Sunday, July 29, 2018

Letting Go, and Letting God

Today, my itinerant diocesan ministry takes me to Trinity, Milford. The readings appointed for this tenth Sunday after Pentecost can be found here.

The lectionary has taken a sharp turn away from Mark’s Gospel this morning. A little Bible trivia for you, at no extra charge, before we get into today’s gospel reading. The lectionary is a three-year cycle that outlines our readings for each Sunday of the year. Each of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) get their own year. But the fourth gospel gets fitted in where space allows. Since Mark is the shortest of the three gospels, we get some room in the summer of Year B, which is where we are now.

None of this is information required for admittance into heaven or at confirmation. But if it’s ever asked of you on Final Jeopardy and you win big you can send me a percentage of your winnings. Some people find this stuff interesting. Others just show up on Sunday without reflecting much on what was read the week before or what is coming next week and hope the preacher is interesting. But the bottom line is that in a liturgical church like ours, the preacher doesn’t just decide what texts to preach on on Saturday night. We have opportunities to reflect together, including with colleagues, about what will be served up to our congregations today across this country. And not only in the Episcopal Church but in numerous other denominations as well. This could, if we took it seriously, help make us all more biblically literate than we are.

So…we’ve been reading from Mark for a while now, since Trinity Sunday. But today we make a little five-week detour into the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. Five weeks focused on just one chapter! It’s incredibly important stuff and one of the most carefully crafted chapters in the whole Bible. It’s an outline – or maybe more accurately it’s a crystallization - of John’s Eucharistic theology. The whole chapter is held together by this claim: Jesus is the Bread of Life. Tell Mac when he returns that I suggested you sing that hymn every week from now through Labor Day!

The sixth chapter of John gives us a chance to reflect on what we do here every week when we gather to break the bread and share the cup. And what we do here is to remember that Jesus is the Bread of Life. This journey begins with the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand – our bishop’s very favorite story in the whole Bible. Trust me.

Next week Jesus will be talking about the manna in the wilderness, connecting the Eucharist with the bread of heaven. And then Jesus will say that his flesh is food indeed, that it is the super-manna that will let them live forever. And then that those who eat his flesh abide in him and he in them and that yes, this is a difficult complicated and dense teaching that is fraught with misunderstanding and leads to all kinds of theological arguments. That has proved to be correct and to this day the sermons preached in Presbyterian and Roman Catholic and Episcopal congregations over the next month will be preached from different angles. I’m fine with that, because I think this sixth chapter of John is meant to generate multiple readings.

When you are reading John’s Gospel (not just the sixth chapter but all of John) it’s helpful to recognize that John is not literal. All kinds of confusion arises when people take Jesus literally in John, including when he says that one must be “born anew.” It’s even more than metaphor in John; it’s mystical, sacramental language that invites us to reflect on this notion that we are what we eat, that we are called to become the Body of Christ, broken and shared for the life of the world. As St. Augustine once put it at the fraction when bread and cup are held up before the assembly: behold what you are; may we become what we receive.

So that’s a preview of John 6. But I’m just here for this one portion of this sixth chapter of John today, this story of the feeding of the five thousand. It’s found in all four gospels, which suggests that this miracle occupied a central place in the imagination of first-century Church. (Even the birth of Jesus is told only in half of the gospels – Matthew and Luke!) The gist of it remains the same across all four gospels; it's about God's abundance. It's about how there was enough, and actually more than enough. It's about how everyone was satisfied and still, there were leftovers.

But there are some interesting little differences along the way, as well. And it's in those little details that each gospel writer makes his own theological point-of-view clearer. It's like when someone is telling a story and her spouse or sister or friend interrupts to say, "no, that's not exactly what went down. You are forgetting this bit..." 

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, for example, the disciples distribute the bread to the crowd. It is as if Jesus is training them for ministry, teaching them how to be servant-leaders. That’s a powerful message. You give them something to eat!

But in John’s Gospel, the one that is before us today, Jesus himself gives the bread because for John, yes, you guessed it: Jesus is the Bread of Life. Jesus gives us his very life, so that we might live. He gives himself to the crowd and week after week he gives himself to us, so that we might behold who we are and become what we receive.

