Tuesdays with Saint Matthias

Today is the feast of Saint Matthias. The one and only connection I have to him is that, every Tuesday, I preside over three short liturgies in St. Matthias Chapel on the campus of a local school. Those three liturgies are the extent of my formal responsibilities as chaplain. The school was originally founded by an early Episcopal bishop as a religious boarding school for girls, and is now a formally independent co-ed day school, but has retained the tradition of weekly chapel services.IMG_0815

It’s a somewhat unusual arrangement. The school has no formal relationship to the Episcopal Church, and religious identity or education are not part of its mission or self-understanding. And yet, every Tuesday, the entire student body processes into St. Matthias, says a few prayers, sings a few hymns, reads a short passage from the Hebrew or Christian scriptures, and hears a brief homily from me.

The school is religiously diverse. There are Christians of every imaginable variation, as well as Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and religiously unaffiliated students and families. Given this diversity, I do my best to select scripture readings and craft homilies that focus on universal or widely shared beliefs and values, while being clear about my own beliefs as a Christian priest, since that is all I can authentically claim to be.

I don’t know why the school’s founders and early leaders chose the name St. Matthias for the chapel. It’s not a common name for churches, and there is very little in the Bible about him. Mostly what we know is that he was chosen by the original apostles to take the place of Judas after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension because he had accompanied them “during the whole time the Lord Jesus had lived among us” (Acts 1:21). His main qualification, then, seems to be that he was persistent in showing up with and for Jesus.

If that’s the case, then St. Matthias seems like a perfect name for the chapel, given its current role in the life of the school. Mostly, what I do on Tuesdays is simply try to show up with and for the community in the best way I can. Because I’m only on campus for a few hours every week, I never quite know how, if at all, chapel affects anyone. Many of the students seem deeply engaged, many others seem to politely tolerate it, and a few bear the unmistakable look that the old religious guy is wasting their time.

But the thing is, regardless of how any of it is received, I really love being there. In fact, I really love them. Being the chaplain has given me a small glimpse into the inner workings of a school, and I’m in awe of how demanding the life of such a community can be, and the level of passion and commitment the faculty and staff bring to their craft. I see the ingenious way a lower school teacher can balance the nurture young kids demand while pushing them toward excellence and expecting them to bring their very best selves to the classroom each day. I see the high school teacher whose “I’m this close to losing it” tone with a group of unruly seniors provides only a thin veil for his deep affection for them, even when they are at their worst. I see the middle school teacher who walks slowly smiling through the halls, unphased even as a swarm of seventh-graders buzzes around her.

The work that happens there every day is what I can only describe as holy. Not everyone at the school would use that language, but it’s what I come back to over and over. It represents human beings at their very best, sacrificially offering their highest efforts for the sake of a higher good: forming the next generation of adults who will steward and care for the world and its people. I’m not sure there is much I can add to that with a few, twenty-minute chapel services each week, but I’m grateful for the chance to keep showing up.

It’s oft-repeated among clergy that ninety-percent of ministry is just showing up. From what I can tell, that’s the whole basis for St. Matthias’ apostleship: he just showed up to be with and for Jesus. I hope that the school community will keep inviting me to show up to be with and for them. I hope that, if nothing else, I can bless the holy work they all do teaching and learning. Most of all, I hope that all of them will know that, in the face of how fast things move and how hard it can all be, they are loved, they are more valuable than they can imagine, not because of how good they are (though they are certainly that), but simply because of the holy endeavor they are offering themselves to.

Those few hours with St. Matthias every Tuesday have served to reshape my imagination about much of what I’m doing leading a cathedral the rest of the week. Whatever else I may or may not bring, the most valuable thing I can do is to show up, to be with and for the people who make their home there, to pronounce God’s blessing on their joys and struggles, to remind them they are, more than anything, beloved of God, accompanying them, like Matthias, as best I can during the whole time I’m given to live among them.

 

Advertisements

Working the Beads

A few years ago, I received an unexpected gift from an old friend. The package contained a short note written on a card, and a simple rosary he had made for me. The note described how, a few years before, he had started praying the rosary, and it had become an important spiritual practice for him. 

After he made the rosary, he told me that he had prayed a novena for me using it. We haven’t talked a lot in recent years, and we don’t know all the details of each other’s lives, but he said he felt the church was a better place because I was out there somewhere ministering in it, and he was glad to be connected with me through this simple tool for prayer. It was one of the most moving gifts and letters I have ever received.

I had never prayed the rosary before, but I was so touched by the gesture, I decided to give it a try. In the few years since, it has made a profound difference in my life, and deepend my relationship with Jesus. 

I was skeptical at first. Like most Episcopalians, my Marian piety could be described as agnostic and half-formed at best. I gladly acknowledge her importance in the scheme of salvation, but don’t feel entirely comfortable with asking for her intercession, and feel far less comfortable with popular Roman Catholic acclamations like “Queen of Heaven,” and devotion to various apparitions of Mary. Nevertheless, I was amazed at how easy the rosary prayers came to me, and how quickly the practice began to nourish my spirit. 

We meet God most fully in silence, which modern life keeps in short supply. The constant pings and pulls for out attention, the never ending stack of demands at both the office and at home, and my naturally anxious and fidgety disposition all make the stillness where we most fully encounter God difficult for me to find. The repetitive prayers of the rosary, and the feel of working the beads through my fingers, provides a rudder for my mind and body that steers my spirit into a deep and silent stillness. While I often begin the prayers in distraction, somewhere in the midst of praying through them I’m drawn into a deep calm, and by the end I’m usually simply sitting with a God who is beyond my capacity to understand or imagine, contemplating the depths and mystery of that God’s great and endless love. As those periods of stillness compound on each other day by day, I’m able to carry more and more of that stillness into my living, meeting life, and the people God gives to me, simply as they come, as a gift to be received and cherished, instead of the next thing to be managed, or checked off the list. 

