Tuesday, October 30, 2018

What is going to break this fever?

The title of this post comes from a question raised by Amy Walter, of the Cook Political Report, on CNN yesterday. I think it's a good, and for me a frightening, question.

I am not a fan of the current president. I am also clear, however, that he didn't invent polarization and demonization and scapegoating. To paraphrase Billy Joel, Donald Trump didn't start the fire. It's been burning since the world's been turning. Even so, leadership is supposed to be about bringing people together: about hope and the dream of a better tomorrow. Ronald Reagan understood that when he said that it was morning in America. Morning invites us to look to what lies ahead. Barack Obama understood this when he spoke of hope and change. Both leaders called on us to look toward a better tomorrow. Even when I disagreed at times (with each of them) about policy matters, I saw the traits of leadership. The current president wants to make us great, again - and it is that last word that reveals the root of the problem: he wants to go back in time. Toward that end, he stokes fear, and division, rather than hope.

I live in the real world most days. I tend to be a pragmatist and an incrementalist, not an idealist. But I also inhabit the world of the Bible. As a preacher it is my task to invite faithful people to explore that world in order to cultivate a prophetic imagination. What does God dream for us?

Contrary to what some of us learned from those pastel colored posters in Sunday School, the Bible is also often about polarization and demonization and scapegoating.The background is empire: Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Rome. And empires bring out the worst in people. Empires conspire to hurt and destroy the people of God. Imperial power focuses on holding onto what is, rather than imagining what might yet be. In the vision at the end of the Bible, however, the old gives way to the new, to new heavens and a new earth that is multicultural and diverse: many tribes, many tongues, many nations. There is nothing there about America first. Nothing.

In our own American history, there have been dangerous, polarizing and demonizing times before. But leaders like Lincoln and Roosevelt encouraged people to bind up the wounds of the nation and to face their fears. I have no way of knowing what goes through the mind of the current president. But words matter and his words are consistently divisive. Occasionally he stands behind a teleprompter and delivers a message that his aides insist upon. But watch him. You can tell he can't stand that. The real Trump will be tweeting hours later, in the late hours of the night, sowing more seeds of division and fear that bring out the worst in all of us.

Yes, there is blame on all sides. Yes, people on all sides say stupid things and can be myopic and ignorant and partisan. But it's not the same. The press is not "the enemy of the people." Democrats are not "evil." Pocahantas, Lying Ted, Crooked Hillary: this name-calling is not acceptable on school yards. Surely it should not be acceptable in the oval office. 

What is going to break this fever? I like that question because it reminds us that we are not well, as a nation. But hopefully this is not a sickness unto death. Hopefully the fever will break, and soon. What will help us to get there? Chicken soup for the soul? Maybe. But also, I think, we need to rediscover together the soul of America. It seems to me that love can break this fever. Not sentimentality. But real, across the boundaries and divisions, love. Real commitment to dialogue that builds bridges (not walls) toward mutual understanding and communal repentance. Courageous leadership that calls forth our better angels.

I don't see our President ever rising to that challenge. He has unleashed our worst demons with his rhetoric and while his words are not the only cause of mentally ill people doing violence, it is naive to think that his rhetoric does not contribute to the social fever we are all in. We need to look to other leaders who will do what he is either incapable or unwilling to do.

I wish I could say that I see those leaders. I'd take them on either side of the aisle right now. I yearn to get back to policy disagreements, and fair(er) fights. I hope the midterm elections send some new voices to Washington. But in the meantime, and beyond next Tuesday, I pray that the fever breaks before we have completely destroyed the fabric of this great nation.

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Man From Uz

Yesterday's sermon, preached at The Church of the Good Shepherd in Clinton, Massachusetts. The readings for the day can be found here.

I'm going to preach on Job today. But before I do that I want to offer a prayer that comes from the Jewish tradition, as we remember those who were killed yesterday in their house of worship in Pittsburgh. May we do more than offer "thoughts and prayers." May our prayer spur us to action. 
Let us pray: 
Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency;
Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance,
the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat,
the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.
Shock us, Adonai, deny to us the false Shabbat which gives us
the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred;
Wake us, O God, and shake us
from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by
half-forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears;
Make us know that the border of the sanctuary
is not the border of living
and the walls of Your temples are not shelters
from the winds of truth, justice and reality.
Disturb us, O God, and vex us;
let not Your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber;
let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action.
(The Amidah for Shabbat, which can be found in Shabbat Evening Service Prayer Book)

Over the past four weeks, our Old Testament readings have been coming to us from the Book of Job. And while we’ve not read the whole thing, we’ve gotten the contours of the story down pretty well. There are other things for us to talk about today as well, but all of that in due time. Because we only get this chance at Job every three years and because it’s such a good story, I need to tell it to you today.

To review: Job was a guy who had it all. He had a beautiful wife, well-adjusted kids, a great job, good health, and plenty of friends. And then the bottom fell out. He lost it all practically overnight. It sounds a bit like a fairy tale. It begins with “once upon a time” and it ends with “he lived happily ever after.” It’s not necessary to insist that it happened for it to be true. We know it’s true. As that American theologian, Billy Joel, put it: only the good die young. Bad things do happen to good people, in real life.

