Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

This Sunday, The First Sunday in Lent, I am at St. John's, Williamstown. I'm there at the invitation of their (still new) rector, Nathaniel Anderson. One big part of my work is to walk with congregations through clergy transitions. I was in Williamstown over two years ago, the Sunday after their previous rector retired after serving thirty years. Through the season of an interim rector, I returned several times as they began their search process to ultimately call Nathaniel as their rector. He's now been there about ten months. It is a great privilege to walk with congregations like this one through this kind of transition and to glimpse the new thing that God is doing in their midst. Thanks be to God!

In my last post, I mentioned that I am going to be preaching on the Psalms for a while in my itinerant preaching around our diocese. This week's Psalm is Psalm 91, and my sermon text is just the first two verses of that Psalm. 
The one who dwells in the Most High’s shelter, in the shadow of Shaddai lies at night - I say to the Lord, “My refuge and bastion,my God, in whom I trust.” (Psalm 91:1-2, Robert Alter) 
St. John’s, it is good to be with you again. It has been a while. Some of you may recall that my first time here was on the Sunday after the 2016 election. It also happened to be the Sunday after you had said goodbye to a rector who served here for three decades. A lot has happened since then, both here and in this nation. I'm going to stay focused today, however, on this parish.

I’m not sure anyone heard much of what I had to say that day. You looked a little shell-shocked. But I went back and looked and basically what I said was, “do not be afraid.” We knew then that Libby Wade would be arriving soon, but Nathaniel was not even yet a glimmer in your collective eye. I encouraged you to use that time for asking questions, for being open, for getting clear about where you put your trust. For using that time between trapeze bars as a gift.

I also said to you in November 2016, as I always do to congregations about to enter a time of transition that your season of transition would not end when a new rector arrives. It takes some time. By all accounts, this has been a pretty smooth transition and there seems to be much joy in Williamstown. The last time I was here was at a wonderful Celebration of New Ministry, and it was nice for me that people kept coming up to me and saying “thank you…we found a good one!”
I am pretty clear that in our polity I can’t take the credit for that. I give the credit to all of you, and to Nathaniel, for the good discernment work you did. And of course to the Holy Spirit. But I will say that it makes my heart glad, and that it’s a privilege for me to back here with you today. Thanks be to God!

I don’t want to bury the lead today so let me just say that even after all that has unfolded since we first met, I’m going to return to this same theme today on the First Sunday of Lent, and encourage you to use these forty days to get clear on where you put your trust. And to come at that by way of today’s psalm.

Across this diocese and around the world, we are making the journey to Easter. Some of you have given things up for Lent. Others may be adding new practices or reading the Bible daily. But however you embark on this journey, it is good to set aside some time for this important work. This past Wednesday, your rector invited you all, on behalf of the Church, into a holy Lent. Many of you have been doing that for a while now while the whole idea may be new to still others. But here we are. I’m grateful to be among you. At the Ash Wednesday Liturgy, Nathaniel reminded you about how:

…the first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting.

These forty days provided a time to form new Christians by preparing them for Holy Baptism, because as Tertullian put it, “Christians are not born, they are made.” Lent was, for the early Church, also a time for people who had slipped away to come home. As a parish priest I often wished we could revive that practice somehow because most people who leave Church don’t leave in a huff; they just slip away. And I wish we could make Lent more of a time to help people find their way home again.

Lent was, and it remains, a season of penitence. But that’s not about shame or fear. It’s about the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior. We all are invited to repent and to renew our faith by self-examination and by turning back to God; by prayer, and fasting, and by remembering the world doesn’t revolve around us. We do that by reading and marking and learning and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture, so that we might become what we eat; so that we become a word about the Word. We do that by getting clear about where we put our trust.

We are dust and to dust we shall return. Which is a poetic way to say that we are creatures, not the Creator. We were born and we will die. Not “pass away.” Ash Wednesday refuses that kind of euphemistic language about our mortality. We are mortal and what we are all doing right now, by taking in breath and exhaling; we won’t do that forever. None of us. Sorry. So Ash Wednesday in particular and this whole season of Lent are about remembering this, and therefore living each day as present as we dare to each breath – each moment. To live with gratitude and to live in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. To take it, as they say in twelve-step programs, one day at a time.
That’s a lot. Lent can be intense. T. S. Eliot once wrote in one of the four quartets, “…human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.” I think that’s right. And I think Lent pushes us to the limits. It pushes us into reality by refusing to let us live in denial. It pushes us away from wishful thinking and toward grounded Christian hope. It pushes us into the reality of our messy lives and to make amends where we fall short, not as a narcissistic exercise but as a way that makes authentic relationships and community possible. Lent is a season for truth-telling.

