Thursday, May 19, 2016

Meaningful change

Sometimes pop culture and religion come together in strange ways. Sometimes it is even good.

I noticed on the Facebook that Jesuit Father James Martin posted a photograph of a woman standing next to another priest with the comment “Yesterday my friend Fr. John Duffell met a graduate of the Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York.” The graduate was Lady Gaga, and the big news was that “Lady Gaga went to Mass!”

Given that she grew up Catholic, went to Catholic school, and routinely finds sneaky ways to insert scripture and Catholic references into her music, what’s the big deal?

Well, apparently some people are suspicious of Lady Gaga’s motives
According to Crux, Becky Roach from Catholic-Link, wrote a post complaining that Lady Gaga went to Mass, posted that fact on Instagram, while still continuing to live as a Hollywood celebrity with all the trappings. I guess that to these folks that if Lady Gaga doesn’t suddenly become Amy Grant or the Medical Mission Sisters, then she is somehow not Catholic enough.

The Catholic world is not alone in this. When I was a teen-aged Baptist, and listened to a lot of Christian pop music, I remember similar things happening in the evangelical world when a big movie star or pop star would announce that they were “born-again.” It was cool to have a celebrity on “our team”…but when they didn’t start cutting Christian pop but did the music they always did, or continued to take parts in films that they had always taken, we were told that they had “fallen away.” Often they would misquote Mark 4:3-20, they had fallen on shallow soil. They weren’t somehow Christian enough.

Make no mistake, Christianity is a religion of conversion! But it is not a light switch. It takes time, and might follow a path we do not expect.

The rule of Saint Benedict has something to say about this.  In the rule, he talks about “Conversatio morum’” or (very) roughly translated “Conversion of Life.” When a monk takes on the vow of “conversion of life”, it is a promise to live a life of a continuous change of heart. It is promise to be open to a daily reshaping of the mind and heart according to God’s plan for us. 

We have often learned this concept exactly backwards, so it’s important to stop and listen.

We often think of repentance as a turning from something to something. Typically we think of this kind of change as, the Prayer Book says, “turning from the old life of sin into new and everlasting life.” Converatio morum is instead a turning with something. It is aligning our heart, mind, and spirit with God the Holy Spirit and turning with Him, toward Him, and beside Him. For Benedict, conversion of life is a radical re-orientation towards God in all things.

Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, says:

Benedict did not demand of his followers great feats of prayer and mysticism based on an asceticism of perfection. He asked monastics to set out on a path to change their hearts. This conversatio morum, which is the profession we have made, relies on valuing community and connectedness in a world that prizes individualism and independence. We have the opportunity to demonstrate to the postmodern world that happiness is found in God and God is found in relationship with others—community.

Oddly enough, the Instagram post that Lady Gaga posted hits the mark. She says: “The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but the food that God gives us.” In short, she riffs a saying dating back to the Apostolic era that the Eucharist is medicine for sinners.

When we come to Christ, we don’t just wake up one day and find ourselves changed, perfect, and sinless. If that were the case, then all the babies we’ve ever baptized would be never be crabby, always patient; never self-centered but fully self-aware. No, instead, we baptize people knowing full well that the change Christ will bring takes time, practice, and patience. It will mean that God leaves room for us to try and fail—or even to not try and still fail!—and that eventually we will go the next step in our spiritual pilgrimage building on what we have learned before.

Br. David Vryhof of the Society of St. John the Evangelist writes:

Only God can transform us; only God can convert us.  Resolutions of our own making and determined attempts at self-discipline are not enough.  Strong desire and determination can help, but they won’t necessarily get us there.  Learning and believing the right beliefs will not transform our lives.  We cannot convert ourselves by our own doing; it is the work of the Spirit.

But we can open ourselves to the process by becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.

This is what spiritual practice is all about. This is why we pray and fast and study. This is why we go to Church and partake of the sacraments and join ourselves to the Body of Christ.

We are already in relationship with God, but we grow in that relationship by being intentional about it and by paying attention to it.  And as we give ourselves over to this process of transformation, conversion happens.

What’s happening is not simply a halt to bad behavior but a gradual-yet-radical reorientation of our lives towards God. A conversion of the heart; a conversion of our living. So while this change is gradual, and often very subtle, it is not accidental. Like stability, the decision to stand still and be present; conversion of life is a decision to be open to change. These decisions may appear to be contradictory—do we stay or do we go?—they in fact represent the living breathing heart of the Christian life that the Rule of St. Benedict describes.

Change is at the heart of the Christian life. Christianity is all about conversion, but while at least some of us might start at the moment of conversion (variously described as being “born-again,” “baptized by the Holy Spirit,” or simply as “a-ha!”) it is in fact a life-long process. Since God is infinite in love, majesty, grace, and power, and since we are so limited, it makes sense that conversion of life is a continual, on-going, and intentional re-orientation towards God.

We wish for instant results, instant transformation, instant holiness, but what God seeks is a heart tuned towards God and that takes time. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Don't just do something...stand there!

When I was a kid and complained that I was bored, my father or mother would invariably say “Go outside and play!” Most of all, they would ask me what I wanted to do. We had a house filled with books, artwork, and music…and we lived on a small farm. There was plenty to do, but the problem was not lack of activity, it was lack of engagement. In inquiring about what I wanted to do, they were, in their way, inviting me to listen to what my boredom was telling me.

The odd thing about the Christian life is that we are called to grow, to move, to journey. The first followers of Jesus were known as “people of the way.”

But here’s the weird part. We are invited to simultaneously journey and to stand still and listen.

That’s because the journey we are on is not from place to place. Nor is it that we go from a defined past to an imagined future, with the present as a mere way-station where we act busy…but rather the Christian journey takes place along a stream of an unfolding present.
We hope for the future, we are built on the past, but we always live in the present because it is this very moment, and none other, that God shows up. The journey really takes off when we discover that we are not going from here to there but we are really moving from present to present; from now to now.

