The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Who's keeping score?

Epiphany 4A
Micah 6:1-8
Matthew 5:1-12

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

If I were a more confident preacher, I’d probably just sit down right now. These words from the Hebrew Bible are about as true and direct a representation of the gospel message as anything I might imagine to complement them.

But this favorite biblical passage of mine does remind me of a story I told to a few of you when I was in the midst of early conversations with you to come be your priest. You were asking me about the kinds of things I would do first if I were called to be your priest. I talked about a few things - things about trying to begin the process of building relationships with you, and that sort of thing, but the main part of my answer was in telling you a story.

I’m not much of a sports fan in general, but I do love following college football - and particularly college football related to my alma mater, Louisiana State University.

A few years back, under the leadership of then-head coach Nick Saban, LSU won its first national championship in many years. The team had always been formidable, but it had, for a long time before that, been on the low end of the “formidable” scale. But after just a few short years of Saban’s coaching, LSU went from “barely formidable” to “national champions”.

At a press conference, Saban was asked, rather simply, “What did you do?”

His answer was also fairly simple. He said, “I taught the team to stop looking at the scoreboard.” He recognized that teams so often can’t see the forest for the trees. A football game is complex operation. Over the course of three thousand six hundred seconds of play there are countless things that can go wrong, just as there are countless things that can go right. It can be easy to get lost in the complexity of it all if you allow your focus to drift.

Saban said that rather than focusing on the scoreboard, he asked each of his players to focus instead on just the play at hand. “If we do the right thing in every play,” he said, “the scoreboard will take care of itself.”

Over this past weekend, representatives of this parish - Pia DeSilva, Irmgard Wint, Vanessa Foster, and I - were your representatives at our annual diocesan convention. Though the convention kept a positive perspective - as far as it could, anyway - there were certainly times when some of the “scoreboards” we saw painted a pretty dismal looking picture. The vast majority of our congregations are suffering from slipping average Sunday attendance numbers. For the first time in a long time, most of our congregations have fewer than 75 people in attendance on a typical Sunday. And as those numbers would suggest, equally, our financial health is more uncertain than it has ever been. The diocesan income continues to fall even as necessary expenses continue to rise. Cuts have been made, spending has been reduced practically across the board, but the annual cost of being the church in the Diocese of Newark continues to soar despite our best efforts.

This is certainly part of a general trend toward what many observers are calling an emerging “post-Christian age” in the United States - an age when Christian churches no longer hold their positions of automatic privileged status in our culture. It is no longer assumed that people will go to church, and it is no longer assumed that they will give to the church. But the general trend has been made significantly worse in the past few years because of the economic downturn. Two important things have happened: at once, giving has cratered as people have felt less and less secure in their own financial positions, AND investment income from endowments has ground almost to a halt. Our savings accounts have proven insufficient to support our ministries in these turbulent times. As a result, several churches have closed and even more are in danger of closing.

Perhaps the most frightening thing, however, is that this disheartening position which we recognize our diocese to be in is representative of where many of our congregations are - our own parish included. Our own attendance records, giving records, and endowment performance are all showing signs of serious - perhaps even potentially fatal - underperformance. With scoreboards like that, it’s hard not to stare, frozen in terror and disgust.

But Coach Saban reminds us that scoreboards can be a distraction from the plays on the field - and we did learn about some strong plays on the field in our diocese. Newark ACTS - the young adult urban ministry residential internship program in our diocese is strong in its first year. They are reaching out in support of some vital urban ministries throughout our diocese and perhaps more importantly, they are infusing youth and enthusiasm into a church that was beginning to feel tired and often irrelevant. They are modeling for us what it means to be the church in the 21st century. Similarly, in our elections this weekend we made history in our diocese by electing two high school aged youth to represent our diocese to the wider church at the General Convention in 2012. Periodically the convention paused to hear “mission minutes” - short presentations about pockets throughout our diocese where the mission of the church (our word for the plays on the field) is leading to success and strength. Consistently we heard about churches that were making strides in the areas of music & worship, children’s & youth ministries, and service to those in need - some of the key ingredients for the success of any congregation. If we keep our attention firmly grounded on doing these plays on the field right, I believe we will begin finding that the scoreboards that had been looking so dismal for so long will start taking care of themselves.

