Monday, May 10, 2021

Deep Knowing

 


John 15:9-17

Easter 6 / Year B

Jesus said to his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” 

First century Palestine was anything but a loving place to live.  In fact, it was deeply divided in a number of different ways.  If you know your bible then you know Galileans were looked down on by others, so there were regional divides.  And there were ancestral divides.  Jews and Samaritans lived in close contact, yet refused even to speak to one another.  The religious establishment was divided into several different theological and liturgical camps and adherents of each group could barely tolerate adherents of others.  The region was divided up and ruled by various kings appointed by Rome.  These individuals neither liked nor trusted each other and they certainly did not like or trust the people under their rule.  The Jewish response to Roman occupation ranged from capitulation to outright rebellion.  Extremist zealots led something like a dozen different insurrections during Jesus’ lifetime alone.

These were huge divides because people were passionate about their positions – very passionate!  Tension, volatility, and hostility filled the air.  It might be an exaggeration to say everybody hated everybody, but without question everybody hated somebody.  We bristle at how our own country in our own time has become divided and embittered, well, Palestine was like us on hyper-drive. 

It is into this setting Jesus introduces his notion of the Kingdom of God.  In his dream the poor are exalted, the suffering find comfort, and the peacemakers are blessed.  It is a vision of a society not ruled by might or by the power of the purse.  It is the pure in heart who are welcomed into God’s presence.  In Jesus’ mind every person has value because every person is a child of God. 

In a 2019 speech at Brigham Young University, the New York Times columnist David Brooks made this observation:

Somehow we have entered an age of bad generalizations.  We don’t see each other well.  Liberals believe that.  Evangelicals believe that. Latter-day Saints believe that.  All groups, all stereotypes, all bad generalizations—we do not see the heart and soul of each person, only a bunch of bad labels.  To me, this is the core problem that our democratic character is faced with.  Many of our society’s great problems flow from people not feeling seen and known: Blacks feeling that their daily experience is not understood by whites.  Rural people not feeling seen by coastal elites.  Depressed young people not feeling understood by anyone.  People across the political divides getting angry with one another and feeling incomprehension.

Brooks suggests the thing we must get better at is “the trait of seeing each other deeply and being deeply seen.”  It is the trait, he says, that lies at the center of every healthy relationship, family, classroom, community, and nation.

And I think it is what Jesus invites his disciples to experience.  When he commands his followers to love one another as he has loved them, Jesus is not suggesting they merely grit their teeth, bite their tongue, and hold their peace every time another person pushes them to the limit (and you can be sure the disciples had a way of pushing each other’s buttons).  Jesus invites them to do exactly what he did: look past what is on the surface in order to see what is deep inside.  When he looked deep into the eyes of broken prostitute or a greedy tax-collector or a bedeviled demonic (to name a few) he saw a person fully known and fully loved by God.  Can Jesus’ followers see as he sees and then translate what they see into action – the action of love?

I suspect no one here has heard of Fr. Peter Scholtes, but chances are good if you attended a youth group in the 60’s or 70’s and someone had a guitar, you know a song he wrote:

We are one in the Spirit

   We are one in the Lord

And we pray that all unity

   May one day be restored…

We will walk with each other

   We will walk hand in hand

And together we’ll spread the news

   That God is in our land…

We will work with each other

   We will work side by side

And we’ll guard each man’s dignity

   And save each man’s pride…

…And they’ll know we are Christians

   By our love, by our love

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians

   By our love

Why is it important to Jesus his disciples love one another?  Because he knows no one is going to believe what he teaches if they can’t see it lived out in the flesh.  And when it is lived out, there is nothing on earth capable of outshining it.  This morning it is into this purpose and power we initiate Bellamy Johns through the sacrament of Baptism.  And it is to this purpose and power we recommit ourselves today through the act of renewing our own Baptismal Covenant.

Surely you are aware of trends in church membership and how the fastest growing group in our society is the ‘nones’ – those who do not associate with any particular religious tradition or expression of faith.  It is not that they have found something they like better, they have just stopped looking.  And over time the outcome of this disconnection is not going to be pretty.  Already we sense its toll as we see loneliness, anger, and anxiety increase.  We are welcoming Bellamy into the Christian faith and life at a moment in time when the world needs people capable of knowing and being known deeply.  We are welcoming her at a time when desperate people need to see Jesus’ dream realized in community.  The world needs to see the breathtaking beauty and transformative power of Jesus’ vision.  It needs to know we are Christians by our love.

 


Monday, May 3, 2021

The Doors are Open!

 

John 15:1-8

Easter 5 / Year B.

