Rage and Response: How Will We Act On Our Faith?

A response to the Charleston, SC massacre preached at St David’s Episcopal Church in Southfield, MI on June 21, 2015.  The gospel was Mark 4:35-41, Proper 7.

Listen here:

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Their names were:charleston+victims
Cynthia
DePayne
Ethel
Clementa
Sharonda
Daniel
Susie
Tywanza
Myra

Jesus was in the stern of the boat, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Mark gives us this story from the life of Jesus, our teacher, our messiah:  Jesus has been teaching all day by the lake, telling story after story, parable after parable – trying to get people to understand what the Kingdom of God is about:

  • He told the Parable of the Sower where he explains that the soil must be ready to receive the good news for the Reign of God to come into being;
  • the Parable of the Mustard Seed where he explains that the Reign of God will be wild and untamable like a mustard plant;
  • And he tells his people, he tells his disciples, that a lamp’s purpose is to be giving off light, not hidden under a basket or a bed

Inasmuch as he’s preaching to the crowd Jesus, our teacher, is mostly concerned with his disciples – that all of his disciples get what he’s trying to say.  He wants his disciples to hear him.  He wants us to listen.  He wants us to understand.  He wants us to know the truth about the Kingdom of God and what that means – what it really means.

And after a full day of teaching, he says to us, “Let us cross to the other side.”  And we leave the crowd behind, Jesus and us, and we get into the boat and begin to cross the water.  And the water gets stormy.Charleston 2

Since Thursday morning when I woke up and read the story, when I read about the racially motivated slaughter that took place in an African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, SC, taking the lives of 9 people during their Bible study…  I have been in varying states of rage.

  • Rage over the undeniable sin of racism in this country.
  • Rage over the significant lack of gun laws that make it easy for angry people to get a gun.
  • Rage over the complacency of middle-America who wants to reframe heinous acts like this rather than take responsibility for them,
  • who refuse to see that the deaths of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and Oscar Grant, and Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice are all linked to racism.
  • Rage over the ongoing denial of white people like me in this country who want to suggest that because we have a black president, that somehow this makes us a “post-racial” society.
  • Rage over the fact that that very president bears the brunt of an unprecedented level of opposition and hatred because he is black.
  • Rage over the fact that we shrug our collective shoulders that organizations like the KKK still exists and we claim that the first amendment gives everyone the right to hate.
  • Rage over my own complicity in the system that gives me privilege simply because I am white that my African-American, Latino-American, Asian-American, Arab-American, and Native-American sisters and brothers don’t have those same privileges.
  • Rage over the knowledge that people of color don’t feel safe in their own neighborhoods, in their own churches, in their own schools, in their own homes.
  • Rage over the knowledge that racism is a Goliath-sized giant… and the grief that comes when I grow hopeless that David’s stone will never sink into that forehead and that racism will never, ever come to an end.

And so when I scream at Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that your people are perishing?”
I’m angry that God allows this storm to persist.  I’m furious that the news reports have become nothing more than a litany of the names of dead African-Americans.  And in my anger and my fury, I wonder, where is the Kingdom of God?  Where is God’s justice?

And in the midst of that storm my messiah stands up and commands, “Peace!  Be still!”
And I realize in that moment that God is not trying to take away my pain and the pain of my sisters and brothers.  This is not about comfort so that we can go on with our lives untroubled by the sin of the world.

This is not about making me feel better.  This is about transformation.Charleston 1

God sent Jesus to help us to transform pain.  To teach his disciples – to teach us – how to transform the pain of the world.  To teach us how to transform the pain in our hearts so that we can do the work here in this place to help one another live into the Kingdom of God.  That is God’s justice.

The calm Jesus brings to us is not  so that we will shrug our shoulders and soldier on, hoping that someday, someone will come to lead us, someone will come to change the system and, if that doesn’t happen, at least I’m okay and I will have my reward in heaven because I believe.  No.

The calm that Jesus brings to us is one that allows us to clearly see the waters in which we sail so that we can bring the boat to the other side and know what to do.  Jesus doesn’t sail the boat for us.  But he is most definitely in the boat with us because he wants his disciples to understand.

This crossing of the Sea of Galilee in Mark’s Gospel is the beginning of a series of 3 crossings.  Each time, Jesus is the one teaching us, the disciples, how to access the Kingdom of God, and then sending us back into a world across the sea, into a world in need of healing, showing up in the midst of our fear and our rage so we don’t get lost in the storm so we can finish the journey we are called to make.  So that we can bring the Love of God to a world in desperate need.  So that we can act on our faith to help transform the world’s pain.

Jesus shows us the Kingdom and then gives us the strength and guidance we need to cross back into a world in deep need of healing, in deep need of reconciliation.

As Christians, this Table is where we come – this Table of reconciliation.  Listen closely to the words of the Eucharistic prayer.  I hope you will hear words that give you strength and guidance.  I hope you will have an experience in the Eucharist where you can taste and see the goodness of the Kingdom of God.  Because that is where we find the courage so that we can go into the world carrying that Kingdom with us, bearing the Light of Christ in our hearts, sharing that light with a broken world so that the world’s pain might be transformed.

Our messiah has come.  Our messiah has come.
Our messiah walked this earth, died, and rose again.  We are Christians and we believe our messiah has already come.  And we believe our messiah told us what we are to do.
We cannot wait for someone to fix this for us because it is us, it is you and me, we are the Body of Christ now.  We are called to act on our faith.  Jesus wants us to hear him, wants us to be his disciples, wants us to understand.  We are called to take God’s reconciling Love into the world, into a world in desperate need of healing.

When we cross the raging waters of the sea in our fear and our fury, and when our prayers help our minds to calm after a few days, we must realize this is not an opportunity to surrender to complacency and wait for another messiah.  This is not where we give up our power and our responsibility.  This is not where we hide in the bottom of the boat, hiding our light under a basket or a bed, wishing that the world were different, refusing to take responsibility for what happens in it.

This is the time – right now – when our actions mean the most because we can see more clearly the waters around us.  We can observe more readily the lay of the land on the other side.  And we can decide with more compassion and with more clarity and with more passion what God is asking of us right now.

Their names were:
Cynthiaracism-text-straight
DePayne
Ethel
Clementa
Sharonda
Daniel
Susie
Tywanza
Myra
Trayvon
Eric
Michael
Tamir
Oscar
Freddie

So when we ask our messiah, “Teacher, do you not care that your people are perishing?”
Be prepared for Jesus to turn to you and say, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

This is the time when it matters the most that we sit up in the boat and keep our eyes open.  When it matters the most that we act on our faith that we  learn with one another and from one another, that we work together on how to move forward because it’s hard to know what to do sometimes when it’s the big giant-like Goliath.

And this is the time when it matters the most that we have hard conversations about white privilege and complacency.  And that I as a white person in our society own what that means and that I listen to my brothers and sisters about how I can become an ally in this world racism is real and it’s killing our brothers and sisters even as they sit in our churches.

This is where our hope is.
We are called.  You and I are called because we have chosen to be here each week and pray with on another every Sunday and come to this Table every single time we are here.  We have chosen to be disciples so, it’s time to get in the boat and cross over to the other side.

What is your response?  How will you act on your faith?
If you are a white person, like me, how will you act on your faith?
If you are African-American, how will you act on your faith?
Latino- American, Asian-American, Arab-American, Indian-American, how will you act on your faith?
If you are a gay person or a straight person, how will you act on your faith?
If you label yourself a liberal or you label yourself a conservative, how will you act on your faith?
If you are a woman, or a man, or a child, how will you act on your faith?
If you are an older person, how will you act on your faith?
If you are a parent, how will you act on your faith?
If you are confused as to exactly what to do, how will you act on your faith?

Racism is real.  It is killing our brothers and sisters.
How will you act on your faith?

Start by coming to this Table.  Start here.  This is the place where we come together to pray with other Christians across time and space.  Gather your strength here.  Ask for guidance here.  And then go out into the world, a world in deep need of healing and reconciliation and act on your faith.

And, in all of this, know that you are not alone, my friends.  We are not alone in this.  But we are called.  Because we are disciples.  And our God needs us to respond.  This is our hope.

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John’s Uncompromising Hope

Preached at the Academy for Vocational Leadership at Columbiere Center in Clarkston, MI.  Advent II: Mark 1:1-8

The river wasn’t really that deep but people seemed to be scared to get in, for some reason.  Resistant.
This river started in the mountains of Lebanon to the north and sped downhill into the Sea of Galilee before coming out the south end of that lake as the shallow, slow-moving creek.  So it was, in the middle of the desert where the broad, flat plains gave way to a narrow river bed that John stood.

For John, this river was a source of life.  Although narrow and shallow, it fed the dry valley, making an arid land green.  His ancestors crossed over this river to their new life into a land promised to them by God.  And so it was to this place that John knew he had been called to help people understand.  To help people see.  John’s hope had called him to the banks of the River Jordan.JtB

He knew something was coming and he was calling people to prepare for it, to prepare for new life.  To share in his Hope.  John was calling people to be cleansed and liberated from the bondage of sin, just as their ancestors had been called by Moses.  Their ancestors who followed Joshua across this same river into the promised land – the Hebrews, who listened to God’s call to become a people renewed by hope for a future as the people of God.

John stood at the banks of the River Jordon remembering that first crossing.  He stood ready to welcome a renewed Israel through baptism.  Ready to serve God.  Ready to hope for a better future.  John knew something was coming and he reminded people.  He preached and he reminded people that they way they were behaving, the way they were thinking, the way they were living… was not according to their covenant with God.

People heard that message and came from miles away, through the wilderness, to be baptized into new life.  They stood on the Western bank of the Jordan, just as their ancestors had done.
And John took each person down the river bank, one at a time.
And he led them by the hand into the water.
And he baptized them.
And he led them up the Eastern bank, into the promised land once more.

In this act, John reminded people that God brought them out of bondage to sin into liberation and new life.  He reminded them of their responsibility to one another and their responsibility to God.
And so there he stood by the Jordan River, entreating people to come out of the wilderness and into the promise of God’s hope.  Out of slavery and into freedom… once again.  John implored these people to be ready and to return to God.

And then, John knew what was coming.  He knew what this hope was about.

