact a virtue and I've made some headway there which may be less obvious to others. But I don't think I'm deceiving myself. I've made the prayer once attributed to Oscar Romero, about taking the long view my own. We plant seeds. We water seeds others have planted. We tend the garden. We cannot do everything. Therefore we try to do something. Always with God's help.

My boss, Bishop Doug Fisher, likes to tell new clergy in our diocese that the danger for new clergy is that they will overestimate what they can accomplish in the first year of a new ministry and underestimate what they can do over the course of three years. I tell them pretty much the same thing when I insist that ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. We are both reminding them (and ourselves!) that we need to pace ourselves. I know how hard this is when we feel a sense of urgency, but the practice of ministry for nearly three decades now has taught me that moving too fast initially will in fact slow things down in the long run.

Patience does not mean not acting at all. But it does require that we relinquish control. I am also very aware of the shadow that privilege casts on this, and every year on Martin Luther King Day I re-read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in which he directly addresses the liberal white Protestant clergy who wanted him to wait. I hear this. But patience is not the same as being conflict averse, which I think was the real problem King was addressing in those liberal white clergy. They were not so much asking that people be "patient" as they were thinking (naively) that the day would one day come, without active resistance, when people would wake up and be reasonable. That is not patience, though.

Patience means we endure. It means we keep at it and we do not let discouragement keep us from being courageous and hopeful. Patience means that we do not lose heart.

I recently finished reading Alan Kreider's The Patient Ferment Of The Early Church, in which he argues in a compelling way that one of the key virtues in the first four centuries of the Church's history, before the conversion of Constantine, was patience. The Church took the long view.  They didn't lose heart. Rome hadn't been built in a day; it didn't fall apart over night either.

The book actually outlines four things the early Church did well, clearly things that Kreider would like to see a post-Constantinian Church improve upon. They are:
(1) patience;
(2) habitas, by which he means something like "holy habits" or what he calls "reflexive bodily behavior;"
(3) worship and cathechesis, i.e. forming disciples; and
(4) ferment. 
In my next post I want to explore this notion of ferment, which I find as important as patience and at least as interesting. Obviously the second and third commitments matter too, but I think those are more obvious and probably there is broader consensus on these, even if we don't usually do them as well as we could.

Just a few more thoughts here, on patience: Kreider says that as the Roman Empire declined, the world felt "out of control." That resonates with my experience of the twenty-first century which also feels like some things are coming apart at the seems. In such a socio-political-cultural context, it's very tempting to react with anxiety, and to try to be totally "in control." Krieder quotes Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage in the middle of the third century, who offered pastoral advice to his faith communities about patientia as a visibly distinctive way that Christians show an impatient world what it means to put our full trust God. He wrote De bono patientiae (On the Good of Patience) as a way of making this theological point.

Kreider also quotes other Church fathers, including Justin, who said that patience has an attractional value: people want to know what it is that makes those Christians so "steady" in a crazy world. And Origen wrote that patient believers embody trust in God that draws others to the love of God in Jesus.

As I said, while I am a person who struggles a great deal with patience in my daily life, But I am convinced in my vocational life that in a world that demands easy and instant answers and drive-through meals, that slow and steady and complex is needed now more than ever, We can learn something from these early church writers and so I commend Kreider's book to you. And I am wondering in my own work with congregations how I might help to support and cultivate lay and ordained leaders who are intentionally more patient.

As soon as I write these words I am aware that it can take months and months for vestries to decide to change a light bulb or what color to paint the choir room. People lose faith when nothing is happening in the Church and in too many parts of the Church, nothing is happening. This is why my next post is as important as this one and has to be held in tension (as it is in Kreider's book.) We can't only be patient; we need to be a fermenting agent. Like yeast. We need to help make things bubble up and be transformed. Our patience is the patience requires to wait for bread to rise, or wort to become beer.

So as I said above, we must not confuse patience with conflict avoidance or passivity. We need to press on. But I am  remembering a story that I shared here once before and I'll share again. In the pilgrimage I took last year to Alabama to remember the life and witness of Jonathan Daniels, I sat next to an octogenarian who had, fifty years earlier, been a vestry member at an Episcopal Church in Selma. He was trying to get the vestry to vote to integrate the congregation racially and month after month he kept making this motion and bringing it to a vote. Initially he lost like 14-1, and then a month later, 13-2. This went on and on. Month after month. But he, nevertheless, persisted. Until he eventually convinced a majority of that vestry to act, to do justice.

That required incredible patience on his part and I can only assume on the part of the rector of that congregation as well. There was a lot of fermentation going on both inside and outside of that congregation as the Civil Rights Movement unfolded. I'm sure he was tempted to lose heart and maybe his rector was getting some pressure to find a way to remove him from that vestry. Sometimes the role of the ordained is to simply help to protect space for the prophets among us. In any case, patience during fermentation is a learnable skill, I think. I have seen far too many clergy and lay persons give up on the Church because it doesn't all happen fast enough. Trust me (and scroll up!) - it doesn't usually happen fast enough for me either! And unfortunately, too often we are focused on the wrong things.