My Praise is of God in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him. (Psalm 22:24)

What a wonderful verse from the Psalter for us to read on this morning when the doors of St. Paul’s finally are open for public worship.  Once again we can to praise God in the presence of those who worship God in this space we love!  Hallelujah! 

This morning we hear Jesus say, “I am the vine and my Father is the vinegrower...  Every branch that bears fruit is pruned so that it can bear more fruit.”  The last fourteen months have been a period of pruning, haven’t they.  Much of what we think of as fruitfulness has been cut off… in our lives, in our community, in our occupations, and here in our church – the worship services, the Christian formation activities, the opportunities for fellowship, the ministries we offer to the community.  We have been pruned indeed.  And yet, as Jesus says, we have figured out how to abide in him and remain connected to one another.  Although physically separated, God has granted us a spiritual path to maintain our sense of community.  Challenged?  Yes.  Blessed?  Beyond measure! 

And now the doors are open.  I like to say “the doors are open” because it sums up what is different today from last Sunday.  We made an intentional decision not to make too many changes prior to reopening.  Some churches are forming committees to plan their ‘reopening.’  These groups meet over and over and over again trying to nail down every detail and iron out every wrinkle before regathering.  There is a reason why Moses didn’t form an Exodus Committee to figure out all the things that needed to happen prior to leaving Egypt.  His lean instructions were these: “Grab what you can and let’s go.  The rest we will figured out on the way.”  And we will too. 

As I reflect on the last fourteen months, I realize we at St. Paul’s have established a pretty good track record of rising to challenges and seizing opportunities and I fully expect this to continue as we move forward.  We will figure it out as we go, facing every problem not as a reason to assign blame, but as an opportunity for innovating.  Like the pruned vine we now are, we will grow in the new and unexpected ways.  We will be fruitful once again, but perhaps not in some of the ways as before. 

In my sermon on Easter Sunday I mused on the difference between resuscitation and resurrection.  Resuscitation occurs when one person literally takes the life in him or her and forces it into another who is lifeless.  Resurrection is entirely God’s doing and we are the beneficiaries.  I am mindful of this distinction as we open the doors to St. Paul’s.  Regathering Committees, what with all their planning, are working at resuscitation, and many are finding it is a lot of work indeed.  My thinking is let’s just open the doors and see what happens!  Let’s see what God is going to do and then we’ll respond to it.  This, I hope, is a resurrection mindset.

So, one phrase I am using is “The Doors are Open.”  Here is another: “God is leading us into our future.”  It reminds me who is in charge – God.  It reminds me of what God is doing – leading us.  And it reminds me where we are going – into our future.  Because God is leading us, we do not initiate activity, but rather respond to opportunity.  And because God is leading us into our future, our focus is on what will be, not what once was.  Much of what we did before we will do again, but not everything.  And some of what we did before will happen in a new and different way.  And… things we never dreamed of before all the pruning we have been through will suddenly become a part of who we are.  Standing here before you this morning, I can’t tell you specifically what this will look like, only that we have established a pretty good track record of meeting challenges and seizing opportunities. 

The first step in all of this is opening the doors and inviting you in.  Let’s enjoy this moment, shall we.  Let’s get acclimated to being back together.  Let’s remember what it is like to stand and to kneel and to say out loud, “And also with you.” 

Somewhere in our future there will be singing.  Somewhere in our future there will be the Passing of the Peace.  Somewhere in our future there will be a pile of children pulling on the bell rope at the end of the service.  Somewhere in our future there will be coffee and cookies after church.   

But for now, isn’t it wonderful just to be back in our beautiful worship space, to hear the organ, to be bathed in the light of our stained glass windows, to receive communion in both kinds (albeit in a new way) and to see one another.  Isn’t it wonderful to have the doors open once again and to praise God in the midst of the great assembly!


Tuesday, April 27, 2021

When the Wolf Draws Near

 


John 10:11-18

Easter 4 / Year B

“O my, Grandma, what big teeth you have!”  Do you remember the next line?  How about this one: “If you don’t open the door, I’ll huff and I’ll puff…” What comes next?  Because we were raised on children’s stories we remember being taught to beware of wolves.  Never mind most of us grew up in urban or suburban surroundings and never saw even one wolf, these stories served an important function in our maturation. 

They taught us the world isn’t always as safe as the sheltered environment our parents created for us.  They let us know danger is always present… though not always seen.  They educated us about the cunning ways evil can feed off innocence and naiveté.  And, mercifully, they reinforced we are not completely alone and helpless in our struggle against these harmful forces.  Little Red Riding Hood is saved when her grandmother fetches the woodsman.  The three pigs are saved because one invests the time and energy necessary to construct a safe, sturdy, brick house.  These were important stories for us to hear as we grew up and as adults we remember them because, metaphorically speaking, wolves come after us throughout our life.

This Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday.  The Collect sets the theme for the day and each of the readings builds on it.  The Gospel lesson calls us to reflect on the difference between the shepherd and the hired hand.  Drawing on imagery familiar to people employed in the herding trade, Jesus makes a simple, but important point: There is a significant difference between the shepherd who owns the sheep and the hired hands who are paid to help out.  When the wolf comes the hired hands run away, but the shepherd puts his life on the line to protect what matters most to him.

Jesus invites us to ponder a reality and a question.  Here is the reality: In life we will be tested.  The wolf will come at us in different times and in different ways and we will be tested again and again in these moments. 

Since this is our reality, here is the question: When you see the wolf coming, who or what can you count on?  Who or what will stand with you, even to the point of laying down life itself?  When sorrow comes, will the friends who want to play with you stay with you?  When weakness comes, will the possessions you have accumulated strengthen you?  When tomorrow’s failure comes, what of yesterday’s successes will remain to shelter you?  When death comes, who or what will stay with you to see you through?  Not your education.  Not your career.  Not your stock portfolio.  Not your winning personality and certainly not your good looks. 

Jesus said this to a handful of men and women: “When the wolf comes the hireling will flee; but I will not.  I am the Good Shepherd.  I will be there when you need me.”  The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church began when this small group of people discovered Jesus keeps his promise.

Scholars say it is no accident the beloved 23rd Psalm (“The Lord is my Shepherd”) is placed immediately after the 22nd Psalm (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).  The 22nd Psalm tells us about the dark, terrible testing in life, while the 23rd Psalm tells us about the Good Shepherd who leads us through these experiences to still waters and green pastures.

There will be times when we will be tested in the laboratory of calamity.  These moments teach us who and what we can and cannot count on.  With each testing our trust in the Good Shepherd grows deeper.  And as our trust deepens we begin to discover a life which pain and suffering cannot defeat, a joy which sin cannot dim, and a power from God which stands the test of living, as well as the test of dying.  All of this is possible because when the wolf comes the Good Shepherd does not flee from our side.

So today we reflect on the reality of testing and ask who or what will see us through.  I think today’s readings encourage also us to ask one more question: Who can count on you to be a shepherd when the wolf comes for them?  We all have relationships that are more like pleasant acquaintances.  In the moment of their need we may, in fact, be more like the hireling.  But each of us has a few precious relationships that stand through thick and thin. 

When a couple seeks God’s blessing on their marriage, we ask them to face one another, to join hands, and to promise to have and to hold for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health… until parted by death.  The wolf comes to every marriage.  Every couple is tested again and again.  This is why we do not ask them to sign on as a hireling in each other’s life.  We ask them to be shepherds who will lay down even life itself for the other.    

Parents also are called to be shepherds, not hirelings.  A parent will sacrifice everything for his or her children.  Each will put off personal needs to tend first to the needs of their children.  Their love is a bond that cannot be broken by any trouble.  When loving parents see the wolf coming they do not run away.  They do everything possible for their sheep, their children.

Some friends are shepherds, others are hirelings.  I learned this for the first time when my father died. My friends and I were still in our teens and death had never touched closely to any of us.  Some of my best friends were not able to stand by my side when that wolf was present.  They did not know what to say or do or how to make it better, so they stayed away.  Only a few friends stood with me in that awkward moment, but what friends they were!  They did not know what to say to make the pain more bearable.  They did not know what to do to slow the flow of tears.  So most times they stood by in silence, but their presence said more than any words of wisdom ever could.  We can’t be that kind of friend to everyone we know, but we all have friends who will know us to be shepherds in their hour of need.

We need to be realistic about this shepherding business.  There will be times of personal testing when those who should stand with us will fail us.  In our marriage, in our parenting, in our friendships, and even in our faith community, there will be times when we will look for a shepherd and find only hirelings.  And there will be times when those we love will need us and we will be little more than a hired hand who does not show up to do the job. 

As we rely on the grace of God to forgive us our sins, so we offer this grace to those who have sinned against us.  If we are to be shepherds, we will need to learn how to ask for forgiveness as well.  A hireling who screws up will run off and find another job.  But a shepherd who does not live up to the call will not run away and hide from the flock he or she loves.  A shepherd will return to gather the scattered, bind up the wounded, sooth the anxious, and begin the process of tending to the flock anew. 

In this life we can be sure we will be tested.  We can be sure the wolf will come.  Jesus tells us he is the Good Shepherd who will not disappoint us when everything else fails.  He asks us to help him watch over the flock of those who are closely connected to us.   He invites us to love one another as he loves us; to love as a shepherd.  In this love for one another we receive a glimpse of a kingdom yet to come.  It will be a kingdom of one flock under the love and protection of the one Great Shepherd.  Until that day when the wolf will be no more, we have a job to do.