And for all my Protestant squeamishness about praying to or with Mary, the prayers have, it turns out, drawn me deeper into the person of Jesus. What the rosary calls the “mysteries” of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection allow me to spend extended periods of time contemplating, imagining, wondering about, and simply sitting with the person Jesus, bringing key moments of scripture into direct conversation with whatever neurosis, demands, griefs, or longings I’m carrying day by day. Praying the rosary has helped make Jesus more present and more real as a companion and source of strength for my moment to moment living. 

Following my friend’s example, I also often pray the rosary for a specific person or situation I’ve been asked to pray for. But more often, I simply take a few moments to offer to God all the people in my life, known and unknown, remembered or forgotten, who have some particular need to know God’s healing and grace. I don’t pray nearly as often as I should, and I’m not nearly as conscientious as I should be about praying for the people who I’ve said I would, or who have asked me to. In praying the rosary day by day, I’m trusting God to remember all those I’ve said I would remember but haven’t, and all those I love and care for whose struggles I don’t know. Praying the rosary is one more way of simply offering all I am, and all the people I either love deeply or know only casually, over to God’s loving kindness. 

Like any prayer, there are times when praying the rosary is deeply moving and profound, and times when it is simply rote, or when I’m too distracted to notice which. Ultimately, prayer doesn’t come down to what we feel about it in any given moment. Prayer, like faithful living generally, is simply about showing up, offering our whole selves—our joys and sorrows, our loved ones and those who vex us, our doubts and our hopes, our cynicism and weariness, our jealousies and generosities, our living and our dying—over fully to the God who made us, who calls us by name, who cares for us, and who longs to draw near to us, and to call us beloved, until the whole creation is made new.  

Mountains Beyond Mountains: Address to the 162nd Annual Meeting of Trinity Cathedral

The 2003 book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, a physician who has dedicated his life to delivering quality medical care to some of the poorest and most remote parts of the world. The book focuses particularly on his work to help tackle the public health crisis posed by tuberculosis in Haiti. The book’s title is drawn from a well known Haitian proverb, which states simply that, “beyond mountains there are mountains.” Indeed, Farmer’s life and work are a testimony to the fact that, when it comes to fulfilling the words from Isaiah that Jesus quotes in today’s gospel lesson–bringing release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, setting the oppressed free–one challenge is  inevitably followed by another. Beyond mountains there are mountains. What I find most inspiring about his story is that every single one of us, when we set ourselves to it, has the power to make a big difference in the world. All of us have something to contribute, all of us have a part to play. But none of us can fully accomplish it on our own. Only God’s power will bring in the fullness of God’s kingdom. The most we can do is give what we can, and contribute what we have. Beyond mountains there are mountains.

Today is the sixth annual meeting of Trinity Cathedral that I have presided over as your dean. In these years, we have climbed a mountain together. When I first met the search committee almost seven years ago, they described a congregation that wanted to turn itself outward toward the community, that wanted to renew its focus on children, that was hoping to grow and serve the world in deeper and bigger ways. As I look at where we are today, we have climbed that mountain.

We continue to be an exception in the landscape of American Christianity: a church founded before 1900 in an urban core that is experiencing significant growth. Most churches with our formula are in decline. Our average Sunday attendance has increased by  more than 40%, our total membership has grown by more than 100 people, even accounting for those who have moved away or who have gone on to greater glory. Our annual giving has increased from $214,000 in 2013, to almost $350,000 the past two years. And if you wonder about our commitment to children, last Sunday at coffee hour I was walking across the room to talk to someone, and I was nearly tackled by a stampeding horde rumbling toward the treats. Together, with the power of God’s spirit, we have climbed a mountain.

But always, beyond mountains there are mountains. This annual meeting represents a turning point in a lot of ways. As we enjoy the view of where we’ve come, we can see the next mountain approaching on the horizon.

The foothills of this mountain have to do with our financial position. When I arrived at the cathedral, your chapter made an intentional decision to invest for growth. We have built up our staff and our programs, and the vitality and growth we’ve seen is a direct result of that. But we are using our roughly five million dollar endowment more aggressively than we can sustain over the long term. The chapter has made the intentional decision to do that each year, but they are also aware that we can’t continue that practice for more than another few years. While our annual giving has increased substantially, around 60% of our active households make a pledge every year. If we can get closer to 100% of families participating in our annual giving, it would go a long way toward putting us in a place to sustain who we are today into the foreseeable future. That’s one challenge we’ll need to work in in 2019.

The grand, picturesque mountain rising beyond those foothills is one of the biggest capital projects this congregation has ever undertaken. What we are calling Cathedral Commons will be a center for nourishing spiritual hunger and building community in our congregation, our city, and our region. A fully renovated parish building will in the first place better serve the needs of our growing congregation–improved accessibility, better hospitality and security, improved and more flexible spaces to support our programs. But Cathedral Commons will also serve as a platform for us to build on what we are doing, and will become an important spiritual and community center. It will allow us to make DEO not only a nice lunch, but a center for serving the poor and addressing the root causes of poverty and homelessness. It will allow us build on the work Brother James and his community are doing, and bring the riches of contemplative spirituality to support the lives and work of business, non-profit, and faith leaders here in Omaha and beyond. It will help us to work with interfaith partners to help young people discover their callings, and build the character and habits that will sustain them in pursuing their life’s highest purpose. I’ll say a lot more about some of these emerging programs downstairs, but what we are envisioning for Cathedral Commons will make us an important center supporting faith and the life of prayer in Omaha and in the wider region.

