Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Rules are rules

She came to church every Sunday. Even long after her income was fixed, her offering came in like clockwork. For as long as she could she showed up at church suppers, studies, gatherings of small groups. She prayed. And when she was home-bound, she wrote notes to other sick and shut in members of the parish and congratulatory notes to those celebrating birthdays and baptisms. Many of her fellow parishioners were her longest, and closest friends.

But she was also a private person. Not given to announcing her needs, and always concerned that she not "be a bother." So when her terminal illness came, and hospice was called, the parish office was never officially notified. The right paper it seems was not filled out.

We were never invited to hospice team meetings. We never took part in her spiritual assessment. Our clergy or lay Eucharistic visitors were never a part of the care plan. We were not included in any call tree for when she would finally meet death.

Oh, we knew... this time. Bits and pieces. Here and there.

Her friends called my cell phone or stopped me after church or even came to the office, but whenever I called the house, her son promised me that he would let his mother know we called and were interested. We sent cards, altar flowers, along with the regular church communications. Our pastoral care team planned for her care, and a lay pastoral visitor would visit from time to time-- but it was chancy. She was a low-church kind of Episcopalian, so regular communion at home was not in her spectrum of observance. The counters tell me that her offering would arrive by mail like clockwork. But since a card or a note were attached to any of these, I am thinking that someone handling her affair took care of the offering, along with her other bills.

People in the parish would ask me how she was doing. After a while I would have to say, something like "I hear that she's in hospice, but I really don't know."

That's because Hospice was of no help. At all.

They were of zero help in allowing us to our part in the end of life care of their patient.

Twice I called the Hospice Nurse. Once I got through, on the second try. I don't know if the nice person who answered the phone passed along the message the first time, but she called me back on the second try.

I asked to meet with the Spiritual Care Coordinator, who is (I suppose) their chaplain. I have no idea of the person's credentials or training, but it doesn't matter. He or she never called me back.

I told the Hospice Nurse that I was the person's priest. That the patient had been a part of this parish for over sixty years and attended Sunday Eucharist every week. I told her that I would, first, like to visit the patient and second, would like to work with the Hospice on providing the spiritual care for their patient. I said I would make time to come to team meetings or meet with the social worker, nurse, or spiritual care coordinator at their convenience. I told that I knew that I was a "guest" in their system and emphasized that I was at their disposal. I was told that she would bring this to the Care Coordinator and to the patient's son and they would get back to me.

Crickets.

After a week. I called back. Left a message. No response.

I decided to take a crack at just showing up, and alas, I came at a time when the patient was sleeping (or "resting" I was told). I left a card. I asked the uniformed caregiver to please let the patient know I came and that I would like to come by.

Still more crickets.

A third time, I called and asked to be a guest at the Hospice team meeting. I told them that not only was I the person's priest, but that I was at one time a Hospice Chaplain, the member of a Palliative Care Team, worked on a state-wide bio-ethics panel, and was a Board Certified Chaplain.

The choir of crickets persisted.

Three days ago, the patient-- our parishioner-- died. A little detective work led us to the funeral home handling the arrangements. I know the funeral directors there, and have a great working relationship with them. They are professional, caring, and skillful at handling all the nuances of closing out our mortal lives, including the spiritual and pastoral issues. After a brief conversation where not much formal information was shared (but between us much was communicated), I can see where this is going.

Our long-time parishioner, with a lifetime of connection, story, service, and worship, will probably not be buried out of the parish and it is up in the air as to whether or not her pastor will even be invited to preside.

What's worse, is that a community (this parish community, and God knows how many of her community of friends) will be left to work out their grief solo, in the dark. The curtain of another life quietly drawn to a close with little or no comment or recognition.

And the place where she came to give her living meaning, hope, purpose, comfort, and direction, will have no opportunity to listen to their stories, share our story with those she loved, and her Gospel story will be will be left un-said at least in the context of a funeral.

Crickets.

Part of this is completely in keeping with our member's way of being. She was a quiet person, unfailingly polite, who never wanted to be a bother to anyone. I think that the idea of anyone making a fuss over her would seem mortifying. Still, I remember the Prayer Book she brought to church every week. Not only was it hers, but it was filled with old bulletins, pages torn out of the Anglican Digest with some prayer or meditation that meant something to her, prayer cards and Mass cards from other funerals, the ever present copy of this quarters Forward Day-by-Day behind the inside front cover. When I told her how to preserve the ribbons with dabs of clear nail polish, she told me of her sure-fire method of getting wrinkles out of purificators from her altar guild days.

So the sound of all those crickets at the end felt particularly painful and sad to me.

And, I'm betting dollars to little round doughnuts, that the spiritual care was being left to the wishes, whims, and biases of the primary care giver, who (as luck would have it) was estranged from anything spiritual let alone religious.

Imagine having a Jewish patient being ministered to by Catholic priest or a Scientologist because that was the affiliation of the primary care nurse or the relative of the patient doing the care. Imagine if the doctor decided that only Mormons or Methodists would be allowed into the patient room. That would be wrong, right? Well, I think that was what was happening here. And not maliciously, but because no one was skilled enough to a proper pastoral and spiritual assessment.

Usually, in my experience, the whole range of the ways people frame their meaning and spiritual life is boiled down to two questions: "Do you have a church?" and "Do you want to call your priest/pastor/rabbi/imam right now?" Two questions designed to elicit a range of unpacked feelings and no action.

Which is why I had this awful feeling that big part of this person's end-of-life care was being left out.

A big chunk of this, though, is my fault. Not in the actions of me or this parish in the months and weeks leading up to her death.. We did all we could and then some to care for our sister in Christ. No, it's my fault because a long time ago I was apart of a committee that helped create rules to formally protect a patient's privacy when they are in the healthcare system. In the 1990's, there was this big inter-disciplinary committee meeting in Washington, DC, called together to form rules and regulations regarding patient privacy and confidentiality.  I was there. Among the handful of pastoral caregivers in the group.