What is amazing to me, and scary to me, is just how quickly an ordered life like Job’s can unravel. All of a sudden the economy takes a nose dive and the company we worked for is closing its doors to open a new plant in China. Gone is the salary we had assumed would cover college tuitions and the mortgage on the summer place. Before you know it your marriage is falling apart and the kids’ grades are dropping. Or a mentally ill person with a gun walks into a synagogue. Or a church. Or a mosque. Or a school. Or a mall…

We’ve been given the contours of the story, if not the whole thing, over these past four weeks. We meet successful and happy Job, but then the bottom falls out. Two weeks ago we heard him crying out to the God whom it is no longer clear is even there. It’s just too dark for Job to tell: he looks to his right and left, in front and behind, but he can’t find God. And he needs to find God because he wants his day in court. He wants to make his argument, to make his case before the Almighty: what has happened to him is not fair. It’s always interesting to me that even more than wanting restoration of all those good things, that’s what Job wants: to be heard.

Job is no whiner and his complaint is justified, I think. His questions are fair ones that go to the heart of faith: if God is just and if God is powerful then why is there so much pain and suffering in this world? Last weekend the story continued, and God showed up like a whirlwind in the midst of thunder and lightning! Imagine that! Imagine yourself praying for a sign, praying for God to show up and it happens just like that. Only God doesn’t show up sheepishly to be cross-examined by Job. Nor does God show up with answers as to why the just suffer or, to be more specific, why this bad stuff has happened to this good man. God shows up loaded for bear. God shows up with God’s own set of questions. Job had one question for God: “why me?” God literally comes at Job with a whirlwind of questions: “gird up your loins like a man, Job and I will question you…”

·        Who is this…?
·        Where were you…?
·        Who determined…?
·        Who stretched…?
·        Who has put…?
·        Who has given…?
·        Can you lift?
·        Can you provide?
·        Can you send…?
·        Can you hunt…?

What does it mean? One interpretative trajectory focuses on the sovereignty and inscrutability of God. God gets to be God, not us. God’s questions remind Job (and more importantly the reader of the Book of Job) that we aren’t as smart as we think we are. God’s ways are not our ways. That isn’t an answer to the question of human suffering. Nor should it hinder us from asking these hard theological questions.But it is a clear reminder that the universe doesn’t work like a clock, and God isn’t a giant clockmaker in the sky. It’s also a reminder to not try to force an explanation on the unexplainable.

Another interpretive trajectory starts at the opposite end, with Job. One thing about suffering—and this is an observation, not a judgment—suffering can make us very self-centered. Our world becomes smaller and smaller. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her work on the stages of grief, spoke about isolation and depression as stages one who is going through loss has to navigate. That is very real and part of what has happened to Job. Granted, his friends are real schmucks. But nevertheless, Job’s very real pain has meant the loss of family and a rift with his friends. He’s all alone in the world and worst of all it feels as if even God has abandoned him. He’s become very isolated.

So the mere presence of God is a kind of grace. Because at least he knows that he is not alone. God’s speech also points him outward to the natural world that is back to the world beyond himself. God is like a tough, but wise therapist, in this speech; a truth-teller who helps Job make a break-through to a new place. So one might hear God’s whirlwind speech as something like this: 

Job: you need to go on a whale watch and consider Leviathan that I made for the sport of it. Or take a walk along the ridge of the Grand Canyon or hike the Rockies or camp underneath Pleides and Orion in Acadia National Park. Or consider the glorious array of maples in New England on a clear autumn day in New England. Sit on your porch during a lightning storm and consider. Consider the ravens and the mountain lions. Consider the lilies of the field, Job. Consider the birds of the air. Consider…

Now this trajectory isn’t mutually exclusive from the first one. In fact, I think they are really just two sides to the same coin. The first focuses on God’s sovereignty; the second on human limitations. In both cases we are reminded that the job of being the Almighty is not, in fact, open in spite of that theologically sound film, Bruce Almighty. God is God. We are not in control of the world or even our own lives.

As I read, the Book of Job, this parable or fairy tale or whatever it is, I think that the character of God in the story who speaks out of the whirlwind is saying that it’s a big world out there and it’s not all about us. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care deeply about us. It simply means that our measure of the universe can’t always be about what is or is not working for us at any given moment. That in no way means that our pain is less real when we suffer. It just gives it a larger context.

Last Thursday night I spent the night on the north shore, in West Newbury, at Emery House, a ministry of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. I was going to be meeting the next morning with my spiritual director and when I can do it this way I like to, rather than driving back and forth on the same day. I head out and have dinner with the brothers, get a good night’s sleep and then do have my meeting in the morning.

But here is what I did not know when I made that plan three months ago: that the Red Sox would be in a game-clinching ALCS final that night. Did I tell you that there are no televisions at Emery House? So, what to do? I went out and found a sports bar in Newburyport so I could watch at least some of the game. I sat there and ordered a beer and wanted to just mind my own business, focused on the screen. This woman who had apparently had a few beers before I arrived was chatting to everyone as she ordered her second Yeungling. I kept my eyes on the game. But the two guys on my right were engaging with her. And then they left around the second inning. I knew what was coming because I’d overheard her rather loud conversation with the other two guys. That’s when she asked me, “what do you do for a living?”