Monday, April 19, 2021

The Grand Narrative

 


The Book of Acts 3:12- 19

Easter 3 / Year B

A friend encouraged me to check out Douglas Murray’s book The Madness of Crowds in which the British author explores why our society is being torn apart by divisive issues such as sexuality, gender, technology, and race.  Murray contends “we have been living through a period of more than a quarter of a century in which all our grand narratives have collapsed.”  By grand narrative, I assume Murray means something like the story we embrace and the truths it contains to help us make sense of the world, of our place in it, and of our responsibility to it and to one another.

Murray is not the only person to observe our post-modern age is marked by suspicion of all grand narratives, especially those once provided by religion and political ideology.  In their place, he says, what has emerged are “new battles, ever fiercer campaigns and more niche demands.”  We find meaning, he says, by constantly waging war with anyone who “seems to be on the wrong side of the question.”  Murray goes on to examine how he sees his premise playing out through some of our most heated social debates.     

I confess I have not read the entire book, so there may be more I have missed, but it struck me how, when examining the change in our society’s view of same gender relationships, Murray’s biggest complaint seems to be too much has changed too fast.  I agree our world is changing at an unprecedented pace, the rapidity of which is both astonishing and stressful at the same time.  But the concern about pace, it seems to me, depends on which side of the change you are on.  

Did anyone see coming the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989?  One day it defined the world and the next day it was gone.  It was a rapid change long overdue, unless of course you were invested in maintaining the Iron Curtain.  The grand narrative of Marxism, the Soviet Union, and The Cold War collapsed in a matter of days along with the wall so symbolic of the story it pushed.  Was the speed of it all disorienting?  Certainly.  Was it a blessing?  Absolutely. 

Our country’s discourse about same gender relationships has played out largely during my three and a half decades in the ordained ministry.  Each new threshold was a cause of joy for some and consternation for others.  Much of the time those disquieted by a recent development wondered aloud, “What is coming next?”  It is how many expressed their concern with the fast-paced nature change manifests itself in our day.  But for those on the other side of the dominant narrative, change could not come fast enough.  How long should one accept being treated unfairly?  How long should one keep silent and accept being treated as an inferior?

What Murray sees as “niche demands” I suspect are appreciated as cries for equality from those whose rights and personhood had been suppressed by a now crumbling grand narrative.  I don’t have to list for you the manifold ways this is being played out.  It ranges from vital issues such as voting rights to symbolic issues such as Confederate statues to non-issues such as renaming Mr. Potato Head.  And while I don’t agree with everything I have read in Murray’s book, I do think he is on to something important when he notes all of this emanates from the loss of a grand narrative.  We all seek narratives through which we can live in and make sense of the world.  Some of us look back fondly on the grand narrative of the past (whatever you imagine it to be) and long for its return.  Others, as Murray notes, seek to have their niche perspective endorsed by all. 

I thought about all of this as I pondered today’s first reading from The Book of Acts.  Peter and John are in Jerusalem and go to the Temple to pray.  This is quite remarkable, given only a few weeks earlier Peter was afraid to show his face there and admit to knowing Jesus.  On their way into the sacred space they encounter a blind beggar who asks money from them.  Neither has anything to give, so Peter prays for him in the name of Jesus.  The beggar’s sight is restored immediately.  Those who witness this are astonished and Peter seizes the moment set the record straight.  He proclaims to them who Jesus was, reminds them of how they turned on him, and states plainly Jesus rose from the dead.  Peter then invites his audience to repent and believe.  The text goes on to tell us 5,000 people respond to his message and are baptized.

No doubt these people have some familiarity with Jesus.  Most likely they had seen Jesus, some even had met him.  They heard his teaching and were aware of the miracles he worked.  They know the basic facts of Holy Week and many participated in those events.  They are aware of the rumors of the Resurrection.  And they are trying to make sense of it all.  In other words, they are trying to figure out a narrative through which to understand Jesus.  Peter makes a public proclamation which looks at the existing facts about Jesus’ life and infuses them with a new meaning.  It is a meaning which has tremendous implications on those who hold to it.  Literally thousands of people willingly embrace it as their grand narrative after listening to Peter. 

This grand narrative shaped the world until the Enlightenment, as Murray and others note.  The Christian worldview has been on the decline for several reasons:

· It doesn’t always square well with science.

· Its claim to exclusive access to God seems dubious to many in our age of relativity.

· It has been used to oppress other cultures, ideas, and people.

