Thursday, October 8, 2015

Monday, July 27, 2015

Sending forth to Seminary

One of the members of St. Paul's Salt Lake City, Brian Rallison, is leaving for seminary (VTS).

We decided to "send him forth" from St. Paul's:  acknowledging his formation here within this congregation, and publicly stating that this relationship is not ending, but changing.

I looked through every resource I have, and found nothing to liturgically do this.

So naturally, I made something up!  My commentary on the liturgy (right after the Confession and Absolution, but before the Peace) is in red:


Kurt begins, calling up Diane Gooch and Rhonda Dossett along with Rev. Christine

Starts with a few words… (about the changing, not ending, of our relationship to Brian)

Then Kurt invites Christine to say a few words about Brian’s journey and a prayer
(I asked Christine to speak, since I have only been here since February, and missed much of Brian's journey.  She did a wonderful job.)

Christine says her words, and then says:

“This is a collective prayer for all of us, adapted from Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude”:

God, we have no idea where we are going. We do not see the road ahead of us. We cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do we really know ourselves, and the fact that we think that we are following your will does not mean that we are actually doing so. But we believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And we hope we have that desire in all that we do. We hope that we will never do anything apart from that desire. And we know that if we do this you will lead us by the right road though we may know nothing about it. Therefore we will trust you always though we may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. We will not fear, for you are ever with us, and you will never leave me to face our perils alone.” 
― Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude p. 83

(This Merton prayer has become a favorite, thanks to The Rev. Canon Matthew Stockard who introduced me to it at CREDO.  The plural version is actually used in the book Listening Hearts:  Discerning Call in Community, by Suzanne Farnham, Joseph Gill, Taylor McLean and Susan Ward.)

Then Kurt invites the four of us to place our hands on Brian’s shoulders:

You have arrived to this moment by living fully into what God has created. There is no other path to this moment than the past. Learn and grow from what has transpired. 
The Lord Jesus continues to be your strength: it is through his vulnerable way that you find and seek the Holy. 
And now, as you go forward to seminary, be open to what the Holy Spirit has in store: whether or not it matches your vision of what you believe will come. 
And may God’s blessing be upon you, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, now and forever.  AMEN.

Each person says to Brian:
"God goes with you.”

and then Kurt invites the Peace.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Charleston racial terror shootings

My sermon was not only not written down, but differed greatly from the intimate conversation of our two smaller services, and our large 10:30am service with a guest bishop and a baptism.  I cannot reproduce it here, but I can share with you some of the components:

We started with Mark’s Gospel (4:35-41) and the fear of the disciples, compared with the calm of Jesus:

Jesus can sleep and be at rest during the storm first because he is not the experienced boatsman (the fisherman disciples are):  he trusts that they will do what they can.  Going further and deeper, while Jesus plans to continue his preaching, teaching, and healing, he completely trusts God:  he knows that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and knows that if he should perish, that God’s vision of the world will be carried by others (consider in Mark that Jesus only begins speaking publicly after John the Baptist’s voice is silenced.)

His criticism of the disciples is giving in to their fear, and ceasing their action. 

We remembered the names of those killed in Charleston:

• Cynthia Hurd, 54, a manager with the Charleston County Public Library system.

• Ethel Lance, 70, a retiree who recently worked as a church janitor

• The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, a South Carolina state senator and pastor at the church

• Susie Jackson, 87, a longtime member of the church

• The Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49, former Charleston County community development director

• Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a church pastor, speech therapist and a high school girls' track coach

• Myra Thompson, 59, a pastor at the church

• The Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., 74, another pastor at the church

Tywanza Sanders, 26, a 2014 graduate of Allen University

Their pictures were placed on the altar.

