Thursday, August 14, 2014

The incompetence of force

In watching the events in Ferguson, Missouri unfold, I am struck by the sheer incompetence of the police and the ineptitude of the political leadership. Their reactivity and fear is adding fuel and oxygen to the fire on top of the heat that already exists in the community they are supposed to lead and care for.

They lack moral imagination and it is making things worse.

It is clear as the police empty the streets, enforce curfews, and confront protesters that the police forces there are well equipped, apparently disciplined and well versed in the use of their considerable technology. They seem to understand the tactics of crowd control, riot suppression and the use of what they deem minimal force to control violence. Apparently, the chief of police and the political leaders are listening to their lawyers (and maybe their media consultants) and doing everything "by the book."

But they have forgotten "why" they do what they do and for whom they do it.

The chief appears to be honestly mystified by the anger he and his officers have engendered. The political leadership seem singularly incapable of doing what is necessary to both direct and control their police and to calm and dialogue with their citizenry.

So they apply more force. And in return they get more anger, rage, and violence.

Right from the start, in their apparent adherence to procedure, they showed a startling disregard for the dignity of the people they were supposed to be protecting. They forgot--if they were ever aware--of the fact that the police are not outsiders who keep order, but fellow citizens who maintain the peace so that society can function in a civil manner.

The media face of the government in Ferguson is the police chief. Except for well-scripted sound bites, it does not look like the politicians of that community are going out into the community to listen, to dialogue and to lead. Instead, they are hiding behind the cops saying "protect us", and then I will bet blaming those very cops for not quickly calming things down.

Every one in leadership is apparently looking only to "salvage" a "situation" and so save their own skins.

And so the police are not alone. The political leaders of the community have also apparently forgotten why they are there. They are not there to be "in charge." They are there to govern. Which is different from exercising authority. Governing means, among other things, that they must have the consent and the cooperation--the trust--of the people. Good governance requires a moral framework and the kind of courage that does not need body armor.

We have done this to ourselves. As a society, we have given into fear and reactivity, and our political leaders have done nothing to help that and have even encouraged it! And the police have become the expressions of the very things we fear the most.

It should not surprise us that politicians don't govern because they are instead focused on winning. They don't function in a democracy because they don't understand it. Democracy is not about garnering enough votes to win elections--which is why gerrymandering and cash politics are so rampant. Democracy is a mechanism to govern with the maximum participation of the governed. It is the way we have organized ourselves to order our common life, preserve our liberties and get things done. And, oh yes, keep us safe.

Policing is about order but only in the sense of maintaining that fine balance between enforcing the law and creating the environment where the law is respected, understood and obeyed in the context of a society where all the citizenry are trusted to play their part. So while the police put away the bad guys--the murderers, the thieves, and the vandals--they also make it possible for people to go about the business of being citizens--going to work, going to school, keeping the economy going and taking part in all the different kinds of discourse that make a polis work day to day.

At the same time as our political leaders have forgotten how (and why it's even important) to govern. They debate. They stir people up. They seek their constituencies and play to their base. They use amazing technology to win votes and when they get to their offices they raise money so they can do it all over again and leave the actual work of governing to others.

We have given our police the most amazing tools ever created. Since 9/11, we have thrown so much money at policing so that now every little jurisdiction either has or can quickly call up a military style special weapons team. They have the technology to quickly reconnoiter situations, process suspects, communicate with one another, and quickly out-gun and control any situation. They have learned just enough psychology to use intimidation as a tool. They know the law and have a procedure and policy for every contingency.

But none of this is finally useful when the people who use it don't know why they are doing what they are doing, and the tools become and end in themselves. They come to see themselves as the adversaries of the very citizenry they are called to serve.

In some ways, it's too late for the solutions that could have prevented this. Because if they understood their neighborhoods, had relationships with the people they police, and if they designed their policing so that the people would have a voice in how they are to be policed this would not have happened.

Because in that kind of environment, the body of Michael Brown would not have been allowed to lie in the street unattended for hours.

Because in that kind of environment, the police would have a basic understanding of the dynamics of race and would have built the relationships of trust that might have made the confrontation less likely in the first place.

Because in that kind of environment, when something does go wrong--even fatally wrong--the first steps would be to allow dialogue, listening, grieving and, yes, protesting. And in that kind of environment the protesters and the police would have worked together to avoid unnecessary confrontation.

But both the police and the political leadership have failed their people because for all the technology at their disposal--the police in their riot gear and the politicians with their ability to manipulate elections--they are incompetent because they have no imagination for why they are doing what they do. They are incompetent because they have forgotten on whose behalf they police and govern.

In 1968, on the night that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy was campaigning for the Democratic Party nomination to be President of the United States. He was scheduled to hold a political rally in the African-American neighborhood in Indianapolis. His advisers and the police told him not to go. There had already been two summers of riots in cities all over the US and, of course, Bobby's brother the president has himself been assassinated.

Instead, Bobby stood on a flatbed truck, announced to the crowd of King's murder, and then spoke to the people. He spoke of his own feelings and his own experience. He quoted to the shocked and grieving people the Greek poet Aeschylus. He talked to them of pain and of hope.

Kennedy brought nothing to Indianapolis except himself. He did not even have a speech writer craft those words! He brought with him the experience of a man who moved through tragedy from ruthless political operator to a man with a moral vision. His moral vision was not only for himself but for a nation.

Other cities burned that night. Indianapolis did not.

Ferguson burns this week because of the incompetence that grows out of a lack of moral imagination.

Once again we are experiencing the lesson that the best technology and the best training in the world will not guarantee a moral outcome. A moral outcome requires people with a moral imagination to meet people where they live and who have the courage to work solutions out of the pain and contradiction of the moment.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Leadership that makes you feel safe

I have been thinking a lot about leadership especially over the past two years.

Over the next several weeks, I want to use this space to reflect on leadership and the communities they serve, especially in the context of parish ministry where I live and work right now.

To start, I share a TED talk by Simon Sinek who describes why good leadership makes people feel safe. It helps answer a basic question-- "What's a leader for?"

