Saturday, December 15, 2018

At the Ordination of Ann Scannell

I am honored to be asked to preach today at the ordination of Ann Scannell to the transitional diaconate, at All Saints Church in Worcester. My sermon text is Jeremiah 4:1-10

Ann: you have publicly declared before God, your bishop, and this assembly that “you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and that they do contain all things necessary to salvation.”

Bold move! In a few minutes there will be more questions and answers and you will be given a Bible “as a sign of your authority to proclaim God’s Word.”

Please don’t forget this pledge and this sign, and use that Bible! It is so easy to become complacent about this. Yet it is foundational for all the rest of ministry. There will be enormous pressures on your time as a pastor which will make it tempting to convince yourself (or to be convinced by others) that you don’t have time for prayer and study. When that happens, preaching gets very thin very quickly. So make the time to keep reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture. Keep first things first.

Here is why: if you don’t do that, it will quickly become way too easy to substitute your own opinions and cute stories and personal faith journey for God’s Word. (Or even worse, to steal somebody else’s opinions, cute stories, or faith journey off the internet!) As you read that Bible, don’t forget what you learned about it at Yale-Berkeley. But keep pushing beyond that, because as great as that institution is, seminaries (all of them, I think) tend to prepare us for the Church that was, not the one is that is always emerging as the new thing that God is doing in the world.

As you enter into the various worlds of the Bible, be willing to be changed as your own ideologies are framed and re-framed in that encounter with the living Word of God. Pray the Daily Office or use the Bible challenge. Become part of a lectionary group with people who will hold you accountable and who have the ability to persuade you when you are wrong. Because, to be clear, when the bishop lays his hands on you today, it will not make you infallible. Offer Bible studies for your parishioners because the best way to be a life-long learner is to teach. The Bible means to gather around it communities that are willing to be transformed as we hear a Word of the Lord addressed to us.

There are no doubt other ways to define “success” in ministry and to make sure your HAC goes up. But I know of no way to be faithful to the risen Christ as an ordained person if you are not continuing to wrestle with Holy Scripture and finding there a word that points you and your community to the Word-made-flesh: Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, alpha and omega. God with us. In the end, even in a sacramental denomination such as ours, we are people of the Book. I know that, God willing and the people consenting, you will be ordained to the priesthood soon enough. But the preacher at your priestly ordination can focus on Baptism and Eucharist! For today, I want to stick with this aspect of this call to preach.

As preachers – lay preachers, deacons, priests and bishops—we have these ancient scrolls entrusted to us and we are given authority to stand with God’s people and to share the good news that comes from the whole canon. You did not pledge a moment ago to be a Marcionite who believes that Luke’s Gospel and Paul’s epistles contain all things necessary to salvation! (And to those without an MDiv from Yale, you can Google Marcion after this sermon!)  Pray the Psalms, including the ones we never pray in worship. Read Lamentations. Read Job and Ecclesiastes. Read Esther and Daniel and Amos and Micah. If they were good enough for Jesus, they will be good enough for the people you are called to serve. Our great privilege and responsibility is to allow these texts to come to life in a time and place that is woefully ignorant of the richness of the canon of Scripture.

So let me try to practice what I preach, which I’ve often found is the hardest part of ministry. I want to spend my remaining time on this call narrative from the scroll of the prophet Jeremiah. It is very clear in the first three verses that God is addressing a particular person in a particular time and in a particular place.

…and so the Word of Yahweh comes to Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah. Jeremiah is a “PK” (a priest’s kid) in Anathoth, in the days of King Josiah, son of Amon of Judah. In the thirteenth year of his reign.

This is a standard Biblical call narrative. The pattern is the same one as for Moses and Isaiah, for Hannah and Mary. Perhaps you recognize something of your own call in this pattern as well. It begins with divine initiative, which is met with human resistance. So God says to Jeremiah: “before you were even born I knew you, and I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.” To which Jeremiah replies: “But I’m only a boy and I’m afraid of public speaking and surely there must be someone else...” Anybody else? Buehler? Beuhler?

That’s the pattern. God calls and God’s people almost always say, “no thank you. Surely there must be someone more qualified.” But God is persistent. You may recognize that pattern in your own life as well. God responds with rebuke and reassurance: rebuke (“don’t say you’re just a boy!”) and reassurance (“don’t be afraid, I’ll be with you!) And then God puts out his hand and touches Jeremiah’s mouth and commissions him as a transitional deacon in the Episcopal Church. (Just trying to make sure you are all still with me here!)

The lectionary committee, in their infinite wisdom, chose to stop there in the suggested reading for the day, at verse nine. We get Jeremiah commissioned and that is apparently the end of the story and enough to ordain a deacon: the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God. Good luck out there! But this is exactly why we need to read the Bible or at the very least, the verses on either side of the texts the lectionary committee gives us for days like this. The lectionary committee very often cut out the best and most interesting parts. I think that this is one of those occasions when they just plain get it wrong and that can lead us to bad theology of what our several callings are about. Because they leave us hanging in mid-air.  

Here’s the thing: Jeremiah is commissioned to do something. He isn’t ordained just so he can wear the funny clothes. He is ordained to share with God in God’s work in the world, in his world six centuries before Messiah is born, among real people with real questions and real hurts and real dreams. Vocation is about a call to do something in a particular place at a particular time. That is why I asked that we extend today’s reading just one more verse, to include verse ten. It really didn’t add that much time to this liturgy. What is that work to which Jeremiah is called? Walter Brueggemann says that Jeremiah is “reflective of and responsive to the historical crisis of the last days of Judah, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BCE.” That’s quite specific. (And harder to Google.)

