Sunday, July 26, 2020

Finding faith in unexpected places


Have you ever stopped to ask for directions?
These days, I depend on the GPS in my phone which suits me just fine because (I have been told) that I have to be in complete desperation to finally break down and admit to a total stranger—let alone my spouse!—that I am lost! When I have asked, I have found that there at least two ways people give directions: one is by landmark and one is by precise distance and direction.
The first is “go the third elm tree, the one at the fork in the road with the hound dog sleeping under it….”
The second is “go ½ mile north, and then at Route 137A, make a left.”
When you’re lost or in crisis, sometimes Mr. Precision is a real comfort: just tell me what to do!
But there are other times when the landmark method is at least as accurate, if not more colorful. The trouble is that you don’t know how accurate the hound-dog-guy is until you round the bend, approach the fork in the road and then see the tree and the dog, right where he said it was.
Either way, it’s an act of faith. One is faith in the precision, and the other is faith in, well, the art of the direction.
So, if you were going to give someone directions to God, which would you be? Would you choose precise, or describe the landmarks? If you shared your spiritual story, how would you describe God’s presence in your life? Or talk about the way you connect with God? How precise would your language be?
While I have been trained in Mr. Precision—to rattle off the Catechism—I am kind of drawn to hound dog and the elm tree approach. Because the truth is, there would be a lot of ‘uhms’ and ‘ahs’ and some foot shuffling. The hesitation is neither shame, nor uncertainty, as it is trying to find the right image.  Because I’ve found out that everyday there is the discovery, and the recognition that we are always at least a little lost, and everyday, there are little signs of redemption.
When Jesus describes God’s reign, the Kingdom of God, and he uses landmarks. He uses simple stories. Jesus, and then Matthew the Gospel-writer, tell us what living under God’s rule is like.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard plant in a wheat field. It’s like a little yeast in a little flour that makes a great big loaf of bread.
It’s like seeking or having a treasure that possesses you.
The kingdom of God is like a net that hauls in all kinds of fish, and other things, too.
All of these parables are about how something useless or out of place becomes the hallmark of God’s kingdom. If Jesus is the rejected stone that become the chief cornerstone, then the stands to reason that the kingdom of God is like, a weed, some leaven, a hidden or longed for treasure, or like being drawn into a fishing net, like it or not.
When Jesus talks about mustard seeds in this parable it’s the size of the plant not the seed that’s important. Mustard plants were considered weeds in the Ancient Near East. Like any weed, you can’t get rid of them and they grow like mad. So the parable says the Kingdom of God is like … a weed that someone sowed in the field. It may be a small seed, but in a garden or farm field it stands out like a sore thumb. And it turns out that the birds like it for shade. In our little garden, this weed might as well be as big as a Cedar of Lebanon! What was once a lamentable eyesore is now a great tree which gives shelter to all the birds!
Think about it… Jesus says the kingdom of God is like…a big weed!
The second parable is equally strange. For Jews of Jesus’ day, leavening bread was a symbol of corruption because they did not have our filtered and purified yeast in those days. Leaven came from moldy bread. So…the Kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like…some yucky leaven that a woman hid in the dough. Something that was corrupted has become the source of abundance. The kingdom of God is like leaven.
The two stories of people with treasure talk about people who find treasure: one finds it by accident, hidden in a plot of land, and the other finds exactly what he is looking for. In both cases, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like that: once the desire for God gets in us, we crave it as badly as the greedy man wants gold. God’s Spirit owns us that much!
Jesus says that God’s grace is a like a fisher’s net. A net that catches fish, sure, but also old tires, and empty cans, and God knows what else! The kingdom of God is like being caught up in a net.
What strange, unexpected images Jesus uses!  If you think that the Kingdom of God is like a perfect earthly monarchy, think again!  The people who thought that the Kingdom be filled with people behaving themselves and being good, and only come when our side wins, are going to be surprised! Jesus has given us some very different landmarks. His parables are like telling us to keep going until we see the fork in the road by the hound-dog tied to a big shade tree.
Why does Jesus talk like this to tell us what the kingdom of God is like? Because in God’s reign, God takes the unexpected, the unclean and the unwanted, and turns all of that into abundance! Like a big shrubby weed with all those birds in an otherwise perfectly sown field.
Life in God’s kingdom owns us, even as we do everything to own it.  Seeking and having the pearl of great price changes us. We are owned by the faith we posses.
Life in God’s world is at once diverse and irresistible. We are all caught up in it as in a net.
I don’t know about you, but I am not so hot at giving—or taking—direction. There are times in my life when I want, when I need, the precision of distance and direction. But much of life lends itself to the poetry of landmark and story. Turns out that God has room for both.
How would you describe God alive in your life? To what would you compare it? Jesus is says is like something we want that is hard to describe, but when we see it we know it.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

