Wednesday, July 3, 2019

It's (more than) the economy, stupid!

Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer, "For the Nation," pg. 258.)

Trying to keep the 1992 presidential campaign against the incumbent president, George W. Bush  "on message," James Carville hung a sign in then candidate Bill Clinton's campaign headquarters in Little Rock that read:
(1) Change versus more of the same; (2) the economy, stupid; and (3) Don't forget healthcare. (See here).
Number two has become a truism in politics. Incumbents are generally re-elected if the economy is chugging along. This post is about why I believe we are living in times, however, where we need to have a more substantive conversation about our core values as a nation. It's about why we need to consider not just how well we may personally be doing financially - but about what it means to be a person of faith in these dangerous times.

Before I continue (and especially for those who worry about preachers like me meddling in politics) please consider reading a post of mine from this past spring, found here. See also, if you are so inclined, the following small sample of Biblical texts: Exodus 20:21 and 23:9; Leviticus 19:10 and 33:34;  Deuteronomy 10:18,19; 23:7 and 24:19; I Kings 21; Job 29:16; Psalm 94:6;  Ecclesiastes 5:10; Jeremiah 32:9; Micah 3:11, Matthew 19:21 (and Mark 10:21 and Luke 18:32), Acts 16:19; I Timothy 6:10; and Hebrews 13:5. These are just a few verses about aliens and about money that are relevant to the comments that will follow here and an argument that Biblical faith has never been about a disembodied "spirituality."

I have become convinced that the Bible is a collection of political documents that are in large measure about what fidelity looks like in the midst of Empire. It's not about ignoring imperial power (which is in the water we drink) but about imagining an alternative way to be neighbors. This is why Jesus taught his friends to pray, "thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven..."

In the Old Testament, the whole drama of the move from slavery to freedom makes no sense if we don't understand slavery in Egypt. In the time of the Babylonian (Iraqi) Exile it's about what it means to be faithful after the temple has been destroyed by a foreign army.  And then it is about living in the shadow of  the Persian (Iranian) Empire. In the New Testament, the drama is set on the edges of the Roman Empire. This is the vantage point from which we, as readers, are invited to see the shadow side of the Pax Romana. The holy family moves when a decree is made that all the world must be registered. Jesus responds to questions about what should be rendered to Caesar and what should be rendered to God. He is executed on a cross - the Empire's preferred method for enforcing the death penalty. To say that "Jesus is Lord" is to insist that Caesar is not! 

In his powerful book, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, William Cavanaugh has argued by way of St. Augustine that the modern distinction between religion and politics is "fake news" (my language here, not his) and that this premise has "sapped the church's ability to resist the violence of states." (his language, here.) The book focuses on the experience of Chile before, during, and after the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, from 1973-1990. I would argue that the current fascination with (and cozying up to) dictators in Russia and North Korea and Saudi Arabia requires that people of all faiths and no faiths resist the violence of these newfound "friends" in favor of a league of nations that will work with us for human rights globally. Otherwise we are complicit in the torture of children and the murder of journalists. It's about more than the economy right now because human rights is a core value not only for Christians, but for Americans. We are in danger of losing that, however.

The Biblical vision for economic prosperity is always tied to a vision of fairness and justice. The Bible (and Christian social ethics) have a lot to say when only the rich are getting richer, at the expense of the poor. One place where we see this is Amos 6:4:
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches,and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall...
I feel for preachers who try to preach on this text in our current political context. Even without naming the president, the preacher is in dangerous territory if she takes the prophet(s) seriously.

God does care about the economy. But it's about an economy that gives working people a fair chance. See also every reference in both testaments about "widows and orphans" which is code-language for those whom the economy has left behind. Faithful people can disagree about political choices and even economic systems. But faithful people need to be clear that the measure of economic strength can never be simply about how the stock market is performing.

As we celebrate our nation's independence, I long for a serious conversation about the economy and how it is doing, not just from the perspective of the wealthiest Americans, but from the perspective of those working two jobs, neither of which provides health insurance. It is part of the work of the Church to speak for those whose voices are not being heard. Healing was central to Jesus' earthly ministry; healthcare for all must be be the goal for people who claim to follow him. How we do that will be a matter of great political debate. But that we care about getting there should not be.

As important as the economy is, however, it is not the only thing. I am convinced that the larger conversation we need to have - across the aisle - is about this nation's core values: about what this country stands for, and what it stands against. To engage in this conversation includes, but is not limited to, questions about who is welcome here. Finding a fair immigration policy should be bipartisan work; and the truth is that both sides bear responsibility for the lack of clarity that allowed the current president to exploit our fears and stoke the flames of xenophobia. It's a shrewd and malevolent diversionary tactic to suggest we are either for "open borders" or we need a "big beautiful wall." Yet that diversionary tactic has worked, and we now find ourselves running concentration camps at our southern border and this is not just an indictment of the president's policies but of our character as a nation that claims to be "under God." We can, and must, do better.

The deep divisions over race relations will not get better on their own. These divisions are not the fault of the 45th president; they are rooted in America's original sin of slavery. But the evil that feeds racist divisions (rather than the good that seeks to bind up the nation's wounds) has been unleashed in insidious ways over the past few years and here, too, the 45th president bears much of the responsibility. Leadership is still about the call to respond to "the better angels of our nature" - not about pouring gasoline on the fire. We can, and must, do better.

The "code language" of making America great, again is really about taking America back to the time before women, people of color, and LGBTQ Americans had the hard-earned civil rights that they and their allies fought for, and that are now under attack. Where we now find ourselves requires that people of faith subvert that nostalgic memory in order to finish the work that has been started toward liberty and justice for all people.

As we celebrate our independence this week and this American experiment, it is worth pondering what America means as we look ahead. The next election needs to be about more than the economy. It must be about what kind of nation we aspire to become. The journey ahead will be an arduous one, but we can, and we must, do better.
America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Sound of Sheer Silence

On this Second Sunday after Pentecost, I am serving in the Berkshires at Trinity Church in Lenox. The rector is currently in the midst of a sabbatical; I'm glad to be able to pinch-hit for him. 

The Book of Kings begins with King Solomon on the throne, and then plows along under his varied successors until you get to chapter sixteen. That’s where it begins to get really interesting. That is when Omri (up to that point dubbed the “worst king ever”) dies. He is succeeded by his son, Ahab, who will reign for twenty-two years. (16:25) This comment from the narrator pretty much sums up what Ahab’s two decade reign was like:

Ahab, son of Omri, did what was displeasing to the Lord, more than all who preceded him. Not content to follow the sins of Jereboam, son of Nebat, he took as his wife, Jezebel, daughter of King Ethbaal of the Phoenicians and he went and served Baal and worshiped him. (16:30-31)

You should know that Baal is a god of fresh water, a rain god. So in chapter seventeen when we are introduced to Elijah the Tishbite, he issues a challenge: “As the Lord lives, the God of Israel whom I serve, there will be no dew or rain except at my bidding.”  Elijah is throwing down the gauntlet: Ahab has built an altar to Baal because he wants rain. But Elijah’s response is that it will only rain when YHWH says it will rain!