Using our voices to not be afraid, to confess and call out sin:

At the smaller services, I talked about my complete rejection of what the killer did (and his racial hatred motivations) and my assumption that those present in church feel this way too.  However, racism is far more prevalent in our lives than we acknowledge.  I admitted that I continue to benefit from being white in America:  from storekeepers looking differently at me, to the reality that I can reasonably count on help from police officers.  I suggested that while the Battle Flag does not represent the views of most South Carolinians, it’s presence gives justification to those who hate and would act on those views:  and that…and things like it…is on us.

At the later service, I used what Peter Enns wrote on Jonathan Stewart’s Daily Show monologue after the murders, calling him a modern day prophet: 

Stewart using his public platform here to call out sin, clearly, without compromise. 
Not simply the sin of individual racism that led to this tragedy. 
But the deeper sin of the collective racism of our country that supports and nurtures killers like Dylann Roof and of the structures in place that can’t quite seem to get up enough steam to move mountains if necessary to do something about it. 
Biblical prophets held Israel’s leaders accountable. They got in their face, like they were prosecuting attorneys bringing out a laundry list of crimes against the people. 
Biblical prophets were voices of moral consciousness and tireless advocates for the marginalized, the vulnerable, the oppressed. 
They were voices of what the Bible calls justice and righteousness…. 
Bringing justice and righteousness to our world is nothing less than what the Bible calls: salvation, deliverance, redemption–words contemporary Christian rhetoric often restricts to spiritual matters. 
Though those words include our spiritual state, the ancient Hebrews understood the body and soul, the individual and corporate, the psychological and sociological to be meshed together as one organism. 
Israel’s rulers had the sacred–I will say it again, sacred–responsibility to insure that justice and righteousness are upheld for the good of the whole. 
And like a prophet, Stewart took a step back and looked at the big picture. He was somber, angry, exasperated, and grieved by injustice. 
Like a prophet, I heard Stewart getting political–laying bare the ugliness all around us and the insanity that allows it to happen–or even excuses it. 
But I also heard a bit of hope, which biblical prophets also give, that it does not need to be this way. We can live differently.

Finally, I used a call to action by Episcopalian Paige Baker: 

"I woke up to the news from Charleston, and this is ringing in my head: How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, "Violence!" but you do not save? 
But this I know: God has no hands but ours. Nothing will change until we stop sitting on them.”

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Adam, Eve and the Serpent (God lets the kids grow up)

The "Adam and Eve" story found in the second and third chapters of Genesis is often referred to as a second Creation story.  This is largely due to the vastly different accounts of the creation of humans.  The "seven days" story reaches this pinnacle in this way:

26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’   
27 So God created humankind in his image,   in the image of God he created them;   male and female he created them.

God makes humanity in "our image":  male and female.

Compare and contrast with Genesis 2:

4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.  
(and only later...)  
22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said,‘This at last is bone of my bones   and flesh of my flesh;this one shall be called Woman,   for out of Man this one was taken.’ 

Just to recap:  we all know that humans (and all mammals) are born from women.  But it just so happens that the first woman came out of man.  


At the very least, one can see the stories are saying something quite different.  

While there are troubling aspects to be found, there are also lots of places to play with this second story.  I imagine God walking through the garden, enjoying the evening breeze.  Suddenly, it occurs to God that it is AWFULLY quiet in the garden.  This isn't necessarily a good thing:  after all, God has young children.  Every parent knows (as do most children) that a strangely quiet household often holds a hidden reality.  

Sure enough, the kids are in trouble...

One of the most intriguing ideas is what we don't have without the interplay between the humans and the serpent.  Bert Marshall writes in Feasting on the Word:

One might ask what would have become of humanity if the woman had not plucked the fruit from the tree.  Everything hinges on this, and our text today deals with the chaos that ensues from--dare we say it?--her act of courage (or defiance--however you wish to characterize it).  Everything turns on this, because without it, humanity remains docile, numb, obedient, and forever trapped in the garden of sameness and blissful ignorance.  This place, as it turns out, is no paradise.  No differences, no diversity, no rebellion, no need for grace or redemption.  You can see where this path leads.  (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, editors David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 101)

It leads down a path that at the very least does not reflect the realities of humanity.