And honestly, we don’t have to climb this mountain, of course. There are good reasons not to. It’s hard work. If we’re going to do it, all of us will need to pitch in with time and prayer and money. Frankly, it would be easier not to. The thing is, when you called me to be your dean, you trusted me with caring for the spiritual well-being of everyone who makes their home here. That’s a sacred trust, the weight of which I feel day in and day out.  And as I read the scriptures for wisdom about how to fulfill that trust, as I look over the history of the church, as I say my own prayers day by day, it’s my observation that God doesn’t ever ask anyone to stay where they are. God never asks anyone to play it safe. The Bible is full of people who had good excuses for not climbing their mountain. Too old, too young, too poor, too sick, too scared. God has heard it all.

God is in the business of healing the world with love. I believe, in the core of my being, that God is going to do that, with us, or without us. I’m now old enough and have taken enough falls to know that God’s project to heal the world with love doesn’t depend on what our budget looks like, or whether we can pull off a big, fun capital campaign. But I also know that each of us gets one life. Just one. It was given to us out of God’s pure love, it can be taken from us at any moment, and we don’t get it back. So when I think about how I want to spend this one little blip of a life I have, I can’t think of anything better than giving it fully to God’s project of healing this broken, grieving, heartbreaking and beautiful world with love. So I’m going to do what I can to climb whatever mountain comes next, for as long as it pleases God to give me breath. In these years, I have come to love every one of you as family, and I’m all in with you. So let’s go climb this mountain together. The view will take your breath away.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daily Bread

In addition to our principal celebrations on the Lord’s Day, the cathedral celebrates Holy Eucharist every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Our weekday services are not well-attended. Occasionally, we’ll have as many as eight or nine people in the congregation, but most of the time it’s two or three, and on many days, like today, it is just me and the lay server. I will confess that I often find this responsibility tedious and burdensome When I already have an impossibly long to do list, a schedule full of meetings upon meetings, and when I’m always conscious of letting someone down by what I’ve failed to do, saying mass for one or two people doesn’t exactly feel like a welcome addition to a full plate. 

I’m the pastor, so I could discontinue the practice, of course, and I have come close to doing so many times. But our monk-in-residence and a few faithful souls love that we do it and think it’s important, and I love them and think they’re important, so here we are. 

To be honest, the longer I have put up with it, the more deeply I have been converted by it. Struggling with the very tedium and burden of daily Eucharists has helped me come to know Jesus more fully, experience God’s love in deeper ways, and better understand what, as a priest in Christ’s Church, I am for. 

I’m usually rushing from something to get to the chapel on time, then rushing off to something else as soon as I can get away. That means I’m almost always praying about whatever is right in front of me on any given day. Squeezing mass into the middle of ordinary days has forced me to learn how to lay everything from the smallest concerns to the biggest anxieties, on God’s altar, which has in turn helped me learn how to better see God at work in every ordinary moment. Taking a regular share in these services has helped me bring more of my life and myself to God. 

Saying mass in a small chapel with only a few people also offers a powerfully intimate encounter with Jesus. Sundays are full of conversations and laughter, music and people, and it’s all joyful and good and holy. But the quiet weekdays help keep my heart tuned to God’s still, small voice. Returning again and again, in the midst of the ordinary hectic day, helps keep me pointed toward Christ, the morning star, the true north for our souls. 

Sticking with this practice over the years has continued to remind me that the church’s main business isn’t producing or achieving anything. Saying mass day after day, when almost no one comes, reminds me that as disciples of Jesus, we are not called to accomplish and achieve, but to simply offer ourselves to God, to place daily on the altar of mercy our worries, our joys, our failures, our loved ones, our enemies, our life and our labor, “ourselves, our souls and bodies.” Liturgy isn’t useful or constructive, it isn’t worth doing for large numbers and not worth doing for small numbers. Liturgy, and the Christian life it enables, is about showing up for God and offering our lives to God. 

These simple daily offerings provide a gentle, quiet, spiritual heartbeat in the midst of our city and our diocese. There aren’t many people in downtown Omaha who take notice of what we’re doing at noon on weekdays. The saints who live and work across the plains and in the towns of Nebraska certainly don’t often think of their cathedral and its little weekday offerings. But two or three disciples are at the altar almost every day: praying for ourselves, praying for our city, praying for the churches and communities across our diocese, naming them and their clergy out loud before God, asking God’s blessing on their lives and ministries, thanking God for the gift of our connections across time and distance. I trust that spiritual heartbeat is, in God’s mystical economy, pulsing and resonating in the souls of those we pray for and with. 

So even though not many would notice or care, and as much as it would make it easier to get lunch, I don’t think I will discontinue our weekday services. As a cathedral church, they are an essential part of our vocation to pray without ceasing for the life of our city and diocese. As a priest, they irritate me into remembering what I was ordained for: to lead God’s people in offering our whole lives to God, and to help God’s people join the river of love that constantly flows from God and back to God, moment by moment, day in and day out, world without end. 

