Monday, May 28, 2018

On Trinity Sunday: an exercise in holy imagination

Trinity Sunday, 2018 

What is your way into God? What opens the door to the divine for you? Is the vastness and wonder of God’s creation? Is it sense of meaning and redemption that you have found in your relationship with God? Maybe you were a person who suffered addictions, or abuse, or stuck in a cycle of really bad choices and found healing and wholeness when you came to faith. Perhaps there was a time when you sought meaning, hope, or direction, and it came to you in an encounter with God. Maybe the door opened for you when you came to sobriety, to health.... or just to your senses!

However it is that you meet God, I’ll bet that there is hymn for you.

The Trinity, the Christian doctrine that we contemplate today, says that the oneness of God is expressed in a trinity of persons and a unity of being. The One God is manifested in a Trinity of persons. This is much more than metaphor, and we must avoid the temptation to reducing our language of God to mere "base three" thinking. The Trinity tells us several things about the very nature of God. Not only do we know the One God as a unity of persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but the Trinity also tells us that: 1) God is complex to the point unknowing; 2) God is relational; and because of that, through God's grace and action, 3) God is knowable.
So, among other things, the Trinity also tells us that God offers us a variety of ways “in” to our relationship with God. We can contemplate the majesty and wonder of the God of All Creation in God the Father. We can enter in to intimate, healing relationship in God the Son. We can enter in to the mystic power and mysterious movement of God in God the Holy Spirit. These "ways in" should not be confused with the "roles" or "functions" of each person of the Trinity, and remember each person of the Trinity all contain the fullness of the One God. The Trinity shows us that God is complex, mysterious, and knowable all at the same time.

Of course, God is so big and beyond our knowing that the best we can do is use analogies to describe the fullness of God. This is a start but it can get us into trouble. What we need is holy imagination, grounded in prayer, scripture, tradition, and in the worship of the church.

Now, I am not a musician, nor do I play one on television, but I do sing and I have found that one way that we can discover how each of us activate holy imagination is to look at our favorite hymn.

So... What is your favorite hymn? What piece of music makes you say, when it pops up in church, “Oh! Good!”

I have a hunch that your favorite hymn is not only your favorite because it makes you tap your toes but that there is something about that hymn that is pointing you to how you enter into your relationship with God. Something about that hymn stirs something in you, pulls you, and takes you beyond yourself.

Let me demonstrate by sharing with you some of my favorite hymns.

As it happens, one of these is the one we sang this morning at the start of our liturgy. It is a classic that shows up nearly every time we celebrate the Trinity. Using imagery from the Book of Revelation, it talks about the time we hope and pray for, when Earth and Heaven will be joined and all creation will ring out in praise to God (In the Episcopal hymnal, H-362):

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Who was, and is, and evermore shall be.
Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;
Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.

Another favorite of mine talks about how all creation points to The Creator. Written by Joseph Addison (H-409), in our hymnal it is set to a marvelous tune by Franz Josef Hayden.  It presents a stirring image of God the Father as both creator and one who can be known through creation. Be warned: this is a very seventeenth century hymn because it also makes the case for a unitarian approach to God through the window of reason. I am pretty sure that Addison didn't mean to do this, but the hymn is also a description of one way that prevenient grace works. 

The Spacious Firmament on high,
With all the blue Ethereal Sky,
And spangled Heav’ns, a Shining Frame,
Their great Original proclaim:
Th’ unwearied Sun, from day to day,
Does his Creator’s Pow’r display,
And publishes to every Land
The Work of an Almighty Hand.
If I were to pick a hymn that sums up for me the meaning of Jesus’ redemptive love, it is this American folk hymn (H-439), whose authorship is unknown but whose words speak of an eternal, saving love:
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul.
There is a lovely hymn to the Holy Spirit written by an Episcopal priest, Carl P. Daw, in 1981 for our Hymnal 1982 (H-513), and it is also one of my favorites:
Like the murmur of the dove's song,
like the challenge of her flight,
like the vigor of the wind's rush,
like the new flame's eager might:
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
To the members of Christ's body,
to the branches of the Vine,
to the Church in faith assembled,
to our midst as gift and sign:
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
So what’s your favorite hymn? And what does it tell you about your walk with God?
Maybe it’s something like “Amazing Grace” written by an Anglican priest who came to faith in Jesus and repented from a life as sea-captain of slaving ships.
Or maybe it’s a Christmas carol like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” which talks of God breaking in to our world for our redemption in the new-born Jesus. Written by another Episcopal priest named Philips Brooks, the original poem had five verses. 

It is a subversive little hymn, and on some level our inner Scrooges must sense this because the fourth verse of his original poem is almost always dropped out. It is even asterisked in our hymnal (H-79), indicating that it is optional, but to me this verse is the heart of the text. Singing it just might turn your heart at Christmas just as old Scrooge's heart was turned in A Christmas Carol:
Where children pure and happy
Pray to the holy Child,
Where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the Mother mild,
Where charity stands watching,
And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.
Part of what I hope you get out of this exercise on this Trinity Sunday is not only a sense of the complexity of God in Three Persons, but also God’s marvelous accessibility. 