I've imagined a different version of the events in order to explore the story more deeply (since I believe these Primeval history chapters of Genesis encourages us to play with the texts). 

Adam, Eve and the Serpent
(God lets the kids grow up)

In the early days of the world, the animals became angry with God.  It wasn’t about creation---it was good after all.  No, what upset the animals was God’s overprotection of a certain part of Creation:  namely, Adam and Eve.  It wasn’t that God favored them:  the animals understood the special relationship God had with these two. Things, however, had gone to far.  Adam and Eve believed that they were the center of the universe.  They had no responsibility for anything, and no concept of a world outside of themselves.  Just the other day, Adam, while running around with Dog, crashed into Fox and severely injured his back. Eve, no better, cut branches that were sheltering Squirrel’s new home:  which then blew away in the recent windstorm.  The animals had complained to God, who brushed it off.  “Oh, they’re just children.”

The animals were clear that there was a bigger problem going on.  It seemed that God was unwilling to expose them to anything dangerous or even challenging.  Because of it, Adam and Eve were running around endangering the balance of the new creation.  Someone needed to talk some sense into these two, and God, the One who should have taken charge, wasn’t up to it.  In desperation, the animals went to Eve’s friend, Serpent, to try and talk some sense into her.

Serpent gets Eve to start to question some of the simplistic things that God has told her to do and not do:  what are these prohibitions really about?  Why do THEY choose to do and not do, and do the results (even the unintended results) matter?    Soon Adam joins in the conversation.

So later that evening, God is walking through the garden, and is shocked when the “pre-teens” give God serious attitude:  questioning God’s authority, and declaring that God is “ruining their life.”  God gets mad, and starting to realize that they could be in real trouble, the pre-teens blame each other and the serpent.  God then gets REALLY mad, but so does Serpent.  She confronts God.  “You are not teaching Adam and Eve how to care for themselves and others.  You are letting them down by over-mothering them, and you have taught them nothing about responsibility.”

“How dare you!” God thundered.  “Most of what I’ve done in this world centers around these two.  It’s my responsibility to protect them, and I would do anything for them!”

The Serpent shakes her head:  “That’s not good enough!  I thought these two were to be made in your image?  But they are nothing like you at all!  They have no concept of power, and no understanding beyond themselves.  They have to grow up some day, and YOU are supposed to be guiding them, not holding them back.”

God considers, then offers Adam and Eve a choice.  "My children, I love you with everything I am.  I would desire that nothing ever harms you:  that I would protect you all of your days so that you never experience anguish or pain.  But Serpent has a point:  my intent was for you to be in my image, and you will never be so unless you learn for yourselves. The choice is yours.  Be my children and stay protected and childlike forever here in this beautiful garden. Or choose to grow up:  go out into the world and become wise with mistakes and successes,  encounter great joys and profound sadness, experience death along with new life."

Adam and Eve were silent for quite some time.  Finally, Eve spoke:  “God, we will always be your children. But we must learn our own way.”

Adam nodded in agreement.  “It is what you created us for:  to fully experience all that life offers.”

And for the first time, God smiled.   “The journey has already begun.”

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Saying Alleluias and the spirit of the BCP

I’m still pretty new here at St. Paul’s Salt Lake City, especially in the grand scheme of things.  I’m learning the customs of the community, as well as figuring out how we will share in the leadership of the church.

St. Paul’s likes their Alleluias.  (Paul Higginson:  if you read this, enjoy the irony!)  They finish every service with them.  Their response to whatever form the dismissal takes (except during Lent) is always “Thanks be to God, Alleluia, Alleluia!!!”

The thing is, this is the EASTER season response.  The Book of Common Prayer says clearly:

From the Easter Vigil through the Day of Pentecost "Alleluia, alleluia" may be added to any of the dismissals. 
The People respond     Thanks be to God. Alleluia, Alleluia.