The poets help us to do that, I think, in ways that prose cannot. We are inundated with information. But the poets invite us to see things we might otherwise miss. Eliot, already quoted, was a master at this. So was Mary Oliver, who died just two months ago. Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life? Now there is a Lenten question for you to ponder over these forty days as you consider the fact that you are dust and to dust you shall return!

In fact, I think that Jesus was doing just that out there in the wilderness for those forty days. Figuring out what his life meant. I think it was something like what Native Americans call a vision quest. Of course he was also remembering the story of his own people, who spent forty years in the Sinai Desert, moving from slavery toward freedom. He took with him Torah, for sure. His responses to the devil reveal his familiarity with the Five Books of Moses, especially Deuteronomy. But he also took the poets with him. Or as we call them, the psalmists. He clearly knew the deep meaning of the psalm we prayed today. I like Robert Alter’s translation which helps us to hear what may be familiar words in new ways.

[The one] who dwells in the Most High’s shelter
    in the shadow of Shaddai lies at night -
     I say to the Lord, “My refuge and bastion,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

Psalm 91 is a poem about trust. Like all great poetry is jam-packed – way more than prose could ever aspire to be. That’s the thing about poets; in just a line or two they can send us on our way.
·    
  • Human kind cannot bear very much reality.
  • Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
  • I say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust!”
Trust takes us right into the heart of faith. On the second week of Easter, we will remember Thomas – who is told by Jesus not to lack trust, but to trust. It’s a misunderstanding to translate that as belief. Beliefs change over time, based on new evidence. The heart of Christian faith is not about our core beliefs but about trust, which is the antidote to fear. The whole of Scripture is about where we put our trust.

Psalm 91 is a poem about trust. Maybe it’s even a little bit na├»ve as the poem unfolds. The poet may even be so self-assured as to assume that nothing bad will ever happen to those who trust God. That’s the part of the psalm the devil quotes to Jesus in the desert. You heard that, right? The part about how the angels will be sent to protect Jesus. Even a poem can get quoted out of context and misused – because real life is always complex. Trust isn't magic. 

But Jesus won’t be fooled. He knows it doesn’t work like that. He knows the other psalms, too, those poems of lament for when life is not fair, when one feels abandoned by God. He knows above all else this: that trust in God isn’t an inoculation from being human. That trust in God doesn’t keep us from ever dashing our foot against a stone. When bad things do happen in this world – to good people, to bad people, to people like us who are probably a mix – this doesn’t mean our trust in God was misplaced. There is suffering in this world and maybe in your own life right now too. But that’s not an argument to put our trust into the hands of a crafty tempter. The poet knows, and Jesus as a pray-er of this psalm knows, that God is worthy of our trust.  

The biggest challenges in life may even result from those times when we put our trust in the wrong place. Only the living God is worthy of our whole trust. We know this already. In fact I would even venture to say that whether you’ve been here at St. John’s a long time or just a little while, you who have been claimed and sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever already know this. You who live in the shelter of the Most High, you who abide in the shadow of the living God, you already know that God is our refuge. Who was that guy again, who wrote “a mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing?”

I think Lent is a chance to remember what our best selves already know: that we are called to return, to reorient, to recommit to this living God made known to us in Jesus. And so I invite you to use this time to do just that. Not only as individuals but as a community of faith. How can St. John’s return, reorient, recommit to the living God made known in Jesus in order to serve this community of Williamstown and this part of Berkshire County? I cannot promise you that nothing hard or difficult or bad will ever come your way. We are traveling on the way to Jerusalem after all and to the foot of the cross. We who embark on this Lenten journey know where we are headed. But we also know – even from this vantage point – that Good Friday doesn’t get the last word. Not in the life of Jesus and not for us. We know that the God who raised Jesus on the third day is worthy of our trust.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

An Earthy Spirituality

In 2005, I was awarded a D.Min. degree from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. One of my teachers there was Walter Brueggemann and one of the classes I took for my program in "Gospel and Culture" was on the Psalms. Walter called it "Earthy Spirituality." Fabulous stuff.

That class and Walter's book, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary have inspired me over the past fourteen years or so to teach and pray the psalms in new ways. I've done Lenten studies and taught adult education courses based around Walter's idea that there are psalms of orientation, of disorientation, and of new orientation. But one thing I have done very infrequently is to preach on the psalms.