We were not a united voice, though. One person wanted to lobby for allowing chaplains and pastors to bill for their services (a non-starter), others wanted to protect patients from being proselytized, others wanted to allow free access for evangelists, there were ethicists, ritualists, and God-knows who else all wanting to have their piece of the regulatory pie. In the end,  there were two factions: one was the pastor-is-part-of-the-care-team faction and the other was the privacy-at-costs-faction. We came up with compromise rules that basically said that it's up to the patient, no matter how sick, or their family to contact the pastor and that the parish pastor could make no record of their work and no contact with the rest of the care team unless a particular hospital, hospital, or agency thought of it. Which they never do.

Later on, working out of my hospital in West Virginia, I was part of another interdisciplinary team that developed never-before-envisioned protocols for care at the end of life that covered everything from pre-hospital care, to pain management, and spiritual care. And we managed to include the clergy in the congregations with both effectiveness and efficiency.

So, when you add that to the hours of clinical training and patient care time... well, let's just say that this ain't my first rodeo.

Now I get the privacy issues loud and clear. When I was clinical chaplain through the 80's and 90's, mainly in small-town community or Catholic hospitals, and also in a hospital owned by a big for-profit corporation,  I had to deal far too often with staff who loved to gossip about patients, or people they knew who came through our doors. I once had to fire a staff member for blabbing intimate medical details of persons she encountered. I don't regret doing that for one second. But loose lips sinking ships is not what I am talking about here.

What I am talking about is the unintended, but perfectly foreseeable, consequence of the current state of the HIPPA rules. And that is the culture of circling the wagons and the need for a variety of reasons of limiting information to the chosen few.

There is a kind of gnosis at work under the guise of patient confidentiality that says essentially that if the person can't charge for their time, or is not paid by the caregiving agency or institution, then they can't get in. Even if their work has a direct impact on the patient's well-being.

I have a strange feeling that if way could be found a way to turn the ordinary pastoral care of clergy, lay visitors, and Eucharistic ministers into a billable service from which the healthcare entity could take a cut, then we'd have no trouble getting our foot in the door. For all the talk about "caring for the whole person, body, mind, and spirit" that hospitals and hospices love to advertise, it is far too easy to boil it down to billable services and patient volume. You know... "no margin, no mission!"

By the time I finish writing about this, the chart will have been completed, the charge-master closed as soon as the last reimbursement is received, and the next patient will have been admitted.

But the things that pastoral ministry cares about-- helping a person make meaning out of their living and their dying, sitting with the person as they recount some small (but vitally important) piece of their story, the permission to admit that illness is a pain in the ass, and that death is scary to a person who will just accept the observation and not try to fix it, and above all the ability to take part in the ancient rituals that humans have developed over millennia of experience and wisdom will not have taken place.

In addition, no one will process with the family and loved one the connects and the disconnects between the dying persons way of making meaning and their own. No one will look at the preferred or hoped for way of dying with the actual experience. No one will walk the person through the work of making meaning out of  can be a concurrently beautiful and terrible experience.

Sure, I get that the caring son who never left his mom's side was a dyed-in-the-wool atheist who never fully understood why his mom wanted to go to church every week while he sat in the car reading the Sunday New York Times. I even admire his faithfulness in bringing her! I wish that I had the chance to listen to his story of how he came to his spot and how that intersected with the care for his dying parent.

But rules are rules, you know.

Here's what we miss in our permission-first culture. It's the wonderful secret I know from years of doing rounds and popping in on parishioners and from hanging out with the retired guys who meet once a week for breakfast at the diner: holy stories happen.

You can't engineer them or plan them. The technique is the discipline not to have any technique.

There is wisdom in those stories. And Gospel in those encounters. There is holy history in the everyday encounter between the holy and the human... stories of change, of hope, of opportunities missed, and transformation experienced, of relationships broken, fizzled out, healed, or persisted over years.

Meaning is made and revealed when conversation happens. Anton Boisen, the founder of modern Clinical Pastoral Education, knew what he was talking about when he said that the people he encountered as a chaplain were "living human documents." People have stories to tell. People are stories that are waiting to be told and shared. And they come out with a wonderful spontaneity, if only you have the ears to listen.

I believe that everyone has something to celebrate and something to confess. Everyone needs affirmation and absolution. The trick is that it has to happen in every person's own time and in every person's own language. Now matter how traditional or how out-of-whatever-the-faith-box a person might be, they need the space, permission, and time to process. And a skilled practitioner of the pastoral arts helps that along tremendously.

I believe that in the telling and hearing of these stories, healing happens. And I believe that someone who can hear and appreciate and bless those stories in acknowledging that those moments were holy and that God (however they know God) is in both the living and the telling. I believe that this happens whatever the person's tradition might be, it happens for people of faith or no-faith, because we are who we are.

And the rituals that we are empowered by our traditions to lead... the prayers, the sacraments, the rites (even the last ones)... or, for that matter, the ones that we invent, are part of this artistic and symbolic language that points us to the holy. They help us navigate the awesome, unknowable, and tangible mystery that is life and death.

The process works best if the practitioner-- chaplain, priest, rabbi, imam, nun, LEV, lay reader, whatever-- can get in the room and actually do their work! So many of us train and practice and work to be present for, and sometimes facilitate, the person-centered process of spiritual care, and yet.....

All too often, when I have been called in it has been after the person has died. Perhaps for last rites, perhaps "to say a few words" at a memorial, or to preside at the funeral mass. I don't denigrate that work one little bit. It is an honor to be present to guide and help folks make meaning in those moments. It is a pastoral companionship of it's particular pattern and form.