This is rather different then the rubric concerning the other “Alleluia”, at The Breaking of the Bread:

Then may be sung or said 
[Alleluia.] Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;Therefore let us keep the feast. [Alleluia.] 
In Lent, Alleluia is omitted, and may be omitted at other times except during Easter Season.

Armed with the rubric (and "priestly authority”) it would have been easy to demand no Alleluia endings.  Instead, I offered a compromise.  I said during the announcements, after acknowledging the St. Paul’s custom and what the rubric says, this:

“The spirit of the Book of Common Prayer is to make the Easter Season especially festive.  But it would be silly to emphatically stop you all from saying “Alleluia!”  So to keep Easter a bit more festive, whoever’s doing the dismissal will use the Alleluia’s only during Easter and special occasions, but you all are welcome to keep responding with Alleluias!”

And then I added, to the laughter of the congregation.

“And for those of you who couldn’t care less about any of this, thanks for putting up with this announcement!!!”

I share this as a reminder to myself that we all have our religious custom things that we do.  Being kind, gracious, and understanding to authentic forms of faithful expression is a lot more important than an insisting your way is right, even if you do have a rubric on your side.

Explaining the Trinity? Good luck with that...

Trinity Sunday is one of the only days of the Church year named for a doctrine rather than a person or an event.  

The question for the preacher is how to approach it:  do I really think that I can explain the Trinity in 8 to 12 minutes of sermon?  Is that really enough time?

David and Jonathan Bennett,  brothers and Roman Catholics theologians, on their website called “ChurchYear.Net”, state that the common wisdom is that if you talk about the Trinity for longer than a few minutes you will slip into heresy because you are probing the depths of God too deeply.

So, in reality, 8 to 12 minutes might be too long!!!

ChurchYear.Net says:  “The Trinity is one of the most fascinating - and controversial - Christian dogmas. The Trinity is a mystery. By mystery the Church does not mean a riddle, but rather the Trinity is a reality above our human comprehension that we may begin to grasp, but ultimately must know through worship, symbol, and faith. It has been said that mystery is not a wall to run up against, but an ocean in which to swim."

They say that the best description (certainly, the safest description if avoiding heresy is your goal) is found in the Nicene Creed.   They write “essentially the Trinity is the belief that God is one in essence, but distinct in person. Don't let the word "person" fool you. The Greek word for person means "that which stands on its own," or "individual reality," and does not mean the persons of the Trinity are three human persons. Therefore we believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are somehow distinct from one another (not divided though), yet completely united in will and essence."

The funny thing:  their next words are “How can this be?” echoing Nicodemus in the Gospel reading.  How does one explain this?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s quote from the Krista Tippett interview that I used last week ended with the same idea:  "no faith, not even the Christian faith, can ever encompass God or even be able to communicate who God is. Only God can do that.”

The Trinity is a concept designed to describe the indescribable.  The nature of God and our relationship with God can not be explained by “how.”  Explaining the Trinity is like describing why looking at the mountains still invokes an overwhelming sense of beauty and amazement, no matter how long we live among them.  

So know from the outset:  explaining only leads to more questions, if not confusion.

Metaphor helps.  The ChurchYear.Net guys illustrate the Trinity as a musical chord. Think of a C-chord. The C, E, and G notes are all distinct notes, but joined together as one chord the sound is richer and more dynamic than had the notes been played individually. The notes (sic.) are all equally important in producing the rich sound, and the sound is lacking and thin if one of the notes is left out."

The key element of Trinity is relationship.  

The book, An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church (edited by Don Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum), states that “The Trinity is a perfect relationship of love in which neither unity nor distinctness of the divine persons is compromised.  God’s life is understood to be dynamic, loving, and available to be shared in relationship with humanity for salvation.”

While ponding God’s being in Trinity further might be helpful, perhaps the best way to move forward is to give voice to our understandings of God in a way that invites the thoughtful reflections of others.

