Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Letter to the Church, Pentecost +24

Dear Friends,

As many of you know, my beloved, feisty, 97 year old grandmother died on Tuesday.  And, so I begin this letter to you on a plane roughly half-way between Minneapolis and Maui, on a flight I had not planned to take. But, life and death happen--and so, here I am and here you are (well, technically, at this precise moment I hope that I am still asleep because, you know, time change).  As Michael Moore, said, a letter for a sermon was what the church used to rely on for edification--and so, consider this an epistolatory sermon in the style of Paul...

In which case, 

Theophilis, aka Gretchen, I bid you peace and ask that you convey my greeting to any who are new to the church.  

As I prepared to write this sermon, rather, letter, I turned to a sermon I wrote three years ago on this text. And, to my surprise, it was the sermon I needed to read in this moment as I mourn the loss of Tutu.  

In that sermon, I detailed a “Call the Midwife” episode in which the main character mourns the loss of an elderly patient she had grown to love. And, through the loss of this patient, she realizes that love is worth it. That opening herself up to the risk of loss and heartache is worth the great and holy gift that is love...that if she is to truly live she must also learn the gift that suffering can bring--that suffering, being the result of living, engaging and loving others, is worth it.  

The pain is worth it, the grief is worth it. The risk of loving is worth it. Almost 20 years ago, I remember lying on my grandmother’s bed before leaving to go back to the mainland, she was patting my back as I wept and I remember feeling embarrassed to cry in front of her--but I could not help but weep. I was all too aware that, as she closed in on 80, it was entirely possible that this woman I loved would die before I saw her again. And, so, as I cried she comforted me--and this memory is a comfort to me as I return home to mourn her death.  

And, I realize that if I had been too afraid to allow myself to be vulnerable in front of my grandmother, I would never have received the care that brings me such comfort now.  

Grief, love, sorrow and pain--all intermingling and all understood by the God who loves us as we are, a God who suffered as we suffer and rejoiced as we rejoice.  I claim this understanding of suffering, on the part of God, as critical to my own life of faith--in many ways, I am a Christian because I serve a God who understands both how hard it is and how wonderful it is to be a human being. In the letter to the Hebrews, Paul testifies that “He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness”.  

I have shared before that when I need to imagine the God incarnate it is the image of Michelangelo’s “La Pieta” that I meditate upon--this sculpture of Mary holding the body of her dead son becomes, for me, an image of God holding us in the midst of our suffering.  

And, as I meditate upon this image--I find myself further comforted that, in the midst of my own grief, and new as I am to this church, I have a community here that holds me--holds me in prayer and love and in understanding. This understanding is a gift.  Here we have a community of people who who know what it is to be weak and know what it is to grieve and know what it is to rejoice--and in that knowing are able to deal gently with each other as Christ dealt gently with us. Look around, there are people here who understand suffering because they too have suffered--they will weep with you and be with you in the hard times...if you let them.

People often wonder what it is I “get” out of going to Church--and my response is that I get to be part of a body of people who, in its best moments, is able to bring the love of God to fruition in the world. 

And, if I were ever asked to give a stewardship testimonial (thank you Emily and Anthony!) that would also be my response about why I give financially in order to support the church--it’s a place where real people can come together to try our best to love each other and heal the world, and where we can be loved even when we fall short. We are in this together...  

For, who here hasn’t wept at the pain of loss?  Who here hasn’t celebrated a birth or mourned a death?  Who here hasn’t paused in their perusal of the newspaper in awe at the horrific things that we as human beings are capable of doing to each other, and in wonder at the kindnesses we can show?  We love as Christ loved and suffer as Christ suffers because we are human.  And, because we are human we are the children of God and because we are the children of God we are wrapped in God’s embrace throughout our lives, our losses and our loves.  

And, this is a love that knows suffering, this is a love that has been broken, this is a love that has endured, this is the love that looks upon us in the midst of our imperfection and failings and STILL LOVES US.  This is a love that deals gently with us because it is a love that knows what it is to suffer.

Once again, that phrase from Hebrews, “He is able to deal gently” with us.  And, so in the Gospel today, we hear Jesus deal gently with his disciples. In their fear and in their anxiety they began to argue amongst themselves over who was the greatest.

And, as I picture their arguing, I imagine it was easier to argue than weep over what was to come. So in their grief they lashed out at each other--asking for something that did not matter, in the face of what really did matter.  So there they are, the brother’s Zebedee, ”Jesus I believe, reward my belief”.  

And there Jesus is, responding with a reminder of all that will come and resetting their priorities...“you do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  Now, this is not a call to seek out suffering but rather it is a call to share in Jesus’ own calling--the calling to be a human being and the calling to serve.  Because, if we are human we WILL suffer and the grace in that is our ability to serve others who suffer.  Called out of our shared humanity and shared love to live with empathy and compassion for all of the beloved children of God.  