A yoke of blessing


Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Paul says we want to do right but sometimes we do the evil we wish to avoid. It is a contradiction that every Christian must face if we are to live our baptismal lives and grow into the full stature of Christ.
I remember a few years ago, a video went viral on the internet and I think that today its’ message is still relevant. It came from Thailand. The vignette begins with a young boy who is caught stealing from a shop on a busy street. The shop-owner has the boy by the arm and she is calling for the police when another shop owner, the owner of a small restaurant, stops the woman. He sees that in the boy’s hands are a bottle of cough syrup and a package of pills. “Is your mother sick?” The boy nods petulantly. The man calls over to his young daughter and tells her to get a packet of food for vegetable soup. She rolls her eyes but she does it. The man pays the woman for the stolen medicine and gives the boy the vegetable soup.
Thirty years later.
In the same restaurant, the same man is having a busy day. His daughter, now grown, calls to her father and he looks up and there is a man begging for some food. He reaches over and hands the beggar a bag of vegetables for soup and then yells ‘Next customer!” Suddenly, he holds his head and falls over backwards.
Cut to the intensive care unit in a hospital. The daughter sits next to her father who is unconscious. She agonizes over a medical bill that will require her to sell their little restaurant. The camera shows a sign hanging on the door of the place that reads “For sale! Urgent!”
The next day she is at the bed-side when a nurse hands her an envelope. It is a medical bill. She opens it, her face filled with worry. And inside she finds that all the charges read “zero.” At the bottom of the bill is a note: “Paid in advance thirty years ago with a bag of vegetables and some analgesic.” And it is signed by the physician.
Then the screen interweaves the interaction on that street thirty years ago with the journey of the young man through medical school and with various patients.
This little vignette, which strangely enough was the ad for a bank in Thailand, is not simply a “pay it forward” message. It is an example of the impact we have when we live life from the standpoint of faith, of gratitude, and compassion.
Jesus’ yoke and his burden are summed up this way. Our lives are meant to be for others, for compassion, for grace, to be vessels and signs of hope. The burden and yoke of Jesus is to be aware of the presence of God in others and to live accordingly.
The parable of the man in the video points out that a life oriented towards compassion changes both people and the world.
The point of a yoke was to harness the strength of the ox to pull a plow across the earth so that seed may be planted in the furrows. The yoke makes the burden possible. If you’ve ever been to the Canal Museum at Hackett Park here in Easton, you may have seen the two mules pulling that large barge up and down the canal. The animals worked, sure, but the harness, the yoke, makes the work possible, put the energy to use.
The other thing a yoke does is steer. The farmer walks behind the oxen who wear the yoke to direct them so that the furrows are straight and that their pace is even.
Jesus calls us to learn and do his work. He gives the burden of compassion and he also steers us in the way that makes the most of our energy and gifts.
Paul’s epistle today reminds that sometimes we try really hard to do right and we still mess up. But instead of despair, the Apostle reminds the Christians in Rome (and us) that we are learning and are given the power to grow and change and effect change in our lives, to bring compassion to the people around us living under the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the end, the idea is that compassion, being alert to the people and world around us, giving each other a break, and humility will be a normal part of our living. Sometimes we aren’t very good at it, and other times we are the beneficiaries of compassion and grace that we might not deserve.  The yoke Jesus offers trains us and guides to be better able to walk the way of Jesus, naturally and spontaneously, planting seeds of love along the way.
That is our prayer and our calling, that in taking on Jesus, we will take on the important work of receiving the blessings brought to us and becoming a blessing to everyone God sends our way.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Our loving, liberating, relational God