Jeremiah is commissioned to help God’s people deal with tremendous loss and then enter into the Babylonian exile. The old order will be dismantled and a crisis of faith will follow.  It isn’t pretty. It is not the last word, either. The thing is, it will take decades before another prophet (Second Isaiah) comes along to speak a word of comfort, a word about new possibilities and a highway through the desert and homecoming. The words that Jeremiah must speak are far less comfortable words. His mission statement is found in that tenth verse of the first chapter and it’s just six verbs that come up again and again and again in the rest of the scroll, 51 more chapters. Jeremiah is commissioned “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” It’s the best kind of mission statement because it is short and to the point and oriented toward action. 67% of Jeremiah’s time will be spent on deconstructing the old order. It seems that has to happen before anything new can happen. And even then, maybe the best Jeremiah will be able to do is to plant some seeds and build a little on the foundation. Like us, he’s going to have to take the long view. He won’t get to see homecoming – in a way similar to Moses who doesn’t get to enter the Promised Land.

Jeremiah is given the hard task of helping people deal with loss and grief as the Babylonian army comes marching into Jerusalem and the temple comes crashing down. They will be distraught. And they will be angry at God and at those who claim to work for God. They will feel betrayed. They will be bitterly divided. And they will feel like they have no future. Is this sounding like some vestry meetings? Are you all in?

Maybe this is why the lectionary committee left off that last verse. Because if they told us what we were in for, we might run away faster than Jonah. With all endings come new beginnings, however. But it takes time and focus and patience and grit. Barbara Brown Taylor put it this way in “Leaving Church.”

The way many of us are doing church is broken and we know it, even if we do not know what to do about it. We proclaim the priesthood of all believers while we continue living with hierarchical clergy, liturgy, and architecture. We follow a Lord who challenged the religious and political institutions of his time while we fund and defend our own. We speak and sing of divine transformation while we do everything in our power to maintain our equilibrium. If redeeming things continue to happen to us in spite of these deep contradictions in our life together, then I think that is because God is faithful even when we are not.

My sister: God is faithful, even when we are not. Hold onto that and let it be your guiding star in the journey that wise women and wise men are called to in this time and place. The work that you are called to is not in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah but in the third year of the reign of President Donald. The Episcopal Church in 2013 is not exactly the same as the Jewish people in Babylonian captivity. Most of our “temples” are still intact. Unfortunately we have lots of buildings that worked for our mission in the nineteenth century that are less helpful in the twenty-first. We need some imagination to make the connections from then to now. But it doesn’t take much to say this much: after the party today, the work will be hard. And it ain’t all planting and building.

What would Church look like if we lived as if we were truly prepared to lose our lives in order to find them?  Even to lose the Church in order to find it again? We are tempted to think that our job as Christian leaders is to somehow keep on trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. I know I sometimes spend a lot of time in my job trying to do just that. Trust me, that temptation only becomes greater as you become more invested in the structures that we have in place for your livelihood. On the whole, bishops and priests and deacons and laity spend enormous energy trying to hold it all together. But what if you are being ordained today, here and now, to help God’s people to grieve loss when things change and be open to the new thing that God is doing? What if 2/3 of your job will be about deconstructing, in order to then do some planting and building? Think of all those times Jesus talks about pruning in the New Testament. Or about new wine and old wineskins. Because those old ways, those old patterns, those old structures can keep us from seeing and hearing the new thing God is doing.

Very few people will applaud that work when you do it because it is hard work and these are difficult times and nostalgia makes us want to look backwards rather than forward. And to be clear, I am not suggesting that the first week you arrive at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Clinton that you tell them you are there to pluck up and pull down and destroy and overthrow all of the sacred cows in that parish that are not in line with God’s purposes. God help you. And God help them!

But maybe our work is a little bit easier than that. Maybe we don’t have to be Jeremiah. Maybe we just have to remind people about who Jeremiah was and that there is a Word of the Lord for us, waiting to be discovered in new ways by God’s people.

Together. Find allies, ordained and lay, inside and outside of your congregation. Stand with God’s people and make room in your congregation for the prophets like Jeremiah to be heard. You can do that, Ann. We need for you to do that and I know you are up to the task that lies before us. I have known it for as long as I’ve known you. You are a humble, faithful, compassionate, honest, hard-working follower of Jesus. I know that the divine initiative has been at work in your life from the time when you were in your mother’s womb. And that this call is “of God” and that it has been tested along the way by the Church and by life experience. So don’t settle for less than faithfulness, even if faithfulness doesn’t always bring success. I know that along the way, like Jeremiah, you have at times found yourself resisting that call. Maybe somewhere along the line as God called, you even said, “But I’m only a girl.” More likely, somebody else told you that. But we have all heard God’s clear response and encouragement.

Call, resistance, rebuke and reassurance. That is the pattern that brings us to this day. Keep responding to that call, and living into these vows you take today. Remember that God is faithful, even when we are not. Keep putting your trust there, and show the people whom you are called to serve alongside of the same. And let them show you, too. And then - together - do the work God has given you and given us to do in this time and place. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Zechariah's Song

I am not preaching anywhere today. This is an edited version of a sermon I preached nine years ago, however, on the Second Sunday in Advent at St. Francis Church in Holden. The canticle for today is the Song of Zechariah, from the first chapter of Luke's Gospel. (It can be found here.)
In the time I spend with couples who are preparing for marriage, we usually try to look beyond their wedding and to the joys and challenges not only of married life but the joys and challenges, when it is God’s will, of becoming parents. I sometimes share with the couple my own experience that parenthood brings about an even bigger change in one’s life and self-perception than marriage does. For those of us called to the vocation of parenthood, the birth of a child forever changes our lives.

That is even more profoundly true about the birth of the child whose coming we await and prepare for during the Season of Advent, a season which encapsulates all of the emotions of moving through nine months of pregnancy: expectancy, waiting, hope, wonder, joy and a healthy dose of fear as well. All rolled into four short weeks.  