The next leg of my flight is boarding now, so I need to sign off...and e-mail this to Gretchen before I get on the plane!  

I remain, yours in Christ, 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Then, Now and Will Be: 1892 and 120 Years of Stewardship

On the Occasion of the 120th Anniversary of St. Clement’s
Scripture Found Here

For context, the liturgy used on the 120th Anniversary of the Founding of St. Clement's was that of morning prayer with communion from the 1892 Prayer Book (American).  An online version of the 1892 prayer book can be found at

On the bookshelf in my house I have a copy of my Mother’s 1928 Book of Common Prayer--my brothers thought I should have it after she died, you know, since I’m the religious one.  It has her name in it, and every time I look at it, I am reminded of her.  I’ve never used her prayer book for my own prayers, but it becomes a means of connecting with my memories of her and grounds me more firmly in who I am.  

And, then, there is my home communion kit. Gifted to me by Jean Hoover, it belonged to her husband, the Reverend Henry Hoover.  Both Jean and Henry have died, but in using their gift I am reminded of the love that endures all things.  In the kit is a note--detailing its origin as Henry’s father’s kit, a gift from his Bishop.  I am the third generation of priest to carry this kit on visits.

We are all carriers of memories, of objects we deem sacred, we keep the traditions and pass them on to the generations to follow.  And, it is a gift to be able to turn a page and see for ourselves what those who’ve preceded us in this life of faith held dear. To kneel as they kneeled, to say the words they would have said, to be in this space and know the love and care that has gone into the preservation of what could be a museum piece alone--but is instead a vital and busy place of prayer, fellowship and service.  

Today we mark the 120th Anniversary of St. Clement’s and just as described in the carefully preserved newspaper clippings in the Service Register kept that year, we celebrate with 1892 morning prayer followed by communion.

“At the close of the consecration service, Morning Prayer was said by the Reverend Ernest Dray, the Lessons being read by Archdeacon Appleby. Bishop Potter delivered an able and appropriate the conclusion of the sermon, Bishop Gilbert, who was suffering from a severe cold, made a very brief address, calling for the need of unity and cooperation on the part of all who proposed to make St. Clement’s their church home.  Holy Communion was celebrated, Bishop Potter acting as celebrant.” (newspaper clipping, found in Parish Service Book).  

Unity and cooperation...

And, so 120 years of unity and cooperation (mostly!) have brought us here--to a place many of us call our church home.  And, our own unity and cooperation is just as essential now as it was then--we bring a variety of gifts to this place, and it is that very diversity of gifts that enlivens the body of Christ and allows us to continue on in this place for the people of the now and the people who are yet to be.  

And, so, 1892 in 2015--then and now. And I wonder how we, the people of the now, hear the words of the people of the then.  Words like render, dissemble, goodly, vouchsafe.  Phrases such as, “the place of departed spirits” and “dispose the hearts of all rulers.”  

And, then the scripture, King James Authorized--no longer authorized for our regular Sunday observances!  How will we hear the good news if the words no longer make sense to us?  

A word by word explication seems necessary.  But, then, I begin to feel a bit like the Humpty Dumpty of Alice’s encounter in “Through the Looking Glass”.  Humpty Dumpty assures her that he knows the meaning of all poems and so Alice requests an explanation of the opening verse of Jabberwocky...

''Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
   And the mome raths outgrabe.'

'That's enough to begin with,' Humpty Dumpty interrupted: 'there are plenty of hard words there. "Brillig" means four o'clock in the afternoon — the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.'

And, so, Humpty Dumpty and Alice continue through each word of the opening verse of Jabberwolky, concluding

“'what does "outgrabe" mean?'
'Well, "outgribing" is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle...Who's been repeating all that hard stuff to you?'

'I read it in a book,' said Alice.” (Carrol, Through the Looking Glass, 1971)

I read it in a book...and here we are with our books, and these words, and our history. 

From the first American Prayer Book in 1789 to the current 1979 version.  

So, what do we see in these words and phrases...what needs opening for the meditation of our hearts? When I asked myself, what one thing do I want each of you to hear in the midst of all of the words of today, I found myself drawn to one simple sentence from the Gospel.  

 “Then Jesus beholding him loved him”.  

Jesus loved him--even though he didn’t get it, even though he walked away distraught at the notion of giving out of his abundance, Jesus loved him. I’ve often thought of this text as an indictment against the accumulation of wealth at the expense of others—and it is (and next time this Gospel appears on a Sunday you’ll hear more about that!).  But, what I’d never noticed was that despite this young man’s inability to let go of the wealth that he has been told is keeping him from living up to God’s standards…despite this, he is loved by God.  When we fall short, Jesus loves us.  When we are unable to do what we should, God is present and we are loved.  