Recently I participated in a pre-Lenten retreat with Ellen Davis. She was wonderful and rekindled my love for the Psalms in a complementary but fresh way to what I learned from Walter. When I left that conference, I felt inspired to purchase Robert Alter's translation of the Psalms which is wonderful. 

This has led me to feel inspired and committed to preaching on the Psalms this Lent, and perhaps beyond Lent as well.  

This is the challenge I've faced: as much as I love to teach and pray the psalms, as a preacher I am a sucker for a good story. I tend to preach Old Testament texts about half the time or maybe a little more. I'm drawn more to the Abrahamic narratives and the Exodus, and the David stories and to Esther and Jonah and Ruth. I find that people don't know these stories very well, so as a preacher I can have some fun. 

The parables function in a similar way, even as much shorter compact narratives. Parables like the one about the lost (prodigal) son or the "good" Samaritan invite us into the story and give me a "hook" to work with. On the other hand, I tend to shy away from Paul and even the prophets from the pulpit. I draw from them deeply for theological depth and I've taught them in various settings. But, and this is very personal, I just don't know how to enter in as well from the pulpit. You can do some history or talk about the context, sure. But when Micah asks "what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God?" I want to just say amen and sit down. Perhaps taking on these texts would make my sermons shorter but they seem to say what they mean, and mean what they say. And I feel I have very little to add. 

So, as a former English major, I preach narratives most of the time. And generally speaking - in spite of my love for the Psalms in my spiritual life - I have mostly steered clear of the poetry of the Bible as a resource for preaching. I think in part this is because I have wanted to avoid "lecturing" on poetry. I'm reminded of that scene in The Dead Poets' Society when the teacher, played by Robin Williams, has his students rip out the essay about how to analyze poetry. Preaching about the Psalms is fraught with danger! Rip, rip, rip!

Even so, this Lent I'm going all in. Ellen Davis has inspired me and modeled a way in that is evocative and I hope will be productive. I have several preaching opportunities that I think lend themselves to fresh approaches. Stay tuned; those sermons will no doubt be posted here as they are preached. And, as always, I'd welcome your feedback. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Through Prophets and Sages

"Again and again you called us to return. Through prophets and sages you revealed your righteous Law. And in the fullness of time you sent your only Son, born of a woman, to fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace..." (The Book of Common Prayer, Eucharistic Prayer "C", page 370.)
Yesterday, I was praying with a group of clergy in our diocese. We broke bread together and shared the cup using a Eucharistic Prayer that I've always found particularly relevant to the season after Epiphany. The language is perhaps a bit dated - it starts off with talk of "the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home." But of course our "new" Prayerbook was published in 1979 so if it sounds a bit like the seventies, that is hardly a crime.

I like the cosmic language. I also love the part that comes in lieu of the prayer of humble access: after asking God to open our eyes to see God's hand at work in the world about us the prayer asks God to "deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal." Priceless. In any decade.

Liturgical language shapes our belief. What we pray is not only rooted in what we already believe, but when we pray words again and again they become part of how we think about God and shape our faith in ways we might previously not have imagined.

And no matter how well we know the words, repetition allows us to occasionally hear new things in new ways.

I had that experience yesterday with the words quoted above - and in that phrase "through prophets and sages." If I were asked to edit the Prayerbook, I'd replace all uses of the word "Law" with Torah. Because to most Christian ears, Law can sound as if it's opposed to Grace. We have St. Paul to thank for that. But Torah isn't really best understood as Law, and certainly not as "legalistic." Torah is instruction. It is teaching. How might Christians be re-formed if we prayed, "through prophets and sages you revealed your righteous teaching?"

I love The Episcopal Church. We are at a season in our life together of really wanting to value the prophetic voice. Of recapturing what was lost when we tended to embrace being "chaplains to the dominant culture." We are pretty good at channeling Isaiah and Jeremiah, Micah and Amos and Hosea. At least that is my experience of this denomination I love. Even when preachers focus on the gospel readings, they are focused in on Jesus, that "young and fearless prophet."

But Torah is not only about the prophetic voice. It's about the wisdom of the sages. It's about teaching - instruction or to use another word, about formation. I find that most people in our time don't respond very well to "thus saith the Lord." I think we need the sages - the wisdom teachers who also reveal God's righteous Teaching.

We need the scientists who explore space and the smallest particles. We need poets who raise big questions like "who made the grasshopper...this grasshopper I mean." We need theologians who invite us to consider: sages like Jesus of Nazareth who asked us to "consider the lilies and the birds..."

Through the prophets and the sages, we are more grounded in a tradition. We are less likely, I think, to be accused of being partisan political hacks when we take a stand for the sake of the gospel. I wonder if it doesn't help us to find common ground, not only ecumenically but with people of good will beyond the Church on this fragile island home we share?


Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany


Today I am at St. Stephen's Church in Pittsfield. The readings for today can be found here. My sermon manuscript is below.

All of today’s readings invite us to reflect on the nature of what it means to be in ministry. In one sense, that is a pretty good lens through which to read all of Scripture: to ask the question, “how is this text calling me to see Jesus more clearly, and to follow more nearly, and to love more dearly?” But this is especially true in this whole season after Epiphany, because the Light come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it. And that Light yearns to shine through us.

By ministry, I don’t mean the work of the clergy, but of all baptized persons. I also don’t mean just what we do as individuals, as important as that is. Many of you are parents or grandparents or friends or coworkers and you volunteer to feed the hungry and visit the sick and some of you serve on vestry or altar guild or the finance committee and all of those ministries matter.

But I want, today, to speak to you about our shared ministry as a congregation named after the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen. What is your ministry in this time and place, to this city? What does it look like for you, as the people of God here, to follow the way of love and to bear witness to the Light? And how will you know when you are doing that? 

Admittedly these readings come from different times and places, just as the neighborhoods of Worcester and of Northampton and of Pittsfield are different contexts. So, too, these readings offer us different perspectives based on different times and places. But taken together, of them are about ministry.

Isaiah’s call sounds glamorous, at first. It seems clear and unmistakable. But the ministry to which Isaiah is called is hardly enviable. No one is going to listen to him! Isaiah has this mystical encounter with the living God, in all of God’s holiness and tremendous mystery. In that encounter, Isaiah is made profoundly aware that he is but flesh and blood; a sinner.

Who can stand in the presence of the holy God and not feel unworthy? But that is the beginning of his call; not the end. His sense of unworthiness (or ours!) is of little use to the God who has created us in love to shine forth as Light to the world. God sends the seraphs to Isaiah holding a live burning coal and the seraph tells Isaiah that his guilt has departed and his sin is blotted out. This is a powerful image and these are powerful words. But in truth it is no different than the absolution we are given each week, even when there aren’t any apparent seraphs or burning coals to reinforce the message: you are forgiven. I am forgiven. There is enough love from God so that all of us are forgiven. Our guilt has departed and our sin is blotted out. 

Sometimes it is easier to keep wallowing in guilt and to remain stuck in sin. Sometimes others cannot yet forgive us of the hurt we have caused and sometimes we cannot yet forgive ourselves. But the God who has created and redeemed us in love is a forgiving God, a God who has put away our sins and freed us from bondage. As with Isaiah, forgiveness gives us a shot at abundant life that is filled with possibilities. As baptized persons, our call comes to us from that place of forgiveness, in that moment that gives us the confidence to stand before the holy God and to find our own voice by responding: “here I am, Lord…send me.” That, I think, is what one of our Eucharistic Prayers is trying to say when we pray: “you have delivered us from evil and made us worthy to stand before you.” (BCP 368)

As I said, however, poor Isaiah was called to a very difficult ministry. He will speak, but people will not comprehend; they will look, but they will not understand. Isaiah’s job is to put the hard demands of God before a people who are not yet ready to let go of their comfortable lives. And there is nothing Isaiah can do about that except to hold the vision of the Holy God before them. I take this as a reminder that ministry is about being faithful, not successful. It is a reminder that the message is what is important and it cannot be compromised to make it more palatable to a hard-hearted people in a hardhearted time.

The teacher who dares to teach, in spite of the obstacles the educational system puts before him, or the doctor who dares to practice patient-centered care in spite of the obstacles that our health care system puts before her; or the parent who says no to her child even when all the other parents are saying “ok”—all of them know what it is like to be in Isaiah’s shoes. All are to be commended for their willingness to be faithful in untenable circumstances. Always with God’s help.

In today’s gospel reading we find a familiar metaphor, maybe too familiar. What exactly does it mean to “catch people?” I think I know pretty much what it means to catch fish, although I am not much of a fisherman and in my lifetime I’ve not caught too many. Most of my fishing has been sitting and feeling bored because nothing seems to be happening. So I identify with that part of the story in today’s gospel—these fishermen washing their nets after a long night with nothing to show for it. Insanity is sometimes defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So maybe that is what Peter is thinking when he tells Jesus that they have been fishing all night and the fish simply are not biting. Or perhaps, if the disciples are anything like church people, then what Peter is saying is “Lord, we tried it that way a few years back and it didn’t work. Therefore we should never ever consider trying something like that again.”