Here is a pull quote to start the discussion:

"Leadership is a choice, it is not a rank. I know many people at the senior-most level of organizations who are not leaders - they are authorities, and we do what they say because they have authority over us, but we would not follow them. And I know many people who are at the bottoms of organizations, who have no authority, and they are absolutely leaders, because they have chosen to look after the person to the left of them and to the right of them. This is what leadership is."

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Martyrs of Uganda witness against sexual violence

The Martyrs of Uganda are celebrated on June 3rd. While the feast is not well known in the West, it is a big day in much of Africa. Martyrs Day on June 3 is a national holiday in Uganda. The men who were martyred were Anglican and Roman Catholic Christians and this year marked the 50th anniversary of their canonization by Pope Paul VI.

The story of their death is hair-raising. The Satucket Lectionary on the Holy Women Holy Men website says:

On 3 June 1886, thirty-two young men, pages of the court of King Mwanga of Buganda, were burned to death at Namugongo for their refusal to renounce Christianity. In the following months many other Christians throughout the country died by spear or fire for their faith.’

These martyrdoms totally changed the dynamic of Christian growth in Uganda. Introduced by a handful of Anglican and Roman missionaries after 1877, the Christian faith had been preached only to the immediate members of the court, by order of King Mutesa. His successor, Mwanga, became increasingly angry as he realized that the first converts put loyalty to Christ above the traditional loyalty to the king. Martyrdoms began in 1885. Mwanga first forbade anyone to go near a Christian mission on pain of death, but finding himself unable to cool the ardor of the converts, resolved to wipe out Christianity.
Their deaths was the spark that began a remarkable expansion of the Christian Gospel in eastern and central Africa. It is a story of remarkable faithfulness in the face of the violence and power of the state.

But the story of the Ugandan Martyrs has changed. Their witness is no longer remembered in terms of the resistance of the faithful to the demands of a human king. Instead, their story has been used to justify homophobia and violence . Because in addition to demanding that the thirty-two men renounce their Christian faith, King Mwanga also demanded that they submit to him sexually. As a result their story is used to justify both hatred of homosexuality in general and violence against gay and lesbian people in particular.

The transformation of their story from a story of sexual violence exercised by king into a moralistic story against homosexuality is similar to how the church of the Middle Ages, the Victorian era and even in our time, transformed the story of first Christian women who were martyred...women who were often called virgins.

In the early church there was a strong connection between a woman's chastity and martyrdom with several examples of women choosing death over rape or forced marriages, and so on.

One the hallmarks of the early church was that it was a place that accepted "widows" and "orphans," who were not simply women or children whose husbands and parents predeceased them, but who were women and children cast off by society because their bond to that society was severed either by the death of--or very often the whim of-- a man. A woman whose husband put her out and whose father and brothers would not take back was a "widow."

Similarly, the children of a man who would not accept paternity--the child of a mistress or a slave or conceived through rape or simply not accepted in the family (like an expensive girl-child)-- were put out to fend for themselves in the society of the Greek and Roman world.

Slavery was one answer to this. Not the chattel slavery that we think of, but a high-order indentured servitude. People, in short, could and did become property.

The early church offered a place and a status to women and children by welcoming and caring for the widowed and orphaned. The idea that a woman could choose chastity over involuntary sex with a person not of her choosing, and this choice was considered not rebellious but virtuous was a radical aspect of the Christian gospel. Paul's affirmation that in Christ there is no "slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female" but that all are one in Christ takes on a particularly radical and poignant perspective in this context.

In this context, "virginity" was not so much about sexual restraint as the refusal to allow others to choose when, how and with whom a woman may exercise her sexuality. Early church saints and martyrs like Cecile, Agatha and Agnes were choosing not to participate in a society that made women the property of some man, in a world where sex was a sign of domination and power instead of intimacy.

The impact of their witness was lost when chastity and virginity became more about morals and regulating women's bodies in later times but understanding their original context can help us in understanding what to make of the Martyrs of Uganda.

For one thing, in the story of the king demanding sex with these Christian captives, there is very little connection with how we understand homosexuality (as an orientation) or marriage (as an equal partnership based on mutual love and mutual commitment) or even healthy sexuality today.

Like the early Christian martyrs, what the Martyrs of Uganda refused was the power of an earthly king who wanted to demonstrate his power over these slaves--and the powerlessness of the Gospel--by attempting to have forcible sex with helpless victims. What they refused was the use of sex as a expression of power--in this case political and religious--through the humiliation of rebellious subjects. Their refusal was an affirmation that in Christ each person has inherent dignity and worth. As they went to their gruesome deaths singing and praying, they proved that God's power builds up while human power degrades.

Their witness is a powerful example today where sexual violence is widespread in conflicts all over the world.

Participants at last week’s Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, agreed that faith communities can have significant influence to end the sexual violence that still takes place all over the globe.
Faith leaders and faith-based organizations have a vital role to play in engaging their communities in both the prevention of, and response to, sexual violence in conflict..

…faith communities are often at the center of communities and able to be first responders in times of crisis. They can challenge the attitudes associated with sexual violence and address perceptions that can lead to inequality and the spread of violence.
Those who use the witness of the Martyrs of Uganda to condemn homosexual persons, or to denigrate same sex marriage or as an excuse to persecute GLBT persons miss the power of the original witness of the Martyrs of Uganda. They reduce their deaths to a story of paranoia and social control. In short, they accomplish precisely was the Ugandan king failed to do in 1886.

Instead, the Martyrs of Uganda are a powerful example of how the Church can—and does—stand against sexual violence of all kinds and in all places.