And if we keep our focus firmly enough on the plays on the field, we probably won’t even notice. We’ll simply be lost in the mission and ministry of the church. Wouldn’t that be a blessing?

Scoreboards can be deceiving - both when they’re good as well as when they’re bad. That’s what Jesus tells us in the gospel lesson today. Though we might feel poor in spirit, though we mourn, though we hunger and thirst for righteousness, though we are persecuted; though the scoreboards say again and again that we’re losing the battle; even so, we are blessed. Even so we continue to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. We keep our focus on the plays on the field and let someone else worry about the scoreboard. We don’t have time to keep score. We only have time to do the work of the gospel to which we’ve been called. Amen.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

We are called

Epiphany 3A
Matthew 4:12-23

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

It’s about call.

The text today; the story of John the Baptist; the story of the Apostles, and so much of the story of our lives as Christians - it’s about call.

Call is one of those words that are thrown about in church conversations sometimes. Few of us really give it much thought. We talk about “calling a priest” - a process you all just recently experienced. But beyond that, when do we really think about God’s call?

A few years ago there was an Off-Broadway musical called Altar Boyz - with a “z” - a funny little show about a fictitious Roman Catholic boy band. One of the songs in the show was “The Calling” that humorously proclaimed “Jesus called me on my cell phone.” Of course part of the reason that song is so funny is because we all know, God’s call doesn’t quite work that way - no matter how much we might wish it did!

But how does God’s call work? What’s the difference between God’s call and our own desire? It’s pretty clear that they can - and often do intersect. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that our every desire is God’s call. So how do we tell the difference?

In my own life, distinguishing between what I want and how I’ve been called has always been a pretty slow process.

One of the more common questions you’re asked if you’re a priest - particularly if you’re a young one like me - is, “How did you know you wanted to be a priest?” It’s interesting that it’s usually phrased that way - in terms of desire, when it’s really a question of call. But it’s often asked, and I think people are usually disappointed to find that, for me at least, there weren’t flashes of lightening or voices from the heavens. There were certainly moments of clarity that crept in through my doubt, but even then it wasn’t particularly easy to discern.

When I tell the story of my call to the priesthood, I usually begin from when I was about 6 or 7 years old. As y’all know, my father is a United Methodist minister. I was always drawn to the church - probably as much because of the opportunities it afforded me to spend time with my dad as anything else - but nonetheless, the church was my playground from my earliest days. But I remember when I was still a young child in about the first or second grade, the “little old ladies” of the church started asking me, “Are you going to follow in your father’s footsteps?” I was always a fairly independently minded child - often to my parents’ chagrin - and I would respond with a defiant “No!” I think this was more of a gut reaction to the “following” aspect than to the actual question - I didn’t have to follow Dad! I would go my own way!

But despite my defiance, the seed was planted.

The years passed, and predictably, I became involved in Youth Ministries in the United Methodist Church. Even though it’s not the church I chose for myself as an adult, one thing the United Methodist Church of my youth was really good at was youth ministry. They took it seriously. They took us seriously. And they gave us opportunities to really ask serious questions about ourselves and about our relationships with God and with the church.

When I was 16 years old I had the opportunity to attend a large youth event called the Spiritual Life Rally - or “SpiLiRa” - in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It was a huge event with hundreds of Methodist youth from all over the south central United States. The focus of the event was on discerning God’s call in our young lives. We were taught that we were all called - not just those of us called to serve as clergy in the church - but that we were all called to serve God in our lives, no matter how we made our living.

That was the first time that I really began to realize and accept that I was called to ordained ministry - when that seed from so many years ago began to take root in a noticeable way.

It was a frightening time in my life. I didn’t really know what it all meant. I didn’t yet understand how I could both be myself, and live into this icon that I understood of my emerging sense of call.

As the years following that event passed, life went on. I was a typical teenager - complete with all the expected troubles and anxieties. I went to college. And then I didn’t. And then I went back.