The key to making the journey is to know stability. We want to do something! But Jesus invites us to be still. Or more accurately “To Be.” “Still.”

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, author of The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture says stability “is a commitment to trust God not in an ideal world, but in the battered and bruised world we know now.”

We Christians get excited about experiences and go places looking for the next spiritual high. We say God called us here, and then God calls us there. It’s all focused on little ‘lessons’ or ‘insights’ that we’re supposed to take with us to the next place.” We keep looking for God in the next place, the next new thing, the next mountaintop experience.
Our culture encourages constant motion from place to place, from job to job—and we don’t even need a car or a plane! We can sit at our computers or in our living rooms with a remote in our hand, and go from thing to thing, media to media, channel to channel, without ever leaving our house. So it’s no wonder that many Christians confuse “journey” with restlessness, and “stillness” with stagnation.

And it’s no wonder that Christians are so easily bored!

“We idealize and aspire to a life on the move, spending what resources we have on acquiring skills that make us more ‘marketable,’ that is, more mobile,” Wilson-Hartgrove says. The result is a sort of rootlessness and dissatisfaction that can move into the heart of our spirituality, and give us a kind spiritual “itchy-feet.”

A 2010 article in the National Catholic Reporter describes Wilson-Hartgrove, an associate minister at the historically black St. John’s Baptist Church, and the Rutba House community that he co-founded. His ministry involves him in peacemaking and racial reconciliation in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, N.C. The Rutba House, where Jonathan lives with his wife, Leah, their son, JaiMichael, and 10 others, is a new evangelical monastic community that prays, eats and lives together, welcoming neighbors and the homeless.
“Stability seemed to make sense for our community, given the challenges we face in a racially mixed, impoverished area. It’s a commitment to trust God not in an ideal world, but in the battered and bruised world we know.”

He credits the Rule of St. Benedict as a model and inspiration for his interest in and enthusiasm for stability as a spiritual practice.

“St. Benedict summarized the wisdom of the early Christian desert fathers and mothers in the rule he devised for his monastic order. Monks promise stability, fidelity to the monastic life, and obedience. It’s striking to me that Benedict decided to put stability first in his list. If we’re going to climb Jacob’s ladder toward the humility of Jesus, Benedictine wisdom says that the first thing we need is a stable place to begin.”

In his own time, Benedict of Nursia saw many spiritual vagabonds.  Monks and nuns moved from monastery to monastery, looking for a more exciting spiritual experience, a wiser or more agreeable spiritual guide, even better food! Putting stability first was a counter to that. Benedict taught one must deal with our own demons in a particular place without running away.

Benedict recognized early on that one of the biggest threats to stability is boredom.
The main trap of boredom is the expectation that external things will feed our inner hunger. That’s why we fill up our time with endless activity, our silence with endless stimulation, and then wonder why we feel so tired and yet so restless when it becomes predictable or—worse, yet!--quiet. The real tragedy of boredom is that it tempts us to use our very creativity to separate ourselves from each other, to drown our feelings in stimulation, and to hide or relationships behind our busy-ness.

Stability invites us to turn our creativity into prayer, our activity into a form of engaging the world and listening for God, and time into moments of holy presence.

Many churches try to grow their numbers by mimicking the entertainment idioms of the culture. Once I saw a billboard for a church that showed people dancing to a band under a mirrored ball. To make church exciting, they chose to mimic a disco or rock-concert. I must admit that it sure looked exciting, but is worship merely a night out on the town? On the other hand, whatever music can draw us into the presence of God and rest in God, then I am for it because it is about presence not merely filling rooms (or merely doing worship “right!”)

Once a community of Benedictine monastics was encouraged by the significant increase in visitors to their monastery for retreat. They had to build a larger guest house. But they were also aware of the danger that a weekend with the monks can become an experience that people purchase to satisfy a spiritual itch without having to seriously rethink how they live with the people in their family, at work or school, or in their parish.

“True stability can never be a product for individuals to consume,” Wilson-Hargrove writes. Rather, it is an invitation to shared life with particular people in a particular place. “Nothing is more important than rooting ourselves in a place where God can happen.”

Russian Orthodox bishop Anthony Bloom once said, “You find stability at the moment you discover that God is everywhere, that you do not to seek him elsewhere…if you cannot find Him here, you cannot find Him anywhere else.”

Stability is the antidote to spiritual boredom. Or, as the old joke goes, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

