Sunday, May 24, 2020

Another pesky kairos moment

There has been a lot cynical eye-rolling and snide remarking about President Trump's recent comment to the press which amounted to an attack on Governors in those states observing strict physical distancing guidelines including the closing of non-essential businesses and organizations. He said that they ought to "let" the churches be open.

Several religious leaders respectfully cleared their throats stepped up to the mic and said "we got this."

Of course, this was a typical off the cuff remark without reference to the actual guidelines the states have put out, completely unconscious of the guidelines most religious leaders have set out which are often more stringent than the governmental regulations. 

In our parish, this has meant that we have not met for formal corporate worship in our church since the Fourth Sunday in Lent... we are now (as I write this) in the Seventh Sunday of Easter. 

Those remarks raised a host of legitimate questions about church-state entanglements and the role of the president in encouraging expressions of faith, and so on. But that is not what caught my attention.

When I heard the President remark that governors ought to allow us to reopen, my first response was "Wha? You call this closed?" 

That is, after I looked up from whichever screen I was on while interacting with a parishioner or having a meeting or Bible Study or putting together worship or holding an on-line prayer service or writing something for one of our parish electronic or dead-tree publications.

Of course, and I am not the first to observe this, the problem is with an understanding of what "church" means. If you read the New Testament accounts and pay attention to history of what the Church does best-- heck, if you look at the soup kitchens, food banks, pastoral visiting, on-line & televised worship (even before the pandemic!) and small groups you discover that we Christians are a magnificent hybrid. We are hard to pin down.

That's because we, the Church, are a community that is at once gathered and sent. We are tight knit body that meets in time and space, and is also dispersed into society and the cosmos. We form institutional expressions of every size and shape--from magisterial to town-meeting to face-to-face-- and we are intimately personal and relational. 

What do you expect from a community simultaneously founded on incarnation and eschaton? Where we journey through parted seas, wander in the desert, revel in God-with-us while looking forward to meeting the Lamb at the Throne -- all at the same time! From the immediate, intimate relationship between the holy and the human; that balances a rich history, the immediacy of the present, and the vastness of unfolding future, Christians travel in the places where kairos (God's time) and chronos (our time) meet. 

So how can a virus close that?

There is a little line in the Episcopal Church's Burial Office that always catches my breath. I always try to put a little extra "oomph" into my spoken delivery hoping that it will not be a throw-away or bounce off the emotional armor that grieving people must necessarily build. It found in the Proper Preface of the Holy Eucharist for "The Commemoration of the Dead" and it goes like this:

"For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed not ended...."

We generally interpret this in much the way it's seen in a Tom 'n' Jerry cartoon. You know, when Tom uses up one of his nine lives and out floats a ghostly version of himself and he will be issued either a harp or a fire extinguisher.

But the Christian Hope is that in Christ all things will be filled, fulfilled, completed, and made whole. This is much more than harps in heavenly clouds; but when God, who has overcome sin and death in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, gathers to Godself all creation and finally and fully heals all the breaches between us and all humanity, creation, and God's own self. I believe that this is not just a once and done deal, but an ongoing, always unfolding experience. It is at the same time wondrous and bewildering, because we are stuck in chronos while participating in kairos

This epidemic has caused all kinds of disruption. The business leaders and economists who preached disruption theory as the key to innovation must be getting impatient-- maybe even eating their words?-- because right now disruption doesn't come in an explosive moment of insight and energetic invention. 

Nope. Disruption has arrived in the requirement that we do... nothing. In a society built on progress or innovation which is understood to be dynamic and in motion, being still and being solitary is at best weird and at worst painful. The novelty has worn off and we are getting antsy. 

Still, we must "sit and stay" before we can get our treat. So let's use our antsy feelings and turn that energy into something. There are active things to be done: walking, running, excericising; and also bringing food to the homebound, to soup kitchens, and pantries; making calls to the lonely or isolated; sending cards; and so much more. And there are the things we never had time to do, or could not clear the decks to get around to: contemplation, prayer, writing or journaling, painting or drawing, learning new music, even trying new radio or video experiences. This disruption of our rhythms is also a chance to re-set.

And in all this, the Church doesn't just happen, it is. We are. We have another moment of free grace-- that used to just arrive when we stood in line or was stuck on hold-- where we can choose between exasperation or presence, between impatience or appreciation. Between profanity (in the truest sense) and holiness. 

So for those whose notion of church has not yet grown past the big gathering in the big room, this is a chance to experience something more. Of course, for those who never really delved into the meaning of things, for whom life is nothing more than reactivity and chance, this will seem strange, even laughable. Their impatience is understandable. But, as Scrooge would eventually learn after his own Christmas pilgrimage, it's better that they have their malady in laughter than in more disagreeable forms. 

I can't wait for the moment when we can all gather back in our big rooms and beautiful churches and have worship with all the loud singing, proclamation, and praise we can muster. For now, though, here is our chance to revel in the mystery and wonder of living in an in-between time.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

When will we gather again and when we will receive Communion?

(Updated Tuesday, May 19, 6 p.m.) Yesterday, I got an e-mail from a member of my parish. It raises a number of questions that I know have been floating around my congregation (and others). I have decided to post his note and my response.

We are in this for the long haul.Our pastoral and liturgical response to this unfolding pandemic will require theological inquiry, community reflection, and liturgical creativity. 

Here is part of the letter that started this:
...Do you plan to celebrate Morning Prayer only until we have in-person worship?  Is there a date for the return to in-person worship?Trinity Wall Street returns June 1.  St. Paul's, Doylestown returns June 14. Why haven't we done online Eucharist?
Here is my response:

Thank you for your e-mail and for your questions. I will try to answer them as best as I can. 

When will we re-open and gather for in-person worship?

