Sunday, May 24, 2020

Protection for the Scattered

The Seventh Easter of Easter / Year A
John 17:1-11

The Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, the 12th Bishop of the Diocese of Virginia, is a masterful communicator with a great feel for his audience.  I’ll give you an example.  Some years ago, after attending a Lambeth Conference, where all the Anglican bishops (and their spouses) from around the world gather in England once every ten years, Bishop Lee gave a detailed report of their discussions and deliberations to the clergy of the diocese at our own spring conference.  It was clear and informative and something most likely only clergy would find interesting. 

A few weeks later, Bishop Lee spoke about Lambeth at the yearly gathering of the Episcopal Church Women of the diocese.  Here he told the ladies nothing of what he had shared with the clergy.  Rather he talked about the afternoon all the bishops and their spouses loaded into dozens of buses and went off to Buckingham Palace for afternoon tea with the Queen.  He mentioned a special fund had been set up so the wives of foreign bishops from poor dioceses could afford to purchase clothing suitable to the occasion.  The ladies at the meeting let out a great sigh of relief when Bishop Lee shared this.  It was as if they themselves had been spared a great humiliation.  Then he described in some detail what was served and how things went and what it all looked like and by the time he was done most of the ladies felt as if they had been at the tea with the Queen. 

But Bishop Lee saved the best for last.  It seems a young woman from the diocese – I think her name was Annie and she may have been the chancellor’s daughter – was spending the semester studying in England and Bishop Lee, who has some pull on the other side of the pond – managed to get her an invitation to the tea.  Annie was surely one of the youngest and no doubt most attractive people at the party.  Bishop Lee related as he, his wife, Annie, and a few others were chatting, a dignitary approached them, begged their pardon, and asked their permission to introduce Annie the Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry, who was standing right there, wearing whatever princes wear at such an occasion and looking, well, royal.  Most blessedly, it seems the finest schools of Richmond suitably prepared young Annie for such a moment. 

Now this took place over 20 years ago, but I suspect there are still a few women passed out in the pews of that church, having swooned at the thought of meeting a prince at high tea at the palace.  My point: When telling a story, know your audience!

Beyond entertainment purposes (come back to me ladies, and focus), I share this story to help you to appreciate an important aspect of understanding the bible.  So, for example, when reading one of the Gospels – say John – it is helpful to ask who is the original intended audience and what is happening in their lives.  This question helps to explain why the author shares some details of Jesus’ life and teaching, while ignoring others.  John does it for the same reason Bishop Lee held two very different conversations about Lambeth, even though they both were true of the gathering.  Who is your audience and what do they need to hear?

John’s is the only Gospel to include what is known as Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer.”  After sharing the meal we now call the Last Supper, Jesus offers parting words to his followers and then, in chapter 17, he prays for himself, then for his followers, and finally for all believers.  Most likely it did not happen like this (I mean, decades later who could remember a detailed conversation word for exact word?), but rather John collects various teachings, sayings, and themes of Jesus and weaves them together in this setting as a literary device to say something powerful to the people for whom he is writing his Gospel.

He writes it some 50 years after Jesus’ life.  By then, John may just be the only living connection between Jesus’s initial disciples and the current community of followers gathered around him.  At first, this group functions well within the local Jewish community; attending synagogue and participating in local commerce and affairs.  But over the years, as their understanding of Jesus increases (scholars say they develop a “higher Christology”), their beliefs become increasingly at odds with the teachings of Jewish rabbis.  Eventually John’s community is forced out of the synagogue and barred from life and commerce in the village, and various other forms of persecution ensue.

This is the context in which John writes his Gospel.  Understanding this gives us an even deeper appreciation for the intercession Jesus’ prays in today’s reading:

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.  Holy Father, protect them in them your name that you have given me.”

Then, as now, the world is not a safe place, but for very different reasons.  Then, as now, Jesus intercedes to protect the faithful (remember the image I spoke of two weeks ago: the mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings).  I suspect those initial readers took great comfort knowing God was protecting them, but I doubt they flaunted it.  I doubt they used these words to as a directive to storm into the synagogue and brag about how God makes them invincible.  More likely, God’s protection gives them a feeling of peace, the strength to persevere, and a hope for a better day to come. 

What does God’s protection look like for us in our world today?  Not long ago I drove past a church in Smithfield with one of those message boards out front.  On this day it happened to say, “COVID 19, in the name of Jesus you are defeated!”  If only it was that simple, I thought.  It occurred to me a better message for the faithful would be taken from Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  My faith does not tell me God will make a pandemic magically disappear.  Rather it tells me we are all in this together and God is with us and is giving us everything we need to get through this time together.