And John revealed Christ in the middle of the desert that day.  John pointed to God’s presence among us, announcing the coming of God’s Holy Spirit.  And, in pointing to Christ, John enlightens us, and shows us that we need to see what we’re doing.  We need to know Christ among us.  We need to understand that we, who have been liberated, have become a part of the oppressive system.  And we are being called to return to God.

John yells and cajoles and preaches and beseeches us to listen and see and understand.
John calls us out of the wilderness of our willing blindness and stupor and points to Emmanuel.  He points to God in our midst and says, “This is the Christ.”
In the middle of the desert we create, John is standing at the edge of the river… waiting for us, the scared and reticent, to get it.

JtB 2He stands in Ferguson, Missouri in the desert of racism and inequality.
And he points to Michael Brown and says, “This is Christ.”

He stands in Staten Island, in the desert of police brutality.
And he points to Eric Garner and he says, “This is Christ.”

He stands on the island nations of Kribati, and the Maldives both in the Pacific, both about to be drowned by the effects of global warming.

He stands on the border of our country where tens of thousands of young people are being detained, prevented from entering the country, where immigrant parents are picked up in Detroit while their young children are at school and so their young children become effectively orphaned.

He stands beside every single victim of gun violence.

John stands in darkened rooms of human trafficking and the frat parties where women are gang-raped and the clothing factories of Bangladesh.  And he points to all the exploited, enslaved people and he looks at us and says, “This is Christ.”

John stands in all of these places and points to Christ because we fail to see Christ.  We fail to see for ourselves what we are doing, how we are complicit in this sin. A few weeks ago, Jesus said to us, “Just as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

And now, John is standing here with us in this desert we’ve willfully created, whether directly or indirectly, even if we believe we have nothing to do with it, and he’s calling us out of the wilderness, shaking us awake out of our slumber and, once again, pointing to Christ in our midst and calling us to return to God.
Reminding us of God’s promise and our call to cross through the river into freedom from the bondage of our collective, systemic sin.

And I think it’s easy to believe that John’s intent is to shame us.  I think it’s easy to imagine this character as the finger-wagging, shame-throwing, judgment-wielding miserable jerk who enjoys making us feel bad about ourselves.
But John stands there, not because he is miserable.  John stands there with us because he’s hopeful.  He hopes for us – for you and for me.  And his Hope is utterly uncompromising.

John has hope where we have lost hope.  We get lost in our worlds of busyness and our belief in scarcity.  We get lost our addictions and turn a blind eye to the things going on around us.  We get lost in our sleep and we refuse to wake up and so our hope gets twisted and compromised and turns to wishes for the things we want.

Because when we look at the state of the world, at all the pain and the sorrow, it’s easier to compromise our hope than to keep God’s Hope.  And so we lose the hope in us… the hope that is God’s Hope for us.

Devonte HartGod’s Hope for us is so utterly wild, so incredibly bizarre that we have trouble fathoming the truth of it.  But we see glimpses of it.
We see glimpses of the Reign of God in that photo of the white police officer hugging the young black boy with tears in his eyes during a rally in Portland, Oregon.
We get glimpses of the Reign of God when we hear the story about the man who gave his all you can eat pasta pass to feed people in need.Acts of Pasta

In the young German woman, Tugce, who died because she defended two younger women from the assault of a group of men – not because she died but because she saw Christ and acted to restore the Reign of God.Tugce

We get glimpses of the Reign of God whenever we witness freedom from oppression, freedom from the slavery that keeps us bound to sin.
Not the sinful acts that can sometimes get in our own way, like getting angry or drinking too much wine or succumbing to some temptation we face.
But the sin of the world – the systemic sin that binds us to oppressive structures, and destructive paradigms, and practices that annihilate and destroy the human soul of our brothers and sisters.

This wild, bizarre, crazy Hope that God has for us is that we will once and for all be free.  That we will be liberated from the binding of sin – the sin we act out, the sin done unto us, and the sin done on our behalf.

The Hope of God, indeed, the Promise of God is that we will cross over the River Jordan into the promised land.  That we will have the courage and the will to stand in the face of unjust structures and act… to free ourselves from that sin knowing with certainty that the structure will one day collapse like the house of cards it is.JtB 3

And John stands here in the middle of our desert because he hopes for our return to God.  He hopes for our remembering, for our renewal.  He hopes that we, too, will see Christ and become hopeful once more in the promise of God’s future for us.

John, in his wildman ways, showing us of the pain of the world, is not here to serve the god of shame and despair.  Or to offer us a sanitized, easy to swallow, morally bankrupt version of a superficial spirituality that feels good.
John is here in these desert places with us to serve the God that is Hope.

And so the next move is ours, my friends.  The next move is all ours.

John is standing here on the Western bank pointing to Christ.  Hoping with his whole being his big, uncompromising hope… that we will choose to overcome our fear and our resistance, that we will choose to step into that river and be baptized into the promised land, baptized into the ministry of changing the system.

John is waiting with his hand outstretched to lead you down into the water.  What are you going to do?

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Is God Leaving the Church Behind?

Preached at St Anne's Episcopal Church in Walled Lake, MI on the Sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost.  Matthew 21:23-32

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

This is the question the chief priests and elders of the people ask Jesus.
It’s a jealous question, when you think about it.  It arises from a fear of loss – a loss of privilege, a loss of status.  A loss of power and wealth.  A loss of glory.

When we have these things, when we are sitting in the seat of privilege and power, basking in the glow of glory, it’s easy to become jealous.  It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to want to keep the status quo in place and make sacred that which has given us this status and this glory.  And this authority.

And religion is fraught with this problem.  Religious institutions are, quite possibly, the worst when it comes to jealously guarding things like authority and power.  Because, after all, it is perhaps the most powerful thing to claim that we’re speaking on behalf of God.

When someone has recognized us as having that power, it’s hard to let go of it and it’s hard to recognize that others may have that power, that others may be speaking on behalf of God.  Even if they don’t realize it themselves.

And I’m not speaking about the clergy, although there are many clergy who jealously guard authority.  Who feel that they alone should be the mouthpieces of the church.  These are often the same clergy whose congregations grow smaller and smaller as they keep a tight grip on the power, never empowering lay people to take their proper place as baptized ministers of the church.

What I’m really talking about is the church itself – the church universal – Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, Roman Catholics… all of us.  We all claim to be speaking on behalf of God.  We have been claiming this for centuries.  We are the voice of God, the presence of God.  We are God’s representatives, God’s chosen people.  Aren’t we?

But more and more, I have to wonder if we aren’t just hanging on to some sense of power.  I have to wonder if we, as the church, are really more interested in maintaining the institution, than we are in truly listening to God’s Holy Spirit to find out what God wants us to be doing in this world.  I have to wonder if we, as the church, aren’t the chief priests and the elders who jealously guard the God-seat.

Climate March III wonder this because I see all of these people who are doing amazing things to care for God’s creation.  I see all of these people who are planting sustainable farms, advocating against the use of fossil fuels, choosing foods from local suppliers, fighting for public transit, composting their scraps, leading recycling efforts.  And lobbying government officials and whipping up support for these efforts.  Some of them are doing it on behalf of the church, but most are not.

Yet, these are the people who are standing up and saying that we must do a better job of caring for this earth, our island home – this place we call God’s creation.  And I see all of these people doing all of these things and I wonder where the church is.

We speak for God, don’t we?  It’s our Bible that pronounces creation to be good.  Our belief that we have been formed out of its very elements.  Our Eucharistic prayers that remind us we are called to be stewards of creation.

So, if we believe that we are God’s chosen, given authority to proclaim these things, then why aren’t we at the forefront of the effort to bring about environmental justice?  Why aren’t we the ones who are advocating for the renewal of the earth, teaching the world about the beauty and the preciousness of God’s creation, explaining just how interconnected we actually are with the rest of the life of this planet?Climate March IV

I could talk about our past teachings and how we have conflated the idea of subduing and conquering “the wild” with God’s command that we have dominion over the earth and all its creatures.  But we know better.  We know better.

Last weekend, in New York City, there was a massive demonstration – the People’s Climate March.  It was a part of a global effort that happened in over 150 countries.  Nearly ½ million people lined the streets of New York City to draw attention to the ever-growing problem of climate change.  This happened immediately before the United Nations Climate Summit started to assist in drawing more attention to the meeting of global leaders.

And I honestly have to wonder, are these the people who are actually speaking on behalf of God now?

Many of the people who attended the march have no religious affiliation.  And, although there was a place for faith-based organizations to participate, most of the people who showed up were not there on behalf of their religion.

But, the question is… were they there on behalf of God?  Even if they didn’t realize it?

Is God so distraught with those who call themselves God’s church, that He’s chosen others to accomplish his mission of renewing this beloved creation He’s given us?  Has God found another way to inspire people, one that doesn’t involve the church?  Is God using scientists as Her prophets now?  Because the church is too busy worrying about why no one comes to Sunday services anymore?

Have we become too focused on ourselves and our power and our authority as God’s representatives?  Have we become too complacent in our God-seat that we cannot hear the call of God’s Holy Spirit unless it fits our preconceived notions of what She’s supposed to be saying to us?

Cimate March IIIHas God left the church behind?

In reading today’s gospel, that’s the interpretation, isn’t it?  God has found a new way, in this man named Jesus.  The Jewish authorities were upset because Jesus was preaching and teaching the Jews about a new way.  He was bold in his speech.  He was defiant in his actions.  And people were beginning to follow him.  This made the chief priests and the elders jealous – fearful that they would lose their power, their influence over the Jews.  They were so concerned with their power and the survival of their institution, that they forgot why they were called to follow God in the first place.

And because we are followers of Jesus, we read this story as Jesus being the one who truly heard God’s call.  Jesus is the one who demonstrated to the authorities that they were off the mark, missing God’s call.  That, perhaps, God was leaving them behind as the vehicle through which God’s mission was accomplished.

Well, what if this is happening again?
What if these people who are so passionate about what we call God’s creation, are God’s prophets in our midst and we, the church universal, are the chief priests and the elders who jealously guard our perceived God-given authority to speak for God?  And because of that, we refuse to listen to God’s Holy Spirit, calling us to a new way.  We are jealously guarding God’s glory.

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Jesus offers us this parable.
That there are two kinds of children – those who, even though defiant, will do God’s will.  And those who claim to follow God’s will but really don’t.
And to further make his point, Jesus says, even the tax collectors and prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God first.  Even the most despicable members of society will go ahead of the chief priests and the elders.  Because they listen and they believe.