As I became an adult and began to realize that the United Methodist Church of my childhood was not the right place for me as an adult, I thought that meant that my calling had been misunderstood. I spent a number of years trying to negotiate with God. I thought things like, “Well, if I’m not supposed to be a Methodist minister, then perhaps I’m supposed to…. Blank.” The “blank” changed several times, but all the while I was developing skills and learning about myself and my passions and my abilities.

By the time I graduated from college, my negotiations with God had led me to consider going to seminary to further my education. I still wasn’t ready to pursue ordination in the Episcopal Church or anywhere else - for me, seminary was an opportunity for education in a community-based atmosphere. But perhaps, at some level, I knew that it would take me to where I knew I was called to be, even though I didn’t know how.

In my second semester in the Theological School at Drew - where I had chosen to go to seminary - our own Bishop Croneberger came and preached in our regular weekly chapel service. It wasn’t anything in particular that he said, that I can recall, but I remember sitting there during the service and thinking, surprisingly, but clearly, “I’m supposed to be an Episcopal priest.” It was a very matter-of-fact kind of thought. No flashes or voices, just, “Yeah. That’s right.”

It wasn’t until later that I really began to think about and understand what that nearly unnoticed thought meant for me.

But even then, I wasn’t yet sure. I sat on it for a while - stewing. Several weeks later, on a long road trip, I began talking about it for the first time with a friend. When we got home, I talked about it with my father. And then with a couple of my trusted professors. Then I started reaching out to area Episcopal priests. It wasn’t until nearly a year later that I really felt comfortable seriously considering the prospect of being a priest. Then, of course, the process of becoming a priest - continuing my education, and all the rest, helped me all the more to understand and claim my vocation.

So - from the first seeds of my call to the beginning of my priesthood - all told it was about 25 years.

So why did I tell you this? Most of us aren’t called to be priests. What does it matter to you?

While it’s true that most of us aren’t called to be priests, all of us are called. All of us are called to serve God and to serve each other. All of us are called to discern what it means to be baptized into the Body of Christ. All of us are called to listen for God’s call.

For must of us, it won’t be a neat or as clear as it was in the Gospel lesson today for Peter, Andrew, James, and John. It certainly wasn’t for me. For most of us, we won’t so easily notice Jesus walking down the street and decide to follow. For most of us, Jesus won’t be calling on our cell phones.

So we have to listen harder. We have to give it some thought and prayer. We have to practice looking for where our desire intersects with God’s lure - or perhaps even more, where God’s lure molds our desire.

It takes practice, and it takes community. Being here is a good first step. Now, what’s next?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Enough already?

Epiphany 2A
John 1:29-42

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I had an interesting reaction reading through the gospel lesson this week. I caught myself, on the heels of the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, reading this account from the Gospel According to John and thinking something like: “Enough already! He was baptized last week - we get it!”

The lectionary texts and the liturgical year can sometimes be that way. It can sometimes feel like we get beaten over the head by a particular concept until we just can’t take it anymore. In August of 2009 I was preaching for a bit of an extended stretch while my Rector at the time was on vacation. It was something like five long weeks all about John’s Christology as it was understood through the metaphor of bread. Five weeks of preaching about bread.

By the middle of it, I thought I was going to scream.

But this week my reaction was curious. All last week I was telling people about how much I appreciate the First Sunday after the Epiphany - how it was one of my favorite Sundays of the year, how it gave us a chance to really delve into thoughts of baptism - one of our most important covenants - indeed, the covenant that makes us Christian.

And then, this week, I read the text about John the Baptist proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ as it had been revealed to him during Jesus’ baptism, and my first thought was, “Enough already!”

My, how things can change in the course of a week.

Last week was the joy and anticipation of baptism - the exciting beginning of a new ministry; this week, it’s just starting to feel like John the Baptist is harassing Jesus. I found myself identifying with Jesus - or at least how I imagine Jesus must have felt. How he must have felt put upon by John’s constant proclamations. In each of the instances we read today, Jesus was just walking by. Just trying to get from one place to another. But John the Baptist was standing there and proclaiming the Gospel.