John also gives us a liturgical context: it’s Passover, the same liturgical context that the other gospel writers give to the last supper. It’s like code-language. John is saying “pay attention, this is really important, this is Eucharistic language.” And then he speaks about how the “fragments are gathered up” after everyone eats their fill. In one of the earliest Eucharistic prayers of the Church (even before the gospels became written documents) the community gathered and prayed this prayer in the Didache:
As this fragmented bread was scattered upon the mountains, but has been gathered up to become one, so let the Church be gathered up to become your kingdom. 
And then, there is this lad..Personally, this is my very favorite little detail from all four tellings of the story..John is the only one who remembers a boy there who was willing to share his lunch. And that adds a lot to the story for me. Because I think that we, the Church, are a lot like that boy. As we heard in today's Epistle reading, God is able to accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine. But for that to happen, we have to be willing up to open up our lives, our wallets, our lunchboxes. We have to share what we have. And too often what holds us back is fear: fear that there is not enough or worse still, that we are not enough.

The boy shares what he has and that is what you and I are called to do as well. Think of it this way: we have enough bread, today, on this planet, to feed the world. There is enough bread. The problem we have is not that there is not enough. The problem we have is a distribution problem. The problem we have is a sharing problem. Some have more than their daily bread while others go hungry. So I think that this would be an amazing miracle story if "all" it did was to encourage us to leave this place today to become better sharers. If Christians around the world today, hearing this story, would become doers of this word.

But let me also invite you to notice Andrew, the brother of Peter. Because he's the one who spots the kid and asks him to help out. Let me tell you - I say this as someone who gets around - you don't recruit people to ministries by putting up desperate notices on a bulletin board or in the Sunday announcements. You don't equip ministers for ministry that way.

We are not a volunteer organization. We are the Body of Christ. We are living members of Christ's risen body. We need to learn and re-learn how to become better at discerning gifts, in ourselves and in others, and then calling those gifts forth - as Andrew models for us today. We need to walk up to people and call them by name and say, "can you help out by teaching Sunday School, or singing in the choir, or serving with us to build a home with Habitat for Humanity or by helping out with the meal we are serving to those who are hungry?" And we do this best when we get clear on who needs the crayons and who needs the tenor part and who needs a hammer and who needs a frying pan to do the work God has given them to do. 

But when we do share what we have and bless it, then not matter how small or insignificant it may seem to us, God uses it. When we let go and let God, God consistently does God's multiplying thing with it. For real. No matter how stuck we get on focusing on limited resources, God is in the business of multiplying loaves and fishes and turning water into wine and showing up at pot-luck suppers where were always seem to be leftovers. God really is good, all the time. 

It’s possible that John is remembering the old story from II Kings about Elisha and the man who came from Baal-shalishah with twenty loaves of barley bread that we heard about in our first reading today. In that earlier story, Elisha tells the man to give it the crowd to eat, but the man objects: “how can I set this before a hundred men?” Elisha insists that it will be enough and in fact that it will be more than enough, that there will be leftovers. (See II Kings 4:42-44)  

So this bread thing isn’t just a New Testament thing: God has been in the bread business for very a long time, in the abundance business, in the sharing business. In both that Old Testament Elisha story and in John’s inclusion of this boy with the loaves and fishes to offer, the point is that when we offer what we have, God more than makes up the difference.

Too many of us have been taught that what we have to offer isn’t good enough. We may worry about our ability to be a good-enough parent or to be a good-enough friend or to be a good-enough student or musician or artist. We are sometimes almost embarrassed that we seem to have so little to offer. What, this? It’s nothing, really…

I think this vignette about this boy is akin to Jesus’ reminder not to let our light be hidden under a bushel basket, but to let it shine. When we take the risk of sharing what we do have (rather than insisting it is nothing and surely not enough) then God blesses the gift and stretches it in ways that go far beyond what we can imagine. An act of kindness to a stranger, an ice-cream cone for a sad Little Leaguer, a casserole dropped off at a friend’s house whose husband of forty-seven years just died—these are not no-things. They may be little things, but they are something. And those little things change the world.