But for whatever reason (and maybe it’s simply because he is just too tired to argue with Jesus), Peter lets down the nets one more time and they catch so many fish the nets start to break. Now it is Peter’s turn to recognize as Isaiah did so many centuries before that he is in the presence of holiness, and in the presence of holiness he realizes his own humanity: “Get away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

This Gospel reading gives us another perspective on ministry. It’s about when ministry goes well and the nets are overflowing. It’s about when we find ourselves hitting our stride in our varied ministries and life is good. I think we are meant to see this not as a contrast between Old and New Testaments, but rather to notice that ministry has different seasons and times. Both Isaiah’s experience and Peter’s experience are part of the ebb and flow of ministry. In both cases there is a constant: the message is bigger than us. We cannot control whether people will be “caught” or whether they will look and not understand. All we can do is be faithful. Sometimes the gospel will fall on deaf ears and that is terribly discouraging. At other times people will be energized and excited by the possibilities that emerge. But in both cases it is the message that must remain central.

And so what is that message exactly? St. Paul is a pretty good person to turn to to find some clarity about that. Like all of us, good old Paul had both good days and bad days in his ministry. Today’s epistle reading, however, written to the troubled congregation in Corinth, is about as good a summary of what St. Paul was up to as anything he wrote. After reminding the baptized community there that it’s not about him (nor is it about Peter or any of the twelve,) he says simply that the message that they (and we) are entrusted to proclaim is about Jesus Christ, the one who “…died for our sins and was buried and on the third day was raised from the dead, in accordance with the scriptures.” 

This is the work we have been given to do, in every time and place. We are meant to live as if we truly do believe we are a forgiven people. We are meant to live as people who keep on trying even when we are weary, and every now and again God surprises us. We are meant to share not only in Christ’s death but in his resurrection so that the Light that was Jesus shines through us. We won’t always get it right. Sometimes we speak and act in all the right ways and yet it falls on deaf ears. Other times we will reluctantly, almost in desperation, give it one last shot and somehow the timing will be just right, and infinitely more than we could ask or imagine starts to unfold. People get caught and there is new energy and new joy and all things seem possible. The results are not in our control but the work and the message remain the same. 

I was baptized in 1963 and have been a servant of Christ ever since. There has never been a time when the Church wasn’t a part of my life. In June 1988, I was ordained in the United Methodist Church. Five years later I was ordained a deacon at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, Connecticut, and then six months after that, on February 5, 1994, I was ordained to the priesthood at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, Connecticut. This past week, on the Feast of the Martyrs of Japan, I celebrated twenty-five years as a priest.

You may or may not know the story about those martyrs of Japan but it is a story worth recalling, so let me do so very briefly. The Christian faith was first introduced to Japan in the sixteenth century by Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries. By the end of that century, there were probably about 300,000 baptized believers in Japan. Unfortunately, this promising beginning met reverses brought about by politics, both church politics and international politics. Rivalries between different groups of missionaries and conflicts between Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese governments become untenable. On February 5, 1597, six Franciscan friars, three Japanese Jesuits and seventeen Japanese laypersons were crucified in Nagasaki, Japan. Many other Christians were arrested, imprisoned for life, or tortured and killed. By 1630 the Church had been totally driven underground.

Were these martyrs “successful?” Not by any of the modern standards of church growth they weren’t! They went from 300,000 Christians to almost zero, at least who would confess their faith openly. Yet history must judge their ministry as faithful, even if it wasn’t successful. They were faithful like St. Stephen was. More than four centuries later we still remember them precisely because they did bear witness to Christ, literally sharing in his death on a cross.

Ministry is hard work. It has always been thus. Sometimes we’ll feel like it’s all working together, like we can do no wrong, as if the nets are breaking because of the great catch. In those moments we do well to remember that it’s not about us. The proper response to abundance is gratitude, and to say “thank you.”  And when it feels like we are spinning our wheels and we are working so hard but nothing is happening; when we feel like Isaiah of Jerusalem or the martyrs of Japan, we do well in those seasons of ministry to remember that it’s not about us then either.  And that even our failures and our disappointments can be occasions for us to say “thank you,” because they remind us that we were never dependent on our own efforts or results, but solely upon God’s abundant mercy and grace.

In all things, we are called to be witnesses who point to Jesus, crucified and risen. The Light of the world who is, even now, in our very midst. That is what holds us together. That is what makes us the Church and defines our work.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Today, the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, I am at St. John's in Northampton, MA.  Below is my sermon manuscript for this day.