Before we get to Bethlehem, however, there is another birth narrative that Luke wants to share with us. In the days of King Herod, he writes, there was this priest named Zechariah who was married to the daughter of a priest, Elizabeth. They were both righteous people, both faithful people, both decent and well-loved. But…

Why does there always have to be a “but?” Life isn’t easy. It comes with plenty of bumps in the road—layoffs and deaths, illness, divorce, struggles at school or at work. And here is the thing: the Bible is about life. Sometimes we are prone to think that because the people we encounter in the Bible lived a long time ago, they must be very different from us. But take away our cell phones and text messages and you tend to discover that reading the Bible can be like looking in a mirror. People are people, and across generations and cultures, the core challenges of being human—love and loss, fear and hope, doubt and the capacity to dream—remain basically the same from generation to generation.   
So perhaps you have known a couple like Elizabeth and Zechariah or maybe even faced the same challenge they did: good people committed to God who would make excellent parents. But they are getting “advanced in years.” That is the Bible’s politically correct way of saying they are getting old! And they have no children. Because, as Luke puts it, Elizabeth was barren.

Those words are like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard even two thousand years after they were first written. Tradition sometimes claims Luke was a physician, which is far from certain. But even if he was, he was a first-century physician who knew nothing about infertility. Like all of us, he was a product of his time. In a world before fertility clinics, he believed what everyone in his day believed, including Elizabeth and Zechariah: if a couple couldn’t get pregnant then it must be the woman’s “fault.” The theology that goes along with that is even more embarrassing from where we stand in the early part of the twenty-first century: if the woman was “barren”, then somehow this reflected God’s displeasure. So on top of the sadness and loss a couple might feel if they weren’t able to have a child was also added no small measure of guilt and blame and shame as well. The way Elizabeth poignantly describes it in retrospect, once she learns that she is in fact pregnant, is to say that she has endured disgrace among her people. (Lk. 1:25)

What is interesting, however, and not unlike our own context is that there is sometimes a chasm between what conventional piety says and what Biblical faith actually claims. People attribute all kinds of horrible things to God, then and now: infertility, earthquakes, disease, acts of terrorism. But the God of the Bible is constantly challenging conventional piety by favoring the despised and rejected, not by punishing them. God notices women and men who can’t seem to get pregnant and acts on their behalf: God is the one who makes all things possible.

The God we encounter in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel is the same God who made poor old Sarah laugh when she got pregnant in her old age, the same one who blessed Rebekah and Rachel and Hannah with children when they thought they were past all of that. All of them had no doubt endured no small amount of disgrace from their families and neighbors. Like Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel and Hannah before her, just thirteen verses into the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Elizabeth learns that she is pregnant. And then the angel, Gabriel, comes to deliver the good news to Zechariah while he is at work. Even though he is a priest and a righteous man and even though he has been praying for this, he is absolutely dumbfounded. I suspect he thought that these things only happened in the Bible, back in the Old Testament, a long, long time ago; and no one has told either Zechariah or Elizabeth that their story is about to become part of some new testament.

Old Zechariah is so freaked out by this news that he becomes speechless. Literally. For nine months this priest doesn’t speak a word. Now this isn’t in the Bible, but I have sometimes wondered if this wasn’t an answered prayer of Elizabeth’s: because what pregnant woman hasn’t prayed that her husband would just shut up for nine months until the child is born, especially if he keeps saying "we" are pregnant? Or perhaps it’s an answer to the prayers of Zechariah’s congregation. Either way, the man is speechless for nine months!

Six months into Elizabeth’s pregnancy, as she is just about to transition into her third trimester, her cousin, Mary, comes to call on her and to share the extraordinary news that she, too, is pregnant and she, too, has received a message from Gabriel. And the child in Elizabeth’s tummy kicks her with joy. The lives of these two women and their two sons will be inextricably linked as the story of God’s work in the world continues to unfold.

So the child is born—the child of Elizabeth and Zechariah, I mean. We have to wait a couple more weeks to celebrate the birth of that other child!  Zechariah’s son is born, and still Zechariah hasn’t spoken a word. The eighth day comes, the day when little Jewish boys are circumcised and given a name and everybody knows that there is only one name to give such a long-awaited child, and that is to call him Zechariah Jr. His aunts and uncles can call him Zecky. But Elizabeth says, “no, he is to be called John.” Now everyone goes speechless. It’s like one of those old E.F. Hutton commercials. Such things are not done and it seems an insult to the father. But of course it is the name that was given to them by the angel and they know that this child is, like every child, a gift from God. So the neighbors turn to the man of the house to set his wife straight. Only he still can’t speak. So he writes it down: “His name is John.” 

And immediately, Luke tells us (channeling his inner Mark who loves that word) his tongue was loosed. He could speak again after nine months of silence. And what do you think he says? Well we heard it already because we sang it along with him—this father’s song—praise to God and in thanksgiving for this child.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the   forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Notice, with me, that this song has a past, present, and future tense to it. Zechariah blesses the God who has looked favorably on him and his wife and beyond them to this redeemed people to whom God has been faithful from generation to generation. Zechariah is filled with doxology and grateful for all God has done, for the ways that God has spoken through the prophets and shown mercy and remembered the covenant and rescued his people in days gone by. But all that good stuff is not confined to some distant past. That is the great insight of Zechariah and of people of faith in every age who encounter the living God, who refuses to become a mere memory on the pages of the Bible. God’s best days are not in the past and this old priest has remembered that as he gazes at his beautiful baby boy. It evokes a sense of awe and wonder in Zechariah, who prays that he might respond to God by serving God on this day in holiness and righteousness. The gift of his son rekindles in him an experience of the holy God. (Babies have a tendency to do that to us!)

And then as old Zechariah stands there looking at the face of his little boy, John, he not only feels joy in the present but he also glimpses a future that gives him hope. That hope surely must be for him and his wife who must feel young again, but it extends beyond them. This child of theirs (who will be called “the Baptist”) gives them hope for the world: you will be called a prophet, you will prepare the way, and the dawn from on high will break upon us.

On this second Sunday of Advent we are so used to seeing little Johnny all grown up and preparing the way for his cousin at the Jordan River. He is a central figure in the Advent season. But he’ll be back again next week, still at the Jordan River, so we’ll reflect then on the man that he grew up to be. For today, I wonder if it isn’t enough to linger a bit as we look at these baby pictures and see his father singing over his cradle, decades before he would grow up to become that wild-haired man eating locusts and dressed in funny clothes.