In the beauty of this music, I hope and pray that your imaginations will be activated to see all the ways that God is inviting you—all of us—into a living, holy, and transforming relationship with God.
In activating our holy imagination through prayer, music, art, and liturgy, we begin to discover that, among other things, that the Trinity is not some esoteric, dry as dust dogma, nor a game of theological trivial pursuit. The Trinity shows us that our complex God is at once relational, knowable and intimate.
These hymns, I think, are but one clue as to how you are attracted to God, and how God invites us—all of us—in all our particularity, and with all that we bring, into living relationship with The One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
One last hymn tells a story that moves us from contemplation to action, and reminds us that discipleship is at once freeing and costly. William Alexander Percy wrote this little hymn in 1924 that contemplates the cost of discipleship (H-661), describing those first fisherman who heard Jesus’ call and followed him:
Contented peaceful fishermen
Before they ever knew
The peace of God That fill’d their hearts
Brimful and broke them too.
And verse 4:
The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod,
Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing–
The marvelous peace of God.
So what’s your favorite hymn? What hymn speaks to you? Look it up. Read the text. Pray the text. And listen to how the Triune God is as close to us as our hearts, and is as near to us as the song on our lips.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The geography of the holy

Ascension Day - 2018

There is an old story that comes from the heady days of the space race between the USA and the former Soviet Union. The story goes that when Yuri Gagarin, the first person to fly in space and orbit the earth, made his voyage in 1961, that he looked out the window and observed that he did not see God.

It gets weirder. It turns out that Gagarin never said anything one way or the other about seeing God out the window of Vostok-1, but we do know this: before his rocket lifted off from Star City on the Wednesday after Orthodox Easter, Gagarin took his daughter, Yelena, to be baptized.

The only record of the infamous comment in fact comes from a speech by Nikita Khrushchev in the month or two after the flight. And he didn’t quote Gagarin but rather, in an attempt to mock religion, said what Gagarin didn’t see. The Western press, perhaps spotting an opportunity for propaganda (or else not being able to understand Russian) immediately attributed the words to Gagarin. 

I wonder if this comment, and the geo-political flap that arose from it, didn’t inspire the 1963 film Heavens Above!, where Peter Sellers plays a naïve but well-meaning vicar who gives away food and welcomes the poor into his church, becoming such an annoyance that he is shot into space as the new Bishop of Outer Space, orbiting the earth reading the psalms over the radio. 

The misquote attributed to Gagarin was definitively answered by three American astronauts, Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman as they orbited the moon in Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve, 1968. The three astronauts took turns reading Genesis 1:1-10, the creation story, on the same flight that gave us the iconic image of the earth rising over the horizon of the moon.

The geography of holiness is a tricky and dangerous thing.

Here we are, forty days after Easter, on another Feast of the Ascension, celebrating the return of the living, crucified and resurrected Jesus to heaven.

What is described in both the Book of Acts and in the Gospel of Luke is not a mere disapparation. Jesus doesn’t just fade into the ether, but instead physically rises up into the sky, leaving the disciples staring into the heavens, mouths agape, until an angel comes along and tells them, essentially, to snap out of it and come back to earth.

As sophisticated as we are, no matter how many airline flights we take, and no matter how many space shots we’ve witnessed, we still tend to think of heaven as “up” and hell as “down”, with us living somewhere in the middle. But as interesting as this cosmological hot-hero sandwich might be, the real significance of the Ascension is not geography but relationship.

If you turn to the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, you will discover that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (p. 854)

In both the Gospel of Luke and in the Book of Acts, before he returns to heaven, Jesus tells his friends and apprentices to say put, and await the gift that God will send them.
He also teaches them and reveals to them one last time how everything they have seen and heard fits together as God intended. We discover that the disciples were not powerless nor afraid, but spent their time together in what must have seemed like a transformed community, praying and singing and spending time in worship. They stop hiding, but now live out in the open going between their home(s) and the Temple.

The geography of holiness had changed. Their place, their city, once a place of foreboding and death, is now a place of wonder and worship. They saw the world and their place in it with new eyes, and this even before the Paraclete would arrive in another ten days.
You see, the Ascension didn’t just take Jesus back into heaven, into God’s realm in the cosmos, the Ascension revealed how the friends and apprentices of Jesus were now themselves drawn living in a new relationship with God and each other through Christ. They were changed. Their relationships with each other and even, in their eagerness, with the world was transformed.

The Ascension shows us the sneakiness of God. It’s importance is exactly backwards from what we expect. We think it is about going “up,” when all along is about tuning our hearts and senses towards Christ, so that we can see more and more that God’s work is being done on earth—all around us!-- just as it is in heaven!

The Ascension shows us how we are drawn into Christ, to each other, and toward the world. Christ draws us towards heaven while at the same shows us that the only place we can really find God is right here.  The Ascension shows that God’s power and healing is not reserved for the someday but is also right now. The Ascension demonstrates that in all of our everyday living, the Risen and Ascended Christ continues to be present.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom reminds us, “that the realm of God is dangerous. You must enter into it and not just seek information about it.” Look at what happens in Luke and Acts. Jesus draws us to heaven and directs us to "stay in The City"—in the places and in the relationships where God has placed you. We hope for heaven, and the place where we receive “power from on high” is in “the city,” where we his people live, pray, work, and worship.