Most of you here at St. John’s don’t know me very well. My name is Rich Simpson and I serve on Bishop Doug Fisher’s staff. Among other things, one of the primary parts of my portfolio is to work with congregations that are moving through clergy transitions. Right now we have fourteen of our congregations at various stages in that process across the diocese.

Why so many? There is a long answer and a short answer to that question. But the short one is that Episcopal clergy are old. A lot of boomers, like Cat Munz, are retiring. So we are experiencing a generational shift across the diocese and the wider church which is both exciting and challenging. But more about that in due time. I’ll have more to say about the process that lies ahead today at your Annual Meeting, so I encourage you to stay. 

For now I’ll just add that we are still in the midst of this season after Epiphany. Remember those wise guys, coming to the Christ child by following the star, and bearing gifts, and then going home by another way? This season of light reminds us that we are called as well to follow the star, to find the Christ, to share our gifts, and to be savvy in politically challenging times. That work continues regardless of who the rector is. Remember in this time as you wonder and wander what it means to be the Church, and we'll find you a new rector to help that work along. I want to bear witness to you from my experience as a former campus minister, as a parish priest, and now as someone doing diocesan ministry and working with congregations from Williamstown to Northborough as they have called new rectors over these past five years: transitions are opportunities to learn and to grow. They are not seasons for “holding patterns” or for falling back, by God’s grace. This is a time to get even clearer about God’s mission and your role in helping to make it happen in this town. People navigate transitions at different speeds. Some people love change. Other people resist change. Most of us are somewhere in the middle and even, at any given moment, of two minds.

But here is the thing: to be alive is to be changing. To be alive is always to be in transition of one kind or another, and the only things that don’t change are inanimate or dead. I always tell congregations this at the beginning and hope a few people remember at the end of the process: this process of your clergy transition will continue until the “new rector” becomes just “the rector,” and that will take a while. After this interim period with Julianne and then the call of the next rector, and a moving van that brings him or her and possibly family members to your rectory, it will still take a while longer to realize all the ways that that new person is not Cat Munz. And it will take a while for that person to be able to serve and lead with their own voice. So the more faithfully that this parish can navigate this interim time, the more fruitful it will be. And I pray for just that. With God’s help.

Now let us turn to this call narrative from the scroll of the prophet Jeremiah and let’s see if it has a word for this congregation on this Fourth Sunday of Epiphany. It is very clear in the first three verses that God is addressing a particular person in a particular time and in a particular place.

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

This is a standard Biblical call narrative. The pattern is the same one as for Moses and Isaiah, for Hannah and for Mary. It’s the same for pretty much every person who comes to the Commission on Ministry and says “I feel called to ministry” to this very day. It begins with divine initiative, which is met with human resistance. So God says to Jeremiah: “before you were even born I knew you, and I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.” To which Jeremiah replies: “But I’m only a boy and I’m afraid of public speaking and surely there must be somebody else...”

That’s the pattern. God calls and God’s people almost always say, “no thank you. Surely there must be someone more qualified.” But God, nevertheless, persists. God responds with rebuke and reassurance: rebuke (“don’t say you’re just a kid!”) and reassurance (“don’t be afraid, I’ll be with you!) And then God puts out God’s hand and touches Jeremiah’s mouth and commissions him to do the work God has given him to do in his time and place.

Jeremiah is commissioned to do something: to share with God in God’s work in the world, in his world six centuries before Messiah is born, among real people with real questions and real hurts and real dreams. Vocation is about a call to do something in a particular place at a particular time. What is that work to which Jeremiah is called? Walter Brueggemann says that Jeremiah is “reflective of and responsive to the historical crisis of the last days of Judah, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BCE.” That’s quite specific. But what does it mean in plain English?

Jeremiah is commissioned to help God’s people deal with tremendous loss and then enter into the Babylonian exile. The old order will be dismantled and a crisis of faith will follow.  It isn’t pretty. It is also not the last word. The thing is, it will take decades before another prophet (Second Isaiah) comes along to speak a word of comfort, a word about new possibilities and a highway through the desert and homecoming. The words that Jeremiah must speak are far less comfortable words. His mission statement is found in that tenth verse of the first chapter and it’s just six verbs that come up again and again and again in the rest of the scroll, 51 more chapters. Jeremiah is commissioned “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

It’s the best kind of mission statement because it is short and to the point and oriented toward action. But what I want you to notice is that 67% of Jeremiah’s time will be spent on deconstructing the old order. It seems that has to happen before anything new can happen. And even then, maybe the best Jeremiah will be able to do is to plant some seeds and build a little on the foundation. Like us, he’s going to have to take the long view. He won’t get to see homecoming, in a way similar to Moses who doesn’t get to enter the Promised Land.