It seems to me that it would completely and utterly miss the point if we heard this story today and sang this song only in the past tense—as if God did this amazing thing through the birth of John the Baptist and then the birth of Jesus, but then that was it: God retired soon afterwards to some nice condo in Florida. If we truly dare to make Zechariah’s Song our own, then it is incumbent upon us to discover that our faith, too, has a past, present, and future tense.  Whether or not we are members of the music ministry here, we have a song to sing to the children of this parish, whether they are biologically ours or not. We are called to pass these old stories and songs along to our children and grandchildren by singing the paschal mystery: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. For our faith, too, has a past, present, and future tense.  May that song inspire all of us to sing at the top of our lungs and to share the work that John the Baptist did by preparing the way, and making paths straight, and by allowing our lives to point beyond ourselves to the One who has come, who is here, and who is still to come.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Advent-ure of Faith

As the liturgical year begins again, on this First Sunday of Advent, I am at St. Matthew's, Worcester. Today's Gospel Reading is from Luke 21:25-36.
In the twenty-first chapter of Luke’s Gospel we enter into a world of confusion and distress and fear and foreboding. Sadly, it is a world we know all too well. Some of this may even feel as if it’s ripped from the headlines when we consider out-of-control fires in California and earthquakes in Alaska and tear gas on our southern border.

Like many of you, I live in the city of Worcester. As a member of Bishop Fisher’s staff, however, some Sundays my travels across this diocese may take me as far as the Berkshires, to Pittsfield or Sheffield or Williamstown on a Sunday morning. Other days I’m headed north to Fitchburg or south to Milford. In my encounters there, as well as my experience as the former rector at St. Francis in Holden, I sometimes hear people saying, “I don’t come to church for politics.”

And I get that. But I think what folks usually mean, upon reflection, is that they don’t want the preacher to be as partisan as the politicians. They don’t want the preacher to tell them how to vote. And I promise you that I am not going to do that. But we cannot escape the polis – literally the city. Politics is about our common life and our faith is meant to help us to navigate that together. Jesus may not have been a Democrat or a Republican but he wasn’t apolitical either.

Sometimes it feels as if the polis, and our world, are coming apart at the seams. In the Bible, this kind of literature that we heard from the 21st chapter of Luke is called “apocalyptic.” It’s about endings, to be sure. But it’s also about how we act in such times and also about our hope in new beginnings.

As I said, the 21st chapter of Luke is a world of confusion and distress and fear and foreboding and sometimes we can get sucked into all of that fear. It can dominate our days and more significantly our nights, and our nightmares. We may worry about the planet and climate change or wars, or rumors of wars. Closer to home, gun violence in our streets and even in our schools tears us apart and we may pray with Isaiah for swords to be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We may worry on a smaller scale about transitions in our own lives: taking the bus to school for the first time or heading off to college, or walking down the aisle, or selling the family home to move into assisted living. Or saying goodbye to a beloved pastor. Confusion and distress and foreboding can eat away at us from the inside out. There is a part of us all that just feels like just closing our eyes to all of that, especially in December. It’s just too much to deal with on top of everything else.

In Luke’s story, we are in the city of Jerusalem, only a few verses away from the Last Supper and the final night of his earthly life. Jesus is continuing to prepare his disciples for the days when he will not be with them in the flesh, not just the immediate future but ultimately for the end of days. Along the way, there will be much struggle and days when being his disciple will be hard, Jesus says. Because life is hard. And some days you’ll feel like giving up or giving in. But in those moments, he says, be strong; take courage; be on guard and alert and stand up and raise your heads. And pray

That’s what I want to say to you today, St. Matthew’s. I’ll say it a couple of more times in the hope that it will sink in and a couple of different ways. But this is the good news I want to share today: in the midst of fear and of endings: Be strong. Take courage. Be on guard. Keep alert. Stand up and raise your heads. And pray.

Today marks the first Sunday of a new liturgical year, a new beginning as we gather here to begin our preparations for the birth of Christ: one wreath, four candles. Today’s gospel reading may feel out of place. It may seem as if Luke didn’t get the memo that we are here to get ready for a birth!

But here is the thing: this holy season of Advent invites us to live our lives between the first advent of Christ—when Jesus was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger because there was no room for him and his family in the inn—and the second advent of the risen Christ who is “king of kings” and “lord of lords, the One who shall reign forever and ever.” This season means to convey this double-meaning so that it’s not primarily about looking back to first-century Palestine. Nor is it our job to try to figure out a future that belongs to God, a future that even Jesus says is known “only by the Father.” It’s about living with faith, in fearful times by knowing that Jesus is Lord. That, my friends, is a political statement.

Since we cannot change what happened yesterday and since we cannot control what will happen tomorrow, Advent calls upon us to live and to fully participate in what Paul Tillich once called “the Eternal Now.” We are called to live today in the midst of a world that sometimes feels like it coming unglued as faithful people who put their whole trust in God. Advent hope is characterized by alert and awake living that calls on us to do the work we have been given to do: in our homes and in our church and in the wider world we share with people from every tribe and language and nation.

Reinhold Niebuhr (whom some of you may know by way of the Serenity Prayer) also wrote these words:

The experience of Jesus upon the cross is not one of a dreamy pantheist who imagines God in easy and magical control of every process in the universe. It was the experience of a spiritual adventurer who saw life as a struggle between love and chaos, but who also discovered the love at the center of things which guarantees the victory in every apparent defeat.

You and I are called to share an adventure. (Notice that word begins with advent: advent-ure.) We are invited to discover the love that is at the center of all things, even in the midst of life’s struggles. Niebuhr calls our attention to the cross. That may seem odd in this season of preparing for Jesus birth. But in fact it’s not odd at all, because what we are in fact preparing for is a singular life of the One around whom you and I have been called to re-orient our whole lives. We are called to be Jesus’ disciples by bearing witness not only to his birth, but to his life and death and to his resurrection, even as we await his second advent. You cannot look back upon his birth (or his public ministry) without looking through the lens of what happened on a cross outside of Jerusalem and then three days later at the empty tomb.