This post first appeared on The Daily Episcopalian at the Episcopal Cafe on Saturday, June 21, 2014.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Living baptism by immersion

A Sermon for the Easter Vigil, March 19, 2014
At the baptisms of Melissa Ashley Bilza and Jessica Rose Floray
Once upon a time a man walked into a small country church and asked the preacher about being baptized. After some conversation, the pastor agreed and on the following Sunday the two men along with the members of the small church gathered at the river for the big moment.
They waded into the river, and the preacher took the man by the shoulders and shouted “Do you believe?”  “Yes!” the man said, and with that the preacher pushed him way under the water until the bubbles got smaller and smaller and then after a moment pulled him up.
“Do you believe?” the preacher shouted again. Spouting water from the first question but still determined, he nodded his head and once again the preacher pushed his head under the water and then after a moment, pulled him to his feet.
A third time, the preacher shouted into the man’s face “Do you believe?”
The man pushed the preacher away and said, “Yes! I believe! I believe you’re trying to drown me!”
All of which is to say that Baptism can be a little overwhelming.
While we did not march down the Delaware and we will not dunk Melissa and Jessica in the river, and just because I am going to pour water on your heads at that font, don’t think for one minute that we Episcopalians don’t immerse.
Episcopalians live our baptisms through immersion. Every day.
Take tonight’s liturgy. What we did today was immerse ourselves in a whole lot of symbolism. We lit and blessed a brand new fire and we held candles in the darkness to remind us that in Christ, God drives away the darkness of death and sin and brings light to our lives. We steeped ourselves in Scripture, hearing again snippets of the long story of how God has never forgotten us. We heard that from the moment of our creation and all through our history God has worked to save us from the consequences of our sin…right down to this very moment. We have sung ancient and new songs of hope and worship and expectation. We have joined with Christians all over the world who tonight carry the same light and sing the same songs and tell the same story. We have joined with Christians who have been doing this for centuries.
We have engaged every sense in telling the story: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch to remind us that God is engaging our whole being, our minds, our hearts, our imagination, and our ethics. What you two women are doing tonight, and what every Christian does in their baptisms, is to immerse yourselves in a new relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul is talking about this kind of immersion when he asks the Christians in Rome “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”
He is saying that when we go down into the water it is like going down into the grave. And we come up out of the water, it is like stepping back into life.  He says that we immersed in Christ’s death and in that immersion we are changed, we take on Christ’s life.
Baptism is the complete initiation into Christ’s body, the Church. But “initiation” in this case is not mere hazing, mere boot camp after which you get a medal or certificate, but “immersion” into Christ. Paul uses the word “with” six times in this short little passage. You are not just joining a club in baptism, you are being immersed into the divine and this will change you.
Have you ever tie-dyed a shirt? What do you do? You bunch up the shirt and tie the bunches together with string and then you dip—baptize!—the shirt in dye. And when you untie the strings the areas that were bunched up, voila, you have a shirt with a new design! And if you repeat the process with different colors, you can get a different funky design. The colors may fade or run or blend with each other but they won’t go back to being a white t-shirt from Target because in the dyeing process the very fabric, the very threads, have changed from their old color to the new.
In the Book of Acts, we hear of a woman named Lydia, who knew all about baptism. She did it for a living. She lived in the Greek city of Phillipi and she was, the Bible tells us, a seller of purple cloth. To make that cloth purple she had to take the wool and bleach it—baptize it in a bleach and water mixture—to get out the impurities. And then she had to baptize it again in the rare purple dye to make into a very valuable, rare and much sought after fabric that all the wealthy and fashionable people wore in Paul’s day.
Lydia, a woman who was both wealthy and the head of a household—a rare thing in the first century—heard Paul preach about Jesus and decided that she, too, wanted to be baptized, immersed into the life of Christ. And so she was, she and her whole household. Lydia was one of the earliest supporters of the brand-new church. I will bet that when she heard the Apostle Paul talk about being immersed in Christ, and coming out new and whole and changed, she knew exactly what he meant.
Being immersed in Christ will change us. As we take the plunge into baptismal living we will discover that God in Christ will have the way of getting into the secret parts ourselves, and changing us in ways we never expect. It is not that we never be without tension, or choice, or difficulty, but rather that we are being changed at the very fiber of our being into the people that God made us to be.
In the early days of the church it was a common baptismal practice for those entering the water to lay aside their old clothes, depicting their surrender of the former life of sin and death. They emerged from the water like newborn babes and then were clothed in new, white garments. According to Eugene Peterson’s version of Colossians in a version of the Bible called “The Message,” it is not just new garments that are put on. No, the newly baptized are "clad in the wardrobe God picked out for them: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline and the all-purpose garment of love." The symbolic garment we will put on each of you, a white stole, is more than a fashion statement. It is another reminder that you have put on Christ.
In your baptisms, you have immersed yourselves in Christ.  You choice to be baptized tonight has led you to be immersed in grace and now be filled with the life of the risen Christ. 

So as you have been immersed, immerse yourself in prayer. Take the plunge into scripture and become part of the story of God’s salvation. Steep yourselves in the rhythm of the sacraments, the church’s year, and the church’s time. Wade into the world with acts of mercy, justice and practical caring. Marinate yourself in Christian community, where you find people who far from perfect and who often stumble but who are just as immersed in this ongoing,  unfolding, joyous, spiritual experiment called baptismal living.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

There is sight and then there is sight

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A (Revised.)
I had no idea how foggy my vision had become. It kind of crept up on me.  
You see, my eyes have been fogging over and little by little until on bright sunny days, my vision became as if I was looking through a shower curtain. 
But some amazing technology is fixing that. A few weeks ago, I had the first of two surgeries to remove these yellowing cataracts and not only that, these new lenses will correct some other long-standing problems. It's really quite amazing! 
Now an eye that has been deeply near sighted most of my life is now wonderfully clear. After Easter, I will get the other eye done and a month or two after that, after doing exercises to teach my eyes—especially my previously “bad” eye—how to see again, I will get new glasses just for reading.
I am seeing a lot of new things..and a lot of old things in new ways. And if there is one thing I have learned from all this it is this: There is seeing and then there is seeing.
One way I like to read the Bible is to play a version of Jeopardy. You know, I want to figure out the question that leads to the answer that Scripture is giving us.
So if I were to say “Gospel of John for five hundred, Alex” the question that leads to today’s really long answer would be: "What is seeing without really seeing?" 
If Jesus is the Son of God, God’s perfect expression in human form, (aka The Word or Logos), then why couldn't the smartest, most faithful people in all the land figure that out?
The Gospel of John says that's because there is seeing and then there is seeing.
One Sabbath, Jesus and his friends come across a blind man begging by the side of the street. “Who sinned? This man or his parents,” his friends ask, “that he was born blind?”
“Nobody sinned,” Jesus said. “But God can use anything to do God’s work. Watch this!”
So he takes a little dirt, spits in it to make mud, and then spreads the mud on the blind mans eyes and then sends him to the healing place to wash. He goes (or is taken) and he is healed.
The religious leaders were amazed that the blind man can see, but they are offended that he was led to the healing place after hours and that someone made mud to do the healing.  So they interrogated the man.
“Who healed you?” they asked.
“I dunno. Someone named Jesus.”
“Uhm.... Did you say Jesus?”
“Okay. You’re not really that blind man. You’re just pretending.”
“Yes, I am. Ask my parents.”
“Whatever. So, how did you get healed again?”
“What are you? Deaf?  I told you! Jesus healed me.”
“La la la la la... I can’t hear you!" (An ancient form of theological debate.) Then, taking a deep breath, they said "You can go away now. Shoo.”
Later on, when Jesus comes back to the man, it's a good thing that he did not ask the man how he received his sight. Because after all the hassle the man might have hauled off and popped the Son of Man right in the kisser.  Instead, Jesus asks the man if he believes in the Son of Man.  The man says “show me, and I will believe.” Of course, Jesus is standing right there. And the man does believe.