Before I start, I would like to refer you to Bishop Kevin Nichols' pastoral letter to the Diocese of Bethlehem "A Phased Approach to Regathering." Following what Bishop Kevin has written, we are still in Phase I across the whole diocese of Bethlehem. As a result, we are limited to the following protocols:

• Gathering for online worship, formation, and community
• Limiting service ministries to safe protocols dedicated to essentials such as feeding ministries  

Bishop Kevin's "Phased" approach roughly corresponds to the Commonwealths Color-coded scale. Northampton, Lehigh, and Bucks counties are all "Red" according to the Commonwealth.  The description that the Diocese of Bethlehem has laid out follows the Commonwealths nearly word for word. 

There are several  questions I don't have answers to. For example, does that mean that the whole diocese will move through the phases together or will we move through regionally depending on how the situation unfolds in different areas? I can foresee the rural northwest of our diocese reaching "green" (following the State's scale) well ahead of us in the Lehigh Valley, but Bishop Kevin could decide to have the whole diocese re-open at once rather than by region as an act of unity and visible communion. That will be up to him in consultation with the Diocesan Council and Standing Committee. 

As for the June 1 date at Trinity Wall Street and June 15 for Doylestown (Diocese of Pennsylvania) that you mention, as I read their websites, these are tentative dates. I can't say what TrinWall's criteria is, but if Doylestown follows the protocol laid out by the Diocese of Pennsylvania, their reopening will depend on how new cases develop in their county.

Even in places that have reopened, the requirements for physical distancing, hand-washing, masking, etc. might rule out Communion as we know it. Many places are also prohibiting (or at least discouraging) congregational singing. (For example, the Royal School of Church Music has suspended the King's College Course normally held at St. Stephen's Wilkes-Barre in mid- to late-July because singing blasts the droplets that might carry the contagion.) 

Keep in mind that the virus is passed along from people who are asymptomatic, and because of the scarcity of testing supplies, asymptomatic people are generally not tested. That means that by the time a person pops symptoms and tests positive, they may have been conveying the virus for 14 or more days before a definitive diagnosis. This is why the isolation and physical distancing is the required (and wisest) protocol. 

As for our own Diocese, when the Lehigh Valley reaches "Yellow" we'll see if that moves us to Phase II on the DioBeth scale. I don't know when that will be, so I don't know when in-person worship will return. (Update: Bishop Kevin has distributed guidelines as to how we'll enter "Phase II" of our COVID-19 response in the Diocese of Bethlehem.)

Right now, at Trinity, Easton, I know of at least five people who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone who has. One parishioner has died from COVID-19. So I have opted for an assertive approach to handling this crisis.

Will we only be doing Morning Prayer for On-Line worship?

Right now, we have no specific guidance from Bishop Kevin as to the do's and don't's of on-line worship. If the Cathedral sets the norm for the diocese (and this is the only place where I've seen Bishop Kevin preach and/or lead worship on-line), then the norm is Morning Prayer. I suppose that Ante-Communion is also an option. 

My approach has been to assemble worship with as many people as possible reading or leading prayers from either home or on-camera from church while practicing safe physical distancing. Our virtual choir happens as members record their singing and then the voices are mixed into a single recording and then edited into a Power Point. All of this is saved mixed as an MP4 video and published on YouTube. After publication, it is posted on our web-site, our social media, and a link is sent to folks on our e-newsletter list. 

Again, my goal is to involve as many people as possible rather than have a point-and-shoot worship (which is how we do Wednesday and major Holy Day services via Facebook Live) focusing only one or two clergy in a largely empty room.

This is where my read of Anglican theology of worship comes into play. One Episcopal parish in the LV is doing an on-line Eucharist, but the reception is only by the presiding priest and there is no congregation present either in actuality or on-screen. As you will see below, in my mind this does not meet the minimum criteria for Eucharist 

The concept of spiritual communion in our tradition has been reserved to special circumstances such as those sick or infirm to receive by mouth, or, interestingly, to soldiers in battlefield situations. Older editions of the Armed Forces Prayer Book (an Episcopal document in origin) first set out the prayer that we reprint in the e-newsletter for spiritual communion.

I am also informed by my work in Catholic Healthcare. From 1994-2002, I was the director of pastoral care in a Catholic hospital. We had an extensive ministry by both deacons and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. When we had Mass in the hospital's chapel, the LEM's and/or Deacon would fan out immediately after Mass. On days when we did not have Mass in our Chapel, we'd time their work--- utilizing pre-sanctified elements-- so that it would take place immediately after the televised mass on EWTN at mid-day. The point was to connect the communicant with the community in communion. 

Before the extent of our physical distancing was announced mid-Lent, I considered doing something very much like that: small groups in the presence of an LEV or Deacon who would then receive from pre-sanctified elements, while I would lead a liturgy via Livestream or Facebook Live. But this is not possible (nor advisable) in the current situation. The virus is just too virulent and too communicable.

On Private Masses and Distance Consecration

I believe that our Anglican tradition discourages both private masses and "distance" consecration. 

A private mass is when the priest celebrates the mass without a congregation present. 

Another approach, suggested by Dr. Diana Butler Bass (a lay theologian who migrated from Evangelicalism into the Episcopal church) and others, is that I could say the words of consecration on my end of a TV or Livestream broadcast and you could hold a piece of bread and cup of wine, and we could say that it was somehow consecrated and then you could receive... this is what I mean by "distance consecration...." I believe that this pushes us in a direction where we don't want to go: the Eucharist is a Sacrament, and Sacraments are not magic. The prayer of consecration is not an incantation but a work of the people of God in community. 

At the same time, the Sacrament is not a point of personal privilege nor a private possession. It is an act of community that communicates Christ and mediates grace. 

Dr. Butler-Bass has suggested that not having even a televised/live-streamed Mass is an act of "hoarding" by the clergy who are keeping the laity from the Sacrament, a view that I strongly disagree with. Reducing the question into a faux justice issue is, in my view, unhelpful, and misses the point of how sacraments function in Christian community.