The problem with droughts is that they affect everybody, not just the bad people. Even Elijah will suffer the consequences of this drought. At one point in the narrative, he shows up at the home of a widow in Sidon who is down to her last little bit of flour and oil and preparing to die. Yet when the prophet invites himself for dinner, she welcomes him to her table. She chooses hospitality and generosity over fear and xenophobia and shares the little bit she has, which as it miraculously turns out, is enough.  

By the time we get to chapter eighteen of First Kings, three years have passed and the famine brought on by this drought is much, much worse. Elijah approaches the people and puts it bluntly, the way prophets are prone to do: How long will you keep limping along between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow God! If Baal, then follow Baal. But make up your minds already! (18:21)

It is at this point that Elijah takes on 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. They get a bull and cut it in half for a sacrifice, and set up two wood piles. No matches allowed; just prayer. Elijah allows the prophets of Baal to go first and to pick their wood pile and bull. From morning until noon they shout: “O Baal, answer us!” Nothing. So then they performed what one translation calls a “hopping dance.” We get to see here that Elijah is a bit of a trash-talker because when nothing happens he chimes in: why don’t you shout louder! Maybe Baal is sleeping and you need to wake him up! Maybe he’s deep in conversation with some other god, or he’s away on vacation. Nada.

Then it’s Elijah’s turn. He decides to make it interesting, filling four jars with water and soaking the whole thing. And then he says: do it a second time. Actually you know what—do it a third time until water is running even around the trench of the altar! Until the whole thing is so sopping wet it would be impossible to light it up. And then he prays:

O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel! Let it be known today that you are God in Israel, and I am your servant, and that I have done these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people might know who is God…

And then? Woosh. Fire! An all-consuming fire that devours the bull, the wood, the stones, the earth, the water—everything! And everybody falls down on their faces and says, “Wow! The Lord alone is God. The Lord alone is God.” (18:39)

What happens in the next verse, however, is very troubling. Elijah can’t just let it be; he turns the impressed crowd into a mob and tells them to seize the prophets of Baal and “let not a single one of them get away.” So they seized them, and Elijah took them down to the Wadi Kishon and there he slaughtered every last one. (18:40) It is texts like that which make people say they don’t like the Old Testament. And as much as I do totally love the Old Testament, I totally get that.

But this brings us to today’s reading and gives us a much better context to hear what was read a few minutes ago. Ahab has reported to his wife, Jezebel, what happened on Mount Carmel and at the Wadi Kishon. She responds by sending a message to Elijah: "So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow."  She is issuing his death warrant, saying that he will not get away with what he has done.

So Elijah does what most of us would probably do; he runs away. As we heard, he came to Beer-sheba, where he leaves his servant to go on another day’s journey into the wilderness. To say that Elijah is tired and scared is probably an understatement. He wants to die. He asks God to let him die. But an angel comes to him in a dream and tells him to get up and eat, and a little cake and some water are provided. He eats and drinks and falls asleep again and the angel returns and tells him for a second time:

Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you. He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Elijah is at a mountain that the narrator calls Horeb, but that earlier generations called Mt. Sinai. He’s back, in other words, at the very same place where the story of God’s people began, back where Moses got the Ten Commandments and encountered God in the midst of thunder and lightning. Elijah declares how lonely he feels – I alone am left and Jezebel wants to kill me. (As if the God who created all the pyrotechnics doesn’t know this already.) And then the wind, so strong it was splitting mountains. But God was not in the wind. And an earthquake and a fire but God is not there either. And then “a sound of sheer silence.”

When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He answered, "I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away." Then the LORD said to him, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus."

Now Episcopalians (including me) love that “sound of sheer silence” (or as the older translations put it, the “still small voice of God.”) We tend to like our worship and our prayer and our spirituality on the quiet side, tending more toward meditation than speaking in tongues or doing any hopping dances around altars. Fair enough.

But the reason I’ve taken the time to tell the larger story on this day is that I’ve heard too many sermons on that “still small voice” that forget this larger socio-political context. The point of the story is not to encourage us to pray daily and include quiet times in our lives—although clearly those are very good and important practices. I’m all for those! Rather, the more important point of the story is that being faithful in dangerous times is risky. And sometimes, it can get you in trouble with the powers-that-be. Eljiah is not the first, nor is he the last. I think of St. Paul and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela all sitting in prison cells. As discouraging and isolating as that must have felt for them, perhaps they took some solace in remembering Elijah. And perhaps, they, too, in the sounds of sheer silence, were comforted by an awareness of God’s presence, so that they could carry on.

I think of what others have gone through (or perhaps even now are going through) what the mystics have called “the dark night of the soul”—when we feel like we are in a cave, lost somewhere in the wilderness, and feeling very afraid. And perhaps we, too, are ministered to by angels in those times. God may not be in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. But in the sound of sheer silence we know that we are not alone.

This is the larger point of the story and even when there are parts of it that may trouble us or feel unrelatable (or very “Old Testament”) this much holds true across many centuries. Being faithful to the living God can get us into trouble with the law. It got Jesus, and many others who have followed him through the centuries, killed. Sometimes we will feel very alone. Yet, in the silence, Elijah comes to realize that he is not alone. He knows—not in his head only, but in his heart and in his bones - that God is with him. And that gives him the strength and the courage and the hope to go on. The Word of the Lord that comes to him in that sound of sheer silence reminds him that there is work to be done, and he needs to go back and face that. He realizes anew that what God gives us is strength and courage to do the work God has given him to do; not a get-out-of-ministry-free card.

And then, just like that, Elijah disappears. Next weekend we’ll hear the final chapter of the Elijah story, about how in a whirlwind and a chariot of fire he passes into the heavenly realms, passing the baton to his disciple, Elisha, before he goes so that even after he is gone the work will continue. He will vanish from our sight, at least until three years from now when we return to this cycle of readings again.