Jesus is telling us, it’s one thing to say you believe.  But if that doesn’t mean you’re following God’s will, if that proclamation of belief is just for show, just the password to get into the club…  if that belief is not something that leads you into the way of righteousness, then it means nothing.

There is a cost to following God’s will.  There is a cost to being a disciple of Jesus.  And that cost is one that compels us to move beyond faith as a convenience, beyond religion as a club we join to feel like we belong.  The cost of discipleship calls us into deep engagement with the world around us.  It reminds us that we are God’s children and we are obliged to care for one another and care for this creation we were given – this Eden that we have systematically destroyed in the name of production and economic progress.

Because the truth is that environmental justice is intimately tied to economic justice.  Low-income communities, people of color, indigenous communities are those who are most dramatically affected right now.  There is a country called Tuvalu, a Polynesian nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean midway between Australia and Hawaii, where right now the water is rising over their sands so rapidly that scientists expect the entire country to be washed away within 50 years.  50 years.

And so what?  So what if Tuvalu is swallowed up by the Pacific?
Well, here’s the so-what: we are all connected.  God made us that way.  We are all tied to this earth because we are made of this earth.  We all need to breathe the air, to drink the water, to have a dry place to sleep at night, to eat food from this soil.

These are our basic needs, us – the human race, these are our basic needs.  And, our culture is so consumed with Climate March Iconsuming that we have tipped the balance and are now denying the basic needs to our brothers and sisters by virtue of our demanding lifestyle.  And we will do everything in our power to jealously guard our lifestyle, our power.  And then we have the audacity to claim the God-seat.

But what if we’re truly interested in hearing the call?  What can we do?  You and me, what can we do?  After all, we are just caught in a system that is so much bigger than any of us.  Most of the time, I’m so concerned with making ends meet and trying to pay attention to all my duties that I struggle, even with recycling.

So, how do we start?  What can we do?
Here are 4 simple things:

  1. Eat organic.  Chose organic produce as much as possible instead of conventional produce because most conventional produce is grown on industrial farms.  Organic produce is not only better for you, but organic farms use 30-50% less fossil fuel energy than industrial farms.  And if organic isn’t an option, choose locally grown produce to reduce the transportation and support local farmers.
  2. Stop throwing food away.  Did you know that Americans threw out about 35 million tons of food in 2012?  That’s double the amount that was tossed in 1990.  There are organizations that will go to stores and restaurants to redistribute this food to people in need – like Food Gatherers in Washtenaw County.
  3. Compost.  What if your congregation had a compost pile?  Or what if your neighborhoods had compost piles?  Using organic scraps and turning them into soil for local gardens.  Developing an awareness of sustainable practices instead of just adding to the landfills that are so plentiful in this area of the country.
  4. Advocacy.  Contact your local representatives and let them know how important climate action is to you, the person they serve in making public policy.  Don’t be afraid to be political.  And while you’re at it, be sure to push hard on the members of House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.  Because if they are not choosing to be woefully ignorant on purpose, then most of them desperately need remedial science classes.

There are more ways to follow this call.  But these are simple, focused ways to start.

Because I honestly don’t know how much more God needs to scream at us before we’re going to choose to do something.  The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with stories about how God’s people didn’t listen, even when the prophets gave them plenty of warning.  Are we going to listen?  Or is God going to leave the church behind and use others to accomplish this mission?

God is calling us to hear the Holy Spirit through the efforts of those who are working towards environmental justice.  So, let’s not challenge their authority.  Instead, let’s live in the fullness of God’s love for us.  Let us follow this call to care for and live in the abundant creation as God’s children.

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Repent!

Preached at St James in Dexter, MI on Advent II (December 8, 2013), Matthew 3:1-12

Lego John the BaptistJohn says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
And John says:  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
And John says: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

The words of the prophets are interesting words to be hearing as we approach the Feast of the Incarnation, as we approach Christmas.  Their words are not sweet, or soft.  Their words are not a warm, comfortable seasonal greeting.  There is no real hint of the gentle Baby Jesus in them.

They are words of warning.  Of judgment.  They are discomforting.  Bitter. Harsh.  They are the words of the prophets telling us to repent.  And if we’re being called to repent, it must mean we’ve done something wrong or we’re going down the wrong path.  Right?

This is not a fun or an easy thing to hear during the holiday season.  We’re so busy with so much to do.  We’re trying to forget how much money we’re spending or wishing we had more to spend.  It’s cold – it’s really cold, actually.  Bills are due.  The fact that we are doing something wrong is about the last thing we want to hear.  Especially when were trying so hard to get things right – the right gift, the right recipe, the right decoration, the right outfit, the right song, the right card.Repent

And so, it’s just a little hard to hear the words of the prophets saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

I feel like saying, “Yeah… thanks for that.  Thanks a lot.”

And yet, we cannot ignore the voice of the prophet.  The prophet is the one who sees through things, who sees the eventual outcome of what is happening because they are so in tune with God’s Will, that they can glimpse the future.  And more importantly, they can glimpse the truth of the way things are now.  They can see through the conditioned response of our world to God’s Truth.

Prophets are the ones who warn us.  They are the ones who try to get us to change our ways because we are so conditioned by the ways of the world, that we cannot see what we’re doing.  We are unable to see God’s Truth staring us in the face, begging for our attention.

Prophets are counter-cultural because they are called to bring issues to our attention – issues that we would rather not think about.  Issues that exist because of injustice, injustice that exists because we are often more focused on our own lives and the people in them that we either don’t have the information we need to make better choices or we choose to hear what is convenient.

It’s hard to see the big picture, when our lives are packed with activities, and responsibilities, and to-do lists, and busyness. But there’s a prophet in all of us.  The part that can see a bigger Truth, and our part in it.  And we often don’t want to listen to it.

Sometimes, their words implicate us, accuse us.  Sometimes their words make us uncomfortable and we would rather that they just shut up and let us enjoy our lives in peace.  We don’t want to hear that we’re missing the mark.  Because we’re trying so hard to get it right.

Bangladesh FactoryEarlier this year, when a clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, what was your reaction?  Inexpensive clothes are made by factory workers in Bangladesh who work in unsafe conditions because the factories are forced to bid lower and lower in order to get the lucrative US contracts.

But what we, as a culture, tend to care about are getting clothes at a cheap price.  We don’t think about the true cost.

Electronics LandfillAnd are you aware of the true cost of electronics?  Electronic gadgets become obsolete within just a couple of years because the newer model is faster and has better apps or graphics.  Many times, this is a planned obsolescence so that we buy more from the manufacturer.
But very little of our electronics gets recycled and so they fill landfills, where they leak heavy metals into the soil.  And because of our landfill standards, we export our electronic waste to other countries where they have lower environmental standards in their landfills and where it’s cheaper to discard the waste.

But what we, as a culture, tend to care about is having the latest, coolest technology.  We don’t think about the true cost.

Now, I’m not a prophet, but I’ve just offered you a bigger picture – a couple of ways in which we’re missing the mark, a couple of ways in which we are getting it wrong as a society.  I’ve offered a modern-day opportunity for repentance.  And I’d like to pause here and check in with how this makes you feel.

  • Perhaps you’re annoyed with me for bringing your attention to these issues when you’d rather hear a warm and fuzzy sermon about the coming of Baby Jesus.
  • angry or annoyed with the companies who’ve made the decisions to do business this way.
  • judged or guilty because you went shopping yesterday and got a good bargain on some nice clothes or picked up the latest new electronic gadget to give as a gift.
  • hopeless because these issues are so big that you can’t possibly have an effect on changing them.
  • defensive and thinking of an ideological argument against what could possibly be called a “liberal take” on the state of things.
  • outraged and want me to chastise and rail against the sinfulness of our consumerist culture.

It’s likely a combination of many of these.  Prophets always seem to point to the things we don’t want to see… in the world, in other people, and in ourselves.  So, why do we need them?  Why do we need to be told we’re missing the mark?  Why should we listen when it feels like it’s just another judgment, another world on our shoulders when we’re already carrying so much?

When John the Baptist says, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”  It’s clear in Matthew’s gospel that John is talking about the coming of Jesus the Christ into the world.  It’s clear that he’s trying to prepare people to receive a messiah.
He’s trying to help people free themselves of being focused on the wrong things.
He’s trying to help his followers understand that receiving a Savior is not just about saying the right words or having the right pedigree as descendants of Abraham.
And he calls them a “brood of vipers” – a particularly harsh condemnation because vipers would kill their mothers during birth.
He’s accusing his brothers and sisters of killing that which gave them life.  And he’s telling us to repent.
He desperately wants us to be prepared to truly receive the messiah.

John the Baptist’s message is not an easy one to hear.  We don’t experience the voice of repentance as a kind one and so we rarely hear the deep love (yes, love!) John has for his brothers and sisters through the accusatory tone of his prophetic words.Be kind

Several years ago, I was standing in line at a packaging store at Christmas time.  It was the typical scene at a packaging store at Christmas time: a long line, busy people looking at their watches, a lot of stressed people cramped into a small space, a waft of super cold air coming in whenever someone opened the door.  It was the typical unpleasant situation.
And as I got nearer and nearer to the counter, I saw this little sign in a frame.  It said,
“Be kind.  Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

When I got to the counter, I commented on it to the clerk and he opened up a drawer and gave me a copy.  They kept a stack of them to hand out.  And I still have it on my bulletin board today.
“Be kind.  Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

And the reason I bring this up is because I think that we are so often giving ourselves such a hard time
we are so often judging ourselves for things we think we’ve messed up, or will mess up…
we are so often comparing ourselves against an unattainable model, and so scared sometimes that people will find out that we just don’t have it all together…
we so busy shaming ourselves, that I think this is the real reason John the Baptist’s message is a hard one to hear.

We judge ourselves so harshly that it’s hard to hear the voice of love in the message of repentance.
It’s hard to hear the love the prophets carry for us.
The love that brings them to risk being counter cultural.
The love that causes them to risk being labeled as a ‘trouble-maker,’ because all we can hear is judgment.
And I say that prophets love us because they want more for us.
They want us to release ourselves from the trappings around us and truly be ready to receive our messiah.
They want us to see God’s Truth so that we can make better decisions, not only for ourselves, but for all our sisters and brothers and creatures in God’s Peaceable Kingdom.
Prophets are convinced that the Reign of God is possible.  So possible, that they can taste it, smell it, see it… right here, right now.  And they desperately want it for us too.