To think of and describe a God who is both one in three and three in one is almost impossible to accurately describe, so we fall back on analogies. And that can be… well… embarrassing.
Every year for a few years now, someone will inevitably post on social media (at least in my on-line silos) a Lutheran Humor video showing St. Patrick trying to describe the Trinity to a couple of Irish peasants. It’s like a three-leafed clover, he says, or how water can be ice, or water, or vapor, and so on. And each time, the peasants object, saying how he has just committed some classic heresy (“Oh, Patrick! That’s modalism!” “Oh, Patrick! That’s partialism!” “You’re the worst Patrick! I mean, really!”). Finally, Patrick gets exasperated and blurts out a rapid-fire recitation of the Athanasian Creed, to which the peasants say “Well, okay. Why didn’t you just say so?”
We get ourselves all tied up in knots. Even in our own parish named for the Trinity, there are only two symbols of the Trinity in the whole place… the big window over the high altar which, while lovely and which is meant to invite us through the Sacrament into the Gates of Heaven, also depicts God as the Old Guy, the Crucified Dude, and the Bird. The other image is so high up on the wall at the opposite end of the church that it is out of reach. Which is too bad, because if you think about it—or really, stop trying to overthink it—it is really rather simple.
If you read the scriptures enough, and listen carefully enough, one truth becomes inescapable: Godself is best known in relationship.
That is for me the chief witness of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. We see it again and again: From Genesis where we hear about God walking in the Garden looking for Adam and Eve who have hidden themselves out of shame, to God’s encounter with Moses on the mountain, to the voices of the prophets, right down to the incarnation of Jesus, and even to the vision of Revelation where heaven comes to earth and God gathers all people. The very nature of God is relational. And we, being created in the image of God, are by our very nature relational beings.
This is why the dual crises we are facing now cuts so deep. They are crises of relationship. The global COVIS-19 pandemic that keeps us apart is a crisis in relationship. We are not made to be kept apart because we are built in the image of a relational God.
And the stark revelations (to white society, that is) of deeply ingrained racism in all aspects of our society reveals an ongoing abuse of power that distorts the fundamental dignity of each person, shows us how deeply the sin of racism is a sin against our relational God.
Bishop Frank Logue of Atlanta writes:
“Before God created everything we see and know, there was a communion of three separate persons of the Godhead who created you out of love, for love. Not just one being, but relationships and communion, before time and forever. This is why you were created: to be in healthy, loving, generative relationship with God and all creation. And out of this web of relationships comes both your salvation and the redemption of all creation.”
The word Trinity never appears in the Bible. Yet in today’s Gospel, the Great Commission tells us to baptize new followers of Jesus in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We read a different Trinitarian formulation in Second Corinthians, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”
The word “racism” doesn’t appear In the Bible, either. It’s not on any of the Apostle Paul’s lists of sins in his epistles, Jesus doesn’t utter the word from his sermons on the mount, on the plain, or from the boat.
But Scripture tells us a lot about oppression and the work of God to break its power and free people from it From Moses thundering before Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” to Isaiah proclaiming a fast from injustice, to Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple, we see that when God seeks to heal human sin and bring us back into relationship, racism is at the heart of what God seeks to eradicate and heal.
The first Christians weren’t deep theologians, at least not in the academic sense, when they started following the way of Jesus. They prayed and fasted, they cared for widows and orphans, they held everything in common, they told others about the Risen Jesus. Not because of some treatise or manifesto, but because it seemed good to them and to the Holy Spirit. It was the right way to live, and the right way to be with each other.
It turns out that renewed relationship was a key sign to those around them of God at work in their communities. And when they baptized and brought a new person into their community in “the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” they were speaking of a God who is known in relationship.
The creation story that we heard this morning reminds us  that our very humanity, our very diversity, the qualities we share and the things that are unique, are in their essence part of imago dei, the image of God.
This is why the coincidence of global pandemic and our corporate rage at racism and all kinds racial violence in the deaths of Breanna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and so many more is so very important. Because we are made in the image of our relational God, the sin of racism cuts to the very heart of what it means to be human. Racism destroys and distorts human ecology on its most basic level, by regulating and destroying relationships.
In his classic book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Eugene Genovese describes the lengths to which slave owners would go to distort and destroy the relationships among the people they enslaved. They would break up families, take away children, change their names, regulate what enslaved people could learn, even manage and control how enslaved people would care for their sick and bury their dead. Why? Because they knew if the people they enslaved were to experience unhindered relationships, they would find their dignity, discover their courage, and break out of their bonds.
Every oppressive regime knows this—from Jim Crow to the Holocaust to the Gulag to the reservation system and the so-called Indian Schools, to el los desaparecidos—the pattern has been repeated. And as soon as the oppressors teach people in bondage to read the Scriptures (thinking it would pacify them) it is always the beginning of the end. Because the Scriptures introduces oppressed people to Moses, Jeremiah, Ruth, Micah, Isaiah, Mary, and Jesus. At the heart of the scriptural narrative is a people seeking liberation following a God who is present, empowering, and relational.
Jesus time and again quoted the heart of the Law: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. The great commandment is relational. We love God and we love people in a deeply interconnected web of relationships. When we come to love God more, we find the heart for people that God has, and so the love of God draws us to other people. Loving other people fully means seeing them as God sees them, and so loving people can also draw us to God. And that is how Godself is best known in relationship! God’s people are best known in our communion with one another. That is why we were created: to live in holy relationship with God each other, and creation. It why respecting the dignity of every human being is at the heart of our baptismal promise.
God is a relational God, and God is also a God of hope! Hope is faith that looks forward. The present pandemic and our (apparently newfound) consciousness of the sin of racism is driving us to appreciate and re-evaluate our relatedness and see the ecology of our relationships differently.
Early Christians practiced their faith well before they landed on the language of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They experienced the fullness of God in the communities where they lived. We are invited also to live out our faith now and let our language flow from that. At the same time, we are invited to see the language of the Trinity not as some distant theological concept but as a gift to us from people who have walked this same path ahead of us.
We are God’s people made in God’s image. And just as God cannot be contained to one image, so we cannot be contained to one culture or expression. And as the fullness of God is found in relationship of the Trinity, so the fullness and grace of humanity comes when we discover liberating, life-changing, and loving relationships that overcomes privilege and break down the barriers of racism making us more fully the people God made us to be.