But who knows; maybe we’ll catch a glimpse of him from time-to-time before then? Every year at Passover, our Jewish friends set a place at their Seder tables for Elijah, even as they pray for peace “next year in Jerusalem.” Who knows when he might show up at their table? Or perhaps even at ours? And as Christians, we catch a glimpse of Elijah every Advent season when John the Baptist suddenly appears in the wilderness, looking and sounding a lot like our friend as he proclaims that message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Like Elijah, John points beyond himself to insist that the future belongs to not to the King Ahabs or King Herods of this world,   but to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords: the One who comes to bring peace on earth and good will to all and teaches us to pray, “thy Kingdom come, on earth as in heaven…”

In the meantime, there is work to be done. And no one said that work was easy. Jesus said that discipleship was about taking up a cross. May each of us hear, in the midst of our own journeys (and in particular when the road is difficult) that sound of sheer silence: God’s unique call to each of us to find a little more courage, and a little more hope to keep on keeping on: to not lose heart. And to not be afraid.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

At the Priestly Ordination of the Rev. Ann Scannell

Tonight it is my privilege to preach at the ordination of a priest. And not just any priest - but the ordination of the Rev. Ann Scannell, who was a parishioner of mine at St. Francis, Holden when I was their rector. Sharing in this holy night with her and the people of Good Shepherd in Clinton is a great gift, for which I am profoundly grateful. Below is my sermon manuscript. 

Every time I am in this worship space, I get hooked by these two pieces of art to my right and to my left. They are iconic for me, even though I know that they are technically not icons. Since we are next to the Museum of Russian Icons, I will assume that you all know that the word eikōn literally means image, and that they are typically painted on a small wooden panel. (Actually, to be precise, you pray an icon, not paint it.) Theologically, it’s an image through which one glimpses something of the divine. In this sense, these two images are iconic for me, because they draw me in and point me to the living God. And so I want to begin there on this celebratory night. 

I realize that you can’t all see them from where you are, but I hope if you are a member here at the Church of the Good Shepherd you know them well, and notice them regularly. And if you are a guest here, you might peak up on your way to or back from Holy Communion tonight. And if you are going to be ordained a priest in a few minutes, I hope you will be reminded each time you preside at the Eucharist of the vows you take this night and your call to serve this people at this time and in this place and of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who has called you by name.

To my left is a painting of some shepherds and their sheep-dog keeping watch by night. There’s a particularly bright star which is technically part of the magi story, but I think it works here, too. They are out doing their jobs when the world changes. Not just their worlds. Our world, too. All worlds. The whole cosmos, as the fourth gospel writer might put it. Every Christmas when we put out our crèches in congregations like this one or in our homes, these shepherds appear. After Mary and Joseph and the babe there is no one more important than these shepherds (and their sheep) in that story. When we hear that “in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” even the most nominal of Christians knows what comes next.

Shepherds are all through the Bible because there are sheep all through the Holy Land. One of this congregation’s former priests, Darrell Huddleston, used to tell me from time to time, “Rich, sheep are so dumb and they smell. Jesus wasn’t complimenting us when he compared us to sheep.”  If sheep smell, so do shepherds. Unlike the magi who will bring expensive gifts, the shepherds (poor as they are) just bring themselves to the manger. Maybe a little feta. But they are the first to come and adore Jesus. In this world that God so loves, it is to the poor that God is revealed first. The ones working the night-shift.   

To my right, a window with the familiar image of the good shepherd carrying that one lost sheep home. You may remember that the story of the lost sheep is actually the first in a three-part series of lost-and-found stories, found only in Luke. There is this one, where the shepherd leaves 99 sheep to go out and find the one. And then there is the woman who loses one of ten coins and turns the whole house upside down to find the one. When she does find it, she throws a neighborhood block party. And then there is that poor man who lost his son, a son who left home too early and then fell on hard times. But finally, one day by the grace of God he “came to himself” and made his way back home only to find the old man running toward him with open outstretched arms:  My son, you were lost and now you are found…” Kill the fatted calf! Veal piccata for everyone!

Amazing stories. Amazing grace. Through these stories, including the one depicted in this window, we are reminded that sometimes we, too, get lost. The Church is called to be like that father so that we always know we can “come to ourselves” and have a place to come home to. This isn’t an icon in the technical sense. But it tells a story about God, right up here by this Table where all are welcome.

An ordination to the priesthood is a tricky thing. Some will tell you tonight, Ann, that you are about to go through an ontological change. Don’t tell the bishop this, but I’ve always been a little bit suspicious of that kind of language. Maybe it’s right; it’s just not my experience. More accurately, I am not sure what it’s supposed to mean or how it helps the mission of the Church. When I was ordained a priest, I didn’t really feel all that different the next morning.

If anything, I wonder if what happens tonight is more deontological. That is to say that the work of ministry, the sharing of ministry, the actions of following Jesus and the choices we make in a particular place and time--all of these things, over time, form a priest. At least for me, it has been more like that. What has happened and is still happening, over time, is that the particular places where I have served have formed and shaped me and gotten into my soul and body. My work in campus ministry, and then in parishes in Westport, Connecticut and Holden, Massachusetts, and now in diocesan ministry continue to make me the priest I am. Which is different from the way that you will live out your priestly ministry as you serve here, among this faithful people.

No doubt this night will be a touchstone for you, Ann, in much the same way that we remember our Baptism regularly. And I hope that you will continue – especially on the challenging days – to remember this night for the rest of your life, even if not this sermon. And that you will remember the faces of those here who proudly affirm this call. And that above all else you will remember and strive to live into the vows you take before us and before God tonight.

But I also think what will make you a priest are those pastoral calls to the ER in the middle of the night. And those contentious late night vestry meetings that always seem to happen on a hot summer night. And the baptisms. And the weddings. And the funerals. And through the ordinary work of standing at this table and remembering with God’s people that they are in fact the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ. The Body of Christ…

Ann, you have spent a lot of years as a baptized person. So you’ve spent a lot of years, already, in ministry. You have been a faithful lawyer, helping all of us to know and see that this need not be an oxymoron. The practice of law is noble work and like all work it can be done faithfully or unfaithfully. You have served well as a layperson and in your varied ministries, including as mother and as friend and neighbor. Six months ago, you arrived here as pastor and preacher and deacon. It’s been a bit of a logistical challenge, I know, to find “holy hands” each week to stand with you and we should say tonight how grateful we are to Meredyth in particular for the time that she has spent with you and this congregation.

Tonight is the culmination of a lot of things, too many to number. It has included a lot of prayer and discernment and an Ivy League theological education and CPE and GOEs and the BEC and the COM and a whole lot of other letters that make up an alphabet soup. It’s a big deal. You will be ordained in a few minutes to the priesthood. You won’t need me or Meredyth or Pam to show up on Sunday morning. You will have holy hands yourself!

But toward what purpose? Our being here tonight with you raises the question: what is ordination for? Why is this night different from all other nights? Why do we even need priests?

It doesn’t help us that for a long time, we got off track. I blame Constantine. We thought we paid priests to be better Christians than the rest of us. To be “the professional” Christians. That work came with some benefits. And it also came with some sacrifices. But it wasn’t right, I don’t think. We truncated the laity to raise up the priesthood. It seems, thankfully, that we are entering a new time and have been for a while.

