Thursday, November 30, 2017

St. Andrew

Today is the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, brother of St. Peter. Readings for this day can be found here.

In the same way that Peter came to represent the Church in Rome (and through Rome all of western Christendom), his brother Andrew played a similar role in the East. It is believed that his missionary journeys took him to Greece and then Byzantium and Russia. After his crucifixion some of his remains were, according to the tradition, taken to Scotland. And so it is that he came to be patron saint of Scotland, Russia and Romania.

Usually when mentioned in the Bible, Andrew is just one of the twelve. It is not himself that he proclaims, to paraphrase St. Paul, but Jesus Christ. Moreover, he seems to have had to live his life in the rather large shadow of his brother Peter—who looms large in the New Testament writings. Imagine spending your life identified as “Peter’s brother.”

But in John’s Gospel, Andrew stands out a little more. (It’s therefore curious to me as to why those who chose the readings for this day didn’t look to John’s Gospel rather than Matthew, but that’s for another time, I suppose!)

In John 12, the Greeks want to speak to Jesus. They approach Philip, who in turn speaks with Andrew, and then together they go to Jesus. Earlier, in John 6, in the story of the Miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, John shares a little detail not found in the synoptics. A young boy is spotted who has five small barley loaves and a couple of fish, which he agrees to share with the crowd. Guess who it is who spots that boy? Andrew again.

And in the first chapter of John, it is actually Andrew who is called first—a different recollection than what Matthew gives us in the reading for this day, where they seem to have come to Jesus together. In John, Andrew is called and then he in turn goes and finds his brother, Peter. It is through this memory of the early church that Andrew is sometimes called Protokletos, i.e. “first called.”

Bear with me a moment longer and consider each of these little vignettes about this disciple who most of the time easily blends in with all the others. He distinguishes himself by bringing others to Jesus. He brings the Greeks, he brings the small boy with his loaves and fishes, and he brings his brother who becomes the Rock of at least the Western Church. Perhaps it’s for this reason that a fellowship of men in The Episcopal Church committed to evangelism and bringing others to Christ takes Andrew as their namesake.

In any case, he has something to teach us, especially as Episcopalians, about evangelism. Most of us are not comfortable standing out on street corners telling strangers about Jesus. I’m not all that convinced it’s the most effective way to do evangelism anyway. But that doesn’t get us off the hook. And Andrew, I think, shows us a way forward.

Just as Andrew helps to connect Jesus the Jew with the Greeks who express interest in meeting him, we are called at the very least to practice hospitality and a ministry of welcoming to the stranger. We can make the connections and the necessary introductions and we can keep alert to the questions our co-workers and neighbors and friends are asking of us in their own search for meaning.

In a similar way, connecting Jesus to his brother, Peter, is really no big deal. It’s more about being willing and able at the end of the day to sit at the dinner table and say, “let me tell you about my day….let me tell you about what God is doing in my life.” That need not be heavy-handed. It can very well be about simply being willing to share our stories, and listen to what others have to say as well.

And just as importantly, I think the faith of Andrew we are meant to emulate is about keeping one’s eyes open. It’s about being on the look-out for people’s gifts. It’s about noticing the small gifts, the small people, the ones who could easily go unnoticed, and yet whose gifts lead to the kind of transformation that makes big things possible.

And so we give thanks today in our prayers for Andrew—apostle and evangelist and “first-called”—for reminding each of us of our own calling and of the promises we have made in Holy Baptism, promises renewed every time we break the bread and share the cup. 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The One Who Went Back

The Gospel Reading for Thanksgiving Day is Luke 17:11-19. It's about the healing of ten lepers and the one who went back to say "thank you." It's a great text. I preached a sermon on it seven years ago, on October 10, 2010 at St. Francis, Holden; not on Thanksgiving, but on the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost when this text also comes up. I've revised that original sermon for this post, perhaps as a help to those who will be preaching on Thursday and also for those who may not make it to Church that day but are still feeling grateful. 

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When asked to describe the nature of true worship, Martin Luther responded succinctly: “the tenth leper turning back.”