The problem with spiritual blindness is that we don’t see what is right before our eyes.
Blindness can come from seeing too much. It can come from thinking we know how the world works and how it ought to work. Blindness can come from thinking we have everything under control. It can come from thinking that we can get God on our side if we are good enough, smart enough, clever enough. Blindness can come from thinking that we have—or ought to have-- in ourselves everything we need, and that we don’t need anyone else— and that we are above the need for spiritual help.  Often, when we think we see the most, that is when we are the most blind.
When I came to this diocese, I met a woman priest (who has since moved on to ministry in another diocese) and she knew my dad. My father was a deacon who came his vocation late in life—that  by itself is a long story, but for another time—he was a deacon assigned to the chaplaincy at the hospital where she did her clinical pastoral education. She told me about how wonderfully supportive my father was of her and her journey to priesthood.
Really? I said. Well, knock me over with a feather because I can remember that when Pop first heard the news of the first women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. Boy! Can I remember! He did not take it well. He was one very unhappy Episcopalian…and he had all his arguments lined up.
But he didn’t save his rants for the dinner table (or the coffee hour!). Once he even went to a meeting of people opposed to the ordination of women. But he never went back.
Years later he told me why. You see, all the people who were in that meeting were really, really angry. And after a while they sounded to him just like some of the people he grew up with in the segregated south and who he knew from his childhood: they were angry, afraid, and scornful with that scorn that comes from a kind of self-righteousness. They brought with their fear of women priests all their other anger and it added up to a kind of irrational rage. He still did not like it that women were going to be ordained, but not enough to spend any more time with this group.  Many years later, he told me later that being with that group was like having his eyes filled with Jesus’ mud.
Just because you’re not blind does not mean that you can see. It took time for Pop to see,,,to wash away that mud in whatever pools of healing he was led to. 

Over the years he got to meet and know and work with ordained women until he met my friend the chaplain and began to mentor her as grandfather teaches a granddaughter. When I heard this story from her, a whole series of lights went off for me—because if my father could move in his middle age through the mud of his life from blindness to sight and then from sight to vision—then maybe there is hope for me, too?
I think this is how it works for all of us.
Spiritual blindness is a kind of fog that creeps up on us. 
There is blindness and then there is blindness. There is the blindness that comes from not being able to see. And there is the blindness that comes from choosing not to see what God has put before us.
And there is sight and then there is sight. There is the sight that comes from resting in our own knowledge, our own power, and our own keen sense of the world as it is. We may think we are being realistic in our skepticism, but we may simply be locking the door on grace. There is another sight, a sight that brings vision. That is beginning to see ourselves and creation as God loved, cherished and worthy of being renewed.
There is sight that sees God at work in simple acts of kindness. There is vision to see God at work in the care for the poor, the outcast and the lonely. There is light that comes from encountering the face of Christ in every person that God brings to us.
The world sees Jesus as a long ago figure of history and myth. The realists in the world see our faith as a desperate allegiance to a good man who failed miserably on an executioner’s cross. The skeptics see us people sadly deluded. They can see that for themselves!
But we who have been made from the very elements of the earth, have been touched by Jesus, and washed in the waters of baptism, and who have seen the Christ in faith, in sacrament, in community, in the faces of our neighbors, have a different vision. We have seen a mere glimpse of what God sees: a people capable of love, of faithfulness, and compassion, and a creation full of wonder and possibility. We don’t claim to see everything. We are still learning how to see. And in Christ, God removes our blindness gives us sight that really sees.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Giving up caviar and other Lenten temptations