The prophetic voice is not the voice of judgment, my friends.  The prophetic voice is the voice of Love.

D Tutu Made for Goodness

Click here for a video of Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking about our inherent goodness

And I wonder… if the prophets started from another place, if we could hear the prophets telling us how amazing we are, how truly precious and beloved we really are… if we could hear that voice call us to repent, how different it might be.

And so, I found one.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  He wrote a bookwith his daughter Mpho called Made for Goodness.  And I found this quote (not from the book, but from somewhere on the internet):

“We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.”

I believe that this is a prophetic call to repentance.

Repent from the belief that you are unloved.
Repent from the notion that you are unworthy.
Repent from the idea that you need to be perfect.
Repent from the pursuit of more and better and prettier.
Repent from comparing yourself to another or to an ideal.
Repent from the attempts to separate yourself from your neighbor.
Repent from the belief that you are anything but precious and whole.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Perhaps if we start from here, my friends, the rest of our decisions could flow from a deeper place of wisdom in our own hearts.

For we are made for goodness.  We are made for love.

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On Tradition

Preached at St John’s Episcopal Church, Plymouth, MI on Nov 10. 2013; Pentecost 25; Proper 27.  2 Thessalonians 2:1-17 and Luke 20:27-38

November is this month of tradition.  It’s when we most distinctly notice the darkening of the sky, the retreat of the light.  And, perhaps because of that, we seek comfort.  We move toward home, toward family, toward tradition.  We remember our ancestors, especially if we are from a latino/hispanic family.  Tg2We honor the sacrifices of the past by celebrating veterans day.

Many of us come home during the Thanksgiving holidays and most of us, I would imagine, have memories – good or bad – of Thanksgiving.  We have traditions, customs – whether they be watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in your jammies, preparing your mom’s stuffing recipe, playing football with your brothers in the yard, or making paper turkeys by tracing your hand at school while learning about the pilgrims.

There is a turning and returning.  A homecoming.

We seem to be feasting on this plentiful legacy we’ve been given.  And sometimes the feast is delicious, filled with joy and abundance.  Other times, this feast can be bitter, painful.  For most of us, it’s probably somewhere in between.Tg4

Going home again is not always easy.  Sometimes, because of that, we don’t go home.  Or, we have found home elsewhere.

Thanksgiving, and the whole month of November, really, is this seemingly endless navigation through history, tradition, and family.  And in this visitation during this darkening time of year, we prepare for the winter.  We prepare for the end of the growing cycle.  In a way, we prepare for death.

As church, we are certainly preparing for the end of the liturgical year.  Next week is the last time we’ll wear green until after Christmas.  We’re coming to the end of the long green season of Pentecost.  In two weeks, we will celebrate Christ the King Sunday.  And then we’ll begin our journey into a new liturgical year with the season of Advent.

And so it’s appropriate now, necessary even, to return to tradition, to return to our upbringing, to return to something familiar.  It seems, somehow, important to take stock of the journey we’ve been on to prepare for what comes next.  For we anticipate this thin space ahead of us in the coming of a new year.

St Paul tells us, in his letter to the Thessalonians, that we are called to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, for our glory in our sanctification through the Spirit.  He tells us to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught…”

But what is it that we are holding tight to?  What are these traditions we are taught?  What are we being handed by our ancestors?  What are we carrying forward into our life in Christ?

I always wonder about these things we call “tradition.”  I wonder, because I think that not all traditions are helpful.  And, if I’m honest, I get nervous by Paul’s directive here… “Hold fast to the traditions you were taught…”

After all, slavery was a tradition in this country.  Keeping girls uneducated is a tradition in other countries.  My stepfather getting drunk at the holidays was a “tradition” in my family.  I’m not convinced tradition is always something we should hold tight to.

But then, we also have traditions like the Book of Common Prayer, Advent calendars, hot cider and donuts in the fall, and Easter egg hunts in the spring.

How do we know when we should give up a tradition in order to live into a new life?  How do we know whether we are being called to “hold fast to the traditions” like Paul says or being called to lay tradition aside and be resurrected anew?

I like to think of tradition as a pot, the kind that holds a plant.  A pot is a human made container whose purpose is to enable life.  Tradition is just that – something inspired by God, but made by human hands, to provide nourishment for and enable and encourage life.

A family is such a container, hopefully.  Religion is a container, again… hopefully.  Tradition should be this life-enabling, life-encouraging container where we learn to know who we are by coming into contact with it as we grow.

rootboundNow, if you know about potted plants, there are some important things to consider about what kind of pot you choose to best encourage a plant to grow into its fullness of God’s glory.  A large plant with a lot of roots, needs a large pot.  But not just enough room for the roots, it needs one with enough soil in it so the roots can gather nutrients to feed the plant.  Otherwise, the plant becomes root-bound.  And when a plant becomes root-bound, a gardener knows it’s time to find a new pot.

However, what might be surprising is that a small plant is best kept in a small pot.  If roots can’t come into contact with the container, they will devote too much energy to developing a large root system to fill the pot rather than devoting energy to growth – in height, leaves, or flowers.just right

The container must be appropriate to encourage life.  Tradition must be appropriate to encourage growth.  If tradition is not animating us, if it’s not offering proper support, if it’s not emboldening us to grow more deeply into God’s unbounded Love for us, by challenging us and inspiring us and inviting us… then, I think, we should be asking if it’s still appropriate.

This is true of all traditions – cultural, religious, familial.  Is this tradition life-giving?  Is this tradition one that is calling me to live into God’s future?  Is this tradition one that brings me more deeply into the mystery of God?

And I think this is what Jesus was trying to tell the Sadducees.  The Sadducees were a sect of Judaism did not believe in resurrection.  And in today’s episode from the Gospel of Luke, a few of its members were trying to trip up Jesus.  They were saying that resurrection couldn’t be true because the law says a man’s wife keeps marrying all the brothers in the family until children are born.

Now, regardless of how problematic you or I find that law to be (although it was a way to look after women who had no rights on their own) the Sadducees were merely using this as a way to argue against resurrection.  Resurrection, they said, cannot be true because one woman could not be married to many different men in the afterlife.  So, the Sadducees thought they had found an ironclad argument against resurrection because the idea of resurrection in the mind of the Sadducees, needed to be a duplication, a replica.  The resurrected self is carbon copy of your current self.resurrection 1

And Jesus says, not true.  Jesus says, resurrection is about what God needs you to be, not what tradition needs you to be.  Your resurrected self will be nothing like your current worldly self.  Resurrection is of God, not of this world.

God does not need tradition, we need tradition.

And there is nothing wrong with that.  We need to feel connected to something.  We need to have customs and ways.  We need to know where we come from and have some kind of container that will give us what we need to grow.

Black Friday Eats ThanksgivingBut Jesus is telling us, let’s not confuse tradition with God.  Let’s not confuse religion, or any of our cherished practices or beliefs with God.  Jesus is warning against idols.  Many cherished things can become idols.

Our traditions, our efforts, our money, our job, our role, our music, our shopping, our church, our family, our marriage, our ministry, our holiday traditions, our Bible, our BCP, our religion.

We can mistake any of these for the Reign of God.  But they are not God.  They can point to God and God can be present in them.  They can be wonderful, rich, right-sized containers for allowing us to grow more deeply into the mystery.

But they are not God.  They are not to be revered as such and they have no place in the Tg3Resurrection.  And sometimes, many times, we are called to leave them behind.  Traditions are important.  But when they have ceased to serve God, God will shake you free of them, despite your opinion of the matter.  And so we hold fast to them, yes, as Paul says.  But as guides, not as gods.

So, in our journeys during this month of November, as the world grows darker and the leaves find their ways to the ground… as we return to our ancestors and families, whether in physical form or in memory, and we find ourselves living out those traditions and customs, those ways of being, I ask you to be mindful this year.

I’d like you to ask yourself if your traditions are truly life-giving.
Are they inviting you to live more deeply into your baptismal vows?
Are they bringing you and the people around you into closer relationship with God?
Or have your traditions become idols?

May your traditions this year be ones that enable you to grow and experience the unbounded mystery of God.

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Martha Stewart and the Hospitality of Awe

Preached at St Clare of Assisi Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor, MI on July 21, 2013.  Proper 11.  Luke 10:38-42.

I think today’s gospel story seems fairly straight-forward.  Jesus is teaching a lesson about the value of listening to the Word of God, and how this practice, this form of worship, is primary.  It is more important than the service work because the Word of God is what informs and inspires our service work, especially when this work becomes a distraction for us.  When we lose sight of why we are serving others. When we get so lost in our need to “do” that we are in danger of using it as a weapon of self-righteousness.

I’m sure many of you know folks who are good at this form of doing our ministry.  And perhaps you are someone who, like me, gets lost in the doing of ministry and forgets that prayer and silence always and should be more central to my life so I can hear the Voice of God.

Especially in a world of social media where we always have our smartphones with us so we can stay connected to our email and our text messaging and our Facebook and our Google hangout and our voicemail.  And we can download apps to stay connected to other websites and news outlets and music. And we have tablets where we can watch TV shows or play video games.  And we use all these devices and programs to help us do our ministry and stay connected, in some way, to one another.

We most definitely live in an age where this kind of cacophony has a hold on our attention.  And we can kid ourselves into thinking that it’s ok because we are, after all, ministers of the Body of Christ.  We are doing this to care for one another.  But rather than speak to you about the problems of technology, I’d rather talk about Martha Stewart.

Many of you probably know who Martha Stewart is.  If you do, please allow me just a brief explanation to help frame our discussion and, perhaps, catch up those who might be less familiar with her.martha-stewart

Martha Stewart came to the attention of many Americans in the 1980’s through books about entertaining and cooking.  With titles like: Martha Stewart’s Hors D’oeuvre, Martha Stewart’s Pies & Tarts, Martha Stewart’s Wedding Planner, Martha Stewart’s Christmas.

Martha became synonymous w stylish, quality homemaking in America.  She took it up a notch and became a professional homemaker.  She wrote newspaper articles, appeared on Oprah Winfrey and, in the early 90’s started publishing her own magazine and launched a TV show – both of which were titled “Martha Stewart Living.”