While it is true that you will be ordained shortly to Christ’s one, holy catholic and apostolic church, which is to say into an order of ministry that is larger than this place, it is still, nevertheless this place that will continue to get inside of you: this choir and this altar guild and this vestry and these faithful people. And some days, these lost people. And some days, you feeling lost and needing to be found. The Church of the Good Shepherd is going to leave a mark on you, Ann. The people who think you are so amazing and those who will, some days, drive you nuts. (And some days that may be the same person in the span of an hour.) And it works in reverse, too. You will leave a mark on them. The work you are called to is a shared ministry, because ministry is a team sport; more like playing basketball than running a marathon. So pay attention to all of that – stay curious and stay open. Always with God’s help.

We are rediscovering, with God’s help, that priestly ministry cannot be understood apart from the ministry of the baptized. You are therefore being raised up not to lord it over anyone, but to serve. That’s what your vows are about, as I understand them. And if I’m wrong on anything else I’ve said, it’s ok. (Really, if you are a seminary graduate and you are still worried that I said I don’t know what an ontological change looks like, it’s ok. Let it go…)

The liturgy holds us all tonight and always. The promises made and reaffirmed show us the way forward. We Episcopalians are what we pray; not what the preacher says! Lex orandi, lex credendi.

Paul writes to the first-century church in Ephesus – let’s call it the Church of the Good Shepherd just for kicks – from prison. In the lines immediately preceding those that were read tonight, he urges them to live a life worthy of the calling they have received. He urges them to be humble and gentle and patient, and to bear with one another in love. He urges them to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit, through the bond of peace. He reminds them (as he reminds every congregation he served) that there is one body and one Spirit and one Lord; one faith, one Baptism, one God and Parent of all.

And then he reminds them, as we heard tonight, that they have all the gifts they need to do the work of ministry. They serve the risen Christ – the Good Shepherd of the sheep, the I AM: I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life, I am the vine, I am the bread of life, I am the gate, I am the good shepherd.
Paul understood that congregations are supposed to be more like a body than a pyramid. And the head is Jesus Christ; not the rector or priest-in-charge. Everyone – bishops, priests, deacons and lay people – has gifts. The work is “to equip the saints for ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” For how long? To what end?

Until all of us come to the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

In other words, for a really long time. So it helps to take the long view.

I think most of us are more gifted than we realize and the Church needs to be a place where we feel safe enough to keep rediscovering and then using those gifts. And there are enough. There are more than enough. Sometimes we need to stretch though, and take some risks.

But I also think priestly ministry is about daily rediscovering our vulnerabilities as well. Discovering and rediscovering the limits of our competency. The job of being the Good Shepherd is taken. At best, we clergy are called to be faithful sheep dogs who know whom we serve and why we serve.
And if we really are the beloved community (and I trust that we are) and if we really are so loved by God that the Good Shepherd will leave the ninety-nine to find the one and bring her home – then we need to bear witness to that love in worship, and at vestry meetings, and in pastoral visits, and in the neighborhood beyond these walls.  Humility is a job requirement. And as talented as you are, I celebrate tonight that you are one of the most humble people I know. Continue to grow as a servant, with a servant’s heart. And members of this Church of the Good Shepherd, help Ann to keep at that. Not by tearing her down but by sharing with her the work that God has given you to do. Together. 

Ann: you and this parish have already been changed for good. It’s palpable. Already this relationship of mutual ministry is well under way. I pray it will continue to be a ministry that leaves a mark on you. This is not the year that King Uzziah died. Nor is it the year that a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. Nor is it the middle of the Eisenhower administration. And we are not in Ephesus. We aren’t in Holden, anymore, either.

This is the year that Ann Scannell was, by the grace of God and with the consent of the people, ordained to serve as a priest and through that vocation to help God’s faithful people here in Clinton to learn and to remember how to be the Church together. In this time. In this place. Speak the truth in love, so that this congregation continues to grow up and into the head of the Body, into Christ who knits the whole body together and equips us to do the work that we have been given to do, by following the way of love. With God's help. 

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Stretching the Imagination

With my friend, Chris Owen and my
step-father, Marty Cox at Ein Karem, 2010
I wrote this post for yesterday, May 31, but then forgot to publish it. So a day late and a few edits to correct my timing...

Today marks the beginning of my seventh year doing the work of a Canon to the Ordinary. I love this ministry and feel called to the opportunities and challenges it represents. But when I am asked what I miss the most about being a parish priest the answer always comes easily to me: baptisms and funerals. The work at the beginning and end of life mark the breadth and depth and intimacy of the work of a parish priest. Diocesan ministry includes a lot more vestry meetings, and almost no baptisms or funerals.

That is always my answer. But there is another thing I sometimes miss, and that is the rhythm of marking the saints days at weekday Eucharists. I am in congregations across our diocese almost every Sunday, so I get plenty of opportunities to preach and enough opportunities to preside throughout the seasons of the liturgical year. But the Episcopal Church has a rhythm of what, when I was first ordained, were called "lesser feasts and fasts" and then came to be called "holy women, holy men." It is now called "a great cloud of witnesses," but by whatever name, these midweek commemorations offer opportunities to bear witness to those who have been faithful in their generations. One recent week alone included opportunities to remember saints like the Venerable Bede from the eighth century, Copernicus and Kepler and Calvin from the sixteenth, and Jackson Kemper from the nineteenth. 

Yesterday, we remembered The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which you can read about in the first chapter of Luke's Gospel. You can also visit the traditional site of the visitation at Ein Karem, which I have had the opportunity to do twice previously, although not on my most recent visit to the Holy Land.

In a sermon he preached fifteen years ago on this topic, Brother Curtis Almquist, SSJE, began like this:
In the calendar of the church we remember today an unlikely visitation of two women: Mary and Elizabeth. The mere fact that they are visiting one another is not unlikely. To the contrary. They are relatives, and they live within a long walk between each others’ homes. The “unlikely” element is the reason that occasions this particular visit, and that is, they are both pregnant. Within months they will bear sons who will ultimately usher in enormous changes, both theological and sociological changes. Elizabeth bearing a son John, whom we will call “John the Baptist”: he would prepare the way (the way, at least for some people) to recognize his cousin, Jesus, reportedly the long-awaited Messiah. And Jesus would be born of Mary. These two pregnancies more than stretch the imagination. (Emphasis mine; to read the full sermon, check it out here.
That phrase about "stretching the imagination" is a helpful one to me. So, too, the Magnificat (which is set in this same context and can be found in Luke 1:46-55.) Mary sings that her soul magnifies the Lord, and her spirit rejoices in God, her savior. She sings what her son, Jesus, will one day preach - that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Now if that doesn't "stretch the imagination!"