One of my colleagues pointed out recently you can’t live life without taking risks.  You risk your life every time you get in the car and go for a drive.  You have to take risks, she said, but you don’t need to create risks!  In other words, be smart, take precautions, expose yourself to danger as little as possible!  I imagine this is how John’s first readers understood God’s protection and I suggest this is what we claim for ourselves.  God gives to us peace and confidence, but we will not push it as if our faith in God makes us invincible.

Another colleague passed along something she had heard recently: Up until the middle of March we were the Church Gathered, but overnight we became the Church Scattered.  We can no longer be together in our building to worship, to fellowship, to study, or to serve.  Yet, while we no longer gather, we are still the Church, even if scattered.  Speaking of Holy Week and Easter Sunday, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry recently expressed amazement and appreciation for how most Episcopal churches have adapted to on-line worship.  He said, and I quote, “It was not easy, and it wasn’t always pretty, but dog-gone-it, we kept the Feast!”  And we did and we continue to do so!

When Jesus asks the Father to protect his followers who are in the world, he has a specific outcome in mind.  He does not ask this so no harm will befall us.  He does not ask this so our lives can return to normal.  He asks it so his followers may be one, as he is one with the Father.  For Jesus, the focus is not on gathered or on scattered, it is on Church.  We are still one, though scattered. 

I sense the strength of our community every time we gather for Morning and Evening Prayer.  I sense it as we gather on these Sunday mornings.  And I sense it every time I cross paths with one of you, either here at the church or at the grocery store or when I am out taking a walk or during a phone call.  This time we are apart is reminding us how important we are to one another.  I so look forward to when we can be together again, without fear or hesitation.  Until then God is protecting us so that we might be one and we are… yesterday, today, tomorrow, and no matter what comes.  We are God’s.  We are in God.  And nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Rogation Sunday

The Sixth Sunday of Easter / Year A
John 14:15-21

St. Paul’s in Akron, where I was welcomed into the Episcopal Church, has a tradition of celebrating on Rogation Sunday.  At the end of the service, a bag-piper enters from the rear of the church and begins to play Amazing Grace (at first it sounds like someone is strangling a large duck, but eventually it begins to sound like music, if you like bagpipes).  A procession forms and the piper leads the congregation outside to a place on the parish grounds where something new has been planted – typically a tree or some shrubs.  The congregation (a couple hundred people in all) gathers round and the Rector says a few prayers to bless the good earth of the property and all the living things on it.  Afterward there is more bag-piping, lemonade is served on the lawn, and a good time is had by all.  I had never even heard of Rogation Day, but it instilled in me something of my new Anglican heritage – the love of a good celebration.

The word rogation comes from a Latin word meaning “to ask”, as in to petition God through prayer.  Rogation Day prayers are tied to the beginning of the planting season.  Ancient Romans celebrated a pagan festival called Robigalia each year on April 25.  They processed out of the city to a certain location where a dog and a sheep were sacrificed in an attempt to save the newly planted crops from blight.  In 598 Pope Gregory I instituted a Christian festival to supplant the pagan one.  The faithful went out in procession, but at a certain point veered off and went to St. Peter’s Basilica for a celebration of the mass.  This April 25 date came to be known as the Major Rogation.

Minor Rogation Days began in France some 100 years earlier when, in 470, St. Mamertus of Vienne held special prayer services in response to a series of natural disasters and several years of poor crop yield.  The services used the Great Litany to petition God’s protection from earthquake, famine, pestilence, plague, dying unprepared, and (as Monty Python may say) all things that go bump in the night.  The litany covers everything except the possibility of an alien invasion.  Rogation Days now fall on the three days before the Feast of the Ascension (which is this coming Thursday, so Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday).  Before all of this begins, today is celebrated in some places as Rogation Sunday.

Leave it to the people of England to put a distinctly Anglican twist on all of this.  It became the custom in England to walk the boundaries of the parish on Rogation Sunday – not the church yard, mind you, the entire region associated with the parish.  The priest (vested), wardens, choir, and parishioners set out in procession around the edges of the parish.  Two important things occurred during this excursion.  First, prayers were offered for the land, the crops, the water, and the people.  It was a powerful and poignant way to invoke God’s blessings on the planting season and coming months.  What it prays for at the beginning of the year Thanksgiving Day gives thanks for at the end. 

And second, from time to time the procession stopped so the vicar could point out the exact boundary line.  At these locations (a tree, a rock, a stream), in order to drive home their significance, the boys received a beating.  Inside the parish limits one was safe, but outside of it one was a greater risk.  This came to be known as the beating of the bounds.  It was like how many of us grew up when our parents set the limits by telling us we could ride our bike as far as Jimmy’s house or as far as Doppler Street, but no father.  And, if word got home you had crossed the bounds a beating was sure to follow!  