When we do heavenly worship, with glorious music, we certainly are drawing ourselves towards heaven at the same time we are witnessing to the reality that God is all the time bringing heaven to earth. 

I told you… God is sneaky that way. This is the geography of the holy. 

As God’s people, the more we are drawn to heaven the more we live in service to the world; the more we are drawn to that ascended vision, the more find the sacred in the city. In the geography of the holy, we don’t need to go elsewhere to find God because the place where we find the power of God is right here all along!

It is said by some who knew him, that Yuri Gagarin carried in his pocket a small icon, both in his space flight and later when he died in a plane crash in 1968. I don’t know about that. But I do know this: we here in this "city," in this place, in our witness, worship, and in our holy work, we baptized people are icons of the holy. What God is doing on earth with us now is what happens in heaven, just as Jesus said when he taught us to pray.

In the Ascension, we are invited to both see heaven and live in the city and so inhabit the geography of the holy. 

Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53

A sermon for the Feast of the Ascension, May 10, 2018 at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Herding cats in the kingdom of God

If you were to ask me to choose the 100 best TV commercials of all time, do you know what would be at the very top of my list? It would be an ad that first appeared in Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000.
Picture tough, dust-caked cowboys riding the range. They are on a drive through the desolate, wild, open prairie. From their horses they shout, whistle and use their lariats to bring their herd home. The ad opens with a young cowboy standing next to a Conestoga wagon, holding up a picture. “This is my grandfather,” he says. “He started herding cats when he was 15.”
Yes, these cowboys are herding cats.
“Anyone can herd cattle,” one of these cowboys says. “But keeping ten thousand half-wild short hairs together… is about the hardest work a man can do.”
This ad works because it takes a time honored image that we all know and with wonderful details like a little yarn, a sneeze, and a lint roller---not to mention dozens and dozen of cats--and turns it all upside down.
Sort of like taking an historic parish founded by a famous industrialist located in a town re-named for a famous athlete and then raising up for that parish an all-female leadership team.
The American cowboy is an archetype for us is because he embodies the free individual. 
Alone, against the odds, he by himself endures and brings the herd home. If there is camaraderie, it is a companionship of rugged individuals. The archetype appeals to us precisely because we can’t imagine ourselves being part of a herd.
We may like groups but we are nothing like cattle or sheep… or so we tell ourselves. We listen to our own beat, to many beats, all our own. We like to go our own way, do what we think best, maybe we’ll tell people what we’re up to or maybe not. We don’t live on the prairie, but we do think of ourselves as rugged individualists.
To tell you the truth, we are a tough flock to lead.
So when we hear someone say that parish life is “like herding cats” we all know what that means. None of us wants to be mere cattle…let alone sheep!
Which makes me wonder:  Why would the early church remember today’s Gospel image of sheep and, most of all, why would they remember Jesus calling himself the good shepherd? 
For one thing, I think they remembered that Jesus stood up to Israel’s religious leaders about their lack of leadership. One of the things that Jesus calls out, is the temptation to think of ourselves as so unique, so special, so “apart” that it cuts us off from the world God has placed us in.
The Gospel of John is also challenging some of the leaders of the early church. He reminds those "pastors" (another word for shepherd) not to fail their infant communities by putting themselves on pedestals or preaching a gospel they did not attend to themselves.
We like to think of the church as being one family, one unit with a single mind and purpose and yet we know from our experience that being in the same building at prayer does not necessarily mean that we are one flock with one shepherd.  At times we are like a herd of cats.
Yet somewhere in between the docility of sheep and the independence of cats, there is set before us the truth of who we are and what we need. We all need direction, purpose, and community. We all need, heed, and follow a good shepherd.
Now before you start giving Rebecca the side-eye glance and expect her to have all the answers, remember who the good shepherd really is.   
Jesus is the good shepherd by showing us a way. Jesus is the good shepherd because of his unity with God. Jesus is the good shepherd because through his life, death and resurrection each and every one of us has new life and a new way of being. Jesus redeems and shapes us to be something more than docile sheep or independent cats. 
In our baptism and our profession of faith we gave ourselves to the good shepherd and began to follow him. He guides us and protects us and teaches us.
In our prayer and worship and study, we learn to hear Jesus’ voice over the din and distraction of the culture we are in.
In our community, we learn to recognize Jesus at work in and through us. We discover how Jesus protects us and prepares us to face the assaults and ambiguities of everyday life through our sacramental and common life, and in the ways we listen and support one another.
In our witness, we see people without hope or purpose or who doubt that anyone will welcome them into any fellowship, and we give them shelter, and nourishment and care.
As followers of the Good Shepherd, who is at the very same time the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, we are members of a different kind of community. We follow a shepherd who serves. Who lays down his life for the sheep. Who seeks us when we are lost. Who leads us to new life and new community.
And in following Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we find that the true nature of the church lies somewhere in between the docility of sheep and the independence of cats. The more we follow Christ, the more we, together and individually, become like the One we follow.