Part One
A Sermon for The First Sunday of Lent, Year A
So last, Thursday, the day after Ash Wednesday, my best friend from high school posted on Facebook the following announcement: “I am giving up caviar for Lent.”
After appropriately droll congratulations, a number of other friends jumped in with their own pronouncements:
I am not going to smoke cigars, said one woman.
I will not eat liver and onions, said someone else.
I will refrain from driving a Ferrari, I offered.
My husband will not dust this Lent, said another.
Of course, all this electronic silliness had a point. Chuck was underscoring how we can use Lent to avoid something that we’d never do anyway while sounding all righteous at the same time.
I was thinking about that as I re-read Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. I mean I can honestly say that I can safely resist the temptation to turn a rock into raisin bread, I wouldn’t even dream of troubling an angel to act as a parachute or I know I can easily turn aside the temptation to run the universe my way.
Both the silliness on Facebook and the seriousness of the Gospel tell us a couple of things about the Christian life that become very clear if you make even a partial stab at a Lenten discipline.
First, it is tempting to turn Lenten disciplines into a show of piety designed to impress our friends and, maybe lull ourselves into thinking that we really don’t need to change anything substantial about ourselves.
Second, we forget that the real spiritual damage comes not from doing something radically out of character but from when we do the things that come very easy to us—only at a time and a place and in way that distorts our relationship with God, each other and creation.
Look at the temptations that Jesus faced:
He is tempted to turn stone into bread. Well, Jesus who fed the 5000 could do this in a heartbeat, right? The temptation was not to do something Jesus couldn’t do, but to do it at the wrong time and for the wrong reason.
He is tempted to throw himself off the temple roof and let angels bear him up for all to see. But instead, Jesus waits to slowly walk among everyday people in his ministry healing and teaching, to walk the road to Calvary and die on the cross—where he would finally defeat death. The temptation was to cut that short and avoid the cross altogether.
Jesus is tempted to earthly power, when instead, in God’s time, he will assume his place as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Jesus’ journey in the desert reminds us that Jesus overcame both human-scale and divine-sized temptations. These divine-sized temptations may never come our way but what does come our way is the temptation to use the gifts and abilities and opportunities we have frivolously, impulsively and selfishly. We are all the time tempted to use what God has given us not for others but instead to fritter them away in the service of self.
And we will all time be tempted to cut short what God cultivates in us will always come in a time and in a form most accessible, most attractive to us.
I wish holiness of life was something we could just do. You know snap our fingers, buy a packaged system, just re-boot ourselves. But it takes a life time and God wastes nothing.  Look at one procession we did this morning. You may have been asking yourself, why was the choir walking around and around the church this morning while Father Ray was leading us through this really long prayer called the Great Litany.
Well, I could tell you that it’s fun and you would accuse me of having a strange idea of “fun.” And you might be right.
But as we were walking around what we were doing was a kind of physical prayer. We turned this space into a kind of labyrinth and we walked in prayer around the church and past the font of baptism and then gathered around the Eucharistic table. In this way we were reminding ourselves that the Lenten journey through the desert, through the temptations of life, into the city and then the passion and to the cross and resurrection is in itself the entire journey of faith.
We walk. We work, We pray. We moved towards God. And Christ accompanies us the whole way.
(A little later we will help another member of our congregation as she starts on her spiritual journey. See Part Two below.)
The great thing about this is that God wastes nothing in this journey. The Tempter, the Deceiver, wants us false god of spiritual scarcity, wants us to think that whenever we fail at a temptation that we are done, finished, out of the game. Forever.
But as the psalm today reminds us, when we are honest about what we don’t know, where we fail, where we are distracted, we are free and healed and on the way to wholeness.
That’s because God wastes nothing in this journey. God uses all the temptations we’ve turned aside and given into, all the prayers we’ve said and neglected, all the opportunities to serve we’ve taken and the ones we’ve run away from as the raw material to shape us into the people God created us to be.
On another Facebook discussion about Lent, Mother Laura Howell of Trinity, Bethlehem asked the question “what are you giving up and what are you taking on this Lent?” One priest of our diocese offered this observation:
I was told by my long ago deceased spiritual director, the prior of Holy Cross, that he neither gave up nor took on [anything during Lent]. He used Lent to try to do what he was supposed to be doing [all along]. Since then I've [come to see that Lent is about] spiritual self-correction and challenged [my congregation] to do one exceptional deed each day during the season and tell no one about it.
Using Lent to do what we are supposed to be doing! Now there’s a radical idea! Instead of taking away something we might not miss all that much anyway, instead of giving into the temptation of thinking of Lent as time of spiritual scarcity, let's use the time we’ve set aside in Lent--this tithe of our year-- to do a little more of what we are supposed to do anyway.
And what we’ll discover is that all of life is a constant call to re-orient ourselves towards faithfulness. That every day is step on the journey to holiness. So taking on a focus on better health, or a more intentional time of prayer, or decision to do something useful for the community, or to attend worship a little more often is not about marking off a spiritual checklist but are human-sized, everyday ways that God gives us to cooperate with Him in making us into the people God created us to be.

Part Two
The following was an introduction to the enrollment of a young adult as a candidate for baptism.

Today we are doing something else that's different.
We are enrolling Melissa for baptism.
As a young adult, she is taking classes about the Christian faith. She has a sponsor, Peg , and a presenter, Dale , as well as people that she has chosen as other sponsors—godparents, if you will, to help her grow in her Christian life.
Today, we will enroll her as a candidate for baptism. And we have a book here just for that purpose.
My friend Chuck, who is the American Baptist pastor I told you about in my sermon, might – if he were to see this—think that we Episcopalians have become some sort of proto-Baptists. One of our members, Roger, has commented to me that we Episcopalians talk about baptism a whole lot more than in his former Protestant church!
But if you look closely at Book of Common Prayer, and read the rite for Baptism, you will notice something. The baptism of infants and children is the exception not the rule. The norm for baptism in this church is the baptism of adults who have come to see and know themselves as Christians, as followers of Jesus, and want to be initiated into the gathering of God’s people, the Church.
Now we baptize babies and children because we believe that Christian parents in Christian households will raise and shape Christian children.
But Christianity has always been a faith of proclamation and conversion. We communicate the Gospel and we are changed. And so, this prayer book that we have had in our pews for the last 38 years, envisions a church that proclaims the Gospel and invites adults into the life of faith. And a companion book to the Prayer Book, the Episcopal Church’s Book of Occasional Services, suggests a process of training, teaching, and publically affirming adults who seek baptism. We are following that today.
Melissa is choosing a life of faith as a follower of Jesus Christ. On April 19, the Great Vigil of Easter, she will be baptized. (This will also be her 17th birthday!) She is not the first adult or young adult we’ve baptized at Trinity, Easton in the last few years, but she is the first to walk through the Catechumenate in this parish. And we will walk with her through this process, too.
Melissa is giving us a gift. She. By her enrollment today, she reminds us that the journey of faith and the work of being formed in Christ is something we do our whole lives, every day.
Today she will be enrolled. In two weeks, we will present her with the Apostle’s Creed, the oldest creed of the church and the foundation of our baptismal covenant, and two weeks after that, we will present her with the Lord’s Prayer, the foundation of our understanding of Christian Prayer. All along the way, we will pray for her by name and uphold her as she walks the journey of faith.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Holy hearts in simple containers

A sermon at the Special Convention of the Diocese of Bethlehem, March 1, 2014
Cathedral Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

