Another shooting, another community wounded

Bishop Fisher addresses those assembled at the vigil for Meaghan Burns at the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew, Greenfield, MA.
PHOTO: submitted

Meaghan Burns and her family are members of Saints James and Andrew in Greenfield, MA. I confirmed her in 2014. Meaghan joined the Navy and was out with a Navy friend who had recently broken up with a boyfriend. When they left the restaurant, the boyfriend shot and killed Meaghan and her friend and then himself. Meaghan was 23 years old.

The Burns family and the parish of Sts James and Andrew have long been active in the movement to address the public health crisis of gun violence. In honor of Meaghan they organized a Gun Violence Prevention Vigil and invited me to speak. Hundreds of people came to the vigil. The family has given us permission to publish my brief remarks at the event for the sake of raising consciousness of this crisis.


My name is Doug Fisher and I serve as the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. I was blessed to confirm Meaghan five years ago.I’m here to grieve with you and pray to our God who loves us in life and in death and in New Life. I’m here to tell you that all of our 51 churches in western and central Massachusetts are praying for Carolyn and Matthew and Kylie and James.

The Burns’ family and this Church have long been engaged in calling for action to prevent gun violence that is so rampant in our beloved country. They organized this vigil and asked me to address the public health crisis of gun violence.

It is not my first inclination at a time such as this. This is a time for celebrating the brief but joyful, kind, always energetic life of Meaghan. And in a few minutes family friend and UCC minister Will is going to do that.

My second inclination is to stand in silent support with you, Meaghan’s family and friends. Silence because words are inadequate to express our grief. Silence because words are inadequate to express the support we want to offer. 

But Meaghan’s parents have told me we have had too much silence in the face of the massive problem of gun violence in the United States. Let’s honor their wishes and break the silence.

97 people a day die from gun violence in our country. Over 35,000 a year. And many more are injured. This often is described as a political issue. But it is not. It is a public health crisis. If 97 people a day were dying of a disease, wouldn’t we all – Republican and Democrat and Independent address it? Wouldn’t we put all manner of resources to discover the sources and the cure? Yes, this problem is complicated. But should we fail to address it because it is complicated? Should we allow complexity to paralyze us?

Last week Carolyn met with Reverend Heather to talk and pray. She recalled vigils here in this church about gun violence and how candles were lit and names of the deceased were read. She said “My Meaghan is now one of these candles.”

But Meaghan is not a number. She is our beloved daughter, sister, friend. You will all develop ways of honoring Meaghan and her Spirit in a life cut short. The Burns family invites you to honor Meaghan by thoughts and prayers and more – by taking action.

Just a few days ago in Boston, Episcopalians organized  the annual March for Peace on Mother’s Day. Hundreds of mothers and others marched to witness to the losses we have suffered through gun violence. Placards were held high with names of those who have died in this crisis. Some of those placards had the name ‘Meaghan Burns” on them.

In the past year, thousands of young people have turned out for the March for Our Lives. Some younger than our Meaghan. They are survivors of school shootings and young people who have witnessed daily gun violence in urban neighborhoods. All saying we want a different future. A future where we don’t have to leave in fear. Would you, to honor Meaghan, join them?

And will you call our legislators to demand universal background checks, and closing loopholes in gun sales, and making assault weapons illegal and advocating for “smart gun technology”? Will you be willing to honor Meaghan in that way?

We remember another who died by violence – Jesus. And our God raised him up and showed us that love is stronger than death. Death cannot stop God’s love for us and the life God gives us eternally. And your love for Meaghan is stronger than her death. May Meaghan Rest In Peace and Rise in Glory. Amen.

+Doug


Resources for the Prevention of Gun Violence

A place of awe and vulnerability

Sunrise near the road to Jericho.

I have often said that Luke 3:1 is the most important verse in the entire Bible. “In the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was king of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to a man named John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.”

It is the most important line because it is saying our faith is not based upon “once upon a time.” It is not a fairy tale. It is not make-believe. It is not “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

No. It is clear. In this time and in this place, the word of God came to John. And Mary. And Joseph. And Mary Magdalene and Jesus. The Spirit acts in real people, in real time. Theologically we call it, “incarnation.”

WMA pilgrims gathered on the Temple Mount, at the Dome of the Rock.

Knowing that makes our WMA pilgrimage to the Holy Land a deep spiritual experience. In this time and in this place God acted. Now sometimes there are conflicting stories as to where things happen. It is said “holy sites tend to move.”  But there is no doubt that it is the Sea of Galilee where so many powerful stories of Jesus and the disciples happened. No doubt that it is the Jordan River where John baptized. No doubt that it is the Jericho Road featured in the Good Samaritan story. And no doubt somewhere in old Jerusalem is the Temple built by Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt by Herod and destroyed by the Romans. Lots of sacred sites have very old churches built over them because oral history said “this was the place where…”

I will reflect more on this experience over time. But here are two immediate impressions.