And, perhaps this, perhaps this is what unifies and allows for our cooperation--this shared knowledge that no matter how we might fall short, we will be loved.  And, no matter how our fellows fall short, they too are loved.  

The generations preceding us at St. Clement’s would have heard this text in the course of their own worship here.  And, I wonder if they too were drawn to the knowledge that Jesus loved him, and in loving him demonstrates that we ourselves are loved. I wonder, if someone sitting in that pew there, might have underlined that phrase and found comfort in it for another day.  

These are our books, these are our things, these are our inheritances.  And, they remind us both who we are, from whence we have come and of the God of love to whom we belong.  And, so the invitation today is to enter into this service with a sense of wonderment, wondering at what our ancestors in this place thought and held dear, wondering at our ability to pray these prayers that they prayed, wondering at the stewardship, and trust that was extended in order to make this place this place.

We are here because they were then.  

They will be because we are now.

Divorce and Advocacy for the Vulnerable

Proper 22B, 2015
A Preferential Option for the Poor
Readings Found Here

It’s the rare family that has not in some ways been impacted by divorce...and so I am careful with these words. I have to hold them gently and honor them fully lest we do ourselves harm in their interpretation.  I have to listen, to my pain and yours, before I begin to letter after another...seeking the grace within a text that has no loopholes.  I have to put on what I think of as my “grace goggles” in order to see the gift that this particular text so wonderfully offers when we read it with an eye towards liberation.  

So, I begin with the recognition of the damage that this text has done to the countless folk who have been impacted by divorce.  There are those for whom divorce was the best option and the right thing, those for whom it was a tragic necessity, and those for whom divorce was its own liberation. And, I move from that recognition to another reality--this text is not about divorce in the 21st century. And, this is a text that demands that we not only encounter the scripture through our own life experience

But, also through what we know about the socio-political context of the time.  

In ancient Mediterranean culture, marriage was not about the individual--it was about the joining of economic and social resources of two families.  The individuals in the marriage allowed two extended families to be joined  in what was hopefully an economically advantageous situation for the entire extended clan.  

So, divorce, brought shame upon the entire family system AND could result in feuding.  

So, the debate about divorce isn’t about individual rights--it’s about the entire extended family system.  And, not only about the family system but also the rights of a vulnerable population in the social context of ancient Mediterranea...


Divorce was not a mutually agreed upon arrangement in which the goods and rights of each person were considered as terms of the separation.  There was no divorce court, counsel or mediators on hand to protect the rights of both parties.  Judge Judy wouldn’t even exist for another 2000 years...

So, divorce was a means by which a man could dismiss his wife.  And, the dismissed woman would not only suffer the shame of being “unwanted” but would also lose goods, protections, financial and social security (as would her extended family).  

So, in a world in which women’s rights were based on their marriageability and procreative power--the injunction against divorce becomes a means of honoring the personhood of women.  

This may seem counter-intuitive in our context--but, within the context of the world in which Jesus and the disciples lived--divorce was something which disadvantaged an already vulnerable population.

This injunction against divorce precedes the welcoming of another vulnerable population--Children.  

As we discussed two weeks ago, children held little status beyond their hoped for potential.  And, in a world which lacked vaccinations and antibiotics--and where germ theory had not yes been theorized...

Potential had to be proven through survival beyond infancy and early childhood. 

First Jesus advocates for the vulnerable, women, and then he refocuses the entire conversation on the vulnerable, children.  Putting children in the center.

In a world where women and children are vulnerable, Jesus prioritizes their care.  

“People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

It is from texts like these that the Christian social teaching of the Preferential Option for the Poor emerged. The theologian who first outlined this interpretive approach was Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez O.P., the first to articulate what was to become the major theological movement of Latin America--Liberation Theology. Using his study of these texts, Father Gutierrez wrote “To make an option for the poor is to make an option for Jesus”. (“A Theology of Liberation”, 1971)  

So, in caring for the marginalized, we care for Jesus.  But, perhaps we’ve become too accustomed to this message and no longer see in it the power it holds to transform the unjust systems which perpetuate poverty.   

Gutierrez writes, 

“the poor person does not exist as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.” 

Jesus recognized this and draws our attention in the Gospel, in the GOOD NEWS, to those who have been marginalized by their social and cultural world. The injunction against divorce in the ancient Mediterranean was Jesus’ demand that his followers build a different social order.  

What then, does the body of Christ demand of us? In our different and diverse contexts we are called to recognize those who have been marginalized in our culture and move beyond noticing into action.  