Sure, God can do whatever God wants! Who is to say that the One who lives in Kairos (God's time) can't transcend Chronos (human time) and consecrate the elements across a TV or the internet. But Sacraments are not magic and the Eucharistic Prayer is not an incantation. I personally believe that the gathering of community is an essential element at the heart of the Eucharist. 

Short of specific guidelines from the Episcopal Church (except for the general guidance of the Presiding Bishop, Bishop Kevin, and various other diocesan bishops), I have fallen back on the guidance I lived under during my time in Catholic healthcare nearly twenty years ago. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops set out useful guidelines for televising the Mass, (updated in 2007) which in my view covers the issues of televised and live-streamed Mass in much greater detail in a very helpful way. A key passage says:

Since the liturgy is the work of Christ and the work of God's people, the televised Mass should always be celebrated within a living community of God's people whose presence reveals the full, conscious and active participation of the faithful. Even when the liturgy to be televised is taped apart from a regularly scheduled parish liturgy, there should always be a group of people who participate in the liturgy as fully as possible by their prayer, song, and presence.  

Because the present Coronavirus situation precludes the gathering of a group of people who can fully participate in the liturgy, even for the purposes of video recording, I am wary of doing a broadcast mass that would seem to reduce the Eucharist to mere performance. 

This week, I will be meeting with Fr. Raymond (a fine liturgist), Deacon Fran, and members of our parish's worship committee to discuss the possibility and limits of doing Eucharist on line and how we can do that according to the guidelines I've noted above. When Bishop Kevin issues guidelines for Phase II, we'll also meet as a Vestry to make some decisions. 

Fortunately, we have inherited the traditional monastic offices in our Anglican tradition. Thomas Cranmer sought to apply the monastic pattern of frequent daily prayer. Before the consecrations of Samuel Seabury, William White, and William Provost as our first bishops, the Anglican (later Episcopal) Church in America functioned quite well not only without bishops but with very few priests. For almost a century and a half (or more!) before our church was formed in 1789, congregations in North America lived and thrived on the pattern of Morning Prayer, metrical psalms, and preaching (often by lay preachers reading from pre-printed sermons). They did this in a frontier church in a new country building new communities. 

We are in a new frontier right now. We will have to think about mission, liturgy, community, and formation in new, creative ways. I think that we can mine those resources and our Anglican and Catholic tradition deeply and to good effect. When the day comes that we do find a way to more formally express ourselves Eucharistically, I don't know what it will look like, but it will be different and it will be wonderful! Right now, we are in an in-between time of waiting,  experimentation, exploration, innovation, and prayer. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Living as an offering in a time of pandemic

In 1878 a small band of Episcopal nuns, a couple of Episcopal priests, a number of Roman Catholic sisters and priests, and a few prostitutes, were doing what they could to minister to the sick and dying in Memphis, where typhoid fever had broken out and was ravaging the city.
The Mother Superior of the Sisters of Saint Mary, an Episcopal order, had just sent two more sisters from New York, Ruth and Helen.
Sister Ruth wrote, ““The city is desolate, everyone who is not ill says, ‘It is only a matter of time.’ … Money is quite useless … There is plenty of money here, but it buys no head to plan, no hands to wash, nor the common necessaries of life. … We are helpless and do not know what to do nor how help can come … There are nearly fifty children here now [in the orphanage]; we have no clean clothes, and it is utterly impossible to get any washing done. There is no one to send for supplies, and no stores are open.”
In a city of 50,000, 30,000 fled and 5,000 died. Sisters Ruth and Constance were among the dead.
In response to Ruth and Helen being sent to assist, Sister Constance wrote the Mother Superior this:
my sense of duty in the matter is so divided between the feeling that I ought to secure all the help I can for these poor suffering people, and the fear for those who come. I will guard them to the utmost; but they know and you know that they are offering their lives.
Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time in conversation, prayer, meeting, not to mention writing and publishing how we should respond to the latest viral disease to come along, this one called “coronavirus” or COVID-19, especially now that we are in this period of extended lock-down.
Right now, the conversation in much of the church is about how we care for ourselves (washing hands, sanitizer, limit contact, common cup, intinction, etc.). Before the lockdown, I sent out two e-mail blasts, and before that had conversations with parish leaders, sacristans, and medical professionals both in and outside the parish, and consulted with other clergy colleagues just to help us form a useful, do-able, and calm response in this congregation.
Interestingly, our conversation has shifted to matters of the spiritual life: our humility in the face of what we don’t fully understand and control; meditation upon death; adoration and love as our response to fear; and, sacrifice for the common good. I have spent much more time that I imagined on the phone, on video chats and conferences, and in texts and e-mails talking with folks about things spiritual, as people seek to make meaning and find grounding in this strange times.
I find myself over and over again returning that part of the Stations of the Cross, when we say at each stop “we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you.”
The media response to the news of the spreading virus has been anxious and high-pitched. As Christians, we will struggle to find our way out of the impulses of denial and catastrophizing. Those driven by anxiety and the crisis junkies will do what they do. The rest of us need to attend to adoration and kindness, devotion and compassion, reflection and sacrifice.
We’ve are doing everything that’s prudent to do. We are holding worship services and meetings on-line, and limiting our contact in person. We are a collection point for face masks and person protective equipment that people can donate to the Lehigh Valley Health Network. We are continuing to serve walk-ups at the Ark Community Meal. The trick is change our habits and figure out how to do what we do as a parish with generating additional anxiety.
Scripture says “True love casts out fear.” (I John 4:18). We cast out fear when we choose not cater to paranoid, frightened, anxious, or conspiracy driven people.
We cast out fear when we accept where we are and don’t deny it. We’ll face the facts, and we’ll make careful prudent choices. But most important of all, we cast out fear as we remain present to each other and continue to do our work as a parish community on behalf of all whom God has given us.
So, after you’ve washed your hands and learned the best information we have, the most important thing you can do is to turn your attention to the spiritual life. As we move through Lent in this time of crisis, let us move towards adoration and awe. Say the daily office (Morning & Evening Prayer, the Noonday office, and/or Compline using resources like Mission St. Clare (, walk the Stations with us by following the link on our website ( Join us for our on-line live and YouTube Weekday and Sunday worship services. Join with all the Saints, like Constance and her Companions, and offer intercession, adoration, and care for one another.
Give thanks for those on the front line of sacrifice. Medical workers and first responders, and all those who continue to go to work each day to provide transportation, food and supplies, and the working of government.
Pray this Lent and Holy Week to be willing to join in the common work of sacrifice. Accept in humility any needed restrictions upon your person that are for the safety of all. 
Listen and pray through the stories of those who serve the ill and dying, those who care for the dead, those who bear their illness with patience and courage. Tell the stories of perseverance and sacrifice.Participate in the beloved community. Be kind and gentle to all. Do not spread rumors nor give into anxiety. Seek the truth. Live hopefully. Walk in love.