But way too often, the work of doing that with the person, before they've died, and accompanying them--and their loved ones--through that final passage is denied and people are left alone to make what they will from that time, because, you know, rules are rules.

In the end, as a colleague puts it, God always shows up! The holy happens. Even as we bumble our way through protocols, policies, procedures, and other secular rituals of modern health care, divine caring happens. I am so impressed with the dignity and care of the countless paramedics and EMTs, nurses and allied health professionals, doctors and physician assistants, unit secretaries and admissions clerks, Hospice and acute care professionals, who extend towards the dying and their loved ones remarkable presence, dignity, skill, and compassion. I firmly believe that God's love is concretely expressed in the work of all these folks.

But imagine, just imagine, what it might have meant to that person to not only see her (or any) pastor, but to have the freedom to say anything she wanted from "can you pray for me" to "here's my story" to "get the hell out!" To have a person trained and tuned to listen and to accompany them as they make meaning of their life's story in the closing chapter of their living. Imagine what it might mean for the family to have a person who is at once a trained, experienced pastor, and a person conversant in medical ethics walk with them as they make some of the most difficult decisions they will ever have to make.

I'm just sad when once again, that me and this faith community were not given the chance to do our part, to bring a lifetime of experience and even just a smidge of that millennia of wisdom, to the bedside of another dying parishioner because some form wasn't signed, some protocol not met, some third party payer decided it wasn't reimbursable, and some administrator decided that there were other fish to fry.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Pilgrimage

This fall, Peg and I will be joining about thirty other Episcopalians from all around the Church in a ten-day trek across Northwest Spain known the Camino de Santiago de Campostela, or “the way of St. James of Compestela”, or more simply "The Camino."

The pilgrimage will take place on October 5 -14, 2019, and is sponsored by the United Thank Offering and the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana. It combines portions of walking the Camino with visits to UTO grant sites in Madrid and Northwest Spain.

Each year more than a quarter of a million people walk all or part of the Camino de Santiago de Campostela, with the number of Pilgrims steadily increasing since the mid-1980’s. This resurgence has been credited to many factors, including the fostering of faith communities and connectivity between pilgrims as they journey on various treks around the world. You may have read about it in books or magazines, seen television travelogues or perhaps you've seen the 2010 Emilio Estavez film starring Martin Sheen called “The Way.” 

In the Middle Ages people began to walk The Camino to go and venerate the shine and relics of St. James the Greater, the apostle and brother of St. John, one of the “sons of thunder.” James is the patron saint of Spain.

During the Middle Ages, the Santiago de Compostela was considered the third most holy site in Christianity, behind Jerusalem and Rome. There are Anglican Centers at these other two holy places, and this new one will serve as a vital place that will embrace ecumenism, outreach hospitality, youth development, spiritual formation, and interfaith dialogue.

It is traditional for the pilgrims to end their journey with a Holy Eucharist at the Church of Camino de Santiago de Campostela in Galicia, Spain, where it is believed that St. James the Apostle is buried. (You may have seen pictures or videos of this church… it’s the one with The Really Big Thurible suspended from the ceiling and which takes six people to swing as it fills the church with clouds of incense!) But we won’t end our journey there but someplace else… someplace new on this ancient route!

The United Thank Offering and our Anglican Communion partner church, the Reformed Episcopal Church in Spain, is opening a hospitality center and chapel as a place of rest and refreshment for pilgrims of all faiths and traditions, and it will be here where we will wrap up our journey by dedicating this center. 

Protestants now outnumber Catholics in walking the trail. Up until now, only Catholics could receive Communion at the mass in the Cathedral. With the opening of the Anglican Centre, many others will now have the ability to celebrate the Eucharist at the conclusion of their journey, which will benefit many pilgrims in a deep way.

A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey, an extended physical prayer. Walking on a pilgrimage is a kind of prayer, an offering, that involves the whole person, body, mind, spirit. It is at once a trip going from one place to another, and it is also an experience where the walk itself is the purpose and the prayer.

It is the custom of those who take the journey to bring back with them a scallop shell as proof of their journey. But the grace of the pilgrimage is found in the going, not just the arriving. We will be going to new places, experiencing new sights, discovering new truths, raising new questions as we walk. And, if my trial runs are any indicator, we will be asking more mundane questions along the way, as well: thinking about where we’ll eat, how our feet and our joints feel, and making sure we have enough water. 

Peg and I have been training for this journey for a little while now. We are walking every day, and at least once a week, we take a "big walk" on farther and farther distances to get ourselves in shape. We've bought our day packs, our walking poles, and are breaking in our walking shoes. 

The funny thing is that I have already learned something in this process.

Before packing a single bag and with having my passport stamped, I am already on the pilgrimage! I have found myself thinking, praying, settling into a new routine. My perspective on daily living has shifted a bit… certainly I am organizing my time around the dates I will be away, but more than that, I find myself asking “is this another step on the way?” and more and more often “what is God showing me in this moment?”

So, while I am looking ahead to the journey, I find myself being drawn more and more to the present. I found myself thinking these words written by the late Fr. Henri Nouwen, who was a spiritual director, writer, as well as a priest. He wrote:

Praying means, above all, to be accepting of God who is always new, always different. For God is a deeply moved God, whose heart is greater than our own. The open acceptance of prayer in the face of an ever-new God makes us free. In prayer, we are constantly on our way, on a pilgrimage. On our way, we meet more and more people who show us something about the God whom we seek. We will never know for sure if we have reached God. But we do know that God will always be new and that there is no reason to fear.