· At times the teachings and the tactics of Christianity’s believers bear little resemblance to its founder. 

In our day we Christians are just another option in a marketplace rich with possible ways to understand and engage the world.  The pace of this change only seems to be accelerating and either we can sit back in our favorite church pew and complain or we can be like Peter, roll up our sleeves, and get to work by proclaiming God’s Grand Narrative to the world.

If we are looking for a fresh voice to help us find a path forward we need look no farther than the Presiding Bishop of our own Episcopal Church.  Michael Curry has invested his time in this world-wide role talking about what he calls “the Jesus Movement.”  You can think of it as being code words for his grand narrative for understanding the world and engaging with it.  Bishop Michael has described the Jesus Movement in several books which are very accessible, even if your eyes glaze over when hearing the words "grand narrative."  He articulates his grand narrative by positing “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about Jesus.”    

For me, this is more than a theoretical safari on intellectual plains bearing little resemblance to our lives.  It has to do we how we experience, understand, and live out the Christian faith.  It has to do with how explain ourselves to our friends, neighbors, and coworkers.  But even more important, it has something to do with the heritage of faith we want to pass on to our children and to our grandchildren.  They are growing up in a world devoid of a grand narrative and will struggle to make sense of what they experience.  We have the opportunity to reengage our faith, shed ourselves of the way it has been coopted over history in the service of lesser gods and ideas, and present it anew and afresh to those we love and so desperately seek to guide and to point the way… the way that leads to the life we have found in Jesus.


Monday, April 12, 2021

Utopia

 


Acts 4:32-35

Easter 2 / Year B

I suspect the search for Utopia began not long after Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden once the human focus shifted from getting back to what was lost to forging a path toward what might be.  The word utopia, first coined by Sir Thomas More in a work of fiction published in 1516, is a compound of two Greek words – no and place.  But just because utopia doesn’t exist doesn’t mean people have stopped looking for it… or trying to create it.

Those who seek to create a utopian society typically are motivated by religious belief or social theory (or both).  Of the two, communities centered around religious affiliation historically have fared better.  Those organized solely on collective principles have tended not to hold together for any significant length of time.  Many of the religious communal settlements in our country arose out of the Second Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and were fueled by the European Reformation, persecution, and immigration.

One such community was established in Zoar, Ohio about an hour’s drive from where I grew up.  Founded in 1817 by a group of German separatists fleeing religious oppression, it was named after the biblical town to which Lot fled after leaving Sodom.  The commune began with an initial purchase of 5,000 acres on the banks of the Tuscarawas River; a transaction financed by a loan from Pennsylvania Shakers.  All land and possessions were jointly owned and managed by regularly elected trustees.  The group benefited greatly from the construction of the Ohio Canal in 1830 and subsequent business it brought to the area.  Rejecting baptism and confirmation, the people of Zoar recognized no religious observances, with the exception of the weekly Sabbath.  They created a garden in the center of their town based on a description found in the Book of Revelation.  The town’s hotel, renowned for its German cuisine, catered to presidents as well as paupers.  With the passing of Zoar’s charismatic leader in 1853, the community went into gradual decline, eventually voting to disband in 1889.  Zoar was just one of scores of such utopian communities that flourished for a while, then disappeared.

In this morning’s first lesson we find the church in a utopian moment at a point very, very early in its history.  How early?  While the text isn’t precise, it appears to be no more than two or three months after the resurrection.  Jesus has ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit has come on Pentecost.  While the Apostles wait anxiously for the Lord’s return, they fill their time preaching, healing, baptizing, and remaining watchful.  And they care for one another, making sure no one is in any kind of need. 

The text tells us “those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”  Everyone sold what they had and gave the proceeds to the Apostles who then made distributions as needs emerged.  Clearly no one was thinking about planting a crop, let alone planting a tree, because Christ was coming at any moment to establish a new Kingdom.  This was not a time to eat, drink, and be merry.  It was more a time to care, share, and remain aware.  All could be of “one heart and mind” because all shared in the common belief of the Lord’s imminent return.

I have heard more than one colleague refer wistfully to this passage, wondering how the early church could get it so right and we in today’s church have it so wrong; what with our allegiance to private interest and capitalism.  But they miss is a central truth about human nature.  We can no more create a sustaining, thriving commune than we can hold our breath in order to live under water.  It is not in our nature nor is it in our best interest.  And, in time, the early church learned this first hand.  Crops needed to be planted.  Oil for lamps needed to be purchased.  Tunics needed to be washed and darned, and darn it if some people did not “do their part.”  Eventually, St. Paul would have to put in writing, “If a person will not work, neither shall he eat.” (2 Thess. 3:10).