Martha turned this into a media empire and her company soon developed divisions that design things like dishes and sheets, and placemats and paint. There is always a higher price tag associated with these items – they are stylish, well-designed for their purpose, and are made of, typically, mid-high quality materials.

Martha knows how to create an aesthetically pleasing space.  She knows how to entertain her guests.  She definitely knows how to run a business (although some of us might disagree w that as her ethics were thrown into question when she was convicted of insider trading in 2004). And Martha knows how to present herself and everything associated with her as something of substance. Worthy of noticing.  Worthy of whatever it costs. There is a sense of extravagance to her image, a luxuriousness. And this extends to her products.

If you remember her little catchphrase… “it’s a good thing.”

And I’m sure it hasn’t escaped you that she carries the same name and, essentially, plays the same role as our Martha in today’s gospel.  A person who understands her worth as being connected to the things she does – entertaining, hosting her guests, using extravagant gestures of welcome.  And I’m quite sure I’m not doing anything particularly brilliant by associating America’s most famous “Martha” with the Bible’s most famous “Martha.”  The parallel has likely been drawn by many, many others before me.  But I think this connection is a helpful lens through which we might look at what ‘hospitality’ means.  And what ‘love’ is.

When I look at Martha Stewart, I see someone whose sense of hospitality is an extension of herself.  Her abilities and standards of homemaking and entertaining those who came into her home were and are a part of who she is.  She has always taken them seriously and she encouraged us to take them seriously.

Even before she became a brand name in America, she had this fervor to do things to a certain standard.  To create these good things because she wanted to impress, and help us to impress our guests with a sense of graciousness and homemaking that had an air of beauty and extravagance – no matter the cost.  Her name is synonymous with this now.  And it’s stamped on everything that she’s associated with.

But I think what is important for us to understand here is that Martha Stewart’s sense of hospitality is more about her, than about her guests.  In making a name for herself – a brand name that we have come to know and, in some cases, love – she has been very attentive to how she is perceived.  She is the gracious host and she wants to make sure we see her that way so we buy her product.  Which is to say, we buy her image.

And although we can say, “Well of course it’s about her image.  That’s what good marketing does.  We buy the image.”  But I think we do the same thing on a lesser scale.  Because we, too need to be seen.  We might not be like Martha, and be seen as the caretaker, the entertainer, the gracious host… but we all have an identity that we want the people in our world to acknowledge.

Sometimes this identity is about needing to feel useful or have a sense of purpose and sometimes is about needing people to see us for some character trait we value, even if we don’t possess it.  And sometimes the need to have this identity seen becomes very desperate.

Perhaps we need to be seen as:
Smart.  Well-read.  Capable.  Strong.  Unique.  Loving.  Or right/correct, beyond the reproach or correction of others.
Maybe we want others to see us as beautiful or sexy or put-together.
It might be a particular role – like good parent or good friend or even the one who won’t bow to authority or the one who won’t be tied down to anything as mundane as suburban American family life.
It could even be a need NOT to be seen.  A need to blend in.  To be nobody special.

And we all do this.  We are human.  We all have an identity that we need to have acknowledged somehow.  But, what does this ‘need to be seen’, this need to have our identity acknowledged, have to do with understanding hospitality?  And here’s where we come to what I honestly think Luke’s Jesus was getting to in this story.

When we are too engaged with the need to be seen, we have cut off our ability to be truly hospitable, to be truly welcoming.
When we get offended because someone doesn’t appreciate us or what we’ve given… or we get angry because someone doesn’t see us for who we need to be, we have forgotten how much God loves us simply because God created us.  And in that forgetting, we have separated our self from our ability to love one another because we have isolated ourselves from God’s unbounded Love.
When I care more about how I’m coming across to you, when I care more about how you are seeing me… you have become nothing more than an object in my world from whom I get what I need.  And that is what stops me from truly meeting you, from seeing who you are.  That prevents me from extending true hospitality to you, from listening to you because I’m waiting for some sign that you’ve seen me.

If you are only an object in my world, then how can I possibly see your heart?  How can I even begin to acknowledge your true nature as a holy and beloved child of God?

And when we extrapolate this to our larger society, it is at the heart of every prejudice we have – racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, classism, regionalism, ableism, sizeism…
The inability to see our neighbor, to truly see the loveliness, the holiness, the belovedness of their embodiment, the inherent worth that is their birthright, the significance and value they are simply because they breathe, the connection that they have to us because they come from the same earth, the same soil, the same adamah over which God breathed the Word into being…
Our inability to see that, to know that, to feel that is what enables us to see “otherness”.  It is the first step to looking for some reason for me to be “OK” and you to not be “OK”.

Martha (whichever one we’re talking about) desperately needs to be seen as OK.  As worthy.  So much so that she asks this guest, this teacher to condemn someone who has chosen another way.  So desperate is she that she will ask for her own sister, her own blood, to be condemned.  What we miss in this… is that by condemning our own sister, we are condemning our self.

And we all do this when we forget.  And so we confess when we come together to worship God.  This is the “unworthiness” we talk about in today’s collect – it is the unwillingness we have to see ourselves as beloved and see God’s whole creation as holy and good.

awe_childThe foil, the contrast to this in Luke’s Gospel, is Mary.  And this is why Jesus calls it the better part.  Mary, who sits in adoration of the Word of God – manifested in this story as Jesus the Christ, manifested all around us in the glorious creation given birth by the breath of God, manifested in our own selves as beloved children of God.  Jesus reminds us that this awe that Mary displays, this adoration of God Word is what true hospitality is all about.

Hospitality is tapping into our own belovedness so that we might really behold another.  It’s knowing that we, ourselves, are holy and loved so that we can extend ourselves in love to our sister and our brother.

Hospitality comes from a place inside of us that trusts (even in moments of fear) that we are God’s precious child.  And trusts in that so deeply that we cannot help but see our brothers and sisters through God’s eyes.  And therefore see them, not as threats or objects from whom we need acknowledgement, but see them simply as precious and loved and holy.

And then, all of a sudden something really cool happens… we want to know them more than we care about them seeing our efforts or acknowledge our purpose.  We want to see their hearts open before our eyes.  And we stop worrying so much about ourselves.  Because we behold this amazing creation of God before us and we want this lovely creature of God to become, not who we need them to be – which is usually some reflection of ourselves – but who they are called to be.  And we sit in awe-filled hospitality, in love w God’s Word.

And this, my friends, is what the Body of Christ is all about.

We are called into ministry to manifest that kind of hospitality, to be the embodiment of that degree of lavish Love.  Not a love with conditions, that demands the other see us as some role or identity or collection of traits or abilities.  And once they see us as worthy, then they are worthy of our love.

But a love that is invites the soul forth – our own soul and the soul of each one of our brothers and sisters.  A welcome that is so radically abundant we begin to envision what the Reign of God actually means… that our salvation is tied to each and every part of God’s creation, that none of us are truly free until each one of us is free.

When we serve another, whether that is a homeless person who comes to the food pantry or a wealthy parishioner who is struggling with the ethics of running a company or a rowdy teenaged boy wearing a hoodie… we are called to see the Word of God in this person and love them.

Love them with a Love that sits in wait with a patient curiosity asking, “How will God’s Holy Spirit shine through this amazing person today?”  A Love that listens closely to the guest in our midst, witnessing their heart… not so that they will remain a guest because we need somebody to love… but so that they will know that they too are called  to join in the dance of inviting others by extending such abundant hospitality.

We are called to this kind of Love.  We are called to this better part.
May it be so.

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Love and Transformation – Buffy Style

Preached on Easter VI at St Alban’s in Albany,CA  Click here to read the day’s scripture.

“The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”  – Acts 10:45

They were astounded.
Why are we always so surprised when the Holy Spirit has transformed someone?
Why is it that we struggle to love one another in a way that invites and encourages this transformation?

It is a tricky thing.  For when we look for transformation in people, we can make the mistake of entangling our own needs.  Our hope for them becomes expectation when we need someone to “transform” in a way that will make us feel better about them, to change in a way that will conform to what we need them to be in our lives.  Inevitably, we are disappointed because we don’t get what we want out of people.  This is not love.

So, we adjust.  We lower our expectations and resign ourselves to keep expecting people to show up the same way they always do.  We decide to tolerate the things that disappoint us, even the things that might harm us, just so we can feel loved and needed in some way.  And perhaps we deaden a part of ourselves and decide to stick it out, doing what we can to keep the relationship in balance.  We may even get mad if the other person does change because it ruins our effort to maintain a fragile stasis.  And while some may call this love, I would disagree.  This is not love.

And let’s face it… some of us have a need to be that transformational element in someone else’s life.  I know I’ve wanted to be that before. We want our love to change them.  We believe that all a person needs is someone to believe in them and we desperately want to be that person.  But this is not love either.

Love is a patient curiosity.  Love is a wondering anticipation.  Love is never astounded and never surprised because it is that which is able to see the Truth that has always been there.  It is that which sees Christ in one another, sees God alive in creation.  And it is merely waiting for you to see it too.

Love happens when that undefended, vulnerable place in me sees that undefended, vulnerable place in you and says, “Oh, there you are!”  And those places are strengthened when they see one another.

And then, Love continues its patient watchfulness, awaiting the next opening, the next opportunity for connection.  Very simply, Love is God looking through our eyes.

On occasion, I’ve indulged myself up here by talked about one of my favorite TV shows – Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Now, I apologize if you’re disappointed in the fact that I’m about to do it again.

One of the reasons I love this series so much is because a few of the characters go through incredibly profound transformations.  This is a bold risk in a television series because the whole reason people keep watching a TV show is that they identify with the characters in some way, they connect to them – either “loving” them or “loving” to hate them.  So, when a screenwriter decides to have a character undergo a transformation, they run the risk of alienating the audience.

And if you think about it, that’s not much different than real life.  We’re often afraid that if we make a change in our lives, if we really live our life fully and become a new creation, we will lose connection with the people that matter the most to us.  In some cases, unfortunately, that might actually be true.

So, back to Buffy.  As you might imagine, Buffy is our heroine.  And, based on the title of the show, you’ve probably also guessed that she is a vampire slayer.  However, as we advance through the series, we find that she slays more than just vampires.  She defends human life against all manner of evil.  And one of the more evil characters is a vampire named Spike.  When he first arrives in the story it’s early on – Season 2 of a 7 season series… and I have watched all 7 seasons at least 3 times.