In this strange mix of the mundane and the holy, we are already learning that in our baptisms, in our daily walk with Christ, we are able to meet and know God more fully as the Holy Spirit animates our walk. True, everyday things might distract us from God; at the same time (if one has eyes to see), they might be pointers to deeper grace, love, and faith.

My prayer as a pilgrim, is that the formal pilgrimage will enliven and inform this daily, more ordinary, walk with Jesus.  And my prayer also is that you, in your journey with Jesus, find him more and more as God goes with you in all you do every day!

See you “on the way!”


You may donate to the work of the Anglican Centre on the Camino here.

Written for the September, 2019 newsletter of Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, PA.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Faith overcomes fear


A Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper  14-C
It’s strange, I know, but I collect fortunes. You know, the little paper sayings that come inside of cookies at Chinese restaurants. Every now and then one will come along and I will stick it in my wallet or pin it to my bulletin board.
Sometimes I will come across one that I've kept and wonder what possessed me to keep it in the first place. Surely it was not how to learn how to say “cat” in Chinese, or whatever. No, the little morel of wisdom must have spoken to me somehow.
One I found didn’t sound very Chinese, but it did sound a lot like Jesus. It says: "Your faith will overcome your fear." 
Today's Gospel lesson is also a collection. Not of fortunes, but of sayings of Jesus.
First, Jesus reminds us not to be afraid. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32).  
Next, we he tells us to make treasure for ourselves in heaven where no thief can steal or moth destroy.
Then Jesus spins a scenario about the blessedness of servants who are dressed and whose lamps are lit so they can jump up the moment their master returns. How pleased is the master for their readiness? He is so pleased that he serves the servants dinner instead of the other way round!
Finally, Jesus tells us to be as watchful and as ready as a homeowner keeping an eye out for burglars.
So… add all these saying up and what do you get? Assurance of God’s blessings, encouragement to trust in God’s faithfulness, and the command to be alert for God.
This is most helpful, not to mention good news, for us distractible, afraid, and anxious people!
But you know how it goes. The more we are told to be patient, the more we fidget. The more we are told to relax, the more we pace. And whenever the sign on the wall says “wet paint”, the more we want to touch it.
And, I don’t know about you, but my readiness always backfires. Like when I carry an umbrella in my car, just in case it rains. So that when I am in the office and it starts to rain, I will get wet running to my car to get the umbrella!
I know I’m not alone when my faith works backwards. My fears often come first. And I don’t mean the fear of the Lord (the deep awe and reverence for God) that the Bible tells us repeatedly is the beginning of wisdom. I mean the anxiety that tries to keep at bay the chaos in our personal little cosmos. I mean the distorted faith forms a protective shield around our lives. I mean the sneaking feeling that takes that fleeting moment of peace and makes me worried that I’ve overlooked something.
Today’s passage from Luke reminds that Jesus tells us not to be afraid... but that doesn’t mean that we are to be inactive.
Don’t be afraid, and also be dressed for action! Don’t be anxious but keep your lamps lit. Trust in God and be prepared for the return of the master. Keep our valuables in a space that won’t wear out. Faith and grace, Jesus says, is an unfailing treasure that no thief can steal, and no moth can consume (12:33).
We are all wrong about fear. We think it is our protective shield. We might think it keeps us on our toes. But fear is, in fact, the thief. When we dwell on our fears, they become our treasures-- but it is counterfeit currency! Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (12:35). Faith is the genuine treasure we are to be accumulating, but we get it backwards when our fears fill our hearts and faith can’t get in.
This past week, we have witnessed and endured another spate of random violence. Thirty people were killed in just a few days in Mississippi,Texas, and Ohio. The violence this time was directed mainly at people of color by angry, and very fear-filled, white men with guns. In all the arguments about the second amendment this, and rights that, and amidst all the pontificating by politicians and pundits this past week, I have never once heard this question asked: “what the heck are we so afraid of?" 
What is so scary that we feel the need to arm ourselves to the teeth? Why are we so afraid? These (white) guys dressed in camos, body armor, and carrying weapons (even though they serve in no police or military force) think they look tough, but in fact they scared out of their wits. What is frightening them so much?
Well, there is the usual litany… immigrants, crime, strangers, economic uncertainty and race. And there is the added level that “they” (whoever “they” are) are coming to take our jobs, our homes, our security, our privilege and place in society. The truth is that when we dwell on our fears, when we focus what we think we are losing, it causes us to lead with our rage and that brings out the worst in us.

Today's Psalm talks about the scariest, most advanced technology of war yet known in that day: the horse-drawn chariot. I am sure that the Kings of the day longed for the mobility and seemingly unstoppable power that these offered. Yet, even the Psalmist knew, that the power they promised was a response to fear. Psalm 33: 16-18 says:

There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army; *
a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.
The horse is a vain hope for deliverance; *
for all its strength it cannot save.

Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him, *
on those who wait upon his love,
Verse 18 reminds us that the antidote to the fearful accumulation of combat technology is to true\st in the Lord, who watches over those who only fear God and wait upon God's love.