Both Jamestown here in Virginia and Plymouth in Massachusetts were founded on communal principles and both suffered several years of depravation until each realized the need to grant private property to its members.  While the residents of each community still were required to work for the common good (such is the nature of a pioneering enterprise), the early years of famine and hardship abated only after individuals could reap the benefits of their own labor.  For better or worse, this is how human nature is wired and any system which does not account for it is doomed to fail, even if it is managed by well-meaning believers guided by Jesus’ chosen Apostles awaiting the Lord’s return.

Eventually the early church’s focus on common property diminished, allowing the intended benefit to emerge into prominence – the care for those in need.  And the early church cared deeply about the needs of its most vulnerable members, establishing the ordained ministry of Deacons to tend to it.  By most accounts early Christians lived incredibly generous lives and won converts more through their humanity than through their preaching.  And we are the heirs and standard bearers of their example and witness.

A few weeks ago I did something for only the second or third time in 34 years of ordained ministry.  I made a general appeal for contributions to the Rector’s Discretionary Fund.  It had gone into arrears because its primary source of income - public worship with regular offerings - had been cut off.  In addition, during these difficult times, the need for assistance from the fund has increased dramatically.

When I was first ordained clergy discretionary funds could be used for a variety of purposes.  In addition to helping people in need, clergy were permitted use it to purchase books, attend conferences, buy clergy shirts, and offset any other number of unfunded professional expenses.  Almost every priest I knew maintained a private checking account to serve as a fund to be used at his or her discretion and most banks waved regular fees because it was seen as charitable work.  As you might expect, this process was somewhat loose and ripe for abuse. 

For the last twenty years or so discretionary funds rightfully have been restricted to meeting the needs of people experiencing hardship.  The funds now are maintained by the church and checks are cut by the treasurer at the request of the priest.  While this may not seem completely discrete, as one person from the Presiding Bishop’s office once said to me, “If you can’t trust your treasurer to be discrete, perhaps you need a new treasurer.” 

Well, as I said, I made a special appeal to you for discretionary funds and you responded.  As of the end of this past week you all have contributed almost $5,300.  Just shy of $1,000 of this has come through the Lenten Mite Box offering.  I am very grateful for your generosity and promise to administer what you have given as effectively and generously as I know how. 

This is one way we at St. Paul’s live into the early church’s concern for one another.  Another way is through the variety of outreach ministries our parish sponsors and supports.  Sadly, as you know, most of this has been put on hold since the beginning of the pandemic.  Please keep our Vestry in your prayers as we meet tomorrow evening to discern how we can begin again to extend care to our neighbors and our neighborhood. 

I suppose two things remain consistent throughout the history of the church.  First, we hear God calling us to tend to the needs of others.  God calls us into communities which need to have caring as one of their primary hallmarks.  And second, how care is expressed and administered changes time and time again.  Old methods become outdated or no longer possible to manage.  New possibilities and opportunities continually emerge.  Individual members of the community sense a personal call to utilize a specific gift, talent, or passion in a way that helps others and glorifies God. 

This, I think, is what St. Paul’s wants from each of us.  We are not looking for you to bring all your possessions to the church so we can sell them and give away the money.  It simply is not practical and, in fact, our facility would not function well as a warehouse.  What we do want is to help each of you tap into your unique gifts, help you to discern a calling, and assist you by mobilizing others who want contribute in some form or fashion to the vision, leadership, and effort your offer.  It is a process as old as the early church and from time to time – such as this time – stands in need of renewal.  What stands true throughout is our desire to share God’s love, especially with the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely.   


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Resuscitation or Ressurection

 


Easter Sunday / Year B

John 20:1-18

Bishop Susan arranged for Dr. Melissa Perrin, a Chicago psychologist, to lead two recent zoom conversations with the clergy of our diocese.  Dr. Perrin’s focused on pandemic fatigue and self-care by helping us to think about the year-long road we all have negotiated.  We have been forced on the fly to reinvent life – everything from raising our children to work routines to engaging some of the most profound moments of life, such as tending to aging parents, comforting and caring for family and friends in crisis, and gathering for the seminal moments of life – birth, baptism, graduation, marriage, illness, and death.  And we have done all of this largely while being isolated and required to utilize new technologies. 

Many of us have operated under a self-generated sense of inadequacy and self-imposed cloud of judgment.  We set very high standards for ourselves while at the same time seldom pause to acknowledge and appreciate our ability to navigate the unknown and hazardous waters of this unprecedented time.  If anything in this sounds familiar and sheds light on why you have been struggling, then you understand why the bishop arranged for us to meet with Dr. Perrin.