Sunday, February 28, 2016

On fig trees and holy ground

Bad news travels sure fast, doesn’t it? 
In today’s Gospel, Luke tells us about some people who ran up to Jesus to tell him about some Galileans who were not only executed by Pilate, but how their was blood with his sacrifices. Jesus verbalizes what’s on their minds: "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?"
It’s a common misconception. Take today’s Epistle. Please! It contains one of the most misused passages in all the New Testament: that God never tests us more than we can handle. But saying to a suffering person that “God never gives us more than we can handle” backfires in three ways: first because it teaches that bad things only happen to bad people; second, it says that if we are feel as if we are buckling under the weight of grief or pain, that we somehow morally and spiritually deficient; and third, it teaches us that God deliberately does horrendous things, or willfully looks the other way, because God loves us.
In short, it teaches us to hate God.
My saying that the suffering somehow deserve their fate has the dubious virtue of putting you, the hurting person, out of my misery. It builds a comfortable distance between me and the pain of the moment. It preserves the illusion of control when things are clearly out of control.
But Jesus doesn’t go there when people ran up to tell him all the bad news. Were those Galileans sinners because they were executed by Pilate? "No," he tells the crowd, "but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."
Or when the tower of Siloam fell and eighteen people were killed, crushed because they stood in the wrong place at the time, is that because they were sinners? Jesus says no.
There was another time when some people asked Jesus about a man born blind. “Rabbi,” they asked. “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” “Neither.” says Jesus, and when he cures the man of his blindness, Jesus denies a correlation between the man’s problem and someone’s sin.
So does God a big ledger and, like Santa Claus, does he keep track of who’s been naughty or nice and decide to send his elves, er, angels!, to send earthly punishments or rewards? The answer is no.
Does God allow tyrants to kill people or tsunamis to drown people because they’ve done something to deserve it? No.
Does God send illness or catastrophe as object lessons in behaving well? Jesus says “no.”
Jesus says, there is no connection between the suffering and the sin, and yet the death rate for all humanity is still 100%, that is enough for Jesus to urge us to line up our lives with God.
Underneath the rationalizations there is terror. If I had a nickel for everyone I’ve heard tell a grieving person God needed a deceased loved one more than we do, then I’d have a Brinks truck for a piggy bank. Or when someone says that God only gives what we can handle. People say stuff like that because by giving every random calamity or violence a motive, no matter how lame, we attempt with our heads to keep the terror in our hearts at bay.
Jesus refutes the illusion that we can protect ourselves from harm by giving God all the credit for success and sinner all the blame for disaster. Jesus does what he does best, he goes to the vulnerable spot that their fright has opened up. He goes there because we can’t go there alone. It is not a bad thing to feel the full fragility of life. It is not a bad thing for us to count our breaths in the dark – but instead of staying in the place of fear, Jesus calls us to turn toward the light.
Jesus invites us to turn towards God, which is why he tweaks their fear. Don’t worry about Pilate and all the other things that can come crashing down on your heads, he tells them. Terrible things happen, and you are not always to blame. But don’t let that stop you from cultivating the good. That fearful place you feel at the pit of your stomach? That is also a holy place inside you, nurture it.
The conundrum of suffering becomes unsolvable when we expect that God is completely active and in charge of absolutely everything, and that we expect God to always act benevolently. Many years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner said that willingly gives up one of God’s three attributes—that God knows everything, God is all powerful, and God is all loving—in order that we might be free. I have always been indebted to him for this insight. Over the years, I have taken it on a different, I hope more Trinitarian track.
Some Christians like to have God be the one behind every circumstance and every event…the cosmic manager (or puppeteer, some will sneer). Others understand God as the one who makes the clock and perhaps even winds it up every now and then, but lets it tick away on its own. That’s because we humans are pretty binary. We like things to be either one or zero. Yankees or Red Sox. Ford or Chevy. We want it one way or the other. Our brains cannot wrap themselves around too much contradiction.
But Christians ought to be accustomed to concurrent realities. Realities that appear contradictory or impossible to contain but which cannot in fact exist except in a kind of concurrent, interrelationship where one truth cannot exist without the other even if they appear to be at odds.
We know Jesus to be fully human and fully God. Christians know that God is Trinity of three distinct persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-- who contain the fullness of the one God without diluting the personhood of the three. When we say the creed or close a collect, we acknowledge in shorthand that the nature of God is a unity of concurrent realities.
And in nature, (and here I know just enough to be truly dangerous...!) physics tells us that complimentary realities are part and parcel of the created order: light is at once a wave and a particle; today we live in a world that is at once makes use of Newtonian and quantum mechanics—Newton shows us how to launch and keep the International Space Station in orbit or drive your car, and quantum theory helps us scan your groceries and makes your GPS work.
Concurrent realities don’t just live in the physical world or in the person of God. They are deeply embedded in the mystery of living.
You see, the incarnation of Jesus, who is 100% God and 100% human in the same package undiluted, tells us something about how God addresses this eternal conundrum: in the person of Jesus, we see that God is at once intimately and fully involved with every aspect of our living and in every element of creation; and, at the very same time, we and the entire universe are completely and utterly free.
God is involved in everything we do, and natural laws and phenomena happen. God intimately knows and love us, and we are completely and utterly free. Not either/or but both/and.
But just because we are completely free and nature happens, does not mean that God is apathetic to our suffering or distant from our reality. God is very much involved and has given us a solution.
First of all, Jesus’ incarnation shows us that God is truly with us. And Jesus’ story about the gardener who talks the householder into giving the unfruitful fig tree another chance by cultivating and watering it tells us something of how this works.
Today we heard another story of God appearing to a person through a plant…when God appeared to Moses in the form of a bush that was on fire but not being burned up. When Moses sees this strange sight while minding his father-in-law’s sheep, he draws near to check it out. But God tells him that the place where is standing is holy ground. And God is about to directly intervene to liberate the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt and lead them to a land of promise.
This is what have come expect God to be doing. Showing up. Acting decisively. Knocking heads and taking names. God’s liberation will be much more complicated and subtle than that, but that’s what we remember.
But Jesus tells the story of another plant, an unfruitful fig tree that its owner is ready to give up on and cut down. The gardener pleads for the tree, saying that he will care for it—give the tree another chance, he says. Think of the ground around that tree that has been dug up, watered, and around which manure has been spread also as holy ground.
There is holy ground where God shows up, doing things miraculous things outside our expectation.
There is also holy ground that is appears quite ordinary but in which is in fact ground that has been disturbed, into which is spread food, water, and manure… and a plant that has been pruned, all so that we may bear fruit.
Jesus’ parable reminds us that we are not helpless. We cannot stop suffering but we can in the meantime be attentive and caring to one another, focused in our prayer and in tune with the world around us. Above all (and this is the real reason why we confess our sins in Lent) we can honest about what we know and what we don’t know. We can be honest to God and ourselves about what we fear, what we ignore and what we hope we have mastered, what we have tried and where we have failed. 
We confess because know that Christ goes to the most vulnerable places possible in his passion where they will go with him to the cross where all this that separates us from God, each other, ourselves, and nature will die. Giving God our honesty will, in fact, feel like dying. Recognizing that we are not in control feels like darkness. By cultivating the things we can do—our love, our relationships, our attentiveness—this is how we discover resurrection and receive the strength that turns our frailty into our greatest strength.
Bad news travels fast. But the good news is that God is with us in all of life…when things go right, and more importantly, when things go wrong…in Christ we know that God is intimately involved in all of it. God suffers with us, accompanies us, and rises with us.