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that if we put our value in the wrong places, then we will know nothing but fear. So our fear is telling us something. Our need to carry around big guns and talk tough is telling us something. Our need to lock doors and distrust our neighbors who look or speak or dress differently that us is telling us something. It is telling us that our fear is running us and is out of control.
We are like Jesus’ householders whose homes are threatened. The thief is fear that has come to steal our faith. And we do know when the thief is coming. The thief is at the door right now. The thief is fear and anxiety. Leaders and celebrities who build themselves up by stirring up fear aid and abet those thieves. How can we keep our house of faith from being broken into by fear?
Jesus promises to turn the tables on fear and to empower our faith.
I heard of a Hindu physician who would talk about how to cope with the stress of modern life, “Live in the past and you will be depressed. Live in the future and you will be anxious. Live in the present with gratitude and you will be at peace.”
As we learn to pray and to turn even the most mundane, everyday chore into a prayer—not only a gift from God but a gift to God—then we find our orientation changing from fear and towards faith. From scarcity into abundance. From worry about the future to resting in a blessed present.
The rhythm of sacramental living—of Eucharistic community, daily prayer, and studying and meditating on God’s word together and alone—immerses us in God’s time, in God’s always unfolding present. Doing God’s work with God’s people, at home, at work, in worship, and among the poor, sick, and lonely, immerses in the community of God’s faithful and reminds us what’s important.
I'm not the only one who collects fortunes. The Rev. Dr. Alyce McKenzie, a United Methodist pastor and seminary professor does too. She talks about two fortunes and decided to keep. They said, “An unexpected event will bring you wealth;” and the other read, “If you put up with small annoyances you will gain great results.”
She wrote, "move over fear and anxiety, because here are some promises of Jesus that are more reliable than fortune cookie fortunes. These are promises that leave no room for fear: Strive for God’s kingdom and these things (food, drink, clothing) will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:31) and “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)"
This is not the first time that we've lived in a time of fear and anxiety. And it won't be the last. Some people try to meet their fear with fear. They think that if they get bigger guns, wear armor, talk tough that they will somehow intimidate fear and it will stay away. Jesus knew that meeting fear with fear only creates more fear... this is, in fact, how terror works. Meeting fear with fear creates even more evil. 
Jesus invites us--calls us-- to meet fear with clarity, patience, love, steadiness, and, above all, faith!


See also:
February 1, 2015: Do the Thing That Evil Hates.
June 20, 2016: Looking Evil in the Eye.


Friday, July 19, 2019

A Martyr’s Song in An Age of Rage

Last month, Peg and I went to worship at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in Charleston, South Carolina, and we were privileged to witness the commemoration of an Episcopal saint, a bishop, a witness for racial equality and a martyr: Bishop Alexander Guerry.
Guerry was a South Carolinian and was consecrated bishop coadjutor on September 15, 1907 and later became the eighth diocesan bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina on April 22, 1908. Before that, he served as a parish priest and then as Chaplain and Professor of Homiletics and Pastoral Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
Bishop Guerry believed that Gospel of Jesus Christ was Good News for all people, and this led him to believe that the Church must reflect the visible unity of all God’s people. In 1914, he proposed that his Diocese elect a black bishop suffragan for South Carolina to be responsible for the ministry to African American Episcopalians. He wanted to ensure that all people, regardless of race, were full participants in the community of Christ’s people in the diocese. His proposal failed. Instead, the majority white (and all male) convention chose to separate the African American community into a “Missionary District for Negroes” within the Diocese. This arrangement continued through the mid-20th century when that segment of the Christian community was finally given an equal place in the diocese.
But that is not the end of the story.
On June 2, 1928, an Episcopal priest of that diocese entered Bishop Guerry’s office at St. Philip’s Church in Charleston, and, enraged at the Bishop’s message of racial equality and reconciliation, pulled out a pistol and shot Guerry in the chest, before killing himself.  The priest had previously publicly attacked the bishop’s position on advancing racial equality in South Carolina, and especially on his proposal to install a black suffragan bishop in the diocese. The priest who shot the bishop had written that the bishop, given his way, would root out the principle of white supremacy in the south. 
The martyrdom of Bishop Guerry is rarely talked about in the Episcopal Church.  June 7th is not an official feast or commemoration in this church. Still, Guerry has been listed by the Archbishop of Canterbury as one of the church’s modern martyrs.
At the Cathedral, we sang a hymn and dedicated a portrait and Chapel to Bishop Guerry.
(1)    The martyr’s song still sings every day, every day.
The martyr’s song still sings every day.
The martyr’s song still sings as heaven’s echo rings
So none will miss the sound of that song every day
So none will miss the sound of that song.

(2)    Hate’s raging ways live on, every night. Every night.
Hate’s raging ways live on, every night.
Hate’s raging way live on and kill the prophet’s song.
Will we not right the wrong with our song, with our song?
Will we not right the wrong with our song?

(3)    The Shepherd’s witness lives every night. Every day.
The Shepherd’s witness lives every day.
The Shepherd’s witness lives in all who dare forgive.
Like One who long ago sent from heaven did come down.
Now wears the martyr’s crown every day.
As a person who has dedicated his life to doing public theology in the public square, as well as pastoring and teaching faithful people in everyday living, I found Bishop Guerry’s example and witness profoundly moving and humbling. As I work through the realities of the concurrent sins of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism, and confront my own tendencies towards these within myself, I am guided by his example.
As I write this, I am struck by the ugliness of our present public discourse. The unrepentant coarseness emanating from the highest levels of leadership dismays me. I expect our civic and religious leaders to call out the best in us, instead they cultivate the worst. It is awful enough when people cheer on the bad behavior of a tv character, but when people—in my experience, good ethical people, with good character—line up behind these antics perpetrated by an elected official, it makes me tired, sad, and worried.
I know I am not alone. As I talk to people around the parish, around the City, and even (on-line) from around the country, this whole season has been a massive trial. What’s an everyday Christian to do?
I am not against debate or divergence about complex issues among people in good faith. When deciding big things, disagreement, even debate, ought to be expected. But when the goal becomes “my side wins at all costs” and even worse, our argument should utterly destroy the opposition and to leave them humiliated, then not a lot is going to get done. And if we can’t disagree with civility, then we cannot compromise, and if we can’t compromise then we are frozen, and all we have left is our frustration and anger.
Christian witness in this atmosphere does not arise from mimicking or blindly aligning with the culture’s values. Mindless chants and group The Apostle Paul reminded the Christians in Rome that not being conformed to the world means allowing God’s Holy Spirit to transform our minds (Romans 12:2).
The first we can do in response to this tense and crazy season is to remain calm even when the air is filled with cruel and fear-fueled words. And to do that, we must pause. When you’re angry, pause. When you’re scared, pause. When you’re tempted to join the angry mobs of people who don’t quite know what to do with all their valid emotions, pause.
Pause. Pray. Give yourself a little bit of space to invite the Holy Spirit into these very valid concerns that an election like this one will bring up in our hearts, and see what God would have us do….
I found a prayer by Pope Francis based on the famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi to be especially helpful. It was written for World Communications Day, which is always right before Pentecost, in 2018:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion.
Help us to remove the venom from our judgements.
Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters.
You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world:
where there is shouting, let us practice listening;
where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony;
where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity;
where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity;
where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety;
where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions;
where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust;
where there is hostility, let us bring respect;
where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.
Amen.
It is important that we listen in our hearts and minds to what is going around us and the meaning it creates for us. No human politician anywhere—and no cleric, public figure, nor anyone else in society—is the Messiah. Jesus is our Savior and Messiah. No human leader will ever solve all our problems. God is the source of our hope and calling. And certainly no human leader can give us inner peace, that come through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