I read two posts recently on this topic, in addition to Curtis' sermon, that also stretched my own imagination. One is by one of my favorite Biblical scholars, Ched Myers. It can be found here. And then I read Heidi Neumark's reflection in The Christian Century. Extraordinarily good. I commend them all to you.

The visitation matters for many reasons, but perhaps in some small measure it is a kind of "case study" for why Scripture needs to be read, learned, marked, and inwardly digested. Slowly. It's not ultimately a primer for doctrine, but a way to cultivate theological imagination, and then to stretch that theological imagination as we turn the story over and over again and find ourselves in the midst of it.

It may also remind us that the "visitations" of our own lives - those intimate encounters with others - are both life-changing and life-giving. 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sing Alleluia!

St. Francis Church on May 18, 2013 - when we said goodbyes.
On this Fifth Sunday of Easter, I served at my former parish, St. Francis Church in Holden. The sermon text was Psalm 148.

2500 years ago, which is to say even longer ago than Jesus walked the earth, Heraclitus said that: No one can step in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, nor is it the same person.

I’ve been thinking about this since Pat asked me to come back and be with you during his sabbatical. I left here almost exactly six years ago to the day, after serving as the fifth rector of this great parish for more than fifteen years. It’s a joy to be back among you and yet I do so aware that you are not the same parish I left, and I am not the same priest who left. For those who do not know me, my name is Rich Simpson and I serve on Bishop Fisher’s staff as Canon to the Ordinary…

These are really great readings today – a veritable preacher’s feast. We could be here all day! But lately I’ve been working on the psalms a lot. Or, more accurately, they’ve been working on me. And today’s psalm, Psalm 148, is especially good.

The psalms are really hymns of wonder, and love, and praise. They are prayers that express just about every emotion a person might feel in a relationship with God, which span the same emotions of human relationships. And not just the happy ones! Whether the relationship is romantic or not, as you all know relationships have the potential to go deeper. But relationships are also complicated. I think our experience with God mirrors this and the psalmists reflect all of this. Sometimes the poets are disappointed in God. It feels like God hasn’t held up God’s end of the bargain. Jesus himself, you will recall, draws on one of the psalms, Psalm 22, before he takes his last breath on the cross. My God, my God – why have you forsaken me?

So, I love the psalms because they provide for what my teacher of the psalms, Walter Brueggemann has called “the basis for an earthy spirituality.” They awe us to heaven, but they are also prayers rooted in earth. They lead us through disappointment and failure and hurt that never get the last word, as well through the mountaintop experiences of joy and triumph and hope. Taken as a whole, the psalms can lead to a more purposeful and deeper awareness of who God really is.

At weddings, I sometimes point the young and beautiful (but also a little naïve) couple to their grandparents, to see what the vows they will exchange are all about. Not all rainbows and sunshine. But a commitment to “richer and poorer” and to “sickness and health” that is taken seriously will not be easy.

And friendships are the same, right? Make new friends, but keep the old. I’ve gotten into the habit, in my fifties, of making time each year for at least one long weekend in California with a group of college buddies; guys who knew me before I was ordained. People with whom I share a long history. People around whom I can never get too full of myself.

One thing I’ve learned is that even death doesn’t end relationships. Some of you may recall that my dad died when I was a freshman in college. He was thirty-seven at the time and just last month we marked the thirty-seventh anniversary of his death. He’s been gone as long as he lived now. But here is the thing – and I mean this quite literally. The older I get the thinner I experience the veil between life and death. The saints triumphant are never far away. My father still appears from time to time in my dreams and is rarely far from my thoughts.

And as I watch my two boys, now young men, I see glimpses of him from time to time in their faces or maybe just an expression, or gesture. Many of you here watched Graham and James grow up alongside of Hathy and me. Now they are, at least for the moment, both Jersey boys. Graham is 29 and will receive a Masters degree in Public Policy at Princeton in just two weeks. He’s looking for work to stay around there for another two years as his girlfriend enters into the same program that he just completed. James is 25 and working as a structural engineer in lower Manhattan. He beat his older brother to a Masters from UC Berkeley just one year ago. And while he’s been both living and working in Manhattan for a year now, he’s moving out to Hoboken, New Jersey a week after Graham graduates. So they find themselves in New Jersey, where Hathy and I began our married life, in Madison when I was in seminary, at Drew.

I don’t mean to sound nostalgic. But those of you have been here a while will, I hope, forgive me a bit of that. Our family lived a big and important chapter of our lives around the corner from here and those fifteen years included more concerts at Rice and Davis Hill and Mountview and Wachusett auditoriums than I can count. And Little League games and soccer games, too. But this trip down memory lane is also with a homiletical purpose: because I was talking about relationships and how they change and grow and deepen. Or they stagnate and die. That can happen too.  

Relationships need to be tended to. And so, too, our relationship with God. Where we can get stuck, I think, is when we keep relating to God the same ways that we did in Sunday School or in Confirmation Class. But the psalms are there, I think (and maybe more than any other writings in all of Scripture) to help keep us in relationship; to keep us growing and learning and changing. This is why they play such a central role in the prayer of monastic communities: because they express the joys and the challenges of keeping God at the center of our lives through all of the chances and changes that befall us in this life. Because they speak to the heart and not just the head.

Random fact: did you know you can walk from Egypt to Israel, through the Sinai Desert, in about a week. Really. If you are bored sometime, put it into Google maps (as I did this week) and start just north of the Red Sea. You don’t even need a miracle of parting waters if you begin there and walk across the Sinai Desert. It is 170 miles. Covering thirty miles a day is ambitious, but Google says you can make it in 57 hours. So if you walk for eight hours a day, that’s a week. Moses was a proud man who did not ask for directions, of course. Miriam could have gotten them there faster if he’d only listened.

But clearly there is something more going on here than male ego. Why forty years? Why four decades of wandering? Perhaps the Biblical narrative means to suggest that the journey of faith isn’t a direct route, and that the move from slavery to freedom takes a lifetime. It’s more like that labyrinth behind St. Clare House than it is like the Mass Pike. The psalms get that. And they take us on a labyrinthine journey into a deeper relationship with God. But the last six of the psalms are like the original hallelujah chorus. They are all about praise.
  • Psalm 145 – A David song of Praise: “Let me exalt You, my God and king and let me bless your name forevermore.”
  • Psalm 146: “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord, O my soul…” 
  • Psalm 147: Hallelujah, How good it is to sing praises to our God…” 
  • Psalm 148, our psalm for today: “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise the Lord from the heights, praise God, praise God, praise God…”
  • Psalm 149: “Hallelujah, sing to the Lord a new song…”
  • Psalm 150, the last page of this amazing hymnal: “Hallelujah! Praise God in the holy temple…let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah!”

Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah…

There are seasons of our lives when those alleluias may get buried for a while. It’s hard for us to sing praises when we are hurting or we feel abandoned or lost. We “bury those alleluias” during Lent, I think, to represent what that is like when it’s hard for praise to be on our lips. But we can’t hold them in forever. We make our song again on Easter morning and throughout these fifty days. Alleluia. 
Alleluia. Alleluia. We do this because in the end this is most truly who we really are and are meant to be: “Easter people.” One of my favorite lines in the Burial Office is when the priest says, “even at the grave we make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Sometimes those alleluias are muted by grief, to be sure. But they take us to the heart of our relationship with the living God. And those last six psalms get that.

In the “Catechism” of The Book of Common Prayer (on page 856 if you want to check my source here) the question is asked: “What is prayer?” And the answer is: Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. And then the question is asked, “What is Christian prayer?” And the answer is that it’s a prayerful response to the Trinity: the God who knit us together in love, the God who redeemed us on the Cross, the God who keeps goading us in love to new and abundant life. One God in three persons.

And then this question: What are the principal kinds of prayer? The answer: adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition. Ann Lamott has distilled even those down to three in her book: Help, Thanks, Wow. Sometimes our prayer repertoire can get truncated into just “help prayers.” We can get focused solely on intercession and petition, asking God to do stuff for us or for those whom we love. And those are important prayers, of course. And sometimes we might even pray a prayer of penitence and that’s good too because it can lead us to amendment of life. But it can also keep us stuck on feeling unworthy. We need to remember that penitence is not an end in itself, but the pathway to return to the God who already waits with open arms, in love.  

But I think the Church, and most of us Christians, need more praise on our lips and in our lives, and today’s psalm is a good place to start. It’s cosmic. The whole creation sings “alleluia” every morning when the sun comes up and the birds begin to sing along. And some days we have eyes to see, and hears to hear and some days we even join in the song. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Praise is not a denial of injustice in the world. It’s more like a protest song that helps us to remember that injustice will never get the last word, because even now God is making things new, and because love is stronger than death. Even at the grave, we are invited to get busy living, and to live into becoming an Easter people who dare to sing. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.  

The fifty days of Easter keep teaching us to sing alleluia throughout our lives, so that by the time we reach our own end, songs like Psalm 148 will be the songs we know best. How can we keep from singing? Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, also called "Good Shepherd Sunday." The readings for today can be found here. You will notice that the second reading comes from John's Revelation. Two years ago, during my last Sabbatical, I spent a lot of time praying and reading and reflecting on Revelation. My theory was that it's a book the Church needs to rediscover and claim - not as a code that predicts the end of the world but as a Word of the Lord that empowers the Church for mission. The sermon I'm preaching this weekend at St. Stephen's in Pittsfield represents some of the fruit from this previous labor, and my desire to reclaim Revelation as a sacred text that speaks to this time and place. 

Imagine a world where there is incredible uncertainty about the future. Yet, even in the midst of all of those signs of uncertainty, there also remains tremendous denial. It’s a way to cope, of course, when the problems seem insurmountable. So there is not just personal denial but corporate, social, political, and economic denial. The world feels like it’s catipolting toward an inevitable disaster.

Imagine a once-mighty nation where democratic ideals first took hold, but that now seems adrift. All that remains is a desperate attempt to hold onto power and control. But the problems go deeper than politics or the economy. The moral fabric of this society is coming apart at the seams. It feels like there is no longer any sense of  “right” and “wrong:” sexual immorality is rampant, injustice seems to be the norm, and violence is so much a part of daily life that it goes virtually unnoticed. The visionaries and prophets and dreamers are nowhere to be found.

Imagine a Church in this society comprised mostly of well-intentioned good folks, but who are without a clear sense of purpose. While they may be commended for their “patient endurance” and for some acts of charity, they have abandoned the commitment to love boldly in the name of Jesus. They have a hard time loving even each other, not to mention their neighbors or their enemies. They have become complacent, asleep, and lukewarm; unsure about what if anything they can do to make a difference even locally. They feel powerless and trapped.

With very few exceptions, most Christians are not being persecuted for their faith. In fact the problem is that their conformity to the world around them is so complete that there is very little to distinguish them from their neighbors, and therefore little to vilify or persecute. On those occasions when someone does take a stand that is counter to the conventional wisdom, they are more apt to be harassed or ridiculed for failing to conform to social norms and expectations than they are to be persecuted.

The society I’m describing, of course, is the Roman Empire in the latter days of the first century. You all figured that out, right? (Any parallels to our own time are purely coincidental.)  Under Emperor Domitian, the Roman Empire had become a mere shadow of the glory days of the Republic. The old days of the Senate, and the engineering genius, and thinkers like Cicero and Virgil were distant memories. And the Church I’m describing is located in one of the provinces of that failing empire, Asia Minor; what we would call Turkey today. We know something of their struggles by reading one of the most difficult books in all the Bible to interpret. The Greek name is the Apocalypse, which means “Revelation.” Not plural. Not “Revelations.” But the Revelation of John, the Unveiling by John. Think of Asia Minor as something like a diocese. Within that region, there were congregations, including Ephesus and Smyrna and Pergamum and Thyatira and Sardis and Philadelphia and Laodicea. Together, they are described collectively as I’ve already mentioned: as well-intentioned and patiently enduring tough times, yet without a clear vision or commitment to making disciples.

So the Revelation of John is a wake-up call that paints a picture of what genuine fidelity might look like in the context of a dying empire. Partly because of the political context and partly because of the genre of literature it is, it’s heavily laden with metaphorical language and symbols; a kind of “code language.” Cracking the code, though, isn’t like translating from Morse code, as some have supposed. The challenge isn’t about finding what the number “666” means, or the word “Babylon” means as if those had one-to-one correlations in a distant future. Seeing and hearing this message has more to do with where we stand. It’s about getting ourselves into the right place to see with John what he saw with such clarity from the Island of Patmos.

In fact, there is a lot of talk in this book about “seeing” and “hearing” and at least in this way it very much echoes the ministry of Jesus. Those who wish to understand need “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” Jesus said. What is required is discernment. I think of that unforgettable scene in “The Dead Poet’s Society,” when the teacher played by Robin Williams has his students stand on desks to challenge their perspectives. Remember? He is inviting and cajoling them to take notice of the world from another angle. It’d be like me coming in here today and encouraging all of you as you enter into this time of transition and discernment to switch up your seats and move to a new pew for a season. Scary, huh?  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer exhorted the Church in his day (which was during the rise of Naziism in Germany – another hard time to be the Church) to “be communities able to hear the Apocalypse.” Bonhoeffer suggested that the way to do that is to stand with those who suffer violence and injustice. The problem is that in spite of Jesus’ ministry to the poor and outcast, the Church throughout its history has been prone to forget that part of the gospel. I’m not talking about acts of charity here, although those are important. I’m talking about trying to see the world from the downside up. Hanging out with the people who attend Cathedral here in Pittsfield and talking about the economy and healthcare from their perspective.  