Now let me be clear. I love being a priest. No one really knows what a canon to the ordinary does, including me, but I love doing that work as much as I loved being a parish priest. I hate that question though (at least on an airplane or in a bar) not because I’m ashamed of what I do, but because it’s good to be off-duty sometimes. Especially when the Sox are on. Because when I answer the question I can predict the conversation that will follow will quickly put me back on duty.

So I didn’t respond. I mean literally, I ignored her, at first. But she, nevertheless, persisted. And so I told her. And predictably, she began to pour out her heart. I had to tear myself away from the game. She told me that it was five years since her brother had died of cancer at 42 years old. And she asked me to remember him when I said “mass” next time. And then she asked a question, a Job question: “why did God take my brother from his wife and two kids?”

I was there to watch baseball, not to preach this sermon on Job. Even so, I told her I just don’t think it works that way. I told her that I don’t believe God “took her brother,” that sometimes things happen and we don’t know why. And that we continue to love, and to be sad, and that of course I would remember her brother in my prayers. And her too.

Here’s the thing: the questions that the Book of Job raises aren’t just for Sunday mornings. They are for Thursday nights in a bar. They are for late on Friday night in the Emergency Room and for Shabbat Worship on a Saturday morning in a synagogue when everything suddenly changes. And for early Tuesday mornings waiting for chemotherapy. Job is about real life and it’s about the baggage we carry with us. Not just church goers. Not just religious people. Not even just spiritual but not religious people. When we hurt, even when we aren’t sure about God, we question God’s motivations. Why did God do this? Why didn’t God answer my prayer? Why do bad things continue to happen to good people in this world? Why is life not fair?

In the reading we heard today, we leave Job behind for another three years. We get a happy ending to our fairy tale: Job gets his life back. We want to believe that and in a way, I do believe it. Often, over time, those who suffer gain perspective again and we get back on track and we find at least a “new normal” even if we can never go back to a time of innocence. I like to believe that suffering people, like Job, sometimes get a new lease on life and that’s how the story ends. They may even find meaning. Matthew Shepherd was finally laid to rest this past week at our National Cathedral and we pray that the world has changed, just a little bit, since the hate crime that took his life twenty years ago.

And so even at the grave we make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.  

Having said that, however, I will admit to you that I’m not crazy about this ending. Because the danger is that we rush there. The danger is that we friends and pastors tell people in pain that it’ll all be ok because it’s hard to stand in the breach with them. Or we tell them that God took their brother or their husband or their daughter, for a reason. Enough. I think whatever else it means, the Book of Job suggests that’s bad theology.

I am drawn to the pathos of Job, and to its wisdom, which does not ever really answer the question of human suffering. It just says out loud that sometimes like is not fair. That sometimes life is profoundly unfair, and the good die young, and the world does nothing. Job wrestles with the big questions, and God shows us to ask even better questions and perhaps at the very least in seeing the failings of Job’s friends we learn a bit about what not to say if we want to be a decent friend to someone in pain.

Job models for us the courage to speak out loud to God and to question God but also the courage to listen for God’s response, even if it’s not what we had anticipated and even if it’s not what we wanted to hear. By God’s grace, if we hang in there long enough and take the long view, we do get to a place of new life, by God’s mercy and by God’s grace. May it be so, for us, and for those we love.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Preaching In Turbulent Times

This week I have been with the clergy of the Diocese of North Carolina, and their Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Sam Rodman, to co-lead their annual clergy conference with the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, Dean of EDS at Union Seminary.. The theme is preaching in turbulent times. My time with them has included a Bible Study on Amos (the Old Testament reading appointed for those following "Track II" this coming Sunday), a plenary session, and a response to the Bishop's sermon. Below is the manuscript for the plenary session.
May God give us the grace never to sell ourselves short: grace to risk something big for something good, grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love. In the name of Jesus. Amen. 
Seventeen years ago, in the middle of October, I got on a Delta Airlines flight from Worcester MA to Atlanta GA.  I was headed to Columbia Theological Seminary for a two-week DMin class in a program on “Gospel and Culture” that I'd begun the previous year.

The plane took off on time, but not too long after take-off, it became clear that something was wrong. There was smoke coming out of the bathroom and it didn't appear someone had been in there smoking a cigarette. You could see it on the faces of the flight attendants. Often in the worst of situations they look calm. But they looked scared to death and they were running up and down the aisles.

The captain came on the speaker to announce that he was going to make an emergency landing in Hartford. For those who don’t know New England geography, I can drive from Worcester to Hartford in a little over an hour. So this all unfolded very quickly. We were up - there was panic- we were headed down fast to Hartford.  And, I know this sounds cliché, but it felt like an eternity.

My life – at that point I was just 38 years old - flashed before me.