But we are not passive by-standers. Jesus calls us to love the world, the sick, the wounded, the outcast, the lost, and the least. That neither begins nor ends at the ballot box. It begins at the foot of the cross, gathers us around the font and the Eucharistic table, and sends us into the world in love.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Who are we that we might hinder God?


Peter meets Cornelius
A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Peter was in trouble. He was being called on the carpet. He had to report to the home office and they were not happy. He had a lot to answer for.
Actually, I suspect Peter was pretty clueless as to how much trouble he was in. I imagine that instead he was downright giddy with excitement when he went home to report to the church leaders in Jerusalem what had gone on in Joppa. He was probably feeling somewhat mystified but at the same time excited by what he had witnessed.
So, he was probably just a tad started when he walked into Jerusalem and was immediately met with condemnation.
So, you ask, what exactly had Peter done?
He went from Joppa to another city called Caesarea and he sat and ate with a big-time Roman official named Cornelius and his household. This was the crime: Peter, a Jew ate with Gentiles and they treated each other as equals.
It gets worse. He not only told them all about the crucified and risen Jesus and the Good News of the Gospel, but then he went and baptized them!
Yup. It’s that bad. Peter treated these Gentiles as equals and welcomed into the church uncircumcised people! Can you imagine?!?
News travels faster than travel itself, and so the Christians in Jerusalem—all of them Jews because at that moment in the Church’s life, Christianity was still a mainly Jewish phenomenon—had already heard about Peter’s transgression and they were not happy.
So, before Peter can say “Guys! You won’t believe what just happened!” they are in his face. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” they demanded.
Peter takes them through the whole story step by step.
Now before you start thinking that is really inside-baseball stuff, let me tell how important this is: Luke takes the time and the parchment to recount nearly word for word everything that he had written in the previous chapter of Acts. How Peter had a vision (three times!) of God spreading a bounty of non-kosher animals in front of him and telling him to eat. When Peter refuses to eat anything unclean, God says (three times!) “What God has made clean, you shall not call profane.”
Then Peter describes the knock on the door, and the three men at his door who said they had a vision and were sent to fetch him. Peter talks about how he and some other Christians—all Jews, remember—went to Cornelius’ home. There Peter preaches his famous “Truly, I see God shows no partiality” sermon that we hear every Easter morning. Then, to Peter’s complete surprise, these folks break into the same tongue-speaking ecstasy that he himself experienced on Pentecost. Without hesitation, he baptizes them on the spot.
That’s why he was called on the carpet! That's why he was in trouble!

Peter said to his friends “I remembered what Jesus said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” He goes on: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Who was I that I could hinder God?
Peter’s friends were silent. Then it dawns on them that God has given to Gentiles the same repentance, the same new life, and the same spiritual gifts that they themselves had known!
This changes everything! We would not be here now, sitting here as Jesus’ friends and apprentices around this altar, if it were not for what Peter did.
Peter is not like Paul. Peter is not an ideas kind of person. He runs on experience, and feelings, and he can be impulsive. He wants to do the right thing, and can be as brave as a lion, but he is also easily frightened…when he is confronted with contradiction, he usually folds under pressure.
But not today! 

Peter knows what it means to deny a friend. He did that once, on that awful night when Jesus was arrested before he was crucified, so he was not going there again! I’ll bet his knees were knocking when he started to tell his friends in Jerusalem what happened in Caesarea—but he did not fold and he did not deny his new friends!
God told me three times not to call profane what God made clean.
God told me to accept three visitors and not to make a distinction between “them and us.”
I saw that God gave them the same gift he gave to us!
Who was I, Peter asks, that I could hinder God?
Good question! We have a tendency to do that, don’t we? Hinder God. With our fear or our certainty...especially when the certainty is hiding the fear. Peter’s change of heart and mind was not the last time that we as a community would struggle with that what it means to draw all people into union with God and each other in Jesus Christ.

Church's like ours used to have separate seating for black and white people. Sundays are still the most segregated day of the week. Some traditions keep men and women apart. We used to veil women and tell them that their only ministries were in the kitchen or in the laundry or in the nursery.. We used to tell gay and lesbian Christians that they weren't Christian enough. And in many places we still do. And we have lots of new, creative ways to tell people how they can and cannot follow Jesus. We still find ways to call profane what God has made clean. 