Niebuhr claims Jesus of Nazareth as “spiritual adventurer.” What would it would be like for us, as his followers, to take that on more in our own lives? Not to be conformed into some mold of what we think a good follower of Jesus is supposed to look like. Not to be fixated on right belief. But rather, to allow our beliefs and our practices to unleash the Holy Spirit within us, so that passion and energy form us as “spiritual adventurers.” What would it look like for this parish to become more and more a community of spiritual adventurers who see life as a struggle between love and chaos, and yet are, together, discovering and rediscovering the love that is at the center of all things?

Advent is a wake-up call. It’s about opening our eyes even wider to all of it the world’s pain and keeping alert to struggle and injustice. It invites us to be spiritual adventurers who really do know (not just because some preacher said it, but because we have discovered for ourselves) that love is stronger than fear. Advent hope is about living more faithfully into this vocation we have been given in Holy Baptism by letting the world see and know that we are Christians by our love.

Consider the fig tree, says Jesus. Now it’s November in New England and not springtime in Israel so we may need a second to get our bearings here. We now find ourselves once again getting ready for winter and if we consider the maple trees and the oaks and apple trees that are all around us we see them going to sleep and getting ready for the chill winds that are already upon us. Sometimes we think that the end of the world is like that, or the end of our own lives. Or the end of a ministry: that spring gives way to summer and summer turns to autumn and then finally comes the cold of winter.

But that is not what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel reading. He turns the whole thing inside out and upside down. As he speaks of endings he invites us to go even deeper into the meaning of life and consider the fig tree as it is in springtime. He invites us to go deeper into the heart of all things that is love and new beginnings and Easter morning. So yes, there are signs of endings all around us to be sure. But can it be that from these endings God is making all things new?

The faith of the Church is a resounding “yes” to that question. By asking us to consider the fig tree in springtime even as we consider the end of the world in December, Jesus invites us even as we read the daily news in our own day to see cherry blossoms and apple blossoms and fig blossoms. Not as an act of denial, but as a leap of faith in becoming spiritual adventurers.

Jesus insists that even when the world feels like it is falling into chaos there is, deeper still, at the center of all things, love and life and hope and joy. That is not an act of denial: it is a deep truth that has learned that only when things die and come to an end can new life emerge. We know this, of course. It is what the journey from Good Friday to Easter morning is all about. It is what the mystery of faith is all about: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

So, St. Matthews: be strong; take courage; be on guard and alert and stand up and raise your heads. And pray. Come, O come, Emmanuel.  

Monday, November 26, 2018

Wisdom for Our Time

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I was asked to teach a course for retired folks in a program called Elderhostel. I was an under-thirty United Methodist Pastor serving an ecumenical campus ministry at Central Connecticut State University at the time. It seemed like fun. And it was. I just Googled Elderhostel and it has apparently become something called Road Scholar

In any event, after becoming an Episcopal priest and then being called as rector of St. Francis in Holden, I was asked by a parishioner named Alice Carr to teach in a program called W.I.S.E. (Worcester Institute for Senior Education). Alice was on the curriculum committee at the time. What I liked about the teaching - both in Elderhostel and WISE - was that the groups tended to be interfaith. In fact, over the past twenty years I've taught for WISE, my classes (usually I limit them to 22 students) are almost always about half Jews and half Christians. I find this to be a great gift. Also, most senior citizens are not shy. Not like undergrads. They have life experience and enough time to do the "homework." They are engaged. The courses at WISE are five weeks. I have taught one or two classes a year since 1998, almost always on Monday mornings. I just completed a course on the Wisdom Tradition this morning: we covered Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes over five weeks. 

For today, I asked the class members to write up their own "wisdom." Unlike the Torah and Prophets and New Testament documents, Wisdom literature is about life experience. "Consider the ant, you lazy bones," says the writer of Proverbs. It's about what parents and grandparents want to pass on to their children. Sometimes it's more the "school of hard knocks" than it is "thus saith the Lord." It's not dogmatic. Koheleth in my mind is a guy sitting at a bar sipping on a single malt whisky and telling anyone who will listen what he's observed. "There is a time and a season for everything under the sun," he says. " A time to be born. A time to die..." 

Alright, here is the point of this post: after listening to Proverbs and Job and Ecclesiastes, I asked my Jewish and Christian students to think about what they might want their grandchildren to know as they navigate their way in the world. Or alternatively, what they hope someone might notice and say about their life at their funeral. I asked them to consider sharing what they had written with the class and many did. I also agreed to "model" for them the same thing. What I had to share is found below. It is what I pray I have taught my children, and my parishioners along the way, and those who have  been my companions and friends. 

Keep first things first. There is an old camp illustration with a big rock, smaller rocks, sand, and a jar. If you put the sand in first you won’t get all the small rocks and never get the large one in. But if you do it in the reverse, it can all fit. The large rock represents God. That’s a loaded word, I know. God and religion often push people to be “spiritual not religious.” But the root of religion is “to bind together.” Whatever your faith (or the lack thereof) always remember that you have a soul. Remember that you didn’t self-create yourself. So make time for “God” – or at least for the spiritual life if that’s a bridge too far. And put that first. And put family and friends at a close second. I’ve anointed many people at the time of death. No one ever wished they’d gone to another meeting. All the regrets people seem to have are about broken or lapsed relationships. So tend to those. The sand is work and play. It's the stuff of our days. It matters. It’s big. It takes up a lot of space. But it’s not first. Keep first things first.

Life is beautiful. It is not always fair, and it is often very difficult. But there is beauty to be seen and enjoyed in almost every day. Even in the cancer ward. Even in refugee camps. When life is difficult, consider. But every day find some way to enjoy life as sheer gift.