When I first encountered Rogation Sunday it struck me as a quaint little way to pretend we are English.  But over the years its spirituality has grown on me. 

First, it reminds us all we have comes from God.  As the old saying goes,

All we can do is worth nothing
unless God blesses the deed;
Vainly we hope for the harvest-tide
till God gives life to the seed;
Yet nearer and nearer draws the time,
the time that shall surely be
when the earth shall be filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

These days it also reminds us how our common life depends upon each other’s labor.  Over these past two months we have become much more aware of this.  We have realized the shelves at the supermarket don’t just stock themselves.  We depend not only on God.  Our interconnectedness means we depend on each other.  You must do your part.  I must do mine.  And so we commit ourselves to the well-being of one another.  I cannot survive without you.  And you cannot survive without me.

Rogation Sunday, with all its varied prayers for protection and blessing, speaks to the fragility of life, an awareness we have today which now feels almost overwhelming.  The Celtic notion of the presence of God has taken on new meaning:

Christ before us.
   Christ behind us.
Christ under our feet.

Christ within us.
Christ over us.
Let all around us be Christ.

The Rogation Day’s focus on boundaries has its own spirituality.  Having a sense of place and the sense of knowing you and those you love are safe where you are is so very necessary.  This is the place God has put you and here all we be well and in all manner of things all will be well.  Knowing who is with you – your neighbors – is also essential.  You are not alone.  You belong to others and they belong to you and we are in this together.  I will help you when you need help and you will help me when I need help.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of John we hear Jesus’ promise,

I will not leave you alone. 
I will not leave you as orphans. 
I will send another to be with you. 

These words anticipate Thursday’s celebration of the Ascension when Jesus leaves this world to return to his rightful place with the Father and it anticipates the Day of Pentecost two Sundays from now when we celebrate the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Rogation Sunday reminds us we are not alone in the struggles and challenges we face.  In the midst of life’s uncertainties, we are not left to our own devices or to something as futile as those pagan sacrificial rituals of old.  We are engaging the One who Peter describes as “the God who made the world and everything in it, the Lord of heaven and earth…  the One in whom we live and move and have our being.”  It is our deeply heartfelt belief this God cares about us and responds to our needs and our requests.  And to this God we lift up our voices and offer praise.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

God as Mother

The Fifth Sunday of Easter / Year A
John 14:1-14

Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”  Show us the Father?  On this day, as a preacher, why couldn’t he have said, “So, Jesus, tell us some stories about your mother.”  Now, that would give me something with which to work!

Surely one of the marks of the spiritual life is a desire to know God, to understand something of the nature of the One who is Holy Other.  But God is incomprehensible and unknowable, save for what God chooses to reveal to us.  As we experience the unknowable God we compare what we sense to what we do know.  “In some ways God is like a good shepherd.”  “In some ways God is like a father.”  These metaphors, while helpful, have their limitations.  Your experience of father may be very different from mine, so are we saying God is like your father (who may have been cruel and overbearing) or like my father (who may have been kind and nurturing)?  And what if your father had a beard, but mine did not.  Which is God like?  Push it enough and you realize God is neither bearded or clean shaven because God is not like a father in this way.

Genesis 1:27 states “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  This tells us we should be able to look at men and see in them something of the image of God.  It also tells us we should be able to look at women and see something of what God is like.  And if we can see something of God in our fathers, then it follows we should be able to look at our mothers and find the same.  What we see of God in our fathers most likely will be different from what we see of God in our mothers, still, by exploring God’s mother-like qualities we will come to know God more fully and more completely.

There are several passages in the Old Testament that speak of God as being like one who gives birth:

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.
(Deuteronomy 32:18)

For a long time I have held my peace,
    I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labor, 
    I will gasp and pant.
(Isaiah 42:14)

Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
    or show no compassion
    for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
(Isaiah 49:15)

The prophet Hosea likens God to a mother who tenderly nurtures her child:

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them. (11:3-4)

Isaiah draws on a similar image:

As a mother comforts her child,
    so I will comfort you;
    you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.  (66:13)

The 22nd Psalm compares God to a midwife:

Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
    you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
    and since my mother bore me
    you have been my God.  (9-10)

In the Book of Deuteronomy God uses the image of a mother eagle to enlarge our understanding:

As an eagle stirs up its nest,
    and hovers over its young;
as it spreads its wings, takes them up,
    and bears them aloft on its pinions,
the Lord alone guided him;
    no foreign god was with him.  (32:11-12)

Jesus himself invokes the image of a mother hen as a self-description: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” (Luke 13:34 and Matthew 23:37).  We tend to think of the paternal protective figure going off to do battle with the enemy and the maternal protective figure as the one who gathers the children and shelters them from harm.  Here, at least, Jesus longs to be a maternal figure in the lives of the people of Jerusalem.