If herding cats is one of my favorite ads, one of my favorite quotes about mission comes from Pope John XXIII. He said about the Church that “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”
In looking around this church, and yes I’ve been one of those tourists, there is a little sign right at the top of the grand outdoor stairs that no one uses because of the elevator. It tells people that you are a “free” church. That is, when this place was built, Mr. Packer decided not to charge pew rents, so instead of the wealthiest always getting the best seats in the house, anyone could get the best seat!
Once upon a time, my own parish of Trinity, Easton, had a church fight over abolishing pew rents. It was so fractious that the Easton Express Times reported on how the police were called to calm everyone down. The Bishop had to take the train from Reading to sort out which of the two vestries (yes, two!) that were elected that day was the real one. Those were the days, lemme tell ya!
That little sign on your door says you are open to all. It says that for all the beauty and all the grandeur, despite the Tiffany windows and the Mercer tile, this was to be a church open to all people. Which is why that even though the big mansions are over there, this church was built where all the tradespeople, workers, railroaders, merchants, and coal-crackers lived.  
But, as the sign also indicates, free is not cheap. There are things we have to do, and that means more than knowing when to stand, sit, or kneel.
Accepting the free gift of grace means that our lives will change in unexpected ways. Which is why the church is most obviously the church when we choose to model ourselves on the good shepherd, so that we can together share in the good shepherd’s care and longing for the world. When we follow Jesus, the good shepherd, we are also the ones who with Jesus give ourselves to the world he loves. As disciples, we follow Jesus so that we may become more and like him both by ourselves and in our common life.
In taking on Rebecca as your priest in charge, especially after accompanying her through so much of her journey, you might think that you are taking on the familiar. You might be tempted to do what you've always done with even greater fervor, as crazy as that sounds.
The truth is that being the body of Christ at once grounds us and is unpredictable. It is full of challenge and change. Living the Christian life is always on-the-job training (no matter how long you’ve been at it), learning and doing the work of Jesus, being a disciple of Jesus in community is demanding. 
The good news is that Jesus is our shepherd. Jesus has made into something more than a herd of individual cats and something better than flock of docile sheep.
All of us in this parish, in this diocese, in this community, in this time are adopted into Christ's body, and are guided by of the Holy Spirit and living in sacramental community, so we are together discovering, sharing, and learning what it is to follow him. And in this moment, in this place, we are Jesus' friends and apprentices, inviting everyone around us into new, life-giving life with him.
It may feel like herding cats, but we have a direction, a place and a purpose because we hear and follow the Good Shepherd, who knows us and calls us each by name.

Preached at the celebration of new ministry of the Rev. Rebecca Parsons-Cancelliere at St. Mark and St. John Episcopal Church in Jim Thorpe, PA on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B, April 22, 2018.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A transition done well


UPDATED. As the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem prepares to elect a new Bishop, it seems like a good time to reflect on where we've come in these past four years. 

Right about the time I was coming out of seminary and entering parish ministry there was a show on television called “The A-Team.” As television went, it was pure brain candy.  It was all about four guys, all veterans, who were on the run from the Army and who would go around helping people in trouble. Every week they'd save the day through a combination of cleverness hi-jinx and, well, explosives.

At the end of every episode, the leader of the team, played by George Peppard, would look at the results of the justified mayhem, and smile while clenching a really big cigar in his teeth and say “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Me, too.

Sometimes, when I was a brand-new priest, I’d repeat that line when, against all odds, something we did in the church actually worked. The important thing when a plan comes together is that it is rarely, if ever, one person doing all the work. It is the work of a community. Of, ahem, "a team," so to speak.

As we stand in that prayerful space between walkabouts and the election of our ninth Bishop, I find myself saying that phrase again and again. I think it is a good moment to look back on the transitional period we have just come through and reflect on where we’ve come as a diocesan community, and enjoy how it all came together.

To tell the truth, we did not start this transition out on the best of feet. Relationships were strained, especially among the clergy. And because of that, people tended to pick sides and, if not point fingers, at least grumble a lot. Operationally, things were working but they weren’t happy. We did not lack for diagnoses or possible solution. We did lack long term vision and were unsure of what our resources were. To coin an oft over used (and misunderstood) phrase, we were an anxious system.

When things get like this, the big risk is to look for people to blame. That usually falls on the guy in the “big chair.” Harry Truman was not being naive or an autocrat when he put the sign on his desk that said “The buck stops here.” But when the temptation presented itself to seek blame and form up firing squads, I found myself reminding folks that if this is where we wanted to go, then we’d better find ones that could shoot in a circle.  

It is also tempting to look for quick fixes and this was not the time for that. When this process started, I was the President of the Standing Committee and the choice before our group was to either move directly into a search or to take some time to reflect and recollect. 

Another choice was to pretend there was no problem, kick the can down the road, and wait for the next bishop to solve it. How many organizations--I am thinking of you, parish churches-- have done that before? And how well did that work out?

For me, the choice was clear but not simple. As we on the Standing Committee talked with lay and ordained leaders around the diocese, the consensus grew that we needed to make some space for ourselves. But the momentum was already in place towards just diving into a search and finding the next bishop ASAP. One day the FedEx guy delivered a big box of notebooks and all the materials that a diocese gets to prepare for an episcopal search. As we started going down the checklist, taking the necessary steps, and having the meetings and regional gatherings to start a search, my gut was telling me that we weren’t ready, and in talking with other lay and ordained leaders, I learned that I wasn't alone.