Visionaries need to stand on the peripheries. When we risk standing with those who suffer violence and injustice, we begin to see and hear things we would otherwise not be able to see or hear from our normal places of privilege and comfort. I think about Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the gulags of the former Soviet Union. I think about Rosa Parks sitting in the back of all those buses for all those years until finally one day she said “enough already.” The seer who writes the Apocalypse stands in such a place, at the periphery of the failing empire, on a tiny little island in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Asia Minor called Patmos. He writes as a Christian who dreams of a Church where Easter faith is practiced on a daily basis, a Church where people dream big again. When John thinks back to the fifties it’s not like us – it’s not about full Sunday Schools during the post-war boom in population. When John thinks of the fifties he is remembering the missionary vitality of a Church on the move, of new church plants in towns like Corinth and Ephesus and Philipi and even the heart of the empire itself: Rome. He imagines a Church where hope is in the air and where members strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. A Church that knows what it means to take up their cross to follow Jesus.

John offers strange images—images made even stranger in the intervening 2000 years since they were first written down. But what he sees and then describes for his readers in the seventh chapter of this Apocalypse remains fresh even to this day, and I believe it still has power to heal and to transform and to invigorate the Church for mission. If we dare to look, and to listen, we too might be prodded and jarred from complacency. He sees a great multitude, which no one could count. That in itself is a word of hope to beleagured congregations in every age; congregations which may feel burned out and worn out and perhaps isolated, or feel that they must do it all. In that “great multitude” of disciples, that no one could count!—there is much to ponder, for it is a reminder that we are not alone and that we are a part of something here and now that is much bigger than we realize. I must tell you it is perhaps the greatest gift of diocesan ministry for me because I can picture those gathered even now not just in these pews, but in Williamstown and Sheffield, and headed east to Greenfield and Southwick and Fitchburg and Westborough. On any given Sunday, across this diocese, we may still be a small denomination. But there are more of us gathered to break the bread and share the cup even in this small denomination than we sometimes realize.  

In John’s vision, they don’t all look alike. They come from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and they speak many languages. It is the Lamb at the center that defines who they are; not their nation-states or their flags, nor their creeds nor their denominations. Not their socio-economic class nor skin-color nor sexual orientation. It is this Lamb who unites this pluralistic community into One Body singing one song: “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!” It is He who matters, above all else, for it is he whom these saints worship day and night.
The promise remembered is the promise foretold. And it still has the power to enliven the Church for mission. In a world where children go to bed hungry in this richest nation in the world, the seer imagines no more hunger. In a world of gun violence the seer imagines no more tears. In a world where the water in Flint, Michigan is not potable, the seer imagines no more thirst. No more hunger. No more tears. The Church is called to work from the nightmare that is, for so many, toward the dream God has for this world. The Church is called to do justice, and love mercy and walk humbly with God. That begins by learning to not be afraid.

This fourth Sunday of Easter is sometimes called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” That’s the theme for the day:
  • Today’s opening collect that reminded us that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who calls us each by name; 
  • The 23rd Psalm which is almost certainly the most widely known of all the psalms even among those who know little else from the Bible—describing a shepherd whom we can rely on. 
  • The gospel reading from the fourth gospel that reiterates how the sheep hear their shepherd’s voice, calling them by name.

But it’s this strange text from this even stranger Apocalypse that draws me into the meaning of this day even more than all the rest, and captures my imagination and I hope yours, too. It stands as a bold reminder to the Church in every age that no matter how tired or weak or confused we may feel in a world that seems as if it’s gone stark raving mad, we must not lose hope. That hope is always directed to us as persons, to each by name. But it’s all about us. We are part of a much larger whole, part of Christ’s Body through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

By keeping our eyes open, and focusing on the Good Shepherd—by listening for his voice amid all of the noise of the world—and by being willing to change our point-of-view from that of the dominant culture around us by standing with the most vulnerable on the fringes of society, we have a chance to become the kind of communities that are able “to hear the Apocalypse.”

And in our hearing, there is always the chance that we may actually become doers of the Word we hear. Followers of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who calls us still, by name. May we proclaim with our lives what we profess with our lips, as we become agents of reconciliation and instruments of peace who share even now in the work of feeding the hungry, and wiping away the tears of all who mourn, and of becoming the beloved community, for Christ’s sake.

Monday, May 6, 2019

A Walk in Jerusalem

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord. Amen. (A Collect for Fridays, from The Book of Common Prayer, page 99) 
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, for the honor of your Name. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, page 101) 
It has been said more than once that if you want to understand Anglican/Episcopal theology, then come and pray with us. Lex orandi, lex credendi, loosely translated, means "the law of prayer is the law of belief."

Getting to a theology of the Cross is not easy and many, many books have been written on this subject. Too many of them are, for this priest, profoundly unhelpful. Atonement theology - that is to say, asking how the Cross reconciles God and humankind - is a very tricky business.

But I would offer this as a starting point: the message of the cross is not about convincing God to love a sinful humanity. Rather, it is evidence of the extent to which the God of love is willing to go to embrace us: God so loved the world. How much? Enough to accept death on a cross. The reason for this is to convince a sinful humanity that God really is all about love.

For me, the two collects above are very solid prayers that can help shape a life-giving theology of the cross. The contours of these prayers, and I believe of our theology (lex orandi, lex credendi) are that when we choose to take up our own cross(es) as followers of Jesus we discover that it really is the way of life and peace. Pain and death never get the last word. And second, that Jesus' arms are stretched forth for a reason: love. God's loving embrace on the cross is meant to inspire us, who walk in the way of the cross, to love our neighbors. All of them. My understanding of the second half of the second prayer is NOT that we must convert everyone in the world to Christianity, but rather that they see, in us who have been claimed by Jesus in Baptism, the face of Jesus. And in that face, they see love.They will know that we are Christians (even if they are not) by our love.

On the last day of our recent pilgrimage to the land of the Holy One, we walked the Way of the Cross. Our guide was The Rev. Canon John Peterson, who was formerly the dean of St. George's College in Jerusalem for many years. John literally wrote the book that many Episcopalians use to pray the Stations of the Cross - called A Walk in Jerusalem. I've done this walk, and used this book, many times before. But walking this path with John as our guide was one of the highlights of this most recent pilgrimage for me.

As we gathered in the courtyard at St. George's at 5:30 a.m John asked us to please not take pictures but to be open to everything on the way. "Take it all in," he said, "and let it be part of your prayer this morning. I tried to do that. Along the way we met other children of Abraham. Some Muslims coming back from The Dome of the Rock where they had spent the night in prayer. Some Jews, on their way to pray at the Western Wall. Fellow Christians, from around the world - also carrying their crosses, and others who came and touched our cross with reverence and still others who made the sign of the cross as we passed by.