We are sometimes tempted to say, “what is this in the midst of the enormity of pain and hurt in the world? A few barley loaves and a couple of fish in a starving world? It’s nothing!” But the miracle pushes us back to insist: “just offer it. Just share it and let God bless it and see what happens.” You may just be surprised by how far it goes, and by how far God can stretch it. This story and our Eucharistic life are sacramental reminders – outward and visible signs—that ministry is about doing “mini” things that have the potential, with God’s help, to bring about maximal effects.   
Now, to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Hearing is Believing

Today I am at St. Stephen's Parish in Westborough, covering for the rector's sabbatical. The joke about the readings for the day is a bit of an inside joke with the rector and our bishop - neither of whom are in the room and intended to get a laugh. The readings for the Feast of Mary Magdalene, and can be found here.
I ask your prayers for all who seek God or a deeper knowledge of God. Pray that they may find and be found by God. 
Father Jesse has invited us all to take a little excursion today from our regularly scheduled program. Today would normally be the Feast of Mary Magdalene, but the normal procedure is that when feast days fall on a Sunday, the Sunday readings win out, and the feast is transferred. In this case, to tomorrow. That’s all insider baseball, but here’s the thing: it was unlikely that anyone was going to come back here tomorrow to remember a Eucharist dedicated to Mary Magdalene, so Jesse suggested that she be remembered today. Which is totally fine with me. (Just don’t tell the bishop!)

As for Mary, she is clearly prominent on Easter morning which is where our gospel reading for today takes us. As for the press she gets about being a former prostitute, you can blame Pope Gregory the Great, who was perhaps a great liturgist and maybe even a great pope, but most definitely not a very great Biblical scholar. He conflated a whole bunch of different stories and started saying that Mary Magdalene was an ex-hooker. But let me repeat: that’s not in the Bible. There is no Biblical evidence for calling Mary Magdalene a prostitute, or even suggesting that she was somehow a worse sinner than any of the other disciples. Some would say, however, that there was a bit of a power struggle between the time of that first Easter morning and when the gospels were written down and some of the male disciples may have wanted to discredit Mary because they were jealous of her. Which is pretty sad, but if you’ve been around the Church a while then you know that we are not immune from petty grievances and sexism and making stuff up about people. For far too long the Church has remained too much of an old boys club. 

All this doesn’t make Dan Brown right; it just means there are some serious gaps in Mary’s story and the fact that she’s so prominent on Easter morning means that she was most likely prominent along the way. She was almost certainly among the closest circle of disciples, even if she doesn't get counted among the twelve. 

I was a parish priest for over two decades and one of my favorite parts of the work when I was doing that was to prepare high school students for Confirmation. I found myself praying some version of the prayer with which I began a moment ago for each and every kid I prepared over those twenty years – a petition that comes from Form II of the Prayers of the People, and can be found on page 386 in the Prayerbook. My hope for them and my commitment as a priest was to help them to find and be found by the living God. At a time in their lives when they were beginning to claim their own identity and independence and ideas, we ask them to say yes to their parents’ faith. Of course I know that it isn’t ultimately their parents’ faith but Baptismal faith, the faith of the saints that has been handed down for two thousand years. But it still takes time to sort all of that out. Faith cannot mature without seeking understanding. Yet if we dare to seek understanding then that process will always begin with questions and even doubt. It’s part of the deal.

In the meantime, I think it is the responsibility of a congregation like this one to “hold” the faith by being a place of wonder and inclusion and love and acceptance, with God’s help, as each person here, young and old alike, finds her path to God. The way forward, in my experience, comes when we discover that it is alright to both affirm faith and to question it. Perhaps the most truthful claim any of us can ever make are the words of that desperate father in Mark 9: “I believe; help my unbelief.”

The Gospel Reading for today is an Easter morning gospel, focused on the witness of Mary Magdalene. Easter faith begins not by offering easy answers to the hard questions of faith, but by loving the questions themselves until we can start to live them. Ultimately I am convinced that, with God’s help, this leads us to a deeper truth. So I ask your prayers for all who seek God or a deeper knowledge of God. Pray that they may find and be found by God.