Luke has organized his gospel in such a way that Jesus and his disciples are "on the way" to Jerusalem from Galilee, and along the way they have various encounters that  reveal something about the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim and establish.

In the seventeenth chapter, however, we seem to have taken a detour. Luke reminds us that we are still “on the way” to Jerusalem, but then adds that now Jesus “is going through that region between Samaria and Galilee.” We should pay attention. It’d be like saying that on the way from Worcester to Boston they stopped in Providence. It’s out of the way!

There are three possibilities for such a detour. One is that Jesus has gotten lost, which is possible but unlikely. In fact, since faithful Jews aren’t supposed to be anywhere near Samaritan soil, it seems Jesus is making a point here. 

A second possibility is that Luke doesn’t have a very good sense of first-century Palestinian geography. Since all of the gospels, including Luke, were written decades after the events being recounted, it is in fact possible that Luke has gotten his geography wrong. 

But most scholars think there is a far more likely third possibility, and I agree with them: that both Jesus and Luke know exactly what they are doing and a serious theological point is being made here. Jesus is stepping into a boundary where ethnic and religious tensions are palpable. Think about a detour to beyond the wall in Israel to the West Bank, or to Belfast when tensions were highest between Catholic and Protestant Christians there or to Los Angeles after the Rodney King beating or maybe to the DMZ in North Korea today. Luke is putting us on notice: while we are still “on the way” to Jerusalem, something important that reveals something about the Kingdom of God is going to happen in this little village…

Only Luke gives us that other famous Samaritan story, the one about the so-called Good Samaritan. For any self-respecting first-century Jew, of course, that phrase, Good Samaritan, would have been considered an oxymoron. Everybody knew that Samaritans represented that which was never good: that which was to be feared as unholy and polluted. Jesus has crossed the tracks to the part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop. He’s traveling through that region between Samaria and Galilee when they come to a village.

Now in case anyone reading Luke’s Gospel has missed the point, we get hit over the head a second time by a 2 x 4 when Jesus encounters a group of lepers there. Not only is he in a place considered unclean, but now there are lepers everywhere. People with leprosy were considered to be ritually unclean and not allowed to come into contact with healthy people. Hence the leper colonies where they lived away from the community. They keep their distance because coming into contact with someone who had this ailment would make you ritually unclean. In fact, as you approached a leper, they were required to shout out: “unclean, unclean” as a kind of warning, just to be sure that you don’t walk up to them accidentally to ask for directions. Imagine such a life: suffering not only from a terrible disease but being socially ostracized as well. And then notice that while they do approach Jesus, Luke makes it clear that they “kept their distance from him.”

Keeping their distance, they shout out to Jesus for mercy. And then Jesus sends them along to the priests, because the Torah says that before they can re-enter the community the priest must pronounce them ritually clean. As they turn to leave they find their skin disease is healed. But they still need that “OK” from the Temple authorities before they can re-enter society. They know that, and everyone with Jesus knows that; and besides Jesus has just told them to do that. So off they go.

But one of them turned back. Now it may be fair enough as you hear this to say, “Hey, cut the nine some slack because they are just doing what Jesus said to do.” But that really isn’t the point of the story. The point here is something that every parent I know tries to teach their children from a very young age. And even when you don’t know much about Middle Eastern geography or the ritual laws about leprosy, this part of the story translates pretty easily from first-century culture to our own day: it doesn’t cost you anything to say “thank you.” They can get on their way soon enough. But their lives have just been radically changed. This is huge! 

And yet they have tunnel vision: must get to priests! Only one of them takes the time to turn back and say, “thank you!” That is what Luther meant when he said that true worship is to be like this one. Or as Meister Eckhart put it: “if the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you’ it would be enough.”

We all know this. But it takes practice. We are surrounded by miracles and you would have to be blind to live in New England in autumn not to not notice. We experience, even on the most difficult of days, blessing upon blessing. The one who turned back, takes us to the very heart of the gospel. Ten were healed of their leprosy: their skin got better and they were all presumably soon pronounced ritually clean and allowed to re-enter society. But only one of them got well. He isn’t just “not sick” anymore; he’s been made whole. He’s alive.