I never knew how much caves and rocks were part of the housing in the times of Jesus. That barn where we say Jesus was born was really a cave. Families lives in homes homes built with hewn rocks and carved out caves.

For the first time I appreciated the mysticism of the desert. Pictures never do it justice. The desert of Israel is not plains of sand. They are mountains of rock and sand and sparse vegetation. To be in them is to be in a place of awe and vulnerability.

And there is a lot to say about the political conflict in Israel and the oppression of the Palestinians. But a few words would not do justice to a complex situation with many conflicting dimensions. And there is much to say about the tension of the three major religions jockeying for position in this holy land. I will tell those stories in future reflections.

In a couple of days I will leave here with deep gratitude for this experience and for the way my traveling companions engaged this trip not as tourists but as pilgrims on a spiritual journey together. And looking forward to the Spirit who continues to speak in our time and in our place.

+Doug

Bishop to Clergy: Renew your vows SO THAT…

The following sermon was given this morning at the annual Renewal of Vows and Blessing of Oils at Christ Church Cathedral.

Bishop Fisher preaching this morning at Christ Church Cathedral. (Photo: Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts)

Welcome. Thank you for taking time away from sermon prep, acolyte wrangling, bulletin proof-reading, pastoral care and answering questions about when IS the Easter Service, to come together in mutual support of one another in ministry.

Welcome Lutherans and UCC. Some of our liturgical language may be different, but the mission is the same. Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope. When so much in our world seems to be coming apart, we are coming together. I am grateful for you.

 Renewal of vows makes me think of Holy Week 1998. Betsy and I and our very young children were at Holy Innocents in Highland Falls New York and I was the Episcopal West Point chaplain. We had a Holy Week evening service in the church with only the candles on the altar for our light. At that service most of the congregation were West Point cadets and we all stood around the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer. Grace, four years old, stood next to me at the altar, her chin level with the top of the altar. She was captivated by the scene. For her it was magical and mystical. Looking out at everyone, looking at me leading prayer. Afterwards Betsy asked Grace “Did you like being up at the altar with daddy?” To which Grace responded “Oh yes, mommy. I loved it. I felt just like a pwiest!” Betsy said, “Would you like to be a priest someday?” Grace was very clear in her answer. “Oh no, mommy. I want to stack the groceries at the supermarket. That’s a cool job.”

Grace Fisher and a West Point cadet (Photo: submitted)

A humbling reminder on the day we renew our vows as ordained leaders in the church.

Bishops get veteran bishops for coaches. A question my coach would ask me in every session was “why did your diocese choose you?” It is a way of getting clarity and setting priorities. I think it was because I said a lot about social justice and about trying new things in ministry. 50 new things even if 49 fail. And there is one more. After the election, one of our church leaders said to me: “You know, bishop, no one in my parish was going to vote for you when the slate was announced. You were the only candidate with a doctorate (in ministry) and we knew we didn’t need some academic lecturing us in something abstract when the needs are so real.” Now that is not my perspective but it was his. And then he added “But when we went to the walk-abouts and you were asked questions, you would leave the stage and come into the middle aisle and answer the questions from there. From where the people were. That night in the parking lot, we all decided we were voting for you.”

Notice it wasn’t because of what I said. No great insights or pearls of wisdom changed their minds. It was being in the midst of the people. Going to where they are.

 That’s what I will be praying about today when I renew my vows.

How about you? Priest, minister, deacon. The Holy Spirit, working through so many people around you and through sponsoring parishes and commissions on ministry, called you. Maybe it was a few years ago or maybe it was forty. Why did they choose you? In all your quirky uniqueness. Why did they choose you?

And what made you say yes?

While you are thinking about that, let me provide a structure for your particular answer.

Mariann Budde is the Bishop of Washington D.C. She points out how often the Bible contains a “so that” statement. Here are a few examples:

Matthew 5:16 Let your light shine before others, SO THAT they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, SO THAT you may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, SO THAT everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

I was ordained so that… What comes next? I hope you answer that with something spectacular. Something worth giving your life to.

A couple of weeks ago, I put that question to a few of our clergy in an email. Here is what they said:

  • I will renew my vows SO THAT I can offer my spiritual gifts to a community of faith that has richly blessed me and that helps me to grow in ways that matter.
  • I will renew my vows SO THAT I might share and testify to the love that saved me and made me and holds me.
  • I will renew my vows SO THAT the hope and justice of God in Christ would be made known.

We were called by God, loved by Christ SO THAT we may understand the power of His Resurrection.

I was ordained SO THAT I could help spread the light and hope of Christ.

What is it for you? I was ordained so that…

While you think of your answers I’m going to ramble on about a couple of other things.