But who are we that we could hinder God?
We are in a world that is as hungry for God as ever. We are in a world that is starving for justice. We are in a world that is desperate for peace and meaning. This is no time for a conditional, “yeah, but” gospel. Who are we that we could hinder God?
In today’s Gospel we hear how, at the last supper, Jesus gave us a new commandment. One that will re-frame and bring into focus all those other commandments. He said, “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, that you love one another.”
This is how everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples: that we love one another.
How we love one another will tell people that we are Jesus’ friends and his apprentices.
That means that how we deal with each other when the chips are down is as much, or more important than how we are when things are going great.
That means that will welcome whomever God sends us.
We will choose to feed the hungry and care for the addicted and the poor.
We will stick with each other especially when things are hard and when we don’t agree.
We will give each other room and allow each other room to grow and to experience grace.
We will refrain from digging in our heels and give ourselves the right to be wrong.
We will share sacramental living through all of life’s ups and downs.
Who are we, after all, to hinder God? Instead we choose to love one another as Christ loved us—then we’ll discover along with Peter, his old and new friends learned that God, what St. John the Divine saw in Revelation, that God is making all things new!

A Sermon given on May 19, 2019 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, Pennsylvania


Saturday, April 20, 2019

Cough-Pillow Jesus

Yesterday, after the noonday Ecumenical Good Friday liturgy, the church was open for prayer and a few people stayed after the service or came in during the silence. And as I sat here, I found myself thinking about another period in my life where I would go to dark, quiet places and meet folks who were alone in their anticipation and perhaps their fear.

Way back in a time we can barely remember, surgeries were not drive-through. There was a time when we didn't do our preoperative tests in a walk in lab, and we didn't check in at Oh-dark-thirty and be hustled through a process like a surgical McDonald's. In those strange times, before managed care, and even before DRG's, we checked into hospital the day or even two before for all that pre-operative stuff. And it meant that we chaplains were in the practice of walking the halls in the late afternoon and early evening, surgery schedule in hand, to visit folks before their operations.

I found that the best time to make these pre-surgical rounds was about a half an hour after visiting hours ended, when people were in their room, curtains drawn, maybe the shared television would be on or not. It was in that quiet, semi-darkness when the chaplain could meet a person at that moment when they were alone with their thoughts and feelings... when anticipation, dread, questions, restlessness, or simply the "can we get this over with?" was most apparent. At one hospital where I ministered, we'd bring cassettes of funny movies, spiritual reading material, stuffed animals, and other things to help people manage their anxiety.

Those of you who have had abdominal surgery may know about cough pillows. They are firm little pillows that you hug about your chest so that when you cough, you won't go "ouch" from having the cough stress your incision and sutures. In the pre-operative instructions, patients were usually introduced to their cough pillow by the nurse.

Some clever unnamed nun somewhere came up with a cough pillow that was a doll that looked like Jesus...or at least our notion of Jesus. I have one here. It was a gift from the staff last hospital gig before I came here.

Cough-Pillow Jesus was tough. He could go through the autoclave and be wrapped in plastic so it would be sterile. He could be squeezed and held tightly without losing his shape. Kids would like to undress and dress him and fix his hair (sometimes even adults would straighten his outfit to make him more presentable!).

For me, Cough-Pillow Jesus is a perfect icon for what is happening on Holy Saturday.

Yesterday, during those quiet three Good Friday hours, I was sitting here in the church, while the whole world was going on without us. There were car horns, trucks, sirens. I heard people greet each other as they walked by, a shouted conversation from one side of the street to another. Some school kids were laughing as they cut through the church yard from here to there. Music made its Doppler sound procession as the car it came from drove past, the sound gradually getting louder and then suddenly fading away. In the distance I could hear a long freight train as passed through. The world was going on its merry way.

All I could think of were the Gospel lessons from Christmas. The Gospel of John says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It also says that while He spoke the world into existence, the world knew him not.

I think that's what was happening for Jesus as he died on the cross. Sure, for the people most involved with the crucifixion, watching Jesus die, then going through the work of laying him in the grave, they were all caught up in the all that was happening. It was all their focus. Like the film we saw on Wednesday, there was drama, politics, fear, running away, covering bases, and simple horror.

But in the end, that's a pretty small circle. My hunch is that most people in Jerusalem that weekend walked by the three men being crucified wondering if they could find a place to stay, or expecting the Temple to be crowded, or if they still get a decent lamb for the holiday meal because, well, guests are coming and there are things to do.

So today, the followers of Jesus sit with the enormity of the cross asking themselves what's next But the world has moved on. Just as the community Easter Egg Hunts go on without us and without a word of cross or empty tomb, the rest of the world goes about its business.

And that's what those darkened, hushed corridors of that hospital were like long ago. Silent. Anticipating. Worried. Wondering. Mortal. And we'd hug Jesus even more tightly.

Because while all that is going on, unknown to us, but quietly, Jesus who has died has gone to the place of the dead-- and to the places of our deepest anxieties and fears, he goes to the places that we have locked away in the darkest places of our hearts, and meets us. There are no more words. There is just Jesus.

And when God meets us in that place--that sometimes scary place--and holds us, lifting us away from death and isolation and anxiety, into a new life. An Easter life.

But today, there is waiting. And we hold on knowing that in Christ, God has entered that holy, empty space.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

“Son of David! Have mercy on us!”


A sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Mark 10:46-52
October 28, 2018

It has certainly been a harrowing week, hasn’t it?

First comes the news of an angry, ideologically driven man who mailed bombs to people all over the country with whom he disagreed.

Then a white man in Kentucky walked into a grocery store and killed two African-American customers before being apprehended by another customer.

Yesterday, another angry, ideologically driven man entered the Tree of Life synagogue during their weekly worship services in Pittsburgh and killed at least eight people and wounding many others, both worshippers and police.

In between, over two thousand people (and many more on-line) gathered at the National Cathedral to inter the earthly remains of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was beat up by two men and left to die twenty years ago in Laramie, Wyoming, precisely for being gay.