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C - February 28, 2016
Exodus 3:1-151 Corinthians 10:1-13Luke 13:1-9

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Anybody but Judas!

Guess what the first thing the disciples did after the resurrection? Yes, that's right! They had a committee meeting!


But they had some important business to do. Jesus had twelve disciples but this brand-spanking new church had only eleven.

They had to decide who was going to replace Judas. Judas, the twelfth apostle, betrayed Jesus and in his remorse killed himself. So now the remaining apostles need to pick his replacement. So they developed a search criteria--the person had to know Jesus throughout his earthly ministry, to have been a faithful follower of Jesus from the time of Jesus' baptism by John to his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. Furthermore, he had to have been a direct witness to Jesus' resurrection.

There is nothing there about his character, or any background checks, but I am sure that this was also a consideration.

So out of all the possible followers of Jesus, they came up with two names: Justus (aka Barsabbas or Joseph) and Matthias.

Then they drew lots.

And that is pretty much the last we ever heard of Matthias.

Given the amount of valuable velum taken up rehearsing the betrayal and death of Judas Iscariot, I have a hunch that maybe, just maybe, they had not completely processed their feelings about his dastardly deed. What with Jesus' own death, his resurrection, and the tendency of the Risen Jesus to pop in unannounced, often in two places at the same time, and then Jesus' ascension and charge to them to go into the world and await the coming of the Holy Spirit...with all that going on, I don't think they really had a chance to work this out.

 So they draw straws and Matthias wins.

According to Laurie Brock, Celebrity Blogger, for this year's Lent Madness, Matthias has a strong stomach and some crazy super-powers.
Information about Matthias from other sources states he was born in Bethlehem and studied under Simeon (of Song of Simeon fame). He and Andrew traveled together to spread the gospel into Ethiopia. Matthias is said to have encountered several groups on his journeys that attempted to kill him in various ways. One account has him being forced to drink poison. Matthias complied; not only did he remain unharmed but also the other Christians with him who had been forced to drink the poison were miraculously healed. Another account recalls his flight from angry pagans bent on killing him; eventually he becomes invisible and escapes. When Matthias is again fleeing from agitated pagans, the earth opens and swallows them, allowing Matthias to go about his missionary work.
He may or may not have written his own Gospel, but we'll never know because it's lost to history. 
Matthias was apparently the safe choice. A known quantity. One of "us" (at least to the eleven). And he apparently did very good work. But one could make the case that what the church was ready for Matthias, when what they really needed was a Paul. 

Paul was the one who would break open the church, take it to the Gentiles, and define Christianity as a religion in it's own right. Matthias certainly forwarded the Gospel, but the extent to which Paul changed the conversation is seen in the tales about Matthias that were told about him through the lens of Paul's ministry. Even fans of Matthias' kind of Christianity, a Christianity still intimately connected with Judaism, had to adapt to the new world brought to them by that interloping apostle's work. 

I wonder how much of the eleven's vision about how and where to go next was guided mainly by the urge to make sure that whoever they picked was not another Judas. 

This is a sobering lesson for us as we think about God is at work in our world that is changing all around us. As we think about the church that we love versus the church that God--that the world--needs.  We are tempted to at once go for the safe, while at the same time go in reaction against what went wrong in the past. 

How often have we decided to act solely on the basis of the bad or failed experience of the past? And how often have we ended up repeating the same mistakes in a new way? We might bounce from job, or from one relationship, or from one church, to another. And still come away feeling "meh!" 

The problem is that very often we listen for God through the filter called "well, that didn't work, let's try the opposite!" Instead of listening for what we really need, we try to avoid what made us feel bad. 

But if the criteria for the future is simply to avoid the pain of the past, if what we are looking for is certainty, if the best we can is to say "Anybody but Judas" then we set ourselves up to miss the possibility and the power that God has in store for us.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The hen is in the fox-house

Jesus was in danger and some Pharisees went to warn Jesus.

They said that Herod, the puppet king of Roman occupied Palestine, has it in for you. You’d better leave town before he has you killed!

“Listen!” Jesus says to them. “You tell Herod that ‘the hen is in the fox-house! And the fur is going to fly!'”

Well, okay. That’s not exactly how Jesus put it, but Jesus did liken himself and God to a mother hen who gathers her brood under her wings, and he did compare Herod to a fox. So Jesus took what must have been common knowledge—if  not a common adage—and turned it on its head!

Because we know what happens when foxes meet chickens, right? Lunch!

But not now. Jesus has come to Jerusalem and God’s kingdom is at hand. The hen is truly in the fox-house, and she gathering her brood. Look out, fox!

Once more Jesus tells us that God’s power is found in places exactly the opposite of where we expect.

Herod may have the temple guards and can just send a note to the Roman garrison for back-up, but God is curing the sick, casting out evil, and gathering God’s people. That is Jesus’ standard of success. Not how many cities are conquered, how many votes are tallied, or how much force or violence one can bring to bear. Instead, Jesus’ standard is how many people are healed and how much tangible evil is demonstrably cast out, and how many people turn their eyes to God and welcome the Messiah into their midst.

Of course, the Pharisees are right. Another trip to Jerusalem will in fact result in Jesus’ death.

But that death will result in Jesus going to the ultimate fox-house…death and the grave…where he will even there gather God’s people to Godself and bring them home.  And even though they (and we) will kill Jesus on that cross, in his resurrection, we see that God’s power conquers and overcomes the worst the world can dish out.