It really must have been quite annoying… Give the guy a chance to be the Messiah - stop rushing him!

I imagine this must be how it is for leaders of all stripes: for bishops, for politicians, for leaders around the office - whomever. There must be those times when those at the helm just feel like saying, “Enough already.” There must be times when the burden of responding to God’s call feels a little heavier than we might like - when we might just want to take a back seat.

The gospel never says this is what Jesus was thinking. But it is what I imagine I would have been thinking. It’s what I was thinking just from reading about it.

The church can often feel that way. Sometimes it feels like we’re just beating the same drum over and over again. Stewardship. Love your neighbor. Christmas isn’t just a day, but a season. We say the confession every week. We celebrate the Eucharist every week. Baptism, baptism, baptism.

Do you ever find yourself saying, “Enough, already”?

I know I do.

But the thing is, it really isn’t enough. This week we’ll be celebrating and remembering the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We’ll remember his tragic and untimely death, certainly, but all the more we’ll try to remember his life and his witness. We’ll try to remember and claim his call to social justice. We’ll remember the hope he inspired. And we’ll use all of that to try to call ourselves to greater accountability. We’ll try to live our lives based around the model that he inspired.

And most of us will fail. Most of us will fall short of the ideal that he set out for us. Most of us won’t do all that we could do to realize his dream for us and for the world.

It might be easy to fall into the line of thinking that says, “Enough, already. We’ve had more than forty years to get it and we still haven’t gotten it all the way. Maybe we should just step aside and give it a rest. Maybe find something newer and better.”

But of course we don’t say that. We remember Martin Luther King, Jr. again because the work isn’t done. Progress has been made, but much more is needed.

That’s kind of the way church works. We do the same thing over and over again, and we learn the same lessons over and over again, and we pray the same prayers over and over again because that’s what it takes.

A few times lately, I’ve told the story of when I was a seminarian: in my first year in field education, I helped to start a group that said Evening Prayer together a few times a week. We were a small group, but we built a tight little community. When we came together, we always remembered the saint that was celebrated on any given feast day, and we took some time to check in with one another. We really got to know one another.

Along the way, it became obvious that one of our regular attendees was having trouble with the pacing that the rest of us were following. While we tried to be slow and deliberate with our words, he hurried through. It wasn’t through any desire to be disruptive, of course, he was just praying in the only way he knew how. We had talked about it as a group and we learned the source of his problem - he had been trained to “get through” the prayers. Meanwhile, we were trying to establish a pattern through which we could make space for the prayers to get through us.

It was a subtle difference, but it radically changed our lives together as prayer partners.

That’s why we keep beating the same drum again and again in the church. We’re trying to let the prayers and the traditions and the faith “get through” us. It doesn’t happen in just a single attempt. We hear the same stories again and again; we participate in the same seasons again and again; we perform the same rituals and ceremonies again and again - not because we can’t think of anything else to do, but because they still have work to do in us.

You may have noticed, over the past several weeks, that we’ve shifted from saying the Collect of the Day in unison to saying the Collect for Purity in unison. This is the same thing. By saying these words together as a community each week, it’s my hope and my prayer that the words can become a kind of gift to you - a bit of the church that you’ll carry with you throughout the week as the words of this beautiful old prayer get written in your hearts. And I hope you’ll find that as they work their way into your lives, that you hear them anew from time to time. As the situations of your lives change with each week and each year, you’ll hear these familiar words with new ears.

We’ll probably never know how Jesus felt as he heard John the Baptist proclaiming his good news in each passing each day. But I think I know a little more about why John had to do that proclaiming. The Good News was so good that he needed to say it again. He needed to hear it again and again so he could begin to wrap his mind around it.

Our traditions are the same. We need them. We need them again. We need to let them get through us, so they can be made always new. Amen.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Trampling the seeds of violence

Epiphany 1A: The Baptism of Jesus
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

We all heard those words as children. I remember hearing them after being teased by a classmate when I was younger. They were helpful at the time because they gave me a sense of power where I had otherwise felt only powerless.