I believe that it is this type of sharing:  sharing our own personal experiences, and hearing the experiences of others, that leads to transformation of being born by water and Spirit that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel.  It’s not the explaining of how things are, or by the dictating of what we must do, but by seeing our life’s journey as an exploration of “the earthly things”:  the fabrics of our world, the meaning of our lives, and the mystery that is God’s love for all.

A significant part of this exploration, for us, happens in the church.  Michael Hopkins, an Episcopal priest, wrote this on his blog:
We are members of the Episcopal Church because of our calling to be a people at one with one another. It is because of the communion I experience in it, relationships, connectedness, that constantly give me a glimpse of relationship with God, in fact that are manifestations of that relationship itself. As Episcopalians, the church becomes our laboratory for human relationship, a body through whom God continues to choose to work in spite of its flaws. Put succinctly and personally, I am called to be a part of you and I cannot separate this call from my call to be one with God.  (From Glory Into Glory, Michael Hopkins)
We are intertwined with one another and with God.  We can’t really explain it…but we somehow know it’s true.

This morning’s Gospel reading was likely chosen by the Lectionary people because it contains all the elements of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  However, it is this line that truly points to the mystery of Trinity:
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  (John 3:8)

We are in relationship with God, each other, and the whole world.  We will never be able to fully explain what that means, but our hearts, minds, and souls compel us towards fully living into the oneness offered to us by God.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Unbelieving Thomas

(a reworking of numerous Thomas sermons:  he remains one of my favorites to preach on)

We talk about the disciples fairly regularly here at church:  we see and hear them at their best and worst throughout the New Testament scriptures.

But one thing I find interesting about the disciples is that their traits and actions have not, for the most part, been incorporated into everyday sayings.

Take Peter, for example. He gets two known personas from the Gospels: he gets nicknamed “the rock” for his tendencies as a leader (perhaps also for saying things that are dense as a rock). Peter is also widely known for his denials of Jesus.

And yet, people don’t go around saying “your such a denying Peter.” And if someone calls you a rock: well, there’s all sorts of possibilities as to what they’re saying about you, but I’ve never actually heard anyone say “you’re such a rock like Peter.”

That’s pretty much true for all of the disciples. There are only two exceptions that I know of:

I have heard people be called “Judas”: usually in mock betrayal, and much less often with a real sense of betrayal. Thankfully, for obvious reasons, I think most of us are hesitant to really call someone a Judas.

The other exception is found in this morning’s Gospel: “Doubting Thomas” has made it into our vocabulary.

Being called a “Doubting Thomas” is seldom a good thing. The suggestion usually is that you are stuck in doubt that is misplaced, wrong and hurtful.

Thomas was wrong to doubt, says conventional wisdom.  And Jesus seems to call him out, saying that those who don't have to see to believe are blessed.

This leads many people to get the idea that doubt is something to be avoided...that we are not suppose to question things...and that when we question issues of faith, it must mean that our faith is weak.

In fact, it is often suggested that the opposite of faith is doubt.

Ironically, the Greek word for “doubt” is not found in this passage...anywhere. Yes, our NRSV Bible translates Jesus’ words to Thomas as “Do not doubt, but believe.” But that’s not really what the text says.

It’s more like: “And do not be unbelieving but believing.”

Now, you might say that “unbelieving” and “doubt” are about the same thing, but I want to challenge that notion. “Doubt” is questioning something. Doubt is honest searching for answers. Doubt is challenging one’s beliefs in order to understand. Doubt is about taking new discoveries, on both an individual and a world level, and then attempting to understand how it clarifies and challenges previous understandings.

Doubt is not a threat to faith. In reality the reverse is true: doubt and questions help us strengthen our allows our minds and our hearts to grow with new insights and understandings.

“Unbelieving” is different. “Unbelieving” suggests that Thomas is going through something other than doubting or questioning. And it is important that we understand what it is.