Did I mention this was in October 2001, just weeks after 9/11?  I had left two young sons at home with my wife, Hathy; at the time they were eleven and seven. I honestly thought this was it, and while I do believe in the resurrection, I was not ready to die suddenly and unprepared. I said my prayers as best I could.

Well you all know how the story ended because here we are and I was not a part of a national news story that day. There was an electrical fire in the bathroom and while that may have required an emergency landing, I don't think our lives were really in any danger. Even so when we landed at Bradley Airport we were surrounded by firetrucks and police cars and all kinds of flashing lights. Seventeen years later, I can feel this in my body as I tell you the story.

I want to suggest to you that we are in fact living in turbulent times and that we linger a bit over that topic before we get to the bit about of preaching. It’s an apt metaphor and not overstated. And it isn’t all Donald Trump’s fault. I personally think he contributes to it and stokes it. But the world has been coming unglued in lots of ways for a long time, and the loss and grief that go along with that were real and in motion well before the 2016 election.

Regardless of how we have gotten here, however, and regardless of our political leanings, it’s unsettling. I feel it in my body and it feels some days a little bit like being on that plane. And maybe some of you feel that way as well. Some days the turbulence feels too overwhelming.

In an earlier era, Paul Tillich spoke of the shaking of the foundations. I think it’s a similar metaphor and perhaps you have others to add. I don’t know about you but the only thing that might be scarier to me than being on a plane that is experiencing turbulence would be to be in a tall building whose foundations are shaking.

I submit to you that most of the people sitting in our pews on Sunday morning feel this way too, regardless of their political leanings and regardless of where they get their news. At a deep level it’s all the same: we are told to be afraid. Be very afraid.

And, initially at least, we cannot control how that makes us feel. Even when we develop healthy practices of prayer or meditation or yoga or exercise or spiritual direction. When we are in reactive mode, we are literally not our best selves. Stay off of Facebook and Twitter when you are feeling that way! This kind of turbulence we are experiencing socially is cumulative and it may also be re-traumatizing to many. And it seems like it just never ends. At least it feels that way to me.

Even as we name these realities, however, we do well to remember that we are not the first of God’s people to live through turbulent times. The Babylonian Exile was pretty intense, I imagine. Yet out of that experience of profound grief came some of the Bible’s most beautiful poetry. The problem is that this poetry emerged after decades, not months.

I imagine the plague in medieval Europe was pretty intense too. Yet out of that came Julian of Norwich. When she said “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” she was clearly taking the long view. She also happened to be right.

Closer to home, I imagine the Civil War was a challenging and turbulent time as well. I remember as a seventh-grader from Pennsylvania, getting invited to a Young Leaders Conference. My roommate was from Florida and late one night, lying in bed talking because we weren’t ready to go to sleep, he started telling me about the war of northern aggression. I honestly had no idea what he was talking about. It was one of my earliest remembered experiences of cognitive dissonance. And while I didn’t have the language for it then, I realize four decades later we literally had been taught different histories in our social studies classes.

I still call it the Civil War. Did you know that of the 1.3 million American soldiers who have died in all wars in this nation’s history, almost half of them died in that war. The landscape is still haunted by this loss of life; as Faulkner once put it, “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past.” Yet out of that horrific experience and loss of life, Lincoln preached the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, challenging ordinary people to “bind up the nations wounds and to care for the widow and orphan (there were lots of both) and to achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

In each of those circumstances (and I’m sure you can come up with others) some degree of clarity emerged out of turbulent times about mission, and vision, and values; about identity and belonging. We might even say of the beloved community.

Which is to say this: the turbulence we are living through is real and exhausting and disconcerting and even traumatic. But the Church was made for times like this.

The good news of God’s love for the world needs to be preached boldly into this time and place and we preachers are privileged to be entrusted to do this work. Always with God’s help. Week after week in the midst of great turbulence, when black men are not safe in the streets and where women are not believed when they speak of sexual assault, we have a word of hope for the world and for all of God’s children. We point to the beloved community not as a pipe-dream but as God’s dream for the world. I think we are invited to find clarity about our mission and vision and our purpose; about who we are and about whose we are.

I'm honored and humbled to be with you and I appreciate Bishop Sam's invitation to share this time with Dean Douglas. We'll get to know each other, I hope over the next couple of days. But let me lower expectations from the start. I don't have any special gnosis to bring to you. I’m not a rock star, but at best the “warm up act” for this Clergy Conference.

Nevertheless, I have been ordained for three decades and I have served in three rather different ministry contexts: as an ecumenical campus minister, as a parish priest (both as curate and rector) and for the past five and a half years as a member of a bishop’s staff. I was born and bred in northeast Pennsylvania but I’ve lived my entire ordained life in two New England states: Connecticut and Massachusetts.

If we listen to the media we might think we have little in common: here I from blue Massachusetts in purplish North Carolina. Many of you may think of Massachusetts the way that Bostonians do: as Boston and the Cape. The Berkshires are out there on the edge of the wilderness. In my diocese, however, (which is everything west of 495) we are politically and culturally more conservative than Boston. (More purple, if you will.) Our cathedral and diocesan offices are in Springfield, a city facing huge challenges and so desperate for economic opportunity that the citizens voted a couple of years ago to approve an MGM Casino downtown which just recently opened up a few blocks from our cathedral.