These are just a few of the biblical verses I could cite.  They reveal God as being one who gives birth to new life, who nurtures, feeds, cares for, and watches over us.  Surely you have experienced God in these ways.  Perhaps you did not know portions of the bible think of these qualities as being motherly and ascribe them to God.

Yolanda Pierce, a professor at Princeton University, writes this about why, in addition to Father, she experiences God as Mother:

Long before I became familiar with the academic debates concerning calling God “Mother,”... I was being raised in a household where I instinctively understood that the divine presence was manifest in the loving hands and arms of mothers, and most especially in the life of my grandmother who raised me.  My grandmother’s kitchen was a theological laboratory where she taught me how to love people just as naturally as she taught me to make peach cobbler and buttermilk biscuits. I watched and listened as she ministered to the sick and the lost, with a Bible in one hand and a freshly baked pound cake in the other, despite having no official ministry role.

I knew that if God was real, if God truly loved me as a parent loves a child, then God was also “Mother” and not only “Father.”

Maybe you can relate in some way to Dr. Pierce’s experience.  Now try on this poem by renowned author and pastor Jacqui Lewis:

My God is a curvy black woman with dreadlocks and dark, cocoa-brown skin. 
She laughs from her belly and is unashamed to cry. 
She can rock a whole world to sleep, singing in her contralto voice. 
Her sighs breathe life into humanity. 
Her heartbreaks cause eruptions of justice and love…
My God is an incarnate feminine power, who smells like vanilla and is full of sass and truth, delivered with kindness. 
She’ll do anything for her creation; her love is fierce. 
She weeps when we do 
and insists on justice. 
She is God.
She is Love.

Now, I want you to relax and take a deep breath.  I am not going to make you begin the Lord’s Prayer by saying “Our Mother, who art in heaven…”  What I do what to do is expand your ability to conceive of God and to understand how God continues to reveal God’s self in diverse ways.  God as Mother is merely one window allowing us to see some aspects of the Divine Mystery.

So on Mother’s Day 2020, you might want to ponder how God’s nature has been revealed to you through the mother figures in your life.  Use this day as an opportunity to expand your understanding of God and to give thanks for the mothers you have been blessed to know.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Our Shepherd and Our Gate

The Fourth Sunday of Easter / Year A
John 10:1-10

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is known informally as Good Shepherd Sunday because the Collect of the Day and the appointed readings focus on God’s shepherd-like care for us.  Perhaps the three best-known Christian texts are the Lord’s Prayer, the first verse of Amazing Grace, and the 23rd Psalm.  And perhaps the most beloved and comforting image of Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  When we acknowledge Jesus is our shepherd we infer we are his sheep.  We sense Jesus cares about us passionately with a love that never flags or fades.

When I went with a group of pilgrims to walk the Way of St. Cuthbert, our plane landed in Glasgow and we boarded a charted bus, which took us west toward our first destination – the Isle of Iona.  In a very short time we were out of the urban region of Glasgow and travelling through the incredibly beautiful Loch Lomond National Park.  I can still picture in my mind’s eye the first time it happened... when one of my bus mates spotted a sheep with a little baby lamb nestled between its front legs.  We all threw ourselves against the bus window to get a look, our smartphones capturing picture after picture after picture.  It was so cute and so heart-warming and so terribly Scottish.

We continued to spot sheep (by the herdfull) throughout the day as we made our way to the city of Oban for our first night’s stay.  And while the excitement of seeing sheep abated somewhat, it was still a thrill.  Over the course of our pilgrimage we did more than spot sheep from inside a bus, we actually walked with them, around them, past them, and through them.  And not just sheep… also goats and cows and horses and pretty much any kind of livestock you care to name.  Toward the end of the pilgrimage I became so desensitized to seeing sheep I jokingly said the only way I would bother to stop and take a picture is if I saw ten sheep standing in line doing the Macarena! 

In today’s read Jesus says he leads his flock to the sheepfold.  The sheep enter the fold through the gate, which the shepherd then guards.  Sheepfolds in Jesus’ day were stone-walled enclosures varying in size, but most roughly about the area of a tennis court.  They were large enough for several shepherds to safe-keep their flock through the night hours.  In the morning, each shepherd made a specific sound to call his flock out through the gate and only his sheep heeded the call. 