Spike is Buffy’s nemesis.  And he is dangerous.  He has killed 2 slayers before and vows to kill her.  And we love to hate Spike (who, by the way, is so named because of his chosen method of torturing his victims with a railroad spike) and we just want Buffy to “dust” him (because, you see, vampires turn to dust when you slay them).  And Buffy does her best to take him out but he always proves just a little too cunning, as does she prove to be too good of a slayer for him to kill.  It’s a well-written tension in the plot that keeps the audience interested.

Over the course of the seven seasons, both Buffy and Spike change in significant ways.  They change so profoundly, in fact, that none of the other characters on the show are really willing to fully accept their transformations.  Even though the other characters love Buffy, nearly all of them are unable to see her anew.  And none of them are able to accept the change in Spike.  Now, I’m not going to spoil the surprise for you by telling you everything that happens, should you ever choose to watch the series, which I highly recommend.  

But I will say this: the transformation in these characters only becomes integrated when the other bears witness to it, when the transformation is somehow fully seen and accepted by another.  Let me say that again – transformation is only integrated into our being when someone Loves us enough to bear witness to this new creation.

When Buffy acknowledges, honors, and chooses to trust in Spike’s change of heart.  When Spike witnesses, affirms, and defends the change in Buffy’s very being.  This is Love, my friends.

This is Love, not because it meets with some sentimentalized version of romance.  But rather, this is Love because these characters are willing to surrender their version of reality, willing to let go of their needs, their grudges, their identities and in a sense, lay down their lives… in order to see the Truth that stands before them.

They are willing to bear witness to a new creation.
As a Christian, I would say they are willing to let God see through their eyes.

If we think about it, what happens to us when something new occurs to us?  A shift in our worldview, a new understanding of ourselves that gives us a sense of freedom, a sense of connection, a sense of awe, or even a sense of capacity?  I’m willing to bet that you have all experienced something like this in your lives.

Perhaps when you were young, you learned a new skill and couldn’t wait to show someone.  Or you might have had a life-changing experience that gave you a new understanding of God and you desperately needed to talk to someone about it.  Or, perhaps we are in relationship with someone who refuses to see a change in us: a parent who cannot see us as an adult, a partner who holds on to a mistake we’ve made in the past, a work colleague or manager who has formed an opinion of us based on someone else’s evaluation of our work.

How does it feel when the people in our lives are unwilling or unable to be curious about us?  How does it feel when no one will bear witness to our transformation?  How does it feel when people put you in a box that is convenient for them?

It is a form of death.  It is a kind of killing.  And our culture is so proficient at issuing death sentences.  We seem to demand that people never sway from what they stand for, or believe in.  We seem to need people to sit tight in a file box we keep well labeled and we stand at the ready to demonize them should they choose to step out of it.  And we are astounded when someone has a change of heart.

Do we really think that little of God that we are astounded when the Holy Spirit births a new creation in our midst?

Peter was a disciple of Jesus.  He was there when Jesus gave the commandment to love one another just as Jesus had loved them.  And here is Peter’s first chance to put the rubber to the road after receiving that wacky vision that he is not the authority to choose what is holy and what is profane.  Peter is given the opportunity to witnesses the Holy Spirit at work to see transformation in people.

When “the gift of the Holy Spirit [pours] out even on the Gentiles,” what Peter is called to do is beyond acceptance, beyond tolerance, beyond his own definition of what transformation should look like.  And he is called to witness, to affirm.  Peter is called to Love in a new way.  To look upon these people with the eyes of God.  To Love as Jesus Loved him.

Peter, this man who was always questioning and worried, always just a little nervous.
Who wanted to build tents for Elijah, Moses and Jesus when Jesus was transfigured before his eyes because he didn’t quite understand what was happening.
Who got so confused because Jesus wanted to wash his feet.
Who denied Jesus 3 times on the day of his torment and death.
Peter, whom Jesus always Loved with a patient curiosity, using the eyes of God to see the Truth.
This man Simon Peter is called to Love as Jesus Loved him.

And so he stands… willing to bear witness to a new creation
Opening himself to the Love that is God looking through our eyes.

And when that happens, our questions and anxiety disappear, our confusion evaporates, our defenses drop.  And just like Peter, we simply Love one another and we automatically embody that patient curiosity for one another that is simply waiting to greet our friend, “Oh, hey! There you are.”

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Enneagram Workshops and Retreats

E-TypesName1

The Enneagram has become a widely used device for discovering personality types.  However, its true power lies in its ability to show us how God is calling us to grow in our spiritual lives.  As a map that illustrates our strengths and weaknesses, our bright gifts and our deep shadows, the Enneagram is an invaluable tool for spiritual growth.  But the Enneagram doesn’t put us in a box. Instead, it shows us the box we’ve already put ourselves in and how God is calling us into liberation.

MMeech 0315Michelle Meech is an Episcopal priest and has been teaching the Enneagram in workshop and discussion formats for 15 years.  She was trained through the Enneagram Institute by Don Riso and Russ Hudson and is dedicated to the work of transformation through helping people bring more compassion to themselves and the people in their lives.  Michelle currently works as the Ministry Developer for the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan and lives in Ypsilanti with her dog Bella.

Michelle regularly offers the following formats and can tailor a workshop to fit needs.
Please contact her for more information at:  mmmeech at gmail.com
Download a PDF of this information here:  The Enneagram – MMeech

 

An Introduction to the Enneagram
This workshop provides an overview of the Enneagram that includes a brief history and can, if time provides, offer an opportunity to use a typing/sorting instrument so participants can identify their Ennea-type.  In addition, participants will be introduced to the personal work of liberation from the stories that keep us locked automatic behaviors and experiences of shame, fear, and pain.
Format: 1.5 – 3 hours.
For newcomers to the Enneagram, whether they know their Ennea-type or not.

 

The Enneagram: Structure and Insight
This workshop offers a deeper look at the Enneagram and its structure, giving participants more insight into each Ennea-type and how the types are interconnected.  Participants will learn about social styles, coping mechanisms, and motivational centers and the basic structure of the Enneagram will be discussed.  Examples of each Ennea-type will also be provided.
Format: 6-8 hour day.
For a wide range of Enneagram knowledge – from newcomers to those who have been working with it for years.

 

Enneagram Insight Retreat
This 3-day retreat offers the opportunity to go deeper with the Enneagram by utilizing group instruction, individual and group processing, movement, and meditation to help participants work directly with their own Ennea-type via Don Riso’s Levels of Development.  These Levels provide us with deep insight into how our Ennea-type functions and help us locate signposts of health as well as triggers that set off our fears and unhealthy behaviors.  By inquiring directly and gently into our experience we can discover more about our motivations and see more clearly how God is calling us to liberation.
Format: 3-hour evening, 6-hour day, 6-hour day.
For people who have more than an introductory knowledge.

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Cosmic Calendar: Carl Sagan and the Liturgical Year

Cosmic CalendarPost on Episcopal Café in exploration of our relationship with Creation on April 27, 2015.  Here’s the link to Episcopal Café:  http://www.episcopalcafe.com/cosmic-calendar/

In my late 20’s, when I had begun to fall in love with God again, I remember reading Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden. Sagan offers a profound story about our relationship with God and our relationship with one another in his theory of the evolution of intelligence, which I interpret as our way of understanding God’s presence in our lives.

Chapter 1 is called The Cosmic Calendar because it offers a notable series of charts – an attempt to help us grasp the timeline of the universe determined thus far by scientists. If the Big Bang happened on January 1, then the Milky Way began to form on May 1, the Earth formed on September 14, and so on. The most impressive part of this for me is that the first humans don’t appear until around 10:30pm on December 31. Humans are just a small part of the whole thing. Humanity is simply a part of God’s holy creation, not the center of it.

But in our hubris, most humans have read the story of the universe through our own eyes, believing ourselves to be the center of it. This is understandable – we can only tell our own story after all. But there have been and still are faiths and perspectives which have a deeper reverence for the earth, offering a countercultural story to the human inclination toward domination and control brought about by our own fears and desires.

Rather than bemoan our sin of extreme anthropocentrism, focusing on humanity yet again, I wonder what God is doing. Rather than shake my finger at humanity’s vain and hopeless schemes to lay waste to our planet home, I want to know how deepen my reverence for God’s whole creation. Because it is in this that I find hope. It is in finding and experiencing this connection to my own origins in the very elements of this planet, that I am truly able to connect to Christ and empty myself of my own fears and desires.

What it boils down to is this: How might I move more in concert with the whole of creation as if I were a part of it, accepting and trusting in God’s Reign of abundance and grace, rather than believing in scarcity as the inevitable outcome of sin. In other words, can I really believe in the Resurrection?

The Resurrection is the center of our salvation story, as Christians. Because of the Resurrection, we believe (in varying ways) Grace is the final word, not sin. We believe life conquers death. When I ask the question, “What is God doing?” the answer I come to on my better days is, “God is doing life.” I come to this answer because of my Christian beliefs and because of that chart given to me by Carl Sagan. The force of God is always going to be seeking ways for life to thrive because God is the life-force. And while God cares deeply for all of creation, I don’t think God will hesitate to work around humanity’s careless sin. Resurrection happens, despite our best efforts at sin. In the end, God’s will be done.

I find this hopeful. I have faith that God will do whatever needs to be done to ensure that life will continue. And because I see this is what God is doing, I am called to respond. In fact, I am called to repent. If God is the life-force, employing the whole creation, then my response is to know my place in this creation – my part in the Paschal mystery, the bigger mystery of life. Science helps me with this (thank you, Carl Sagan), but so does our tradition.

We have to look no further than our own liturgical year to find a map for this. An intrinsic understanding of and love for God’s cycle of abundance is embedded in how we worship. Liturgy, at its best, is an action that helps us understand God, experience a deeper connection to one another, and offer a way for us to respond to both. As Christians, our most common experience of this is Sunday liturgy – whether that be Eucharist or Morning Prayer or the forms our ecumenical brothers and sisters use.