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

Barbara Brown Taylor put it this way in “Leaving Church.”

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

My friends: God is faithful, even when we are not. Hold onto that and let it be your guiding star in the journey that wise women and wise men are called to in this time and place. Let it be your guiding star in this season of transition that lies ahead.

The work that you are called to is not in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah, but in the third year of the reign of President Donald. The Episcopal Church in 2019 is not exactly the same as the Jewish people in Babylonian captivity. Most of our “temples” are still intact. Unfortunately we have lots of buildings that worked for our mission in the nineteenth century that are less helpful in the twenty-first. To your credit, you have been working on this building and that is a good thing. So we need some imagination to make the connections from then to now. But it doesn’t take much to say this much: after the annual meeting today, the work that lies ahead will be challenging. And it ain’t all planting and building.

What would Church look like if we lived as if we were truly prepared to lose our lives in order to find them?  Even to lose the Church in order to find it again? We are tempted to think that our job as Christian leaders is to somehow keep on trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. I know because sometimes I spend a lot of time in my job trying to do just that. On the whole, bishops and priests and deacons and laity spend enormous energy trying to hold it all together. I heard a senior warden recently tell his congregation not to worry, after the rector had just retired and an interim was on her way – that nothing was going to change. I respectfully told him that I knew what he was trying to say but that in fact, everything was about to change. Everything except the foundation, which is Jesus Christ. The sound of the priest’s voice when they celebrate the Eucharist, the way they preach, their presence at a bedside with a dying parishioner: all of this changes when a priest leaves. It’s not bad but we waste an enormous amount of energy trying to keep things from being different. They will be different; embrace that. The goal is to lean in, I think, to the new thing God is doing. And just as you’ve seen with your building project, this requires not only new construction but first some deconstruction.

What if 2/3 of your job as a congregation (especially during the interim time that lies ahead) will be about deconstructing – that is to say, about letting go of some old stuff – in order to then do some planting and building? Think of all those times Jesus talks about pruning in the New Testament. Or about new wine and old wineskins. Because those old ways, those old patterns, those old structures can keep us from seeing and hearing the new thing God is doing.

God is faithful. Even when we are not. Keep responding to the living God who calls us each by name. Keep putting your trust there, knowing that with God’s help we can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. And with God’s help, hear those words of St. Paul to be patient and kind and gentle with one another – not arrogant or rude. Let faith, hope, and love abide – but especially love. Things will not stay the same at St. John’s. But as things change, one constant remains: God is God. Christ is risen. The Holy Spirit prods, and guides, and empowers. This one, holy, undivided God invites us to follow the star into the world, to the Christ. May this be a time of renewed commitment and faith as you find your way again to the One who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.  

Saturday, January 5, 2019

A Vow to Stability

I am not so much into New Year's Resolutions. Last year I resolved to go see more films on my day off, because I like films and because I think matinees are great. I got to one Friday film (Vice) on December 21. This is usually how my "resolutions" go...

But what I do a lot of when the calendar turns - even knowing this way of marking time is somewhat artificial - is to reflect on my life: on what has been, on what is, on what I hope will be. I do a lot of ruminating in the time when a year ends and a new one begins and this year has been no exception. 

My work these days puts me into congregations in transition, usually quite specifically clergy transitions. A priest retires or takes another call and my work is to walk with the congregation through the process of calling a new priest. Some are straightforward, especially for full-time positions (which are fewer and further apart than they used to be.) The congregation finds an interim priest who specializes in this work and begins a process of identifying who they are and what they need a priest to help them to do, with God's help, in the next chapter of their life together. Other searches are more complicated, and can take longer - especially when the parish cannot afford to pay a full-time salary. 

I love this work and I truly believe that transitions - not only in congregations but in communities and in our own lives, are rich times for learning and growth even when sometimes scary. The transition from being single to being married, or of becoming a parent, or of sending your child off to the first day of elementary school or college, or of accepting a new job, or becoming a grandparent, or retiring; these are thin, holy places worth paying attention to in our lives. In every end is a beginning and I believe this and I preach this and I try to live this. Some of us embrace change; others of us resist it with every fiber of our being. But the only constant in life is change. This is true.

Yet there is another paradoxical truth that needs to be held in tension with this reality: a commitment to place and people. This commitment should not be confused with being resistant to all change, or of trying to hold onto the past, but as a positive factor in making life meaningful. It is definitely, however, counter-cultural in our time. In the Benedictine monastic tradition, in addition to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience there is a fourth vow: a vow to stability. If you aren't familiar with this notion, there are some excellent posts I found that I commend to you, here and here.