It is a comforting image… the voice of Jesus calling us to enter into place or a way of being where, in times of danger, we will be safe and then calling us out of the fold into lush meadows when the time is right for us to flourish again.  This day finds us sheltering within the sheepfold of our individual homes.  God is keeping us safe.  Thanks be to God!  We long for the day our Shepherd will let us know it is safe to go out again to enjoy the green pastures and still waters we all long for.

Jesus uses a second image in today’s reading to describe himself, one a little bit more obscure but equally as powerful: “I am the gate for the sheep.” 

Britain is crisscrossed by an amazing system of National Trails, of which the Way of St. Cuthbert is one.  These trails often go right through privately owned property, much of which is pastureland.  And these fields are divided, some by fences and many by stone walls.  Every time we came to a fence or a wall we encountered some kind of gate.  Some were little more than a rickety A-frame ladder, which required a ballerina-like maneuver at the top so you could turn and descend down the other side.  Others involved a narrow zig-zag easily navigated by a human, but far too difficult for an animal.  And still others involved a latched gate.  Far too late in the pilgrimage it occurred to me I should have been taking pictures of the different latches we encountered.  The variety was endless and some took considerable time to figure out how to work.

My fellow pilgrim Dale Custer observes every time he encounters a gate while hiking he realizes it is there either to keep something in or to keep something out.  I remember approaching one gate as we walked the Way that had a sign on it: “Warning!  The bull is in the field!”  I don’t know exactly what happens when one encounters a bull in the field, but I was not the least bit curious to learn, so I kept a sharp lookout as I made my way across the field as expeditiously as possible.

I suppose most associate people associate the image of Jesus as the Gate with a kind of exclusive claim some Christian believe we have… only those who can name Jesus as their savior will be able to pass through the gate that leads to eternal life.  But during these days and given what we are experiencing I wonder if a different interpretation might be more accurate.  The gate represents the way you pass through the thing dividing what was and what will be.  We know what life was like before COVID 19.  We have no idea what it will be like afterward, let alone when it will begin.  We are now (and will be for sometime) in a between space and time.  We are in the gate, which is not where we were and not where we are going to be. 

If Jesus is the gate, then we should expect Jesus to be present in this moment in a powerful and personal way.  And this is exactly what many of us are experiencing.  Our faith means more to us now than ever before.  We are turning to prayer – especially the Daily Offices – like never before.  We experience Jesus as being close in a way we have not experienced before.  We are in a gateway time between what was and what will be and because Jesus is the Gate we are in Jesus as never before.

It seems impossible today is the eighth Sunday we have not been able to gather for public worship.  We have come a long way and most likely we still have a long way to go.  I am so proud of how all of you are adapting to this time in the gate.  I am so honored to be able to gather daily with many of you as the Good Shepherd leads us into the fold in the evening and calls us out in the morning.  Like never before, the Lord is our shepherd and we shall not want.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Word, Sarament, and Manna

The Third Sunday of Easter / Year A
Luke 24:13-35

This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus walking with two followers and discussing how the events of the past week have been a fulfilment of Holy Scripture.  I remember my youth minister calling this the single greatest bible study in history.  “Were not our hearts burning within us as he was talking about the Scripture?”  While Jesus’ words lit a fire, it was the act of breaking bread that revealed to them who he was.  This would become a common experience in the early church.  As disciples broke bread and remembered Jesus (as he had told them to do) they discerned his presence with them.

Word and Sacrament, both present in this story, are the two foundational experiences of our communal worship.  Through the Liturgy of the Word we hear the ancient story centered around the actions and teachings of Jesus.  They speak to our hearts and our souls and become a burning fire lighting our way toward holy and faithful living.  Through the celebration of the Great Thanksgiving we receive the real presence of the Living Christ into our very bodies.  It becomes for us a source of strength, of courage, of healing, of forgiveness, of hope, and mysteriously, but surely, helps us to sense Jesus is with us as we gather.

But now is the seventh Sunday we have not gathered and the seventh Sunday we have not celebrated the Eucharist… and there does yet not appear to be a Sunday on the horizon when we will gather again and receive communion.

Clergy are talking about this, among ourselves and with our bishops.  Almost every Episcopal Church is now live-streaming a Sunday worship service in some form or fashion.  Many do as we are doing… a service of Morning Prayer.  Some stream a celebration of the Great Thanksgiving.  Those few present receive communion (observing safe practices and social distancing) while those at home receive a spiritual benefit by watching.  For me, this is something like having a Thanksgiving Day meal live-streamed from the church where a handful of people have gathered to enjoy a turkey dinner with all the trimmings as those of you at home watch while chocking down a bologna sandwich. 

Serving as the Rector of St. Paul’s I have opted not do this because I believe the open gathering of the community is an essential and necessary element of the Eucharist.  The rubrics of the prayer book state a priest cannot celebrate communion alone.  It is never to be private and personal.  The presence of one other person is required, even if it is just an acolyte.  This says to me a basic requirement of the Eucharist is that it has to be open and accessible and at this time it can be neither.   