There is not a cookie-cutter path offered in the Bible to Easter faith; no single formula for embracing this Paschal mystery. For me it is helpful to notice that the gospels give us a variety of narratives and not one narrow creed. In fact, John’s Gospel gives us no less than five different Easter encounters, which is the larger context for the gospel we heard proclaimed today. They are interwoven together which I think is also important. Our stories are part of a larger narrative. I hear something of my story in yours.

And so today’s gospel begins with Mary, even though we didn’t read that part today. She comes to the tomb early in the morning, while it’s still dark, and discovers it to be empty. So she runs to tell the boys – in particular, Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. They race each other to the empty tomb and then the narrator tells us that “when [the beloved disciple] went in, he saw, and believed.” And then right on the heels of that, this portion of the story we heard today, the story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with a man she believes at first to be the gardener, until he speaks her name and she knows it is Jesus. In that moment, hearing is believing. 

On the other side of this, on the evening of that same day, begins the story of good old “doubting” Thomas (whom I’d rather call “seeing-is-believing” Thomas or “me-too” Thomas.) He just wants the same chance to see and touch and experience Christ firsthand as alive that the others got. Then there will be the disciples back on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, who experience Christ by a charcoal fire at breakfast, where Peter is asked three times: “Peter, do you love me?” Three times because, well you all remember why it is that Jesus has to ask him three times. And then, I love this, John’s Gospel ends by saying something along these lines:

There are so many other stories I could tell you, the world itself could not contain all the books that would be written if I did: but hopefully these are enough so that you might keep seeking God or a deeper knowledge of God; that you might find and be found by God.

Beyond John, there are additional stories in the synoptic gospels. My personal favorite is found in the Gospel of Luke, on the evening of this very day, on the road to Emmaus. The disciples experience Christ “in the breaking of the bread” which suggests to me that they must have been Episcopalians. My point is simply that each of the disciples had to discover the meaning of Easter in their own time, and the gospels seem to be making the point that there is not one right way to Easter faith. I find that comforting.

So, I know it’s not Easter morning today but in a very real sense every Sunday is Easter morning and Jesse, in his Jesse way, suggested these readings for today over the ones appointed for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost. He wanted us to remember Mary Magdalene and the text we get is an Easter morning gospel.

In that story, to review, we’ve been told that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb while it was still dark, and when she saw that the stone had been removed, she ran to tell Simon Peter and the beloved disciple. This causes the boys to race back to the empty tomb. When the beloved disciple does go in, the text says: he saw and he believed.

Mary Magdalene is the apostle to the apostles. She’s a preacher-woman. You don’t have to be a card-carrying feminist to give credit where credit is due. It’s in the text and all four gospels have her at the empty tomb on Easter morning as an eyewitness, even if some of the men at first think it’s all an “idle tale.” She is the one who discovers the stone has been rolled away. She is the one who sees and goes and tells. That’s important. When Jesse returns from his Renewal Leave and he asks what I preached on today, tell him I said that Mary Magdalene proclaimed the good news of Easter morning to the boys.

But it’s also important what happens in this encounter with the gardener, which is the portion of that day that we have been given to read and mark and learn and inwardly digest for today. The narrator seems to have momentarily forgotten about her during that whole dance between Peter and the beloved disciple. But when he finally turns his attention back to her, she’s crying. That is a pretty normal thing to do when people we love die. She still believes that they’ve taken her Lord away, and the reality of his death is sinking in now. But in the midst of her grief, in this conversation with the gardener (because she doesn’t see through all the tears who he really is) she hears her name. She hears an old friend’s voice, and suddenly, like the beloved disciple, she knows now too. Jesus calls her by name, and her Easter faith begins to grow as well. Hearing is believing. 