She identified several byproducts of these stressful times which resonated with me.  One was mental fogginess.  I find myself being more forgetful than normal and not always sure how to launch into projects typically requiring little or no mental effort to initiate in the days of yore.  I learned I am not alone in this.  It is a consequence both of stress and of lethargy.  We are working so hard to figure out how to do the normal things, thus it is difficult to focus.  At the same time, while pretty much everything is on hold, little in our lives seems urgent.  Among other things, for me this looks like being reminded on Monday I promised to cover Morning Prayer for Al on Tuesday and then completely forget my commitment 24 hours later.

After several clergy related their struggles and shortcomings, Dr. Perrin said she wished she had a stamp she could use to mark each of our foreheads with the word “normal”.  While we might think we are the only one failing to keep up with the demands of this time, Dr. Perrin reminds us we are not.  Where we feel inadequacy, Dr. Perrin identifies normalcy.  So one aspect of self-care is to ease up on your personal expectations in order to recognize all you have been able to do in response to something not one of us was equipped for.

Dr. Perrin helped me to name something which I sense is on the rise as we begin to emerge from the grimmest moments of the pandemic.  She calls it ‘covid shaming’, which reveals itself when others look down on you for where you are in all of this… and especially for where you are not:

· You mean you still don’t know have to zoom?

· I can’t believe you don’t want to go out to eat with us.

· What?  Your church isn’t open for public worship yet?

I’m confident we could fill up our Facebook comments box with a daunting list of covid-shaming quips we have heard.  The pressure is mounting for each of us individually and collectively to achieve a simultaneous and unified level of comfort and readiness as we move forward, but it is an expectation which strikes me as unfair and unwise.  You will know when the time is right to go out to dinner.  We as a church will know how and when we are ready to regather in person.

Dr. Perrin encouraged us to reflect about something very much at the heart of Easter: the difference between resuscitation and resurrection.  Both involve an effort to act on something which has had the life go out of it, but differ in key ways.  Resuscitation is a human effort.  It involves taking the breath and energy of one person and forcing it upon another in a frantic effort to bring back to what was in a person who is lifeless.  Resurrection, on the other hand, is a divine gift.  The life it imparts and the process in which it occurs involves mystery.  No human effort or initiative can make it happen because it is God’s doing.  And while resurrection restores what was, it also adds much more; taking on shape and form not possible before and not defined or determined by human anticipation or imagination. 

Resuscitation and resurrection.  It has been a while since I interviewed for a new call, but I remember how, whether or not they used this language, almost every congregation was looking ‘to come back to life’ and was expecting their next priest to make it happen.  “We need more members.  What great evangelism programs do you have?”  “Our Sunday School doesn’t appeal to young families.  What will you do to fix it?”  “We need more money.  Tell us about your stewardship ideas.”  Each interview felt like an inquiry into my certification in congregational CPR.  Do I know how to breath my life into a lifeless church?  Am I willing to keep up my efforts, even if it kills me in the end?

What I told those churches back in the day (and what I told the Search Committee here at St. Paul’s) is this: “I can describe what we have done at the church where I now serve, but I doubt it will do much for you here because we responded together to a specific set of circumstances and opportunities.  What I can tell you is I will be with you and together we will look for God’s presence in our midst and respond to what God is seeking to do.”  This I now realize is the difference between resuscitation and resurrection.

Image if Jesus merely had been resuscitated.  He could have gone back to preaching and teaching and healing and no doubt his followers gladly would have followed.  But God had something more grand in mind.  God envisioned the defeat of death and the redemption of the world – a new beginning – only possible through the resurrection of the Son.

The on-going pandemic has changed the world and our lives in so many ways.  After a year-long winter, it is finally beginning to feel like spring is near.  There are some things which rightly need to be resuscitated.  We need to roll up our selves, get to work, and restore the life which once was.  But there are other things which will never be exactly what they were before.  God is working to make these things new.  Burial linens will be unwrapped, sealing stones will be rolled back, and resurrected life will emerge.  May God grant us the wisdom to know which is which and may God draw us willingly and gratefully into what will be.    

 


Monday, March 22, 2021

Something Bigger & Better than Ourselves

 

John 12:20-33

Lent 5 / Year B

The Ohio Mart is a yearly fall festival held in Akron a few blocks from where I grew up.  Venders of all sorts come from all over the Buckeye State to pedal their wares.  And speaking of buckeyes and boyhood, one year my friends and I got the idea we could sell the little brown nuts at the mart for 25¢ a pop.  So we hopped on our bikes and scoured most of the northwest portion of the city; hitting up every buckeye tree we knew of and finding others along the way.  When all was said and done, we had filled fives grocery bags with buckeyes, which, if our plans had hatched, would have netted enough money to put each of us through college.  Well, my parents popped our balloon by telling us no one was going to give us a quarter for something they could pick up off the ground themselves (a fatal flaw in our business model, to be sure).  So the bags of buckeyes got shoved into a corner of our garage where they sat unattended over the course of the winter.