Humanity sees fear and responds with big words, power, and even violence.

God names the fear, and confronts evil with love. Evil is met with the very things that evil hates the most. The power of God is found not in the powerful fox but in the hen who gathers her brood and stands between the hunter and the hunted.

This past week, we saw an amazing example of this in action. Candidates who promise to protect Christians and who promise to protect the prerogatives of the past, were confronted last week by a man who went to a wall south of the border ... and said mass.

And you know he hit home because the politicos were outraged. They demanded an apology! Pope Francis, like Jesus, went to the fox-house, and (oh my!) did the fur ever fly!

I don’t know about you, but every day someone sends me an e-mail or a flyer telling me how to save the church. Other people every day tell me that the Church is dead, and about how irrelevant we’ve become.

Well, look around at what is really going on. Look at the way God is work in this community and many like it across our diocese, the commonwealth…and around the world. And you tell those foxes that the sick are being cared for, the hungry are fed, the homeless housed (even in our church halls and basements), the outcast are welcomed, the addicted are finding recovery, prisoners are being visited, the illiterates are being taught to read, women and children who once knew violence and exploitation are given shelter and new lives, the grieving and the sorrowful are comforted. 

You tell those foxes that walls are turning into bridges, and people who had no voice are finding their voice. 

You tell those foxes that things which were cast down are being raised up, and all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.

This is the work of God, it is the cross becoming resurrection, it is, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, the dream of God overcoming the nightmare of human sin.

The hen is in the fox-house, my friends, and the fur is really flying! Thanks be to God!

A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent. Luke 13:31-35

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Six lessons from a missing Jesus

Sometime during Advent, someone made off with the baby Jesus figure in our parish's manger scene right in front of the church. I did not notice the missing Jesus until the Sunday after Christmas.

I put out the word on social media, which generated a newspaper story, and then a story on the local television, as well as various reports on the region's radio stations. The story went far and wide on the internet, particularly through Facebook. We received many kind words of support, offers to help or replace the figure, and even a few jokes and some snarky comments.

On the whole it was a good experience. All of the attention has, so far at least, has not resulted in the figures return but it did give us a chance to put our best foot forward to the community and for some very good conversation...often by e-mail or in social media...among ourselves, the members and friends of Trinity, Easton.

Here are few lessons I have learned from the whole thing.

1. When faced with a crisis, especially one not of your own making, decide early if your stand is going to hopeful or hurtful, compassionate or defensive, arrogant or humble. That means not only telling only what you know, but building a framework of meaning for the crisis that is consistent with your organization's or church's values.

I talked with three reporters during as this unfolded, and all three asked me in one way or another whether this was a "hate crime," or an example of the "war on Christmas." I don't blame them for this; after all, their job is to tell the story and a priest who was red-faced with anger or else calm and forgiving would be part of the story one way of the other.

Besides, these questions were certainly on the minds of their readers and viewers. All you had to do was look at the several comments that appeared on social media and the various web sites, speculating about the motives of the thieves. The comments included everything from assumptions that the figure was going to be sold to buy drugs, to derogatory names attached to the perpetrators. It would have been very easy to join in the chorus of offense.

We chose, more or less in the instant, that we weren't going to go there. That we just wanted the figure returned "no questions asked." It has happened that way once before, there was no reason to assume that it would not happen again.

2. Keep it in perspective. 

Behind the hate crime question (and the comments by some folks that this incident was a sign of the general decline of western civilization) was the temptation to catastrophise.

That's why I use the term "disrespect" in response to the television reporter's question about whether this was a hate crime. The act was disrespectful, but whether it was a prank, a bad joke, or a statement about the church, one could not say based on the figure's absence alone. To compare our loss to the real losses and injury experienced by people of faith whose churches are burned down, or who lose their lives for believing, or who are displaced because of their faith is at best silly and at worst narcissistic.

It seemed also to us that the presence of the hungry and the homeless in our Saturday Ark Soup Kitchen is a much greater scandal.

The pain and the sense of loss is real and we need to honor that, but we have to keep it in context.

3. Keep your eyes open for hidden and surprising gifts.

One of the gifts was the discovery that a significant chunk of the congregation had internalized the message that Advent is not the same as Christmas, but is a season of waiting. When everyone, lay and ordained, are necessarily running around getting ready for Christmas--both at home and in the parish--this lesson can lost in all the noise.

But it turns out that people noticed the missing Jesus a long time before Christmas and simply assumed that because it was still Advent, the baby Jesus would not show up till Christmas. So one gift was the realization that our formation works on levels above and below consciousness. In a strange way, the incident showed us to be more fully formed than we knew.

This did not only show itself in a better understanding of the church's calendar, but also appeared in the ability of lay people to think about their faith through this incident in wonderfully creative ways.

And, of course, our neighbors and friends outside the congregation and in our parish, the City of Easton, were wonderful and supportive. Even people of different faiths or of no particular faith, all sent us warm wishes and passed along our story hoping the thief would have a change of heart.

4. We are people with a message. 

We started out looking for a lost baby Jesus figure. We found ourselves being messengers of Good News. Media was our friend in this instance. The lesson here is that Christians who have a message of hope should not be afraid to communicate it in ways that our culture understands.

5. Humor helps.

I learned a long time ago in hospital ministry that humor can keep the stress demons away. At the same time, it is important that we stay present to the real pain of people who are hurting. So humor has to happen in the right way, in the right place, and at the right time.

Humor can help keep things in perspective, especially when the phone is ringing off the hook. But don't expect the joke to accepted or understood outside of your context.

I created two things which I circulated mainly among close friends and staff when things started to get a little surreal. One was a fake ransom note created on a thing called "The Ransomizer."

Another one was this:

6. In a crisis, the job of leadership is to give direction and to frame the meaning around the event. That means for religious communities being able to think on our feet theologically. 