I was reading blogs on the internet a few weeks ago when I ran across a post by the Rev. Susan Brown Snook, the rector of the Church of the Nativity in Scottsdale, Arizona and a member of the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council—the interim executive body that meets between General Conventions much like your vestries and our diocesan council. She was blogging about her experience at the last meeting of that group.
She says,
Each morning at an Executive Council meeting, we begin with prayers and meditation on a Bible passage.  At my table last week, during our discussion of one passage, a member said that every time he stands up to preach, or to lead a church group or meeting, he says to himself, “I hope this is about Jesus.”
She tells this story before launching into a description of all the wonky stuff about process and decisions to help us think about what people like us are doing at this convention and all the committees and boards that busy church leaders like you go to.  She says “All the minutiae of budgets, by-laws, and boards – tiresome as [they] can be, I hope it’s about Jesus.  And surely it is.  The way we use our resources, organize ourselves to make decisions, and argue and advocate for different positions, may be complex.  But in the end, if all that politics helps us to advance the mission of Jesus, it’s all worth it.  I hope....”
One can imagine the Apostle Paul muttering “I hope this is about Jesus” as he dictated yet one more communique to his troubled and rancorous congregation in Corinth. After struggling with issues of inclusion in the body, morality, divisiveness and squabbling, spiritual gifts in a community where people questioned his authority and his motives, one can almost picture him throwing up his arms in despair saying “what now?!?” And yet out of this, he has this truly startling idea that this imperfect, divided, hurting body is precisely, precisely,  the group of people God has raised up to incarnate and communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ in that time and place.
He says that we carry around the glory of the face of God in Jesus Christ and that we have within us the light that can cast away darkness…and that we store this glory in simple, ordinary clay jars.  
I love that image. Ever been to an antique store? My wife and I love to go around to find really good antique stores. And when I hear this passage I have this image of a variety of things that not only look cool and are fun to hold but also have stories and memories and history that are both unknown and tangible. And sometimes you will find fine china and sometimes mug collections with the eighth mug missing a handle. There might be playful cookie jars that look like cats sitting next to fine crystal. You get the idea. Here we have the power and light of God that spoke the world into being and changes hearts…carried around in the most amazing variety of containers, some gorgeous works of art and some of them cartoon jelly jars.
Paul’s image teaches us that God intentionally chooses to communicates the salvation of the world and the healing of creation through every day clay jars likes us. Containers that are easily chipped and easily soiled.  
This is completely consistent with what God does in Jesus Christ, isn’t it? In Jesus we see the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity brought together in one glorious, ordinary, life-changing, and everyday package!
So if God knows that God’s glory and light will reside in such an ordinary package like you and me and the rest of the Church, then how does God’s expect revealing light, transforming power and healing grace to reach the rest of humanity? I mean, if we don’t look perfect and grand and have it together all the time, then how will God’s saving power possibly become known?
It will require a change of heart. This is what I have learned, along with the rest of the Standing Committee, over these past seven months.
We have a lot of work to do, my friends.
We have clergy and laity in deep pain, and at the same time the towns and cities where we live are filled with people also in deep pain and are every bit as hungry—craving!—the Gospel we carry around inside of us, we imperfect crockery of many shapes, styles and sizes.
We are a community with a memory of growth and success and, yes, with a complicated history. And we are wondering where God is taking us next.
And we are working out our faith in a culture that is changing fast and among people are looking for the direction, purpose and meaning that we hold tantalizingly nearby right here in our hearts, in these sacraments, in this gathering.
We are a people who yearn for justice and welcome, and we have been made new by the cross of Christ and adopted into God’s family. We Christians experience that newness of life in a world that is also experimenting with (and rebelling against) the possibilities of freedom, inclusion and opportunity from the Ukraine to Uganda to Arizona to wherever you live. This struggle for freedom and dignity and hope continues. And everywhere you look Christians are on both sides of the experiment—some at the forefront of inclusion and others manning the barricades saying “whoa!”—because we are all, we people of light, figuring out what it means to be holy, ordinary jars of clay.
We have a lot of work to do.
Bishop Sean is a great guy. I am so grateful that the Presiding Bishop’s office called Sean and called us on the Standing Committee and put us together. But I gotta tell ya, when the idea of having a provisional bishop who would remain a diocesan bishop was first floated, I remember thinking (if not saying) “what? Are you nuts?”
But when we looked at the wish list that the Standing Committee created from the input you brought to us last October and that the clergy helped us created last November… a bishop who would lead collaboratively, who could help us heal our injuries and rebuild a sense of trust, who thinks about the church in different ways… I found myself, and I believe the rest of the Standing Committee, began to say “yeah. Yeah! This might work!”
When the Rev. Adam Trambley, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church way over in Sharon, Pennsylvania heard about what was proposed for his bishop he said “I thought it was a kind of challenge that was just out of left field enough and just hard enough that it was probably of God.”
Left field? You think?
What kind of God works like this? Oh, yeah! The kind of God who puts the eternal glory of the creator of the cosmos into cookie jars.
And he’s right. It won’t be easy. I know that some of you are tempted to confuse Bishop Sean for a magic bullet. And it is tempting to kick all of our problems down the road and say “let him fix it.” Well, my friends, the truth is that with any pastoral leader in community from country mission to the diocese of Bethlehem, there are many more forces working on him to become like us than he can, alone, bring to bear on us to become like him.
So we have some things to do. We must get this audit done in as competent, as expeditious and as transparent a way as we can possibly muster. We have had a wake-up call and we are not letting up.
And we must work on personnel policies and how we structure our common life.
We must do the hard, essential pastoral work of listening to each other, bringing justice and reconciliation to reality in our diocese. We must hear the truth of our pain and injury and loss, and we must hear the truth of our giftedness, accomplishments and capacity to heal.
We have an incredible opportunity to heal, to change and to grow. We are the vessels of God’s grace and love and light and power for our communities. God has put us where God needs us at the time God needs us.
But for all the skills, tools, technology and processes available to us. For all the knowledge about organizations and psychology and liturgy and theology we possess, we chipped coffee cups lack one thing. A change of heart.
What will get us through this transition will not be the application of technique by itself….good process is essential, don’t get me wrong!...but what we need is change of heart.
Now metanoia is not for wimps. A changed heart requires courage and risk and a big dose of honesty.
When I was a brand-new priest, I read a novel which has stayed with me ever since because it illustrates the power of God to change hearts and the power of a changed heart. The book was Lazarus by Morris West, the third of his so-called ‘Papal Trilogy’. In this story, an old-fashioned, rigid and legalistic Pope Leo XIV experiences a conversion. He is converted from seeing his faith as a rule-book and his job as one who utters pronouncements for the purpose of establishing order to the realization that the Gospel of Christ is communicated and transforms lives through love. The drama of the novel is to watch his change of heart and see how the structures he helped build resist the implications of his insight. As he recovers from open-heart surgery, he looks over a farm that is also a community for disabled children at harvest-time:
Suddenly here he was, on a hillside in Castelli, watching the grace pickers moving up and down the vine-rows, tossing the fruit into baskets, emptying the baskets into the cart hitched to the yellow tractor that would haul them to the crushing vats…. The scene was so lively, so full of human detail, that the Pontiff stood for a long while contemplating the simple wonder of it—and the bleak futility  of much of his own existence. This was where the people of God were to be found. This was how they were to be found, doing everyday things to rhythms of a workaday world.[1]
In the novel, the character of the Pope stands in for the Church. Whenever we are distracted into thinking that our evangelism is only about improving attendance; when outreach is designed to make us feel better rather than allow us to be changed by the poor and those we meet; when we use our resources and time to look inward rather than to give us the tools to represent Christ in the world, then we have made the mistake of thinking that our job is to survive and preserve the Church in the world. And when we do this, we are nothing more than empty jars.
Except that God takes empty jars and changes them into arks of the holy to transform the world.
And so my fellow coffee mugs, as we enter Lent, the season of changing hearts, take a moment to hear again the words in the Ash Wednesday liturgy that remind us that God desires not the death of sinners but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live."
Turn and live.
Changed hearts.
Holy hearts,
In simple containers living the love of God every day.