We had a little tradition in our house known as “The Spring Cleaning of the Garage.”  I had forgotten all about my fall collecting spree, but when they got uncovered, the bags, which had soaked up water, were falling apart and everyone agreed it was my responsibility to clean up the rotting mess.  Well, it turns out, of the hundreds and hundreds of buckeyes that spent a cold, dark, damp winter in our garage, one managed to sprout.  I planted it in a random location in a flower bed and by the end of the summer it had grown enough it needed a more permanent home.  After a couple of years, it became apparent the space was not going to be sufficient for the tree, so I moved it again.  That little seed, which began its journey in a bag in a corner of our garage and was transplanted twice, eventually became the largest tree in the neighborhood.  Had I not picked it up from where it fell, most likely it would have ended up as little more than a mid-winter snack for a squirrel.     

In today’s gospel reading we find Jesus just days from being arrested and crucified.  He seems ready to discuss what is about to happen, but no one seems to understand what he is talking about.  “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain,” he says.  “But if it dies it bears much fruit.”  When it comes to seeds, we get it.  But when it comes to how we live our lives, it touches on one of life’s great paradoxes: The more you assert yourself, the less you produce.  The more you let go, focus on what lies beyond you, and look to God to work through you, the more your life will be of benefit to others.  Live for yourself alone and your will be limited.  Learn to let go and live for something bigger than yourself and you will play a role in some amazing things.

Every seed has within it an embryo, which, though tiny, contains the potential for greatness (given the right conditions to support it).  Each embryo has an “on” and “off” switch.  The “on” switch only gets activated after the seed has been in the ground for forty days at a temperature of 40°.  Any colder than this and the switch stays at “off.”  Technically, we should describe this state as being “dormant”, but for all intents and purposes the seed is dead unless something outside of it acts upon it. 

Every seed is also encased with an outer coating to protect it from premature exposure to outside elements.  Once the temperature is right and the “on” switch is activated, the coating begins to break down.  This allows water and oxygen to interact with the embryo, producing proteins and sugars.  The embryo begins to break open, sending shoots downward (which become roots) and upward (which becomes a sprout).  This life-force truly is a miracle of God’s design and, like my buckeye tree, grows to yield more fruit than anyone would ever dare to imagine.

According to Jesus, what is true of a seed is also true of the spiritual life.  Each of us has an “off” switch and an “on” switch, neither of which we have any control over.  The spiritual life is not a matter of saying to oneself, “I have to try to be a better person” or any of its other sibling and cousin expressions which put the onus on you to make yourself into something you are not.  Like a seed, each of us has tremendous potential.  And like the seed, none of us can harness our potential without dying to self and allowing God to take over.

When I first got into the ministry as a lay person doing youth work I had a very high opinion of myself.  I thought I was talented, charismatic, educated, knowledgeable, articulate, interesting, holy, and blessed (among other things).  Life has a way of bringing us up short and teaching us the painful lesson we are not all that.  The teachings come time and again through small setbacks and every now and then as a devasting and humbling failure.  But if we understand the meaning of these lessons we begin to learn the importance of dying to self in order to allow something better and beyond us to live in and through us.   

In a thousand different ways life will teach you that you are not the center of the universe.  It will beckon you to forsake your self-centeredness, your preoccupation with success, and your obsession with what others think of you.  Life will try to lead you to the truth so beautifully articulated by the Prayer of St. Francis: it is better to console than to be consoled, to understand than to be understood, to love than to be loved, for it is in giving we receive, in pardoning we are pardoned, and it is in dying we begin to open ourselves to eternal life.  When we live for self alone the switch to a better life is on “off”, but when we die to self it gets flipped to “on”.  Amazing things begin to happen through us, but not because of us.

And, according to Jesus, all of this figurative dying is a foretaste of the literal experience of death… that moment when our body no longer will have life in it.  While the switch may be flipped to “off”, through the saving action of the Resurrected Christ we are assured this is not at all the end, only a transition.  And if you had never seen a buckeye before and I handed one to you, you would have no idea the gigantic and fruitful tree it one day could become.  It is the same for us with the life to come.  St. Paul wrote this to the Church in Corinth: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Cor. 2:9).  Praise be to God this new and glorious existence beyond imaging is now the reality experience by all those we love, but see no longer.  One day we will have a share and portion in it as well.  Until then, we focus on letting go in order to live in this world for something bigger and better than ourselves.