Address to the 161st Annual Meeting of Trinity Cathedral

On August 12, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and his “Corps of Discovery” expedition reached the source of the Missouri River in the Montana mountains. He took a cool drink from the spring, rested a while, and ascended to the top of the ridge at Lemhi Pass. The group had been travelling in canoes upstream and uphill for many long months. They had endured illness, a harsh winter, grizzly bears, and the death of one of their companions. As they ascended that ridge, they expected to see what all the scientific experts of the day just knew to be true: the land and the river gently descending toward the Pacific Ocean. They thought they had finally discovered a water passage across North America. What he found when he stood on the top of that ridge was not a gradual descent to the ocean, but massive, awe-inspiring, snow-capped mountains as far as he could see. Lewis and his company were skilled canoe men, able to navigate the most challenging waterways. But if they were going to reach the Pacific, they had to become mountain climbers in a hurry. In an instant, all their preparation and training were thrown out the window by the awesome site of the northern Rocky Mountains.

I came across that story in a book I’m currently reading called Canoeing the Mountains.[1] It compares the situation of the contemporary church to that moment in Lewis and Clark’s journey. Churches of every variety have been on a steady path of decline in membership, attendance, and participation since the late 1960’s. The fastest growing religious group is those who have no religious affiliation at all. We are now several decades past a time when Christian identity and belief could be assumed. Anyone who has a serious commitment to a Christian community in this moment is swimming against the stream. The church of early and mid-twentieth century America was a wonderful fleet of canoes, led by skilled water travelers, carried along by the current of culture. But standing on the ridge of 2018, the church is looking at a new reality, and suddenly needs to learn how to climb mountains.

According to every statistical trend, as a downtown church, founded before 1900, this old canoe ought to be wearing out, and coming apart, and facing a crisis of survival. But by every objective measure, that simply isn’t true. In 2017, we welcomed more than thirty new members to our cathedral community, our fourth consecutive year of double-digit growth. Our Average Sunday Attendance is up by more than 30 per cent since 2013, and our annual giving is up by more than 60%, moving from $214,000 pledged a few years ago to nearly $350,000 pledged for 2018. Our total membership is over 500 for the first time in more than a decade, and that’s not counting the dozens of people who are regular participants in our ministries but haven’t formally joined as members. Our children’s programming is expanding, children cooing and crying and joyfully singing are as regular a feature on Sunday mornings as the big organ trumpets. This crew of rowers is quickly learning how to climb mountains.

The people who are joining or renewing their commitment to our community regularly report they are doing so because you are showing how following Jesus can make a difference in our lives and in the world. Our ministries with the poor and marginalized, through the Friends of Tamar, DEO, Yates Outreach, and the Fricke Food Pantry have become more and more central to our identity in recent years, and they go hand in hand with our weekly worship to form us more and more in the image of Christ, and send us out into the world. We are learning how to climb mountains by simply connecting people with the power of Jesus to change lives and heal communities, and finding ways to share our lives more deeply with one another.

In 2018, I plan to devote more of my time to doing a deeper dive with spiritual formation and discipleship. In addition to continuing to build the ways we are forming both children and adults in the faith, I’ll be starting a handful of small discipleship groups that help people go deeper in their daily walk with Jesus. Father Steven, with several lay leaders, will be starting a series of small dinner groups, who will meet regularly to share life and faith in more substantial ways. I hope that this year will be a year of growing deeper in our faith and spiritual practice.

While God is up to great things in our midst, there certainly continue to be challenges as we learn to navigate this new terrain. While your incredible generosity continues to expand, we are still relying more heavily on our endowment each year than what is sustainable over the long term. Favorable market conditions mean the total balance on our trust funds is higher now than it was a year ago despite a heavy draw, but we need to continue to work to reduce the amount we are drawing each year. That means we will likely need to develop more creative and innovative ways to generate revenue for our cathedral.

One way we began to explore that in 2017 was to appoint a task force to begin to craft a plan for renovating an ageing and increasingly challenged parish house. We contracted with the architecture firm Alley, Poyner, Macchietto to help us dream about how God might be calling us to utilize and leverage this resource in the coming years. You all contributed big dreams and ideas, and the task force and architects are busy in this new year working to develop a more concrete plan. Stay tuned for more in the coming months.

Our corps of discovery here at the cathedral is led by some seriously talented and faithful field guides, and I would put our staff up against any staff, at any church, of any size, anywhere. In the first draft of this address, I tried to list out the specific things that each of them do for all of us in this place, and it literally doubled the length of this sermon, so I’ll say more about each of them downstairs. But when you see Father Steven King, Deacons Ellen Ross or Teresa Houser, Stacy Gustin, Erin VanZee, Brother James Dowd, Christine Misek, Maurice Thompson, Marty Wheeler Burnett, or our newest staff members, Linda MacTaggart and Kyle Smith, please say thank you to them. They all work longer hours, and handle more responsibilities, than any one of us fully realizes. That’s not even beginning to name the countless lay volunteers who put in long hours each week to support all that we do here.

In every generation, it can feel like our challenges are unique, or that no one has ever been looking at mountains like this before. But just look around this space, picture the people who are no longer sitting in these pews, or go look around the museum, and you’ll see that there is an army of people who have stood right here before, who are cheering us on. George Selwyn and James Patteson are memorialized in those windows, and they had to adapt and innovate in the South Pacific. Jackson Kemper is memorialized in that window back there, and he adapted and innovated across most of the central U.S. Dean Charles Gardiner, and Libby Lauritzen, Jack Fricke, Dan Loring, Gloria Dunbar, Warren Whitted, George Barger, Brad Ableson, and on and on and on, all had to do in their day exactly what we are doing in ours. What an unbelievable privilege for us to stand in that line, and be called to embark on that adventure.