I live in Worcester, the second biggest city in New England. (Yes, bigger than Hartford. Bigger than Providence.)

Yet smaller than Winston-Salem. Here your population is 242,000. Worcester is about 185,000. Both cities have almost the same percentage of whites – about half.  Worcester has more Hispanics/Latinos  (about 20 percent compared to 15%) while Winston-Salem has a higher black population, (34% compared to 12%. ) Both rely heavily on healthcare as a big part of the local economy. I submit to you that the challenges faced in the neighborhoods of these two racially diverse cities are not so different as we might imagine: an opioid epidemic, systemic racism, gun violence in our streets and schools and an increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots. There are some notable differences as well. Krispy Kreme verses Dunkin Donuts! And in Massachusetts we have a pretty high percentage of Roman Catholic neighbors, while here you have more Baptists.

If I’ve learned anything at all about ordained ministry (and some of what I learned I’m still trying to unlearn as the world keeps turning) it is this: context matters. We do indeed proclaim one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. But how we do that depends on where we are. We speak good news, but literally in different accents

Thirty years into this work of ordained ministry, I still love the Church, for all of its flaws; this wonderful and sacred mystery. I get to spend more time at vestry meetings than you can possibly imagine. I get to see imperfect people trying to make sense of a changing world in buildings that were built for another time and generation. I get to see clergy behaving badly, I’m sorry to say. Not every day or even most days but it comes with the territory that in diocesan work you get to see more of the shadow-side of things.

And still, for all this, I love the Church, this “strange, difficult, beautiful Church.” That description isn’t my own. It comes from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver. One of her less well-known poems is called “After Her Death,” and it goes like this:

I am trying to find the lesson
for tomorrow. Matthew something.
Which lectionary? I have not
forgotten the Way, but, a little,
the way to the Way. The trees keep whispering
peace, peace, and the birds
in the shallows are full of the
bodies of small fish and are
content. They open their wings
so easily, and fly. It is still
I open the book
which the strange, difficult, beautiful church
has given me. To Matthew. Anywhere.

Notice, I have not forgotten the Way. But a little,the way to the Way. I think this describes a lot of people out there – including some of the nones, and a lot millennials. Always, in good times and in turbulent times, our work as preachers is to help people find, a little, the way to the Way.

And as preachers we are called to open the book with our parishioners to Matthew or Mark or to Hebrews, or even to Amos and the prophets. Anywhere. To open this book that we know, because we’ve taken classes in it. And yet to this book which is always elusive. We open this book, to these old dangerous texts, that have been given to us by “the strange, difficult, beautiful Church.”

For me the Word of God is more amazing, not less so, because pastors not so different from us wrote letters to Christians in Corinth and Philippi and Rome who were also struggling to be faithful in turbulent times; to people like us who broke the bread and shared the cup and remembered the stories that reminded them that Christ is risen and not dead. Even as the Roman Empire was coming apart at the seams.  We keep reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting these pericopes because we believe there is a still a word there for us. We read these texts because we trust that they point us to the way to the Way.  We are people of the Book and we are ordained to serve this strange, difficult, beautiful Church by proclaiming the gospel and administering the sacraments.

While technically speaking my October flight from Worcester to Atlanta was not literal turbulence (which I have experienced and I expect most of you have too) it was for me like hyper-turbulence. It’s the most scared (and  maybe more accurately the most paralyzed)  I’ve ever felt. In my memory – even in my retelling of the story – it felt like that plane was very vulnerable. That we were all going to wither like the grass; imminently.

That I was but dust and to dust I was about to return. We all know this of course, because Easter doesn’t mean anything without confronting death. But it’s always different when it’s existential, isn’t it?

We want to be a calm non-anxious presence when everyone around us is afraid but that isn’t easy and on that day, in those not-so-friendly skies, I am profoundly aware that I was not able to channel my inner Ed Friedman. In fact, I am pretty sure that if someone had said “is there a priest on this plane?” I would not have raised my hand. I didn’t reach out to the person next to me – at least I don’t remember that. I went inward. I was a scared human being more closely resembling a reptile, if you know that language of Friedman on this topic. In theory, I’m not afraid to die, and I’m less scared now that I’m closer to it than I was in 2001. But I was not ready to leave my wife that day a widow with two little boys.

My experience with turbulence is that it makes us crazy. And we are living in turbulent times. I don’t think that is hyperbolic. We may try to explain it, or explain it away. Or assign blame. But I’m more interested in what it does to our souls and bodies when every day we wake up and wonder if the world can get any crazier.

So how to preach when we, ourselves, are afraid? How to preach without adding to the turbulence and stress of others?