There is another push among some clergy.  Why can’t smaller congregations who can maintain social distance within the confines of their sanctuaries conduct public worship, celebrate the Eucharist, and administer communion in a responsible way?  I pray for Bishop Susan who (in lightening speed) went from being a rector of a congregation who loves her (as you love and care for me) to being the Ecclesiastical Authority of people and congregations she has yet to meet, but must still lead.  I can’t even begin to imagine.

I told our bishop I value the opportunity for each congregation to discern what is possible locally.  In other dioceses, including the northern Diocese of Virginia, bishops have told clergy they are not permitted to go into the office nor are they allowed to live-stream or record services from within the worship space.  To my way of thinking this may be very sensible in some contexts and entirely unnecessary in others (such as ours).  I appreciate our bishop’s wisdom to value the individual congregation’s ability to discern what is possible.

But… going in to the church office every day and using your personal smart phone to live-stream a prayer service is something entirely different from celebrating the Great Thanksgiving.  Maybe some congregations can do this free of fear, but I wonder.  If, prior to the liturgy, a priest has to take 10 minutes to explain the process required to consecrate and administer the elements safely, how can the focus any longer be on what God in Christ has done for us, but rather the health risk we face by being here?  If the Eucharistic liturgy raises anxiety in the congregation, should it be celebrated?  And if we offer public worship, is it wise to invite those who are best served by staying at home but undoubtedly will be here?  And is it spiritually harmful to those not ready to gather publicly to say we are here, why aren’t you? 

These are the questions I ponder and why I hold Bishop Susan in my prayers as she has weighty decisions to ponder.

In the midst of all these matters I am trying to get my head around something I never contemplated or saw coming.  Every morning and every evening some 25-30 households are logging on to a live-stream of Morning or Evening Prayer officiated by either Al or me.  Every day, without fail, I am hearing from someone – either via e-mail, text, message, phone call, or even an old school letter in the mail – how these services are helping you in these tough times. 

Albert Jennings, a priest I first knew when I was in the Diocese of Ohio, in a very insightful live-streamed service, equated our newly discovered virtual worship with the manna God provided for the children of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness.  He noted after leaving Egypt and crossing through the Red Sea the people of God where starving in the wilderness.  God provided for them daily manna (a Hebrew word literally meaning “what is it?”)  Well, what it was was enough to feed them during forty years in the wilderness.  And, as Albert points out, once God’s children enter the Promised Land and can grow crops on their own, the manna disappears.  The messages, he says, is God gives us what we need, when we need it, to sustain us.

And this ancient lesson is our current experience.  God is giving us what we need during these wilderness days.  And one way this is happening is through our virtual worship.  While I miss the weekly celebration of the Holy Eucharist I recognize and celebrate what God is giving us in this wilderness time of COVID 19.  And, unlike those two followers at table with Jesus yet to recognize him because the bread is not yet broken, I sense the Risen Lord is with us in ways I have never sensed it before.  And, what I am hearing from you tells me you discern his presence too.

I so look forward to the day when we can all gather with confidence to celebrate our faith and our fellowship.  But, do you know what?  I look forward to being with you this evening virtually.  I look forward to Tuesday, when God will use Al’s spirituality and gifts to feed and sustain us.  I look forward to Mobil Wednesday Morning when I attempt to do Morning Prayer from some location in, St. Paul’s, outside of St. Paul’s, or who knows where!  I look forward to Healing Fridays.  I look forward to this new way, through God’s manna gift, to being feed.  God is giving us everything we need and that is enough even as we look forward to the Promised Land of being together again.

Monday, April 20, 2020

From Fear to Faith

The Second Sunday of Easter / Year A
John 20:19-31

Today is the Second Sunday of the Easter season, but it is also our sixth Sunday of virtual worship.  Today is the first time only Al and I are present.  I have really appreciated the gifts and talents offered by our readers, vocalists, and cross flowerers and I know they have enjoyed being here.  Each person adds so much to our virtual worship experience.  While up to ten people can gather to assist with the service, my feeling is this is way too large a group for the size of our chapel.  So, moving forward, Al and I will be conducting the services.  Al is working with software to allow us to incorporate pre-recorded videos into our live feed.  Hopefully, in the near future, we will be able to have pre-recorded readers, musicians, acolytes, ushers...  the possibilities are enormous. 