The world doesn’t owe you anything. This can lead to a kind of boot-straps mentality but I don’t mean it that way. I don’t believe in self-made women or men. At least I’ve not yet met one. People do sometimes overcome great adversity, but in every experience I have had with such people, they can tell you about someone who was a lifeline: a teacher, a pastor, a friend even when parents and family could not be there. So for me the lesson here is to be grateful. Say thank you at least once every day. And be there for others; and when they thank you, don't say "it's nothing." Say "you are very welcome." This is how, I think, we build community. Or at least relationships that make community possible. 

Compassion and kindness are a way of life; commit yourself to them. They cost nothing but it’s still so tempting to judge those we perceive as weaker than ourselves.  I’ve discovered that even the person who seems to have the most charmed life, however, is carrying some burden, and often a heavy one. We do not know the scars that others have unless they show them to us. But everyone is scarred. So be kind. Be patient. (I’m still working on the last one.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

When asked to describe the nature of true worship, Martin Luther responded succinctly: “the tenth leper turning back.” If you don't get the reference (or even if you do but need your memory refreshed) check out this teaching of Jesus from Luke's Gospel. 

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. But in the seventeenth chapter, 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.  

There are three possibilities for such a detour. One is that Jesus has gotten lost. 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 crossing a boundary where ethnic and religious tensions are palpable. In the Way of Love, Jesus is modeling what it means to Go!

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. 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! Yet 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. 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 because he has a grateful heart..

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 is promised 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. 
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. There are miracles 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, of course. And all of them can be forms of prayer in their own right. 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. 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. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sermon at the Retirement of the Rev. Nancy Baillie Strong

This afternoon it was my honor to preach at an Evensong at St. Matthew's Parish in Worcester to celebrate the ministry of their rector, the Rev. Nancy Baillie Strong, who will retire at the end of this month. 

On Thursday, September 13, at precisely 5:26 pm, I received an email from Mother Nancy Strong. In that email she asked if I would preach tonight. She said that the propers (i.e. the lessons) would be focused on Hilda of Whitby. “They seem appropriate,” she wrote. And then she added, “Apparently there is a reception following at Holy Cross, but what do I know?”

Now I suspect there is not a person in this room tonight that does not know Nancy well enough to know how much that question just kills a control-freak like her. (And I’ll just add, it takes one to know one.)  

But it gets better. She signed that email “your elder sister.”
Now, I am the oldest of four children in my family of origin: boy, boy, girl, girl. I never had an older sister. I’ve known Nancy for almost two decades now, however, and our relationship has evolved over time. We began as colleagues when I was the rector in Holden and she came here, to St. Matthew’s, and we discovered we shared Pennsylvania roots. Soon we were in a weekly lectionary group together.  At some point, we moved from colleagues to friends. Perhaps it was around the time I convinced her to take over for me as chair of the Commission on Ministry, but it may have been earlier than that.

But over the course of the past five years (especially after I became Canon to the Ordinary) it has dawned on me that she has a tendency to treat me like her younger brother. Just so no one misses the point here: she likes to tell me what to do. Make no mistake here: her “churchmanship” (as we used to call it) is such that she totally respects my position and in fact most often when there are other people in the room she insists on referring to me as Canon Simpson

To be honest, I kind of like having her as older sister. Most days.

Now you may think I’m exaggerating here a bit and I admit I can be prone to hyperbole. But I want to take you back for one more minute to September 13. As mentioned, she emailed me at precisely 5:26 pm asking me to preach tonight. Five minutes later, at 5:31, I wrote back and I told her it would be a great honor to do so, and thanks for asking. Just less than one hour later – at 6:30 pm, this is the response I got from her:

I am delighted that you can preach! I didn’t tell you why we settled on Hilda. When we (Meredyth and I) looked at the office propers – the Epistle was great and everything else stunk. So we’re using the Eucharistic propers for Hilda at Evening Prayer. Hopefully the liturgical police won’t report. And Hilda’s story has some things to say about building community, appreciating gifts, and reconciling opposing points of view and/or knowing when to step away from the edge; step back to allow for something different to happen. Okay, I will stop preaching my sermon…”

Isn’t that awesome? Isn’t that so Nancy?

Now I like to tease my control freak older sister but the truth is that I’m very grateful to have had her as a companion in this journey. She is wicked smart, but more importantly, she is very wise. I trust you all know the difference. In the life of Hilda, we do indeed see someone who was “about building community, and appreciating gifts and reconciling opposing points of view and knowing when to step back to allow for something different to happen.” And of course we also see these values and commitments mirrored in Nancy’s life and ministry as well.

My friends: we are called to be faithful. We are called to be truthful. We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation, and to live with authenticity and integrity. We are called to love God and to love our neighbor, not in some theoretical neighborhood, but in the real, complicated, messy neighborhoods where we have been called to serve. Priests are called to love their people; again not some quaint theoretical parishioners but the generous, kind, wounded birds God gives us to be companions along the way. And when clergy are truly blessed, they get loved back.

The second-largest city in New England is stronger because Nancy has spent these years among this faithful people in this part of Worcester; not just the members of this congregation inside of the walls of St. Matthew’s who have gathered here week after week to hear her preach and to break the bread, but also the people of this parish in the older meaning of that word, the people who live and work in this part of the city, whether or not they identify as Episcopalians or even as Christians. Thanks be to God.

And now she steps back – wanting to do that well, but more importantly wanting to do it faithfully. Because it is indeed time, time for something different to happen in her own life and time for the next chapter in the life of this community. Well done, good and faithful servant.

Let me add this about Hilda. Nancy mentioned in her instructions to me that Hilda was committed to “reconciling opposing points of view.” Let’s unpack that a little. Hilda lived at a time when the Church was trying to sort through Roman and Celtic ways and Hilda was clear; she liked the Celtic ways. But the Roman ways won out. So here is the last little bit of her bio in Holy Women, Holy Men, or whatever we are calling it these days:  

Hilda herself greatly preferred the Celtic customs in which she had been reared but once the decision had been made she used her moderating influence in favor of its peaceful acceptance. Her influence was considerable; kings and commoners alike came to her for advice. She was urgent in promoting the study of the Scriptures and the thorough education of the clergy.