Written on March 22, 2020 for the April newsletter of Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, PA

Sunday, March 22, 2020

From Blindness to Sight to Vision

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A
John 9:1-41

It’s an old question… and one that people ask all the time: who’s fault is it?
And we are especially stirred up right now around the questions of health and healing.
As we experience this strange time of self-imposed and government mandated isolation, when our routines are disrupted, our jobs limited and our ability to do ordinary things from school to going to the movies to weddings and funerals, it’s easy ask “whose fault is this? Who sinned?” and also to ask about how we might find healing in this moment where illness or fear of illness is at the front of our attention.
So, let’s take a look at the Gospel:
One Sabbath, Jesus and his friends encounter a blind man begging by the side of the street.
They ask “Who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus says that no one sinned, but God can use anything to do God’s work. Watch this.
So, Jesus takes a little dirt, spits in it to make mud, and then smears the mud on the blind man’s eyes and then sends him to the healing place to wash. He goes (or is taken there) 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 on the Sabbath and that someone made mud to do the healing.  So, they interrogated the man.
“Who healed you?”
“I dunno. Someone named Jesus.”
“Uhm.” They said. “Did you say Jesus?”
“Okay. You’re not really that blind man. You’re just pretending.”
“Yes, I am. Ask my parents.”
“Whatever. Let’s try this again. So, how did you get healed?”
“What’s the matter with you? Are you deaf? You asked. I answered. Jesus healed me.”
Fingers in ears. “La la la la la. I can’t hear you. You can go away now.”
Jesus shows us that there is more than one kind of blindness…but God only cares about the spiritual kind. The problem with spiritual blindness is that we don’t see what is right before our eyes.
Jesus comes to the man after he was tossed out by stubborn religious leaders. Good thing for Jesus he didn’t ask the man how he received his sight, because he might have hauled off and popped him one.  Instead, Jesus asks the man if he believes in the Son of Man—Jesus.  The man says, “show me, and I will believe.” Of course, he is being shown because Jesus is standing right there. And the man does believe.
Here’s the twist in the story: In the Gospel of John, the most religious people imaginable have their own kind of blindness because they see Jesus and do not believe. Except for this man, he was blind but now believes and sees.
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 above the need for spiritual help.  Often, when we think we see the most, this is when we are the most blind.
A long time ago, I met a woman priest who once ministered this diocese and who 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—and he was assigned to the chaplaincy at the hospital where this priest did her clinical pastoral education. She told me about how wonderfully supportive he was of her and her journey to priesthood. He was a mentor to her, she said.
"Really?" I said. 

Well, I was very glad to hear that because I can remember when I was in high school and Pop heard the news of the first women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. Let's just say that he did not take it well. He was, at that time, one very unhappy Episcopalian…he had all his arguments lined up. He was so worked up, he decided to a meeting of people opposed to the ordination of women. And, he told me later, that as he watched and listened, he realized something. All the people at this meeting sounded to him just like the people he grew up with in the segregated south: angry, afraid, and filled that scorn that comes from a kind of self-righteousness. And along with their fear of women priests, they brought all their other causes for anger and it added up to a kind of irrational rage. He had not yet changed his opinion about ordained women, but he knew that he did not want spend any more time with this group.  He told me later that the experience was like having his eyes touched by Jesus.
Just because you’re not blind does not mean that you can see. It took time for Pop to see. Over the years he got to meet and know ordained women until he met my friend the chaplain and began to mentor her as grandfather teaches a granddaughter. When I heard this story, a whole series of lights went off for me—because I got to see that if my father can move from blindness to sight and from sight to vision—then maybe there is hope for me, too? Maybe there is hope for all of 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 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. We are seeing the eyes of many opened in this time of disease and self-quarantine as we find creative ways to reach out and care for one another—visiting each other on-line or by phone, doing errands for the homebound, finding new ways to connect and stay in relationship.
We 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, but we know that in Christ, God removes our blindness to hope.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Time for a re-boot