This is a brave and bold new world.  The Church has come a long way since the initial Sunday of the Resurrection.  Back then it huddled together in a single room.  Oil lamps and some kind of door lock were the only technology at their disposal.  Fast forward to the Church in 2020 and it is amazing what God’s people are able to do.  At the beginning of Lent probably less than 1% of congregations in America were live-streaming services.  Today, almost every church, regardless of size, is streaming some kind of service on Sunday morning.  Our weekday morning and evening services, as well as this Sunday gathering, have connected us to one another and welcomed back to our congregation people who have relocated to other parts of the country.  Many of you have invited friends to join us and some of them are now regular virtual congregants.  Who saw this coming, either a few weeks ago or during that first evening when the disciples crammed together in an anti-social distance room?

One thing connects our experience of worshipping in our homes with theirs.  We share with them a sense of Jesus’ presence.  And, like our ancestors in the faith, we are finding as Jesus is present in our homes our homes are becoming havens of peace.  “Peace be with you.”  These are the Resurrected Jesus’ first words to his gathered followers.  It is so much a part of the purpose of his presence he says it a second time, “Peace be with you.” 

Think about the situation those first disciples faced on that Sunday evening.  The world outside their doors was a dangerous place.  It was not safe for them to leave the shelter and security of that locked room.  Still, their life inside had been turned upside down.  Their leader was crucified and buried.  They were not free to come and go.  No one had any idea what to do or how to carry on.  The “blueprint” for their lives and their future was no longer valid. 

Certainly the atmosphere was chaotic, charged, panicky, and despairing.  This is the setting into which Jesus appears.  No wonder he says what he says and does what he does.  What could be more necessary, more valuable, or more precious than a deep sense of abiding peace!  It is terribly important to recognize nothing about the circumstances the disciples face has changed.  The outside world is still dangerous, they still don’t know what to do, and they still have no idea what the future looks like.  But now they begin to sense Jesus is with them and grants to them the blessing of peace; a peace passing all understanding.

This is what we have experienced every morning and every evening as we gather together for prayer in our individual homes.  We have sensed Jesus’ presence and in these moments we have felt the blessing of his peace.   

Yesterday, as it transformed from a miserably rainy and dreary day into blue skies and cool sunshine, Harper and I walked around Suffolk and were blessed to encounter some of you.  My favorite conversation was with 8-year-old Caroline Webb, who helped to flower the cross last Sunday. 

Me:        Caroline, thanks for helping to flower the cross last week.

Her:       No problem.

Me:        Did you go home and watch the video of yourself?

Her:       No.

Well, it is reassuring to know America’s children sense their 15 minutes of fame is yet to come and most certainly will not be limited to just ¼ of an hour!

As I talked with folks I had the sense we all are transitioning from an initial sense of fear, loss, anger, and confusion to an adaptive place where we are becoming grateful for our capacity to let go, to adjust, and to accept.  We are moving from fear to faith… faith in God and faith in ourselves.  And this, I think, is why so many our connecting with our virtual worship.  It is a pathway helping us to walk from fear to faith.

On this first Sunday after Easter we always read of “Doubting” Thomas.  He, famously, is not present the first time Jesus appears to all of his followers and he, famously, refuses to ‘believe’ unless he sees and touches the wounds.  From a theological and spiritual perspective, doubt is not the opposite of faith.  Many great and faithful Christians have had their ‘doubts’ about one or more of the doctrines of the Church.  You do not have to consent to every tenant of the faith in order to be faithful and you may have your doubts about one or a few.  Thomas should not be chastised for needing ‘proof’ or ‘evidence’ of what is difficult to accept, and neither should you.  Doubt and faith are so closely related it might be best to think of them as twins.

The opposite of faith is fear.  Faith says, “I and all I love are in God’s hands.”  The fearful opposite of faith is, “I am not in control and there is not telling what might happen to me and to those I love.” 

As much as this Sunday always seems to be about Thomas, maybe today we should make it about Peter.  Two weeks ago, as we read the Passion, he could not admit to a lowly servant child that he knew Jesus.  Peter, on that day, was the poster child of fear.  Fast foreword to today’s readings.  We hear Peter’s first ever sermon addressed to the people of Jerusalem:

Jesus, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.  But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.

This is anything but a fearful proclamation.  In the face of trying times Peter is changing.  He is moving from fear to faith and faithfulness.   Years later, writing to those who look to him for guidance, support, and comfort, he says…

God has given us a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading…  In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials…

These are the word of a person who has moved from fear (as we saw on display in the courtyard on the night of Jesus’ arrest) to faith.  It is a movement of God’s Spirit in an individual’s heart and soul.  And it is a movement I sense in so many of you.  God’s Spirit is guiding us from fear to faith, not because the situation and the circumstances of our lives have changed for the better, but because we have reconnected with an ancient truth: Our God is with us to deliver us and our spirits are being revived by God’s Spirit.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

When Easter Feels Like Lent

Easter Day
Matthew 28:1-10

Surely you have heard the joke about the frustrated Sunday School teacher whose young students can’t tell the story of Easter.  One confuses it with Christmas, another with Palm Sunday, and still another with Thanksgiving.  Finally, one child gets it right, declaring, “Jesus has been in a dark cave for a long time and on Easter morning he comes out and the sun is shining down on him.  Then he sees his shadow and goes back into the cave because there will be six more weeks of winter.”