 Whatever that great, holy, Jesus-centered, Holy Spirit inspired statement is for you, know that to get there we need to cultivate resilience, and persistence, or what some in leadership circles are referring to as “grit.”

Here’s another quote from the wise Mariann Budde. It is a long quote and we all know you should never use a long quote in a sermon. So don’t tell the bishop.

“Here’s why we need resilience. Because we are called to lead others from where they are now, as a body, to where God is calling us, a preferred future or a necessary sacrifice. That process, by definition, invokes resistance. Resistance is not all bad; nor is all change good. As a result, those of us called to lead have no choice but to live and move and have our being in what might be called ‘the messy middle.’ That place where nothing is clear, where what you thought was a God inspired idea goes nowhere, where those who called you to lead are now resisting you with everything they’ve got, and it occurs to you that working as a barista in your neighborhood coffee shop seems like a more fruitful place for ministry than the church.” Or you long to stack the groceries in the supermarket.

When that happens, not if, when that happens, have friends, deep friends, to confide in. And a disciplined prayer life. And maybe some scripture verses that can serve as a mantra. Like Paul’s in the second letter to that conflicted, confused, hungry for the Spirit community in Corinth. “Since it is God’s mercy that we are engaged in ministry, we do not lose heart.” Or in Genesis, Jacob wrestling with that angel “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

Now for a few minutes on today’s gospel. I won’t be long. I know not all the Holy Week bulletins are done.

I chose the Gospel about what Walter Brueggemann calls “the riot in the Temple.” I chose it because I believe it is a pivotal part of the Holy Week story and it gets overlooked. And I think it is a key story for the ministry we share.

I just learned a few days ago that the Cathedral in Connecticut is doing something new and meaningful with this story. On Palm Sunday we begin with the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and then at the time for the Gospel we read the Passion which continues the story beginning with the Last Supper. We go from the hosannas of the crowd to Jesus agonizing over his impending death. We leave out a key part of the story that explains this very severe change of tone. The riot in the temple. Here’s what Connecticut is doing. The usual opening of the service with the entry into Jerusalem. Then at the time of the Gospel the story of the riot in the Temple is read. And then at the very end of the service, the Passion is read and the congregation leaves in silence to continue their Holy Week journey.

This story suffers too from a superficial understanding. How often has this passage been used as “you see Jesus is human like us. He got angry.” The same way the Martha and Mary story gets reduced to “we all need to balance out our busy Martha lives with Mary-like contemplation.” We interpret the verse this way SO THAT we don’t have to acknowledge the social revolution Jesus began in bringing women into the male-only circle of religious thinkers.

This passage has meanings so deep that the four evangelists take three approaches to it. Mark and Luke just tell it and then go right away to the chief priests looking for a way to kill him. John uses it to illustrate the scripture “Zeal for your house will consume me.” And an early reference to the Resurrection. Only Matthew follows the Temple cleansing with healing stories. Throwing over tables creating a space for healing. I will come back to that. But the heart of it was an unjust sacrificial system that made demands on the poor. In words and with very clear action, Jesus drew our attention to a societal problem and acted on it. Jesus didn’t just offer thoughts and prayers. He overthrew tables. He disrupted the system. A system that many believed to be sacred.

On this day in which we renew our vows, I will ask another question: Do you ever feel like throwing over some tables?

Here’s some I feel like throwing over.

  • The public health crisis of gun violence. 97 people a day die from gun violence in the United States. Many from suicide. Several children every day from accidents. Many in our urban communities as victims of what Michael Curry calls the “Unholy Trinity” of racism, poverty and guns. And some in our growing number of mass shootings – the ones that get our attention. America loves her guns and her guns are killing her loved ones. Many loved the theology and culture and economy of the Temple sacrifices but that did not stop Jesus.
  • Then there is crisis of creation around climate change. I could quote our own Margaret Bullitt Jonas on this but in the spirit of ecumenism I will go with Pope Francis: “Human induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity. In this core moral space, the world’s religions play a very vital role.” If we commit to passing the faith down from generation to generation then we have to commit to a sustainable island home for future generations.
  • The plight of immigrants in our immigrant nation. Children in cages at the border. Lucio Perez in sanctuary at the UCC Church in Amherst for a year and a half, forced to live apart from his wife and their four children. What would the Jesus we follow- the table over thrower- tell us to do about that?

In the ordination of a bishop in the Episcopal Church, eight questions are asked and answered. One is “will you shake up the conscience of your people?” Another is “will you defend those who have no helper?”

My actions are never closely adequate to the depth and expanse of the question. Thank you for all the times you have inspired me in this work of overturning tables.

And we do this not just as a voice crying out in the wilderness, not out of righteous anger, but as Matthew makes clear, SO THAT healing becomes possible. The royal wedding preacher says “WE are the Jesus Movement that is out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it.”