I wish I could answer those two questions quickly and succinctly but you all know if I could do so, it wouldn’t be true. I’d be selling you something not worth buying. My time with you will be more descriptive than prescriptive. I will be among you as one beggar trying to share with other beggars where I’ve found some bread. You may all be better at this than I am. In fact, I’m fairly certain some of you are, especially if you are in places where you love your people and they love you back and you feel safe enough to speak the truth in love. I’m now in a ministry where I’m in a different place every week and let’s be honest, most of the people in your pews and across western Massachusetts don’t even know what canon to the ordinary means.

So I don’t want to just be a talking head here. I want to say some stuff that hopefully gets some conversations started among you who do this work here week after week, and I am bold enough to hope those conversations might continue when I’m back in Massachusetts.

I think we begin by putting on our own oxygen masks and drawing on the deep reserves of our rich tradition. I realize what a loaded and contested word “tradition” is. But for our purposes I just mean that there is nothing new under the sun and so we have resources on which to draw because Scripture and the history of the Church are not like those cheesy posters most of us grew up with in Sunday School but about the real complicated messy socio- political challenges of being human.

We preachers do not have the luxury of just escaping into the Bible. We need to be aware of what is going on in our neighborhood and in our world. That requires us to make decisions about who we trust and it requires all of us to develop a kind of hermeneutic of suspicion. Where do you get your news from? Do you ever check out other sources? Whose voices do you listen to? Whose voices are you not hearing?  Do you ever cross boundaries in order to hear other people’s stories?

Beyond whatever wisdom I might offer to you in these two days, you have each other; this clericus. I know that some people don’t really like Clergy Conference. But it matters. We can no longer do this work alone, if we ever could. I hope that you will be vulnerable and real with each other. That again, whether a speaker this year or next is your cup of tea that you will find the opportunity to work together on building community where you can learn from each other.

Hopefully what happens here is about offering some resources that cultivate friendship and collegiality, so that you can encourage one another. In my experience that doesn’t happen naturally. Clergy are sometimes prone to compare ASA and brag about the latest and greatest things they are doing to usher in the kingdom of God. But we are invited to en-courage each other; literally to help one another to be more courageous. We all serve different contexts to be sure. But we all are striving for justice and to respect the dignity of every person, with God’s help. There is good that can come from a commitment to be together and to discover the wisdom that is in the room.

I’d like to pause here and give you a chance to talk with each other at your tables and then after that we’ll take a ten minute break.
  • What can you say about the turbulence in your current context? What makes you most afraid about preaching these days and what do you think your people are most afraid of? 
  • What would you say, in a few sentences, is “the good news of Jesus Christ” in your context? What’s the sermon you’d preach if you were less afraid?

Plenary Continued: Preaching in Turbulent Times, Part II 

This past Sunday, the gospel reading on divorce concludes with Jesus blessing a child. If that action seemed familiar it’s because just a few weeks earlier, on September 23, Jesus also called attention to a little child into the disciples’ midst, when they were fighting about who was the greatest.

A friend of mine – retired –who does a lot of supply work posted a summary of his sermon on Facebook. He had made a hermeneutical move from that child in the narrative, to the children being taken away from their mothers at our southern border. And then, as is his custom, he asked his Facebook friends to let him know if they wanted a copy of the sermon.

For our purposes, I want to let his hermeneutical move go because I want to focus on the response of one person, an Episcopal layperson, to this thread.

Mary and I would love a copy, Pete.  We were very disappointed that the sermon in our church inexplicably ignored the obvious opportunity to feed the soul and labored to serve up pablum instead.

When I began today, I opened with a prayer from Bill Coffin who once served as the Pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. That prayer serves as a reminder that we preachers are called to tell the truth, at least as we see it, even in a dangerous and turbulent world.

But I think we do well to remember that many of our people are desperate for us to do just that. They are sometimes quietly cheering us on. So we must not let our own fear of a few loud voices leave us serving up pablum week after week. The world is simply too dangerous  and too small for that.

Our work is about becoming the beloved community, a community in which the waters of Baptism take precedence over the blood of tribalism. This is who we are and we are called to preach that good news to the Baptized. We might disagree, even in this room, about what this looks like on any given week. But I yearn for the day when we all agree that this is the preaching task and that this work is too important to abdicate in favor of entertainment,  or as my Facebook friend’s friend puts it, “pablum.”  People know when we do that.

I truly believe that most times when we do that it’s because we are afraid, not because we mean to truncate the Gospel. But once we start to go down that path it can be hard to find our way back. Again, I think this is why we need to encourage one another.

It takes practice to listen for the angels that show up and tell us to be not afraid, and to have courage, and to hold onto what is good. But they are all over the Bible and I think they are all over our congregations too. The prophets in our midst keep on telling us to seek good, and resist evil.

What happens when we start to preach the sermon we ourselves need to hear preached: the hard, difficult, gritty sermon that holds within it the seeds of possibility and of transformation? I am convinced that for every big pledger who wants to use their pledge as a weapon to “keep politics out of the Church” there are many others in the pews (and even more who are already a part of the Church Alumni Association) who are dying, literally, for more courageous preaching and less pablum.

I think we sometimes sell our people short and that we need to share the stories with one another not about the person who walks out and never returns but the people who say, “I totally disagree with that sermon, but I love you and I trust you and I’d rather be challenged than leave here with a sugar high!”