It seems to happen every Thursday. I try to work around it, but it happens anyway. I arrange for it to occur while I am sleeping, but usually it greets me as soon as sit down at my desk. And when it does appear, I just have to wait. I can moan. I can groan. I can plead that I have a really important job to do and can’t this just wait?!! But it is going to happen. It needs to happen. Just get over it.
I don’t know about you Mac people, but thanks to the nice people in Redmond, Washington, all this is just a fact of life for us PC people.
What I am talking about is, of course, the weekly Windows update and the need for some of those to make my computer(s) reboot. Even when I give permission the night before for the reboot to happen while I sleep, it will sometimes hit some step that will require my permission to proceed. Which is very polite, I must admit, but it is hard not to feel annoyed.
But what can you do? Nothing. Just sit back, take a sip from your coffee (or, in my case, my keg’o’iced tea), and just wait.
So, there I’ll sit, staring at my screen while the little spinney thing spins away on my screen, thinking that this can’t be very productive.
I used to resent it. (Well, okay, sometimes I still do.) But… it just is. Get over it. And besides, I need it.
Every now and then, I’ll come across a person who has never given permission for the weekly update, or who always puts it off. They say “nope, not today! I’m just too busy to stare my screen for one or three or five minutes, and even if it runs in the background, I don’t care. I’ll do it later!”
Only “later” never comes, and then some day when they really need to machine to work, they will discover that the various apps and software will no longer talk to each other or to you, their system is no longer supported, or (God forbid) your machine catches a virus and if it runs at all, it runs as if it trying to run through wet concrete in snow shoes.
So, like it our not, every now and then we need an update and a reboot.
This might be a useful way to think about Lent and what we are doing for Ash Wednesday today. Rebooting. Doing a mild, annual, systems check and update. Nothing drastic, mind you. Just maintenance.
As I was contemplating Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians assigned for Ash Wednesday: he talks about all the hardships and calamites that were happening to him and those early Christians and that through it all they have endured. But it wasn’t by accident: it took “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.”
And this doesn’t come by the push of a button. It takes practice and it takes focus.
When think about Lent, what do you think about? Do you think about giving something up or deciding to change a habit… and do you live in fear (or in the certainty) that you will fail? Maybe even after a few days or even hours? Do you look at Lent as a six-week New Year’s resolution?
Lent is, instead, a tithe of our time when choose to get ready to remember and observe Jesus’ life, his passion, his execution, and his resurrection. We are getting ready for the Passion and to celebrate Easter. It is a big party, worthy of quality preparation.
Besides, we need it. Just as our bodies need sleep or else we go a little cuckoo, or exercise or else we get achy, flabby, and tired, or relationships or else we become self-absorbed. That’s why nearly every religious tradition has some way of setting aside time to pray, reflect, listen, and… re-boot. If we don’t do this, our faith becomes at best a to-do list, a thing to fill up time, maybe even a mere entertainment.
Have you ever met someone who never bothered to do that Lenten reboot or anything like it? Maybe they have a spirituality that never challenges but reinforces their deepest assumptions. Or they are allergic to anything that requires them to look beyond themselves. Maybe they are only going from one day to the next in a kind of lifelong reactivity-fest. Or maybe they just can’t imagine life being any different, or better, or that they have responsibility for the people or world around them, so why bother? Maybe it comes from a deep skepticism that anything other than rock-solid, material living matters so to them we have no choice but to just look out for number one and too bad for all the others.
Or maybe they’ve become so immersed in their pain that all they can do is just swim in it, perhaps numbing themselves with substances, or work, or experiences as they go.
Don’t ask me how I might know about any of this! But that’s why it’s important for us to stop, listen, look around, and if necessary, re-boot. Jesus said elsewhere in the Gospels that he came that we might have life and have it in abundance, and that life starts when we choose to stop doing the things we are doing in the way we’ve always done them.
Still, we’ll forget things. Something will slip our mind. We will have great intentions and even if things went as perfectly as we can imagine, there will still be some “oops,” a forehead-slapping, face-palm moment, where we’ll say “I can’t believe that happened….”
But don’t give up. The very failure you fear is an occasion to set things aright. Remember, the measure of success is not that we a flaw-free Lent, but that our hearts, our minds, our souls, are ready to walk with Jesus to the Cross, sit in the darkness of the tomb, and celebrate His resurrection in joy. It will be a time to cheer on those who are being baptized, and give thanks in the companionship of this and other Christian communities. It is a time to discover again that the Lenten journey leads to Easter living, and it is a journey of both grace and intention.
So when we decide to focus a little more on prayer, we are rebooting.
Or when we decide to give up certain foods or set aside certain practices, we are trying for an upgrade.
Or when we choose to do something concrete and personally challenging to care for the poor or the outcast or the lonely, we are attempting to reorient our thinking and our doing.
It’s not just our phones, computers, or devices that need a periodic update. We all do. It’s just that it takes time. Sometimes we can reboot and still go on with our living. The rub is that it’s not done by clicking on a radio button. Sometimes we need to just stop, listen to the silence. Do without for a moment. Think about who and whose we are. Upgrade. Reboot.
This is what Lent is. It is a tithe of our year which allows us to practice letting God in. During Lent we clean out the old useless code, er, uhm, our old way of being (!), and experiment with something new. And in this way of living we will make ourselves ready to let in Jesus, who has already lived, died, and rose again, and to walk with him through his passion so that we may discover, live, and share the love we know as his friends and apprentices. Have a happy and holy Lent, and above, relish the re-boot!
Ash Wednesday sermon, February 26, 2020 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, PA.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Good Adventure to You!

Whoa, Nellie! Did you hear last Sunday’s Gospel. Boy, oh boy, Jesus really ups the ante, doesn’t he?

In the portion of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew (5:21-37), Rabbi Jesus takes what we’ve always known and take for granted and ups the ante. He makes it more intense, more real, and in so doing drives us into the heart of the matter.  So while his teaching might have sounded like an appeal to perfectionism, he is in fact urging to think… really think… about what it means to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

So, Jesus says, “you’ve heard it said that ‘you shall not kill,’ but I say don’t kill your neighbor with hateful, disdainful, or dismissive thoughts.”

And, Jesus says, “you have heard it said ‘don’t commit adultery,’ but I say don’t use the gift of your sexuality to use, abuse, or objectify another person.”