But that's a different post. When we are focused on the right things - on doing justice and loving kindness and mercy- when we are doing battle against the powers and principalities of this world and keeping our eyes on the prize, we cannot expect quick results. It just doesn't work like that. We have to take the long view. It's a marathon, not a sprint. We need to give things enough time to bubble up. And so we press on. We persist. We do not lose heart.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

What Next?


I cannot believe that I am over a third of the way through my Sabbatical. So many more books to read!

The next two on my list are The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire and Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The story of the village of Le Chambon and how goodness happened there.

Both, I think, will help me to continue to ask the question of what is required of the Church to be the Church in this time and place, and my role in that work as Canon to the Ordinary in the Episcopal Church in Central and Western Massachusetts. I'm planning on writing a lengthier post (or two!) on each book in the coming days. But for today I just want to say a brief word about each and perhaps others will consider these books for your summer reading as well.

The Patient Ferment is written by a Mennonite named Alan Kreider. I am convinced that the Anabaptist tradition (Mennonites, Amish, Baptists) has much to teach mainline denominations like the one I'm a part of. Episcopalians have spent a long time serving as "chaplains" to the Empire. For centuries we occupied a place of cultural privilege. And so we are a bit out of practice when it comes to the kind of counter-cultural work Mennonites have been working at for a very long time. As simply one example: Episcopalians (and other Mainline denominations) worry about Just War Theory - and too often we end up trying to justify unjust wars. The Mennonites, however, just focus on peacemaking, which is much closer, I think, to the vision of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount.

In any case, the context in North America has shifted, and our situation is increasingly more like that of the early pre-Constantinian Church that Kreider writes about. So I am finding this book helpful as a way to pick up from my study of Revelation. I'm also taken with those first two words in the title and what that might look like in my own context: patience, and fermentation.

For many years I've been interested in the community in Le Chambon, France. I wrote a bit about them a while back, in this post. (I invite you to follow that link rather than repeating myself here.)

After that post, a friend of mine asked me if I'd ever read Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed and I said that I had not, so she graciously loaned me her signed copy of the book for my Sabbatical time. As I said in that earlier post, that Christian community not only participated in a conspiracy of goodness, but they did so as a congregation, not just as a few "good" individuals. It seems to me from everything I know and have read about them that they didn't think of this as a very big deal - even though it clearly was. It wasn't a charismatic leader that got them to do it, although their pastor was clearly a faithful person and effective leader. Rather, the community had been engaged in faithful practices so that when the time came to act they did what Christians are supposed to do. They loved their neighbor. Simple, right? They discerned what the situation required of them, and then they practiced resistance against Nazi Germany.

I am far enough into both books to recommend them. And I'll have more to say about each of them in the coming days. Stay tuned.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

One More Before Leaving Patmos


The big question I am wrestling with at this point in my ministry, as I seek to do my part in building up the Body of Christ so that the Church can more faithfully follow Jesus and serve the world is this: how can Christian communities practice discernment that leads to resistance against the powers of this world that would seek to destroy the creatures of God? Or to paraphrase Mary Oliver, how can the Church more faithfully be "the way to the Way?" As I said to one of the faithful readers of this blog recently, it's about finding new ways to claim my own voice in this time and place, along with the bishop, clergy, and lay leaders in the diocese where I have been called to share in this work.

I think of my blogging as an extension of my preaching. And I've always felt that the sermons I preach are mostly for myself. I don't just preach to the choir; I preach the sermon that I need to hear. Very rarely do I try to figure out what a congregation "needs" to hear. In my current role I do talk a lot about transitions, because often that is the work I'm doing with congregations as they say goodbye to one cleric and prepare to say hello to the next one. But even then, I tend to think that if I am true to my own voice, they will hear, by God's grace, what they need. I am always surprised, and sometimes amused, at how the Spirit works, especially when someone says to me, "it felt like you wrote that sermon for me..." I am tempted to say, "no, I wrote it for me!"

In a similar way, I have been writing these posts for me. I have been needing to engage (and re-engage) the Book of Revelation as part of my Sabbatical journey. I've been needing to read and mark and learn and inwardly digest this strange and neglected book in a more structured and disciplined way. And I feel I've done that. If you've come along for the ride from the very beginning or read just one post, I'm grateful for the company. And I do hope that maybe you have even read something that is helpful to you, in your journey, and in your prayer life.

My initial hunch has been confirmed; namely, that the Revelation to John is a vital and underutilized resource in our time. I want to summarize why I feel that way before moving along:

First of all, it provides us with a much needed vocabulary. This vocabulary isn't immediately obvious, but guides like William Stringfellow and Walter Wink remind us that the Church needs more than language of morality and psychology to interpret the good news of Jesus Christ. We have all but lost our apocalyptic vocabulary which helps us to name, unmask, and engage the powers and principalities of this world. We have all but lost that vocabulary, especially in progressive Protestant circles that are focused on "progress." When we encounter "the Beast" (aka "evil") we are surprised, and maybe even a little scared.