We saw the city begin to wake up as all cities wake up on a Saturday morning: trash collectors and shop keepers and all the rest as this amazing city prepared to face a new day. We walked through these streets as countless other pilgrims have done at least since the eleventh century. The fourteen stops along the way invite reflection and commitment to open our eyes to see God's hand at work in the world around us. Too often in my "normal" walking I am focused on destination. Actually, too often I'm not walking at all but driving on a highway. The invitation to open our eyes as we walked has profound implications for what it means to be followers of Jesus. Indeed, our whole pilgrimage was about following in the footsteps of Jesus who was always on the move, always on "the Way."

John told us that he wrote the book in order to preserve the powerful prayers of his former colleague at St. Georges, Brother Gilbert Sinden, SSM, who was the director of courses at St. George's from 1979-1989, and was an editor of the Australian Prayerbook. He describes Brother Gilbert as "a beloved figure of wide girth with a gift for revealing the Bible and the Church so that 'you suddenly understood what you had not known before.'" These prayers are, to paraphrase Walter Brueggemann, prayers that are rooted in earth, and awed to heaven. One of those prayers, at the 8th station (where Jesus meets the weeping women of Jerusalem) goes like this:
For all women everywhere;
Especially for those who have to watch husbands, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, or lovers go to war; for those who mourn loved ones killed or wounded in violence not of their own making; for the women of Jerusalem today: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Palestinians, Arabs, Israelis, Armenians and others; And for the women we know in our own lives who are standing beside us;
Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy. 
Our rising to pray at 5:30 am with a 12-hour homeward flight at midnight from Ben Gurion Airport made for a very long last day. Yet I would not have it any other way. For me the entire pilgrimage came together in this final walk through the city streets. Jesus said often, "let those with eyes to see, see and those with ears to hear, hear." It takes practice to keep our eyes and ears (and hearts) open to what is happening in our very midst.

I pray for that kind of awareness as I walk through the streets of Worcester, and Springfield, and the towns where my work will take me in the days that lie ahead in Southwick, and Pittsfield, and Holden, and Wilbraham. I pray for the wisdom and the courage to keep my eyes and ears open, in order to reach forth my hands in love, so that others may see and know the love of God made flesh in Jesus.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Repairers of the Breach

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in. (Isaiah 58:12)

I write this post from the land of the Holy One, reminded once more how complex the thoughts and feelings are for those who make this journey. Tomorrow our band of pilgrims from the Diocese of Western Massachusetts return home. 

On the one hand, it is extraordinary to walk in the places we read about in the Bible, and in particular to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Some are skeptical of "exact places" (and it is said that holy places move) but here is the thing: working backwards, through the 11th century Crusader churches to the 4th century Byzantine Churches to 1st century Roman markers, you begin to realize that pilgrims from around the world have been coming to these same places for centuries to pray and to remember what happened there, whether or not it happened there or a mile or so from there. The birthplace of Jesus and the Shepherd's Fields, the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the five thousand, the healing of the man in the Pools of Bethsaida, the Palm Sunday Walk, the agony in Gethsemane, and even Golgatha and the empty tomb. Are these the exact places? Who can say. But just as our pilgrims have come to these places to sing, and to read the relevant Scripture passages, and pray, we can say that at the very least these places have been made holy over many centuries by countless numbers of pilgrims from many tribes and languages and peoples and nations. 

Is that enough? It is enough for me. Some places feel thinner than others for me, to be sure. But taken as a whole, this journey is worth making. And for me it has been worth making more than once.. Each time I come I feel connected to these holy places in new ways. 

That is all, "on the one hand..."

On the other hand, each and every time I have come this way I have realized there is no pure spiritual journey into the past here. Rather, one encounters life and politics and injustice and confusion and hope literally on top of these "holy" places. Walls are erected and settlements are built and the UN tries to moderate. Israeli citizens vote and debate in the Knesset over issues that seek to balance peace and security. Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, seek to make a life for themselves and a better life for their children. The United States, far too often, has it's thumb on the scale. And so too, small but mighty Anglican congregations gather across this diocese not only to pray for the peace of Jerusalem but to work for it by funding schools and hospitals. That work is not easy because ministry is never easy. 

It is this "other hand" that breaks my heart again and again. Here we encounter the human condition which always means encountering human sin. Even as we pray that grace might abound all the more, we walk the way of the cross and we know that the world is complicated and the human soul is a mess - and even our righteous deeds are far too often like filthy rags. In the past I have left here wondering if I were King for a day, what would I do to "fix" this contested place? In truth, I have less and less a clue as to what that would look like. I love my Jewish cousins here and I love my Muslim cousins here and I love the increasingly small percentage of Christian cousins here. We are all children of Abraham. 

At times there is an absence of war and a cessation of hostilities but imagining peace on earth, and good will to all, is exceedingly difficult. But this much I know: talking about these political challenges is an integral part of this spiritual journey. We who pray at the Church of the Nativity and believe in the Incarnation cannot just be spiritual without also being religious and that means also being political. We cannot pray in Bethlehem without going through that Security Checkpoint and past that Wall that has literally surrounded that little town into an open-air prison. 

Telling the truth is not the same as being partisan. And besides, if I were to be partisan I don't even know where I'd begin. But as I leave this place I want to remain informed and engaged and aware of the ways my own government has the potential to be a force for good or a force for evil in this land,  and many others. I want to do my part in helping us to be a force for good in the world. And at the same time, knowing that governments work for their own self-interest, to work with Christians, Jews, and Muslims to do this work together. 

We are called to be repairers of the breach, I think, both in this holy land and closer to home. To stand in that breach and to work at building and then strengthening relationships. Being here means being able to pray for people by name. It seems to me that in the economy of God that will not be lost. To yearn for peace and justice by listening to the stories of those who live here and to seek their welfare first, rather than our own strategic advantage, is at least a beginning. 

I leave here hopeful. Not naive, nor even optimistic, but hopeful that the arc of the moral universe really does bend toward justice. And so I will continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And for justice and peace on the West Bank. And then for wisdom to be an instrument of peace, in whatever way I can be. 

The prayer shown on the left comes from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. I want to be more of an "ordinary radical" in my day-to-day life. I want to be a peacemaker, in this way. And I want to join with other peacemakers to interrupt injustice, without mirroring injustice and to disarm evil without destroying the evildoer. I want to listen and learn, not ignore and put my head in the sand. I want to hope, not despair. I want to work with others to find that third way which is neither fight nor flight but "the careful arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice." I want to follow the way of love which is still revolutionary. I want to be a repairer of the breach. Always, with God's help.