So in the remaining time we have together this morning, I’d like to talk a bit about telling the truth in a dangerous world and about becoming the beloved community in an increasingly small world. Amy Butler, who is the current senior pastor at Riverside Church (Coffin’s successor a couple of times removed) has written that these days call upon us as preachers “to speak truthfully, and to love fiercely – and to rest.”

I want to talk about the first two in particular but let me take a brief tangent to say she’s so right about the third. I refer you also to Barbara Brown Taylor and Walter Brueggeman if you want to reflect some time on Sabbath-keeping as resistance. To stick with my plane metaphor, I think it’s super important for clergy to remember to put their own oxygen masks on first before we try to help others. That includes an obligation to keep the Sabbath holy, whether for you that is a Monday or a Friday or some other day. The Sabbath isn’t about telling the world they can’t play soccer on Sunday mornings because that’s when we Christians go to Church! It’s about care of the soul for God’s people and it’s in the Top Ten, as you all know. If there is one thing you can do for your people it’s to try to avoid burnout by taking care of your own salvation with fear and trembling – and that has to include a commitment to Sabbath rest with no apologies. Bishops, too.

Nevertheless, I want to focus on to the other two: to speak truthfully and to love fiercely. You might think of telling the truth and loving God’s people as the prophetic and the pastoral work of preaching, but let me offer a caveat on that way of framing it because I think we often hide behind those words “pastoral” and “prophetic.”  In truth I think they are two sides to one coin and remembering that is key.

We got off track in the 1970s when we truncated the word pastoral to mean one-on-one therapeutic counseling. If we lean toward being pastors in this way we may confuse pastoral ministry with always being nice. I’ve watched clergy exhaust themselves in trying to do that.  They will never risk a sermon that might offend anyone, masking their own deep aversion to conflict by calling it “pastoral.”  If we are so “pastoral” that we’ll never risk something big for something good, however, then we should probably seek other employment. Pastors tend to the flock. We care for all our people, young and old, rich and poor, black and brown and white, gay and straight and trans. But we are especially called to speak up on behalf of those whose voices are not being heard – in the world but sometimes also in the congregation. So preaching is meant to create some amount of conflict. The issue is always in what we do with that.

On the other hand, I think there are some among us who relish a fight, who are hoping in our prophetic sermons to kick some ass. Week after week after week they come in, loaded for bear, to tell their congregations how awful they are. I had one priest tell me recently,“hey, I’m a brawler.” Fair enough. But let’s not confuse prophetic ministry with picking fights. If we aren’t careful, we can become what Coffin himself once called “good haters.” If the goal is to try to shrink the congregation down to a size where everyone agrees with us we, may end up preaching, literally, to ourselves.

I think the prophetic task, as I’ve come to understand it, is to create space for the prophetic voice. The world tries to silence the prophets. They are hard to listen to sometimes. But our shared vocation is to make space where the prophet can be heard. We share in the work of re-branding our congregations away from dog-eat-dog to love thy neighbor as self and to respecting the dignity of everyone. I find sometimes when preaching hard prophetic texts that it’s best for me to let the prophet be the prophet, so I can listen together with the congregation.

I mean this quite literally. We don’t need to be Jeremiah or Amos. We just need to help the assembly hear a word of the Lord, addressed to our own time and place, in their words to another time and place. Rhetorically I think it’s okay to say something like, “wow, what is Micah going on about? And with a little exegesis (and a little prophetic imagination) to say, I wonder what Micah would say to us if he were here today? There may well be times to channel the prophets but here’s the thing: they are already part of the Biblical canon. If we just stop ignoring them and give them space to speak, we can begin to see the prophetic work as a long-term goal of forming and reforming congregations that have eyes to see and ears to hear.

So I think preaching in turbulent times requires us to be faithful both to the prophetic and pastoral work to which we have been called. It’s only an either-/or choice when we misunderstand what both are about.

I don’t know about you, but I need a lot of grace mixed in. Because this work is hard even in the best of times and we are called to do this work in the midst of so much turbulence.

Even so, it is our shared vocation to be truth-tellers and to be people who are always pointing God’s people toward the beloved community. In the prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi, we need to remind each other it really is more blessed to love than to be loved. I think this is particularly challenging for many of us who are looking for affirmation in this work.

I am going to spend my remaining time before lunch unpacking what that looks like, or at least what I think that looks like, to make room for the prophetic voice. I hope this will all be a kind of “tilling of the soil” for hearing Dean Douglas tomorrow.

How might we be more intentional about hearing the prophets and helping our congregations hear the prophets?  It might begin with tackling our latent Marcionism, which I alluded to this morning. What would it take to be intentional about preaching more from the Old Testament pericopes? Not just as “set ups” for the Gospel but as if we believed that they really are a part of the Biblical canon too? I'm surprised every time I walk into an Episcopal Church that only offers two readings and often it’s the Epistle and the Gospel. So we, literally, do silence the Biblical prophets. But often when they are read it’s a little snippet. They sound angry, but we don’t know why. Or in the case of Isaiah, as if they are looking around the corner for Jesus and we can hear Handel’s Messiah in the background.