In one way, Thomas is just like the other disciples. They are all hiding away behind locked doors, out of fear of the authorities (not the Jews…I’ll say it yet again…everyone here is Jewish).  None of them really believed Mary Magdalene when she told them that she’s seen the Lord. It’s only after that they see Jesus that they believe.

So then the disciples go and tell Thomas “We’ve seen the Lord.” And, just like the others, Thomas doesn’t believe words. He even makes an outrageous request: “Unless I see the mark of nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Now, Thomas is asking for some serious proof. The question, is why? What’s going on here? Why this extreme reaction?

I think the answer can be found in what we know about Thomas. Earlier in John’s Gospel, when Jesus decides to go to Bethany to heal Lazarus, Thomas says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)

It’s another extreme reaction, but an understandable one. There was grave danger to Jesus in Bethany: people were already trying to kill him. Thomas knew that there was a good chance that none of them would survive such a trip. Thomas is professing a willingness to follow Jesus into very real danger. This is not someone who lacks faith.

But what has happened since then? In the garden, Thomas nerves got the best of him. He, like the other disciples, was not strong enough to remain with Jesus when he was arrested. Thomas gives in to fear.

And then, in the midst of feeling ashamed of himself, Thomas witnesses the worst thing possible: Jesus’ crucifixion, and the end to all of the hopes and dreams that Jesus had inspired.

Thomas’ heart was broken.  There's a line of poetry that comes to mind, from Emily Dickerson...something that's hard to access when your heart is broken:

Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all.

Can you imagine what Thomas was thinking as he walked through the streets? He must have been in pure agony. He must have hated himself right there and then. There was no way to go back: no way to change what he had done.

So consider what it must have sounded like to Thomas when the disciples came to him, saying that they had seen the Lord...

It was too much to hope for. It was too much to believe. It was like saying that all was forgiven, and Thomas was not in a place where he was able to even consider the possibility of being forgiven.

In this context, we can begin to understand his outrageous claims of touching hands, feet and side. It wasn’t about Thomas doubting. It was about Thomas fearing.

It is fear that is the opposite of faith. It is fear that keeps us from living the way God wants us to live.  As I said on Easter, Mark’s Gospel ends with the women saying nothing because they are afraid, but it’s not just that one moment where fear creeps in.  All of the events of Holy week are laced with fear.  Not only did fear cause Thomas and the other disciples to flee, but Peter’s denial, Judas’ betrayal, Caiaphas’ plotting, and the crowd’s anger:  they are all about fear. Even the table, in the garden, and on the cross...has to confront his own fears. Fear is a powerful, undeniable force in the world: whether we’re talking about 1st Century Palestine or 21st Century America.

But the miracle of Easter is that fear is not the end of the story. Jesus lives because he refused to give in to his fear: and brings us new life in faith, hope, and love.

This is what Jesus offers to Thomas, with the words “And do not be unbelieving but believing.” Jesus offers Thomas what he needs to find life after fear and despair: new life found in hope and love.

And it’s Thomas, in choosing faith instead of fear, who then makes the boldest statement found in the Gospel: “My Lord and my God.”

What would it take for us, today, to challenge the fear that presently dominates our world?

What outrageous proof would we require to make us believe that we could end poverty and have economic justice...that we could peacefully address our differences...that we could acknowledge our wrongs and heal our pains....that we could preserve and care for our environment...that we could truly love our neighbors as ourselves?

Our fears tell us that these things are just not possible.

The Gospels counter this by suggesting that God offers what we need to overcome fear.  Thomas receives exactly what he needs to move past his fears, and Jesus promises we have what we need as well.

The ending…“Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe”…becomes a mantra for John’s audience (who live in the faith without the firsthand experience of the risen Christ).  Rather than a putdown of Thomas’ disbelief, it is a statement for us all to stand fully in the hope of God.