The good news was that we, as a diocese, were not the first to experience this malaise and to need to do this kind of work. There was another place in our province whose experience we could draw upon even though the political and canonical landscape was different. 

Before the Episcopal Church had this canonical provision called a "Bishop Provisional," the Standing Committee of my former diocese of West Virginia, called a retired bishop to come to be their “interim bishop.” In those days, the Standing Committee retained the full reigns of ecclestiastical authority, but he was our bishop and set about the work of healing. 

Lots of dioceses today have Provisional Bishops, but we were looking for something more. This was about much more than croziers and confirmations. 

But you only know what you know, and we were just about to look for a retired bishop to hold down the fort, when I found myself one day brainstorming (and worrying and wondering) with the then-Suffragan Bishop for Pastoral Affairs, Clay Matthews. I don't remember how it happened, but the idea was floated that we might try partnering with another nearby diocese and sharing their bishop to address some of the structural and adaptive issues we were talking about. We kicked around ideas  about how this might work.

Eventually, we decided to invite a young (but not new) bishop in Northwestern Pennsylvania to come and serve part time as our Bishop Provisional. Later on, in March, 2014, I said this to the Diocese of Bethlehem before we elected Bishop Sean Rowe to be our Bishop Provisional:

I gotta tell ya, when the idea of having a provisional bishop who would remain a diocesan bishop was first floated, I remember thinking (if not saying) “what? Are you nuts?”

But when we looked at the wish list that the Standing Committee created from the input you brought to us last October (2013) and that the clergy helped us created last November… a bishop who would lead collaboratively, who could help us heal our injuries and rebuild a sense of trust, who thinks about the church in different ways… I found myself, and I believe the rest of the Standing Committee, began to say “yeah. Yeah! This might work!”

So the vision grew. Instead of just finding a person to fill a job, to hold things down while we found our next bishop, we began to think bigger and bigger. 

The more we talked, the more we dreamed. And the more we dreamed, the more our vision grew.

What if our two dioceses entered into a ministry partnership? There are things the Diocese of Bethlehem does really well. Among them was communication, global mission (for example, our unique and amazing partnership with the Diocese of Kajo-Keji in South Sudan), stewardship, the varieties of outreach around the diocese, Christian Formation both in the parish and for laity in the Diocese, and the way we attend to the connection between liturgy and formation and mission. We were already a diocese of creative thinkers and experimenters. 

At the same time, the Diocese of Northwest Pennsylvania understands small churches really well. They are  a group that thinks about and raises up lay and local clergy leadership, creates partnerships between local congregations (both Episcopal and other traditions) in new ways. They learned how to do a lot with very little. They had also navigated some very tough waters in a forthright and creative way. They were a diocesan community that was willing to experiment and to try something new. 

A priest from the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, Adam Trambley, said at the time
"I thought it was a kind of challenge that was just out of left field enough and just hard enough that it was probably of God.”
We felt that we might work together in new ways. We just had no idea what it would be like or how it would turn out.

But the experiment was important and not just for us. The Episcopal Church has around 110 dioceses in several countries. Every single diocese must repeat certain structures as if they are only show in town. There is a lot of repetition of structure and not a lot of collaboration. We have the biggest legislative body this side of China, but not a lot of experience in matching resources. 

For example, where I minister, in the very southeast corner of our diocese I am shouting distance from eighteen nearby parishes, a third of them in three other dioceses all within a half-hour drive or less. What is the “boonies” in those dioceses happens to lie right next door to the spine of our own, and yet we act as if the others parishes in these other dioceses don’t exist. When our parish attempted to start a Spanish speaking congregation, we got great support from both 815 and our own diocesan staff but were unconscious of the tremendous experience nearby if it weren't for those pesky diocesan and provincial lines. The Delaware may as well have been a wall instead of river, in terms of lost mission potential.

By partnering with Northwestern Pennsylvania, and by taking the time for a creative transitional period, the dream was that we, as a diocese could form our own vision of ministry into which we could invite the next bishop. Instead of just holding down the fort, our hope was that we would provide the vision to the next woman or man sitting in the big chair, instead of depending who ever that might be to have all the answers and tell us what to do.

Our hope was that in our Episcopal search we'd be inviting to someone to come and join us on our adventure.

But first, we needed to move beyond the relatively short season of exhaustion and hurt feelings before those dynamics became hard-wired and habitual. But instead to build on the good work that was left to us by both Bishop Paul Marshall and his predecessor, Bishop Mark Dyer. We were blessed because we had a living history and memory of experimentation and innovation under those leaders, and this was precisely the moment when we as a community needed to pick up that tradition and use it.

Of  course, not everything went according to plan. But that’s okay because generally speaking there was no plan. We were learning as we were going. Sometimes things were very bumpy and uncertain.  We had some distractions along the way. For one thing, we had to do an audit that ended up going back seven years, and that led us to do the work of getting our financial and administrative house in order. 