[1] Morris West, Lazarus (1990, St. Martin’s Press, New York) p. 161-162

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The joy of being found

 A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19C

NASA says that of over 22,000 inventory items on the International Space Station,638 of them (just under 3%) are missing. Things like screwdrivers, small parts, M&Ms, you name it. It seems that in micro-gravity, no matter how much Velcro you use, how much duct-tape, and how many pockets you have, things have this way of escaping. 

In the Space Station, they have something called a "scavenger hunt bag." It's a clear zip-lock bag and when someone comes up with something that doesn’t belong, they put it in the bag and show it to mission control to see if they can track down who it belongs to. If it’s claimed, they put it in the next Soyuz capsule and send to back to Earth.

In 1989, astronaut Sonny Carter was on board the space shuttle Discovery when he lost his watch. It just came loose and floated off his wrist. He and the rest of the crew searched every nook and cranny…there is no “down” in space, remember! After the Discovery landed, technicians still could not find the watch. Remember that they used to take the shuttle and put it in a big building and all but reassemble it to get ready for the next launch.

On Discovery’s next flight, another astronaut, Steve Hawley, found the watch…and a package of salt tablets, and a hair brush and a “Go Air Force” bumper sticker. All of these items had worked their way behind a maintenance panel under a cushion. It was a cosmic version of coins in the sofa!

Astronauts are not the only ones in the Cosmos who find that things sometimes get away. 

Jesus says that God is like a woman who has ten coins but, when one is lost, sweeps the house and cleans out everything until the coin is found. God is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the one who is lost. God is like the woman who celebrates with her friends when she finds the coin. God is like the shepherd who rejoices when the lost sheep is found. When we are lost, God just doesn’t just wait for us to come home. God looks for us.
We know what it means to lose things. Sometimes we dread the possibility that what we lose might not end up in a celestial lost-and-found…that we could be lost forever.

One of the things I love most about this passage is that Jesus is not preaching efficiency or a cost-benefit Gospel. When the shepherd sees the one sheep missing, there is no comfort in knowing that MOST of the sheep are there. And the woman doesn’t say “oh, well! At least I have nine coins!”

In a version of the story that Jesus told that did not make the Bible (from the Gospel of Thomas) the shepherd goes out to find the one sheep because it was 'large.' That author felt the need to add extra value to the lost sheep because without that little detail the story was just ridiculous. But in the Gospels that are IN the Bible, there is no modifier. The lost sheep was not bigger, fluffier or prettier. It was just a sheep.  

Jesus’ parables of the lost teach us about God's love for every one of us and the lengths that God will go through to find us. They tell us that we are all precious, and we are all worthy of God going to ridiculous means –the patriarchs and prophets; the incarnation, the cross, resurrection and ascension; and all the holy women and men who have come along since!—to bring us home when we are lost. God has sent whole search parties to turn the place upside down and sweep every corner just to find…you!

Have you ever prayed while walking on a labyrinth? A labyrinth, in case you’ve never seen one, is a kind of maze. They were popular in the middle ages and you can find them in some cathedrals in Europe. They are popular again, and there is one at Trinity Church, Mt. Pocono and one for kids at Grace Montessori School in Allentown.

I have a little desktop version that is made of metal where I trace the path with a stylus {which is different than the one pictured here). Not only is it lovely to look at and hold, it is sneaky. I
t fools you. It was laid out by someone who understood life. So with the stylus, you enter at the outside of the circle and head straight for the center, your goal, but at the last minute you are diverted, circle the center and then head back to where you started. Just when you think you are about to head out the door and...whoops! ...there you are ! Diverted again and headed back towards the center. And in attentively, prayerfully and silently drawing this circular path that folds back on itself, you discover a metaphor for the spiritual journey, for the life in Christ, that is true everyday. It is a picture of the basic truth of spiritual living: that we are in many ways  lost and we are  in many ways found and as we learn to prefer nothing but Christ, we find that God finds us over and over again.

On your journey, how have you known being lost and being found? Maybe you have moved from addiction to sobriety. Maybe you have moved the emptiness of grief and loss and found healing. Maybe you have found healing after an abusive relationship, a trauma, or a violent past. Maybe you have had to come to terms with bad choices that have hurt others. Maybe, without any extra drama except for that which everyday living brings, you have been distracted by the cares of this world, in caring for aging parents or raising children, and just wonder where all this is going.