Then Jesus says, “it is customary for a man to decide when, where, and how to divorce his wife; but don’t let your power be an occasion to cause another person’s sin.” Okay…I’ll admit. I just threw the Apostle Paul’s interpretation of love and the Law into the Gospel… but I do that because the problem in Jesus’ day was that men held all the cards when it came to marriage, and Jesus was calling men out on making their spouses disposable. So, I think Jesus is saying, in effect, “you’ve heard it said that men can divorce his wife whenever he wants, but I say to you ‘don’t make people disposable.’”

And then Jesus says, “you have heard it said ‘don’t swear falsely.’ But I say to not only tell the truth, but avoid obfuscation and hair-splitting, but let your speech and your conversation be authentic.” As Jesus says, “Let your ‘yes’ be yes, and your ‘no’ be no.

I must admit that I get a little panicky when I hear Jesus talk like this. Everything about this passage makes our modern-day alarm bells go off: Rules! Judgementalism! Perfectionism! Ack!

Okay. We need to take a breath and think about Jesus’ words differently. Let’s start where Jesus started: Remember what he said were the two Great Commandments? Love God with all your being… heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.

We are so tempted to nod sagely as say “You’re so right Jesus.” But in this Gospel, Jesus moves into new territory essentially asking “what does loving God and loving neighbor really mean? How would it look?”

And that would mean that our “yes” would be an authentic yes, and our “no” an honest (if sometimes sad) no. That our word would reflect our authentic self.

It would mean that we would treat our neighbors, our family members, our spouses, and loved ones with respect and dignity.

It would mean that we would so honor our sexuality and value intimacy that we would work for honest and authentic relationships, even if that means being vulnerable and giving up our prerogatives in the name of love.

It would mean not just avoiding killing (or doing any kind of obvious evil) but respecting and preserving the dignity of every human being in every encounter and relationship we have.

You see, to really understand Jesus, we must understand that merely following the rules is not enough; faithfulness that changes lives, that changes hearts, comes from the willingness to change from within. Holiness means developing an inner congruity where our actions reflect our heart and our heart is molded by our actions. It is choice renewed every day to seek God in the everyday and (this is very important!) to see the image of God in every person we encounter every day. It is the choice to accept the grace to move from reactivity to attentiveness, from self-centeredness to companionship, from isolation to community. It is a life-long process of lining up our everyday choice and ethics with Jesus’ (and Moses’!) basic command to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbor with everything we’ve got.

We are so tempted to turn this passage into a screed about perfectionism, or to make the Christian life so personal that it is reduced to a mere hobby. Perfectionism has a way of writing off other people or at the same time we must avoid a fake piety that only pumps up our egos and confirms our worst impulses. Instead, Jesus is giving us a glimpse of what it means to live within the reign of God’s peaceable kingdom.

I am humbled by the example of the martyred Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Soon before his assassination in 1980 by hit squad sent by his right wing government to silence him for his encouragement of the poor and his condemnation of the rich and powerful, saw this passage not as a placebo to quiet the yearnings of his oppressed flock, but as the basis, the cornerstone, for their quest for justice, dignity, and equity. To live lives grounded in the command to love God and love neighbor, means to accept the dignity and worth of the people God sent Jesus to liberate. If you listen, really listen, to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, then you will find that rather than passivity, Jesus wants our participation in every aspect of God’s redeeming work.

When the powers that be heard that Bishop Romero was conferring on the oppressed people of El Salvador the dignity that Jesus taught, and later confirmed in his passion, death, and resurrection, they sent soldiers to kill him at the altar during Mass.

A friend and colleague of Romero’s, a Presbyterian minister the Rev. Jorge Lava-Braud, looks at Jesus’ beatitudes through the lens of his native language, Spanish. He says:
Let me take advantage of my native language, Spanish (the language of God and the angels), to get more deeply into the meaning of beatitude. In Spanish the word is translated bienaventuranza, literally "good adventure to you." We all know that adventure means risk, the courage to defy the odds, the refusal to play it safe. 
Listen, then, to how the Beatitudes would sound if we turn them into bienaventuranzas and if we paraphrase a bit: 
Good adventure to you whose hearts are genuinely with the poor: you are under God's protective rule. Good adventure to you who are without power: the whole world shall be yours. Good adventure to you who are hungry and thirsty for justice: your cup will be filled. Good adventure to you who look for truth with singleness of heart: you shall see God. Good adventure to you who work for peace: you shall be called children of God. Good adventure to you who are persecuted for the sake of justice. You, too, are already under God's protective rule; rejoice, be very happy, when others say evil things about you falsely because you are mine. God is preparing a great reward for you. Don't be surprised, prophets have always been an endangered species. 
I think the key to understanding this passage, perhaps Jesus’ hardest teaching on the Sermon on the Mount today, to really take part in “the good adventure.” Remember that for Jesus everything begins and ends with those first two commandments: “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Once we decide, really decide, to allow in God’s grace, to listen for God, and to live our lives in concert with God, then Jesus will cause us to confront ourselves: to replace the parts of us that always wants to win with a commitment to love; to look at the parts of us that always wants to be gratified, and to be present in simplicity; the parts of us that always want to be in charge and at the center of things, and to choose to live as servants; the parts of us that always are worried that we’ll be forgotten or written off or discounted, and rest in the knowledge that God is always with us. Confronting those parts of us requires honesty and a gentle heart, so that we may listen and look for God in our relationships, in the world around us, and in the people God gives us everyday. To discover that God’s love, holiness of living, and justice are all part of God’s “good adventure.”

Blessed are you! Bienaventuranza!