Can I say it this way: he’s saved? That word makes Episcopalians squirm a little bit and I get why: it’s a little like the word “evangelism” or “stewardship.” Often when someone asks us whether or not we are “saved,” we may be tempted to run the other way. But that is in fact the Greek word used here: the root sozo literally means “to be saved” or “to be made well.” In the old King James Version it says, “Your faith has made you whole," which of course is what salvation is really all about.

Being saved isn’t about something that happens to us after we die. The abundant life that Christ promises begins here and now and this story suggests that we take hold of that new life. We really are made whole when we cultivate gratitude in our lives. That part, at least, of this reading is really very simple. 

Miracles abound. That doesn’t mean life isn’t sometimes hard, although it’s hard to imagine a life any more difficult than being a leper in a small Samaritan village. But too often we’re too busy moving on to the next thing; the miracles are all around us but we must get to work or get to class or get to the doctor or even get to church. We need to get supper ready or do the laundry. All these things matter but if we aren't careful we begin to live our lives focused on the next thing rather than the thing we are doing right now. And too often we forget to stop and say: “thank you, God.” 

So I think Luther had it just right: true worship is the one who returned. Discipleship is about cultivating gratitude, until we learn to become givers ourselves.  

Anne Lamotte says that she has two favorite prayers that she tries to pray every day: one in the morning and one at night. When she gets out of bed, she simply prays: “Help me. Help me. Help me.” And at the end of the day, before her head hits the pillow, she prays: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Those are both really good prayers. And they will take you a long way down the path of being made whole, if that is what you seek. They will take you a long way toward embracing the saving love that is in fact already ours in Jesus Christ. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Shechem

Today is the 23rd Sunday since Pentecost. I am at St. John's in Williamstown this weekend, where they are entering the final stage of calling their next rector. They have been an amazing congregation to work with, and they remain in my prayers as they anticipate the next chapter in their life together. 

The importance of the story we heard today from the the 24th chapter of the Book of Joshua in the arc of the Old Testament narrative cannot be overestimated. It’s a new beginning. It’s a moment of covenant renewal. And yet I bet it’s not in most Sunday School curricula, and maybe not even in the top one hundred moments in Old Testament history that you could come up with if we had done a little pre-worship quiz today. Maybe it’s for just that reason that I’m drawn to it on this November morning, not as just a nice little lesson in Biblical theology, but perhaps a moment that St. John’s might attend to and then even read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, in order to hear a Word of the Lord today.

One could argue that the Book of Genesis is really a kind of prequel to the most important book of the Torah: Exodus. As you may remember, Genesis ends with Joseph and his brothers landing in Egypt during a time of famine. And then, just a few verses into the Book of Exodus, a new Pharaoh arises “who didn’t know Joseph and his brothers…” And so it came to pass that the Hebrew people are enslaved. From there: the people cry out to God, Moses is called at the burning bush and given a mission to go tell old Pharaoh to let God’s people go and then there is the first Passover, the parting of the Red Sea, the dramatic escape. All of that gets remembered each year by Jews at the Passover Seder. It’s important stuff and if you’ve ever attended a Seder you know it’s not taught like something that happened a long time ago. It’s more like every Jew is transported back to that key event to cross the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit.

And then forty years in the wilderness where the Torah is given, better translated as Teaching or Instruction than Law. That takes us all the way to the end of the Pentateuch, to the very end of the Book of Deuteronomy, where an aged Moses looks with this band of ex-slaves across the Jordan River toward the Promised Land. As they prepare to enter this land “flowing with milk and honey,” Moses cautions them that in the midst of economic prosperity they will be tempted toward amnesia: they will begin to think that they have achieved all these things on their own. He urges them to “remember” all that Yahweh has done for them when they were living one day at a time in the Sinai wilderness.