What if we moved even more deeply into our tradition? We tend to focus on the rest of creation only in the spring when it’s time for planting, when it’s time to use the earth for our benefit. But what if we took advantage of the whole liturgical year to re-mind ourselves of the greater creation? Because, although each Sunday we celebrate our reconciliation with God through Christ, focusing on a single Sunday at a time can get as myopic and unfocused as focusing on humanity as the center of creation.

Our tradition is not devoid of reverence for the whole of God’s creation. Our tradition is much, much bigger than that. It is embedded in an understanding of God that goes far beyond the human story. It begins each year at the Easter Vigil with fire and water, air and earth, as we tell the story of creation and our place in it. And, if we’re attentive, it continues – moving us toward and re-minding us of our connection to the life of the whole planet, indeed the entire universe. Our tradition, our liturgical year, is a map for the Paschal mystery – the reconciliation of the whole creation to God.

 

Michelle Meech currently lives in Ypsilanti, MI with her dog Bella.  She leads meditation retreats, teaches the Enneagram, spends too much time on Facebook, and writes her sermons while listening to trip hop music (easy listening for post-moderns).  Michelle is also an Episcopal priest and is humbled to serve as the Ministry Developer in the Diocese of Michigan.  You can find her blogging at www.foldedandunfolding.wordpress.com

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It’s Holy Week

The TableIt’s Holy Week on the Christian calendar and I’m sitting in a Panera Bread reading my Facebook feed.  I see posts about Christian spirituality and posts about the everyday details of life.  And I see posts of solidarity, outrage, and shame.  And in between, I look up from my table, from my all-consuming computer, and look around the room at the people.  People eating.  People talking.  People playing with their own technological devices.  People walking and sitting and leaning.

People who bring joy to the lives of other people.  And people who bring pain.  Most of the time, oblivious of both.  And all of the time, just walking through their own stories of anxiety and fear.  Trying to carve some sense of security and some sense of meaning out of the existence they lead.  This is nothing new.  And I’m not the first to observe it.

But it’s Holy Week on the Christian calendar and I’m an Episcopal priest and I’ve been asked to serve at the Triduum at St John’s in Royal Oak where my friend Beth is the rector.  Tonight we will wash feet and strip the altar during our Maundy Thursday service.  Tomorrow we will gather to remember the death of Jesus during our Good Friday service.  Saturday we will tell our stories of salvation and proclaim Christ arisen during our Easter Vigil.  It’s a 3 piece worship service, performed over 3 days designed to lead us through a roller coaster of emotion as we recall the last days of Jesus’ human life.

Like we need more emotion, right?

If my Facebook feed is any indication, we have plenty to be emotional about.  We have a couple of states in our country that believe religious freedom is being threatened because gay people are getting married.  And, to add to that, we have emotionally toxic reactions to this misguided attempt at bigotry as business owners are threatened.  California is facing a record-breaking drought with scientists stating they only have one more year of water left.  A young woman in Indiana has been arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison for “feticide” because she miscarried her child and panicked when it happened.

People are being abused.  Animals are being abused.  The earth is being abused.  Jesus is being abused.

What I know is that if humans don’t process the trauma we experience, we end up passing it along in some way.  Because I read Rene Girard, I understand this to be the demonic force that acted upon Jesus.  We pass on our trauma and it comes out as oppression, homophobia, racism, misogyny, and so on.  We experience trauma in our lives and it shapes our world and our heart and we shut off parts of ourselves because we can’t handle the pain.  We carry the trauma as shame and just don’t know how to heal, many times we don’t want to heal simply because it would mean acknowledging or re-experiencing the wound.

And Holy Week is the Christian response to this.  We tell our stories and we see ourselves and our pain in Jesus.  We wash feet and we forgive.  We share food and we feel nourished.  We experience desolation and we learn we are not alone.  We recount and replay our stories and we remember who we are.  And when Christ arises again, when we feel that joy as the bells ring… perhaps we can let go and become a new creation.

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Stuff: Rule #5

5 – Understand the ultimate unsoundness of the industrial doctrine of ‘labour saving’ if that implies poor work, unemployment, or any kind of pollution or contamination.

Shopping.  I remember when the homesoil of the United States was attacked by terrorists flying airplanes into the Twin Towers, our country’s leadership told us to go shopping.  Not interfaith prayer.  Not enlisting in the armed services.  Not educating ourselves about others.  Not even hunkering down in a bunker.  No, we were told to go by more stuff.

Shopping is one of the backbones of our country.  We know ourselves and each other by where we shop, which brands we buy, how much we paid (or didn’t pay), and consequently, how much of the right stuff we own.

Shopping, or consumerism, is the air we breathe.  We don’t really notice it or how much of our lives are spent doing it because it’s all around us.  We use phrases like “purchasing power” and “market driven” and we are slaves to the credit system, which has become a litmus test of our worth.  And while this may be starting to sound like a critique on our national pastime, I don’t mean it to be.

What I mean to do is examine the criteria we use in making our buying decisions.  Instead of the culture informing our Christianity, let’s allow our Christian beliefs to inform how we interact with culture.  In other words, let’s shop!  But let’s make those buying decisions based on what we believe and on the vows we’ve taken as members of the baptized community.

Swedish Show

A Swedish show helps young fashionistas become aware of the impact of their appetites.

To illustrate, I’d like to point to this website: A Swedish television show sent three young fashion enthusiasts to Cambodia for a month last year.   Seriously, take a look at this article.

I doubt this show would ever play in the United States because we are a culture tied to the market economy.  We believe in profits as the sole determining factor of the health of a company.  This means that business people in American are always weighing the cost of labor and trying to control that cost.  It’s what drives our beliefs about so many parts of the market – minimum wage, worker’s rights, corporate personhood, stock market, bloated salary of CEO’s, employee benefits, consumer cost, profit margin, etc.

And, instead of our Christian beliefs informing our buying decisions, we’ve allowed our cultural tendencies to influence our lives as the Body of Christ.  It’s not new.  Hell, it’s been a part of the US religious experience from the beginning.  Because we never had a state church as a country, we’ve always had an open market when it comes to religion.  It’s why we have so many independent churches and splinters in the larger denominations.  And, it’s why the feel-good preachers always have a lot of success (yeah, I know that was snarky).  But the truth is, anyone can start a church in this country.  Just ask L. Ron Hubbard (yeah, also snarky).

But more than this, is the insistence that church function like a business.  This causes us to believe that if churches just knew how to advertise better, we would fill up the pews.  Or to measure a congregation’s success by the number of BIP (butts in pews, otherwise known as ASA).  Or reducing our experience of church to Sunday worship.  Or worse, when we treat Sunday worship as a show – something that we perform for an audience – the audience who are consumers of our product.

The gospel is inherently counter cultural if you read it seriously – which is to say, not literally but through the lens of what it meant to hear it when it was written, in context – at least as much as that’s possible.  So, our task, as church, just might be to offer the cultural critique to consumerism.  Our baptismal vows, as Episcopalians, just might lead us to think about our shopping as a way to live out baptismal vow #5 – Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

As the Body of Christ in the world, I think we’re called to be less consumer-driven in our consumer activities.  Less consumer-ism, more consumer-educated.  I think we’re called to ask questions like these:

Homeboy

Homeboy Industries

The food we eat: Where was it grown?  Does the production of this food create inequality in that place because the land is used to grow food for US tables instead of local tables?
The building materials: Where was the timber harvested?  Is that harvest creating surface erosion or the destruction of ecosystems that end up harming the people who live there?  Are the materials bio-friendly so we leave behind fewer chemicals for the generations who come after us?
The decorations we use for feast days: Is it made of plastic?  Do we only use it once and then throw it away?
Bags, cups, logo-carrying items: Is this a useful method of evangelism?  Could the purchase of these items have a positive impact somewhere?  As an example – Homeboy Industries.  Homeboy Industries is a place where young men and women are saved from gang life in Los Angeles.  They learn skills, confidence, and self-acceptance from one another and from Fr. Greg Boyle (or Fr. G., as he’s called).

This only scratches the surface.  Because then we get to apply this same scrutiny to our personal buying decisions.

Thistle Farms

Thistle Farms

 

Cosmetics: Does your body wash have plastic microbeads that will eventually find their way into streams and lakes where small animals confuse them for food and eat them?  Has your shampoo been tested on rabbits?  Like Homeboy Industries, consider purchasing something from Thistle Farms, a business that helps women prostitutes in Nashville learn skills, confidence, and self-acceptance.  They were recently featured on a PBS Frontline series called A Path Appears.
Electronics: Do you buy the newest electronic device simply so that you can have the latest gadget, succumbing to the planned obsolescence of the industry?
Clothes: Where were they made?  Does the company you’re buying from engage in unfair labor practices?

Congregations are, with good reason, very mindful of spending.  As a result, we look for bargains and sales and ways to save a few bucks here and there.  This makes sense.  I’m not suggesting we stop being mindful of how much money we spend.

I’m suggesting that we stop trying to create a false sense of abundance by buying cheaply made products.  And instead, we make wiser, better informed buying decisions that revolve less around bargain hunting and more around just and sustainable labor practices.  Because it is here, in the wiser decisions that support the whole of God’s creation, that we find true abundance.  It’s the web of connection again.  We can only live into abundance if the whole web is supported.  It’s a false sense of abundance if I believe that my abundance is about having more at the expense of another part of the web breaking apart.

Because we are called to be disciples.  We are called to learn this counter-cultural way of being in the world.  We are called to bear witness to the Reign of God and actively participate in its becoming.

Story of Stuff

The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard

To end this blog post, I’d like to offer you the video that converted me several years ago.  Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff.  It does a much better job of making the point than I can.  And while you’re on the website, check out all the other amazing resources.  They have lots of short educational movies that can help to reorient our thinking and help us to become more sustainable in our thinking and in our shopping.

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Self-care: Rule #4

4 – Always supply local needs first (and only then think of exporting products – first to nearby cities, then to others).

If clergy in the Episcopal Church have heard any lecture over and over again in our training, it’s the one(s) about self-care.  Boundary-setting.  Financial fitness and planning.  Sabbath.  Attentiveness to health.  Family time.  Friendships “outside church.”  Spiritual direction.  Therapy.  We even have a pension-fund sponsored program called CREDO in which we are periodically invited to be on retreat with other clergy so we can remind ourselves of our deepest beliefs and make changes to live in alignment with those beliefs.