Imagine as you walk up to communion and walk past that baptismal font to receive Christ’s body and blood, that you are on a journey from wherever you are lost to a celebration for being found and the heading back out in the world not as a lost person, but as a found person—one who has been rejoiced over!

Time and again, we find in Christian community and sacramental living that God has this way of meeting us exactly where we are, at exactly the point we need. That no matter where we find ourselves, there God is, often in the form of a loving person—a spouse or partner, a teacher or co-worker, a mentor or therapist, a sponsor or friend—who both embodies the God who seeks us and the rejoicing in heaven.

God does this over and over, sending people to us when we need them the most, putting us in the places where we can get help even when we would rather reject it. Sometimes we sheep and coins don’t want to be found…we hide like that watch on the space shuttle…but God doesn't give up on us. Ever.

God is like a woman who has lost a coin. God is a like a shepherd whose sheep has wandered away. God is like the one who celebrates when what is lost is finally found. Jesus teaches us in Luke’s Gospel that no matter how far away we may stray, no matter where we find ourselves, we are never too far away from God’s love. God seeks us, God’s grace is ready to embrace us and rejoices when we are found.

It might seem crazy that in all the vast universe, God would go to such lengths for even one of us. But that’s how God is. Each of us are that important!

Sunday, September 15, 2013 - Luke 15:1-10

Friday, May 31, 2013

Writer’s block

I hate it when this happens.

I am on deadline…which I have blown…and I am supposed to write something profound. And there is nothing.

So I flip open the lap-top, hit the “on” button, watch as it goes through its silent litany of booting up, poise my fingers over the key board and…nothing.

A few words may dribble on the screen. But they are wholly unsatisfying. Or boring. Or sheer nonsense.

I look over a few old essays, hoping for a spark. Nope!

I look over other people’s essays that I’ve saved. Nada!

I try to resuscitate a few unfinished “gems.” Zilch!

I even go to my tried and true sources for clever inspiration…baseball. Sorry!

At this point, one must avoid the temptation of going over to Facebook and looking at pictures of cats, or switching on an NCIS re-run. I must get this done.

Now it has become a contest, a battle of wills. It is just me and the keyboard. But the blank screen stares back at me as if to say “well?” The difference is that the screen has all day. I don’t. Or so I think.

Of course, my telling you about my writers block is the solution I have chosen for this month’s dilemma. But it is a card I can only play once. And then cautiously…because I am skating perilously close to whining.

As I stare at the screen, I send up a little prayer asking for inspiration. But it is a tentative prayer. I am standing at the corner wishing to be seen but unobtrusive. “God, I know you’re busy, but is there anything you’d like me to say to these folks?”

Still nothing.

I clear my throat. “God? Can I have a little help here?”

No flashes of inspiration yet.

I want to say “Hey! I need a little help here!” But I refrain. One mustn’t attract too much attention. And what did I say about whining?

I decide to go to bed, because for some strange reason things have this way of bubbling up as my body and mind goes through its hibernate and boot-up cycle. As I start to say a prayer, I find the same blank feeling but I know what to do. I remember Compline and some words of the Book of Common Prayer and Scripture. “Keep us O Lord, as the apple of your eye.”

How often has my prayer been just like this deadline? I want to pray, but what I get is blank screen.  I want some inspiration, and what happens is silence.

The solution is right there. Let the silence become the prayer. Let the long wait in the line at the store become the moment of solitude. Allow the writers block to tell us what is really going on underneath. Maybe the rote remembering of that old prayer, that old hymn, that old poem might not be so rote after all.

As I stare at the blank screen, I am reminded of another prayer by Thomas Merton. It is a prayer for listening.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. Nor do I really know myself.
And the fact that I think I am following your will
Does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you
Does in fact please you.

And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this,
You will lead me by the right road
Though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust you always
Though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death
I will not fear for you are ever with me.

And you will never leave me to face my struggles alone.

I still don’t know what I am going to write. I am still way past deadline. But there in the silence, beyond the blank screen, there is God. Who has all the time in the world. And I have a choice. I can fight against whatever it is that is keeping my mind blank. Or I can choose to enter into this moment, this place and know it for what it is..holy.

Like prayer, writer’s block may not be a block. It could my spirit and God’s spirit giving a different, unexpected kind of inspiration.

So I have decided to rest, fingers poised--in the silence of whatever it is that is blocking me—and wait.

I’ll let you know what happens.

This is the "3n1-1n3" column for the June, 2013 issue of Glad Tidings, the newsletter of Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, PA.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Myth of the Decline of the Episcopal Church

The Very Rev. Ian Markham, Dean, Virginia Theological Seminary, spoke to the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware in 2013. He said that the myth of the decline of the Episcopal Church is at once inaccurate and mis-placed.

Part One of Two.

So, the first issues he cites is that up until 2002, the Episcopal Church and the ELCA (and it's predecessors) generally bucked the trend of decline in the Mainline Protestant Churches.

Second, he says that we have a very fluid notion of membership and that ASA does not capture the reality of people who attend regularly but who "take turns." (An issue those in my parish have heard me puzzle about for years, btw.)

Third, most Episcopal Churches automatically appeal to a variety of groups because most parishes have two services: one traditional and quiet, and one either more musical, more contemporary, or more family oriented.

Part two of two

He talks about the narrative of despair which is used by those who have a real problem with our tradition. In Part One, he cites a Conservative/Reasserter bishop and a Liberal/Progressive Bishop who both need the narrative to despair to reinforce their particular prescriptions for saving the Church.

Markham says we need to change how we think of things. For example, how we count. We don't count the 38,000 people who take part in Episcopal liturgies in our schools at every level from pre-school through college. We don't the ones who live in our 156+ retirement complexes and who take part in Episcopal liturgies every day if not every week, about 16,000 every week.

(We also don't count the people that we send people out and bring communion to via our lay Eucharistic visitors, deacons and priests. We send them out from our liturgy "to share with us in the communion of Christ's body and blood" as an extension of our common worship. In my parish, that's four to five people every week. How many is that across the whole church? We don't count them either.)

We need to tell the story that we are in fact a church that proclaims Jesus Christ, effectively disciples our members, and allows people to explore and live that faith in creative, meaningful ways that makes a difference in our world.

Video by Danny N. Schweers