We need to remember, however, that progress has never been a straight- line enterprise. The arc of the moral universe is indeed long, as Dr. King knew.. With him, and by faith, we trust that it does bend toward justice. But when the hoses are pointed at you (or when the "liberal" clergy tell you not too push too hard) you need a vocabulary that will give you courage and hope. Knowing how the story ends encourages us to keep on keeping on, even when it sometimes feels as if we've taken two steps back.

So in our own day, when it feels like the gains made for racial and economic justice, for the full inclusion of immigrants and refugees, for gender equality and for LGBTQ people, are under attack, we do not lose heart. We find new ways to work together. We find ways to name, unmask, and engage the powers that threaten God's people. And we keep singing that new song that the heavenly multicultural choir from every tribe, language, people and nation are already singing. Mostly though, we are able to discern that when you are battling against the powers and principalities it's supposed to be hard.

I also think that this language, while easily misinterpreted and misused, still has the power to encourage prayerful imagination. There is a sense of urgency that we need; not panic nor anxiety, but urgency for the Church in our day to recover imagination and wonder and holy curiosity. We have often adapted the language of "adaptive" and "technical" change and we know the former takes time. Yet too often I find that we can't seem to quit the addiction to latching onto the latest technical fix for adaptive challenges that in fact require patience, endurance, steadfastness, and trust. Too often like the dog in Up we get distracted by "squirrel."

At some deep level, John's Unveiling is an antidote to that temptation. If we believe that the Lamb is on the throne and is truly alpha and the omega, then we are freed to imagine that we are not responsible for it all. Only God is God. We strive to be members of the choir who are learning to sing that new song which then equips us to do the work God has given us to do, one day at a time. We are a way to The Way; not the Way itself. 

And what is this work? We are increasingly seeing, across the globe and in our own nation, the rise of xenophobia - a fear of the stranger. This runs counter to all of Scripture, literally from Genesis to Revelation and every place in between. Always, God calls on Israel and then upon the Church to love the stranger.

In John's Revelation, however, we glimpse the fulfillment of what was previously given as a commandment. You love the stranger because you were once a stranger in a foreign land. But what John sees is beyond this: the healing of the nations. John imagines the day when strangers become friends and the heavenly choir includes voices from every language, tribe, people and nation. The Syrian refugee is, in the end, harmonizing with the Russian Orthodox priest and the American evangelical. All of them play a role in their own cultures that is, in the end, greater than Trump or Putin or al-Assad. It may not feel like it most days, and we may get discouraged. But if this is in fact the heart of vision, then the work of the Church is to give us a chance to get to know each other better now, by refusing to allow the powers and principalities of this world to drive us apart. We have our work cut out for us.

Let anyone with ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. 



Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Revelation 22:6-21

Our journey comes to an end with these final verses of the Revelation to John on Patmos; you can read them here.  

Three times in today's reading we hear that all of this will be happening "soon." And ever since this "unveiling" became part of the canon of Scripture, readers have asked, "how soon?" Overly certain and literal ways of answering this question have too often pushed readers away. They've also proven wrong, time and again. It doesn't seem to keep people from trying again.

Early on in this series, I mentioned my grandfather and his love of Revelation, shaped by Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth. Lindsay (and others) were convinced that 1948, the founding of Israel as a nation, was a critical date and that a generation in the Bible was forty years, so that "soon" meant not later than 1988.I'm not sure how his his approach changed in 1989...

I think "soon" means the same thing it means in other New Testament eschatological texts: it means these things are always happening. It means that time is not just linear; there is also a cyclical dimension to time, and a fullness of time quality as well. I think soon means Now, in each generation. It means keep awake. It means stay alert to what is happening in the world and learn how to "read" what is happening. In one sense, there is nothing new under the sun. It means now is the time to choose whom you will follow and for Christians there is only one choice: we follow Jesus, and we claim him as Lord.

It means that Now is the time to name, unmask, and engage the powers of this world that threaten to hurt and destroy the creatures of God. It means (as Stringfellow put it) that we need to be able to read the events of our own day as containing both apocalyptic danger, and reason for hope, and to see the ways that "Babylon" is taking shape in our own context - and pulling us away from the New Jerusalem that God intends.

It means that we gather in the Church to worship the Lamb that was slain and to join with the heavenly chorus, because we believe that the Lamb is the Shepherd and the Shepherd is the Lamb. It means that we who thirst dare to come and drink from the water of life and to claim that Jesus is the alpha and the omega, not just our "personal Savior" but as Lord of Lords and King of Kings. That's political. That's cosmic. And the time is Now.

I want to thank all who have come along with me on this journey through Revelation. But I also want to offer one more post (tomorrow) before leaving Patmos. Until then...