We gather here, in order to change the world out there...our faith demands our action.  Or, as my colleague, the Reverend Winnie Vargese stated boldly in her response to the latest mass shooting, “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough” 

Our thoughts and prayers are not enough...these are hard words but honest ones.  She goes on, 

“It is hard to stand up for gun control in every state in this nation, but faith is hard. One of the roles of religious communities is to hold a vision of justice larger than might be politically reasonable, a vision worthy of the Creator.”

And, this heartens me, that we as the church are called to hold up a vision of justice larger than might be politically reasonable!  

So, let us consider being unreasonable!  Let us embrace the irrational, and the audacious, the impossible and the prophetic. 

And, from that audacious place of Good News and grace, let us consider how we might hold up a vision that will be somebody else’s liberation.  

Lashon Hara--Mean Spirited Words

A Sermon for 19B, 2015
Scripture Found Here

When I first moved to Cleveland, I lived in an Ultra Orthodox Jewish neighborhood.  I noticed, fairly shortly after moving into the community, a bumper sticker on several neighborhood cars “No Lashon Hara”.  My housemates (otherwise known as the awesome friends who took me in until I found a job), explained that this meant “no evil tongue”...and was meant as a response a conflict at one of the local Synagogues.

No Lashon Hara, no cruel words or slander spoken against another with intent to bring about evil--even indirectly.  The Jewish tradition takes seriously the power of words, even true ones, to destroy relationships.  A popular Jewish folk tale goes as follows:

“A woman repeated a story (gossip) about a neighbor. Within a few days everyone in the community knew the story. The person she talked about heard what had been said about her and she was very sad. Later, the woman who had spread the story learned that it was not true. She was very sorry and went to a wise rabbi and asked what she could do to repair the damage. After giving this some thought, the rabbi said to her, “Go home, get one of your feather pillows, and bring it back to me.” Surprised by the rabbi’s response, the woman followed his advice and went home to get a feather pillow and brought it to the rabbi. “Now,” said the rabbi, “open the pillow and pull out all the feathers.” 

Confused, the woman did what she was told to do. After a few minutes, the rabbi said, “Now, I want you to find every one of the feathers and put them back into the pillow.” “That’s impossible,” said the woman, almost in tears. “The window is open and the wind has scattered them all over the room and blown many feathers outside. I can’t possibly find them all.” “Yes,” said the rabbi. “And that is what happens when you gossip or tell a story about someone else. Once you talk about someone, the words fly from one person’s mouth to another, just like these feathers flew in the wind. Once you say them, you can never take them back.” 

So many words.  And, so many times, when words assault us like a deluge.  Tweeted, posted, shared, written, e-mailed, spoken. Reply all...reply all...reply all...

The words keep coming.  And, everyone has an opinion. Read, like, share, comment.  But, oh, the comments!  Never read the comments.

Because, there be trolls...waiting like the fairytale creature beneath the bridge. Scene stealer, spirit breaker.  

Oh the fires that are set!  

A clergy colleague told a story about a forest ranger, who upon receiving a “Dear John” letter from a former beau went into the woods and set the letter ablaze.  And, from the words that inspired the fire, a greater fire spread.  Acres of forest were soon ablaze from the simple act of setting fire to those painful words.

And those were written words...pen to paper and an envelope stamped, addressed and mailed.  How quaint!  

We needn’t look far to find example of the untamed tongue set to acts of destruction.  Articles like “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” or “Six Ways Social Media Can Ruin Your Life” were at the top of my google search when I googled “People whose lives are ruined by stupid tweets or facebook posts”...

Yeah, those were just the top two of two million five hundred and fifty thousand search results...

I won’t go on.

With the return key, words go out beyond anyone’s control. A rudder, a spark, a bridle.

And, the opportunity to take those words back gone.

Now, this world of instant communication and the possibility of “going viral” wasn’t the landscape which faced the community addressed by the letter of James.  James sough to encourage the early Christian community to continue to live with an adherence to the ethic of Jewish tradition.  And the enjoinder against the untamed tongue in James reminds us of the 9th commandments injunction against “false witness”.  When people live in small communities, any false word against a neighbor has the power to destroy the entire community.  In a small tribal community, or faith community, the ill spoken word can lead to the fracturing of the unity held dear and bought at great price. 

Theologian Walter Brueggeman puts it this way, “real community depends on reliable truth telling.”

And, the transmission of the Gospel of the good news of Christ in the world, depends on reliable truth telling.

And, so I wonder, what truth would you share about this community with a neighbor, with a friend?  

What truth brings you to this place?

I invite you to think about this question for a moment before taking a post it and pen and writing down that truth.  

And, the challenge I will give you is this, share that truth with one other person who may not know the truth you know about this place.