So that’s the “Cliff Notes” version of the first five books of the Bible! Then comes the Book of Joshua, from which we read today. At Jericho, General Joshua leads the people in a series of battles and the walls come “a tumblin’ down” as they seek to claim this Promised Land, which it turns out is a contested piece of real estate that already has people living in it. That’s another sermon, for another day. In any case, at long last they enter the Promised Land. They stand on the dawn of a new day. And this takes us to Shechem. Joshua gathers up all the tribes of Israel and summons the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel. You can still go there today. I was there a couple of years ago. It’s now called Nablus and it’s in the northern West Bank, under Palestinian control. Nablus is known for their knafah, a delicious sweet pastry made with pistachios and rose water and cheese. Being there makes a moment like we read about today not feel like it happened a long time ago, but very much present-tense.

Even so, we might ask: what does Shechem have to do with Williamstown? What we see in today’s reading is that God’s people pray, and they give thanks, and they renew their commitment to a vision and a dream. That’s why Joshua has gathered them together. Joshua reminds them, as Moses had at the end of Deuteronomy, that serving God will not be an easy matter and that in many ways it really will be harder in the Promised Land than in the wilderness, because there will be lots of distractions and lots of other gods that vie for their attention. But he makes it clear that he and his family will serve the Lord. Together, the people recall their story, and all that the Lord has done: how God brought them up “from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and protected them in the wilderness.”

So here they now stand, promising that they, too, will serve the Lord. There is no reason to doubt their sincerity. And yet we all know that the rest of the Bible is about how people fail to keep their promises to God, even when God remains faithful. Because those other gods are often too hard to resist.

I believe there may indeed be a Word of the Lord here for you, St. John’s. Let me first be clear what I don’t mean. I don’t want to suggest that Peter Elvin was Moses! Direct Biblical correlations are rarely exact or helpful and no rector, no matter how good, ought to be compared with Moses. And it would be untrue to say that the thirty years that Peter was here was like wandering in the wilderness. Or that the next rector is going to lead you into battle. So I don’t mean that.

Even so, you know better than most congregations in our diocese what it’s like to have one leader for a very long time. You’ve been through a lot together. In the past year or so you’ve gotten to know Libby, who is at CREDO this weekend. I think she’s a wonderful person. But beyond that, I think she’s been the right priest for you all to find your way to where you are today. Close, we hope, to calling a new rector. I don’t consider that work done until the ink is dry on a Letter of Agreement, but we’re gaining on it.  

Whoever that person is, and whenever that person arrives here, there will be an opportunity to do something like gathering at Shechem. We call it a Celebration of New Ministry. It usually happens a couple of months after a new cleric arrives. Often, in addition to the parish, some neighbors come by as well including, usually, some Berkshire area clergy, both Episcopal and ecumenical. It’s a chance to look to what lies ahead and covenant to work together. You’ll pray, and give thanks, and renew your commitment to a vision and a dream.

What I’ve learned in this work I’ve now been doing as Canon to the Ordinary for about four and a half years now is this: the hardest work of calling a new rector is not behind you, it’s ahead of you. No one ever believes me when I say this but it’s the truth. The arrival of a moving van in Williamstown and the first Sunday of a new rector will be terribly exciting. But that doesn’t mean the work is done. The hard work that lies ahead will be for the new rector to just become the rector. And that takes both time and commitment. I’m sure that even at Shechem some folks were whispering about Joshua: “he’s no Moses!” The work that lies ahead isn't just for the vestry or a profile committee or a search committee; it's work that belongs to all of you. 

You see those red Prayerbooks in your pews? They first got put there in 1979, nearly forty years ago! They’ve been there as long as the Israelites wandered around Sinai! And yet there are still folks who refer to it as the new Prayerbook! Transitions take time. I think the wisdom of Joshua (coming on the heels of the long ministry of Moses)  is that he wants to be clear with God’s people that a new chapter is about to begin. That it will be both different and the same. There will be different challenges and he won’t try to walk in Moses’ shoes; he’ll wear his own. He’ll try to be Joshua because, quite honestly, that’s who he is. Moses had his time and it can be honored without trying to keep duplicating it. And the context is different: they are no longer in the Sinai Desert scraping up manna for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They are in Canaan, which will present its own challenges.