Christians are called to be Easter people:  that means people marked by hope.  It is to permeate every aspect of our lives, and it is in hope that we work together to make God’s vision of love, peace, and justice come true.

Jesus tells us: “do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tell the Story: Again...and Again

In our Finance, Facilities, and Administration meeting last night, we were talking about bringing in new volunteers to church ministries, and I told the story of "everything I did wrong" with my first volunteer, Bryan, who served as a Sunday School leader.  Someone asked if he "burnt out", and, with great emotion, I shared what ultimately happened.

I am grateful for that conversation, for Bryan's memory made me smile this morning.  I am reminded to keep telling our stories.  This one was originally published in August 2011:

(For my friend, Bryan)

Last week we heard the story of Joseph: from being sold into slavery by his brothers, to his rising in Egypt to considerable power. Ultimately, Joseph chooses to be reconciled to his brothers: realizing that even though they did evil to him, God sent him forward with great purpose.

The high note that last story ended on is quickly dashed by this morning’s opening line :

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8)

It may seem on the surface to only represent the passage of time, but it is so much more. Joseph and the former Pharaoh had became close. Joseph was a trusted and powerful person for Pharaoh, and the king respected him. There was unity between the Israelites and Egyptians, even in the midst of their differences. They lived for many years together in peaceful harmony: united for each others benefit.