Trinity Sunday worship at Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, PA may be found here

Sunday, May 31, 2020

It's time to leave the upper room!


It’s time to leave the upper room! We have been stuck here too long. We’ve gotten used to the risen Jesus coming to us; to the Holy Spirit coming to us. We are okay with sending someone else out to deal with the consequences of crucifixion and coming back with reports of empty tombs.

But, no. It is time to leave the upper room. 
It’s true that a lot happens in that space: from Holy Week all the way through the Easter Season, we’ve been hearing about all the that that went on in that upper room in Jerusalem. And even though those events shaped the church for years— centuries! —to come, the truth is that it is time to leave. It’s time get out!
I know we’re all a little stir-crazy right now. Zoom and YouTube are great but they are not the same. Many things are different.
I want to get out and travel, even just go out to eat, and while I can do a lot from my little perch, and the grill is wonderful, it’s not the same. I love singing with our choir and how another member digitally turns our separate voices into the choral music for our on-line worship, it is not the same.
The thing is that it won’t ever be the same again, ever!
A lot of people are angry about that. I get it: we did not sign on for this. But here is where the experience of those disciples, those friends and apprentices of Jesus, is instructive.
The disciples did not sign on to be cooped up for weeks on end in their upper room. They followed Jesus as he walked around Palestine teaching and healing. They loved handing out bread and fish that seemed to spring like a gusher from baskets that started with just two donated fish and three loaves. They loved the crowds when he taught from hills, on plains, and from boats. They were astounded when Jesus raised Lazarus and the sick little girl from death and when healed the Centurion’s servant from afar. They probably got a laugh out of Peter’s reaction when some guys cut a hole in his roof to lower down a sick man from Peter’s upper room!
But when things turned sour, the disciples turned that upper room from which they had heard Jesus teach and where they probably planned all their travels around the holy land, into a shelter. A hiding place. A spiritual quarantine. They hid there and hunkered down.
Okay, after the last supper and the foot washing, maybe that made sense. They thought they were marked men and feared being arrested and they had no place to go after Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. It was their hideout. It soon became their tree-house.
Because after the resurrection, when they decided they could venture out to the temple to pray, they still did not go very far! They always came back to the same upper room! They only gradually became less isolated but only a very little bit. 