But the prophets are a huge pastoral resource to us in turbulent times because they ground us in the tradition of Jesus. He was formed by Torah and the prophets and when he asked the disciples who people thought he was, one of the top answers was that he reminded them of the Biblical prophets. So many we are meant to see that in him, too.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote these words in The Prophets:
A student of philosophy who turns from the discourses of the great metaphysicians to the orations of the prophets may feel as if he were going from the realm of the sublime to an area of trivialities. Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to slums. 
In the Prophetic Imagination (1978) – Walter Brueggemann has a chapter on “Prophetic Criticizing and Embrace of Pathos.” Taking a page from Heschel he reminds us to consider the pathos of God which makes theologians committed to the Greek philosophers a little bit crazy. The prophets are the ones who feel that pathos of God. They feel God’s broken heartedness. They feel God’s anger at injustice. They feel God’s love for those who suffer. To share in God’s own pathos requires us to critique what is and begin to imagine what might yet be.  Hear these words of good news for preachers:
The task of prophetic imagination is to cut through the numbness, to penetrate the self-deception, so that the God of endings is confessed as Lord…the prophet does not scold or reprimand. The prophet brings to public expression the dread of endings, the collapse of our self-madeness, the barriers and pecking orders that secure us at each others expense, and the fearful practice of eating off the table of a hungry brother or sister. It is the task of the prophet to invite the king to experience what he must experience, what he most needs to experience and most fears to experience, namely that the end of the royal fantasy is very near. 
The very next chapter in that same book is “Prophetic Energizing and the Emergence of Amazement.”  Brueggemann says that his thesis is not just the announcement of endings but of new beginnings – of new possibilities. He offers three prophetic images: new songs, birth to barren ones, and nourishment – fresh bread. And then this:
Now let me admit that it is perfectly silly to talk about new songs, many births, and fresh bread. These are metaphors that seem not to touch the reality of today’s hardware and arsenal. Perhaps that is correct but we must observe that such items were silly the first time they were uttered in imperial, scientific Babylon. The hardware will not immediately surrender and the great kings will not readily surrender. The prophet seeks only to [cultivate] the imagination of this people, and that in itself turns despair to energy. 
Prophetic preaching is apocalyptic. So we must not continue to cede to Revelation of John on Patmos to the fundamentalists! Dive in deep every time it comes up. Go there on All Saints Day!  Sing “Signs of Endings All Around Us” from Wonder, Love and Praise in Advent and then preach about the end of racism and the end of sexism and the end of homophobia and the beginning of the beloved community and the beginning of the healing of the nations. And then strive to work for that, with God’s help. Isn’t that what it means for us to be salt, and light, and yeast. But if salt has lost its taste?

A week and a half ago I had the opportunity to attend a show by Bruce Springsteen on Broadway. I’ve been an avid fan since The River, which came out when I was seventeen years old and have seen every tour since then at least once. I think I’ve been to about fifteen of his shows, with and without the E-Street Band. He never disappoints. But this one-man story-telling show on Broadway was something else.

At one point in that show, Bruce quotes Dr. King with a bit of wisdom I’m certain is familiar to you all. King said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Bruce said he agrees with that, of course, and that it gives him hope. I also agree and it gives me hope too.

But then Bruce added two comments as part of his own exegesis and hermeneutic on that text. First, he said, it seems we are doing a lot of zigging and zagging these days. Just naming that is helpful, I think. That old liberal idea of progress has been under siege of late as we’ve done a whole lot of zigging and zagging. At least it feels like that to me.

And second, Springsteen said his experience is that while that moral arc does indeed bend toward justice, it takes a lot of leaning and a whole lot of pressure to make it bend. It doesn’t happen on its own. I think that’s right too, and I suspect Dr. King would take that as a friendly amendment. That’s what he was out there marching for.

Things don’t just change with the passage of time, any more than time heals all wounds, or practice makes perfect. There needs to be intentionality. There needs to be a sense of purposes toward cultivating practices that help good people lean in, and lean against, and act like we really do believe in the dignity of every human being, as we strive for justice and peace among all people. Because if that is truly what we believe, it has implications in what we say, and then in how we act.

I think this is what is required of us to preach in turbulent times. Faith. Hope. Love. But especially love. This is the work of  pastoral and prophetic leadership, of which preaching is one tool in our toolboxes.

Parker Palmer puts it this way and maybe this addresses the loneliness and the privilege of preaching.
When we feel certain that the human soul is no longer at work in the world, it's time we make sure that ours is visible to someone, somewhere. 
Palmer reminds us (gently, because he is a Quaker) to quit our whining as preachers and get to work. To climb into our pulpits with a manuscript in hand if that is our style, or we to stand or pace at the crossing with a tablet in our hand if that is our style and to keep remembering that it is our sacred work to stand in that breach and to tell the truth, the whole truth, as best we are able. And to tell that truth with love.

And we can’t find a place that week in our congregation or in our neighborhood or in the world where the light of Christ is shining, then it is our work, always with God’s help, to let our own light shine.