But the main thing was always the main thing, and that was to re-knit our relationships and together develop a vision for ministry. The Diocesan Pilgrimage was essential in accomplishing this. Instead of doing a massive strategic planning process, we did over a year of prayer, study, reflection and, significantly, attempting to develop partnerships between parishes, often ones that never worked together before.

While the formal Pilgrimage period is over, it is still bearing fruit. In my own parish (Trinity, Easton), for example, the partnership between us and St. Mark's and St. John’s Parish in Jim Thorpe that began during our Diocesan Pilgrimage and is still growing and expanding. Through participating in diocesan events and utilizing other resources like the RSCM-King's College Course, we have a deeper relationship with the Pro-Cathedral and other parishes to the north and west. The parishes in the Lehigh Valley are learning to work together and it has become almost holy tradition that we share Ascension Day services together at the Cathedral.

In addition, patterns of living established well before the transition still function organically. Every week, many of the clergy from the Lehigh Valley still meet for breakfast, as do the clergy in the Wyoming Valley, and the regional Bible studies occur under local leadership forming patterns of living that are right for each local region.

When I was in West Virginia, the diocesan staff was small. Maybe four people and a cat. We in Bethlehem don’t have the cat, but our staff is smaller than it used to be. This change was not just about money. Through it, we have learned how to distribute and share executive leadership around the diocese. Diocesan committees are learning how to function better and to be centers of leadership. Doing it this way actually takes more work than the old centralized executive model that we saw in the 1980’s and 1990’s across the Church, and is probably less efficient, but the pay off in participation, the tapping of resources that might otherwise be missed, and experimentation is very big. I believe we have set the table not only for our next Bishop but for all of us.

Mid-way through this process, my time on Standing Committee ended and I moved from being at the center of all this action to an observer. As much as it made my palms itch at times, it was important for me to learn how to let new leaders finish what we started. It was important for us as a community to learn how to make important transitions normally-- to stop thinking of transitions solely as endings-and-beginnings but to think of them as signposts along a continuous process. Generally speaking, the newer leaders saw things with new lenses, solved problems we didn't see, and kept the ball rolling.

But, both as a participant and as an observer, this transition has revealed that the changes we envisioned at the start of the process were right on the money. Many people share the credit for the imagination and chutzpah to do what we as a diocese has accomplished. We have moved from one kind of stability, into to a period of volatility, and now we look forward to a new stability. I believe that we have developed new skills, new energy and vision along the way that is deeply seated into our community. We are connected to our past, deeply present in this moment, and looking towards an expectant, faithful future. 

We are coming to the end of a process of prayerful, working discernment. In just ten days, we will elect a new bishop. But getting here meant a lot of effort, heart, conversation (and controversy) and hard choices. None of us could have done this alone. God gave us the right people in the right places at the right time and this has allowed our time of episcopal transition to unfold in the way it did. This time allowed us to regain our innate strengths, build on the great gifts and work of our past, and regain-- no, develop new!-- trust in one another. 

I believe that this was pretty much the outcome we were hoping for four years ago when the Standing Committee met with Bishop Matthews to decide how were going to proceed. We just had no idea how exactly we were going to do it or what it would be like.

The journey was an act of faith made real. We’re not done, but before we jump into the excitement of the next era of our common life, it is good to take a moment to smile, take a puff on our big cigar (or our candy cigarette), and muse in thanksgiving to God, “I love it when a plan comes together.”



Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Ethics matters


When I was a kid in elementary school, I went to a revival geared to children. Mainly because I wanted a friend of mine, the only son in a family of eight children, to win a bicycle for bringing as many kids as he could to the meeting. And part of that experience meant memorizing this passage: John 3:16, the best known verse in the whole Bible, beating out even the 23rd Psalm. It is so popular that people paint the reference on poster boards to wave at cameras during sporting events.

You probably know it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all that believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
But think about it. It took me a long time to realize this, but wasn’t it odd that I was effectively bribed to go to a revival meeting so that my friend could win a bike? Looking back on it, it was a strange, backwards, lesson in everyday ethics.
Well, as I grew up and matured in my faith, I came to think that maybe I had memorized the wrong Bible passage!
John 3:16 is the slogan-passage for many Christians, describing for them the core of Christian faith. That’s the problem with simply reading the Bible by the numbers. Because that’s not how the book was first written and the numbers tempt us to forget about the rest of the passage and its context.
If they were going to make me memorize a Bible reference, it should have been John 3:17 which says: “Indeed, God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order than it might be saved through him.”
In other words, the whole point of the chapter in John describing Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in the dead of night, is that God’s salvation is not about “me” but about “we.”
Many Christians focus on the personal part of the passage: “…all that believeth in him…” part in verse 16 but the real story is at the start of the passage is that God loves the world, and in verse 17, that God’s chief goal is the reconciliation of the whole world.
We have tended to reduce salvation, and everything that goes with it—sin, redemption, holiness of life—to a personal, once-and-done, relationship with God alone. But the point of salvation and the purpose of holiness is we followers of Jesus participate with God in the saving and healing of the whole world!
Jesus says in today’s Gospel that the Son of Man must be lifted up, referring to the event described in our first lesson when Moses instructed the people of Israel to take their eyes off the snakes biting their heals (and to stop worrying about all the things they were complaining about) and keep their eye on the snake Moses lifted up on a pole. Don’t be distracted, they were taught, keep your eyes on God, on what God has both done and is doing. As they used to say in the civil rights days, “Keep your eyes on the prize.”
We are taught to look up and focus on Jesus, our crucified and risen savior. Don’t go for the cheap and easy win. Our ethics matters.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but recently some Christian leaders have decided that the public ethics of our leaders does not matter as long as these leaders “win” on “their” issues. After years of being "the moral majority," they are giving "mulligans" for behavior that not so long ago would have given them apoplexy.