On the other hand, same God, same Torah. The story of who God is and what God has done is remembered and rehearsed and retold. Some things are new but the old story continues to unfold. That is why Joshua says, “are you with me?” and keeps pressing the point: are you sure? He doesn’t ask people to swear allegiance to him. In fact, he reminds them (to paraphrase St. Paul many centuries later) that they weren’t baptized into Moses or Joshua, but that they have been claimed and marked and sealed by the living God. That is whom they are called to served.

So, in my work, I get to attend a lot of Celebrations of New Ministry and they are always a joy. They mark a new beginning. Recently I’ve been to liturgies in Oxford and Holyoke and we have another coming up in Sheffield this month. And before you know it I’ll be coming back here for one. It will be exciting. And a little scary, too.

The bishop requires new clergy to attend a program called Fresh Start for two years after they come to our diocese. It’s a program that meets monthly and is co-facilitated by my colleague, Pam Mott and me. It’s a chance for new clergy to get to know each other and the diocese, a movable feast that each cleric has a chance to host over the course of their time in Fresh Start. It’s also, we pray, a safe place where they can share not only their successes but their failures and disappointments, toward the goal of turning those into opportunities for growth. I also make it a point to schedule a Mutual Ministry Review with the new cleric and the vestry at some point later than six months in, but before a year is up so we can ask together: what’s going on? What have been the surprises? Where is some re-negotiation needed?

Notice those are all questions. Questions are better in that first year of a new ministry than declarative statements like “this is how we’ve always done it!”

Here is the thing: most people here don’t remember the first five years when Peter arrived here. Even if you were here then, you still remember it filtered through the rest of the story. But comparing Peter’s last five to the first five of a new person won’t be helpful for anyone, especially for your new rector. New beginnings are just that. Joshua wasn’t Moses and he wasn’t called to do things the same way.

So I don’t want this sermon to lapse into becoming a report on transition ministry and maybe I’ve already crossed that line. So let me bring this to a close: it seems to me that the Holy Spirit likes to do new things. That doesn’t mean we don’t value tradition. Lord knows we Episcopalians love our traditions! But if tradition is to avoid lapsing into nostalgia for the past, then we need to stay alive to the new thing God is about to do. We need to cultivate an openness to where God is leading us next. We need to be a people who remember that God doesn’t rest on past laurels, but is always calling us to be faithful in this time and place. That means a willingness to share the news and the work with our children and our children’s children more than building a shrine to our parents and our parents’ parents.

Pastoral leadership transitions mark an invitation and a new opportunity for clarity about vision and mission. If not exactly a re-set button, then they at least mark the beginning of a new chapter in a still-unfolding story. I think that is what was going on in Shechem with Joshua and a people who needed to get ready for the next thing, even as they remembered the lessons of Sinai. And I think that is what is soon to happen here at St. John’s, by God’s grace. Choose, then, whom you will serve. Choose to stick with the living God who has brought you this far, the God who continues to be faithful from generation to generation. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

All Saints?

Today I am again at All Saints, Worcester. It is their patronal feast day, which is just a fancy way of saying that they take their name from this feast day in the church calendar - this Sunday of All Saints. In celebration of this day the 10 am service and the 11:45 Spanish-language service have combined at 10:30 with a potluck lunch to follow. 

There is a new television ad for the Google Pixel Phone that has imprinted on my brain. Which, of course, is exactly what advertising means to do. Don’t worry, this is not a sermon brought to you by Google and I’m not endorsing any products today. But I think the ad has theological implications.

It begins like this: “when you change a period to a question mark, it changes everything.” And then they give some examples, in rapid succession:
  • The earth is flat. The earth is flat? 
  • We’re lost. We’re lost? 
  • Cars need drivers. Cars need drivers? 
  • Smartphones can’t get any smarter. Smartphones can’t get any smarter?
You with me? When you change a period to a question mark, it changes everything.

Some of you have perhaps seen the comma that has been used over the past few years by the United Church of Christ in an ad campaign. They want to say that God is still alive and still speaking through God’s people, and so they want to replace periods with commas to make this point.

But today, on this Feast of All Saints, your patronal feast day, I want to wonder out loud with you what happens when we change periods into question marks.