These words, too, speak of Nancy’s fidelity over the span of her ordained life and in particular these past two decades in this diocese. Nancy has not only been a faithful pastor here, but she has also taken her share in the Councils of the Church. She’s served on Diocesan Council but her biggest contribution has been to Chair the Commission on Ministry. Her influence has been considerable. Bishops and priests and canons and laypeople alike have all come to her for advice! And I know of no one who has been more urgent in promoting the study of Scripture and insisting on the thorough education of the clergy than Nancy Strong. At times she has said to me that she knew she was getting “long in tooth,” as she has put it. She is “old school” in many ways. But she has not wanted to lose the focus on priestly formation, even as we do new things in the Church. So she has been “a trusted and reconciling friend to leaders of the Church.” And I honor and cherish that Hilda-esque quality in her. It’s up to others of us now, including her younger brothers and sisters, to take up that mantle.

Now let me turn to the Epistle reading. To refresh your memories, it’s short enough to hear again.
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

The scholars debate whether this was really Paul or a disciple of Paul’s but let’s leave that to them. This passage is very clearly Pauline, whether or not he wrote it.  So “Paul” is in prison and he is writing to people he cares for very deeply and he is reminding them, and us, about what it means to be the Church: what it means to be the Body of Christ. Whoever wrote it was having a very good day, and there is clarity here of the kind that Paul himself did get every now and again. Like in First Corinthians 13, where faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love. Or when he speaks of being living members of Christ’s Body reminding us we all have a role to play but the ear and the eye have different jobs and our work is to do our job!

In this text we are reminded to live lives worthy of our calling. What does that look like? It looks like humility. And gentleness. Patience. Bearing with one another in love. Striving for unity and peace. Knowing there is one body, and one spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. I submit to you that Nancy has faithfully born witness to this vision, with God’s help. And we need to see what all these traits look like embodied to know why they matter and how they can change the world. 

But perhaps even more importantly she’s called these qualities out in us.

This epistle reading is not about the clergy – it’s about our shared Baptism. Surely the clergy have a role to play among the Baptized, but that role is meaningless without the whole people of God. Priests remind us all who we are and whose we are. Nancy has done that and we have been the beneficiaries.

It’s become fashionable to ask what God is up to in the neighborhood. To pay attention to what God is doing in the world around us. We do this at places like Walking Together and it wakes us up when we remember that God is not confined by the walls of the Church. That is very true, and right, and it is good to ask that question and to seek and serve Christ in the neighborhood and among our neighbors.

But Nancy was doing this before it was cool. She, long-in-the-tooth was doing it when it was just called plain old ministry. Because here is the thing: clergy were never called to just sit in their offices and ponder deep thoughts and wait for parishioners to drop in. We have always been called to roll up our sleeves and join God in the neighborhood because we trust the Incarnation, because we know that Jesus was born in a barn and crucified outside the city gates. And we trust that the Spirit is at work in the world around us, not just in the Church.

So, of course this is absolutely right and as I’ve said several times, Nancy has gotten this. But it’s only half of the truth and I worry a bit, sometimes, because – well, maybe because I am also getting a little long in the tooth myself. So let me just say this, and then I’ll be almost finished:  it is also true that God hasn’t left the Church. It’s also true that our neighbors need for us to be witnesses to the love of God in Jesus. They need for us to be the Church. Of course the Church has messed up an awful lot along the way and sometimes we’ve literally pushed people away, for all kinds of ridiculous reasons. And it’s quite possible that our list of shortcomings is longer than our list of successes, which may be why so many these days consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious.”

But this is precisely why it is also our work not only to join God in the neighborhood, but to let the neighborhood know (particularly by our actions and sometimes even with our words) that God is, from time to time still alive and at work in the Church, too. It is our work to let the world know that God isn’t finished yet with the Church. That God is still carrying out God’s work through this wonderful and sacred mystery, still carrying out the plan of salvation. So that when we preach the Word and when we break the bread and bless the cup at a midweek Eucharist or on a Saturday night or on a Sunday morning, God is here. And God’s people are here. It is our shared vocation to help the world to see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up and things which had grown old are being made new.

With God’s help, we are still trying to be faithful witnesses and to act like that by being humble and gentle and patient and bearing with one another in love. Nancy Strong has embodied that as a priest, as a spouse, as a mother, as a friend, as a colleague. As a big sister. And in so doing she has reminded us what a mature person of faith looks like. The Church may be the last place left in our society that is not a bubble of like-minded people. This parish is a place to find unity and peace not because all agree, but because we all agree to live the Baptismal Covenant. Always with God’s help. But we need people like Hilda, and people like Nancy, to be faithful servants in their generation and to remind us of this high calling.

Nancy and Dan are on their way to New Hampshire and we wish them nothing but the best. She has left a mark on all of us and I know that we have marked and changed her for good as well. And so the only thing left to say to her is this: thank you. Well done, good and faithful servant.

As Nancy and Dan begin this new chapter, may this parish that Nancy has so faithfully served remember that the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord and the work continues: to always keep pointing to this crucified and risen Lord, alpha and omega, the one who is making all things new. May we take up our cross and follow him on the way of love.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


The post below is an updated and slightly edited version of a post from seven years ago.   
O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.(The Book of Common Prayer, page 839)
One hundred years ago today, at 11 o'clock in the morning, World War I ended. Check out this link to hear what that sounded like. 

Wikipedia says that there was a "cessation of hostilities." That gets it about right. There was no lasting peace and there certainly was not justice. People were just sick and tired of war. That is certainly understandable. Yet historians argue that the end of World War I (ironically fought as the "war to end all wars") almost immediately marked the beginning of World War II. 