Last March, my family did some mountain climbing of our own by way of a cog rail to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. As we stood at the summit, we could see as far as Kansas on the horizon, and just beyond Kansas, the actual curvature of the earth. We could see the edge of our planet while firmly planted on it. Standing in this pulpit, seated in that chair, I have the incredible privilege of looking out over all of you who I have promised to love and nurture as best I can. I see us learning to climb the mountains before us. And every day, every week, every year, I can see the horizon of God’s kingdom of love and peace, justice and life, drawing closer and closer, so that we can almost touch it. Amen.

 

[1] Bolsinger, Tod. Canoeing the Mountains. IVP Books. Dowers Grove, Illinois. 2015.

2018 Epiphany Proclamation

In the ancient church, before calendars were widespread, it was the custom for all of the holy days for the year to be announced on the feast of the Epiphany. Just as the Christian faith is centered around the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the Christian calendar is centered around the feast of Easter. The annual calendar helps us orient our days, weeks, and months around the central mystery of the Christian faith. The Epiphany proclamation helps us put in mind and look out over the whole scope of the salvation story as we enter into a new year.

Dear brothers and sisters,
the glory of the Lord has shone upon us,
and shall ever be manifest among us,
until the day of his return.

Through the rhythms of times and seasons
let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation.

Let us recall the year’s culmination,
the Easter Triduum of the Lord:
his last supper, his crucifixion, his burial,
and his rising celebrated
between the evening of the Twenty-ninth of March
and the evening of the Thirty-first of March,
Easter Sunday being on the First day of April.

Each Easter — as on each Sunday —
the Holy Church makes present the great and saving deed
by which Christ has for ever conquered sin and death.
From Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy.

Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent,
will occur on the Fourteenth Day of February.

The Ascension of the Lord will be commemorated on
Sunday, the Thirteenth of May or Thursday, the Tenth day of May.

Pentecost, joyful conclusion of the season of Easter,
will be celebrated on the Twentieth day of May.

And, this year the First Sunday of Advent will be
on the Second day of December, 2018.

Likewise the pilgrim Church proclaims the passover of Christ
in the feasts of the holy Mother of God,
in the feasts of the Apostles and Saints,
and in the commemoration of the faithful departed.

To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come,
Lord of time and history,
be endless praise, for ever and ever.

Amen.

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost 2017

Over the next few months, our Old Testament lessons will follow the lives of the great patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith in the book of Genesis. These stories are artful, fun, and spiritually rich, but they can also seem quite strange. There are a lot of unfamiliar social and religious customs, the characters are often deeply flawed and behave in morally reprehensible ways, and what is playful and poetic in Hebrew often comes across as stilted and sparse in English.

But for all their strangeness, the basic point is pretty simple: No amount of human weakness and human folly can stand in the way of God’s love and God’s promise. The whole message is that we can’t screw things up badly enough to thwart God’s love.

Today we get the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Hagar is a slave in the household of Abraham and Sarah, and Ishmael is the son she conceived by Abraham at a time when Sarah and Abraham were convinced they wouldn’t have a child of their own.

Once Sarah and Abraham miraculously do give birth to Isaac, Sarah doesn’t want the slave’s child hanging around as a possible usurper, so Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the desert wilderness: desolate, rejected, and alone. When they run out of water, in a heart-wrenching moment, Hagar places the baby under a bush, and sits just out of sight and sound, unable to watch her own child die, but also unable to completely turn away. As the story is told, you can almost hear Ishmael’s cries of thirst, and Hagar’s screams of anguish. But shockingly, we are told “God heard the voice of the boy. . .And God was with the boy.”

God was with the boy, in the depths of grief and the agony of thirst. God was with the boy, who was rejected and cast out. God was with the boy, who was insignificant, and illegitimate. God is there, in the lonely, deadly, desert, in the parched screams of a baby and his mother. That’s who God is with. That’s what God does. Ishmael is not the chosen one, Ishmael and Hagar are sent to a sure death out of the jealousy and fear of one of our faith’s heroes, but not even that can stop God’s love and God’s promise. That’s who God is.

The fact that God tends to be with the despised, and lonely, and unworthy is exactly why Jesus tells his disciples that joining up with this God is likely to get you into a whole lot of trouble. We get edgy Jesus in today’s reading. “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” I have come to set a son against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” When you really join up with the God whose love knows no limit and can’t be stopped, watch out.

The God we worship, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Ishmael and Hagar, King David and Mary and Jesus and the rest, is a God who is always turning the world upside down. The poor are blessed, the hungry are filled, weakness is strength, dying is the path to life, the outsider is beloved and worthy of God’s promise and love. Whenever people really believe that, and really start to live like that’s true, feathers get ruffled for sure.

Even recent Christian history bears that out. Dorothy Day was arrested over and over and over, mocked and criticized and despised for standing up for the rights of workers, and welcoming the poor and destitute into beloved community. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed because he dared to take on the racism built into the foundation of our society. Oscar Romero was shot while saying mass at the altar because he stood with the poor in El Salvador and stood up to the government that ignored and exploited them.

But that’s what it means to sign up with Jesus. It means joining God in the wilderness, sitting with the desolation of Hagar and the cries of Ishmael, hearing those same screams in the laments of mothers whose children are killed by guns; in the desolation of a refugee family who has watched their son wash up dead on a beach, only to meet contempt from the nation they flee to. Following Jesus is about shining a light of love into the dark life of the woman sold on the streets, it’s about taking starving Ishmael into our arms by sharing a table with the homeless and hungry.