My experience teaches me that questions lead to deeper faith. Perhaps the patron saint of this truth is St. Thomas, whom we mis-remember as a doubter, when he was really just that guy who was willing to ask the hard questions.Certitudes truncate faith and certitudes are an equal opportunity offender: there are versions on both the left and the right. 

When someone knows something, for sure, they stop listening. Period.

They close themselves down. Period.

This is always a problem for Christian community. Statements tend to get debated. Questions get explored.

So when we change periods to question marks, it changes everything. We begin to wonder what we might not see or know and we wonder what others have to offer us to help with our blind spots. Our neighbor is no longer a threat, but a gift to us. We begin to embrace that baptismal prayer that we might have "inquiring and discerning hearts."

I’ve been with you now for just about a month. I’m here part-time in a position that requires full-time work. And I’m only here for another eight or nine weeks. So I am feeling free to say just about anything.

But here is what I want to say to you today, All Saints: you are in this together.

Literally as I look out at you today, I see a thing of beauty. I feel like John on Patmos, glimpsing what he saw: una gran multid de todas las naciounes, razas, lenguas y pueblos. You are all saints.

You are all saints?

One of my favorite preachers is Nadia Bolz-Weber, the founding pastor of a church called the House of All Sinners and All Saints. She’s a Lutheran, so those Lutherans as you may know are big on the fact that we can be simultaneously both sinners and saints. But it’s not just a Lutheran idea; it’s a solidly Christian idea.

What’s dangerous is to think that some are the saints and the others are the sinners. This not only destroys Christian community; it’s not true. There are variations on the theme: we are more saintly, the others are worse sinners. But that is just wrong.

When Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of that Wittenburg Church five hundred years ago, he started asking big questions about the relationship between faith and works and the meaning of grace. One place that led to was a 21st century congregation called All Sinners and All Saints which just about sums it all up.

Well, it’s probably too late to change your name, all saints. But your patronal feast day may be a good time to remember that being saints doesn’t mean always getting it right.

You are all saints? Yes, to be sure. And you are all sinners, saved by God’s grace.

Here’s the deal while we’re talking about sin: we can’t confess our neighbor’s sins. It just doesn’t work that way. We may see their sins more clearly than we see our own, but that’s no excuse! Their sins are not for us to confess.

Jesus had something to say about getting rid of beams in our own eyes before we worry about the splinters in the eyes of others, remember?  

You are all saints?

Some days we may not feel like we are, or that that person two pews in front of us definitely is not. But I want to tell you again as I look out today, this is what the Kingdom of God looks like: you are from every nation, or at least a lot of nations. You are from different tribes, and peoples, and languages, and today we hear just a few of them: Swahili. Spanish. English. Take a good look because this is what heaven looks like.

After this liturgy we’ll share different foods representing different cultures from the African diaspora and from different Latin American and Central American countries and from Europe and from native people who were here long before the Europeans came. We are many. And we are one. We are blessed by our diversity.

We are blessed by our diversity?

Some days it doesn’t feel like that, I know because it’s hard work. Division and mistrust permeate the dominant culture in which we live, but we come here to remember a deeper truth: that each of us is created in the image of the living God. That each of us is worthy of being treated with dignity and respect. We come here to remember that Jesus commands us to love one another. Though we are many, we are one.

In the past month I’ve discovered some ghosts in this place. Most of them seem friendly enough. Former rectors who were great theologians, like Father Huntington, and clerics who became bishops, like Vinton and Davies and Hastings and Beckwith. When I wander the halls upstairs they all look so young. And of course for every former rector with a photo on the wall, there were countless choir directors and choir members and Sunday school teachers and vestry members and altar guild members and loud praying members and soft-spoken ones, too. We are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, and they were faithful in their time.

But here’s the deal: this is your time, all saints. All of us will eventually go down to the dust and join the heavenly chorus. But in the meantime we have work to do here. Work of healing and of reconciliation. Work of being faithful stewards, which is always about more than just being money managers.

When you change a period to a question mark, it changes everything. Keep asking what the Lord requires of you? Keep asking what it means to be all saints and how you will commit to that, with God’s help. Keep asking how you can be part of the work of reconciliation rather than of division. 

And then praise God, from whom all blessings flow.