In my experience, soldiers never glamorize war. The ones who do that are the politicians who remain a safe distance from the front lines. By all accounts, those front lines in "The Great War" were pretty awful. Armistice Day would eventually become Veterans Day because, well. it turned out not to be the war to end all wars after all. You don't end war by making war or even with a cessation of hostilities. You end war, as the prophet said, by beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. You end war by doing justice and loving mercy and by committing to the way of peace.

Our yearning for peace is not at odds with honoring the men and women who have served in uniform.  It is a lie to suggest otherwise. In fact, it seems to me that the greatest honor we can pay those who have "ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy" is to work for peace and justice by helping to create a world where our children and grandchildren "study war no more." That requires pragmatists and realists, not only idealists. It requires hope, not just wishful thinking. It requires peacemakers, not people who cry peace where there is no peace.

At 11:00 a.m today I will pause to remember those who have served this country and who are currently serving this country in uniform.  And to give thanks for the sacrifices they have made and are making. If, in the course of the day, I have a chance to thank a Veteran personally, I will do that. I will also give thanks for their families, who also know the costs of war and of their service. 

But I will also say a prayer for peace. Not just cessation of hostilities but for the shalom of God that passes all understanding. And for a peace dividend that allows us to convert the instruments of war into instruments of peace, which is a fancy Biblical way of saying less money from our national budget priorities spent at the Pentagon and more on roads, schools, and healthcare.

Saturday, November 10, 2018


This is the final post in a series on The Way of Love.

When I began to think about writing this series, which now comes to an end, I was going to begin with Rest, even though it is the last one. The reason for that way in is that I happen to believe right now it may be the single most important one on the list, the one through which all the others are possible. In the Episcopal Church, at least, we have a pretty good sense of what it means to be a people who turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, and go. We have liturgical supports in place to do these things. But we are not very good at keeping the Sabbath holy - or even of valuing that as a goal. 

We live in a frenetic 24/7 society. We live with information overload and work, work, work. So I searched my own blog to see what I had written on Sabbath and found this post from over eight years ago.  It reminded me I don't need more information to keep the Sabbath holy. I understand why it matters! I understand why I crave it and take "tired" as a normal state of being. What I need is practice. And maybe some encouragement. And I bet that's true for most of my readers as well. 

Since that post I have read and re-read Walter Brueggemann's Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. I commend it to you. In fact I wonder if this book might be a helpful book study for congregations or a clergy group. Anyone interested? 

Here are three quotes to whet your appetite: 
  • The Sabbath rest of God is the acknowledgement that God and God's people in the world are not commodities to be dispatched for endless production and so dispatched, as we used to say, as "hands" in the service of a command economy. Rather they are subjects situated in an economy of neighborliness. All of that is implicit in the reality and exhibit of divine rest.  
  • That divine rest of the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, (b) that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.  
  • Multitasking is the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and our effectiveness. Such practice yields a divided self, with full attention given to nothing.  
In his classic way, Brueggemann reminds us that Sabbath rest is more than chicken soup for the soul. It's more than a good thing for our bodies. It's a daring socio-political act of resistance to say "enough is enough." It's there to remind us we are persons, not things. 

For our Jewish cousins, the Sabbath is from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. We have so much to learn from them. Except in Israel (where most of the economy shuts down) most Jews have to find ways to keep Shabbat as a counter-cultural act. American culture doesn't stop on Saturdays just because Jewish people are taking a rest.

For the most part, Christians at best have truncated the Sabbath to Sunday mornings for an hour. And because there is no other time of real rest built in, many families would rather sleep in and eat pancakes if they have the chance than bustle everyone out of the house. I totally get that. For clergy it's further complicated by the fact that Sunday is a work day. Whether it's a good move or not I find that many vestries across my diocese meet on Sundays after worship (rather than a weeknight) because their members either don't have another weeknight to give up or don't like driving in the dark. In any case it means that Sunday, even in the Church, is often more than worship and not a day of rest. So we need to be intentional, and creative. 

My work week is Monday - Thursday, usually with one or two evening meetings in there. I try for not more than two nights out with congregations, and when I get to three in a week I feel every minute of my age. Most Sundays I'm in a pulpit somewhere and meeting with the vestry afterwards. Usually one or two (and occasionally three) Saturdays per month I have some diocesan work. All told, while I do have some flexibility, on average I work between 45-55 hours per week, not including the time it takes to keep up with this blog!  

I am not complaining. Nor am I bragging. So far as I can tell, since I know mostly very busy people, this seems pretty normal to me.  I'm certainly blessed to have work that I feel has a purpose and I cannot even imagine working that many hours for just a paycheck, as I know many people do. 

In any case, Friday is my day of rest. And I'm mostly pretty faithful to that, although there is always room for improvement. I've learned that no matter how busy a week may be, if I hold that and have it to look forward to, I can do it. It's a day to recharge my battery. Since Hathy and I are empty-nesters (and since she works on Fridays) it is almost exclusively "me" time. 

Yet I find even within church culture it is an act of resistance to protect that or claim that. We live in a culture that never stops. Literally. Never. Stops. Every parish priest I know has to figure out how to deal with the non-emergency phone call that begins, "I know it's your day off, but..."

I have joked over the years that my least favorite hymn in The Hymnal 1982 is "Come Labor On." It's a perfectly acceptable hymn about our calling to do God's work and I get that. But it's the question "who dares stand idly by?" that makes me bristle every time. It's a Protestant work-ethic song. Yet the deeper roots of our tradition insist that even God "stands idly by" on the Sabbath and makes it holy.  

What changes in us when we take at least one twenty-four hour period a week to stand idly by and let the world keep rotating on it's axis without us needing to do anything, but just to be? We should never apologize for doing that. It is a way to sanctify both that day, and the work that will be there when we get back to it. 

So, this is the longest post in this series and if you count the fact that I found that old Sabbath post at the beginning it's even longer. The reason for this is that I have come to believe that this witness is a key component to the way of love. It's definitely the one I need to be focusing on. Now if I can only act in accordance with what I believe and practice what I preach!