When someone we love dies we are in a thin place, a vulnerable place. Freud might call it wishful thinking, but my experience as a parish priest suggests something much deeper and more real is going on. When we confront the death of a loved one, we are open in ways that we are not usually open. At the grave, or in the quiet days that follow the death of a loved one, our faith may deepen and we may experience a sense of peace and hope and even joy, and know from what we see and hear with our own eyes that Christ is alive. Even at the grave we begin to sing: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

We learn for the first time, or remember again, that when death comes, life really is changed, not ended, when our mortal bodies give out. This means our relationship with the deceased doesn’t end either. Mary’s relationship with Jesus will continue to grow, because Christ is alive. But in smaller ways we experience that too. My father died when I was 19 years old. He never met my wife or my two sons who are now 28 and 24. Yet in some way, in some very real way, I feel he remains a part of my life, and of their lives, too.

Sometimes – maybe not always but sometimes – the death of a loved one opens us up to find and be found by God.

Christ is alive. Death has been vanquished. We don’t have to live in fear. This is truly good news in a world bent toward death and I think it’s what Mary experiences in that conversation with the gardener. I think that we sing these songs of Christ’s victory over sin and death over and over again as a way of proclaiming that we do believe, even as we ask God to help our unbelief. We sing these songs in to nurture a faith that is full of wonder and love and to create space where we can find and be found by the living God.

We should be patient with one another as we find our way. But wherever we are in the journey, we are invited to share in the Feast and to taste and see that the Lord is good. 

May Christ be made known to us on this day in the breaking of the bread. And may each of us find and be found by God, until by God’s grace through faith, we live more fully into our call to become God’s Easter people.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I just returned from a wonderful and much-needed vacation, a river cruise on the Danube through Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Our cruise began in Nuremberg at the heart of Germany and the rise of the Nazi party. We stood in the places where large Nazi propaganda events were held to consolidate Hitler's power.

Ultimately, of course, Nuremberg became known around the world as the place where those who committed crimes against humanity were tried at the end of the Second World War and held accountable for their actions. We do well to remember that what the Nazis did was "legal" at the time and that it was the "law breakers" (like the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer) whom we remember as martyrs today.

So we should be clear about the meaning of that place. As my New Testament professor used to put it clearly and succinctly when I was a young seminarian at Drew: "Hitler didn't kill six million Jewish people. Good German Lutherans did. They were just following orders..."

I am a pastor. I am neither an historian nor political scientist. Pastors are bold sometimes - we speak out about all kinds of issues in the world because we insist that the Word became flesh to dwell among us. Sometimes we - and I - may overstep our bounds. So this is my disclaimer. I am very interested in history and political science and international affairs, but my formal training is quite limited in those areas and I know there is a great deal I do not know.

Even so, I am a reasonably informed citizen. I do not rely on a single news source either on the left or right. I am a reasonably well-educated person who was taught (especially by the Jesuits) to ask questions. Above all, however, I am a person who trusts that when we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture it provides us with a lens for judging what is "good news" and what is "fake news." As part of my baptismal vows I learned to trust the narrative that can be distilled down to love of God and neighbor. As part of my ordination vows I have continued to trust for three decades now that what is written in the Old and New Testaments is the Word of God and that it contains all things necessary for salvation, which I take to mean not just "spiritual" salvation when we die, but wisdom (and courage) for the living of these days, for living life fully by loving God and neighbor. (See the Ordination Service in The Book of Common Prayer, page 526)

In the Documentation Center in Nuremberg, a museum on the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, I took out my phone and began taking some notes from the English audio tour I was listening to. (I imagine some people wondered why I was sending text messages from there or something like that, but I didn't have pen and paper and I found the story so compelling.) Here are some of the notes I took, unedited and only as I heard and then recorded them:
  • The events leading up to Hitler's consolidation of power were an experience of "the radicalization of political life."
  • The party rallies were "emotional and experiential and ritualized" experiences; not appeals to reason.
  • The Jews were consistently called "a parasitic people." (In other words it didn't start with the concentration camps; it started with name-calling and dehumanization that eventually led there.)
  • There was an early German resistance to Hitler on both the right and the left but they underestimated him and only a small group really saw what was happening early on. They responded too late.
I recently said on Facebook in response to a comment made by someone that while I believe that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it, I know that one-to-one correlations are dangerous and even unhelpful. History needs to be interpreted and it is of course interpreted through the lens(es) of who we are and where we stand. Interpretation is always a contested matter. 