We, of all people, have to be able to ask out loud where God is in the mess and what do we do as faithful people. This is made much easier if the community has done their work beforehand so that they know their mission, have a common language, and have decided what their core stance as a faith community will be.

This is the background for what became a general letter to the congregation that attempts to frame what was going on in terms of our theology and mission.

At Trinity, this work has been going on for a long time. For example, at the rear of our church, near the entrance to our parish hall, is an old "Episcopal Church welcomes you" sign that is perhaps forty or fifty years old. When we built our new kitchen and addition in 2010, we hauled it out of retirement and put it up over the new entrance. It says

"Trinity Episcopal Church
Founded in 1819
A Church for All People"

That's was quite a mission statement! Every day it is a challenge to live into that. Every now and then we succeed. This was a moment when the congregation led the community and in so doing witnessed to the Gospel in a powerful yet simple way.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

The way of peace

A sermon for 2 Advent C, Sunday, December 6, 2015

Today, we get a glimpse of the other Nativity story in the Gospel. Not the story of Jesus’ birth…but of John the Baptist. Our glimpse comes through the Canticle of Zechariah from the Gospel of Luke, which we sang instead of the psalm today:
In the tender compassion of our God
The dawn from on high shall break upon us.
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death
And to guide our feet into the way of peace.
John was born to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. An angel told this Zechariah, John’s father. When Zechariah decided to name the baby “Junior” the angel took away his voice until he gave him the name God wanted: John. The canticle that was the first thing out of Zechariah’s mouth after hastily scrawling out John’s name.
St. John Baptist grew up to be as tough nails. As much as we try to domesticate St. John Baptist, because we find his funny clothes and eccentric diet intriguing, there was nothing soft about him.
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Kadel wrote about him:
He called people to repentance, and he was not afraid to say hard words to those who tried to game the system. He talked about people who said long fancy prayers but did nothing about the suffering of the people. He spoke up against those who profited by power. He spoke against religious and political leaders who said one things but did another or did evil in the name of God. Those in power did not react well. In the end, they cut off his head.
But these things can distract us from what John was really all about. “The tender compassion of our God,” the song says. John was out there in the wilderness. He was a voice crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” And, as the song goes, “to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
John prepared the way for Jesus, by proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. And in so doing he confronted the powers of this world that work and act against God and God’s people. Of course, the powers that be would literally hand John (or more precisely Herod) his head. The powers of the world does not take well to the ways of peace.
Just as with John, we live in a dark, violent age, and it is difficult to see that path towards peace. By now we’ve all heard about yet another mass murder in a public building.  And we have witnessed what has become a normal cycle of reaction. People cry out for gun control, while others respond that it really the fault of the gun or use the event itself to say “see? Gun control doesn’t work!”
We look for whom to blame and we want to know whom to be angry at.  “Is it terrorism?” Of course it’s terrorism! And it does not matter if the shooter is Muslim, Christian, a disgruntled employee, or an angry high school student! Because such acts are designed to provoke fear, to grab our attention, and to affect the world by a show of power and violence.  It really does not matter what the shooters believe or who their targets are—what matters is our collective response. Remember terrorism is not an ideology, it is a methodology that is meant to deliberately scare us all into participating in their violence and out of our fear to do their bidding in harming each other. Terrorists count on us to react irrationally and fearfully. They want us to strike out at anything that appears threatening. The people who promote terrorism—no matter what their ideology, religion, or nationality might be-- are agents of chaos, fear and anger. They are agents of evil and so are precisely the opposite of the messengers of God’s peace.
John was out there in a situation not that different from our own, and he courageously called for repentance. “Comfort ye my people,” says the prophet. “Prepare the way of the Lord”—the ‘superhighway of peace.’ The road to peace is direct and purposeful…and is travelled—without fear, without revenge.
It’s easy to get sucked in to violence. Fr Kadel reminds us:
We imagine that somehow we can put together power and use violence to destroy violence. Remember how angry we were after 9/11? But the anger and the war that followed did not destroy the violence—it moved it around, recruited more angry and violent people on all sides, in our country and others. It increased intolerance and xenophobia in our country as well as elsewhere. The more that we attempt to crush violence with anger, violence and exercise of power, the more violence is multiplied in more places. This fear-laden atmosphere of violence even effects the way in which police interact with civilians—separate and apart from terrorism or weapons. We cannot stop gun violence and mass murder in our country with power. We must stop it with peace.
As I’ve said before, if you want to fight evil, we must do the things that evil hates the most.
Evil wants us to believe that peace is lazy, soft, and weak. But look at who God sent to proclaim peace. The prophets, especially St. John Baptist, were not passive or lazy or soft. Neither was Jesus, who willingly endured the passion and the cross for our—the world’s!—salvation. And they show that evil is wrong. The path of peace requires fortitude and courage.
That is why the flap about prayer versus action is an important conversation to have. Maybe you saw the Daily News headline last week? It said “God is not fixing this!” The front page was directed at those who tell us to pray for the victims of gun violence but will pass no law to deal with the proliferation of firearms in our society.
Part of the flap was a symptom of the anxiety in our society. We are stuck and incapable of staying focused on the problem at hand. Since we cannot tell the truth, and since we cannot listen to each other, and since any hint of compromise is anathema, all that energy has to go somewhere. So the conversation becomes quickly a gotcha game of who is doing more (or less) for our safety. Which is why we moved from that fourteen people killed and twenty-one wounded in a mass shooting on Wednesday to arguing about prayer on Friday. 
It's time to get unstuck. But first, let’s take a breath.
Pope Francis once talked about prayer when he said, “You pray for the hungry. You pray that God will provide for the hungry. Then you feed the hungry. That’s how prayer works.” Or, as Pennsylvania labor organizer Mother Jones more colorfully said over a century ago: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”
The problem is not prayer. Of course, we hold in prayer the dead and the injured and the grieving. Of course, we hold in prayer those who put their lives on the line for the safety of others. And, if we are as spiritually tough as St. John Baptist, we even pray for the perpetrators. We are called to do nothing less!
But if our prayers do not lead us to action, and if we use the vocabulary of prayer and piety to hide our inaction and justify our fear, then as it says in the Letter of James, our faith is as good as dead.
Our faith is not dead! God guides our footsteps in the way of peace. The way of peace does not cringe before evil, but looks evil in the eye and overflows with love…and with clarity, charity, and boldness do the things that evil hates. 