Friday, December 13, 2019

It's You That I Like

We are living in particularly divided and fractious times. As I am writing this, Congress is entering for an epic impeachment battle. People are lining up sides in particularly ugly ways. Right now in our culture, the preferred way to get ahead, it seems, is to see people as binary—either as supporters or opponents—and they are only there to hurt me or be on my side. Ethics has been reduced to “what I can get away with.” Disruption is often mistaken for leadership, and instead of building teams that cooperate, those in authority bully and belittle each other and call people names. We live in an environment where people are encouraged to fight each other tooth and nail for every scrap of advantage.
I don’t know about you, but I find all of this very tiring. I fear for us as a nation. I grieve the spiritual harm that is being done to all of us in this era of e-bickering and twitter tantrums.
And then, like a light in the darkness, came a movie about Fred Rogers! You know… Mr. Rogers, the nice man who hosted a little show called Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (with Tom Hanks playing Mr. Rogers)! Peg and I went to go see it, and while the movie theater was not packed, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when the lights came up.
In our fractious, divided times, we are starving for healing, we are thirsty for affirmation, and we long for real, substantial hope…that faith that always looks forward! This film came at exactly the right moment.
Fred Rogers gave many commencement speeches, and in 2003 he gave his last one at Dartmouth College. He said:
“Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space. Every one of us is a part of that jewel. A facet of that jewel. And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal. We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not.
“Have you heard my favorite story that came from the Seattle Special Olympics? Well, for the 100-yard dash there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and at the sound of the gun, they took off. But not long afterward one little boy stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard him crying; they slowed down, turned around and ran back to him. Every one of them ran back to him. One little girl with Down Syndrome bent down and kissed the boy and said, ‘This'll make it better.’ And the little boy got up and he the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in that stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long, time.
“People who were there are still telling the story with great delight. And you know why. Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win too. Even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.”
When my kids were small, we’d watch Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. The show was really very old-fashioned television. A guy with puppets and various friends who’d drop in. The special effects were rarely glitzy and certainly not computer generated. Sometimes my kids would get bored and change the channel to something more colorful, more busy and louder. But often we’d get hooked by his quiet, gentle manner.
I remember one particular show. It was when Mr. Rogers went to a construction site and was shown how to operate a back hoe. The look of absolute delight on Mr. Rogers’ face as he got to dig a ditch with this big machine was wonderful and something I will never forget. I understood. And my kids understood. One is never too old for delight.
You may not know this, and the movie did not dwell on this fact, but Mr. Rogers was ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA and assigned to the special ministry of broadcasting and reaching out to children. The Reverend Fred McFeely Rogers (1928-2003) grew up in western Pennsylvania in the town of Latrobe, where he attended Latrobe Presbyterian Church. He attended Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, majoring in music composition. It was there that he had his first encounter with television, and was appalled by the children’s programs he saw. He thought, “Children deserve better.”
Through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he gave them better. Through the show, he taught generations of children the importance of Jesus’ second commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Not by preaching. By demonstration.
In 2000, Mr. Rogers hung up his cardigan for good. Over the course of 30 years, the show won four Emmy awards. Fred Rogers received a Peabody and countless other awards and honorary degrees for his work as creator, host, songwriter, scriptwriter and principal puppeteer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He and his wife, with whom he had two sons, worshiped at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh for many years, until his death in 2003.
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus and enter into a new year, especially in such fractious and divided times, I invite you to meditate upon, or sing, this little song by the Rev. Mr. Rogers
"It's you I like.
It's not the things you wear.
It's not the way you do your hair
But it's you I like.
The way you are right now
The way down deep inside you.
Not the things that hide you.
Not your caps and gowns,
They're just beside you.
But it's you I like.
Every part of you.
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you remember
Even when you're feeling blue.
That it's you I like,
It's you, yourself
It's you.
It's you I like."

The song reminds us that God loves us because that’s what God does and who God is. 
And the song reminds us that we are loved exactly as who and how we are. 
Finally, the song reminds us we are built to love. 
You don't ever have to do anything sensational to receive that love. So when, after Mr. Rogers, I say "it's you I like," I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far greater than anything you can ever see or hear or touch-- that deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive.
God loves us exactly for who we are. We are called to love each exactly for who we are. In these fractious times, we need that love more than ever. Mr. Rogers reminded us that we are invited into, and called to live out, practical, daily, useful, over-flowing love. It is this kind of love that conquers hate, this kind of peace that rises triumphant over division, and that kind of justice that proves more powerful than greed.

This is my Rector's column for the December, 2019 issue of Glad Tiding, the e-newsletter of Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, Pennsylvania.

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Main Thing

I knew a guy who is given to motivational sayings in his teaching and leading. He is in charge of the education and development of healthcare professionals so he thinks about people learn how to work a fire extinguisher to how to do CPR to making sure nurses and allied health professionals get their continuing education. It’s a big job, and so it is no surprise that he is given to motivational sayings and those posters that show up in workplaces (and which get made fun of on the internet).

So when I read today’s Gospel, I thought of my friend and one of his motivational sayings, which was originated by Stephen Covey: “Always remember to keep the main thing the main thing.”

In the Gospel of Luke, we see that distraction from the “main thing” happened just as much in Jesus’ day as today.  A group of Sadducees, one of the many parties in the Jewish religious culture of that time, wanted to trick Jesus into saying something controversial by asking him a question about marriage and resurrection.

The set up for this question is very, very, strange: One of seven brothers marries a woman and had no children, and then he died.  According to an ancient custom, they say, the brother of the widow married her, and the same thing happened to him--no children and then death.  All seven brothers married the widow and all met with the same fate--you guessed it--no children and inevitable death.  The seven-time widow eventually herself died.  Now came the perplexing question.  "In heaven whose wife of the seven is she?" 

It’s a good thing this question went to Jesus, because I would have said, "Uhm. Huh? What?” 

And then I would have called in Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS because something very fishy is going on here! 

The question, of course, is a zinger. How do we know that? Well, for one thing, that ancient custom that was posed to Jesus? No one actually observed that custom even in Jesus’ day! Widows were widows, and they had their own particular challenges in the culture of Jesus' day. If the system that the questioners proposed actually worked that way, then all those accounts of Jesus and the early church encountering and caring for widows just would not have happened. 