And yet... Our highest civic leaders can’t quite bring themselves to condemn the violence—even when that violence is done while parroting election slogans.

And top it all off, yesterday I heard about a young man, an African-American who was raised in the parish, who went to a Halloween party at a bar in Easton, and was called a "snowflake" and asked to leave—they even threatened to call the police on him!—after he objected to the management that other patrons, white patrons, were wearing black-face, and parroting racist language. In my own neighborhood, there is a home whose annual Halloween display includes the representation of a lynching. Hatred, fear, division, are in the air, and it is not “all in good fun!” Not even at Halloween.

As I said, it’s been a harrowing week. I truly feel the desperation and helplessness behind today’s Gospel, where the blind Bar Timaius cries out to Jesus “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Today’s Gospel lession is very the fulcrum of Mark’s Gospel--smack dab in the middle of the Gospel. All the wonders and miracles of Jesus lead up to this, and his journey to Calvary flows from it. Mark is telling us that this incident, in fact the whole Gospel of Mark, is a story of spiritual sight. Through Christ, Mark is showing us, we move from blindness to sight.'
Even in his blindness, it turns out that Bar Timaius saw more than everyone around him. He had the sight of faith. Just as in Mark’s day, we suffer from spiritual blindness and are in desperate need of Jesus’ healing touch. But first we have do as Bar Timaus did… name it, own it, go to Jesus and act on it.

Our blindness is fear. Fear is as old as human sin, is as real as ever today. In our fear, we are willing to listen to people who stoke that fear with hatred and give us easy slogans and simplistic solutions.

After the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue yesterday, Episcopal Bishop Dorsey McConnell of Pittsburgh wrote,

The newscasts, sickeningly, are referring … to this horror as a “tragedy.” It is no such thing. A tragedy is inevitable. This was not. It was murder, murder of a particularly vile and poisonous kind. Human beings have moral agency. Someone chose to hate, and [someone] chose to kill. And now we are faced with a choice as well— to do nothing, or to reject this hatred in the strongest possible words and actions, and to refute in every way, in every forum, the philosophical foundations of anti-Semitism wherever they have gained a foothold in our churches and our society….
…This terror is added to the great heap of such crimes we have witnessed in the past. Yet our hope is not dimmed, and our obligation is clear: “Behold, I set before you this day, life and death, blessing and curse: therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Choosing life is no small thing. It is not just positive thinking or being “nice.” To choose life means that we do not choose death; that we consciously turn away from the things that deal death. Choosing life means renouncing fear, renouncing hatred, renouncing the use of division to gain and keep power.

Jim Wallis, the evangelical preacher and founder of the Sojourner’s Community, wrote this:


Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) The opposite of what Jesus said is also true: Without the truth we are easily enslaved by false ideologies that demand belief. Jesus clearly connects truth with freedom, and that is key here both in our personal lives and in any test of the health of the body politic. Truth sets us free, but lies enslave us. If you care about freedom, you must care about the truth….
…Timothy’s second epistle warns about people who “having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” Those myths and lies can lead to justifications for practices and policies against “the other.” 

Wallis asks if we have “itching ears” who will be drawn into the siren song of tribalism, division, and hate, or will we follow Jesus’ mercy and so receive our sight.
Friday, Bishop Gene Robinson asked the same question of us at Matthew Shepard’s memorial. Confronting fear and hatred is not easy and is never over, but it is always what Jesus invites us to do.

Our parish community does important, but largely unsung, interfaith work. It is not just being “nice.” Yesterday’s mass shooting in Pittsburgh shows how vitally important it is.
Last night, our parish hosted an interfaith dialogue between Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and B’hai members of our community. We talked about the role of heritage and tradition in forming our sense of identity in the community.

This afternoon, at 12:30, Temple Covenant of Peace in Easton will hold a service of mourning and reconciliation to which we are all invited. If you are at all available, please go and share with our Jewish sisters and brothers at this painful moment.

And next Sunday, at least eight different faith communities will gather at Temple Covenant of Peace for Easton’s annual Interfaith Choral Festival. 

Now more than ever, this kind of public interfaith and ecumenical work is essential to our community’s spiritual and civic health.

In these violent, dangerous times, people of faith must daily choose to overcome hatred with love, to choose companionship over division, and peace over violence.  And that is just in our community.

Our Ark Community Meal, and two of our local social service agencies, ProJeCt and Safe Harbor, were all founded when the several faith communities joined together to address the unmet needs of the poor, the homeless, and the dispossessed.

Each of these remind that service in Jesus’ name required us to stop, confront our blindness and fear so that we may be agents of healing and blessing.

If we are going to allow Jesus to heal us, we must first acknowledge the blindness of hatred, violence, and fear that infects our culture. Having acknowledged it we must stop and seek both forgiveness and healing. This is why Friday’s internment of Matthew Shepard in the National Cathedral is so important because that space, the same space where Dr. Martin Luther King preached his last sermon, brings symbolic and real safety to everyone who has been cast out, and stands as a beacon against a culture that uses division and falsehood for the sake of power.

When we talk about Trinity being “a church for all people,” we are not just talking about a place that does great coffee hours. We are responding to Jesus’ healing ministry and choosing to call out and condemn racist, homophobic, and sexist hatred whenever it appears. We must, as people of faith, hold accountable leaders, celebrities, and politicians who choose the language of division over unity and love. As followers of Jesus, we offer a spiritually hurting world another way… the way of love, the way of Jesus.

Bar Timaius’ cry is our cry: “Son of David! Have mercy on us!” And we are not silenced. His healing is also our healing. As we go with Jesus to confront evil, we also bring healing and blessing to all God’s people.

Jeremiah 31:7-9, Psalm 126, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10:46-52