God heard the voice of the boy. And God was with the boy. Do we hear his voice today? Are we with that boy, or that girl, that man or that woman?

But Jesus isn’t just edgy in today’s gospel lesson. His warnings of resistance are backed up by re-stating God’s promise that has endured since all the way back in Genesis. “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” “Even the hairs on your head are counted.” There is nothing that can happen to us, there is nothing we can do, to escape God’s love and God’s commitment to us.

God heard the voice of the boy. And God was with the boy. God hears your voice: scared, broken, angry, doubtful, grieving, filled with regrets, singing with joy. God hears your voice. If God was with Ishmael and Hagar, that means God is with you.

Where do you hear Ishmael, where do you see Hagar this week?

It’s no secret that we Christians are not always particularly Christ-like. The church and church people are just as flawed as Abraham and Sarah and the rest. But whenever Christians start to take Jesus at his word, whenever Christians start to live with Jesus’ heart, they often start to seem crazy. But in a world gone crazy with fear, in a world mad with violence, in a world full of demented divisions, living and loving like Jesus might just make us go sane. Loving wastefully, waging peace, living like Jesus, might just throw out a lifeline of hope and joy, and announce the Kingdom of God has come near. Amen.

 

Proclaim Original Grace, First Sunday of Lent, 2017

The title for my sermon this morning is “Proclaim Original Grace”, which is the title of the second chapter of our Lenten book Find Your Way Home. Our Old Testament reading today is actually the story of our original sin. That juxtaposition was intentional. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that original sin is not a particularly popular Christian doctrine. When most people think of original sin (which isn’t often), they tend to recall some vague sense that it’s about how cute little babies are in fact terrible sinners, and need to be baptized to get rid of all their horrible sinfulness. Or we might think it has to do with the way humans procreate, and how that’s inherently bad. If those are what we mean by original sin, no wonder it’s unpopular, because that’s an absurd notion.

Our reading from Genesis today reminds us that human sin doesn’t really have anything to do with babies or hell fire or sex. It’s a familiar story. God makes the world, puts Adam and Even in the garden of Eden, tells them to have a good time, just as long as they don’t eat this one fruit from this one tree. A serpent tempts them to eat the fruit, they eat it, and now childbirth is dangerous and painful and life is hard.

The key to understanding sin is how the serpent hooks Adam and Eve. “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” You’ve got this situation here where you are in relationship with each other, and with God, and with all the great stuff in the garden. But eat this fruit, and you won’t need God. You’ll be able to know it all and do it all on your own. Our original isn’t about all the naughty things we do, it’s about the way we reject our need for God and for one another.

We were made for community. We were made for relationship with God, with each other, and with creation. That’s why we’ve selected the book Find Your Way Home for Lent. The twenty-four spiritual principles outlined in that book were developed by and for women who have experienced unspeakable trauma to help them learn how to live in the kind of genuine, loving community both they and we were made for.

See, what comes before original sin in the Bible is original grace. We were made in the image of God. The perfect, beautiful, loving, compassionate, thumbprint of God can be found at the center of every single one of us. Original grace is the idea that every single human being is endlessly valuable. Every single human being is sacred and worthy of love. Original sin is nothing more than the way we reject original grace in ourselves and in the people around us. We forget that we are loved immeasurably by God, so we try to fill our love hunger with money or booze or stuff or status or whatever. We forget that we are all invaluable in the eyes of God, so we spend our days trying to prove that we are valuable by trying to be perfect or by overworking, or by shrilly trying to win the game of life.

In a recent sermon, Bishop Barker quoted a friend of his who says there are two types of people in the world: the enough love people, and the not enough love people. The enough love people are generally cheerful and pleasant to be around. They are able to let perceived slights and insults roll off, they forgive easily, and they are a joy to be around. The not enough love people are generally irritable and grumpy, demanding of friends and family, they hold grudges over any small insult or perceived slight. The enough love people act out of courage and generosity. The not enough love people live with fear and a sense of scarcity.

The first step in finding our way home is to reclaim our original grace. Finding your way home begins with remembering that you are loved. Finding your way home is about learning how to live as an enough love person instead of that not enough love person all of us can be.

You are loved deeply, immeasurably, unalterably: not because you are perfect, not because you deserve it, but simply because you bear in your body, soul, and mind, the very image of God. True peace, true joy, true freedom all start from really believing that to be true. And if it’s true for you, (which it is), it’s also true for every other person on the planet. It’s true for the people you like, and the people you don’t like. Your life, and our world, will really start to change when we really believe that. If you are loved endlessly, if the people around you are loved endlessly, then they don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to be perfect. As our book puts it, “We don’t’ have to live in shame for all the things that have been done to us or that we have done to one another.”

Lent is a time when we are called to repent. That doesn’t mean feeling ashamed and beating ourselves up for all the crumby things we do. Repenting means turning it around, re-turning to the fact that you are loved. Repenting means remembering that we need God, and we need each other. Repenting means admitting we can’t go it alone. Repenting means accepting the first sentence of our book: “No matter where we are, we are better coming together than living separately.” Repenting means proclaiming original grace, seeing yourself and everyone around you as beloved, valuable, wonderful children of God.