God is nothing if not persistent, look at all the ways that God came to them in that little space. The Last Supper happens in the upper room. Jesus washes the disciple’s feet there. As I said, after the crucifixion, that’s where they hid. They agonized and worried and grieved there.
When the two Mary's and the other women left their male companions in the room and dared to go Jesus tomb to do their sad work, it is they who burst through the doors with the first news of the resurrection! It was from the upper room that Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to see the Empty Tomb, and it was to the upper room that they returned. The Risen Jesus arrives there and gives the remaining apostles the authority to teach, forgive, and heal just as Jesus did.
And it is in the upper room where the disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit and start to speak in a variety of languages so loudly that even those passing by on the busy street below stop and listen in amazement.
The problem with upper rooms is that they can become hiding places. The disciples could have reveled in their newfound spiritual gifts and insight and stayed home. It could have become a dark, smelly, closed in space.
Instead, it ended up being an incubator of Gospel imagination and the home-base for a brand new community!
In our upper rooms, we will see our best selves and, I hate to say it, our worst selves will be also be revealed. We’ll get tired, bored, exasperated, even angry. And when that happens, we will be showing off our deepest anxieties, rages, and fears. It won’t be right… but it is not unexpected. We will be tempted to get lost in the echo chamber of social media and build our own little silos where only people who share our opinions and who stoke our fears reside. We’ll have to find new strategies to temper our inner impulses and urges.
And that is why it is important to remember those disciples in that upper room. That little space may have contained the disciples— and everything they brought with them—but it could not lock out Jesus or bar the Holy Spirit! It became the testing ground for their own proclamation and power until finally the room was just not big enough… they had to go out into all the world because God’s Spirit, and God’s people whom he inhabits, just can’t be cooped up any longer!
Being cooped up is not simply a matter of bothersome inconvenience, where we bicker about wearing masks. The message of Pentecost is that God has the power to break down walls that we have so desperately and urgently built up between each other.
Pastor & Professor Dennis R. Edwards
Pastor Dennis R. Edwards, associate professor of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago talks about the frustration he feels towards the white church in the wake of the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, the shooting of Breonna Taylor, the threat of the use of the police by a white woman to threaten Christian Cooper, Minneapolis police officers brazenly and deliberately executing George Floyd with an illegal and immoral (and unnecessary choke hold) and of the fact that COVID-19 disproportionately harms black and brown people.
In his essay in Christianity Today, he talks about the power of God to break down these walls. He says:
Acts 16:35–40 is the epilogue to a powerful story of God’s deliverance. The imprisoned Paul and Silas were singing hymns when an earthquake hit around midnight. Such was the power of the quake that the prison doors were opened, chains fell off prisoners, and the fear that overcame the jailer resulted in his conversion, along with that of his household.
“We could reflect a bit on God breaking people out of prison, but instead I want to highlight the epilogue, which tends to get overlooked in sermons from Acts 16. The morning after the earthquake, the jailer told Paul and Silas that the magistrates had released the apostles and they could “go in peace.” But Paul and Silas did not peacefully walk away. Instead, Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves” (Acts 16:37). Some of my friends argue that Paul’s concern here is the propagation of the gospel. Perhaps, but the text doesn’t say that. What we do see, however, is Paul’s agitation over the violation of his civil rights as a Roman citizen (a point he brings up strategically in Acts 21:39 and 22:25–29).
“At the very least we can acknowledge that injustice demands a response to people in power. (For more on this, see Esau McCauley’s theology of policing.) Paul called the magistrates to account for their actions, and we must do the same. We should be outraged over injustice, and people in positions of authority need to feel our anguish.”
Our problem is much bigger than being stuck at home, bored. The co-incidence of pandemic, and of racial and police violence has revealed that we are locked into systems and a way of thinking that assumes that my welfare depends on someone else's servitude; that my privileged place in society must, by definition, come at the expense of another.
When the Holy Spirit comes on Pentecost, it is not simply to make people better pray-ers, church-goers, or even to make people nicer. The Holy Spirit breaks through the walls of disciples hiding place and propels them to suddenly speak in the languages of people other than themselves. 

And not just speak, but to walk with them and to be with them, and to be the Good News with them. Too often we think of Pentecost (and for that matter mission and evangelism) as a process of getting the other to be more like me, or (failing that) to accept their lowliness.
No! Pentecost is the signal and reality that God’s reign is for all God’s people! That in Christ, as Paul would later write, there is no longer “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female.” The miracle of Pentecost is that God values and holds up all God’s people in all their variety and expression.
When the Church participates in racism or racial violence it locks out the gift of the Spirit, and kicks Christ to the curb. When we are silent, it is worse: we condone the very forces of evil that Christ came to overcome. We lock ourselves into to our own upper rooms.
The Good News is that the Holy Spirit is never locked out of our upper rooms, whatever they may be!
In fact, God is propelling us out into the world to confront the powers of sin that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. And that means we both listen to the science that tells us how to deal with this virus, and we listen to the voices of the marginalized and recognize our part in combatting the sin of racism. And when we get out and confront the evils of race, class, and the abuse of power to favor the few, we are participating in the same work of the same Spirit who  through Christ, heals and renews  us, all people, and all creation.

It is time to get out! It's time to leave our upper rooms.


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:
Andrew, 
...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 (https://www.missionstclare.com/), walk the Stations with us by following the link on our website (www.trinityeaston.org). 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?”
“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.