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

First rule of mission: don’t be silly

A sermon on the commemoration of Channing Moore Williams, Missionary Bishop in China and Japan, 1910. 
Unless you are wonky for all things Episcopal, you probably missed this. Recently the Diocese of Oxford in the Church of England published a blog post written the Rev. Paul Eddy called “Ten Tips for a Man-Friendly Christmas Eve Service.”
The Rev. Eddy is a vicar and is also, it seems, their missioner to bring men back into church. You see, the surveys say that men stay away from church in droves except at Christmas and Easter, when presumably, the wives (or their mothers) drag them to church. So he set out ten tips to make Christmas more man-friendly. Well, he did until the Diocese of Oxford decided to take the post down.
Some of the rules are tried and true…stuff clergy hear all the time.  You know, short sermons…don’t let church go on for more than an hour (45 minutes is even better)…easy to sing hymns.
Speaking of that, one idea strikes me as kind of gray: set the Christmas carols in a key that men can sing. We don’t want baritones to unwittingly attempt to sing up in the heavens with the sopranos.  Now I have some sympathy for this idea. For example, I agree with Garrison Keillor that the “Star Spangled Banner” should be sung in the key of G instead of its customary A-flat. But since most Christmas carols are, well, carols they are already in a key accessible to most voices. At least they are to this baritone.
Some of the ideas struck me as downright silly. And these are the ones that brought the most reaction. Among them:
5. Talk about the adventure and danger of the Mission Christ had. Tell the story of a martyr.
7. Employ masculine imagery and language.
8. Play a video clip from an action film as a metaphor.
10. Present Christ the man rather than Christ the infant, and focus teaching on Christ’s power and mission, rather than just his meekness and gentleness.
In short, he is telling us that it’s time for Jesus and his followers to man-up.
This reminded many people about the trend in some churches to combine worship with mixed-martial arts…an attempt to show Jesus as a macho not a wimpy figure that manly-men can really identify with.
We can debate some other time whether or not he has a point...but his solution is to give in to a kind cultural captivity. And not only about assumptions about gender and masculinity, but the temptation to be embarrassed by the radical nature of the Gospel and the temptation to gloss over it's demands. He wants to make the Gospel easy to swallow. 
Proclaiming and living the Gospel requires every day Christians like you and me to experience a kind of spiritual cognitive dissonance. 
If you don’t believe me, look around. 
Here we are talking about Advent as a season to open our hearts to God, to prepare ourselves for the coming of the savior.  Advent is all about the truth that we are at once living in God’s time and in our time at the very same time. We are waiting for God in quiet expectation in the middle of the Crazy Busy Season. We are quietly lighting Advent candles while the culture is talking about magical snowmen and reindeer with headlights. So if you get the idea as you go about your daily living that as Christians we are not speaking the same language…well, it’s because we aren’t.
This disconnect is so built in and so challenging that some Christians want to fix it. Among these are the people who want to trade in one kind of political correctness for the kind that requires every store clerk in the land to wish us all a Merry Christmas…and like it! In their earnest anxiety they miss the truth that all of us followers of Jesus are by definition pilgrims and aliens.

We are tempted to make it so hard that people run away...or make it so easy that the whole exercise seems trite.
But if you think you have it bad, think about the person we commemorate today, Channing Moore Williams. He founded churches in China and Japan and helped form the Nippon Sei Ko Kai, the Anglican Church in Japan.  
Yes, he faced violence. Yes. He had hardship. But to do his work, he had to learn not just a language but a culture. He was not tough, in the popular sense of the world, he was present and persistent. He was quiet and scholarly. Along the way he started several Christian institutions including St. Paul's University (Kyoto), St. Luke's Hospital (Tokyo), and he founded vibrant Christian communities in, among other places, Nagasaki
A missionary once told me that most important skill for in his work was the ability to listen. I think it is true for us, too. Before we can invite people to Jesus, we have to know who we are inviting. We have to hear their story. Lift them up in prayer. Walk with them. Respect them. Having done that, the invitation is natural…and outgrowth of a relationship and not merely a sales pitch. That means we have to be just as at home with Jesus through our prayer, study of Scripture, and our sacramental living.
But above all, we must resist the temptation to the silly. Clever schemes and tricks won’t communicate the Gospel. And even if it fills churches (or auditoriums) these gimmicks will only distort if not outright hide the Gospel.

I mean, look at that blog post I told you about.

Everyone was talking about it—and making fun of the post or arguing for or against it-- anything but the life-changing, creation-healing, reconciling Good News of Jesus. This is why the first rule of mission work is (or ought to be): “Don’t be silly.” At least not needlessly so.

Instead, watch, listen, pray, and when you communicate the eternal love of God to all creation avoid the temptation to resort to gimmicks. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The medicine for the world

A sermon on the Commemoration of James Otis Huntington Sergent, Priest and Monk.
Wednesday, November 24, 2015

Once when I was in high school, an ice storm hit our city and towns. My parish was in the south end of Hartford and the Rector was away. The temperature was plummeting. The power was out everywhere and it was impossible to move about safely.  Things looked bleak. Except that the church, for some reason, alone among the two housing projects that abutted the church, still has power and still had heat. The rest of the neighborhood was dark, but the church was not.

But it did no one any good because the church was closed.