Try it this week. Try sitting quietly for ten minutes some morning or evening and just thinking of how you carry the image of God, just contemplating the fact that God loves you. And then, if you really want to see your life change, anytime you see someone–at work, or at home, the person behind the cash regiser, the person you walk by in the store–think about how you are seeing the face of god. Think about they, with all their shortcomings, are beloved of God. Reclaim original grace, and then proclaim original grace. Right now, this week, start to find your way home to the God who made you by love, through love, and for love. Amen.

Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

When I was in college, I had a part-time job at a small, independent bookstore in Hastings. This was during the era when the self-help book industry was just starting to explode. Books flooded into the store and flew off the shelves that promised to make you happier, better set up for love and connection, more productive, and more successful. The unabashed optimism and cheeriness of these books always made my cynical Generation X eyes roll dramatically and often. The epitome of the books from this age was Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which is a time management and leadership manual sealed with a kind of smarmy spiritual veneer. Despite my constitutional allergy to the whole idea of the book, it’s actually not too bad, and I remember more than my pride wants me to admit. One of the habits Covey discusses is “to begin with the end in mind.” The idea is that if you have a clear goal for where you want to go in some area of your life in the future, it will transform how you live in the present. When you see the end, you know how to begin.

The Transfiguration of Jesus, which is the story in our gospel lesson today, is Matthew’s way of beginning with the end in mind. It seems like something right out of science fiction. Jesus and three of his disciples go up on a mountain together, and suddenly Jesus gets a mysterious glow, his clothes become dazzling white, he’s joined by two long dead prophets, and the thundering voice of God declares Jesus his beloved son, and urges the disciples to listen to him. I can’t hear this story without thinking of the final scene in Return of the Jedi when the shining, ghost-like figures of Anikan Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Yoda appear to Luke and company.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just a fantastic invention of the gospel writer, but there’s a lot more than a simple magic trick going on here.

Up to this point in the story, things have gone pretty well. Jesus has been teaching, healing, and building up a nice little group of followers. But right after the episode this morning, things start to get a little darker. Jesus starts to journey toward Jerusalem, his conflict with the religious and political authorities starts to build toward its violent and tragic conclusion.

So right here on this mountain, just before things get really hard for Jesus and his disciples, God gives them a preview of what the end will look like. This episode is God’s way of saying, no matter what is about to happen, my light will outshine the coming darkness, my life will overcome the impending death. They are beginning a very difficult period with the end in mind. They have a glimpse of God’s victory at the end of the hardship they are about to face.

At the end of it all, when the disciples are on the ground overcome by fear, Jesus comes to them, touches them, and says, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

That’s exactly what Jesus says to us this morning, too. Get up, and do not be afraid. This story is always read on the Sunday right before Lent starts, and as we prepare to begin Lent, we get a preview of Easter. As we face different kinds of darkness–the worries about our jobs, our kids, fear for the nation, weariness at how conflicted we all are, fears about our health, or our money, or fears about potential assaults on our own dignity or that of others—we hear the promise, we see the preview, that God’s light and love will outshine and outlive the worst our world can be.

Get up, and do not be afraid. Do not be afraid because God’s light and love will shine brighter than the darkness you’re facing. Get up because God’s love is more powerful than the hatred and intolerance that are out there. Get up because that light and that love needs to be carried out into the dark world, and that’s what we are for as followers of Jesus.

Every week, this is meant to be a small little mountaintop, a place where the beauty of this space and the ancient prayers are meant to dazzle us just a little with a preview of God’s promised future, so that our experience of the present darkness can be reshaped by God’s light. Each week, the Jesus we meet on this mountaintop offers us a chance to begin again with the end in mind: the end of God’s loving kindness, God’s compassionate justice, God’s perfect peace.

We stand on this mountaintop each week so that we might go back out there and help dazzle the darkness around us, transfigure whatever sorrow we encounter, infect the world with love and hope. As our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry often puts it: our job is to help God transform the world from the nightmare it has become for so many into the dream God has for all people. Get up, and do not be afraid.

In a few minutes, we’ll baptize Oliver Pendell. As part of that, we’ll renew our own commitment to being light in the darkness, working for justice and peace in the world, and we’ll receive Oliver as a beloved brother in that work. Every baptism is this incredible moment to hear God call us beloved, to see God’s light shining in the darkness, and to be reminded that we are called to be that light in our lives.

All of us have plenty to be afraid of. All of us have more than our fair share of worry, of anger, of grief. We stand on the mountaintop again this morning, we are invited to begin again with the end in mind, with God’s glorious love and mercy in sight. We’re invited again to feel Jesus’ hand tap us on our sagging shoulders and say again:“Get up, and do not be afraid.” Amen.

 

 

 

 

“Dignity”-Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany by Brother James Dowd

This morning we have just heard a reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians which contains a passage that has had a major impact on my own faith journey. Given the particular moment we find ourselves living through as Americans, I wanted to share a bit of my personal experience with others in our community because I think it might shed light on what some of you might be experiencing yourself. So I am going to ask you to indulge me talking about myself for a just a little bit here.

This then is a story about me, my dad, the Sisters of Mercy and how I became an adult Christian in a very difficult time. First, Dad had the faith of a man raised in an Irish-Catholic milieu, the type of faith you found in members of the Greatest Generation. Unlike many men of that generation and from that tradition, he was comfortable talking about faith – he loved the Scriptures and he loved to read lives of the saints. He was well grounded in what it meant to be a Christian. And he shared that with all four of us kids and, as I showed particular interest in religion, we talked about God and the Church and lots of religious topics a fair amount. These are the conversations with Dad that I most cherish now, many years after his passing.