Sadly, Easter morning 2020 feels an awful lot like that joke.  Yes, the Cross is flowered, we recognize the tune of Jesus Christ is risen today, and we get to say Alleluia again, but it feels like Lent is here to stay for at least six more weeks, if not longer.  If we offer a Blue Christmas service to help people express their feelings of sadness and loss at Christmas time, maybe this year we need to think about a liturgy for a Blue Easter service. 

I feel the loss of so many of our Holy Week traditions at St. Paul’s.  And try as we might to do our best under these circumstances, I suspect many of us will spend today lamenting what cannot be… droves of children scrambling around the church yard looking for eggs, a crowded and beautifully decorated church, everyone dressed in their Easter best, gathering with family and friends for an Easter feast…

And then there will be tomorrow.  No matter on what date it falls, Easter Sunday always feels like the beginning of Spring.  Winter is over and done.  The world is open again and we are set free.  But the tomorrow we face will be just like yesterday.  We will shelter in place, maintain social distancing, isolate as much as possible, and try to make the best of virtual connections, but life is still going to be hard and sad and just a little bit frightening. 

How can we celebrate Easter when life still feels like Lent?

A couple of things occur to me.  First, our current situation shares a lot in common with the first Easter.  The disciplines are sheltering in place.  The doors are locked because they sense a real and deep threat to their safety.  Fear dominates the mood, as does grief.  The disciples have lost their leader in the cruelest way imaginable.  Even the hopeful report of the woman who say they have encountered the Risen Lord does little to change the atmosphere.  It only seems to add to the confusion.  They have no sense what tomorrow will look like.  They have no clue what to do.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples in the room where they are gathered on Easter evening.  He meets them again in the same locked room one week later.  Very little seems to have changed over the course of this time.  The disciples are still afraid and they are still confused.  Mathew’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus telling his followers to return to Galilee.  This is their home.  This is where they can get back to work.  This is where their lives will become “normal” again. 

We find ourselves in a “locked room” moment.  Jesus is risen.  Death is vanquished.  But there is still much to fear and much to figure out.  We long to be able to go to “Galilee” – to that place and time where our familiar lives return to us – but we are not there yet.  No, this isn’t how we usually celebrate the Easter story, but it is (in fact) a part of the Easter story.  Jesus is risen, but what it means and how it changes life takes time to discern.  In many ways our day tomorrow will share much with the first Monday after the Resurrection.  It will take a while for us to get back to Galilee.

While praying the daily office with you this week, I got to thinking about the people on our prayer list; all those who are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity.  We all know folks whose problems are not going away because today is Easter and we get to say Alleluia again.  There are people with life-threatening health issues, family or relational challenges, employment problems, and on and on.  For these folks, the Monday of Easter week is another day to engage the difficult.  I wonder how these people – the people whose problems don’t go away – celebrate Easter?  And I wonder what can we learn from them?  Sure, I suppose some approach this day with a ‘woe is me’ attitude, but the courageous and the hopeful, the ones with a fighting spirit and sustaining faith, enter deeply into the joy of this day and are grateful for the respite it brings.  May their example be guide for us.

And one final thought has stayed with me throughout the week.  It is a sentence of liturgy found in the preface for the Eucharist at the Burial Office:

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

It describes our transition from this world to the life to come, but also speaks to every resurrection moment we experience in life.  We come to this Easter deeply aware that life has changed, but the resurrection message is life is not ended.  God is always at work to bring new life out of old.  Sometimes this happens in an instant, but most often it is a process of rebirth and renewal.  And often times we are not even aware how new life is emerging from old until well after the crisis is past and the healing is done.  And so this is also a part of our celebration today, knowing God is at work in us – comforting, sustaining, and renewing.

The interesting thing about Galilee is once the disciples get back home little about it has changed.  But the disciples have.  Walking with Jesus, witnessing his life, listening to his words, seeing him die, encountering him risen has changed them in incredible ways.  Yes, they go back to home and return to what is normal, but they don’t stay there long.  They have changed and empowered by God’s Spirit they set out to change the world.  I hope and pray one day we will look back on Easter 2020 and be able to say the same thing about us.