This need arises because of something called clergy burnout.  And, if we’re honest, it also arises out of a fear that our clergy will resort to addictive behaviors or boundary broaching relationships if they are not mindful of self-care.  And if you’re reading this and you’re Episcopalian, you know how much the addictions of the clergy are in the spotlight right now.

E-TypesNameI teach something called the Enneagram – which is a way to help us look at the map of our personality in an objective way and develop an awareness that can be exceedingly helpful and self-forgiving.  There’s more info about it here.  And one of the things I’m aware of about my personality type is that I have trouble balancing the needs of others with the needs of self.  There are others who have the same trouble.  Some tend to overfocus on “other.”  Some tend to overfocus on “self.”  My personality type (the 9) is special in that it tends to overfocus on both, resulting in the experience of being overwhelmed and so, it (the personality) just gives in and disappears from sight, neglect becoming its sin of choice.  It’s “fun” to live in that place.  Please note the sarcasm in that last statement.

Garfield fieldSo, self-care.  Yeah.  It’s not as easy as one might think in the church.  So, if you’re a 9 and a priest, it’s basically the biggest challenge we face.  And what comes right after it is self-judgment because we believe we just can’t do it, which is just not helpful for anyone (it results in the breathless cycle shown below).

What does all this mean for church and community?
I’ve determined it has to do with breathing.  Stay with me a bit longer.

The push and pull between self-care and care of other is like breathing.
Warning: tortured metaphor ahead.  I blame it on all those years I spent playing trumpet/bugle and running around on a football field.  Breathing is mightily important to both.

 

breathing 2One of the things I’ve observed about the Episcopal Church is that when a congregation is blessed with a self-aware priest and a self-aware deacon who truly understand their roles, the Body of Christ breathes quite naturally and with great capacity.  The priest’s role is to continually bring people together and point people to Christ in the Sacrament.  The deacon’s role is to continually send people out and point people to Christ in the world.  In and out.  Breathing.  If the Body of Christ isn’t breathing, it isn’t alive.

See, I told you it was a tortured metaphor.  But, frankly, I think it’s a very helpful one.  So, you’re welcome.  Always happy to serve… (or not… my 9 is overwhelmed).

deep-breathIn congregations where there is only a priestly presence, that person is charged with doing both – bringing together and sending out.  This can be exhausting.  It’s doable, but it’s not the best use of these roles.  I would like to say that’s what our time as a transitional deacon trains us to do, but let’s be honest, the transitional diaconate is a vestige from a time when clericalism was the rule of the day and it undermines the sign that is the true deacon, the vocational deacon (tangential soapbox is now put away, thank you for your indulgence).

And so this is how the clergy are signs – symbols for the congregation.  I believe this is our liturgical role and our role as members of the laity (yes, clergy are members of the laity too).  Not as holders of power, but as bearers of important and necessary symbols to the life of the Body.  This is why self-care is so incredibly important in the church.  Because we can so easily cross the boundary which is the difference between our self and our role as symbol.  Clergy forgets our primary role as symbol and we make it all about what we believe we aren’t getting – we make it all about ourselves.  And, we’re back to clericalism, a truly unsustainable model.

The good news is this tortured metaphor I’ve been working with, this breathing, is something we can all experience.  And we can all return to.  We know it intimately.  We know it as the Word of God.  The expression of the life-giving force that becomes incarnate form.  And it’s why the laity is so so SO important in the life of the church and why clericalism is so dangerous.  The laity holds the space of both/and.  The laity IS the breath of the Body of Christ.  The laity is the symbol of the Incarnate Word.

breathing

When we hold our breath, we cease to thrive.  And when our physical death comes to us, as my time as a hospital chaplain taught me, it’s a matter of which organ stops first – the lungs or the heart.  When the heart stops beating, it no longer supplies blood to the lungs and they stop.  When the lungs stop breathing, they no longer supply oxygen to the blood and the heart stops.

 

breatheBreath is life.  It’s that simple.  This is how we were created.  This is how were are fearfully made out of the elements of the earth.  And that breath feeds the heart, our organ of perception.  We perceive Truth through the lens of the heart.  We perceive that we are the Beloved of God and are utterly connected to the whole of God’s creation. So, what is it that helps us to breathe?  It’s the both/and of self-care and care for others.  It’s the breathing of the priestly symbol and the deacon symbol.  It’s ensuring that, as we care for others, we are attentive to self at the same time.  And as we care for self, we are attentive to others at the same time.  That neither are exclusive of the other because of this crazy, boundless interconnected web that is the whole of creation.

When church is functioning well and missionally-oriented, I truly believe the members of that congregation know instinctively how to be mindful members of their community because they have incorporated the symbols into their being.  And those same members learn from the community and come back and teach the church.

And the breathing thing happens quite naturally and with great capacity.  This is baptismal ministry at its essence, at its best.  Baptismal ministry is not the raising up of people because a congregation is not able to afford a priest, as some believe.  That’s a form of clericalism.  Baptismal ministry is something ALL congregations have a responsibility to live out.  Baptismal ministry is the breathing of the Body of Christ.  It is the bringing together AND the sending out, all of which, are encompassed in our baptismal vows.  Without this understanding of baptismal ministry, the church is simply unsustainable because it’s inwardly focused on institutional survival.

Are you breathing?

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Hope: Rule #3

Rule #3 – Always ask how local needs might be supplied from local sources, including the mutual help of neighbours.

As a latch-key kid of the 70’s and early 80’s, I spent a lot of time watching sit-com reruns on TV, when I wasn’t hanging out at the library.  I got to know episodes of The Brady Bunch, Bewitched, My Three Sons, I Love Lucy, Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heroes, The Beverly Hillbillies, etc.  You get the idea.

Andy GMy favorite show of all of these, however, was The Andy Griffith Show.  I’ve often commented that Andy Taylor (the main character played by Andy Griffith) was my first ethics teacher.  As the sheriff of Mayberry, he was always trying to help people – whether it was by making sure they kept the roof over their heads, or by keeping Barney (his over-enthusiastic deputy) from irritating too many people, or by teaching just the right lesson to folks who were missing the mark.

There were moments when he displayed amazing vulnerability and humility, because his curious and guileless son Opie would point out the inconsistency in his father’s behavior.  And there were moments when he was surprisingly feminist (keep in mind, this was the early 1960’s) or played the foil as the women in his life showed him what an ass he was being.

In all, Andy knew how to be a neighbor and he knew how to encourage others to be neighborly, always giving people the right kind of push… even that miser Ben Weaver.  Andy was, it seems, the very center of hope.  So, when I think about this week’s Rule from Wendell Berry and how it talks about needs being met by the helpfulness of neighbors, I think of Andy Taylor.

In our global economy, where our electronics come from China, our clothing comes from Bangladesh, and our strawberries come from Mexico, it’s hard to imagine that almost all of a community’s needs used to be supplied by local tradespeople, craftsmen, farmers, and business owners.  This was also a time when churches were more integrated into the life of a community because just about everyone went to church.  And this is where we are stuck, as church… wanting to go back to a time when church mattered to people.  Or, to be more pointed, when we felt like we had a purpose.  But don’t get me started on that rabbit hole.

The point is not to take a trip down nostalgia lane and pine for a time when we like to imagine life was simpler and easier and people were nicer.  The point is to understand the principles of neighborliness and institute them in the local community.  And how the church, regardless of how many people attend on Sunday, can and should still be an integral part of the life of the community.

And here’s the thumbnail version of one of my favorite soapbox speeches: The Missional Church
The church does not exist for itself.  The church exists for the community it serves.  The church exists to seek and serve Christ in the community.  This includes the members of the Body of Christ.  But it is not limited to the Body of Christ.  When we get overly concerned about how many people are in the pews instead of how many homeless people live on our streets, we’ve lost sight of the Reign of God because the Mission of Christ is about reconciling the world to God.  This is God’s Hope for us.BRandolph

Well, that’s the thumbnail version. So, what does this have to do with being sustainable?  Well, everything.
My friend Barry Randolph, a priest at Detroit’s Church of the Messiah, often says, “When you’ve got the mission, the odds don’t matter.”

Church of the Messiah (231 E. Grand Blvd) has risen out of the ashes in Detroit just like the proverbial phoenix.  At an ASA of 40 and no budget, the team decided it was a do-or-die kinda moment.  So, they turned their focus outward, on the needs of the community – specifically, they focused on the youth of Detroit because they knew that’s exactly who needed to hear about God’s Hope.  And the congregation started growing.  Within 2 years, the congregation grew to over 200 ASA and now they host several ministries, some of which are their own and some are community organizations.

Would I call them sustainable?  They’re getting there.  They seek grants on a regular basis to support the ministries and they are cultivating partnerships with a few other congregations in the diocese.  Most of the people they serve are poor, so Messiah has trouble with financial stewardship within the congregation itself.  Their current goal is to develop a long-term foundation for administrative support so they can pay utilities in the dead of winter and, perhaps, start paying some salaries.

Messiah 2But in another way, Messiah is already more sustainable than many other congregations.  They are known in the city of Detroit as a place where people gather – especially young folks.  They are sought out by governmental organizations as a point of connection and distribution.  They are known in community organizing circles as the group to work with.  And this… this mission, this neighborliness, this hope…  isn’t going anywhere.

The folks at Messiah did something simple – they put the gospel before the budget.  They put God’s mission first.  I can hear the sharp intake of breath from here from all our business-model-minded folks.  And I’m not about to say that our stewardship guides are wrong.  They aren’t.  Consider, however, that Detroit is already re-writing the American understanding of urban blight and renewal.  It’s a different model of hope.  So, perhaps our model of stewardship doesn’t apply here.  That’s not for me to say, just something to ponder.

What is important to note is the movement they made is a missional one.  They refused to let the budget get in the way of the mission.  Instead, they simply found another way to do it.  As Barry says, “When you’ve got the mission, the odds don’t matter.”  The money will come.  It is coming.  Ultimately, it is sustainable.

A final thought: Barry isn’t currently paid by the church.  He and the other leaders of the Church of the Messiah (and it does take a team of people), do all of this because they love God and they want to glorify God by being good neighbors – by making sure that their neighbors keep a roof over their head, have food to eat, walk with good mentors, get into college, get a job, and simply take care of one another.  In other words, it’s about hope.Messiah 1

Just like Andy Taylor.

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