On this day, as we renew our ordination vows, let’s return to that wisdom of Paul. Since it is God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. And as my go-to-theologian Walter Brueggemann adds “Do not lose heart. God has not quit, and will not until our joy is reflective of God’s own.”

Amen.

+ Doug

We have our “why”.

Preachers should never read long quotes in a sermon. But bloggers can! Here is a quote from Brian McLaren in his book, THE GREAT MIGRATION : HOW THE WORLD’S LARGEST RELIGION IS SEEKING A BETTER WAY TO BE CHRISTIAN.

“Now imagine: if you wanted to find an organization well positioned to encourage change on all of these four levels (intrapersonal, interpersonal, structural, and cultural), whom would you call? You would need an organization that is both local and global. It would need to involve people from all sectors of society – agriculture to government, health care to education, for profit to nonprofit, science to the arts. It would need to specialize in personal development, community building, deployment for mission, and public communication. What organizations would fulfill these diverse requirements? As soon as you answer the church, you have to ask why so many of our churches remain ineffective and complacent about this potentially transformative role. The gap between the church’s potential and actual impact can make you cry.”

“But far better: the gap can make you cry out, determined to see the church fulfill its potential. That’s why we need movement-building initiatives that help individual Christians, congregational leaders and denominational leaders and network leaders come together and work together for intrapersonal, interpersonal, structural and cultural change.”

Brian McLaren

Or as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says “We are the Jesus Movement that is out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the Dream that God has for it.”

Or as Jesus says “I make all things new!”

In a time when the Church is seen by so many as having outlived its purpose, I believe our purpose is as essential as it has ever been. We are called to dive deeply into the life of the Spirit, build community and follow Jesus in his mission of mercy, compassion and hope. This is why we pray together, take care of our neighbors, bless journalists, care for creation, stand with refugees and immigrants, address the public health crisis of gun violence, celebrate diversity, combat racism and on and on.

Our Church has a “why”, a “purpose”, a “mission.” Come Holy Spirit and enliven our hearts.

+Doug

Dreaming of a better world in the midst of this one

Cartoon by the Rev. Jay Sidebotham for Church Publishing Inc.

I have often begun Christmas sermons, and reflections about Christmas, with stories about Christmas Pageants I have seen. Like the time the child portraying the angel Gabriel did not exit the stage after her “annunciation” to Mary. Instead she stayed with Mary through all the rejections she and Joseph and the baby Jesus faced as they were turned away at inn after inn. And Gabriel looked on aghast but never left them.

Or the time the youngest children dressed as sheep were crawling down the middle aisle of the Church toward the stable as “Holy Night” was being sung. But when one noticed all the toys off to the side that had been collected for the needy, he broke ranks and headed for the toys. And so did the rest of the flock.

Or the time at Pageant rehearsal when my daughter Grace had the part of Mary. She was sitting and holding the baby, a real one, when the boy portraying Joseph standing next to her said, “I want to hold the baby.” Mary (Grace) said “No, I’m holding the baby.” Joseph insisted he should hold the baby. Mary said “no, the mother always holds the baby.” Joseph said “this year I should hold the baby.” To which Mary replied, “You know, Joseph, technically you are not even the father.”

Another preacher, I think it was Thomas Long, wrote about another pageant rehearsal. The director was encouraging the young people to read along in their bible as they recreated the story. When they got to the story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew, one girl kept on reading. She got to the part where King Herod was furious at the Magi, and ordered the death of every male child under the age of two in an attempt to kill Jesus. She said, “Hey, wait, what’s this? This is terrible!”

The director assured the girl that this part would not be in the pageant. She responded, “No. It is part of the story. We have to include it.”

The director and the young actress settled on a compromise. An actor dressed as the king would stand at the far edge of the stage throughout the pageant, hovering over the story of the first Christmas.

This part of the story makes us feel uncomfortable but it is true. Baby Jesus was not born into a spiritualized abstraction. He was born in the midst of a poor people ruled by a tyrant who was propped up by an Empire. He was born to parents who immediately became refugees fleeing to protect him.

Flight into Egypt, Ghana, 1971

And that is why Christmas is a life changing story of hope that never gets old. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the famous Royal Wedding preacher, puts it so eloquently and so forcefully: “We are the Jesus Movement that is out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the Dream God has for us.”

Christmas is about hope, about dreaming of a better world while we are in the midst of this one. Christmas reminds us of all the love that is around us, reminds us of so much that is good and holy and sacred.  At Christmas we tell stories of our “better angels.” Christmas reminds us of generosity and forgiveness and courage – even as King Herod looks on.

Christmas reminds us that God has not given up on us. Just the opposite. We call this baby, “Jesus” – which means “God saves us.” And the angels tell us “do not be afraid. This is a message of great joy.” God is here now, in 2018, in the midst of us.

Merry Christmas.

+Doug