When I was about fifteen, Dad began to talk to me about what we just heard in First Corinthians. He would say, “Jim, it is always important to remember that you are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells in you.” The reminders of this particular passage, which came often in my mid-teens, seemed to come out of the blue. This would often be followed by his telling me that it is important to listen to the church’s teaching on all matters, but that there were levels of teaching that were more important than others. The teaching that we are all God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells within each one of us was among the highest and most important teachings. Remember that, he would say.

I had no idea why he was constantly referring to this one specific passage.

Now fast forward a few years to when I was being educated in high school by Sisters of Mercy. These sisters, along with my mother and sister, are among the greatest women in the world, and I just love them. Towards the end of my junior year and throughout my senior year, I was beginning to come to an understanding of myself that was rather upsetting and often confusing. It would take several more years for me to be able to fully grasp what it all meant, but it was becoming clear to me that I was gay.

At this point it was the late 1970’s and we lived in Williamsburg, VA. I was completely steeped in my Roman Catholic faith, and didn’t even have the word “gay” in my vocabulary except as something that was said by actresses in movies from the 30’s and 40’s referring to being happy.

But for me, there was nothing happy about life by the end of my senior year and into my first year of college at William and Mary. No, these were dark times.

And throughout this period there were several Sisters of Mercy who reached out to help in ways that would have an enormous impact on me. They would tell me – over and over again – that I was created in the image and likeness of God and that God made me, just like God made everyone else, to be a temple of the Holy Spirit.

One Sister at a particularly dark time, said to me “don’t you understand that when God made you in God’s image and created you to be a temple of the Holy Spirit, God gave you an inherent dignity that no one can take away from you. No matter how bad things get, no matter how awful the President and the Pope might be on this issue – your dignity was given to you by God and no human being and no institution can take that away from you.”

So that was the early to mid-1980’s and things were very bad and getting worse for gay men at that time. With the entire church – not just the Catholic church – being openly hostile toward gay people or, at best, neutral, as if we didn’t even exist; and with the president ignoring the ever growing plague of AIDS, it was a dark, dark time for me personally and for gay men in general.

But through it all, my father’s words and those of the Sisters of Mercy kept coming back to me – “I am created in God’s image and I am the temple of the Holy Spirit. No one can take that dignity from me.” This became a kind of mantra for me. I thought about that a lot and more importantly, I prayed with that idea a great deal, and soon, I actually began to believe it and then found a way to live more deeply into that theological point of view. A point of view that still guides me today. A point of view summed up in one word: Dignity.

I haven’t really consciously thought about that time in my life in quite a while now. But the current situation in our country has brought all of that rushing back to me and that has caused me to reflect much more profoundly on our Baptismal Covenant, especially the last question that we ask and answer every time we renew that covenant.

That last question – you can find it on page 305 in the Prayer Book – is asked by the Presider at the liturgy: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? And we all answer: “I will, with God’s help.”

There is so much of our theology tied up in that question and answer. The linking of justice and peace among all people – let me emphasize – that means all people, every type of people, every type of person. Like them or not, understand them or not, agree with them or not, we are to strive for justice and peace among everyone.

But it occurs to me that had my dad and the Sisters not taught me about my own inherent dignity, it would have been nearly impossible for me to see that dignity in people who were different from me. And so I would like to offer you the gift that my dad and the Sisters offered me. That gift which understand that God loves each one of us in the unique way that God created us.

So if you are a person who feels under attack by the current political climate, I want to offer you the wisdom of the Scriptures and the tradition of our faith that Dad and the Sisters taught me.

  • If you are a woman, who is repulsed by the idea of being considered a piece of meat that can be grabbed at will or if you are a woman who is sick and tired of not being paid equally for equal work, then I want to say to you that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.
  • And if you are a transgendered person, and you are sickened by the hatred and ignorance that lands at your feet daily, then I want to say that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.
  • And if you are a differently abled person, and you are horrified by the governments’ attempt to erase your presence from every Federal web site, then I want to say to you that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.
  • And if you are a person of color and you are repulsed by the outward display and inward longing for a white nationalist regime by some of those in power, then I want to say to you that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.
  • And if you are an immigrant or refugee and you are terrified that the Administration is going to tear apart your family then I want to say to you that you were created in God’s image and you are a temple of the Holy Spirit and that gives you a dignity that no one can take away from you.

 

But for all of us, it is not enough to be told by someone that you have this God-given gift of dignity and then, magically, everything will be o.k. I had to pray for a long time after my dad and the Sisters taught me this wisdom to really come to believe it. Faith is the gift from God, but it is only the gift of a seed. If you don’t tend and water it with prayer it will not grow. So during this dark and dangerous time in our history, I urge you to tend to your dignity, water your dignity. Deepen your prayer lives as an act of resistance to those forces both within you and without that attempt to tear you down, that attempt to tell you that you are not worthy of the protection of this great country, that you are not God’s beloved child.

Now please understand, dignity is not enough. But the Baptismal Covenant directly ties respecting the dignity of every human being to the striving of justice and peace. And respecting the dignity of every human being begins by respecting the dignity inherent within yourself.

We are nearing the end of the season of Epiphany, that season in which the Church focuses on the manifestation of Christ in the world. The greatest manifestation of Christ in the world is a community of Christians shining forth their dignified selves. Embracing our Christian faith by acknowledging our own dignity and the dignity of others is a great act of resistance that we can all engage in. May God bless us in this holy work. AMEN.