I must admit that I am stunned by this. If for no other reason that the sheer irony of it all! Because giving our political leaders "mulligans" in the name of political expediency  is exactly the kind of convenient, pick-and-choose, religiosity that Jesus speaks to in the third chapter of the Gospel of John in the first place!
The Gospel lesson tells us that God’s saving love is for the whole world which means that God desires all people to live in the light of his grace and love. God’s saving love is contagious. We live in the light, and that’s how people know—through our deeds of healing, our works of mercy, and acts of care—that God’s saving love is for everyone.
A long time ago, I learned about how God’s reconciling love shows up every day in a very odd place. Not in a revival meeting or in a church, but during my first and only foray into local politics as a member of a zoning and inland wetlands commission for a small northeast Connecticut town.

It was, all in all, pretty dull stuff. But I learned a couple of things very quickly. When you serve on this kind of board, people who want to build houses, or condos or a strip mall will want to do nice things for you. Lesson number one was don’t let them! No matter how nice they seem, just say “no.” You did not want to hear your name on the local radio station saying that you voted a certain way because some nice person bought you a pizza or changed your oil for free!
The second thing I learned was that one could not meet anywhere with any more than one other member of the board, or for that matter with the first selectman (the mayor) and other elected officials unless one posted a notice and called a meeting. This was because of our state’s sunshine laws, designed to prevent secret, backroom deals.
When you live in a small town, a sunshine law can be a real pain in the neck. It got to be joke. Meet another commission member in the supermarket line and we’d ask each other “Is this a meeting?” But it also drove home a point: when doing the public’s business, everything had to be in the light. It had to be accountable and accessible. This did not mean that everything did was always right or that we were any wiser. Sometimes the rules made deciding even simple things a whole lot slower, but it could not be in secret!
It taught me as an adult something I first learned in that revival I went to as a kid, that ethics is a full-time job. That what we do when no one is looking is even more important than what happens when people are watching.
Looking back on it, I see this experience as a metaphor for the Christian life. We are people live in the light.
What does it mean to live in the light?
It means that we direct ourselves towards God in all we do.
Living in the light means that we are honest to ourselves and to those around us about ourselves: that we are imperfect and often ignorant, and we are stubborn and sometimes afraid—these are signs of what we call ‘sin.’ But in living in the light, we are aware of not only where we fall short but also where we are growing.
To live in the light means that what we do as Christians reflects on our relationship with God. When we lose our temper or judge a person harshly, we show off where we need to grow. When we show mercy, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and do a kindness for another, we show that we are giving ourselves over to God.
Living in the light means that we watch out for, and don’t fall into, the tendency of the world for quick fixes, slogans fit for a hat, or simplistic answers to complex problems. When society wants to build barriers to justice or opportunity by reason of gender, or race, or class, we resist it because in the reign of God, there is no pay to play.
There is a transparency in our living in the light: people see us as we are and as we are becoming. Living in the light means leading with what gives us strength and hope.
Living in the light also means that we cast light on others. So, when we call out the best in others, we are living in the light and them to live in the light as well.
When we speak truth to power, we are calling people out of the darkness and into light.
When we care for a person in need or in pain, we shed light on where there was ignorance, or violence or the darkness of sin.
Over and over again, whenever we bring hope to where there was despair we are people who project God’s light into people’s lives. And so we live out God’s will that the world not be condemned but saved through Christ.
Look again at today's scriptures: whenever we look down, focus on the swirling mess around us, give into the culture of win-at-all-costs politics, when we give into fear of the other, we die. 
When we give in to the temptation to make our relationship with God so a private matter that it is never discussed or mentioned out loud, we are in fact succumbing to fear and choosing to live in darkness. But because we have through our faith and baptisms taken on Christ and live with him through our sacramental and community life, we live in the light. And that light transforms us, makes us whole, and most of all, brings light, healing, and life to the world we live in.
Ethics matters because our everyday dealings, at home, at school, in business, and in our civic life, matters. Ethics matters because we followers of Jesus live in the light and this is how we carry Christ’s light into the world. 