But though we all heard those words as children, we also all came to a point in our lives, at one time or another, where we realized that those words of comfort to children weren’t exactly true, either. At least not completely. Words do have power - as proven by the comfort that that little proverb gave us when we were feeling vulnerable. Words have the power to hurt or they have the power to restore and to heal and to create. It’s one of the central tenets of our faith. One of the basic stories of our tradition - a story of how the world came into being - is that God spoke all creation into being out of the chaos. But the power of the word didn’t end there. Throughout the stories of our faith, the word is seen to be living and full of power. Just two weeks ago, in this very place, we heard that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” A Word of God that would restore all the world into right relationship with God.

So words do have power - in our faith, and in our daily lives.

Lately, in our culture, the power of the spoken word has been often abused. Words of anger and frustration have been spoken in the political spheres that have planted seeds of violence; and unfortunately, some of that violence came into full bloom yesterday in Arizona.

Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a US Congresswoman from the Eighth Congressional District in Arizona, was meeting with constituents outside a grocery store in her district yesterday when a 22 year old gunman - and possibly another accomplice - attacked. Giffords was critically wounded. Six others were killed. A dozen more were also injured. The dead included a Federal District Court judge, a 30 year old Congressional staff member, a Church of Christ pastor, and a 9 year old girl - born eerily on September 11, 2001 - a life more explicitly defined around incidents of violence than any should be.

With vilence in the world like we saw yesterday in Arizona, it’s never been more appropriate to remember the promises of our baptism. For us as individuals, to be sure - in our statement of faith and in the vows that we make. But it’s not simply an individual commitment. In every baptism, commitments are made and reaffirmed by this community as a whole. Part of the commitment of baptism is that we, as a community, vow to do all in our power to support the baptized in their lives in Christ.

It’s a tall order. We’re affirming our commitment to be responsible for one another and to be accountable to one another.

Violence didn’t just happen yesterday in Arizona. That what made the news around the world, and it was tragic, to be sure, but we be fooling ourselves if we let ourselves come to believe that the only violence worth our attention is that violence that breaks into the focus of the mainstream media.

Violence happens every day, all around us. Sometimes we notice and sometimes we don’t. How many people are killed or attacked every day in our region only for us never to notice?

But there are also smaller instances of violence that happen around us all the time. We see people growing frustrated with one another, we lose our patience, we tolerate the inhumane treatment of our neighbors - either in explicit incidents or through our complicity with unfair policies and systems. Even if these so-called “smaller things” don’t always rise to the level of incidents of violence, they are most certainly contributing factors. They are part of a system that’s propelling our society to and past a breaking point.

It can feel insurmountable. Who are we? Who are we to stand up against a broken culture?

We are the ones St. Peter said were “chosen by God as witnesses… [Christ] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.”

Furthermore, we are the ones who made solemn vows to God and to each other to do just that: “To persevere in resisting evil” and in our occasions of sin (because they WILL come) “to repent and return to the Lord.” “To proclaim by [our] word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”

These are our vows. That, and to support each other and to hold each other accountable to these vows - as individuals and as a community.

The problems of violence and brokenness and the epidemic of inhumanity may seem insurmountable, but they’re not. They are big, but they’re not too big. They’re too big for any one of us, but less so for us as a community. Together we are greater than the sum of our parts. Together, we are the Body of Christ - broken, and yet more whole.

Our prayers are with Congresswoman Giffords and all who were injured and killed yesterday in the Arizona tragedy. We pray for those who mourn and for those who now live with new fear.

And I pray that all of us - both in this room and everywhere around the world - will take this all-too-blatant reminder of our duty to support one another and to hold one another accountable. Not just when it’s too late to it was yesterday, but all the time - before “too late” ever has a chance to bloom amidst the seeds of violence that we all-too-often scatter.

It’s the duty of all people to trample the seeds of violence that we see, whenever and wherever we see them. We cannot continue to look the other way.

But for us as Christians, it’s not only our duty as members of this society, but it’s our calling as we’ve accepted it in our baptism. We promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbors as [ourselves].”

We can’t just look away anymore. Amen.