But for some reason, the closeness ended. We don’t know why. Perhaps the peoples stopped working with one another, and stopped seeing benefits in each others differences. Ultimately, the stories of valuing each other were lost.
And so, a new Pharaoh looked upon the Israelites as a numerous and powerful people, and started to fear them. “...they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”
The new Pharaoh in this story is responsible for the change to hardship afflicted on the ancient Israelites. It is an all to familiar story of those with power getting fearful about losing it, and to preserve power they turn people against one another, creating discord where there is none. But it is worth remembering that peace and unity must be constantly worked at by everyone. The generations had the responsibility to not forget the relationship formed between Joseph and Pharaoh, Israelite and Egyptian.
There are two other moments in this story that contain both a bit of humor and an important message. The Egyptian midwives to the Hebrew women, despite not having much power in their society, are held up as heroes. They defy Pharaoh himself to keep from killing the Israelite boys. (The funny part: only a man who has everything done for him would believe their story that Hebrew women give birth before the midwives can reach them...) And then there is the very daughter of Pharaoh who takes Moses as her own child. The humor in the story is that Moses’ mother is ultimately paid to nurse her own child. Of more importance to the reader is that, for some reason, Pharaoh’s daughter comes to the Nile to bathe, instead of her wealthy palace where she could of easily had her bath drawn. Is she coming specifically to look to save a Hebrew child? Or perhaps she felt dirty from the policies of the palace, and wished to bathe outside it to be mentally as well as physically clean. Clearly she uses her power to defy Pharaoh in her own way. The story establishes from the start that, among the Egyptians, at least the women worked against Pharaoh and his ruthlessness.
I now want to remind you of my point in last week’s sermon.
I suggested the Joseph story counters the popular saying “when God closes a door, God opens a window.” Joseph recognized that it was his brothers that had done evil: God did not cause the evil act...closing the door on his former life. God does not cause bad things to happen.
God, however, may be the one who opens windows, by which I mean that is is often God who shows and sends us on a way forward. God sent Joseph forth into slavery, where he found both a new life and connection to the old. The promise of God is not that bad things won’t happen: what God promises is to be with us, even within the bad, and that it is never the end. Even in the midst of death and destruction, there is always new life.
One can see how our lesson from last week informs these stories: despite the dark times within Pharaoh’s command to kill, both the midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter find their own way to serve God.
But as it turns out, I personally needed a reminder of this...
In the summer of 2002, I came to Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland. They wanted me to be their Curate, but it was still (God willing) six months until my ordination, so I couldn’t be a Curate yet. They gave me the title of “Pastoral Associate”: my areas were to be youth and young adult ministries, coordinating pastoral care, and newcomers. One of my very first meetings with a newcomer was with a guy named Bryan Schwegler. He was younger than my 30 years (a bit rare for a church newcomer, for the most part), but I was amazed by the extent of his church experience and the depth in his search for a new church community. We sat and talked, and talked, and talked for a few hours in a coffee shop. Led by his enthusiasm (and perhaps my inexperience), I did two things you’re not supposed to do. First, it’s a bad idea to immediately put a newcomer into a position of responsibility. Second, you a newcomer in a position of working with youth. I did both: and it was one of the greatest calls I ever made. Bryan was a spectacular youth leader: greatly appreciated for his questioning and fun loving nature, and a wonderful mentor for the youth. He, along with his co-mentor Kim, journeyed with a group of Jr. High students as their mentor all the way to their High School graduations
I was blessed with a friendship that spanned my entire ministry at Trinity. He went to my ordinations, my installation as a Canon of the Cathedral, and was part of the farewell celebration to send Darlene and I off to New Hampshire. I in turn spent countless hours with him and Kim, led his confirmation class and was there at the celebration, and I also saw him become a member of Cathedral Council and worked with him there. Bryan was the first of what would become a core of young adult friends at Trinity that shared significant parts of our lives together.
Bryan died Thursday night after a sudden, unexpected brain aneurism. I am stunned from the loss of my friend. I am sick with sadness for Adam, his beloved, for Barb, his mother, and for the many family and friends who are heartbroken.
It is shocking when someone young dies suddenly. We are often compelled to as the unanswerable question: why. Was there some purpose in what has happened?
It’s a complicated subject.
I believe that there is no "purpose" in Bryan's death: in other words, God didn't do this for a reason...God didn't do this at all. I believe God’s actions in the aftermath of this difficult time are comfort and care of those who are hurting.
But there’s more to the question of purpose. You see, Bryan lived with his life with great purpose. He was engaging, generous, and kind. He loved and was loved by family and friends. We who know him might think his life was too short, but we can also honestly say that he fully lived the life he had.
And that leads us to this: as we are reminded that life is precious and fragile, we are called to live our lives with purpose.
The unexpected death of someone we care about is a reminder to live our lives with a real sense of urgency. It is a reminder that real purpose in life comes in the sacred moments we share with others. Perhaps a moment like this might call you into action on behalf of others, as the midwives and Pharaoh’s daughters were...but at the very least, it is a reminder to not wait to tell others what they mean to you.
“...a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
(Because no one continued to tell the stories.)
Don’t let this happen...
Tell and listen to your stories of one another.
In doing so, you honor their memory: and with God, you find a way forward.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

New Beginning

Darlene and I, and many of the people of St. Paul's Salt Lake City.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Spirit moves...

I announced this past Sunday during services that I have decided to accept a call to be the next Rector of St. Paul's Church in Salt Lake City, Utah.
While the Spirit has led me to saying “yes” to St. Paul’s, it is a bittersweet moment, for in doing so, I will have to say goodbye to the wonderful people of All Saints’ Littleton. 
Before making this announcement, I talked individually with all of Littleton’s vestry leadership. All of them were wonderfully gracious in expressing their joy for me, even while saying that they did not want me to go. There is one thing I am compelled to share. Liz Carter told me that, upon hearing this news, that she is “proud”: of what we’ve accomplished the last six years, of my moving onward in my career to a church like St. Paul’s, and in what she knows is to be a wonderful future for the community of All Saints’.
This type of “proud” is what the people of All Saints’ should feel. This community has committed itself to the faithful all-around care of each other and our neighbor: sacred gathering celebrating God as Episcopalians, service to the community, spiritual growth in small group conversation, and lots of fun and good food!
I will be present throughout the month of January, including the Annual Meeting, with my final Sunday being February 1st.
I am grateful for the honor of having the opportunity to serve you these last six years as your Rector.