From a semon preached on Sunday, March 11, 2018, The Fouth Sunday of Lent, year B at Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, Pennsylvania.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Approaching the Morgue in Search of Life


I know it’s still Lent, but let me tell you an Easter story.
A long time ago in a hospital far, far away, I was a chaplain where the Sisters who ran it were very intentional about communicating their Catholic mission and identity. My former pastoral care department did many activities during Lent and then late on Holy Saturday decorated the hospital lobby, public spaces and chapel for Easter. It was the job of the On-Call Chaplain over Easter weekend to transform these spaces from the austerity of Holy Week to the festivity of Easter.
The first time I had to do this, I came back to the hospital very late Saturday night after attending a local parish’s Easter Vigil. The job included putting up the white hangings in the Chapel, changing the veils on various crosses around the building to white, and putting out Easter lilies and tulips in the main lobby, the chapel and a few other places. We ordered lots and lots of flowers.
I commandeered a handcart and, along with other chaplains and some volunteers, started my rounds.
Only a day or so before, we Chaplains along with many folks from the hospital community had walked these halls in a special way. We did The Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. Instead of being in a chapel, these Stations were scattered throughout the building—we went to places where people met suffering, pain, hope, fear, loneliness, death and new life. These stations were the places where people ministered to human frailty sometimes with awesome technology and just as often with compassion and simple touch. These were the places where divine healing met human need in everyday ways so often that, if you weren’t careful, they would became mundane.
These were the places Jesus walked. The cross stands at the intersection of brokenness and hope. And when Good Friday comes, we will walk with him to places where suffering and compassion could not be plainer.
Anyway, back at that hospital, when it came time to get those Easter flowers, they were gone! When I went to where I saw them delivered, they were not there! Where’d they go?  After much searching, I called security.
The guard was expecting my call. He said, “I’ll show you.”
We met and took the elevator to the basement. We turned a corner and walked down a long dark hall in the oldest wing of the hospital. We turned a corner to an unmarked door. The guard sorted through his wad of keys and opened the door. We entered the morgue.
Just before he turned the knob, he said to me “Don’t worry, Chaplain, there was a body in here tonight but now it’s gone.”
He was right. When he opened the door, there was no dead body. But there were flowers! Everywhere there were lilies and tulips, covering the examination table, the counters and even in the walk-in cooler! A place of sterility was filled with color! The medicinal “laboratory” smell was overcome with the perfume of blooming flowers.  A place of death had become a nursery.
It turns out that the housekeepers had brought the flowers to the morgue because they thought they’d keep longer in the coolness of the morgue. “I hope you don’t mind,” the guard said.
So that’s my Lent and Easter story, or at least one of them.  What’s yours?
Let me tell you another story, this time a Lenten story. 
I spent Ash Wednesday in quiet and made it a media-free day, on purpose. I wanted to spend the day in contemplation and then end it with the Trinity community at the last Ash Wednesday liturgy of the day. I preached. We shared ashes. We confessed. We prayed, and then we broke bread and poured out wine. It was only at the back door that learned of the killings that afternoon in Parkland, Florida. 
The shock between the quiet of the day and the news of that violence was like a tear rending our hearts. 
Death has been in the news a lot lately. We think about those seventeen murdered students and teachers perpetrated by a young man with a powerful gun. We think about the people who were killed in Las Vegas by another angry man who set up a snipers nest overlooking an outdoor concert just a few weeks before that. We add them to the list of the many mass killings in schools, churches, and public places over the last few years. Not to mention the war, the crime, the sexual abuse, and the violence that infect our world. We live in an age of fear—from terror to values, our culture shows itself dominated by fear.
These are dark places in our collective soul, and we fear that they may overwhelm us.
We have a lot to repent and death is closer than we think.
As we move through Lent, we look into our hearts and find our empty spaces and deep longings. In a few weeks, we will walk with Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, and experience with him the betrayals, the abandonment, the suffering of so many of our relationships, but we also walk with him as he discovers care and mercy on the way of the cross. Each week as we walk the Stations, we experience how a woman cared for Jesus, how Simon carried Jesus’ cross, how Joseph donated his grave, and Mary and the other women waited and walked with him, even in their tears.
We are only about a quarter of the way through that Lenten journey that is preparing and leading us to Easter: The cross and empty tomb show us that all these dark places are no longer homes to death, but have become a nursery for new life. The Gospel of Mark tells us that the women found the empty tomb and ran away, startled and afraid. Matthews’s account and Luke’s both tell of angels meeting the women. The Gospel of Luke tells us that an angel asks the women “why do you seek the living among the dead?” John’s gospel tells us that Peter and the beloved disciple run to the tomb and they peer in and found nothing but bandages.
In all these Gospel accounts, we discover that a place that had been reserved for death had become a home to life. I love to tell the story of the lilies in the morgue because it reminds me of just how, in my own experience, life has shown up in what had been empty, dead places.
But first, we have to confront and experience the fear, the loneliness, and the death.
Our Lenten fast, Holy Week journey, and Easter discovery must lead us to pray, work, and advocate for a world that is not defined by fear, or disrupted by violence, or placated with empty condolences.
We have a lot to confess, and much to repent from, and as we journey to the Cross. During this Lenten journey, we discover that Christ is with us. In his passion he is removing the barriers to new life, making renewed relationships possible, and makes justice roll down like a river.   
Lent takes us into the depth of human sin and pain. Easter shows us that we will find life in unexpected places; that the Risen Christ will show up in places we thought were reserved for the deepest hurt—a healed emotional wound, a renewed relationship, or perhaps a kind word or generous act that we neither expected nor deserved. It is like finding life where we expected only death.
May your Lent be holy and prepare a space in your heart and living for the Crucified and Risen Jesus.