In short, the vow to stability 
...refers to the importance of community and commitment in life. For a monk or nun it refers directly to a commitment to the monastery where they will live for the rest of their life.  While we all may not be a member of a monastic order, we can make our vow of stability to our families, to our faith communities, to our local and global communities, and to our fellow pilgrims along the journey of faith. The vow of stability also speaks to our current environmental crisis—for when we remain committed to the earth we learn how to be good stewards of that which God has given us. (See here.)
The Church is complicit with our dominant culture in working against this commitment. Clergy hear that the average tenure for a rector is seven years and they get "itchy" at around year six for the next great parish. (Often the reason that the average tenure is seven years is the same as in marriages where we speak of a seven-year itch; boredom.) But I often counsel clergy if they are not caught up in deep conflict to "stay the course" - because I honestly believe real transformative ministry doesn't begin until about ten years in. In a similar way, lay people are sometimes chasing after the perfect parish. They disappear when a rector retires because they confuse following Jesus and the star-power of a glamorous priest. Or more often still, they leave because they are mad about something and surely the next parish will be "perfect."

In my own life (and as recently as yesterday) I am encouraged to think about putting my name into a bishop search. I feel absolutely no call to do that. I have tried to listen. But what I hear in my own soul, and from what I believe is God at work in my life, is that I am where I am meant to be right now. Being in a diocese for twenty years and having an opportunity to understand the culture and influence that culture for good - and working for a bishop I love and respect - is my calling. I spent fifteen years as a rector, but it was really the second half of that ministry that bore the most fruit. I anticipate the same as a canon and figure I'm just starting to get warmed up in the work God has given me to do in this time and place.

That's my vocational life. I am not a monk and I have not taken a vow to stability. But I bear witness to my readers to the good that comes from staying at things. The idea of packing up and starting over in a new place seems to violate what it is I know. Am I resisting God's call, because God is always doing new things? Perhaps. But I don't think so. I feel that, in the same way that my "first" marriage is now going strong after almost 33 years, and that we've lived in just two homes (six miles apart) over the past twenty years is a good thing. I see it when my kids come "home" and see friends they went to elementary school with. And even though my roots are in Pennsylvania and not Massachusetts, I will be seeing high school friends in a week and college friends in two weeks because new friends are silver, but old ones are gold. These deep, deep roots represent something important to me about who I am. I also have to admit that I'm married to a person who has known all of this intuitively for much longer than I have.

All of us need discernment (and I'm blessed to have had the same spiritual director for fifteen years now) to figure out when transitions should be embraced and when we recommit to stability. There is no formula for any of this. But the main point of this post is that stability and transition can be held in a creative tension and we do a disservice to discerning the will of God when we minimize the importance of stability. 

In my office there is a little print that was given to me by the director of the preschool at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, Connecticut, where my oldest son, Graham, was attending at the time. (Twenty-five years later, we still get Christmas letters each year from that former director, Carol Goetz.) It says this: "there are two things you can give to your children: roots and wings." I have taken this metaphor as a rule of life for my ministries beyond parenthood as well: congregations need to be rooted if they are to fly. And we, ourselves, need to be rooted if we mean to fly as well.

A commitment to stability CAN get us stuck, of course. But it is hardly the temptation that most people in our world today face. THIS post is about what it means to see the good in committing to stability because otherwise we are always just skimming along the surface, and taking our old bag of tricks to new places where we may be bored in five or six or seven years again. For me, a commitment to stability is a daily invitation to go deeper, to keep growing, like the tall oak trees that surround my home. Changes will come; that's inevitable and when they do I think we need to learn to "go with the flow." But commitment to place and to people over time keeps us rooted, and in a world where the winds of change blow strong, that's worth remembering in a new year of grace.

Post-script

After clicking "publish" on this post, I heard a little voice in my head reminding me that "stability" requires no small amount of social privilege. And I have lots of that. People move for lots of reasons besides "itching for the next thing," and I hope my readers know that I know this. Migrants are but one example ripped from the headlines (and Holy Scripture) of people who are in search of better, safer and dare I say more stable lives. Closer to home, people move because they have to; I get that. But I also remember a physics teacher I had in high school named Ed Parsons who was brilliant, and apparently was recruited to teach in more prestigious places than where he was. He told us that "when he could catch a fish on Broad Street (in Philadelphia) that maybe he'd consider it. The point of this post is not to shame people who are "always on the move" - or who love new things. It is to claim, for myself, as a person who has indeed been very privileged and blessed in my life, that stability can be a virtue.