My Dad was the Senior Warden at the time and the Rector was away. When some folks from parish who lived in the neighborhood, including a young Church Army evangelist, called to describe the problem, he said without a moment's hesitation "open it."

He piled us all into our little Saab and we carefully drove to church and joined this impromptu relief effort. Somehow cots appeared and soup was made. Some of us had to go door to door to tell people that the church hall was open and there was food, heat, and light. To me, it was a great adventure!

In the middle of the night, someone (I don't know who) said that we should stop and pray. And so my Dad led a bunch of us in Morning was still dark out but it was after midnight. Then we went on doing was needed doing.

For some reason, that incident from my youth came to mind when I was reading about James Otis Sargent Huntington, the priest who founded the Order of the Holy Cross. Not only was he a key figure in recovering monasticism and religious life in the Episcopal Church, he did so in the context of ministering to the poorest of the poor, and the most outcast of society, in the streets of industrial New York.

Huntington was active in the labor movement and promoted the idea that landowners and industrial owners have a responsibility to those whose work makes their wealth possible.

I have always been taken by the fact that in the Episcopal Church, our 19th Century revival did not take place in tent meetings or in auditoriums but in parish houses built as community and learning centers in cities, in city streets, in places where no one could hide from the fact that the price of America's industrial revolution was a concentration of human misery and displacement rarely seen in human history. Our revival was a recovery of Catholic ritual and theology, yes; but more than that, it was an intentional experiment in connecting the ancient practices of prayer with a modern response to the needs of ordinary people in our day.

Some of the early experimenters could not live with Huntington's rigor of the monastic offices, daily Mass, and work. And it is certainly not for everyone. Nevertheless, this recovery of monasticism in the city streets changed the Episcopal Church forever.

You see it is easy for activists to be active, but to ground our activity in prayer changes our work into a prayer.

And it is easy for prayerful people to pray for people's souls, but to be active in the context of their living incarnates that prayer. It makes our prayer a living thing.

Which is why Huntington's experiment in monastic living as the framework for activism is so important. If the cross really is the world's medicine, then we who practice first-aid treating the world's wounds must be grounded in prayer. And to live in the rhythm of daily prayer and Eucharist is a daily reminder that in Christ, God is at the heart of the world. In Christ, the daily struggles for bread, for work with dignity, for education, for health, are brought to God in the cross. And through the cross, God is with us in our struggles.

And as we gather in this parish on this and every Wednesday, Sunday, and Holy Day around this altar, and as we pray the offices together and separately and lift to God the concerns of the world, we find that God is present in all we see and do. We discover against that the cross is in a tangible, useful, and eternal way, the medicine of the world.

Icon by Tobias Haller, BSG

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Martin of Tours, Veteran

A sermon for the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, November 11, 2015
Matthew 25:34-40

I wonder if it occurred to the diplomats and generals who were working out the Armistice that would stop the fighting in Europe on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 that the day was also the Feast of St. Martin of Tours.

Americans, unless they were devout Catholics, would probably have missed the coincidence. But I wonder about the French, the Germans, the Belgians, the Italians, and the other European nations both Allied and Central powers. Would they have have picked up on the coincidence...and the irony?

Martin was a soldier. He served in an elite cavalry unit as did his father in the army of Imperial Rome. He was a Christian but was a cathechumen until he was 18 or so, when he was baptized. Some say that he served only a short stint, but the most reliable witnesses say he served his full tour of 25 years. Martin was one of these early Christians who apparently would not draw blood as a soldier, but there is a story about how he would lead his vanguard into battle unarmed.

After he served in the military, he entered the priesthood and religious community. He approached vowed life with the same discipline and focus that he learned as a soldier. He had to be tricked into being consecrated a bishop...the legend is that someone ran up to him told that there was a very ill man in the church who needed him and he needed to come now. When he arrived, there was a church full of people.

I love these stories, but it does make me wonder...did every one jump up and yell "Surprise!"?

Anyway, the story goes that he ran way and hid in a barn full of geese. As a soldier, he ought to have known better. Geese were often used as a kind of early warning system for walled towns, so when they made a fuss, the jig was up and they brought him back to church for the ceremony. It is said that he refused consecration unless he could continue to live his religious vows and simple life, which he did.

Martin was known for his mercy. As a bishop, he refused to have heretics put to death and was known for always visiting and freeing prisoners. It's said that magistrates and governors in his see would hear he was coming and find an excuse not to meet with him so that they would not have to be pressed into releasing more convicts, especially politically inconvenient ones.

But most of all, Martin is known for an encounter that took place when he was young, even before he was baptized.

He was riding his horse through town when he encountered a beggar who was naked or nearly so. Martin drew his sword (which must have startled and worried the beggar, I am sure!) and used it to cut his military cloak...his half, giving the beggar the lower half.. Later, Martin had a dream that he met the risen Christ on the road...wearing the half of cloak he gave away.

This story, and the veneration of the remaining cloak, became an important part of western European popular piety not just through the middle ages but right through to the 20th century. A chapel in his honor was a popular stop on the pilgrim road between southern France and Spain. Even as France secularized in the Third Republic, veneration of Martin continued especially in the military.

So I wonder, when that first Armistice Day happened in 1918, if there wasn't, at least among a few, prayers of thanksgiving and intercession made through Blessed Martin, a patron saint of France and of soldiers. And even through we now call today's observance Veterans Day and honor all who have served their country in the armed forces, I wonder if we might not also pause from our secular thanks to these men and women and remember the example of Martin of Tours, Soldier, Bishop and witness.

Remember a saint who took on the discipline and responsibility of military service, and yet called Christ his Lord and general. Martin chose to use his power--both as a soldier and as a bishop--in the service of mercy and his discipline in the service of prayer. He advocated for those without a voice, and practiced restraint in the face of his enemy. Above all, he saw in the face of the beggar, the prisoner, and even the heretic, the face of Christ.