No doubt about it. The question is a “gotcha.” It is meant only to make Jesus look silly. But he doesn’t take the bait. Instead he reminds them that God is God of the living, not the dead.  He is basically saying, "Our concern should be about the living."

But look! It turns out that talking smack, trolling, and living in political and religious silos were not actually invented by the internet! They aren't reserved to bullies and certain kinds of pundits and politicians. They’ve been around since, well, forever! The only thing that's change is the technology.

If you think about it, these Saducees that confronted Jesus are very familiar. We've all run across them. First, we have to recognize that Luke has grossly generalized a whole class of Jewish believers (whom he probably never actually encountered but may have heard about) and turned them into straw-men for Jesus to knock down. 

But Luke gets away with this because broadly speaking, we've met these characters before... maybe at work, or on talk-radio, or your favorite news channel, or that loud guy at the end of the bar. 

You know the type: these are the ones who love being right. The ones who feel smartest by making other people look dumb (which is the game these guys were playing with Jesus). They think of themselves as worldly and all knowing. I'll bet that the ones Jesus encountered probably laughed among themselves at Jesus and his ridiculous teaching like that silly Sermon on the Mount. 

These are folks who do not respect people they disagree with. When they confront Jesus, they came up with a world-class silly question out of their disrespect. How little did they respect Jesus? I don't know but I am sure that when they heard that Jesus walked on water, they sneered because he clearly didn't how to swim!

This is why what passes for political discourse in today's culture is so poisonous. I don't care if you're Michael Moore or Anne Coulter, or any of the rest, the technique is the same. Characterize, slander, belittle, and disrespect your opponent... and that is anyone who disagrees with you... or anyone who questions your line of attack, er, argument. 

But we don't have to play. We can keep the main thing the main thing. Like Jesus.

As so, they loved to argue. They didn’t need talk radio, cable news, and Facebook memes to argue about picky, silly stuff. And they loved to belittle those who did not think as they did.
But that leads to the thing I love most about this encounter.

Notice that when Jesus answers the very silly question, he isn’t talking to them. Why should he? He’s not going to change their minds. Jesus won’t play their game. He allows them revel in their rightness.

Instead, he speaks to all the people around Jesus who are curious, or bewildered, or just trying live from day to day. In other words, he speaks to us.

Because, as far as Jesus is concerned, convincing smug people with clever questions is not the main thing! Drawing ordinary people in closer connection to God, each other and creation…that is the main thing. Returning humanity to God and to faithfulness and wholeness was his task... it is the whole point of the incarnation, passion, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. To return us to unity with God, humanity, and creation. 

When Mark shares his version of this very same encounter in his Gospel, we see someone listening in who at once "gets" what Jesus is about, and sees through The Very Silly Question. 

In Mark (12:28-33), there is a scribe, a person who can read, write, and faithfully copies the scriptures, who overhears this conversation and has apparently had enough. He interrupts and cuts to the chase. He reminds us of the main thing. He asks Jesus a question which exposes the silliness and gets to the main thing: 
28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he had answered them well, he asked, "What commandment is the first of all?" 29Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' 31The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." 32Then the scribe looked at him and said, "You are right."
In other words, always make sure you keep the main thing the main thing! 

To love God and to love neighbor as yourself, that’s the main thing!  Who cares who will be married to whom in heaven; it is all about loving God and loving neighbor!

To love God and to love neighbor--so simple, yet we make it so difficult.  But the way to fulfill these two commandments does not with addition or multiplication but through subtraction. 

Writer and theologian Richard Foster said
Contemporary Culture is plagued by a passion for possessions...more is better...the result is that the lust for affluence in contemporary society has become psychotic....We feel strained, hurried and breathless....Christian simplicity frees us from this modern mania....People once again become more important that possessions.
Christian simplicity is not only about being released from things, it is also living a life free of anything that draws us away from God and from being truly, wholly human.

So, who is married to whom in heaven:  not the main thing!  What car to drive: not the main thing.  

Clever, insulting political memes in your little internet silo: not the main thing! In fact, the only one for whom shutting down your opponent with your cleverness is the Enemy! Evil just loves it when you are reveling in your rightness and condemning of those who disagree or differ from you. Because as long as your reveling, you're not listening. As long as your put up those witty memes or cutting remarks, you're not looking at your opponent as a person but as a thing, and that this a first step away from the Way of Love.

But, just as Jesus did, you have a choice. Keep your eye on the main thing.

Getting together with neighbors and building home for the poor:  that’s the main thing!  

Serving hungry people at a community meal or visiting a home-bound person or listening to and praying with a friend in pain:  that’s the main thing! 

Building friendships among diverse people of faith: that’s the main thing!

For the past several weeks, we have been hearing stories of faith from several different members of the congregation. In a few minutes, you will hear one more. I have really enjoyed hearing each of these accounts of faith, because they are—each and every one—a story of how these extraordinary everyday Christians, your companions in faith, keep the main thing the main thing.

Keeping the main thing the main thing, shows us how following the Way of Love in companionship with the people of this parish has made a significant, tangible, difference in many lives. 

We have learned how our sisters and brothers in Christ have both handled significant challenges, and we discover how God is at work in us helping people grow in their faith and stay grounded in God.

We have again heard real-life examples of how to be Jesus' friends and apprentices. 

When you think about your place in the Church and your life of faith, we can choose to get caught up our selves and our egos and insecurities—looking to always be right, striving to be on the top of the heap, trying to always do things the way we’ve always done things—or we can be faithful stewards of God’s gifts, grace, and mercy to communicate the love of Jesus everyday. 

The question before us, and what Jesus shows us today, is that how we use what we have and how order to our relationships so that the main thing— loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and loving our neighbor as our selves—is always, in this moment and in every encounter, the main thing.

Sermon given on Sunday, November 10, 2019 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, PA.
Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38