So let me be clear: I understand that comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler may contribute to further polarization. It forces us to choose sides; and yes, I also know that we must choose sides. But his defenders resist this comparison (strenuously) while his detractors get ready for another holocaust. And we find ourselves even further divided. While I'm clear where I stand, I also see how this can become part of  "the radicalization of political life"and can leave us all paralyzed.

Professor Dey, my New Testament professor, was right, I think. The issue isn't ultimately about our leaders (who are really a personification of our collective "personalities" as nations.) The challenge is to look into a mirror and ask who we are and who we are becoming. What are stories we tell ourselves about who we are?  I wonder if everything else might be a distraction from this important work? Who are we called to be at this moment in history, in this time and place? 

One of the problems with the comparison of the United States in 2018 with what happened in Nazi Germany in the middle of the twentieth century is that we look backwards, from the end of the story. We know how that story ended and it seems too horrible to imagine it repeating itself. I was in Bavaria 35 years ago and went to Dachau. While I didn't get back there this time, that experience feels like it was yesterday. This past year I was in Yad Veshem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. 

Taken together, my learning from Dachau, Yad Veshem (as well as the Holocaust Museum in Washington) and Nuremberg teach me is this: the lessons our nation needs to be focused on today are not necessarily the lessons from the 1940s, but the lessons from the late 1920s and early 1930s. The ending is not yet "settled" but the trajectory we are on seems all too familiar. The United States essentially ignored Europe in the so-called "Roaring Twenties." But as we were doing the Charleston, Hitler was holding those rallies in Nuremberg. Americans didn't pay close enough attention. We put our heads in the sand. We tuned out. This is part of our own national narrative, our false notion that we are somehow separate from the world, from the league of nations. We engage in this kind of thinking, however, at our peril. Every time. 

Those notes I took above in Nuremberg were not written as a response to "current events" in the United States. But I ask my readers on the right, the middle, and the left whether or not these bullet points capture where we are today. To me they seem ripped from today's headlines. I think about what former Republican candidate for President, Mitt Romney, said about President Trump, including here and after Charlotttesville. I didn't vote for Romney when he ran for President or for that matter when he was Governor of the Commonwealth I live in. But I always respected him as a human being, even when I disagreed with him politically. I think he is a good man and I hope he continues to speak truth to power when he is elected to the United States Senate this fall. 

The "resistance" to what is happening in our nation right now cannot be the work of the far left only. First we need to pray for eyes to see, and ears to hear, what is unfolding in our nation. Then we need to see together, from the right and middle and left, and commit ourselves to the truth. We need to hear one another to speech. We need to agree to turn off both the national propaganda from the right and the knee-jerk responses from the left. We need to agree that this moment in our history is too important for us to be apolitical, to be neutral, to be "Switzerland" or America in the 1920s, doing the Charleston while the world moves toward war. I know that people are tired of going on Facebook and reading about politics. We want family photos and more cats, I guess. I know and I am weary some days also. But we need courage and wisdom for the living of these days. And we need to find ways to work together. 

I'll add one more political thought. It may not be surprising that most (but certainly not all) of my Facebook friends are politically (and theologically) progressives. It breaks my heart when I see the tactics of dividing people working, including when Nancy Pelosi (that right-wing conservative?) is lambasted by progressives for daring to disagree with Maxine Waters. I refuse to defend or criticize either one. But when those two are divided, I think we are in serious trouble. Talk about the radicalization of our politics! 

I believe we are called to speak the truth in love. I might be wrong here and in many other instances. But when I'm wrong I need to learn why. In this time, we need a a broad coalition of resisters. We need Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters and Mitt Romney and John McCain on the same team: the team that loves this nation enough to remind us of where we've been and who we are, and most importantly who we are called to become. As Bill Coffin once put it, the world is too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love. 

I don't think that historical scripts are pre-written. The work before us today is to write a different ending to the story that led to the Nuremberg Trials seventy years or so ago. We need to write our own parts in the story that is unfolding in this time and place. Before it is too late.